OTTAWA -- The country is getting a clearer picture of the level of foreign cash in some of the hottest housing markets, adding more statistical fuel to the debate about how much influence foreign buyers have in driving prices to unimaginable heights and what should be done about it.
The new housing statistics by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and Statistics Canada shows that foreign buyers owned 3.4 per cent of all residential properties in Toronto and 4.8 per cent of residential properties in Vancouver.
For condos, CMHC says foreign buyers owned less than one per cent of the condo stock in 17 metropolitan areas across the country.
The data also show foreign-owned homes are more expensive than those owned by Canadian residents.
Graham Haines, research and policy manager at the Ryerson City Building Institute, said the foreign buyer data hint at larger issues about speculation in the real estate sector, making it the canary in the coal mine of a growing affordability problem.
"Investors in the real estate market are the same no matter where they're from, whether they're Canadian or foreign investors," he said.
"What we've seen since 2010 is there is a lot more investment and speculation happening in the real estate market no matter where those people are coming from."
Which raises the question for policy makers: What to do now?
Experts are split.
Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Financial Group, said the low proportion of foreign buyers nationally doesn't mean their influence in the housing market is just as small. Even a small percentage of new buyers in a market that is already stretched can have large ripple effects, he said.
"These numbers, especially in Vancouver, might be a little bit lower than I might have guessed, (but) it's still a very significant portion and to me this does show how foreign investors are a very big part in driving these markets."
David Madani, senior Canada economist at Capital Economics, said the data suggest the influence of foreign buyers isn't the primary driver of housing prices. More pressing is excessive mortgage credit from domestic banks and less-regulated non-bank lenders, as reflected in Canada's high level of household debt, he said.
A spokeswoman for Finance Minister Bill Morneau said future data releases will drive any future policy decisions.
"We have always stressed the need for reliable data in order to make evidence-based decisions when it comes to protecting what is, for many Canadians, the most important investment they will make," Chloe Luciani-Girouard said.
The data released was the first in a multi-year effort to create the most comprehensive database of homes and owners. The plan is to have data on some 5,000 municipalities by the end of 2022, with more data on sales and country of origin among other variables.
The next set of information is set to be released next spring.
Tuesday was the first view of the stock of housing in the census metropolitan areas of Toronto and Vancouver, which combined included 45 municipalities, and 15 additional metropolitan areas surveyed by CMHC.
The two agencies found that foreign investors have an appetite for newer model condominium apartments in Toronto and Vancouver.
CMHC survey data showed that non-resident ownership rates hovered at 1.2 per cent in Toronto and Vancouver in buildings built before 1990, but jumped to 4.3 per cent in Vancouver for anything built between 2000 and 2009, and 4.1 per cent in Toronto for anything built since 2010. That means those units may not be available for local residents in need of a home or rental unit, Haines said.
"It seems like a relatively small number, but when we talk about vacancy rate in the rental market, anything below three per cent is a big deal," he said.
And there are hints foreign buyers are finding new markets in which to invest, particularly Montreal. The CMHC survey found the city's Nun's Island had the largest increases in the share of non-resident owners over the last year, climbing from 4.3 per cent in 2016 to 7.6 per cent this year.
CMHC believes that part of the increase in Montreal overall could be related to investors trying to avoid the 15 per cent foreign ownership tax in Toronto and Vancouver. Another explanation could be that new foreign investors see Montreal as an undervalued market ready to take off, Porter said.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante is now lobbying the Quebec government for the powers to tax foreign owners similar to Toronto and Vancouver.
"I'm not planning on putting a tax, I'm planning on getting the power from Quebec to create a tax if necessary. This is still in the plan," she said.
-- With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal