Foreign Buyers Tax

The Two Sides Of B.C.’s Foreign Buyer’s Tax


6 minute read

June 29, 2018

I found this to be either highly ironic, or expertly-timed.

Earlier this week, I read an article about the lawsuit filed in British Columbia on behalf of foreign buyers who believe the Foreign Buyer’s Tax is unfair.

Later in the week, the CMHC released a study that shows most Canadians believe that foreign buyers are influencing the price of real estate.

Two courts are at work here: the courts in British Columbia, and the court of public opinion…

By a quick show of virtual hands, does anybody think that foreign buyers have affected the Canadian real estate market, specifically those in BC and Ontario?

Good.  You all raised your hands.

Now my second question would involve a slight alteration to the first: Does anybody think that foreign buyers have substantially affected the Canadian real estate market?

Now perhaps the room is split.

To define “substantially” is, of course, a whole other task.

But I think it’s fair to say that in the context of supply and demand, foreign buyers have shifted the curve.

Take a very simple example – there’s a town with 100 properties for sale, and there are 100 buyers.  That market is in perfect equilibrium.

But then add, say, five foreign buyers, and suddenly demand exceeds supply, and there’s a deficit.

Now what if you added…….twenty foreign buyers.  How much would that have an effect on price?

To suggest that 20% of buyers in Canada are foreign is a massive stretch.  And to suggest that, at any point here in Toronto, foreign buyers represented even a double-digit percentage of buyers, is probably an exaggeration as well.

But what about Vancouver?

We know that no matter how hard the CMHC tries, they can not, and never will, come up with any accurate data on the percentage of foreign ownership, anywhere.  We can’t even define foreign ownership, because when either a “Permanent Resident,” or, a Canadian Citizen purchases a property in Canada, but the money came from overseas, and the property is really, truly, “owned” by a person overseas, there’s just no way to account for this information.

So then, may we use empirical evidence?  And by that, I almost mean opinion, guesstimation, and gut-checks?  Because that’s essentially how the folks in Vancouver came to the conclusion that foreign buyers were blowing up their market.  And to be quite honest, it’s a measure that I may have used myself, a few times.

Recall the first four months of 2017, which many of us refer to as “the craziest market we’ve ever seen.”

I specifically recall condos that I had for sale downtown, where most of the buyers were, in some way, shape, or form, foreign.

This is an inexact science, and I’m opening myself to criticism here, especially in the obsessively politically-correct social structure of 2018.

But when you look at the name on the offer, the name of the agent, the brokerage the agent belongs to, and then………interact with that agent, you have a pretty good idea where these folks originate.

So having made that inexact, unscientific, possibly-offensive definition, let me go back to early 2017.

Last February, I had a listing for a 1-bedroom condo at Yonge & Front, that produced 15 offers.

How many of the buyers did I suspect had roots in a foreign country?  13.

13 of 15.  It was epic.

This trend continued until April when the market changed, and after that, the “foreign-sounding” names went away.

What was going on in the market was not a secret, and as listing agents, we dealt with buyer agents who would tell us that their clients were in China, in reference to the timing of receiving a deposit cheque, or their ability to sign the offer, etc.

This is one case where the “word on the street,” exaggerations and exacerbations aside, would probably be more accurate than some survey that the CMHC sends out.

So where does that leave us now, approaching the summer of 2018?

Well, it leaves us dealing with this:

“Foreign Buyer’s Tax On Trial – But B.C. Claims Crisis Called For Action”

Ah yes, in the wonderful world of 2018, every right is a wrong, and every wrong is a right.  Those who have been wronged, rightfully or wrongly, can seek to make things………..right?

Here’s the meat of the CBC article, but click the link above to read it all:



A landmark civil trial kicked off Monday testing the legality of a foreign buyers tax enacted by the province of British Columbia in response to a housing affordability crisis.

The legal battle pits the government against a proposed class of foreign nationals who claim they’ve been discriminated against in violation of the Canadian Constitution.

A lawyer for the province told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gregory Bowden that the volumes of arguments, affidavits and authorities on display in his courtroom belied the very simple set of circumstances that gave birth to the law.

“There was an affordability crisis in the Greater Vancouver real estate market,” Karen Horsman said as she laid out the justification for the tax.

