Canadian real estate market outlook 2017

Even a 20% drop in house prices can’t eradicate built-up equity, but current buyers and sellers are in for some interesting times

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For homeowners the great, big, unanswered question is whether or not the Canadian real estate market will finally crash in 2017.

Turns out, all reports and analysis lean towards a flattening out of property prices in most Canadian markets, with some areas of the country experiencing a decline in both sales activity and prices, as other areas continue to experience price gains, albeit at a much slower pace than we’ve seen in recent years.

Keep in mind, housing markets are not as prone to bubbles, and to burst bubbles, when compared to other financial markets. This is, in part, due to the large transaction and carrying costs associated with owning real property. However, over the last few decades, the combination of very low interest rates and the regulations that allow easier access to mortgage financing has prompted more borrowers to enter the real estate market and this has put increased pressure on demand. For a crash to occur, there would need to a sudden drop in demand, such as a fairly quick rise in interest rates or significant a tightening of credit standards.

Expect sales activity in 2017 to decline, for the most part 

According to the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA), national sales are forecast to drop in 2017 by 3.3%, compared to the previous year. In its annual year-end report, CREA states: “Transactions in B.C. and Ontario are anticipated to remain strong but fall short of this year’s record levels due to deteriorating affordability, an ongoing shortage of affordably priced listings for single family homes and tightened mortgage regulations.”

As a result, CREA predicts:

→ Home sales to decline in B.C. by 12.2%

→ Home sales to decline in Ontario by 2.7%

→ Home sales to decline in Saskatchewan by 1.2%

→ Home sales to decline in Nova Scotia by 2.1%

→ Home sales to decline in PEI by 2.2%

→ Home sales to decline in Newfoundland & Labrador by 1.4%

However, not all areas will see price declines:

→ Home sales will rise in Alberta by 3.5%

→ Home sales will rise in Quebec by 1.2%

→ Home sales will rise in Manitoba by 0.8%

→ Home sales will rise in New Brunswick by 1.6%

A decline in sales activity should prompt a decline in prices as less activity is usually a result of less demand and less demand usually translates into lower house prices.

For instance, the reduction in home sales in PEI is due, primarily, to an unusually strong 2016 selling season, that “is not expected to reoccur in 2017,” CREA explains in its year-end report.  Still, the province can still expect to reap the rewards of a weakened Canadian loonie.

But not all markets should expect price drops in 2017. According to CREA predicitions, home sales will rise in Alberta and Quebec primarily because both markets experienced a slowdown in 2016.

Still, a decline in sales activity will prompt a modest decline in home prices in a few provinces, including: B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland & Labrador.

As a result, CREA predicts that the national average price will actually decline in 2017 by 2.85%, to $475,900.

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Average prices in 2017: Toronto and Golden Horseshoe

Despite a predicted decline in sales activity for 2017, most of Ontario’s housing markets won’t experience price declines this year. This is particularly true for homes located in the Greater Toronto Area and in the larger Ontario region known as the Golden Horseshoe. This is due, primarily, to a pronounced lack of supply of housing stock, particularly for low-density, single-family detached homes.

This lack of supply means that seller’s are sitting pretty in a very heated seller’s market, which is measured by the months of inventory (ROI) ratio. The basic rule of thumb is that an ROI that’s below four months (120 days) is solidly in seller’s territory; by the end of 2016, the GTA had 36 days of inventory.

This obvious lack of inventory certainly had an impact on housing prices. Between November 2015 and November 2016, the average selling price of a GTA home rose to $776,684—up 22.7% on a year-over-year basis.

As a result, anyone in the market to sell a home in the GTA or in the surrounding areas, including Niagara, Hamilton, Halton, Peel, York and Durham, can continue to expect strong demand. This should translate into higher sale prices and fewer days on the market.

Read more: Greater Toronto’s real estate market outlook 2017 »

Average prices in 2017: British Columbia

Probably the largest regional drop in both sales activity and prices will be in British Columbia. Given how 2016 played out, with significant drops in both the number of transactions and sale prices, CREA anticipates double-digit drop in transactions (12.2%) in 2017, which translates into an average price drop of 7.8% in 2017.

“This largely reflects an anticipated decline in single family home sales activity at the higher end of the market—particularly in the Lower Mainland,” explains CREA’s Chief Economist, Gregory Klump.

Vancouver Royal LePage Realtor, Adil Dinani confirms that the second half of 2016 saw relatively consistent declines in Lower Mainland activity and prices. “Sales in this region dropped by almost 40%, year-over-year,” explains Dinani. “But the real takeaway is that inventory levels are very, very low.” According to Dinani new listings were down by 58% from November to December 2016, and down 35% from November 2015 to November 2016.

