Unlicensed foreign agents leverage lax regulation to sell B.C. real estate
The man on the phone is cheery and confident, with the practised ease of someone accustomed to calming anxiety.
There is no need to worry, he says. Buying a home in Vancouver is simple. His company will dispatch people to the airport, then guide an inexperienced buyer through the entire process. No other company will be involved, he promises. “If you go to look at a house, our headquarters staff will take care of you,” he says.
His colleagues will come every day to arrange showings and, when a suitable home is found, arrange negotiations with the seller’s agent, he says. “Our staff will participate in the whole process, and arrange for you to apply for a loan at the bank,” he says to a Globe and Mail reporter posing as a buyer.
It’s the kind of pitch any practised real estate agent might make. And his Shanghai-based company, Vanfun, has a lot of practice. Over the past few years, it has become the top “Chinese real estate network platform in the overseas market,” according to its website.
Many of the homes it sells are in British Columbia, where Vanfun occupies a regulatory gap in the real estate market. Unlike other places popular with overseas buyers – including Ontario, New York and California – B.C. allows foreign firms to sell B.C. homes without provincial licensing, an issue that remains unaddressed despite recent attempts to throttle the influx of foreign money.
Specializing in Vancouver real estate, Vanfun tells clients it offers the array of services any agent in that city might, down to a website constantly updated with new home listings, each tagged with their MLS number.
There’s one key difference. Vanfun isn’t licensed to deal in British Columbia real estate. Neither is the voice on the phone, a man named Ronald Lok who boasts on social media that he is a Canadian permanent resident who has sold at least one multimillion-dollar home in Vancouver. Mr. Lok is not licensed in China, either, according to an online database maintained by the China Institute of Real Estate Appraisers and Agents.
Over the past few months, the B.C. government and real estate authorities have sought to slow foreign property purchases in the province. They passed a 15-per-cent tax on purchases in the Vancouver area and fined several agents for working with unlicensed companies like Vanfun.
Sales in Vancouver have since slowed dramatically.
And if Vanfun is any indication, the province has only dealt with a small number of the Canadians who have partnered with sites like it.
In interviews with The Globe and Mail, as part of an ongoing investigation into problems that have emerged in the red-hot property markets of the British Columbia Lower Mainland, Vanfun representatives say they have worked with not just several, but hundreds of agents in B.C.
Vanfun has marketed not just single-family homes, but also new apartment complexes, and developers in Canada have partnered with the Shanghai-based company to sell their properties in China, as they sought to capitalize on foreign money in the Vancouver region.
In other states and provinces, rules against foreign agents and firms are long-standing.
New York, for example, has required local credentials for anyone operating in the state’s real estate sector as far back as 1930, no matter where they live. Non-residents who secure a New York real estate licence must also submit to “the jurisdiction of the courts of this state,” local regulations say. “If the broker is helping someone rent/buy real property in the state, they still need a licence,” said a spokesperson for the New York Department of State.
In California, those not licensed in the state can provide virtually no real estate services, except to refer a client to a local broker.
Ontario requires anyone brokering deals for Ontario property “be registered with RECO, since the property in question is in Ontario,” the Real Estate Council of Ontario, or RECO, said in a statement it attributed to registrar Joseph Richer.
“It’s critical that the person representing you has the skills, knowledge and accountability to look out for your best interests in the course of the real estate transaction.”
In British Columbia, however, licensing requirements don’t apply to those located outside provincial boundaries.
“Individuals in other jurisdictions licensed to provide real estate services may submit offers on behalf of clients for B.C. properties, and licensees in B.C. have an obligation to communicate these offers to their clients, unless their clients have instructed them otherwise,” said Marilee Peters, spokesperson for the Real Estate Council of British Columbia.
Some in B.C. want that to change.
“If you’re selling Canadian real estate or B.C. real estate, you should have a licence for it,” said Dan Scarrow, a B.C. agent who has worked with Chinese buyers.
In a statement, the B.C. Ministry of Finance said it strongly encourages “consumers engaging in real estate transactions in B.C. to use licensed real estate services.”
Real estate authorities around the world have struggled to adjust to the international nature of modern property purchases, particularly when digital information so easily crosses borders.
The Internet challenges “every kind of sovereignty and regulation,” said Ron Usher, general counsel for The Society of Notaries Public of BC.
And even if B.C. were to change its rules, it’s not clear how they would be enforced in China, where courts are weak.
But looser laws in British Columbia have made it more challenging to fight activity overseas.
That’s something British Columbia needs to address, Mr. Usher said.
“The real danger is when people are being given advice by those who are unregulated, and who are beyond the scope of our civil court system,” he said. “Tax rules, consumer rules, regulation of real estate trading, disclosure – all kinds of things fall apart if people are being advised by those beyond provincial jurisdiction, who are not accountable in any way to anyone.”
British Columbia’s Financial Institutions Commission says it pursues complaints when they arise, and has made 16 orders against unlicensed real estate services providers in the past five years. Most such orders have been against rental and property management companies. In one case, a small group was accused of advertising and promoting U.S. properties in B.C. without a licence – the inverse of what Chinese companies like Vanfun are doing.
Two this year were against a pair of people who worked in Canada with Vanfun and a B.C. firm called Sunway Investment, which shares a name with the Chinese company that founded Vanfun. Among other problems, the provincial Superintendent of Real Estate found in September that Vanfun listed incorrect prices, and that those working with it had “willfully and consistently put the public at risk by continuing to provide unlicensed real estate activities.”
