December 21, 2017 2:31 pm
Updated: December 21, 2017 3:59 pm

There’s so much we still don’t know about foreign homebuyers

Statistics Canada published it first data release on foreign homeownership in Vancouver and Toronto this week.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
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Statistics Canada’s first data release on foreign homeownership in Vancouver and Toronto on Tuesday has generated a slew of contradictory reactions. Some cited the numbers as evidence that non-resident homebuyers do not matter much. Others claimed the new evidence suggested a vast presence of foreign capital in Canada’s two hottest real estate markets.

Who’s right? The reality is that the government has just started collecting data on foreign homeownership in a systematic manner.

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In its 2017 budget, the Liberal government allocated funds for StatCan to track, among other things, who owns Canada’s real estate and where the money comes from. But the data gap the agency is trying to fill is huge, and we just don’t have enough numbers yet to draw definitive conclusions from the evidence gathered so far.

READ MORE: Foreign homeownership less than 5% in Vancouver, Toronto: StatCan

Here’s what we know:

Non-residents account for less than five per cent of buyers in both Vancouver and Toronto.

To be precise, the share of foreign homeowners is 4.8 per cent in Vancouver and 3.4 per cent in Toronto. Those numbers encompass all residential properties and refer to the Vancouver census metropolitan area (CMA) and Toronto CMA, which are considerably larger than the city of Vancouver and city of Toronto proper. With the term “non-resident,” StatCan indicates all individuals whose primary residence is outside Canada, including Canadian citizens who live outside the country.

READ MORE: Foreign buyers may not live in Vancouver, but their money sure does: StatsCan

The share of foreign owners varies considerably among the municipalities that make up the Vancouver and Toronto CMAs. 

In the city of Vancouver, 7.6 per cent of all homes are owned by non-residents, the highest share for any municipality in the bigger census area. That was followed by Richmond (7.5 per cent) and West Vancouver (6.2 per cent). Moving away from Vancouver proper, the share of foreign homeownership drops. For example, it is less than three per cent in Surrey and just over two per cent in Maple Ridge. A similar trend is evident in Toronto, with the city proper registering 4.9 per cent of non-resident owners, followed by Richmond Hill (3.6 per cent) and Markham (3.3 per cent).

READ MORE: Foreign buyers ‘not the problem’ in Canada, says CEO of Chinese overseas real estate portal

The share of foreign owners is largest for condos.

In the Vancouver CMA, the share of condominium apartments owned by non-residents was 7.9 per cent. In the Toronto CMA is was 7.2 per cent. In particular, one data point that stands out is the huge share of foreign owners of new condos in some areas of the Vancouver CMA. Around 20 per cent of condos built since 2016 in the city of Vancouver, Coquitlam and Richmond are owned by non-residents.

READ MORE: New mortgage rules 2018: A practical guide

Non-residents tend to own more expensive property than residents. 

This is true of both condos and single-family homes, especially in Vancouver. In the city of Vancouver, the average value of non-resident-owned condos was a whopping $930,600, compared to $741,000 for resident-owned units. The average detached home held by foreign owners was $700,000 more expensive, with a price tag of roughly $3.6 million compared to $2.9 million for residents. Property held by non-residents in Toronto was also pricier, on average, but the price differences compared to homes owned by residents was much smaller.

READ MORE: Here’s what the new mortgage rules will do to home prices in 2018: Royal LePage

Here’s what we don’t know yet:

Did foreign buyers drive the recent house-prices spikes in Vancouver and Toronto? 

Prices in Vancouver and Toronto have been soaring for over a decade. But that climb accelerated over the past three years. Prices in Vancouver have increased nearly 174 percent since 2005 but 60 percent since 2015, according to data from the Canadian Real Estate Association’s Home Price Index.

In Toronto, they rose 145 percent since 2005 but 40 percent over the last three years. The data collected by StatCan so far doesn’t reveal what extent foreign buyers helped propel that increase.

“StatCan gives us a snapshot of the share of the housing stock owned by nonresidents at one point in time (in Toronto’s case, May 2017). That doesn’t tell us how foreign activity has evolved, especially around the key early-2016 inflection point in Toronto home price growth,” Robert Kavcic, senior economist at BMO, wrote in a recent research note.

Even a small uptick in the share of foreign homeowners from one year to the next could mask a significant increase in the share of non-residents who are buying up the homes that come up for sale every year.

Writes Kavcic: “Consider this arbitrary scenario: If we start with a foreign ownership share of three per cent, the turnover rate is roughly five per cent of the housing stock each year, and the foreign share of current sales jumps from a steady three per cent to a whopping 10 per cent, the overall ownership share would rise just 0.4 percentage points to a still-low 3.4 per cent by the end of that year.”

If this happens in a market where residents are already outbidding each other for the available homes, the impact on prices can be significant. This could be compounded by the fact that foreign buyers, unlike local ones, likely snatch up properties without putting another local home up for sale, Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets, told Global News via email.

The thing is, though, that we don’t have anything with which to compare StatCan’s first snapshot of foreign ownership, which makes it hard to tell whether foreign demand actually spiked recently. “These data don’t tell us if that happened in Toronto, but they don’t rule it out either,” wrote Kavcic. And while the price jump of the last three years was huge, housing had been unaffordable in both cities long before then.

Are foreign buyers a major force behind the flipping of presale condos? 

StatCan’s data is based on property owners with title property, which doesn’t capture those who buy a pre-construction condo apartment and sell it before construction of the unit is finished. Prices for pre-construction condos have nearly doubled in downtown Vancouver since the end of 2015, according to one analysis, while condo prices have risen 33 per cent nationally in that time, Reuters recently reported.

WATCH: Statistics Canada has released surprising new housing numbers on foreign homeownership, but the numbers don’t account for a loophole. Robin Gill reports.

Are there a lot of foreign buyers who buy homes through proxies? 

The data we have so far also doesn’t track financing for home purchases. Imagine the case in which someone who lives outside Canada buys a property in Vancouver or Toronto in the name of a child who is a resident of this country.

“Our data would show this as resident ownership,” Haig McCarrell, director of the investment, science and technology division at StatCan told Global News via email. The agency, though, expects to be able to capture whether this is a common enough practice as it pairs ownership data with tax and immigration files, among other things.

“We will be able to flag property which is acquired without financing, if financing is in a different name than the legal owner, whether an individual or corporation, and their residency,” wrote McCarrell. But he added the agency doesn’t currently have a time for when such analysis will be completed.

So do foreign buyers matter in Vancouver and Toronto? Most experts Global News spoke with believed the new data doesn’t rule out a significant role by non-residents in pushing up home prices.

However, many also believe that foreigners aren’t the driving force behind that breakneck appreciation.

“The biggest drivers are the combination of low interest rates, population growth in the Toronto and Vancouver regions, and the limitations on land supply coming from geography, weak regional transportation systems and regulations on where housing could be built,” Shenfeld said.

“There’s no doubt that these fundamentals would have driven prices higher and rental vacancies lower even without the foreign interest. The offshore buyers were just pouring some additional fuel on a fire that was already burning.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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