Vancouver Real Estate Realtor


Vancouver Real Estate Realtor Russell Sharp 

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SHANGHAI — For years, wealthy Chinese have been transferring billions worth of their money overseas, snapping up pricey real estate in markets including Vancouver, New York and Sydney despite their country’s currency restrictions.

Now, one way they could be doing it is clearer. Last week, when China Central Television levelled money-laundering allegations against the Bank of China, the state-run broadcaster’s report prompted the revelation of a previously unannounced government program that enables individuals to transfer their yuan and convert it into dollars or other currencies overseas.

Offered by some banks in the southern province of Guangdong, across the border from Hong Kong, the trial program was introduced in 2011 for overseas property purchases and emigration and doesn’t constitute money laundering, Bank of China said in a statement. The transfers were allowed by regulators and reported to them, the bank said.

“What it shows is the government has been trying to internationalize the renminbi for a lot longer than we thought,” said Jim Antos, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Mizuho Securities, referring to policy-makers’ long-stated goal of allowing the yuan to become freely convertible with other currencies. “I’m rather encouraged by this news because this is the way they need to go.”

China’s foreign-exchange rules cap the maximum amount of yuan that individuals are allowed to convert at about $50,000 US each year and ban them from transferring the currency abroad directly. Policy-makers have taken steps in recent years, including allowing freer movements of capital in and out of China, as they seek to boost the global stature of the not-yet- fully convertible yuan.

“There’s a silver lining in this incident as it may force the regulators to address the issue in a more open and transparent way,” said Zhou Hao, a Shanghai-based economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group. “This is an irreversible trend.”

The issue came to light after CCTV said Bank of China helped customers transfer unlimited amounts of yuan abroad through a product called Youhuitong, which means “superior foreign-exchange channel.”

The program is another sign that China is testing methods to allow outward yuan flows before full convertibility, said May Yan, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Barclays. The goal has been announced by policy-makers since the 1990s, and is a step toward stated plans to make Shanghai a global financial capital by 2020.

“For an experiment, you want to see if there’s any positives or negatives,” Yan said. “When the bank or the regulators can accumulate that experience, then they will decide if they want to move forward, or broaden it or shut it down.”

The central bank in February unveiled rules to make it easier for companies with operations in Shanghai’s free-trade zone to move yuan in and out of the country, a further loosening of controls on currency flows. The yuan surpassed the euro as the world’s second most-popular currency in trade finance in 2013, according to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

The Guangdong branch of China’s currency regulator, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, picked Bank of China, China Citic Bank and a foreign lender to let individuals transfer yuan abroad in a trial the banks were told not to promote, Time Weekly reported in April 2013. A Beijing-based Citic Bank media officer declined to comment on the program.

While the Bank of China didn’t provide figures, the 21st Century Business Herald estimated the lender has moved about 20 billion yuan ($3.2 billion US) abroad through Youhuitong, citing people with knowledge of the trial program. “Many commercial banks” in Guangdong offer a similar service, Bank of China said in its statement, without naming them.


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The most expensive housing market in North America is not where you’d think. It’s not New York City or Orange County, California, but Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, Vancouver is a beautiful city—a thriving deep-water port, a popular site for TV and movie shoots. By all accounts, it is a wonderful place to live. But nothing about its economy explains why—in a city where the median income is only around seventy grand—single-family houses now sell for close to a million dollars apiece and ordinary condos go for five or six hundred thousand dollars. “If you look at per-capita incomes, we look like Reno or Nashville,” Andy Yan, an urban planner at the Vancouver-based firm Bing Thom Architects, told me. “But our housing prices easily compete with San Francisco’s.”


When price-to-income or price-to-rent ratios get out of whack, it’s often a sign of a housing bubble. But the story in Vancouver is more interesting. Almost by chance, the city has found itself at the heart of one of the biggest trends of the past two decades—the rise of a truly global market in real estate.


We’re all familiar with the stories of Russian oligarchs buying up mansions in London, but this is a much broader phenomenon. A torrent of capital from wealthy people in emerging markets—from China, above all, but also from Latin America, Russia, and the Middle East—has flowed into the real-estate markets of big cities in other countries, driving up prices and causing a luxury-construction boom. A recent report by Sotheby’s International Realty Canada examined more than twelve hundred luxury-home sales in Vancouver in the first half of 2013 and found that foreign buyers accounted for nearly half of sales. In Miami, a huge influx of money from Latin America has enabled the city’s housing market to recover from the bursting of the housing bubble, and has set off a condo-construction spree. Australia has become a prime market for Chinese investors, who Credit Suisse estimates will buy forty-four billion dollars’ worth of real estate there in the next seven years.