“We’ll see more of the same in 2017, unless there’s an influx of supply that comes on the market.”

Read more: B.C. real estate market forecast for 2017 »

Average prices in 2017: Rest of Canada

Meanwhile, an ample supply of listings relative to demand is anticipated to keep price gains in check in other provinces, although sales have begun to draw down inventories in provinces where supply had been elevated in recent years.

The biggest factor in the predicted 2017 slowdown are the tighter mortgage regulations that were introduced in 2016. “Tightened regulations are expected to reduce the number of first-time buyers who qualify for mortgage financing, particularly in pricier markets, where there is a severe shortage of lower-priced listings.”

Another factor is that mortgage rates are expected to rise in 2017. While the increase is expected to be slow to moderate, this increase—due to increased capital cost requirements for lenders and the possibility of inflationary economic policy under President Donald Trump—will also reduce the number of home buyers in the Canadian marketplace.

Read more: How accurate was our 2016 outlook? »

Watching the bubble burst isn’t a sure bet

Yet, nobody can say with absolute certainty that there is a bubble and that 2017 is the year it will burst. Just consider the real estate slowdown in Calgary. We all expected massive price drops when oil prices plummeted, but, in the end, Calgary real estate didn’t suffer all that much. Yes, there were price drops, but most neighbourhoods saw price reductions that were less than 5%. And now, many economists are predicting that the worst is behind this oil-driven city. So nothing is certain when it comes to Canada’s real estate markets.

Those expecting a housing price bubble burst are probably only anticipating price collapses in Toronto and Vancouver. Why? Because if you were to strip out Toronto and Vancouver from the Canadian real estate market, the average price of a home would be closer to $361,000 (compared to the national average, as of November 2016, of $489,590). This isn’t too bad, considering the median household income was just under $79,000, as of 2014, according to StatsCan data. This puts house prices at 4.6 times family incomes—a little higher than the average over the last 40 years, which is closer to 3.5 times income. (And these days, homeowners have the benefit of historically low 2% to 3% mortgage rates.)

Impact on net worth of Canada’s homeowner

For those already in the marketplace, the real threat is whether or not changing conditions will result in price declines and whether or not that will erode overall household net worth.

A report in December 2016 by DBRS, a Canadian-based ratings agency, suggested that rising home values pushed Canadians to a record level of net worth, relative to their disposable income. But, here’s the interesting part: DBRS believes that even if the Canadian housing market did crash, current homeowners could easily weather the storm.

Hold steady

According to DBRS, the average Canadian household had a net worth of $726,000—including 74% of home equity, thanks to a decade of steady property appreciation (DBRS numbers were based on data up to Sept. 30, 2016).

So, even if the Canadian housing market were to crash by 20% to 40%, Canadian household equity ratios would remain strong—decreasing to a low of 56.7% and a high of 67.5%. In relative terms, that’s like owning a home valued at $900,000 one day, but still paying off a $234,000 mortgage, only to see the home’s value drop to $744,300 (while your mortgage debt remains the same). Obviously, nobody likes to lose money, but even this worst case scenario, doesn’t mean the complete destruction of your nest egg. 

Check your mortgage terms

Still, as a homeowner, you need to make sure you’re well positioned to weather the uncertainty of the next few years. If you have stable household income, 2017 will probably let you ride out continued low variable-mortgage rates. However, if you’re in the market to renew, consider locking in. As of mid-December the spread between five-year fixed and five-year variable rates was negligible, at best. For example, VanCity was offering a five-year variable at 2.59%, while its five-year fixed was 10 basis higher at 2.69%. That’s a small premium to pay for peace of mind. 

Still, with mortgage rates poised to rise, this might be the year to tackle your biggest debt. For tips on how to pay off your mortgage faster, read Crush your mortgage (although, there are some valid arguments against paying down your mortgage sooner whiles rates are still low).

Impact on home buyers

The biggest factor in the predicted 2017 slowdown are the tighter mortgage regulations that were introduced in 2016. “Tightened regulations are expected to reduce the number of first-time buyers who qualify for mortgage financing, particularly in pricier markets, where there is a severe shortage of lower-priced listings,” explained Gregory Klump, chief economist for the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA).

Another possible factor is the potential for mortgage rates to rise in 2017. While the increase is expected to be slow to moderate, this increase—due to increased capital cost requirements for lenders and the possibility of inflationary economic policy under President Donald Trump—will also reduce the number of home buyers in the Canadian marketplace. This combined with a nation-wide rebalancing of housing markets means that buyers will have more opportunity in most markets across Canada. Even in Ontario and B.C., where CREA has predicted that national sales will remain strong, sales will fall short of the record levels set in 2015 and 2016, due to deteriorating affordability, an ongoing shortage of single family home listings and tightened mortgage regulations. 

