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2013 was a year of pleasant surprises for Canada’s housing market. Far from extending last year’s deep sales dive on mortgage-rule turbulence, the market pulled up sharply and is cruising at an above-normal altitude. Here’s how the four biggest cities performed, ranked from strongest to weakest, and a look ahead to 2014.

 

Calgary: Gaining Altitude


After correcting several years ago, Calgary has reclaimed its title as the strongest major housing market in the nation. In the three months to October, home sales have run 23% above year-ago levels (nearly twice the national rate) and stand a heady 20% above past decade norms, though preliminary November figures show some slowing. Resale listings and new home inventories are lean, giving sellers the upper hand. Housing starts have hardly kept pace with an exploding population. Benchmark prices are climbing fast (8% y/y) and have all but retraced the 16% collapse from 2007 to 2009. Still, valuations remain reasonable, with prices about four-times median family income and mortgage service costs consuming a manageable 23% of earnings. About half of the increase in prices is supported by rising income. Alberta’s hourly wages are up 4.4% y/y so far in 2013, double the national rate. 

 

Immigrants and young Canadians are flooding into the city, drawn by better job prospects, faster wage growth, and healthier housing affordability than in Vancouver and Toronto. Alberta attracted a record 53,000 more people from other provinces than it lost in the past year, and a similar number from other countries. Because of the influx of young people looking for work and affordable housing, Alberta has the youngest population of the ten provinces. The median age (36 years) is four years less than in Ontario and about six years less than in British Columbia. The population of prime first-time home-buyers (aged 30 to 44 years) is growing 5.2%, nearly five-times faster than the national rate. Calgary’s population (15-years and over) is growing the fastest in fifteen years (4.1%), double Toronto’s and Vancouver’s rate and nearly quadruple Montreal’s. 

 

Propelled by energy exports, Alberta is the only provincial economy likely to grow faster than 3% in the next two years. Strong economic and population growth will encourage an upward trend in Calgary’s house prices, though higher borrowing costs will moderate the gains. While the Bank of Canada is expected to stand pat for a fourth straight year, longer-term interest rates are expected to increase

 

Toronto: Hardly Landing


Canada’s largest housing market (weighing in at 19% of national sales) continues to defy media calls of a crash. Across Greater Toronto, sales are up 20% y/y in the three months to October and are 9% above past decade norms, though preliminary November figures show some cooling. For the most part, markets are balanced, but sellers rule and bidding wars prevail in certain pockets where listings are scarce. Benchmark prices have picked up to an above 4% pace, and, at over six-times median family income, remain lofty. New buyers can either spend 39% of income on mortgage payments for a typical house—or buy a condo, requiring a lesser 24% of income. After plunging last year, new condo sales have firmed, but remain well below the past decade norm. Condos are an affordable alternative to the detached market for the more than 80,000 international migrants moving to the region each year and the growing number of young people leaving their parents’ basement. According to the CMHC, echo boomers accounted for 15% of the growth in housing demand in Greater Toronto in 2012, and the share is expected to double to 30% by 2021. 

 

While low rental vacancy rates have kept resale condo prices near record highs and rents moving higher, prices of new condos have weakened modestly in the face of a record number of units under construction (close to 60,000). And, that doesn’t include big incentives, such as free furniture or waived maintenance fees, which builders are offering to close a sale. Investors, who have purchased roughly half of new condos in recent years, could get antsy if rents flatten out or prices soften further. 

 

Still, most of the new units coming on stream should be absorbed by population growth. In addition, more than half of the units in the pipeline haven’t started construction. Many either won’t be built unless demand picks up and financing is approved, or will take a long time to build given approval delays and shortages of construction equipment. Moreover, the number of newly built, unoccupied condos is not high when normalized for population growth. Most new condos are needed to meet household formations given a shortage of new detached homes. While building of non-detached units has moderately topped demographic needs since 2006 (by about 5%), the excess does not fully compensate for a dearth of new detached homes owing to land constraints and zoning restrictions. In the past seven years, total housing starts in the Toronto region have actually fallen short of demographic needs, averaging about 36,000 per year versus a required 38,000. So, the region’s housing stock doesn’t appear overbuilt. In fact, the number of completed unsold condo units is relatively low, at fewer than 1,300.


