News / Vancouver

Realtors threaten legal action after website publishes pre-sale flipping information

Vancouver real estate board wants condo pre-sales flipping information removed, but lawyer says the threat is toothless

A lawyer representing a small media website that published closely-guarded information from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver says a legal threat from the realtor’s group has no basis in law, and is challenging the board to file a lawsuit.

ThinkPol published information it had received from an anonymous source regarding presale condo assignment sales. The information came from REBGV’s Multiple Listing Service (MLS) database. The information showed that 55 presale assignments (a way to flip a condo presale contract) had been sold through MLS for Westbank’s Kensington Gardens condo project on Kingsway.

Following publication of the story, REBGV’s lawyer sent ThinkPol a letter warning the media organization that publishing the information is “unauthorized and illegal,” violates intellectual property rights and is in breach of British Columbia’s privacy legislation. REBGV is demanding that ThinkPol remove the information they published on their website.

“There are lots of people who get information, look at the Panama Papers,” said Paul Doroshenko, a Vancouver lawyer with the firm Acumen Law, referring to a trove of documents about offshore tax havens that was leaked to journalists last year.

“But just thinking on legal principles, and thinking about it from the perspective of the public’s right to be informed and journalists following the proper ethical procedures, we don’t believe our client has done anything inappropriate.”

ThinkPol obtained information about the buyers of the condo assignments, and published redacted versions of some of the documents. Amy Chen, the journalist who wrote the story, notes in her story that the project was marketed in Hong Kong. “Nearly a quarter of all units of its Kensington Garden project — aggressively marketed in Hong Kong — (sold) to flippers,” she states.

While the public can view MLS listings on the website Realtor.ca, realtors who are members of REBGV have access to a fuller range of data. The information is proprietary and other real estate boards have taken legal action over who has access to it: in 2016, the Toronto Real Estate Board battled the Competition Bureau over whether realtors should be able to have access to the data in bulk and use other online tools to analyze it.

This September, TREB sent a cease-and-desist order to Shafquat Arefeen, a 26-year-old financial data analyst who had used TREB data to create visualizations of the city’s real estate market, which he published on a public website.

In 2016, the Globe and Mail published two stories that contained information that had been leaked to journalists about REBGV’s secret disciplinary process. That newspaper also received a cease-and-desist letter.

Jill Oudil, a Vancouver realtor who is a director of REBGV, said the association publishes information (such as monthly home sales and price statistics) but doesn’t allow the public to have access to the data because of concerns about quality control.

REBGV believes ThinkPol violated British Columbia’s privacy legislation by publishing the information. In the “realtors notes” field there is private information about clients, Oudil said.

ThinkPol redacted the names of the buyers to show only the last name, and did not publish any information about citizenship, home addresses or contact information. They did publish one piece of information from the “realtors notes” section: “Seller in Asia and need time to accept”.

“You take a look at the actual information that’s out there and good luck trying to find out anything on the basis of those names,” Doroshenko said.

Tom Davidoff, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia who studies real estate markets, said more real estate data should be available to the public. He believes the province is the entity that should be making that data available, not real estate boards, but he said data that real estate boards currently collect but don’t allow the public to access would be very useful in understanding what’s going on in the real estate market.

For instance, the private information shows how long a property has been listed. “Nobody knows that except the realtors,” Davidoff said.

“Should the identity of the owner be kept private? Maybe, but there’s also a strong case that that information is in the public interest,” he said, noting that anyone can find out (for a fee of $10) who owns a piece of property through B.C.’s Land Title system.

There is currently no information about presales transactions, which are not a real estate sale but a contract to buy a piece of real estate in the future. Davidoff thinks that more information on that part of the market would also be in the public interest.

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