Archive for April, 2010

Rush is on to claim first-time home buyers tax credit

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Stephanie Armour
USA Today

After breaking up with her longtime boyfriend and finding a job she loves in Denver, Quinn Kelsey decided last Friday to take advantage of the home buyers’ tax credit.

She found a condo she liked in her neighborhood and called a local Realtor’s office to hire an agent. She got preapproved for a loan in an hour. Early this week, she put in her offer, with just one contingency: Her offer had to be accepted before the tax credit deadline Friday.

After all, it’s the main reason she decided to rush and buy now. Her offer was accepted Tuesday night.

Buyers like Kelsey have been in a final sprint for the past week to meet Friday’s deadline for signing purchase contracts to stay eligible for the tax credit, worth up to $8,000 for first-time home buyers and up to $6,500 for move-up buyers. Many Realtors have been busier than in months past, homes that languished on the market have suddenly gotten offers, and buyers who were sitting on the fence have quickly cobbled together offers in the nick of time.

If a binding sales contract is signed by April 30, home buyers have until June 30 to complete the purchase. The tax credit is projected to have added 2 million first-time buyers in 2009 and be adding another 900,000 in 2010, plus 1.5 million repeat buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors.

More calls, more visits

Signs of the last-minute purchase rush:

•Sheldon Good & Co., a national real estate auction, has scheduled a one-day auction of 25 residences at Market Street West — a 60-unit condo building in Willow Springs, Ill. — today to purposely allow both first-time and repeat home buyers to take advantage of the expiring tax credit.

“We’re doing a selling event to take advantage of the tax credit deadline,” says Craig Post, managing director of Sheldon Good.

•Fields Development Group’s The Saffron in Jersey City reports it has had a high velocity of sales from home buyers looking to take advantage of the tax credit. In the past several weeks, the new collection of 76 condos has seen a rush of first-time buyers who want to benefit from the tax credit, resulting in significant buyer activity — pushing the building past the mark of 40% sold.

Homes at The Saffron are available for immediate occupancy, which allows purchasers to close in time to be eligible for the credit.

“The tax credit really made us decide to do it sooner,” says Chris Seminowicz, a first-time home buyer who closed April 9 on a condo at The Saffron.

Elika Associates, a buyers’ brokerage firm in New York, is seeing a surge in calls from first-time home buyers eager to pull the trigger before Friday. In the past two months, it has been averaging dozens of inquiries a day from preapproved buyers searching for homes in the $400,000 to $700,000 range. With the deadline looming, many of these buyers are now opening up their search to fringe neighborhoods that they may have bypassed earlier.

“People need to have the contract signed, so you’ve definitely seen a pickup (in activity),” says Bob Walters, chief economist at Quicken Loans, where buyers are turning for preapprovals and mortgage loans. “There’s been a significant influx of people trying to take advantage of this.”

But there can be risks in a rush.

Buyers may be so eager to get the tax credit that they may sign a mortgage agreement without really understanding all the terms, says Sylvia Alayon, vice president of operations at Consumer Mortgage Audit Center in Fort Lauderdale.

They may not grasp that their principal and interest payments will stay the same, but insurance and taxes will go up, for example. Or they may not understand what will happen to their loan, such as whether it will reset to higher payments, if it’s not a fixed-rate loan.

“I’d be concerned about bullying tactics, such as, ‘You have to do this because it’s going to expire,’ ” Alayon says. “Unfortunately, if you’re in a mad rush, you’re not going to give yourself time to inspect your mortgage. My concern would only be that they wouldn’t conduct due diligence.”

And many buyers are in a mad scramble.

“I’ve sold more houses in the past 30 days than in the past five years. It is so exciting to see the multiple contracts again. It’s what we Realtors live for,” says Lisa Stickels in Fairfield, Iowa. “Everyone at the Century 21 where I work is falling over each other to get to the folks who are showing up by the boatload. These buyers (and) sellers know they are under the deadline to get the first-time home buyer tax credit.”

Brokers also are seeing an increase in business in the past days as buyers try to get under contract in time.

“I have seen a spike this week in people scrambling to get preapproved for a mortgage so that they can get under contract by Friday. Both yesterday and today I have seen buyers trying to squeeze in before Friday,” says Gary Parkes, a broker in Woodstock, Ga. “Most sellers will not entertain an offer on a home without a preapproval letter, meaning us mortgage professionals need to help these last-minute buyers.”

The tax credit has already been credited with bolstering sales.

