Court ruling could end secrecy surrounding home prices

A Court of Appeal ruling Friday could bring an end to a multi-year fight over who has access to data about how much homes sold for, information that realtors have fought long and hard to keep confidential in a practice that some critics say keeps consumers at a disadvantage.

Court of Appeal expected to rule on fight between Competition Bureau and Toronto Real Estate Board

The Toronto Real Estate Board argues that there are privacy concerns to consider when it comes to who has access to financial details about home sales. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

A court ruling Friday could bring an end to a multi-year fight over who has access to data about how much homes sold for, information that real estate agents have fought long and hard to keep confidential in a practice that some critics say keeps consumers at a disadvantage.

The Federal Court of Appeal is expected to rule on Friday in a case between Canada's Competition Bureau and the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB).

At issue is confidential information about homes that have been sold, including the selling price. The fight over access to that data stretches back to at least 2011.

The Competition Bureau argues that limiting access to detailed information about home sales — how much a home sold for, agent commissions earned on the sale, and other data — should be given more freely to consumers in order to help them make informed decisions.

Under current rules, a prospective buyer or seller must work with a TREB-licensed agent in order to get access to  detailed data. That's not the case everywhere, however. In Nova Scotia, for example, ViewPoint Realty has turned itself into one of the largest independent brokerages in the province by offering its trove of data on every real estate transaction in the province free of charge to consumers.

Others have tried the same, including in Toronto, where some brokers were sending out sales data free of charge before being ordered to stop doing that by TREB last year.

A Competition Tribunal last year ruled in favour of the bureau and ordered the data be made public, but TREB appealed the decision, and the ruling from that higher court is expected Friday.

TREB argues they need to be the gate-keepers for housing sale data, telling the court in submissions that it's concerned about privacy issues if detailed information about real estate was available more freely.

Last year's ruling "opens the door to misuse and abuse of … sensitive personal financial information and the content of an Agreement of Purchase and Sale contract that has not closed," said TREB CEO John DiMichele last year. "The consumer has privacy rights and only the consumer should be the one to determine, with clear understanding, when and where their personal financial information is disclosed."

Toronto realtor John Pasalis would welcome more openness and clarity when it comes to sales data. (Realosophy Realty)

John Pasalis is one broker who would welcome more openness and clarity on the issue. "It certainly will change the way most brokers work," he said in an interview. "You may be able to just sign in and view sold listings on your own."​

Pasalis, founder of Realosophy, says good realtors shouldn't fear the push to more open data. "We think that people should have access to more information to make better decisions," he said. "I think it does help businesses like ours."

Torontonian Shashi Khatri is a home owner who thinks the more information people have at their disposal, the better it will be for everyone. He was trying to sell his home recently, and was shocked at some of the costs incurred for basic services.

Agent commissions 'out of step with the times'

"The type of commissions that real estate agents have been charging is out of step with the times," Khatri said in an interview. "The function they served back in the day is now fulfilled by just doing a search online."

He is hoping the court rules in the Competition Bureau's favour because having easier access to more detailed data "empowers the consumers and takes away all this middle man's commission, so it's great."

But regardless of what happens, Friday's ruling likely won't be the end of the story. Both parties have 60 days to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which would have final say on the matter.

And while this battle may be taking place over Toronto's market, it is expected to have a broader impact.

"It will probably have ripple effects nationally," Pasalis said. "You'll probably start seeing this with other boards as well."

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