Supreme Court refuses to hear Toronto housing data case
TORONTO -- The Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear an appeal from the country's largest real estate board that would have prevented its members from posting home sales data on their websites, ending a years-long battle in a case that could have sweeping implications for consumer access across the country.
Canada's top court announced Thursday it has dismissed the application from the Toronto Real Estate Board, which represents more than 50,000 Ontario agents.
“I’m glad we’re one step closer to giving people more access to information,” said John Pasalis, president, Realosophy Realty, in an interview with BNN Bloomberg Thursday. “The more information people have, the better decisions that they can make – and that’s the core of what’s going on here.”
“The data isn’t becoming public – they’re not putting it on some open data platform that anyone can download,” Pasalis noted. “It’s really about should TREB be able to give this information to their own members – their own brokers – and are their brokers allowed to post the data on their websites.”
TREB's appeal stemmed from a seven-year court battle that began in 2011 when the Competition Bureau challenged its policy preventing the publication of such information, arguing it impedes competition and digital innovation.
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In a statement Thursday, TREB said it respects the Supreme Court’s decision.
Pasalis said the court’s ruling will be positive for the industry as it will force real estate agents to set the bar higher for their services.
“I think one of the fears that maybe TREB has, even though they don’t articulate it, is maybe that are people going to cut out the realtor from the transaction. And we have seen from the U.S. that really hasn’t happened,” he said.
The board had argued at the Competition Tribunal and later the Federal Court of Appeal that posting such data on password-protected websites would violate consumer privacy and copyright.
Both judicial bodies sided with the bureau, prompting TREB to take the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada.
But Pasalis said he doesn’t see the threat to people’s privacy.
“We’re talking about sale prices,” he said. “TREB tried to make it about all sorts of personal information But this isn’t about disclosing people’s names, this is about disclosing the sale price of a home – including homes that have just recently sold.”
“This is just about taking what is offline and kind of moving it into a more online experience,” he added. “So I don’t really see the privacy concerns.”
Lawyers and realtors have said that if the data is made available online, buyers and sellers will be able to more easily educate themselves on how to price homes and negotiate and won't have to rely on agents for getting information.
Since the court won't hear the case, lawyers believe there is likely nothing TREB can to do to keep its legal battle going and the data from being posted.
TREB chief executive officer John DiMichele said in a statement that the tribunal's order will come into effect in 60 days time, unless it is modified. DiMichele said the board will be studying "the required next steps to ensure such information will be protected in compliance with the tribunal order."
Meanwhile, the Competition Bureau's interim commissioner Matthew Boswell said in a statement that the ruling is " a decisive victory for competition, innovation and for consumers."
"By removing TREB's anti-competitive restrictions, home buyers and sellers in the GTA will now have greater access to information and innovative real estate services when making one of the most significant financial decisions of their lives."
The Supreme Court decision is expected to result in a rush of agents starting to post sales data on their websites.
The data release will eventually spread to "pretty much every real estate market in Canada" because most were waiting to see how TREB's case fared, said John Andrew, a real estate professor at Queen's University.
The TREB case, he said, only covered realtors posting the information on their password-protected websites, but he expects the country will soon see a push to allow the numbers to be published without password protection because the numbers are already in the public domain.
The public can get such numbers currently by turning to real estate agents and brokers, who have access to the Multiple Listing Service database, where sales data is compiled when deals close. Others rely on online property value services like Teranet or local land registry offices, which charge a fee for the public to access sales data.
Christopher Alexander, the executive vice-president and regional director of RE/MAX Integra's Ontario-Atlantic business, suspects the case will set a precedent for real estate boards across the country, triggering a flood of other provinces to look to release similar data.
However, he doesn't think the decision will be an industry killer based on his observations in the United States, where a similar case has enabled consumers to access enhanced information for years, but real estate agents are still in demand.
"They had information available to consumers for the last 13 years and it hasn't been a detriment to realtors," he said.
"Good, experienced realtors are a lot more valuable than having sold information."