Existing-home sales rose 6.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.35 million units in March from February, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Last fall, before a previous tax credit expired, existing-home sales peaked at a 6.5 million annual rate, according to Moody’s This spring, they’re expected to peak at a 5.7 million rate in May.

Copyright 2010 USA TODAY


New tech, old tech revitalized

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Lowell Conn

Pioneer mechless effort:

The new MVH-P8200BT multimedia AV receiver is the first mechless receiver we’ve seen from Pioneer Electronics. For readers not yet acclimatized to the brave new world sans optical lenses, mechless receivers read neither CDs nor DVDs, opting instead to transmit music and video that is found on portable flash drives and other solid-state media. In this case, it has the requisite USB slot and a built-in SD Memory Card. This model features built-in Bluetooth capability, but those choosing to save about $75 can go for a model without the BT. It features a three-inch TFT display, which is more than adequate for watching video files stored on portable media, and it offers advanced control for iPods, including album art display, search by alphabet and iTunes tagging. And it arrives at a price so good, it gives the MVHP8200BT a spectacular leg up, as it is one of the top single-DIN stereo values of 2010, all features considered. $370;


New use for old cassette players:

Hot on the heels of the recently released USB Cassette MP3 Player II comes another product that will bring that old car stereo into the new millennium. Monster’s iCarPlay 800 is a cassette adapter designed to help users play music from their modern MP3 player via the car cassette player. It arrives looking like a standard tape but features a cord that plugs into iPods, iPhones and other portable music devices. Just load the tape into the cassette player and all of your favourite MP3 digital files can be played through the old analog unit.

True to Monster form, the device features all sorts of build features that claim to translate into better sound, including dual-balanced conductors purporting to deliver more natural audio and 24-karat gold contacts for maximum signal transfer and corrosion resistance. The cord can also be conveniently stored within the unit. It’s also relatively well priced, which is an extremely rare thing for a Monstermanufactured product. $25; visit

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Kore: the arrival of Kitsilano’s new landmark

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

NOW OPEN: Kore is complete, offering great value in Kitsilano. The Kore presentation centre is open every day except Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 1808 West 3rd Ave. (at Burrard). For complete information, phone Kristine Peng at 604-721-7080, or Ken Chong at 604-671-1025, or visit Photo: Toyo Developments.


Now complete at an ideal location where West 3rd Ave meets Burrard Street, Kore is a new concrete condominium landmark, and premier address, in Kitsilano. Kore captures the urban rhythm of Kitsilano, with outstanding value and a contemporary backbeat of stunning architecture and no-compromise quality. With most one bedroom suites priced under $500,000 and penthouse suites from $523,900, the remaining Kore homes will likely be claimed quickly. When the crowds cleared after the packed open house last weekend, half of the Kore units had already been sold. Fortunately, a great selection of one and two bedrooms is still available, and, until July 1, without the HST. A visit to Kore will be enough to quickly convince many that this is home. Each suite features floor-to-ceiling windows to capture city, water and mountain views. Kitchens come with Caesarstone or granite countertops, a high-quality stainless steel appliance package, halogen under-cabinet lighting and high-gloss tile backsplash. Flooring is engineered hardwood with 100 per cent natural wool in bedrooms and porcelain tile in the ensuites. Each bath features polished Bianco Carrara marble counters and Zen Collection over-mount basins. The Rain showerheads are from Taju and the deep soaker tubs are simply heavenly. The large penthouses boast privacy-screened private roof patios, and upgraded stainless steel appliances, including Liebherr fridge and Fisher Paykel double-drawer dishwashers. The location is to live for. Kore is mere steps from the beach, a quick spin across the bike-friendly Burrard bridge to downtown, or a short stroll to Granville Island and all the chic shops and restaurants that make Kitsilano such a great place to live. Security is assured at Kore. There is secure underground parking and bike storage, video-monitored intercom and surveillance cameras, and personally encoded key fobs for all points of entry, including elevators. Each Kore buyer is also protected by comprehensive 2-5-10 year New Home Warranty coverage. Kore has arrived, as a rare opportunity to own – affordably – in Kitsilano. Visit the Kore presentation centre, open every day except Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 1808 West 3rd Ave. and see for yourself. For complete information, phone Kristine Peng at 604-721-7080, or Ken Chong at 604-671-1025, or visit

First-time buyers jump into housing market

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

New lending rules, market conditions have little effect on consumers’ intentions, say experts

Derek Sankey

Nicole Dyck rented with friends and dreamed of buying her own home until the day it suddenly seemed right to make her move.