“Local residents were in effect being priced out of the market.”

Introduced in July 2016 under the previous Liberal government, the tax initially required foreign entities (including foreign nationals) to pay an additional 15 per cent on the purchase of residential property in Greater Vancouver.

The current NDP government increased the amount to 20 per cent in February and expanded its reach to include the Fraser Valley, Capital Regional District, Nanaimo Regional District and the Central Okanagan.

The province has asked Bowden to determine whether or not the tax is legal in a summary trial — as opposed to beginning with a certification hearing on the class action.

The province will argue that the tax is not in breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And that even if it were, the infringement is the kind of reasonable limit allowed given the pressing need for political action in the face of the housing crisis.

The plaintiff, Jing Li, is a Chinese student who moved to Canada in 2013 to complete a master’s degree in public administration.

Weeks prior to the introduction of the tax, she claims she signed a contract for the purchase of a $559,000 home in Langley.

She says the foreign buyers tax added an additional $83,850 to her bill.



What I find more interesting than the lawsuit, and the article itself, is that as mentioned above, there is another story out this week on foreign buyers, only this one is on the public opinion:

“Many Homebuyers Still Believe Foreign Ownership Is Heavily Influencing Housing Prices: CMHC Survey”

From the article:



A study from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation released Wednesday found that 68 per cent of Vancouver respondents, 48 per cent of Toronto respondents and 42 per cent of Montreal respondents believe foreign buyers are having “a lot of influence” on their markets and are driving up home prices.

The insight into perceptions around foreign buyers that 30,000 respondents in the three cities shared with the Crown Corporation between September and mid-October is in stark contrast with recent data from Statistics Canada showing foreign buyers own only 4.8 per cent of Vancouver properties and 3.4 per cent of homes in Toronto.

“What is striking is the significant gap between perceptions of the public and available data, so much so that the perception of non-resident ownership takes centre stage when discussing the drivers of price growth,” CMHC’s report said.



Wow, it’s like they took the words right out of my mouth!

Statistics Canada shows that only 3.4% of properties in Toronto are foreign-owned, and if you asked any experienced Toronto real estate agent with listings what they thought, that number would be at least double.

And 48% of Torontonians think that foreign buyers are “having a lot of influence” on the market.  To be fair, many of the people surveyed might have absolutely zero evidence, insight, or data to support this, but rather they might just be jaded that they can’t afford what they want, and when offered with the suggestion that foreign ownership is driving up prices, they agreed.

In any event, as the trial in B.C. takes shape, I find the survey results incredibly ironic.

I believe that if you took a poll – with absolute anonymity, of residents of entire country, an overwhelming amount of Canadians would vote to incorporate a foreign buyer’s tax, a ban on foreign ownership, or restrictions of some type, rather than pay more personal income tax.

I mean, why wouldn’t they?

We’re living in very strange times, where nationalism, at all costs, is making a huge comeback in certain countries.

Canada has always been different.  Sometimes, a bit too left-leaning for my liking, but somewhat level-headed in the context of the other 200-something countries around the globe.

So as this trial in B.C. takes shape, one has to wonder whether an idea as far-fetched as foreign buyers suing the government of a country in which they’re guests, for imposing a tax as they are (and this is in debate) legally permitted to do, will lead to our government caving-in, and turning face, even as the rest of the country silently sits by and grits their teeth.

And perhaps that’s the issue: people don’t speak up enough.

“People don’t speak up enough.”  I can’t believe I just said that, in a time when every human on the planet has a voice, through technology and social media.

But whereas most people choose to take photographs of their salad and put it on Instagram, I don’t know if enough people care to opine on something like whether or not foreigners, who look at a Canadian one-hundred-dollar bill as though it were a penny in the ashtray of their Maserati, should be able to “drive the price of real estate higher for Canadians.”

This trial in B.C., plus the survey from the CMHC coming out in the same week, simply must get people talking about this.

My question is: will the government listen?

If 68% of Vancouver residents believe that foreign buyers are having an influence on the market, then perhaps even more would be in favour of some sort of efforts to curb, or restrict, their ownership.