What’s so special about the places that attract all this foreign money? The economists Joseph Gyourko, Christopher Mayer, and Todd Sinai have developed a theory about what they call “superstar cities.” Looking at data from 1950 to 2000, they found a small number of cities where housing prices rose steeply, and concluded that high earners tended to cluster together over time, with the result that rich cities tend to get richer.


Vancouver isn’t an obvious superstar. It’s not home to a major industry—as New York and London are to finance, or San Francisco to tech—and it doesn’t have the cultural cachet of Paris or Milan. Instead, Vancouver’s appeal consists of comfort and security, making it what Andy Yan calls a “hedge city.” “What hedge cities offer is social and political stability, and, in the case of Vancouver, it also offers long-term protection against climate change,” he said. “There are now rich people around the world who are looking for places where they can park some of their cash and feel safe about it.” A recent paper by two Oxford economists bears this out, showing a tight correlation between London house prices and turmoil in southern and Eastern Europe. The real-estate boom in Miami has been magnified by political unrest in Venezuela. And Vancouver, which has a large Chinese population, easy access to the Pacific Rim, and nice weather, has become a magnet for Chinese investors looking for insurance against uncertainty. A Conference Board of Canada report found that Vancouver’s real-estate market is tightly connected to what happens in the Chinese economy.


The globalization of real estate upends some of our basic assumptions about housing prices. We expect them to reflect local fundamentals—above all, how much people earn. In a truly global market, that may not be the case. If there are enough rich people in China who want property in Vancouver, prices can float out of reach of the people who actually live and work there. So just because prices look out of whack doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a bubble. Instead, wealthy foreigners are rationally overpaying, in order to protect themselves against risk at home. And the possibility of losing a little money if prices subside won’t deter them. Yan says, “If the choice is between losing ten to twenty per cent in Vancouver versus potentially losing a hundred per cent in Beijing or Tehran, then people are still going to be buying in Vancouver.”


The challenge for Vancouver and cities like it is that foreign investment isn’t an unalloyed good. It’s great for existing homeowners, who see the value of their homes rise, and for the city’s tax revenues. But it also makes owning a home impossible for much of the city’s population. And the tendency of foreign buyers not to inhabit investment properties raises the spectre of what Yan has called “zombie neighborhoods.” A recent study he did found that a quarter of the condos in a luxury neighborhood called Coal Harbour were vacant on census day.

One option would be to severely restrict foreign ownership, but that’s politically difficult, and not great for a city’s economy. It might make more sense if the Vancouvers of the world simply charged foreign buyers a premium for the privilege of owning there. “We’re one of the places where people seem to want to park their cash, and there aren’t that many of those places,” Yan says. “So let’s raise the parking fees.” As for the rest of us, we’d better get used to being tenants. 

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In March, just a few weeks after the Canadian government announced it was shutting down the Immigrant Investor Program, average house prices in greater Vancouver suffered their biggest month-on-month fall on record, plunging more than 11 per cent. This came amid a three-year period of price volatility so severe that it has never been matched in the history of the city's real estate market.

Wait, let me try that again. In March, just a few weeks after the Canadian government announced it was shutting down the Immigrant Investor Programme, the Home Price Index (HPI) for Greater Vancouver continued to rise to near-record levels, amid what real estate board chief Ray Harris called "steady and stable market conditions."

Which of the preceding paragraphs is accurate?

Both of them. And therein lies a problem for anyone trying to get a handle on Vancouver's property market, and whether the cancellation of the Chinese-dominated Immigrant Investor Programme (IIP) is a game-changer or of utter irrelevance.

The apparent disconnect between average prices and the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver's (REBGV) preferred price metric, the HPI, has been noted on plenty of occasions. In contrast to the average-price calculation (total sales value divided by total sales), the HPI employs a sophisticated formula to track the price of a typical or benchmark property, creating a "like-for-like" price comparison. The 26-page explanation of its formulation describes it as "a reliable, consistent, and timely way of gauging changes in home prices."

Critics have dubbed it the "Franken-number." That's a little unfair, since the reason for devising an alternative indicator to average prices makes perfect sense: Average prices do not take into account month-to-month variance in the type or location of homes being sold.

The net effect of the HPI formula is to flatten out the peaks and valleys that can beset average price charts. REBGV chief economist Cameron Muir told me the HPI is a "much more robust" pricing measure than average prices, in part because it "takes that volatility out of the equation. It gives us a better handle on where pricing trends and directions are going."

But what if the volatility itself, as opposed to the price point in any given month, is telling an important story?

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I have no doubt the HPI is a superior measure of prices in Vancouver compared to other gauges, including average prices. But the fact that the HPI has obscured the extreme and unusual volatility in average detached home prices may itself be a problem. Few home buyers or sellers are likely aware that it is even occurring. It certainly hasn't been widely reported.