“Living with two boys motivates you to buy your own place and not have to clean up after anyone else,” says Dyck, a 27-year-old call-centre worker with Fortis Alberta.

“I just wanted to have my own place and my own space.”

Last May, she bought a duplex in a condominium complex in Airdrie, a bedroom community for Calgary, just as interest rates were at 30-year lows and affordability was returning to real estate markets across Canada.

“It was a big deal,” says Dyck.

“I was just excited to have my own place and have enough income coming in to be able to do that.”

Like many first-time home-buyers, she admits she didn’t know much about mortgage rules at first and learned the ropes from her parents.

She was also typical in being determined to get into home ownership, whatever the rules or market conditions.

“Everyone always just said it’s never a bad time to buy a home,” says Dyck.

Many first-time buyers are also looking to pay off their mortgages faster.

A Harris/Decima survey found 74 per cent of Canadians looking to purchase their first home are considering an amortization of 25 years or less — much less than the current 35-year maximum.

“We’ve always believed that clients should set their payments higher anyways,” says Laura Parsons, Calgary area manager of business development for the Bank of Montreal.

There are several ways first-time buyers can help make the process more affordable, such as the First-time Home Buyer’s Plan.

It allows buyers to use as much as $25,000 from their RRSP account toward a down payment on a qualifying home, which is repaid over time.

“The First-time Home Buyer’s program is probably one of the most under-utilized programs,” says Parsons.

There is also the First-time Home Buyers’ tax credit worth up to $750 in 2009 and subsequent years. At tax time, you could direct any rebate toward your purchase.

If a couple is getting married, they can funnel gifts of money through their RRSP to use toward the purchase of a home.

Most lenders adopted stricter lending criteria before the introduction of new rules by the federal government on high ratio mortgages — those with less than 20 per cent down are subject to stricter conditions and insurance through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). It’s now generally standard for all mortgage qualifications to be based on a fiveyear fixed-rate mortgage, says Parsons.

“It’s not that rates are going to skyrocket, but a mortgage is a longtime event,” she says.

“We don’t want to see them in a predicament if interest rates go up.”

The decision to rent or own is comparable in terms of monthly payments.

Parsons uses the example of a $300,000 mortgage with a monthly payment of about $1,700 versus an average rental cost of about $1,200 per month.

Accounting for a five per cent annual increase in rent versus a locked-in fixed-rate mortgage over five years, the gap closes.

“By the time you hit a fiveyear term, your rent is more than your mortgage payment,” says Parsons.

“Better to pay your own mortgage than anybody else’s.”

Potential first-time buyers often sit on the fence trying to decide the best time to get into the market.

But Patricia Lovett-Reid, a senior vice-president with TD Waterhouse, says it’s the right time when you have a plan in place.

“I always tell people not to try to time the market,” she says. “You could say that this may not be the right time … but over a 20-year period, does that really matter?” she says.

Just be realistic when budgeting.

“Even if you feel you can qualify for more (money), the final determinant is your gut — you don’t want to be house poor.”

Watch and record TV on the computer

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Gillian Shaw

1 EyeTV Hybrid, Elgato, $ 150 US More from the just-in-time TV department. A tiny TV tuner stick, this receives both digital and analog signals, including HDTV, to turn your PC or Mac computer into a digital video recorder. You can watch and record live TV, pausing just like on your PVR. It also takes video from set-top boxes, camcorders, DVD players and other sources. If you have an Apple Mac, you can edit recordings and export them to iTunes to watch on your iPhone, iPod or ( as soon as it arrives) your iPad.

Helios Solar Weather Station, 2 Oregon Scientific, $ 55 US

A built-in solar panel keeps this weather station powered up by drawing on solar cells to extend battery life. The main power comes from three AA batteries that aren’t included. The weather station displays up to three locations indoors and out, monitoring temperature and humidity. And it will forecast weather for the upcoming 12 hours, including an ice alert if the temperatures drop close to freezing.

3 Contour USB blood glucose meter, Bayer, $ 100

This is a gadget we’re hoping you won’t need, but with diabetes affecting an increasing number of people, Bayer’s new blood glucose meter — the first to have a built-in USB connection so you can store and monitor blood sugar results — is a useful step up from the traditional log book method of tracking glucose levels. It has a colour screen that flags high, low and average blood sugar readings, and stores up to 2,000 test results. Its rechargeable battery is powered up via the USB port on your computer or with a USB wall charger that’s an optional extra. Not available yet, but Bayer is taking pre-registration online.