And what do we make of the fact that non-permanent residents in Hong Kong are subject to a 15% tax on the purchase of real estate, and there’s a similar 18% tax in Singapore?

Could it be that we’re only now seeing this issue take shape?

When I brought this topic up in the office on Thursday, specifically speaking of the case before the B.C. courts, a colleague said, “This will be the last of it.”

I’m not so sure.

I honestly think we’re closer to the beginning of this story, playing out long-term, than we are to the “last of it.”

For those not polled by the CMHC (that means all of you reading this), I’m eager to hear your two cents…


Written By David Fleming

David Fleming is the author of Toronto Realty Blog, founded in 2007. He combined his passion for writing and real estate to create a space for honest information and two-way communication in a complex and dynamic market. David is a licensed Broker and the Broker of Record for Bosley – Toronto Realty Group

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  1. Carl

    at 8:17 am

    When facts are not known, opinions fill the void. It will be difficult to keep the real-estate story separate from the other big story coming from B.C. this week, about “large-scale transnational money laundering”. For the latter we at least have some facts now, thanks to Peter German’s report.

  2. Ralph Cramdown

    at 8:25 am

    “Heh, heh. We did some checking, and — you’re not going to believe this — it turns out it was foreign buyers and foreign money after all!”

    Oh, Realtors® knew at the time. It was an open secret. Like one where they told all their clients “if you want your children to ever be able to afford a leafy oasis in a good school district, better buy it for them now, and bid high with no inspection or financing clause, because we’re selling all the best stuff overseas.” Not a subject that one would blog about, though. But Realtors® told the government and the press that it was only a handful of properties, maybe, but that there was really no evidence, and spending a couple of years studying the issue before enacting any hasty new laws would be prudent. Then when it looked like the government was going to do something anyway, Realtors® hurriedly hired a polling company to come up with some numbers that they could wrap some spin around. “Research from TREB, the provincial government and Statistics Canada showed that foreign home buying was not a major driver of sales in the GTA.” — From a TREB release on January 4, 2018.

    Here it is the end of June. If I’d told you last June that the Fall market would be a bust, the Spring market would be too, and June 2018 sales would be just as bad as 2017, I’d have been labelled SuperBear. Yet here we are. Hot foreign money comes (if we let it), and it leaves town again, but the debt piled on by the locals trying to keep up remains. Home Capital reports that their mortgage renewal rates are at all time highs. Now a Home Capital mortgage isn’t something you’re supposed to have to renew. Your mortgage broker says “pay this crap rate for one year, and we’ll refinance you into something better.” Year’s up! Thanks, Realtors®.

    1. Sardonic Lizard

      at 10:15 am

      > Hot foreign money comes (if we let it), and it leaves town again, but the debt piled on by the locals trying to keep up remains.

      Bingo. Couldn’t have said it better.

  3. AN

    at 9:07 am


  4. Chris

    at 9:24 am

    “We know that no matter how hard the CMHC tries, they can not, and never will, come up with any accurate data on the percentage of foreign ownership, anywhere.”

    Exactly. Their statistics on this matter are useless.

    “Transparency International Canada, which has been raising the alarm for years about money-laundering in the country’s real estate markets, says StatsCan could not have possibly gotten the numbers right on foreign ownership — because it lacks the tools needed to know just how much property is foreign-owned.”

    Further, these numbers are measuring the percentage of total housing stock owned by foreigners. What is more relevant, in my opinion, is the percentage of homes sold in a given period to foreign buyers; this is a better measure of the impact they are having on the current market. There does seem to be some data on this, but again, I question it’s validity.

    “The number of homes sold to foreign buyers in Toronto has dropped steadily over the year since the province introduced a 15-per-cent tax on such purchases, falling from 7.2 per cent of sales in May, 2017, to 2.5 per cent over a three-month period ending in February.”

    Finally, I doubt if this case against the Foreign Buyer’s Tax will go anywhere. It is already explicitly stated that some sections of the Charter apply only to Canadian citizens:

    “Generally speaking, any person in Canada, whether a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a newcomer, has the rights and freedoms contained in the Charter. There are some exceptions. For example, the Charter gives some rights only to Canadian citizens – the right to vote (in section 3 of the Charter) and the right “to enter, remain in and leave Canada” (in section 6 of the Charter).”

