Don't believe the housing hype

There are plenty of signs that the Canadian housing market is still on some very shaky ground

Don't believe the housing hypeJudging by the latest real estate data, the Canadian housing market could scarcely be better. Average home prices are up more than 16 per cent this year, and in May they hit an all-time monthly high, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. By those numbers, Canada didn’t just sidestep the housing market crash that continues to plague the United States, it sailed right through it virtually unscathed. And yet, there are plenty of signs that the Canadian housing market is still sitting on some very shaky ground—and even the potential that Canada’s big housing crash is yet to come.

There is one particular statistic that suggests trouble could be brewing. Unlike in the U.S., Britain and most European countries, household debt in Canada is, incredibly, still growing. That rising debt is being driven largely by record-low interest rates. Canadians have been buying homes not so much because they can afford them, but because many believe there’s never been a better time to buy, with lending rates so low. “There is no doubt that record-low mortgage rates have juiced Canada’s housing market,” wrote BMO economist Sal Guatieri, in a recent newsletter. Houses are barely more affordable now than they were during the market peak. And as people keep buying, houses may only become less and less affordable.

Not everyone agrees with the CRE figures that suggest the market has managed such a quick and painless turnaround, either. According to the Teranet-National Bank housing price index, Canada’s housing market is not recovering yet. Home prices have been falling for the past eight months, according to its latest statistics. Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto have each experienced significant price drops compared to last year. This would seem more in line with what one would expect after an unprecedented six-year housing boom in which home prices shot up 80 per cent.

It is, of course, possible that the correction will, ultimately, be modest. Guatieri expects that interest rates will remain low and income growth will remain subdued this year, before picking up next year. That will keep housing prices down, but would likely mean the worst of the correction is behind us.

But if mortgage rates go up sharply then “affordability will get crunched again,” says Guatieri, in an interview. Things could get much, much worse. And that’s not an unthinkable scenario. Some banks have already boosted interest rates twice this year. Then there is the possibility that job losses continue and the economy doesn’t recover quickly, putting further strains on household finances. The low interest rates and continued debt problems mean that Canadians could find them themselves badly over-exposed.

Guatieri isn’t forecasting a housing market crash. But, as he wrote last week, “it’s worth remembering that the further house prices go up and the longer household finances get stretched, the greater the risk of a painful correction. Anyone who doubts that should talk to an American or British homeowner.”

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