4 Surge, Novothink, from $ 70 US

This is a carrying case that comes with a built-in solar panel, giving you a charger that extends the life of your iPhone or iPod Touch. A handy double-duty carrier that will get you out of a jam if your iPhone or iPod runs out juice while you’re out and about. Two hours of direct sunlight ( a B. C. winter could prove challenging) will charge your iPhone with 30 minutes of talk time for a 3G network or 60 minutes for 2G. It has four LED lights to signal whether or not you have enough sunlight for a charge, plus to show how much charge is left in the battery. The iPod Touch version is $ 70 US, for the iPhone it’s $ 80.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

End of an era – Mortgage- rate rise marks last of rock- bottom loans

Thursday, April 29th, 2010


The era of rock-bottom mortgage rates ended with a crush of work for mortgage brokers and bank-loan officers.

It started Monday with a flood of homebuyers looking for last-minute approvals to sneak in under the wire before interest-rate increases went into effect the next morning — signalled in announcements by RBC and TD that they would raise their fiveyear posted rates 0.6 of a percentage point to 5.85 per cent, an 11-per-cent jump. Scotiabank, CIBC and BMO followed the moves with rate bumps of their own.

There were also calls from clients looking to lock in variable mortgages, and customers exploring options to refinance at historically low five-year rates.

“ Everybody was in their office with their heads down the whole time they were there,” mortgage broker Chris LeMay said in an interview about the environment in his office at a Dominion Lending Centres branch in Vancouver, when news of the impending rate hike first went out on Monday.

“ I was here until 7 p. m. waiting on one last client. Everybody had their heads down for a good eight hours getting pre-approvals, helping people lock in.”

The immediate effect of the increase, along with impending changes to mortgage-qualification rules, will be to reduce the size of mortgage for which borrowers will be able to qualify, which market participants anticipate will put a damper on real-estate prices.

“ Now that we see the first phase of normalization [ of interest rates], that’s further going to erode affordability and take a bite out of the purchasing power of Metro Vancouver households,” Cameron Muir, chief economist for the B. C. Real Estate Association, said in an interview.

The increase came as no surprise, though. For months, speculation has been about not if, but when rates would be going up, given signs of life in the national economy and a spectacular recovery in housing markets, particularly in Metro Vancouver and B. C.

“ People know rates are going up,” LeMay said. “ The Bank of Canada said its overnight rate is going up. People put it all into one basket and think everything is going up.”

In general, Monday signalled a realization that the environment of ultralow rates, which were ushered in to stimulate the economy at the start of the recession in 2008, is ending.

Since December, however, when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty noted concerns over the possibility of overheating housing markets and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney expressed his worries over Canadians’ record debt levels, the pressure has been on to raise rates and cool the economy.

The change in five-year rates will definitely cool the ambitions of buyers, Joe Santos, president of the Mortgage Brokers Association, said.

He calculated that a family with $ 100,000 in household income, assuming they can negotiate a reasonable discount to posted five-year rates, would see their purchasing power reduced by about $ 40,000.

Before the change, he said, that family could qualify for a $ 614,000, fiveyear mortgage with 35-year amortization and a discounted mortgage rate of 3.89 per cent.

Now, however, the same family would likely face a discounted rate of 4.49 per cent, which reduces the maximum mortgage they could qualify for to $ 574,000.

“ It’s obviously going to make it more difficult for people to qualify for Vancouver and Lower Mainland purchases, because property values tend to be higher here than in the rest of Canada,” Santos said.

He added that the impending change to mortgage-qualification rules introduced by Flaherty in January will also crimp the hopes of buyers trying to get into variable-rate mortgages, which are based on and float with banks’ prime lending rates.

Prime, for now, rests at a low 2.25 per cent, but after April 19, new rules state that borrowers with only the minimum five-per-cent downpayment need to be capable of qualifying for a mortgage with the five-year posted mortgage rate to get a variable mortgage.

That, Santos said, limits that family with $ 100,000 in income to a $ 480,000 mortgage, versus $ 647,000 before the change.

Banks and mortgage brokers have seen borrowers shift away from those variable mortgages over the past year, however, in anticipation that the Bank of Canada will raise its key lending rate, which has a big influence over bank prime rates.

Jared Dryer, managing broker at Dreyer Group mortgage brokers, said among his customers, about 75 per cent are opting to take the certainty of fixed-rate versus variable mortgages.

A couple of years ago, when variablerate mortgages could be had with rates discounted from the prime rate by as much as 0.9 of a percentage point, only about 40 per cent were opting to take fixed-rate mortgages.