Since early 2011, average house prices have changed direction by a factor of 10 per cent or more five times. Such volatility had never happened before, and the swings are getting wilder. Between June 2013 and February 2014, average prices soared 22 per cent, hitting a record $1.4 million. As noted earlier, this was followed by a one-month price drop of more than 11 per cent (to $1.2 million), the greatest plunge in a single month on record.

Yet not a single report on the March stats highlighted this fact. During the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, 10 per cent swings occurred twice. Before that, you have to go back to 1996, when pre-handover immigration from Hong Kong dried up, to find a 10 per cent swing downwards (in that case it took eight years before an upswing made up the lost ground).

So the 2011-2014 average-price swings have been very unusual. This is beyond dispute.

It's still too early to tell whether the announced cancellation of the 28-year-old IIP is having any effect on the market. However, the current spate of price volatility roughly coincides with a period of widespread doubt over the fate of the IIP, a scheme which made Vancouver the world's most popular destination for millionaire immigrants. In 2010, its benchmarks were doubled. In 2012, new applications were frozen and rumours that the scheme would be shut down swept the Chinese immigration industry.

Although the federal government announced in February that the IIP would indeed be cancelled, this decision only goes into effect in June, when the federal budget is passed. That is when more than 60,000 rich would-be immigrants will be informed that their bids to move to Canada have been scrapped. About 40,000 of these applicants, representing 12,000-15,000 households, had hoped to move to Vancouver.

How many of these had already bought homes in the city? And how many will be seeking to sell, when their dreams of living in Vancouver are officially dashed?

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It’s a statistic lover’s paradise: Bob Rennie’s annual address to the Urban Development institute. And on May 15th, 2014, the more than 900 developers and industry experts who gathered for the numerical extravaganza weren’t disappointed.


  • According to a survey of 3,007 people in the Rennie Marketing database, location, price, proximity to transit, and building amenities are the top four drivers in first time buyer’s purchase decision. Green construction continued to lag in final place even among buyers who don’t own a car. “First time buyers are not philanthropist out to save the planet the day they buy a home,” Rennie noted.
  • The burgeoning 25 – 34 age group accounts for 72% of the first-time buyer market.
  • Within Metro Vancouver, 43% of 25 – 34s  have their name on the title of the property they live in, although in Richmond that number skyrockets to a whopping 69%. In Toronto, only 34% own the home they live in.
  • Energy centres like Metrotown, Richmond Centre, Marine Gateway, and the rebirth of Brentwood will continue strong because consumers increasingly want to be on transit or walk to everything.
  • Downtown Vancouver remains the “ultimate energy centre.” Demand continues strong. Of 930 condos that completed in 2013, only 130 are left unsold. Projecting to 2016 and beyond, only 1,600 are completions anticipated, 600 are already sold and another 500 are located in hyper-luxury buildings.
  • Vancouver’s 55 to 74-year-old demographic accounts for some $163 billion in homeownership (approximately 284,000 homes), $113.4 billion of it clear title. The over 75 market accounts for another $50 billion.
  • In Metro Vancouver, one third of the housing stock now has more bedrooms than people living there — a number that’s risen 26% in the last decade. New housing stock has risen only 17% in the same period.
  • A too-often-overlooked stat Rennie said dispels the myth we’re most expensive place on earth: 69% of all home sales are to people who already own, a number that’s remained constant for over 10 years. Space and luxury matters more to these buyers than the built form, and whether their existing home sells for $2.4 million or $1.9 million is of less concern than square footage, luxury, and ability to walk to coffee, groceries and amenities.

As in previous years, he also suggested removing the upper 20% when calculating average housing costs yields a more accurate snapshot of the Metro Vancouver market because it is more reflective of the buyer who relies on local income.
This adjustment sees the average cost of a single-family home drop from $998,000 to $670,000. With a 25% down payment, this price would require a combined household income of $60,000 to achieve a mortgage. In the condo market, the average price falls from $442,000 to $313,000. Again with a 25% down payment, achieving a mortgage would require only $30,000 of household income.

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The price of new homes dipped in the twelve months to March, according to the New Housing Price index released by Statistics Canada May 8.


Year-over-year, prices were 1.1% lower than a year ago. This represents the biggest drop in the country compared with all other major cities. Ottawa-Gatineau came in second place with a decrease of 1.0%.


Victoria (down 0.9%), Edmonton (down 0.1%) and Charlottetown (down 0.4%) were the only other cities where prices dropped over the year.


Across the country, prices increased an average of 1.6% over the same period. The strongest gains by far was found in Calgary, which saw a jump of 7.5%. After Calgary, the biggest increases were seen in St. Catharines-Niagara (up 3.4%) and Saskatoon (up 2.9%).


Prices were down 0.1% compared with February. The average new home price across the country increased 0.2% over the same period, with Calgary once again posting the highest increase at 0.8%. This is the third consecutive month in which Calgary led the country in price increases.


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