Canadian home buyers on the defensive

Canada’s housing markets ended the summer on a soft note. Both home resale activity and prices fell broadly again in September according to early reports from local real estate boards. This wasn’t a surprise. Buyers are in an exceptionally tight squeeze, facing the worst affordability conditions ever in large parts of the country (see our latest Housing Trends and Affordability report). They’re clearly on the defensive at this stage. Activity is particularly soft—far below pre-pandemic levels—in Vancouver, Toronto and other markets (including the Fraser Valley and Victoria) where affordability pressures are most intense. The negative impact of higher interest rates on prices is still running its course, depressing the values of (higher-priced) single-detached first and foremost. And with further rate hikes on the way—we expect the Bank of Canada to raise its policy rate by another 75 basis points to 4% by the end of this year—we think the bottom is still some ways away.

There remains pockets of strength out there, though. Calgary is one of them. A much improved provincial economy and rebounding in-migration no doubt help keep activity humming at this juncture. But the lesser sensitivity to interest rates of relatively affordable markets—like Calgary—plays a big role too. We believe this factor will in fact contain the price correction in the Prairies, and parts of Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Toronto area—Quiet end to the summer

Price trends vary across the Greater Toronto Area but the stillness in activity is widespread. Home resales stayed soft in both the 416 and 905 regions last month, down 49% and 42% y/y, respectively. It was a similar story when viewed by housing type with single-detached homes falling 40% and condos 50% y/y. Overall activity reversed a monthly gain in August, declining 11% m/m on a seasonally-adjusted basis to its lowest level since early-2009 (excluding the spring 2020 lockdown). But the market downturn is affecting property values differently by housing type and location. Single-detached (benchmark) prices are now below year-ago levels—or will soon be—in many areas, including Halton and Durham regions, the City of Toronto, and Dufferin and Simcoe counties. Condo prices, however, are holding up better—still up 13-18% from year ago for the most part. Demand for more affordable options like condos remains relatively strong. The very tight rental market also sustains keen investor interest in these units. We expect diverging trends to persist in the near term.

Montreal area—Market correction gaining velocity

Higher interest rates are taking an increasing toll on buyers. Home resales accelerated their downward trajectory in the latter part of summer, falling 10% m/m in August (seasonally-adjusted) and an estimated 6% in September from an average drop of 1.7% per month between February and July. Last month’s activity was the slowest in seven years excluding the spring 2020 lockdown period. Most of the weakening is occurring on the Island of Montreal (where resales are down 39% y/y) though all parts of the region are seeing material resales declines for both single-family homes and condos. Sellers’ pricing power has eroded significantly. Median prices are now down 8% for single-family homes and 7% for condos since the spring peak with the biggest drops taking place on the (pricier) Island of Montreal. In fact, Island prices are now below year-ago levels. We see little that would alter the market’s trajectory in the coming months, especially with more interest rate hikes likely to weigh on buyers.

Vancouver area—Market slide moderates

The market slide continues but appears to be moderating. We estimate seasonally-adjusted resales fell slightly by less than 1% m/m in September, following drops averaging 7% in the previous two months and 13% between April and June. Vancouver buyers remain under tremendous pressure at this point. Higher interest rates hits them especially hard given the (still) sky-high property values they face in the area. The softening in prices in time will help but so far it’s done little to ease severe affordability issues. The composite MLS HPI has declined for five-straight months, down a cumulative 8.7% (or $109,000, not seasonally adjusted). It’s been a widespread trend within the region with local areas recording declines ranging between 3% and 17%. Pressure is most intense for single-family homes (off 9.2% since peak) but condos aren’t immune to the general softening (off 6.2%). We expect excessively poor affordability and the prospects for higher interest rates to keep buyers on the defensive and drive prices lower still in the period ahead.

Calgary—Holding firm

The market’s strength really stands out amid the generalized softness across the country. Despite declining significantly from stratospheric levels at the start of this year, home resale activity is holding far above pre-pandemic levels and close to the previous all-time peak. Demand-supply conditions are still very tight despite easing over the past nine months. Alberta’s stronger economy, the rebound in in-migration and Calgary’s relatively favourable affordability undoubtedly continue to stoke housing demand at this stage. Nonetheless, rising interest rates have altered the pricing equation. Calgary’s composite MLS HPI has moderated over the past four months by 3.6%, reversing a small part its gain during the pandemic. We expect interest rates headwinds will continue to apply modest downward pressure on prices in the near term.


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Robert Hogue is a member of the Macroeconomic and Regional Analysis Group, with RBC Economics. He is responsible for providing analysis and forecasts for the Canadian housing market and for the provincial economies. His publications include Housing Trends and Affordability, Provincial Outlook and provincial budget commentaries.

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