    So, while they may try to challenge the tax based on Section 15.1:

    “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

    It could either be argued that this narrow exemption allowing taxation based on citizenship/permanent residency status adheres to the Charter, or could be countered with Section 15.2:

    “Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

    In this case, ameliorating the conditions of local citizens and permanent residents, who “were in effect being priced out of the market.”

    Or, the provincial legislature can resort to the “Notwithstanding Clause”. Because, frankly, as David alluded to, there appears to be strong public support for taxation of foreign buyers. This seems to be hardening in BC, particularly on the heels of the absolutely galling German Report on money laundering through casinos.

    “The report said organized crime groups, primarily from Asia, laundered money from illegal drugs and then invested the money in Vancouver-area real estate.”

    1. A

      at 5:23 pm

      You seem to have some constitutional law expertise, Chris, which is great since it is one of the most complicated areas of Canadian law.

      If I understand Li’s claim correctly, the Charter was not the only argument. It also goes to international trade agreements/treaties:

      Going back to the charter for a minute – you probably know that the notwithstanding clause is a power that any government has been hesitant to invoke. That is not to say they will not use it in BC.

      1. Chris

        at 8:52 pm

        I do recall them originally arguing against the tax on trade and foreign treaty grounds; however I was under the impression that that had fallen by the wayside, and that the crux of their argument was now on the Charter rights point. From the CBC article linked to in this blog post:

        “The legal battle pits the government against a proposed class of foreign nationals who claim they’ve been discriminated against in violation of the Canadian Constitution.”

        I also agree with you that the Notwithstanding Clause wouldn’t be used lightly. But that was why I brought up the perceived public support for this tax, especially given recent developments such as the German Report tying foreign gangs and drug dealers to money laundering and real estate. If the BC government were to resort to the Notwithstanding Clause to ensure the survival of this tax, I doubt there would be too many complaints , and it may even prove to be a politically popular move.

    2. Appraiser

      at 10:01 am

      Looks like stats vs. anecdotes, and people looooove anecdotes.

      1. Chris

        at 10:52 am

        No. What I clearly explained was that the statistics are of dubious merit, as David also alluded to in his post. Nothing about anecdotes. Please read more carefully, appraiser.

  5. Sardonic Lizard

    at 10:55 am

    Wanna know why house prices are so inflated? Speculators, flippers, foreign buyers, apathetic government, and low interest rates. Those are your main culprits.

    1. A

      at 5:11 pm

      It is not a foregone conclusion that speculators cause a price increase. You can speculate all you want in Fort McMurray and prices will not rise… and we do not even have a universally accepted definition of a speculator.

  6. Housing Bear

    at 11:28 am

    @ Carl

    Yeah that money laundering report is a real eye opener. The term “Snow washing” and “The Vancouver model” have used internationally to describe the money laundering schemes here (apparently one of the easiest places in the world to do so) for a while, but I had no idea it was this bad. Germans 250 pg report mostly focuses on the casino play. He has said that he thinks there should be a follow up report specifically into RE…………….. any builders accept cash deposits, no questions asked? Empty homes owned by numbered corps anyone?

    Earlier this year we got a taste of the Private lender scam. Hard for wealthy Chinese person to get money out of their home country (cap controls). Private lender gives them dirty cash here secured against a residence. Wealthy Chinese pays the loan back in china to the lenders Chinese account. BAM, the drug money has now been laundered into RMB, comes out clean, can be used for anything including buying more fentanyl to ship back to Cananda. If borrower defaults, lender power of sales the property, and BAM clean Canadian money……… In this scenario where does the clean Canadian money go? RE perhaps?

    Foreign buyers and money launders should not be grouped together, but I am starting to question how much of the foreign demand was actually people with their own wealth vs those being apart of some cartel money laundering scheme. Feel bad for the legit foreigners who are going to get some grief over this. Hopefully cool Canadian heads prevail.

    1. Carl

      at 1:03 pm

      It has been reported that, now that German is done with the casino report, he is moving to an investigation of money laundering in B.C. real estate. It will be interesting to see who will try to shut it down. And who will support or oppose having a similar inquiry in Ontario.

