A West Vancouver couple say they were shocked recently to find they had been erroneously assessed as owing $69,000 in speculation and vacancy tax and had a lien placed against their home by the province – all without their knowledge.
Now, West Van residents Mike Bazilli and his wife Shui Tsai Tseng say they’re dealing with a bureaucratic runaround to fix the clerical mistake.
After tracking down provincial tax assessors, Bazilli said he’s had most of the problem tax bill corrected. But part of the tax owing and the lien on his house are still on the books.
Bazilli worries there may be many more homeowners in the same position who don’t even know it – and he wants to put out a warning.
“We’re just lucky we found out about it when we did,” he said.
Back in 2013, the couple were living in North Vancouver when they bought the West Vancouver property at 358 St. James Crescent. Their North Vancouver address was registered with the ownership papers in the land titles office. Family members lived in the West Vancouver house until 2016, when the couple sold their North Van home and moved over to the West Vancouver property.
Two years later, the province brought in its speculation and vacancy tax, requiring that all legal owners within particular geographic areas sign a declaration that they are occupying the home or exempt from the tax through another reason (such as renting the house to a long-term tenant) – or risk being dinged a substantial tax bill.
Only one declaration form received
The couple said they had their mail forwarded to the new address for a year and notified utilities and other government agencies of their change of address. They also received their regular municipal tax bill as usual at the West Vancouver address.
When the speculation and vacancy tax came in, Bazilli said he received the forms he needed to declare he was occupying the home. But his wife did not. After a couple of attempts to track down the reason why – and being met with no answer from the province – Bazilli said he assumed all was well.
He now knows that was a mistake.
“We were lax in thinking we’d done everything properly,” he said.
Lien for unpaid 'vacancy' tax a shock
It wasn’t until recently, however, when the couple’s property records were called up as part of a financial transaction, that they learned there was a lien for unpaid speculation taxes of $69,000 on their home.
“I was shocked,” said Bazilli. “They never even sent a 50-cent notice to me.”
Bazilli said they later learned the province had been sending his wife’s declaration form – and all subsequent notices of taxes owing – to their old address in North Vancouver.
The province had also assumed his wife was a foreigner “even though she’s Canadian and declares income tax,” said Bazilli, and had been billing her at the highest rate.
Once the couple found out about the error, Bazilli said he contacted the province and was able to get the problem fixed for the past three years.
But Bazilli said he was told it was impossible to go back and make corrections further than three years – leaving the couple with a remaining bill of about $6,000. Until that’s paid, they were told, the lien will remain on their property.
Bazilli said he was stunned the province would go to the trouble of putting a legal lien on his home without ever trying to phone the couple or send a registered letter to them.
“They could have just punched my wife’s name into the computer and seen another address pop up,” he said.
Bazilli said the couple suspects they aren’t the only ones who have been erroneously billed.
Administrative errors not unusual, says MLA
Karin Kirkpatrick, the Liberal MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano, said her office has dealt with other constituents who’ve had problems being assessed the tax.
“There have been a lot of administrative issues and they’re hard to resolve,” she said.
In one case, a family ran afoul of the bureaucracy after a father added his daughter to a property title when she moved into the family home – but “the government still has her living at a different address,” said Kirkpatrick, and has been assessing her tax accordingly. “She’s got a lawyer involved trying to get the issue dealt with.”
Kirkpatrick said she doesn’t understand why the ministry didn’t make a bigger effort to contact the West Vancouver property owners.
Most people who receive their property tax notice at their regular address would likely assume the government knew where to find them, she said.
She says it’s incumbent on the government that made the error to fast-track a solution.
The Ministry of Finance responded to questions from the North Shore News saying it couldn’t discuss the couple’s situation directly because of privacy concerns.
Province uses land titles address
“Broadly speaking, the Ministry of Finance uses information from land titles to administer the speculation and vacancy tax, including the mailing addresses of property owners,” the ministry stated in an email.
“For all tax programs, it’s important for people to ensure that the address they have on file with government bodies, including the CRA, the provincial government and land titles, is up to date.”
Owners can change their declarations exempting them from the speculation and vacancy tax for up to three years, the province said.
Declarations can be changed after audit
Declarations can also be changed after the three-year period, but an audit of those declarations has to be completed and additional information might be required, according to the ministry. To do that, homeowners can contact the Ministry of Finance at 1-833-554-2323.
The ministry added that under legislation, information about taxes owed can’t be shared with another person even if that person is also registered on title or is a spouse of the person owing money.
Kirkpatrick said because the tax is relatively new, she wouldn’t be surprised to hear about more people stuck with similar problems.
“How many people are there right now who have something like this happening and they’re not aware of it,” she said.