Still, the looming supply of condos, high valuations of detached homes, elevated levels of household debt and expected higher interest rates should cool price gains in 2014, even as new immigrants and echo boomers provide support. Toronto house prices are at risk of declining moderately when interest rates normalize.

 

Vancouver: Pulls Out of Steep Dive


If any city is at risk of correcting, it’s pricey Vancouver. However, after keeling over in the face of tougher mortgage rules and the temporary suspension of the Immigrant Investor Program last year, this canary in Canada’s home mine has sprung back to life. At the lowest point, sales were down 33% y/y, but have since pole-vaulted 50% to nearnormal levels. Buyers held the upper hand last year, but the pendulum has swung toward balance today. New home inventories, normalized for population growth, are only moderately above long-term norms. Prices, which fell 6%, have risen modestly this year. The price drop, by the way, pales in comparison with the average 22% correction that Vancouver has suffered on four other occasions since 1980. The worst was a sickening 35% slide in the early 1980s, while the other three corrections clocked in at 22% in the late 1990s, 17% in the early 1990s and 15% in 2008. Whatever you want to say about Vancouver’s market, boring it’s not. 

 

Affordability is Vancouver’s Achilles’ heel, with benchmark prices still topping eight-times family income and detached properties a mere pipe-dream for most first-time buyers. Foreign wealth, rather than income, appears to be driving the upper end of the market. Prices are likely to fall when interest rates normalize, and the opportunity cost of owning an expensive house goes up. We continue to expect detached house prices to decline moderately in the medium term

 

Still, a tight supply of detached properties and steady population growth will cushion the market. While international migration is well off its 2009 peak, the province still attracted 35,000 people (on net) from other countries in the past year, though it lost a good number (nearly 8,000) to other provinces, notably Alberta. In addition, the city’s natural beauty should remain a powerful magnet for the growing number of young Canadians seeking to lay down roots. 

 

For young buyers, condos will remain an affordable option, as prices have fallen slightly in the past year and are little changed from six years ago. Mortgage service costs on a Vancouver condo consume 29% of median family income, still within reach of most buyers. We expect condo prices to remain flat in 2014, as healthy demographic demand from echo boomers and immigrants counters the downward pull from a moderately high number of vacant unsold units. While condos account for nearly three-quarters of new home construction in the Vancouver region, overbuilding is not severe. In fact, total housing starts, normalized for population growth, have stayed below longterm norms for the past three years.

 

Montreal: Smooth Landing


While Montreal’s housing market is the weakest among the four major cities, it, too, has improved. Sales are still 9% below past decade norms, but have risen 2% in the past year. Support from decent affordability and job growth has countered middling population gains (1.1%). Unlike the other major cities, an upswing in new listings has kept buyers in the driver’s seat, especially in the new condo market where a moderate overhang of unsold units persists. While Montreal’s home prices are up 2% y/y, they have gone nowhere in the past six months. 

 

Despite a 155% leap in house prices since 2001, affordability remains healthy. Benchmark prices run at four-times family income, and mortgage service costs consume a reasonable 23% of earnings, less than half that of Vancouver. First-time buyers in Toronto and Vancouver can only cry over the cost of a two-story detached home in Montreal: $382,000 versus $565,000 and $1,030,000 (and we’re talking median, not mansion). Like Calgary, Montreal should remain affordable even when rates normalize. 

 

Montreal’s house prices are expected to hold steady in 2014. With fewer detached homes being built, condos flourished in recent years, leaving the city with a moderate overhang of vacant units (in fact more than in Toronto). While condo sales have picked up recently, they remain soft, as investors are wary of a higher condo rental vacancy rate (2.7% versus 1.2% in Toronto and 1.0% in Vancouver, as of the latest available period October 2012). Elevated unemployment suggests the city could attract fewer young job seekers and potential home buyers than the Western Provinces in the year ahead.

 

- Report courtesy of Sal Guatieri, Senior Economist, BMO