      1. Housing Bear

        at 1:04 pm

        Anyone calling for an inquiry into money laundering in RE is a racist

  7. CarolM

    at 12:34 pm

    Perhaps naively, but this particular case bothers me.This isn’t about supporting the tax or not, but this specific case reflects the government moving the goal posts part way through a private transaction protected in law. Had the tax started for all deals after midnight that day (or similar) I would be more comfortable in my Canadian skin. I’m bothered that a transaction was changed substantially without the buyer having the option to back out without penalty. Maybe I’ve missed a page somewhere?

    1. Chris

      at 12:52 pm

      “The plaintiff, Jing Li, is a Chinese student who moved to Canada in 2013 to complete a master’s degree in public administration. Weeks prior to the introduction of the tax, she claims she signed a contract for the purchase of a $559,000 home in Langley…Li’s legal team consists of five lawyers…She accused Li of clouding the issue by referring to historic discriminatory acts like the Chinese head tax as a way to suggest the foreign buyers tax is motivated by racism.”

      We can debate the merits of more/less notice before the implementation of the tax, but I personally don’t have much sympathy for Ms. Li. I somehow suspect that she (read: her parents) can handle the burden of the tax just fine.

      1. A

        at 5:08 pm

        Chris, on what basis do you think Li or her parents could handle the tax just fine? According to the article, they had no more money to lend to her and she could not afford the $84k of tax. Are you suggesting this solely based on her nationality?

        1. Chris

          at 8:43 pm

          No, nothing to do with her nationality. My assumption is based on the purchasing of a home for over $500,000 for a student, as well as the hiring of a large legal team. Both of these actions suggest they have some money at their disposal. But these are just my assumptions; they could be off base.

          1. A

            at 5:44 pm

            Some families from China are fairly modest. The legal team can be engaged on a contingency fee basis or funded by “vested parties”. The firm taking this on may very well been engaged on a contingency fee basis hoping it is part of a class action suit or settlement.

          2. Chris

            at 6:16 pm

            Certainly. Hence why I said my assumptions may be wrong.

            But, I still suspect, based on the information available, that this family has the means to absorb this tax. I’m not surprised they’re fighting it, because obviously nobody is thrilled to pay more. But I doubt if being forced to pay it will put them in a serious financial bind.

            But really, only they know the true answer. You and I are just hypothesizing.

  8. Craijiji

    at 12:34 pm

    I find it funny that someone from China would file this suit. In order for a non-citizen to buy a home in Beijing, you have to have paid taxes and social security for the 5 years prior to purchasing. In Hong Kong they have a 15% foreign buyers tax. In Shanghai you have to be married, and prove that you’ve paid taxes in China for at least 12 of the previous 24 months. Across all of China foreigners are only allowed to have one property and they’re banned from renting it out.

    I’d love to see the GoC invoke a something similar to what they have in place in Australia. New builds only. Switzerland has annual limits on the amount of sales to foreign buyers, also a good rule.

    1. Professional Shanker

      at 12:59 pm

      Do you know of any capital restrictions in the US of A for foreigners?

      1. Craijiji

        at 3:35 pm

        None offhand, no. I know a few people that have purchased places in the US without issues. These places were all within Florida mind you, and my sample size is small so there’s probably a ton of stuff that I don’t know about it…that said, they all said it was straight forward.

    2. A

      at 4:54 pm

      Why do you feel funny?

      This person from China has a work permit and is paying income taxes in Canada. Who knows – she might even have applied or be applying to be a Cdn PR.

      On the other hand, a Canadian citizen or PR working abroad, who has been properly advised of income tax considerations, is not paying income taxes in Canada. This goes to the point David was making. Who *should* be the party paying the FBT?

  9. Professional Shanker

    at 12:58 pm

    David, takes guts to actually admit that the statistics which your industry will use to promote the fact there is no issue with foreign buyers are total BS. I am impressed with your honesty on this subject!

    In theory, people don’t want foreign buyers influencing the marketplace if it means future generations will struggle with affordability. But if the market turns, FBs provide a much needed boost in demand, let’s see how the boomers feel if their properties take an additional say 20% haircut over the next 5 years, how will they feel about ensuring the next generation has access to affordable housing? The retirement of the vast majority of boomers are very much correlated to the value of houses.

