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Boxing Day for Rights Review

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 26 December 2000 00:00

On the last Boxing Day (December 26) of this century, Canadians are relaxing in limbo between the marketing frenzy created for Christmas and the year-in-review mania that heralds New Year's Eve. This day may also be an excellent time to contemplate the rights of property ownership that are all but forgotten by Canadians the rest of the year.

Traditionally, Boxing Day, which originated in the middle of the 19th century under our then-sovereign Queen Victoria, was a holiday when boxes were filled with gifts and money for servants, tradespeople and the poor. Now a statutory holiday, Boxing Day is a brief respite in which to recover from the carnage of Christmas shopping before facing the reality of credit card bills.

Whether your ideal day involves nibbling on turkey left-overs with your feet up or elbowing towards bargains in Boxing Day sales, you may not have realized that one of the best things about this day is that most of us are free to do what we want with it. Ironically, however, Canadians do not have the same rights over the property they own.

Many people believe that owning their own home means having the right to do what they like with this property. However, they have less authority than they realize. For instance, according to the Canadian Human Rights Code, a property owner wanting to sell cannot discriminate against buyers by favouring or avoiding a particular individual solely on the grounds of race, religion or sexual persuasion.

Most Canadians automatically assume they have many rights as owners and so they pay little attention to regulatory changes. This complacency has led to severe erosion of property rights. For instance:

  • provincial and municipal governments set property taxes based on their criteria, not the owner's ability to pay;
  • municipal zoning bylaws impose many restrictions on developing land and on the buildings themselves, including setting height and parking limitations;
  • historic preservation regulations prevent owners from altering designated properties without specific permission;
  • conservation laws can affect an owner's right to use the land in specific ways or to develop the property;
  • government expropriation can take a property away from its owner.

Property rights, or real property rights as they are properly called, include the right to own, sell, use, develop, rent out and bequeath real estate. When you buy a home -- a piece of real estate -- you buy the land and the buildings on it and also the rights that run with the land. However, in spite of lobbying by the real estate industry, property rights are not entrenched in the Constitution and can be restricted by governments at any time.

Various levels of government have the right to limit the rights of property ownership by taxation, by expropriation and through their legal regulatory powers. The limitations and restrictions on property rights made by governments are meant to promote public interests but they also serve special interest groups. For instance, governments impose fire safety and health standards and authorize inspectors to ensure standards are maintained, but they can also relax zoning by-laws for development of specific properties.

Rights-related limitations and restrictions may also affect the value of the property involved -- positively and negatively.

When you purchase real estate, you are buying more than a house or a condominium unit. You are also acquiring the rights attached to the property. Be sure you understand what you are getting for your money and whether the property may be legally used the way you intend. For instance, when you purchase a condominium, you are agreeing to live by a set of bylaws particular to that complex. More than one buyer has been surprised to discover, too late, that they do not have the right to rent out their unit.

Each type of home ownership has its own distinctive set of property rights so ask a lot of questions before you sign a real estate contract.

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PJ Wade

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