A foreign attraction to Montreal’s real estate market
A foreign attraction to Montreal’s real estate market
MONTREAL — Down the street from Montreal’s old Forum, in a bustling neighbourhood now dotted with Chinese noodle shops, ethnic grocers and new construction, the sign on the door of the Le Seville condo building asks residents in French, English and Chinese: “Do you know the person you let in?”
Since last year’s annual meeting — when some condo owners from China had difficulty following the discussion — the board of directors has been translating important material — such as the sign on the door and the building’s annual budget — into Chinese.
“It was clear that the Chinese buyers needed to have access to a language they’d understand, like everyone else in the building,” said condo board president Colin Danby, who learned Mandarin during seven years spent in Taiwan.
“Not everything is translated. But as a board, we take that step when it is something important like building security.”
Residents estimate that between 20 to 40 per cent of the Seville’s co-owners are either Chinese Canadian, recent immigrants who own neighbouring shops in the area known as Shaughnessy Village, or are foreign investors from China.
They bought into the sold-out first phase of the 477-unit Seville in 2010 — when low interest rates and an economy that had emerged relatively well from the 2008 financial crisis drove demand for Montreal condos to near-record highs.
While the vast majority of foreign real estate buyers in Canada have focused on Toronto and Vancouver, investors from China, Middle East and Europe also helped fuel Montreal’s condo boom, which peaked in 2012.
In 2011, Montreal had the second highest number of permits and starts for new condos of any city in North America. Toronto was in first place.
“More inventory, more investors,” said Alexandre Sieber, senior managing director of Quebec operations for real-estate services firm CBRE Ltd. “As you build inventory, you are diversifying the investor base.”
Some firms estimate that up to 20 per cent of Montreal condos bought as rental properties — or to be flipped for a profit — were purchased by foreign buyers searching for inexpensive prices in a comparatively stable market.
Foreign investors have also bought small multi-unit buildings for use as student rentals and are showing interest in large properties, including vast tracts of land in the Laurentians, brokers say.
Just like Vancouver, or Toronto, there is no hard data for the number of foreign real-estate investors in Montreal.
But two foreign buyers, along with half-a-dozen commercial and residential real estate brokers, told The Gazette that sales to foreigners and landed-immigrants in areas like Westmount and LaSalle are on the upswing.
And Asian and Middle Eastern money is behind at least two new large sites downtown that are being promoted for residential development.
“We’re certainly seeing an increase in foreign buyers, especially from China,” said Robert MacDougall, senior vice-president for investment sales and special projects at the commercial real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle.
MacDougall said about 10 to 20 per cent of his offers on properties now come from foreign investors, mostly Asians.
In addition to the foreigners who’ve long been purchasing condos for their adult children attending McGill and Concordia universities, people who have recently arrived from Asia are also buying homes in Westmount to be close to their kids’ private schools, brokers say.
Sotheby’s International Realty Canada estimated recently that half of the luxury properties sold in Montreal this year were purchased by foreigners.
“Two or three years ago, I had the odd buyer show up from China. That was kind of a novelty,” recalled Brian Dutch, a broker with Re/Max DuCartier, who specializes in the Westmount market. “Then all of a sudden, there was another Chinese broker calling for an appointment. And then there’s another.
“From it being the odd one, there are now at least two inquiries on a weekly basis.”
While foreign buyers are appreciated by the real estate industry because they purchase properties in a relatively soft housing market, investors from Asia and the Middle East have been blamed for driving up home prices in Vancouver. Economists have warned that foreign buyers also create a more volatile market driven by yields, rather than by fundamentals like having a place to live.
In Montreal, there have been a few instances of buyers from other countries failing to show up at the notary’s office, after signing contracts — and leaving hefty deposits — to purchase homes.
But Montreal brokers have yet to see widespread bidding wars with Asian or Middle Eastern buyers willing to pay above-market prices.
“I have seen those kinds of news stories from Toronto and Vancouver (about inflated prices), but my clients are more cautious,” said Jason Yu, a broker with the Brossard-based agency Esta Agence, whose commercial and residential buyers are mostly recent immigrants from China.
Yu, who’s worked with Dutch on multiple sales to Chinese buyers in Westmount, said several of his clients are wealthy Asian families moving to Montreal as part of the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program.
A decade ago, Yu and his family came to Canada from China as immigrant investors under a program that requires applicants with a net worth of at least $1.6 million to make an $800,000 interest-free loan to the government for five years.
The Quebec program — which mirrors a federal one that’s now frozen and does not accept new applicants — remains hotly debated, amid criticism that 90 per cent of the mostly Asian arrivals promptly move elsewhere in Canada, while their $800,000 stays in la Belle Province.
Quebec’s quota for 2013-2014 is 1,750 immigrant investors.
Despite the large number who leave, Yu says that he also sees immigrants who choose to stay in Montreal.
In the last few months, three of his Chinese clients purchased homes in Westmount, while a fourth is looking to buy downtown condos as an investment. She said the family moved to Montreal largely for her daughter’s education.
One immigrant from Shanghai described how her family moved to Westmount a few years ago through the Quebec investor program. Her husband is working in China right now while she raises their daughter and takes French classes in Quebec.
“We made the decision very quickly, based largely on what a friend from China who lived in Montreal told us,” said the woman, who spoke to The Gazette on condition that her name wouldn’t be published.
“We didn’t even know about Bill 101.”
The language law hasn’t affected the family, since her daughter is enrolled at a non-subsidized English girls’ school, where she is learning both official languages.
She said she’s constantly meeting new recent immigrants from China. Last week, the woman received a call from Dutch, who had been her real estate broker when she bought her home. Dutch invited her to meet a newcomer from Shanghai who had an accepted offer on a house in the area.
Dutch also invited the newcomer’s neighbour, a recent arrival from Beijing.
“I called my client to come over because I wanted as much for her and for them to get to know each other,” Dutch said. “Everyone was busy on their iPhones, sharing contact information and yacking away in Mandarin. It was fun.
“It’s something we haven’t seen before.”
Also new is the tendency of immigrant investors — even ones who leave Quebec — to purchase properties in Montreal.
“Will they stay? History says they won’t, but they are making investments here,” said Eric Goodman, owner of Century 21 Vision in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
He described one new condo project in LaSalle, where 80 per cent of the units were sold to Chinese buyers, including recent immigrants, or investors who are still in China.
“They are buying them as investments and they are buying them for family members who may come in the future,” said Goodman.
“They are always looking for places to put their money. They feel it is safe to build here, even if they’re not going to make as much of a return as in Toronto.”
Goodman’s agency also sold the land to the developers behind the YUL mixed condo and townhouse project on René Lévesque Blvd. near Lucien L’Allier Rd. The YUL project, backed by Chinese investors, is being marketed to foreign as well as local buyers.
Adjacent to YUL, land on René Lévesque Blvd. next to Guy St. has been purchased by investors from Qatar who intend to launch their Babylon residential development this spring.
The downtown area has proven attractive to investors because of the large pool of student tenants, and the limited construction of new rental buildings to replace the city’s aging stock.
Indeed, investors — who make up an estimated 40 per cent of owners at Seville — generated such demand for the project that people were lining up at 10 a.m., a day before the sales office opened in 2010.
Colin Danby, now condo board president for the Seville’s phase 1, arrived at 3 p.m. He was No. 58 in line, he recalled. The crowd was so large that by 8 p.m., developer Groupe Prével decided to give out tickets to buyers.
And just like the hockey scalpers outside the old Forum in the 1970s, “authorized” Seville buyers were said to be hawking condo tickets on the street for $5,000 each.
Source: The Montreal Gazette