That includes Mike Graham, a Dreyer Group client who owns two rental properties that have variable mortgages, but opted to lock in a five-year fixed rate when he bought his own home in White Rock last summer.

“The market was changing, everybody was talking about the interest rates going up,” said Graham, a White Rock realtor. “ I just thought for a principal residence, maybe I’ll just take some of the risk out and not gamble as much with that one.”

Dreyer added that borrowers who hold existing variable-rate mortgages are still in a good position, even when the prime rate starts to rise with increases in the Bank of Canada’s key rate. So he advises them to consider holding off on locking in.

However, there was a period in 2008 and 2009 when the variable rates crept up to a premium of up to a full percentage point above prime, and broker LeMay has encouraged those clients to lock into the certainty of fixed rates.

In the big picture, however, the bottom line is that Canada ’s bond market, jittery about inflation and the prospect of the Bank of Canada raising its key interest rate, increased its rates.

And since banks raise the funds for long-term mortgages in the bond markets, those are what set interest rates for loans of five years or longer.

Benjamin Tal, a senior economist at CIBC World Markets, said it had become evident over the past couple of weeks that long-term mortgage rates would have to increase as bond markets reacted to inflation reports and on concerns over the ballooning of government debts, especially in the United States .

“ This is the beginning of the tightening,” Benjamin Tal, a senior economist at CIBC World Markets said in an interview. “ The era of extremely low interest rates is over.”

The challenge for lenders now is to remind borrowers that the higher rates consumers are seeing are still relatively low compared with just a few years ago.

Kevin Lutz, B. C. regional mortgage manager for RBC, noted that posted five-year fixed rates were 7.19 per cent two years ago, and the prime rate was 5.25 per cent.

“ When you put it into perspective, we’re still in a low-interest-rate environment, despite rates going up,” Lutz said. “ The big news is that we’re coming off that all-time low. [ But] consumers have enjoyed low rates for quite.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Hiding money not as simple as it was

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

‘If you just want to avoid creditors, use a saftey deposit box’

Andrew Allentuck

It is not hard to hide money where no one — creditors, former spouses or tax collectors — can find it. Writing manuals on how to do it is a cottage industry all of its own.

But the wisdom of squirrelling money away in distant places and making it hard to reap one’s profits and dividends is questionable. Worse, if you don’t tell executors where the money is, it may be lost forever. And some banks in so-called havens are flyby-night operations. They are happy to take money on deposit but reluctant to give it back.

There is no need to troll for hideaway banks in places that keep secrets.

“If you just want to hide money to avoid creditors, you can use a safe deposit box or your mattress,” says Gena Katz, executive director at Ernst & Young in Toronto.

It’s harder to hide money intended to generate returns, she notes. Governments have been more vigilant in creating anti-tax legislation. Rules on use of foreign trusts and captive foreign entities have been tightened.

“The days of hiding money are long gone,” says Paul Lebreux, a lawyer who heads Toronto’s Global Tax Law Professional Corporation. “Now the better way is to choose to live in a country such as Barbados that does not tax foreign-source income.”

Tax avoiders can still move their money or themselves offshore or create a legitimate business that operates in a haven country. “You can move your head office to a foreign country and operate a legitimate business there,” Mr. Lebreux says. If you want to operate within the confines of the rules, then it is better to pay your taxes and be honest.

Though it is simpler to make use of tax preferences and credits within Canada’s tax system, tax havens continue to beckon to those who think themselves overtaxed. But the traditional ones have tightened their rules. The United States has curbed Switzerland’s preference for bank secrecy. Rogue employees have given certain client names to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Canada is seeking similar information.

Liechtenstein, a feudal principality sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria, has also fessed up. As well, Andorra, famed as a haven for discreet banking and artful customs clearing, is ending its rule of silence.

Caribbean havens, including the Turks and Caicos and the Caymans, are also moving toward co-operation with various tax authorities. A few island republics that used to sell banking licences for the price of a quickie vacation under the palms are also moving toward compliance.

Panama remains a holdout. It has treaties that require it to share banking and tax information, but tax evasion is not a crime per se in Panama.

Rather than seek to avoid all taxes, one can instead choose a jurisdiction of moderate taxation. The world standard of high taxation is Europe. Tax rates in the Netherlands, for example, rise to 52% of income.

In the United Arab Emirates, by contrast, income tax rates are zero. There is a levy of 5% for social services. There is a large expatriate community providing investment service to the local economy.

Should one hasten to the Middle East or to a Central American republic to reduce taxes?