    1. Housing Bear

      at 1:35 pm

      I think that is actually one of the biggest x factors in regards to the future of the housing markets in the GTA and GVA. How many boomers’ retirement plans are based on having a 1-2 million dollar home to sell. How many of them have already dipped into some of the equity to help their kids get into the market. How many of them used equity to buy investment properties…………… and most importantly how many of them panic and fire sale if they think the market is going down.

      A lot of them experienced the hit first hand at the start of the 90s so they know it can get bad. A new buyer who paid a million (and can afford payments) wont sell for 800. Thy boomer who paid 250 years ago, maybe only has a 100 k of outstanding debt (mortgage or heloc) and has now seen their retirement fund drop from a million to 800 might rush to sell for fear of it dropping to 600. Could become a self fulfilling prophecy

      1. Appraiser

        at 9:59 am

        Always looking on the bright side eh?

        1. Housing Bear

          at 1:07 pm

          Appraiser!!!!! I thought you were maybe dead and/or bankrupt. Great to see you back!

  10. Juan

    at 1:19 pm

    You need to look at the % of total dollar value of all transactions involving foreign buyers. Even if the percentage of sales involving foreign buyers is single digits (which it’s not, buyers conceal their identities). The overall amount of money in the Toronto market from foreign sources is much greater than 10%.

  11. Alexander

    at 4:35 pm

    Instead of the past I am more interested in the future – are those people coming back and if so, when is it going to happen. I do not want to have 15-30% cut in my house price when it is time to sell. Nor do I want to have a flat housing market for the next 3-5 years – it is bad for economy. I guess it could happen when banks and government are going to scratch their heads because of the lagging profits and huge dip in revenues.

  12. Alexander

    at 4:52 pm

    By the way, do you know that there is no real estate capital gain tax in Hong Kong and everybody in China is also do not pay it unless you are selling within some time frame from the purchasing date ( different cities – different regulations ). No wonder it is so popular…. Another good thing is landlords in China COULD ask for 3 months damage deposit, different payment options , etc. I came to conclusion that it is not worth to be a landlord in Ontario after my second tenant moving away after 4 months ( 1 year lease contract ) and I have to deal with this sh**t again and again.

  13. A

    at 6:04 pm

    Great post, David.

    There is realistically no way one can conclude how many “foreign buyers” or how much “foreign capital” influenced the market. This is based on many factors, but the biggest factor is that money is fungible. I will even offer an extreme example: Chip Wilson is a Canadian and he owns one of the most expensive homes in the country, but his wealth is based on making (see-through) yoga wear in China and selling it across the world. Is this considered foreign capital? Where do you draw the line? If you think Chip Wilson is using foreign capital, how do you account for his kids’ real purchases using inheritance from Chip?

    One of the things David always mentions in relation to how the market is doing is how the MSM is reporting the “action”. Here, MSM (such as Douglas Todd of Postmedia) is always emphasizing the Chinese is out-pricing locals, etc. I am not disputing that at least some of this is going on, but how do you expect the general public to answer? Because as David has pointed out before, MSM is interested in selling newspapers/subscriptions, so anything that gets people to read will get written.

    The case is being argued by Luciana Brasil. It is my understanding the litigation boutique at which she is a partner does not take on just any case unless they have at least some reasonable chance of winning. It does not guarantee a win of course, but Li’s counsel should not be under-estimated. I would take the other side of this debate – if BC’s best arguments are policy-based, they are in for a fight.

    At the end of the day, why has it become difficult for the average buyer? It is because of our pathetic wages and progressive income tax system. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development said the Bay Area median family income is US$118,400. That is at least double that of both Toronto and Vancouver. In the US, the 33% federal income tax rate does not kick in until US$191k (which is app. $50k higher in C$ terms vs where we hit 33%) and there are many states which have no or low income tax. The 1% income threshold is US$300k, which is double the C$200k 1% threshold here ( Why are we being outbid? Paltry wages and 50% marginal tax rate applying at C$200k (relatively low threshold) go a long way to explain why it is so difficult to accumulate capital and savings in Canada.

    If Canadians had enough savings and capital, we just *might* not be out-bidded by foreign buyers or those with foreign capital.

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