Foreign buyers buoy Vancouver housing

Globe and Mail – April 24, 2011

On a recent trip to Vancouver, Jin Wang, a Chinese businesswoman, toured a large home – six bedrooms and seven baths – listed at $3.6-million in the British Properties, a wealthy enclave on the north shore overlooking the ocean and the city.

Ms. Wang and her husband, Hui Huang, made their money in the import and export of electronics, leveraging government connections in Beijing to do business in Shanghai. The Chinese nationals also expanded their business to domestic real estate in China.

Now, they’re looking to invest more heavily in Vancouver real estate. Three years ago, the couple first bought a $2.1-million home on Vancouver’s west side and rented it to a local family. Its value has since hurtled past $3-million. Back this month to scout more buys, Ms. Wang closed a deal for a $3-million home on Chartwell Drive in the British Properties and mulled the additional $3.6-million home on the same street.

Investments by Chinese buyers such as Ms. Wang and Mr. Huang are playing a role in helping to buoy the hottest real estate market in Canada, according to local realtors. Canadian realtors do not tally data on foreign investment in residential real estate, unlike the national realty association in the U.S., but widespread anecdotal reports from local players suggest investment cash from China is a small but significant factor, especially in the market for expensive homes. The additional demand may be helping to underpin a market whose prices seem to impossibly levitate above the typical local incomes in the region.

And it may increase, as more affluent Chinese aim to move, as well as invest their money abroad. There are nearly 600,000 high-net people worth at least $1.5-million in China this year, according to the consultancy Bain & Co. About 10 per cent of them have already left, another 10 per cent are planning to apply for immigration, and about 30 per cent are considering it, according to results based on Bain’s survey of 2,500 rich Chinese released last week.

The method of exit is to qualify abroad as an “immigrant investor.” In Canada, that means an immigrant must have a net worth of $1.6-million and make an $800,000 investment – figures that are twice what they were last year. The Vancouver region has already welcomed about half of 10,000 or so immigrants who come to Canada annually under such programs.

Yolanda Chen and Simon Yang arrived earlier this year as immigrant investors. The couple, and their six-year-old daughter, came for the same reason cited by a majority of people from China: a better education system. Ms. Chen, who was a television executive in Shanghai, has purchased a $2-million home in White Rock, south of Vancouver.

“It’s a better, and healthier, life here,” she said.

While realtors cite the influence of rich immigrants and investors on markets such as Vancouver, data suggest that the absolute number of buyers in such categories is small.

In the U.S. the most recent figures show that foreigners are a factor in real estate markets but not a massive one. Foreigners spent $41-billion on U.S. real estate from April, 2009, to March, 2010, about 4 per cent of the American market. Canadians accounted for about quarter, roughly $10-billion, of that total. Buyers from China counted for $3.3-billion, behind Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Of the properties purchased, half of them were bought as a primary residence, with only about a quarter for investment purposes.

The U.S. figures are the result of a survey by researchers at the National Association of Realtors. In Canada, there are no comparable numbers, “because there wasn’t demand for us to collect these statistics,” said Pierre Leduc, a Canadian Real Estate Association spokesman.

But the U.S. market results echo what realtors in Vancouver are seeing. Ian Gillespie, head of Vancouver developer Westbank Projects Corp., just opened a Shanghai office. In the company’s last major project, the $450-million Fairmont Pacific Rim luxury condo-hotel tower on the harbour, completed last year, Mr. Gillespie said about one-third of the apartments went to people with roots in China, largely for residences rather than investments.

“They’re not coming in to speculate, throwing money at things. They’re not trying to flip. They probably flip less than anybody,” said Mr. Gillespie.

Ms. Wang – who was scouting another home in the British Properties – buys for investment purposes, and although she and her husband don’t plan to move to Canada, the desire for a stronger education is a factor. Ms. Wang’s 17-year-old daughter lives in Vancouver, where she attends private school, a motivation for the family’s investment in the city.

“The weather is good, the scenery is good, and the education is good,” said Ms. Wang, speaking in Mandarin in an interview. “For the next generation, Canada is a more fair country.”

Last year’s Winter Olympics has sparked additional interest from overseas, said John Lichtenwald, whose Metro Vancouver Properties sold $3.7-billion of residential real estate in 2010 under the Re/Max banner. He estimated that about of a sixth of his firm’s buyers are foreign, led by those with China roots.

“The Olympics was a great advertisement program for all of Vancouver, it really helped,” he said.

Quickly rising home prices have led conservative commentators to point to the role of foreign buyers, though there is no evidence investment money is a primary fuel for the hot market. Peter Ladner, a business leader, recent mayoral candidate for the city’s conservative-leaning party and former city councillor, this month suggested foreign ownership of local real estate should be restricted to discourage “overseas property speculators.” The high cost of living hurts businesses looking to attract workers, he said.

The price of a “standard” two-storey house in the city and on the north shore jumped 10 per cent to $1.1-million in the first three months of 2011, according to research last week by real estate agency Royal LePage. The figure puts Vancouver at triple the national rate for a typical two-storey residence – an average of $379,000, up 4 per cent in the past year.

The city’s most recognizable real estate face, the condo marketer Bob Rennie, insists Vancouver has become a multipart market. There are some neighbourhoods, such as the west side, that can’t be judged on traditional metrics such as income to house price.

And while Mr. Rennie says prices in some areas such as the west side are “pretty frothy,” he leans on another exhortation common among realtors: In a city bounded by the mountains to the north, the water to the west and the U.S. to the south, hot neighbourhoods with spacious homes are rare.

“Even if it slows down, where is the supply?” Mr. Rennie said. “It’s not like we’re producing mansions.”

It is a message embraced by Guo Tai Sun, a 48-year-old who works in real estate and building materials in Guangzhou near Hong Kong. In April, he came to visit friends who had moved to Vancouver and to look at real estate investments. He’s not moving here but made an offer on a $2.5-million home on the city’s west side, popular among China buyers for the quality schools in the area.

“They told me it was a beautiful city,” Mr. Sun said. “I look at the potential of a city. I think Vancouver has great potential.”