Information assembled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows Canada’s tax rates average 31.6% for a single person and 21.5% for person who is married and has two children. These rates are below average on the scale of taxes in countries that are members of the OECD.

Canada‘s taxes are far less than the 55.4% rate on a single person in Belgium, but higher than the average 29.1% rate on single incomes in the United States.

Anyone contemplating use of tax havens to hide money should include the cost of being able to return to Canada if one is charged with tax evasion. Lawyer bills could exceed the amount of taxes due. From that perspective, it pays to stay honest.

Of course, diehards can also move to our own internal haven, Alberta, which has a top 39% income tax rate compared to 46.4% in Ontario. In the West, the locals are friendly and speak English and the tax system holds few surprises.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

casino, second time around

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

The proposed entertainment complex planned for the property beside B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver would include a 110,000-squarefeet, 24-hour casino, two international hotels and five restaurants. The proposed project would cost $450 million and developers hope to begin construction in early 2011. — PNG file

complex more than 15 years ago, the city has changed its mind from red to blackJOHN BERMINGHAM

The-city councillor Don Bellamy (left) is seen with anti-casino groups in this 1994 file photo when they stormed the council chambers in Vancouver's City Hall. PETER BATTISTONI --PNG FILE

They’re rolling the dice again on a Las Vegas-style casino for Vancouver.

More than 15 years after Vancouver’s city council, the B.C. government and the majority of Vancouverites gave are sounding city’s waterfront, a similar casino-hotel complex is back on the table.

This time, it has the blessing of Premier Gordon Campbell, an ardent opponent of the 1994 proposal.

The new B.C. Place casino would turn a 700,000-square-foot parking lot into a luxury casino, complete with two hotels and five restaurants.

Back in 1994, Las Vegas gambling king Steve Wynn rolled into town with a proposal for a seafront casino.

It included a 1,000-room hotel, a cruiseship terminal and a permanent stage for Cirque du Soleil — along with the casino.

But city councillors voted it down unanimously after wide consultation and a heated opposition campaign by antigambling activists. The NDP government of then-premier Mike Harcourt also stepped in to ban destination-style casinos.

There were packed meetings, public rallies and a city poll that showed 52.3 per cent of citizens opposed the Seaport Casino, with just 30.2 per cent in support. A full 63.8 per cent were against any major casinos in Vancouver, with only 22.1 per cent in favour.

Times have changed. Campbell is now a champion of the B.C. Place casino, which will include a $563-million upgrade for the Crown-owned stadium, including a new retractable roof.

Given public comments, city council seems fine with moving the Edgewater Casino into the new casino from its current home at the Plaza of Nations on False Creek. And public opposition, so far, has been muted, limited mostly to the concerns of the nearby condo residents.

So how did the city go from red to black? How have things changed since 1994 that now makes the mega-casino a short-odds bet? Here’s a look at some of the ways Vancouver has changed in the 15 years since the last big casino was proposed for downtown:

City image

Then: In 1994, Vancouver’s image was seen as an economic asset. The NPA-led city council felt the city’s image involved its setting, safety, cleanliness and relaxed lifestyle. The city manager’s report to council said most people were concerned about how a huge casino would affect the city’s image, arguing that “major casinos are not in harmony with the Vancouver they value.”

Now: University of B.C. community planning professor Michael Seelig, a vocal anti-casino opponent in 1994, says Vancouver should build on its success during the Olympics, when the city’s beauty was on display, and not go the Las Vegas route.

“Do you really want to become known as a gambling city?” Seelig asks. “ Vancouver does not need to have a facility that size that doesn’t really add much to the local population.”


Then: A discussion paper on the 1994 casino proposal said any inner-city casino would impact affordable housing, especially single-room-occupancy hotels. The area around the casino might be gentrified, and the social-housing stock reduced. A successful hotel would boost real-estate values in the area, with the effect of raising property taxes, it argued.

Now: With thousands of apartments surrounding B.C. Place, taking in Yaletown, Northeast False Creek and the Downtown Eastside, a mega-casino could still impact real-estate values.

“It’s a trade-off,” says Tsur Somerville, a real-estate economist at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “On the one hand, a casino creates more commercial activity, there are more people, and that increases commercial values.

“On the other hand, the casino environment itself isn’t necessarily the kind of street life that all buyers want.”

The inner-city’s rental-housing stock has been increasing, under the B.C. government’s partnership with the City of Vancouver. But a luxury casino could add more pressure to gentrify low-income housing.

But Somerville says the pressure to re-develop the Downtown Eastside is already so strong that a new casino would have a marginal impact.