But none of the half-dozen most prominent companies have real estate licences in British Columbia, a Globe and Mail investigation has found. Vanfun has no B.C. licence. Neither do Global House Buyer, Soufun, Hilivable or Edojia, which all advertise Vancouver real estate. (Many work with Toronto real estate, too, although none are registered in Ontario, in apparent contravention of the rules there.)
Homelink, one of China’s largest brokerages, has an arm devoted to overseas real estate – including Canada. But the only Homelink registered in B.C. belongs to a one-man operation with no corporate ties to China.
A search of Real Estate Council of British Columbia records shows no licence-holders registered in Beijing or Shanghai.
Some have built their businesses by working with developers in Canada.
Earlier this year, Mr. Lok, the Vanfun agent (who is not among those disciplined by B.C. authorities) posted to his private WeChat social-media account a photo of a Vanfun “Best Selling Agent 2016” trophy from Concord Pacific, one of Canada’s top property developers.
About 5 per cent of the sales at the Concord Brentwood condo development in Burnaby, B.C., came from Asia, said Grant Murray, senior vice-president of sales with the company.
B.C. allows developers and their employees to sell their own properties without being licensed, an exemption akin to letting a homeowner sell their own house.
The exemption, however, is not granted to property agents who sell properties from multiple sellers, as Vanfun does.
Concord Pacific said it had checked with its lawyers and its practices are “in compliance with B.C. law,” Mr. Murray said in a statement. “Sales from our Asia office follow the common industry practice of using referrals. At times their contributions have been recognized with trophies.”
B.C. regulators have found problems with the referrals practice, too.
Most firms in China marketing Canadian real estate rely on brokers and agents in British Columbia. The Chinese firm finds the client, the B.C. agent completes the sale – and sends back to China hefty commission and referral fees. That can be legal if it is properly disclosed.
The few cases that have become public have shown that those doing the deal aren’t always told where the money will end up.
In July, the Real Estate Council of B.C. fined local real estate agent Alban Wang $11,500 in penalties and enforcement expenses for his work with an unlicensed operation, and suspended his licence for a year.
Names of people and companies are redacted from most of the order against Mr. Wang. But “Vanfun.com” appears in one place in an agreed statement of facts, a document that provides a startling look at how boldly the unlicensed operator disregarded local laws.
The operator’s Vancouver-based staff accompanied clients to look at properties. In one instance, Mr. Wang submitted a purchase offer without meeting or speaking to the buyer. Another time, someone with the unlicensed operation impersonated Mr. Wang.
The arrangement was a lucrative one for the unlicensed operator. When Mr. Wang made a sale based on their referral, Mr. Wang gave back 90 per cent of his commission (a different enforcement order confirms Vanfun took 90 per cent of commissions). In total, Mr. Wang paid $208,881 in referral fees from selling 17 homes over nine months in 2012 and 2013.
It was a hefty cut, but he agreed “because it was easy,” according to the agreed statement. The unlicensed operator had already done most of the work in finding willing buyers.
Asked what Mr. Wang did wrong, the Real Estate Council of B.C. said Mr. Wang had not disclosed the referral fees to his clients or managing partner, and had not been sufficiently careful in his work.
“Further, the discipline committee found that Mr. Wang’s actions encouraged unlicensed activity, and that this was conduct unbecoming a licensee,” the council said in a statement.
In an interview, Vanfun co-founder David Wang said he had “heard of Alban Wang,” but denied having company representatives in Canada, and further denied demanding 90 per cent commissions from agents in Vancouver.
“It’s impossible that we would risk breaking local laws,” he said. “And furthermore, if we charged that much, who would co-operate with us?”
The site has co-operation deals with “several hundred” agents in British Columbia, David Wang said. The 200 buyer referrals it sends them each month are significant relative to the 2,489 sales of greater Vancouver detached houses, condos and townhomes in August.
David Wang said his company merely acts as a referring site, connecting clients with Chinese agents in China and B.C. agents in Canada. He acknowledged, however, that problems could arise.
If a client contacts Vanfun, but is then told they will be handed off to another unknown company, “will you still trust Vanfun any more?” Mr. Wang said. “This is just a sales tactic. … Some salespeople just tell you what you want to hear.”
He insisted all of the agents he works with are licensed, in contradiction of statements both from his own former employee and B.C. authorities.
Mr. Lok, too, claims success after success for Vanfun property sales on his WeChat. In March, he posted photos of an ocean-view home in West Vancouver bought for $8-million by a person with a Chinese name. His caption: “sold by Ronald! The harder you work, the luckier you get.” In another post, he places a check mark beside “Vanfun Ronald Lok” in answer to a quiz question: “If you’re buying a house in Vancouver, who should you look for?”
One other post shows a document detailing the options selected on a new $1.2-million Aston Martin Vantage. It is signed with Mr. Lok’s Chinese name, Luo Yisi, and a red fingerprint, which is commonly used on contracts in China.
When The Globe and Mail subsequently asked Mr. Lok for comment, he denied involvement with the $8-million home. He cut off the conversation moments later, without answering whether he was licensed in Canada or China.
David Wang, the Vanfun co-founder, said he sees no reason to do anything differently.
“Why would I change my operational model?” he said. “It’s been working well for four or five years – why would I change it?”
With a report from Yu Mei