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Globe & Mail June 6 2000, Tue. - by Deborah King

Firm makes real tracks on land deal data

You know you've developed a valuable commodity when Ontario's Opposition Liberal Party comes to you for information to help it grill the government about some land deals made by a provincial agency.

With Ontario Realty Corp. under public scrutiny in an unfolding scandal over controversial real estate transactions, the Liberals needed facts and figures to challenge the Progressive Conservatives in the legislature. So they approached Mark Levin, president and founder of Toronto-based, who has amassed a wealth of information on commercial properties in Ontario that clients can access through the Web.

"They took a subscription out recently with our service to check all these land deals that are being looked into, and most of the information they've been using to question the government has come from our database," he said.

Mr. Levin's service tracks commercial sales of real estate across Ontario, and he will be expanding into Alberta and British Columbia by early summer. His staff has been collecting information there for about a year and he expects to have six months worth of information on-line to start with.

Using Ontario as an example, he says compiling all this data is a labour-intensive process, partly because of all the properties that are included.

"It's everything with the exception of single-family dwellings under $2-million. The way we collect this information is actually visit the land registry and land title offices across Ontario, currently 15 of them. "We physically look through every single document that's registered, and we look for all those documents that indicate a property has been transferred for half a million dollars or higher. When we find one, we photocopy the deed and look to see if there was any mortgage registered at the time of sale; if so, we get a copy of the mortgage and we also copy the plans of survey."

His staff, about a half-dozen full- and part-time workers, take all the documents back to the office and manually key in information to the database. The fields of reference in that database include such things as the vendor's name, company name and address; the purchaser's name, company name and address; the date of registration; the price that was paid; the region and municipality in which the property is located; a summary of the legal description; and the property's address.

But, Mr. Levin says, at this point something is still missing. "We don't know what the site is because land-transfer documents don't give any description of the property. So, you don't have a clue whether it's a store or an apartment building or whatever.

"We then go and visit every single property and we photograph it, and that gets added to the database, too.

"We also get all of the tax information so we know what the assessed value of a property is. And we just did a deal with [Inc. of New York], so for every property we can generate a map for where the place is located, from street level or zooming out to a regional level."

All the documents obtained from the land registry for each sale are scanned and made available on-line as PDF documents, so clients can independently verify that the information entered in the database is correct. No other service provides that kind of backup, Mr. Levin says.

"We've been providing information like this since 1996. We started by just covering sales in the GTA of a million dollars and higher. And we've basically funded ourselves. As we get additional subscribers, we plow the money back in to expanding our services and our coverage. We've just added Windsor-Essex to our coverage, and we'll soon be covering Vancouver and Victoria, and Calgary and Edmonton."

He says subscribers will buy database access by province, with existing subscribers being able to purchase the new ones at a discount. The company intends to keep the price at just under $1,000 a year for each database. Finding new subscribers is not expected to be a problem.

"We've never really done any marketing at all. It's been mainly word of mouth. When I first began this service, I developed it to meet my needs as a real estate appraiser and then, as I got going, to meet those of other appraisers. As a group, they have demanding needs, and I knew if I could meet those needs I could satisfy other clients."

His client list now includes most appraising firms in Ontario; most major real estate brokerages, which typically have multiple subscriptions for their various offices; most financial institutions; some pension funds; trust companies; and insurance companies. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. also has a number of subscriptions. Other customers are Ontario Provincial Assessment Corp., the City of Toronto, GO Transit, Canadian National Railway Co. and Wendy's Restaurants.

"Much to my surprise, we're very broadly based. I had thought this was going to be a niche thing when I started out. But we really have something that's of value for anyone who has anything to do with commercial real estate.

"When a home sells, you can go down the street and there's a big sign on the lawn that says it's sold. If you want to know what it sold for, you can call the agent and ask.

"Commercial real estate's different. Half of these deals never get listed anywhere and you never know they occurred. So, if you want to know what a four-storey office building in Toronto sells for, how are you going to find that out? You may have access to some limited information, but there's no way you're going to get all of the things you need to really know about what's happening across the city, for example. That's where we come in. "As a subscriber, all you need to do to access our service is have an Internet browser and a PC, laptop or handheld device. It means companies can find out what they need to know even in the field or on the road."


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