Are Canada’s Tax Rules Too Soft on Home Owners?

Some say Canada has created a problematic home ownership tax shelter and needs to fix it. Personal finance expert Tim Cestnick disagrees.

By Josh Sherman | 6 minute read

Jul 14

When Canadians sell their primary residences, they don’t have to pay tax on any capital gains from the transaction.

Ask Canadians whether they pay enough taxes on their homes, and they’ll probably say they do.


They may even say they’re already paying too much.

However, as housing affordability challenges grip towns and cities across the country and wealth disparity intensifies, some are calling for change. Policy wonks, academics, activists, and others suggest existing home owners should be paying more (and that the revenue could build much-needed homes or support social programs). After all, the argument goes, haven’t home owners gained immense wealth over the decades from a soaring real estate market? 

“That idea that owning real estate, owning your home, is important has been passed down the generations, probably since Canada was formed.”

Recently, a report published in the Canadian Tax Journal added some more fuel to the debate. Following the report’s publication, Wahi spoke to its author, Paul Kershaw, a public policy professor at the University of British Columbia. In the interview, Kershaw reiterated that Canadian tax policy had actually established a home ownership tax shelter. He called out the principal residence exemption (PRE) on capital gains taxes, which shields sellers from paying any tax on any capital gains from the sale of a property if it’s their main home. He also suggested a remedy: a progressive annual surtax of about 0.2% on a home’s value above $1 million.

To get another perspective on the issue, Wahi reached out to Tim Cestnick, co-founder and CEO of Our Family Office, a Canadian wealth-management firm. 


Some experts argue that the PRE contributes to the Canadian housing-affordability crisis. What’s your response to that?

I would disagree with that. I think housing prices and affordability is driven by supply and demand. Now, is it true that the demand for homes in Canada is higher because of the principal residence exemption? I don’t think so. The demand for homes in Canada is high in part because, culturally, we’ve been taught — most of us — that owning real estate is a good thing and owning your home is a good thing. Parents have taught their kids that. That idea that owning real estate, owning your home, is important has been passed down the generations, probably since Canada was formed. To blame it on the principal residence exemption — I think that may be a very small, small part of it, because I can tell you: if they got rid of the exemption tomorrow, the appetite to own real estate in Canada is not going to diminish. I don’t believe that for a second. But it is a side benefit to owning real estate in Canada that you can sell your home —  if it truly was your principal residence — tax-free. Do I think our rules are generous? Yeah, I think they’re very generous, maybe some of the most generous rules in the world.


But are the rules too generous?

They’re generous. I don’t know that I would say they’re too generous. I would say it wouldn’t surprise me if the government decided to change the rules so that we had more of a US-style approach to principal residences. The reason I say it’s not too generous is, partly in hindsight, a lot of people now rely on their homes as their pension plan. People have put money into their homes like they haven’t put money into RRSPs. [For] many Canadians, their home is their retirement fund. So to turn around and tax those gains could be detrimental — and devastating — to some people who were relying on that income to retire.


It depends on how they change the rules. Do I think they need to make the rules tighter? I hope they don’t, but I would understand it if they did. And I would say they would probably look to a US-style approach, where they cap the amount of exemption that each individual is allowed to have.


For readers who are unfamiliar with the rules south of the border, can you clarify?

In the US, it’s $250,000 per spouse — so you could sell a home with a half-a-million-dollar gain with no tax to pay. Beyond that, you’re now looking at tax. But — because this has been such as right that we should be able to sell our homes tax free — to change that [in Canada] would be very politically suicidal for any party. 

Rather than getting rid of the PRE, Kershaw has a different proposal. To recap: He advocates for creating a progressive yearly surtax of about 0.2% on a home’s value above $1 million. It could be deferred until a home’s sale. Thoughts?

This is being done in other parts of the world. Other countries have had what we’ll call a wealth tax for many years. Now, what’s been happening around the world, though, is the number of countries that have a wealth tax is declining. In fact, many countries are getting rid of them. France, for example, in 2018, revamped their wealth tax to effectively make it a tax on real estate. So they exclude all of your other financial assets, but if you have real estate, they will tax you on that — and it’s an annual tax in that case.


I’ve often said that I don’t think Canada will ever come out with a wealth tax, per se, because the definition of wealth can be pretty nebulous and people will do whatever they can to get around the definition and people will go out of their way to avoid the tax and everything else. I’m not telling the government what to do here. I hope they don’t bring this in, because I think as a nation we’re taxed very highly as it is. But if they were to bring in a quote-unquote wealth tax, I believe it would be a tax on real estate, [and] it would be similar to what he’s talking about. He’s advocating effectively for a wealth tax, which I’m not advocating for. 


You’d probably upset some of your clients if you were out there advocating for a wealth tax.

To be honest, if anybody can afford a wealth tax, it’s probably the wealthiest people in the country, it’s not going to affect them that much. But it’s where you have people who are asset rich — maybe they’ve owned a home for 30 years, 40 years and they never dreamed their home would ever be worth $2 million but today it is — they’re not wealthy people. They have a lot of money tied to real estate. To apply what I’ll effectively call a wealth tax now — or an additional property tax on the value of that home — could be punitive for some of them, because they don’t have the cash flow to pay that every year. Now, if you deferred it until you sold the home, that would make it easier than paying a wealth tax annually. But even if you take that money when they sell that home later, many people are counting on those sales proceeds to provide for their retirement. If you take half a per cent, or 40 basis points away from them, that can have a big impact on people’s lifestyles.

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You mentioned supply and demand earlier. Is that the place to focus on improving housing affordability, rather than tinkering with tax policies?

I don’t think the right answer is to just tax people or change the tax system to somehow affect demand. I think you need to affect supply, and that involves giving incentives to developers. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length, clarity, and style. 

Josh Sherman

Wahi Writer

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