Spring-time buying rush

Still, no one should be surprised if there’s a spike in sales come the spring. “Historically, the spring market is the busiest house buying season and prices can spike as much as 10%,” explained Laurin Jeffrey, real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.

(Source: CREA, BetterDwelling.com)

(Source: CREA, BetterDwelling.com)

While a spring rush, combined with continued low inventory, could push prices up there are other factors that may remove demand pressures. For instance, qualifying for a mortgage based on higher, posted rates may knock a portion of buyers out of the market, or shift them to areas or housing types that aren’t in such high demand. According to Genworth Canada, the largest private mortgage insurance provider, approximately one-third of first-time homebuyers would no longer qualify for their current homes if they were forced to re-qualify under these new mortgage rules.

Then there’s the proposed changes on precisely who covers the losses of a mortgage default. Since the mid-1960s, when mortgage insurance was first introduced, any defaulted mortgage was covered by the insurance provider, such as Genworth Canada or the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Problem is, over the years, lenders haven’t always used mortgage loan insurance to cover high loan-t0-value mortgages (mortgages on homes with less than 20% down from the buyer). Lenders have also purchased this insurance to cover mortgages on homes worth more than $1-million (by law you’re required to put down more than 20% on homes valued at $1-million or more) or for mortgages where the buyer’s equity is greater than 20%. The lenders do this in order to remove the danger of a defaulted loan; in other words, they pass on the risk of these mortgages to the insurance provider, who is ultimately funded by the government (who gets much of their money from us, the taxpayers). Now, there’s a 20+ page proposal to place at least a portion of the default risk and responsibility back on to the lenders’ shoulders. If this proposal goes through, it would prompt even tighter mortgage qualifications by lenders, which would further erode the number of qualified buyers in the housing market.

As a result, those looking to get a mortgage can expect more due diligence from your lender, which could take more time and require you to submit more paperwork.

Documents required to get the best mortgage rates »

Impact on home sellers

All these mortgage regulation changes could mean a lot less demand in the housing market. In most markets in Canada, sellers may have to adjust to a slower market where multiple offers are no longer the norm. That means expecting your home to stay on the market for a little longer as buyers take time to shop around. 

“When the market was hot, buyers were competing against everyone: investors, speculators, and foreign buyers,” says Dinani. “But what we’re seeing now is that the end-user buyer doesn’t have that same competition. The investors and non-resident buyers have pulled out—waiting for more certainty in the market—and that’s meant fewer buyers in the market and fewer sales.”

Still, those selling a single family detached, semi-detached or row home in the Greater Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria or Montreal areas, don’t need to worry. Even if prices have or do drop 10% or 15%, many of these homeowners are sitting on substantial equity,” says Dinani. “When you communicate the reality of this, even with a market drop, you realize the impact of the substantial run-up that’s taken place over the last few years.”

Still, home sellers may need to adjust their pricing expectations, says Dinani. “The spring selling market will really set the tone for the next year,” he says, “and a continued decline in transactions will mean sellers will have to either settle for a lower sale price or pull out of the market.”

Top tips for real estate investors in 2017

Despite all the advice about not buying a residential property for income purposes, many still do. Rental markets are still tight in the hottest real estate markets, with vacancy rates still hovering in the mid-1% range. As such, buying property to rent out makes sense, as long as you have a large enough down payment to ensure that rent covers expenses.

For the best value, consider multi-unit rental properties—like duplexes, triplexes, and beyond. This type of rental stock is still far more favourable than single-unit rentals, such as condos, as you can spread out the risk of rental loss across multiple units. But it also means paying a premium on this type of income property. Not only do you compete against other investors, but also against families and first-time buyers who are trying to find a way into hot property markets. 

Also, consider markets that are located near university or hospital hubs but away from larger city centres. Quite often, these smaller college towns offer steady tenant stock, but not much long-term price appreciation. Areas in Ontario include Guelph, Hamilton (although, this city may have peaked already), and Kingston are still good bets, while Abbotsford, Port Moody and Langley, in B.C. are good options. Just remember, as an investor, cash-flow must come first.

As in the past, anyone thinking of buying an investment property should first start with a financial plan and a budget. Then work the numbers. If you can’t withstand a loss—say the roof collapses or you need to hire a lawyer to legally evict a tenant—then you shouldn’t be buying an investment property.

Read more: Best Deals in Real Estate 2016 »
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Read more: Four things to know about the market correction »

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