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Tax lawyers say it is common for investors from China to pay no income tax in Canada

Foreign investors avoid taxes through Canadian real estate

A house at 3692 West 33rd Avenue is pictured in Vancouver on Oct. 3.

A house at 3692 West 33rd Avenue is pictured in Vancouver on Oct. 3.

ALL PHOTOS BY DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Wealthy buyers taking advantage of loopholes by putting homes in the name of relatives or corporations

KATHY TOMLINSON

The Globe and Mail Last updated: 

A Beijing-based private equity manager who bought a $2.3-million home in the hot Vancouver real estate market said he did that while earning just $19,000 a year. He also wired nearly $2-million to his family in Canada during the same period.

Jing Sun is among several foreign investors who bought property in Canada in recent years, but kept the extent of their wealth out of view of the tax authorities and the courts, a Globe and Mail investigation has found.

The Globe’s findings come amid a controversy in Vancouver, where many blame foreign buyers for soaring house prices that have made a single-family home unattainable for some long-time residents. The Urban Development Institute will tackle the topic for the first time in a sold-out public forum on Wednesday in Vancouver.

The subject became an election issue when Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised to collect data on foreign ownership of Canadian real estate and to consider new taxes and regulations to keep housing affordable.

For-sale signs are seen outside houses for sale in Point Grey.

For-sale signs are seen outside houses for sale in Point Grey.

An in-depth look at public data – including land titles, tax reporting and court records – revealed a distinct pattern, suggesting the typical wealthy foreign family buying Vancouver real estate pays little or no income or capital gains tax.

“I actually have clients in this circumstance,” said David Chodikoff, a Toronto tax lawyer who was a prosecutor but now defends clients who have trouble with the Canada Revenue Agency.

He is among several experts who said most wealthy foreign buyers are not breaking the law, but simply using tax avoidance manoeuvres or loopholes in the system.

“They love to take advantage of Canadian tax law … and it is happening in other communities too,” Mr. Chodikoff said.

Many of the houses being snapped up are not huge mansions. Increasingly, they are family homes priced out of reach for locals whose taxes pay for public services, and some of whom earn more than the incomes reported by buyers such as Mr. Sun.

Court records show Mr. Sun’s wife lived without him in their pricey Vancouver home for six years while he sent her $260,000 a year from China. They paid $40,000 a year for their children to attend private school in Canada.

When the couple broke up, Mr. Sun stopped supporting the family. In his divorce case last year, he claimed he had been making $19,000 a year. The court asked for tax and other financial records, but he failed to produce any, the documents say.

He said his money was loans from friends and family in China. The judge did not believe that, saying his bank would not have approved his financing if he had no wealth of his own.

“In my view, the respondent has yet to overcome the unlikelihood … of a bank advancing him over $1-million [in a home mortgage] on the basis of a $19,000 salary,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Emily Burke said last year.

Accountants and tax lawyers say it is common for investors from China to pay no income tax in Canada while moving their wealth to Canada through spouses and children here.

The Globe discovered one in three multimillion-dollar homes bought recently in Vancouver areas popular with foreign buyers is registered to a homemaker, student or corporation – one indicator of how the identity of the person who actually paid can be hidden.

When a spouse or child sells a property that is registered in their name, the real investor can avoid capital gains taxes – because the relative in Canada can claim it was their primary residence, therefore not an investment.

Other revealing data came from Statistics Canada, which tracks income that households report to the CRA.

In the Vancouver area of Dunbar, which realtors said is a top neighbourhood for Chinese clients, one in four of what Statscan calls “couple families” – excluding seniors – declared income of less than $35,000 in 2013. That puts them in the lowest tax bracket.

Given that the municipal property taxes on a $2-million to $3-million home are about $10,000, those reported income levels are questionable.

Land titles records on 250 houses bought in the past two years for more than $2-million in key Vancouver neighbourhoods indicate that 85 per cent of those new owners have Chinese names. There is no way to tell how many are Canadian. However, 2014 statistics from Macdonald Realty and ReMax show that 70 per cent of their clients were from mainland China.

The records list the occupations of non-corporate owners. The most frequent is “business person.” The next is “homemaker,” then “student.”

“When you sift through the information, you find that the wife [or student] has no income … there is no possible way they could afford to purchase the home,” Mr. Chodikoff said.

Several of the houses visited by The Globe appear to be unoccupied, with cobwebs at the front entrance and mail piled up.

One of the few owners who answered the door was a 25-year-old University of British Columbia science major who did not want to be identified. “My parents bought the house – for me to study here,” she said.

She is the registered owner of the $2-million home – but she said her parents live there too when they are not in China on business. “After I study, they will sell again.”

One of the more expensive homes bought last year – in Point Grey – is registered to a student who is not living there. It was bought for $4.8-million and has a stunning view of the mountains. It changed ownership three times in five years and is now empty.

The Globe found five out of 13 properties owned by students are empty and four are rented out, suggesting they were bought as investments.

A family friend picking up the mail at one house said the real owner is a business person in China who will not be in Canada for months. At another empty student-owned home, the backyard pool is filled with dirty water and garbage.

Many of the properties registered to homemakers are occupied. Several family members at those homes indicated the heads of the households are transferring wealth to Canada – because it is seen as a small, clean, inexpensive haven.

A homemaker listed as the owner of a $3.5-million house bought this year said her husband chose it “because it was good for our daughter’s [public] school to be nearby.”

She said she is staying in Vancouver – primarily so their children can get a Canadian education – while her husband travels back and forth.

She said the couple has permanent resident status in Canada, which benefits the family, but her husband earns good money in China from his food trading business.

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