Explaining Vancouver real estate: a 10-step alternative to the foreign-buyers narrative

If foreign money is not the primary force driving Vancouver real estate, how does one explain how the market detached itself from the local economy?

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      I’ve been thinking about Vancouver real estate quite a bit lately. I suspect I’m not the only one.

      Over the last three years, the benchmark price for a single-family detached home in Metro Vancouver increased 70 percent. Meanwhile, wages have essentially remained flat, which means a lot of us are going to have a lot of trouble affording a home in the town we consider ours. It’s frustrating. If only we had someone to blame…

      But I’m not convinced we do. And so, to channel some of my frustration, I spent a good chunk of the last few weeks trying to reread every newspaper article about Vancouver real estate that I could find. (The articles that came of that research are here and here.)

      Two ideas slowly formed in my mind. The first was to notice a group of patterns in media coverage. The second was an alternate narrative to the foreign-buyers story.

      Part one: patterns in media coverage

      (If you don’t want to read an analysis of media coverage, you can skip to part two, which is about the real-estate market.)

      1) When a piece of data or a research paper supports the foreign-buyers narrative, Vancouver media outlets give it an avalanche of coverage. When a study contradicts the foreign-buyers narrative, most of the time, it’s largely ignored. (An exception is when the information comes from a source that makes the release news in itself, when it comes from city hall or the provincial government, for example.)

      2) When data or a study supports the foreign-buyers narrative, it is reported with little critical analysis. When a study contradicts the foreign-buyers narrative, it is picked apart for faults, methodology is questioned, and the research is largely painted as unreliable. Data is often flawed, but when it comes to Vancouver real estate, data from only one side of the debate is described that way.

      3) Reread with 20/20 hindsight, a lot of coverage looks like it was driven by predetermined conclusions. That’s not to say that what was reported was wrong or included mistakes, but that other stories could have been missed because so many media outlets only sent reporters looking for one kind of information.

      If one piece of a puzzle is all you look for, that one piece is all you will find.

      Put another way, of course we have found evidence of foreign buyers because, since back when it was just a hunch in 2013, that is all we have looked for. And Vancouver is a world-class city where of course some foreign buyers have purchased property. And so they were found. But now that one piece of the puzzle might be all we see.

      4) Academic information is reported with detail and accuracy upon its initial release, but in subsequent reports, that information can be repeated with fewer caveats and broader generalizations.

      Andy Yan’s November 2015 study—easily the most-cited piece of research I found when reviewing coverage—was initially described as it exists. That is, as finding that 114 of 172 properties worth more than $1.25 million in three West Side neighbourhoods sold during one six-month period went to buyers with non-Anglicized Chinese names. That’s a very specific description.

      But then that valid but flawed information is combined with another similar sample, and eventually you find unsourced statements like this one: “Driving the rise is an unprecedented flood of foreign capital, mainly from China.”

      A generalized summary of previously reported data is accepted practice. But what’s happened in some coverage of Vancouver real estate goes further, to routinely exaggerate the implications of specific information to conform to larger assumptions.

      5) Social media fueled by confirmation bias has created feedback loops where reporters are encouraged to cover topics people like over those they disagree with or that challenges popular views. People share what they like, journalists see those articles shared and so write similar stories, people like and share them, and so on. (This phenomenon was discussed at-length in an article the Straight published on July 13. You can read more about it there.)

      A provincial analysis of three weeks in June found that the portion of Metro Vancouver home sales that went to foreign nationals was 5.1 percent.

      These five patterns in media coverage of Vancouver real estate together may have significantly exaggerated the effect of foreign money in B.C. markets.

      I don’t know if that is true. But I think it is possible.

      Assuming it is true simply for the sake of argument, the required question becomes: if foreign money is not the primary force driving Vancouver real estate, how does one explain how the market detached itself from the local economy?

      I don’t have the answer. But I have some ideas.

      Part two: an alternate narrative

      Here are a few other forces that might be at work in Vancouver’s real-estate market, loosely imagined in the order in which they may have built on one another.

      1) Foreign money from mainland China enters Vancouver’s West Side and areas of Richmond and Burnaby

      That’s essentially most of all we know about foreign money. A) That the money is from China. The little solid data we do have clearly says that what foreign money there is in Vancouver comes almost entirely from China. And B) that Burnaby, Richmond, and Vancouver’s upscale West Side are the three areas where we are reasonably sure the interest from foreign buyers is above average.

      That, and that a lot of money is leaving China. However, it’s a big world out there and while we focus on Vancouver, there is plenty of evidence that shows Chinese money is pouring into many other countries.

      At the same time, its significance in Vancouver should not be discounted. If foreign money entering the luxury market causes prices there to increase by a factor of X, prices in lower segments of the market may increase by a factor of Y. So yes, some of mainland China’s newfound wealth is obviously finding its way to Vancouver real estate, and the market is feeling it.

      2) Geography combines with a world-class city coming of age

      Vancouver is surrounded by water on three sides. It was always going to run out of space for new detached homes. Now, that has happened. And prices are rising as a result.

      3) Low interest rates mean money is cheap

      It took a few years, but people’s stock portfolios eventually began to recover from the financial crisis of 2007-09. At the same time, interest rates remain near historical lows.

      The effects of quantitative easing are likely also at work. Since the recession, central banks have purchased government bonds and securities to flood North America with cash. That's made it easier for people to borrow and spend.

      By 2015, bank accounts had bounced back from the crash, but interest rates were still where banks had left them in attempts to encourage spending and an economic rebound. With mortgages looking cheap and the housing market looking like an attractive place to invest, people took advantage.

      4) Aging baby boomers slowly begin what’s likely the largest generational transfer of wealth in human history

      According to Vancouver condo marketer Bob Rennie, some 193,000 homes in Metro Vancouver worth more than $197 billion are owned “clear-title” by someone over 55 years old. Of that $197 billion, $60 billion is owned by people over the age of 75.

      Many of those homeowners want to help a child buy a house of their own. Many others want to help multiple children buy property. Boomer parents can leverage those properties that account for that $197 billion by taking on mortgages or second mortgages (cheap, remember). The results could be more younger people able to buy homes than some might guess, and a new and large source of capital flowing into Vancouver’s real-estate market.

      5) Supply restricted by zoning regulations and a bureaucratic bottleneck at city hall

      These are forces that have always been there but, as prices have climbed, stakes have grown. Delays have become more expensive. And, as always, costs are passed onto the consumer. 

      6) Media coverage suggests a significant role for foreign money

      By late-2014, coverage of money finding its way from mainland China to Vancouver real estate is in overdrive. Hardly any new information is ever released, yet somehow the topic is featured on the front page on a weekly basis.

      There's little solid evidence that foreign money is the rocket fuel driving the region's real-estate market, but there is definitely the perception it is.

      7) People race for the market

      Now let’s say it’s 2015. Residents of Metro Vancouver have really noticed housing prices are on a steep climb and media coverage of foreign money from China is everywhere. One by one, more B.C. residents take an interest in the real-estate market.

      Anxiety grows and people begin to worry that if they don’t buy now, they could be left out of their hometown market forever. More people rush to buy property.

      8) A boom is making the industry greedy

      By this point, real-estate agents are increasingly using questionable tactics like contract assignments to squeeze the market for extra dollars. Once again, costs for the consumers go up.

      9) Speculation becomes another influence working on the market with unusual force

      Vancouver realtor Steve Saretsky recently took a look at this one. He found that of 179 West Side properties sold in May 2016, 28 had been sold a previous time within the last 12 months. That is, 15.6 percent of West Side homes sold that month—nearly one in six—had been previously purchased not so that they could be lived in, but so that they could be flipped for a profit. In other areas of the market such as downtown Vancouver condos, Saretsky has suggested that even larger percentages of new units are being flipped.

      Again, another force pushes prices up.

      10) A bubble forms

      While geography and zoning regulations squeeze construction, boomers begin transferring wealth to their children, and, in some cases, leveraging their homes with second mortgages. Interest rates remain low, and people take advantage. Meanwhile, the market responds to an unknown increase in investments from mainland China.

      Much of the media goes crazy over the possible role of foreign money, the public takes note, and more people seek to enter the market.

      All the while, developers are engaging in speculation and real-estate agents are shadow-flipping contracts.

      Prices continue to rise, anxiety grows, and yet more people rush to buy a home.

      When you combine all of these factors, you don’t really need a boogieman like foreign billionaires to account for a housing bubble.

      And even if foreign money does exist as a major force driving prices, it’s possible that a perception of an exaggerated role for foreign money may have acted as just as powerful a force on the real-estate market as that of the foreign money itself.

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