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Real estate auctions move seamlessly online

Once viewing and walking the land was mandatory for buyers, but land auctions are now via video and the pandemic has accelerated the trend: a July 7 Alberta auction puts 3,000 acres on the block
Hansen Land Brokers

On May 12 Calgary-based Hansen Land Brokers Inc. auctioned three Alberta land parcels in Whitecourt and Dead Man’s Flats, with a total of 22 acres selling for more than $2 million within hours. The entire auction was held online, revealing two trends: the growing power of digital auctions and the popularity of auctions for farmland, industrial and even resort properties.

On July 7, Hansen will auction an Alberta spread of 2,651 acres and 320 leased acres in a contiguous parcel, including a luxury 5,628-square-foot “estate home.”

In April, Harcourts Real Estate of North Vancouver sold a ski chalet in Revelstoke, B.C. through a one-day online auction that drew six buyers and a winning bid of $2.96 million, $900,000 over its assessed value. The property had previously been listed traditionally for 798 days with no offers, according to Theo Birkner, a Harcourts broker. 

“The auction platform spurred action, secured competitive bidding, and surpassed expectations,” Birkner said.

Online auctions are now becoming common with sales of even farmland, and the trend was strong even before the pandemic shut down live bidding, experts say.

“Certainly, the world has changed when people will [purchase land] by watching a video, without actually walking on the land,” said Roy Carter, chief executive officer of, an online tender platform to market and sell farm and ranch land in Western Canada.

Carter, a lawyer in Grande Prairie, started about four years ago. The website features detailed information about parcels of farmland for sale and videos, shot with a drone, showing the field from multiple angles.

When buyers use to purchase land, they bid by clicking a mouse or tapping on their smartphone.

“I think gone are the days of bidding shoulder to shoulder in the farmyard,” he said. “I think you’ll see that COVID will speed up a transition that was in the works.”

Buyers and sellers have become more comfortable with online transactions for land, partly because public auctions are public.

“People like to do business in privacy and we get really good feedback, where our buyers are buying the privacy of their own home,” Carter said. “Buyers want to bid in confidence. They want assurances that their name doesn’t get out if they don’t get it.”

Others in the auction trade are witnessing the same trend.

Buyers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on farm equipment or millions on land, while sitting at their kitchen tables.

“On-site participation has been declining, not just recently, but over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Jordan Clarke, sales director for Ritchie Bros, Auctioneers in Rouleau Sask. “When I first got into this business 13 years ago, a big auction would have 800 or 900 people on site. We just don’t see that anymore. We still have as many or more bidders, but they’re nearly all online.”

All farmland and equipment auctions are solely online, right now, because of COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings. Public auctions may resume when restrictions are eased, or maybe not.

“The farm auctions across Western Canada have all went online with electronic tender,” Carter said. “I think that trend will be here to stay, once people get accustomed to it.”

Ritchie Bros.Auctioneers, based in Vancouver, is one of the world’s largest auction houses with more than 40 permanent auction sites in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. While dealing mostly in farm and construction equipment, Ritchie has been handling more land auctions recently.

For a seller of land, public auctions sometimes generate a higher return because emotions take over. Two or three buyers might compete for a parcel of land and will pay a premium, to prevent someone else, perhaps a competitive farmer or developer, from getting it.

And online auctions can be exciting, Carter said. Recently, sold a quarter section of land [160 acres] in B.C.. When the auction was over, the buyer called Carter.

“He said he had hunted all his life and shot a bunch of trophy big game, but it had never got his heart beating as hard as it was bidding on our platform.”