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Bubble part 2?

Blog by Shaun Kimmins | June 22nd, 2009

It looks like a miraculous resurrection.

In the midst of recession, the average national price of Canadian resale homes hit a record level in May, and sales activity increased for the fourth consecutive month. While U.S. residential real estate prices have been falling for almost three years, Canada seems to have stumbled and picked itself up again in a span of 12 months.

To some real estate agents, the market looks as good as it did before the global financial crisis began to bite last summer.

“Without getting nitpicky, yes it does,” said Toronto real estate agent Laurin Jeffrey. “I just lost out on a multiple offer last night on a house, and my client asked me to have a look at what's going on with that sort of a house. In that price range and style of home, 14 out of 19 sales in the past 30 days have been at or above the asking price.”

The average national resale home price in May reached a record $319,757, up a tick from the previous record set in May, 2008, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) reported this week. The group noted that the sales activity behind this increase was skewed by expensive markets such as Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, but it nevertheless declared that the “national resale housing market activity returned to prerecession levels in May 2009.”

Crisis averted in the housing market? Forget it. Prices may be climbing in some markets, but so are the interest rates that have fed the recent rise in sales. Meanwhile, incomes are stagnant, and jobs are disappearing in bunches.

If you're thinking of getting into the housing market right now, mind the cracks in its foundation.

The house that Mr. Jeffrey's client failed to get was a semi-detached, two-storey, all-brick home in the leafy mid-town neighbourhood of Leaside. With three bedrooms, one bathroom, a detached garage and a mutual drive, it was listed at $529,900 – and went for $551,000. According to Mr. Jeffrey, houses in that price range have sold for an average of 105 per cent of their asking price in the past 30 days.

And Toronto, where the number of homes sold rose 1.9 per cent last month, wasn't even one of the hottest markets in terms of sales activity. CREA figures show that sales in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton were up between 11.3 and 18.7 per cent.

It would be reasonable to expect that housing sales would be in a slump during a recession. But strangely, the economic downturn has actually helped to propel the real estate market higher.

For one thing, many people were too unnerved by the global financial crisis to buy late last year. So pent-up demand for housing in the first several months of 2009 played a role in the spring numbers.

“The kind of month-over-month increases we've seen in the last four months can't go on forever,” said CREA chief economist Gregory Klump.

The Bank of Canada has also helped to juice the market, though inadvertently. By ratcheting interest rates lower to stimulate economic growth, the central bank has cleared the way for mortgage rates that remain at historically cheap levels even after recent increases.

Fixed-rate mortgages with a five-year term can be had for about 4.25 per cent with a top discount right now, compared with 5.5-to-6 per cent in spring, 2008. A couple of months ago, five-year mortgages were less than 4 per cent.

But low rates are also one of the reasons analysts are worried about the surprising surge in the housing market. “It's all happening because of the crack cocaine of housing, which is rock-bottom interest rates,” said Garth Turner, author of Greater Fool: The Troubled Future of Real Estate . “They're so irresistible, especially to inexperienced first-time buyers. That's what's propelling the market.”

Mr. Turner's concern is that rising rates will eventually propel the market lower by making houses less affordable. His level of confidence that the boom will last? Zero.

In his book, published in early 2008, Mr. Turner warned that the Canadian housing market was in a bubble just like its U.S. counterpart. After a peak-to-valley decline of almost 14 per cent in Canada's national average price, he's predicting another plunge for home prices that will be triggered in large part by rising interest rates.

“We're now into the housing bubble, Part Two,” said Mr. Turner, a former member of Parliament who now gives financial seminars and promotes his books. “I think this bubble is going to burst later this year. It's going to be short and intense.”

In the near term, though, he sees rising rates being used to get buyers to jump into the market immediately. “People are being told, ‘Your affordability is going down if you don't buy now, you're going to be forever shut out of the market.' It's the eternal siren song of real estate.”

Many economists doubt that the prime rate – the rate banks use as a base to calculate other lending rates – will increase before next spring, but it's a different story with the longer-term rates that influence fixed-rate mortgages. They've already bounced off the lows they hit in the depths of the global financial crisis, and more increases are expected.

Rising rates make houses less affordable, but this can be offset if housing prices are falling and incomes are rising. In many cities, though not all, prices are actually rising. As for income gains, they're constrained by the recession.

Robert Hogue, senior economist at Royal Bank of Canada, said wages are still creeping higher, but many families have been affected by job losses. “Over all, household income has at best increased very slowly, if not kind of stalled for a bit,” he said.

For Mr. Hogue, rising rates and house prices are a threat to a housing market that appears to be stabilizing. But his outlook isn't all negative. When the job market improves, he believes that household income will rise and help make houses more affordable.

“The moment we have the labour market picking up, to me that would be the sign that says we're in the clear now.”

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Based on 2008 REBGV MLS listings and sales in Coal Harbour.

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