Then: The city’s casino review said a major gaming facility would most affect the neighbourhoods in the immediate area. It predicted traffic and parking concerns, noise and a threat to park space.

The impact on local businesses could also be a major issue, it said. And there would be a challenge fitting a casino the size of five football fields into the city’s waterfront skyline.

Now: Former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen, who voted against the 1994 proposal, lives just two blocks from the proposed new casino. He says Yaletown will be deeply impacted by a 100,000-square-foot casino, with 40 restaurants currently in the area.

“I think it’s going to be maybe a hard sell,” says Owen. “You better go through the process. You consult with the neighbourhood.”

Some Yale town and False Creek residents have already expressed their concerns.

Local business

Then: The debate among the city officials in 1994 focused in part on how many tourists would come to gamble in Vancouver. The more of them, the merrier, they concluded.

But if more locals gambled at the casino, it would divert dollars away from other parts of the local economy.

Now: Charles Gauthier, speaking for the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, says the new proposal doesn’t compare to 1994.

Back then, he says, the proposal was far more grandiose and was located away from local businesses. The new casino would be much more integrated into an already-established commercial district, he says.

“I don’t think that is going to detract from the amenities,” says Gauthier.

Deanna Geisheimer, who owns the Art Works Gallery in Yaletown, figures it will a destination venue for people who go there to gamble.

“We all basically have our client base, who already come to us,” she says. “It will probably give us as much as it will take away.”


Then: The casino review expected that more police would be needed to deal with problems like money laundering, loan sharking, fraud and prostitution.

There was also a concern a large casino would be a magnet for organized crime, attracting criminals to Vancouver.

At the time, there were fears of a rise in overall crime due to gambling, but a look at the experience of the casino in Windsor, Ont., found that police were able to contain it successfully.

Now: Vancouver police spokes woman Const. Jana McGuinness says police have had very few complaints about the current Edgewater Casino on the old Expo site.

“There really have been no incidents of note,” says McGuinness.

Police have responded to the odd call about alcohol at nearby nightclubs, or cruises, she says, and recently, a woman was charged with leaving her child in a car while she gambled at the casino.

Simon Fraser University criminologist Rob Gordon says public gaming reduces illegal gambling, and stops the drain of gambling dollars to the U.S.

“In many respects, the argument that casinos act as a magnet for predatory street crime is a bogus argument,” says Gordon. “Casinos are not more criminogenic than any other places that cater to large crowds.”

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Flat-fee commission firm aims to open range of services

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Derrick Penner

So far, Surrey-based realtor Mayur Arora has one client and the hope of establishing a flat-fee based business in real estate services that capitalizes on the Canadian Real Estate Association’s relaxation of its rules for access to its proprietary Multiple Listing Service system.

“This has opened a door of opportunity for me to do this, and I really wanted to try,” Arora said in an interview. “That’s exactly where we’re at.”

At the least, Arora’s launch will help propel the debate over MLS that has raged since February when the federal Competition Bureau filed a complaint with the Competition Tribunal on charges that CREA was being restrictive about who can access the service and what other services consumers have to buy from realtors in order to sell properties through MLS.

Arora said he wants his company, One Flat Fee, to be a cheaper alternative on the seller’s side for listing and advertising properties.

For a flat $649, he will simply list a property on MLS, post an ad on its website and on free advertising sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji, then forward all contacts from prospective buyers directly to the sellers, who have to handle the rest of the process themselves.

Arora will increase the level of attention clients can receive with different packages of services ranging from $1,049 to $4,999, with the last step covering the handling of showings, negotiations and conveyances, but still with no commission on the sales side.

He added that if a buyer uses a realtor to handle his side of the purchase, the seller would still likely owe a commission.

Arora sees himself catering to the for-sale-by-owner crowd of people who want to try selling homes on their own, but previously had no ready access to list their homes on MLS without hiring a realtor to handle more of the sale process.

Access to MLS is important because more than 90 per cent of home sales in Canada are advertised and cleared through the service.

Arora thinks his One Flat Fee firm is a perfect platform for him since he is only a few months into his career, not a veteran with a vested interest in the more typical commission-based business structure for realtor fees.

Arora sees it as making real estate “more customer friendly,” allowing sellers to have more control.

“That’s exactly what the Competition Bureau wanted,” Arora said. “They wanted the opportunity for customers to handle parts of the transactions themselves, which they couldn’t do before. Basically if you had to sell a house, you had to hire a realtor if you wanted to be on MLS.”

Jake Moldowan, Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver president, disputes that notion. While the debate has been going on, he said realtors have long been able to offer clients “mere listings” of their properties on MLS, and have done so in markets such as Calgary and Ottawa.

Ottawa-area realtor Joe Williams has been in the news recently for his offer to post simple listings on MLS for $109, which he says has made him the “most hated” person in Ottawa real estate.

Moldowan acknowledged that in the past a lot of realtors probably did not want to offer mere listings because it wasn’t seen as very lucrative considering their own overhead costs.

“I could go out tomorrow and advertise mere listings, but I don’t understand, personally, how my business model would work that way,” he said.

In addition, he said that despite the Competition Bureau’s accusation, realtors have always been free to negotiate what services they will provide to buyers and sellers as well as the fees they’ll pay.

Moldowan said all the dispute between CREA and the Competition Bureau has succeeded in doing is focus attention on realtor fees. CREA did not need to change any of its rules to appease the bureau’s concerns, he added; it merely had to make amendments to clarify its existing rules. Federal competition commissioner Melanie Aitken has already rejected those amendments and said she will continue with the bureau’s complaint to the Competition Tribunal.

However, Tsur Somerville, director of urban economics and real estate at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, believes CREA’s rule amendments have opened up a new range of choices for consumers, if the American experience is any example.

Somerville said full-service brokerage did not disappear when the U.S. MLS system was opened to consumers, but agents quickly began to offer a wide range of services.

Somerville added that if the American experience is any teacher, Canadians can also expect growth in the number of companies offering to sell them more information about land transactions and data beyond what MLS provides, information consumers are more willing to pay for if they aren’t paying out big commissions to realtors.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

What is the MLS?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010


Realtors compete with each other for your business, but at the same time cooperate to help you buy or sell property. That unique concept of cooperating while competing lead to creation of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) in 1950 by the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

The MLS is fundamentally a cooperative marketing system that helps the public buy and sell real estate. It’s a system for sharing information between realtors on homes for sale.

Through the MLS system, the realtor who represents a seller is inviting all other realtors to offer that home for sale to their buyers. Sellers therefore have all the realtors in their community seeking buyers for their homes.

“For buyers, it’s a one-stop shopping experience,” says Jake Moldowan, president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

“By having realtors agree to share their inventory with one another, a more efficient marketplace is created,” Moldowan says. “That benefits buyers and sellers.”

It’s also a system that ensures reliable information about properties for sale and professional accountability.

The MLS system is not a public website. It’s owned and operated by local real estate boards, for use by realtors. Consumers have direct access to information about MLS listings through the public website known as website is an advertising vehicle provided by realtors across Canada to help market properties. Realtor.cais not the MLS system.

MLS data is widely recognized by government, the financial community and private sector analysts as the most comprehensive and accurate real estate information in the country. This is because realtors who submit the listing information, and MLS staff at real estate boards who conduct quality control, are trained and educated in the complexities of real estate.

Realtors know how to describe a property accurately and what information must be disclosed in an MLS listing. For instance, if there is a restriction on the use of a property, something called an easement, this information must appear in the MLS listing.

Realtors are regulated under provincial laws and governed by a code of ethics and rules of the MLS system. They are professionally accountable for the listings they place on the MLS and the public has recourse if there is a problem.

The role of MLS in a competitive marketplace

Real estate is an extremely competitive profession. Buyers and sellers choosing to work with a professional can select from a wide choice of realtors, service options and pricing models.

Using the MLS gives excellent exposure to properties for sale, thus attracting offers. Many alternate systems and services exist to buy and sell homes and they all compete for customers. For instance, a person can choose to sell a home themselves or with the assistance of a marketing company.

Consumers can choose from numerous Internet websites like eBay and craigslist, as well as other ways to advertise or buy a home.

“Sellers and buyers often decide to work with a realtor because they want expert guidance through a complex process. For this important transaction, people want to select someone they are comfortable working with and who offers the services they are looking for at a price they can agree on. The MLS system allows consumers to do just that,” Moldowan says.

“Realtors are there to represent you in the transaction. Its not just about selling a house,” he says.

If the MLS system did not exist, sellers would have to choose an individual real estate brokerage to list their home and only that brokerage would have the information about it and the ability to show and sell it. If the MLS system did not exist, buyers would have to go from realtor to realtor to view the listings of each individual brokerage. The Multiple Listing Service gives consumers a choice of which realtor to work with, at the service and price range appropriate for them. And that realtor is obligated by law to look after the best interests of his or her client.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun