Vancouver’s real estate swoon deepens

Mayur Arora is seeing something few would have expected in Vancouver’s real estate market – people walking away from deposits on houses, convinced prices will fall further.

“It happened twice in the last month. One [deposit] was $75,000 and one was a $20,000 deposit, the guys just walked away from it,” said Mr. Arora, who runs in Surrey, B.C. “They are going to wait it out. So they lost $75,000 and $20,000, but if the market comes down $150,000 on a $1.5-million house, that’s not uncommon.”

Vancouver’s once-overheated housing market has cooled sharply, with the average price falling nearly 10 per cent in April from a year ago to $735,315, according to figures released Tuesday by the Canadian Real Estate Association. That was the largest drop since the recession and it marked the fourth decline in the past five months.

In a market once famous for being overheated, Mr. Arora said he hasn’t seen a bidding war in months. “It’s totally a buyers’ market. Buyers are determining the price,” he said. “And sellers are surprisingly accepting it. They are taking it.”

One reason for the decline is fewer buyers from Asia, something that had been driving parts of the Vancouver market in recent years, according to agents. “The number of buyers from China is definitely down this year,” said Andrew Hasman, a real estate agent who specializes in high-end homes. “We’re seeing far fewer buyers from that part of the world and that’s the reason our sales are down.”

Mr. Hasman said money flowing out of China has slowed considerably and Canadian banks have also tightened their mortgage lending rules, especially on larger loans commonly associated with high-priced real estate. Jean Zhang, who works for Sutton Group in Vancouver, agreed and said she is also seeing fewer immigrant buyers.

Over all, home sales increased slightly last month across Canada and the average price jumped 0.9 per cent on a year-over-year basis to $375,810, according to CREA figures. Prices were up in 80 per cent of all local markets. Toronto remained one of the hottest markets, with sales up 2.5 per cent and the average price climbing 8.4 per cent to $517,556 from a year ago.

“While growth in Canadian housing activity has lost some steam over the last year, the level of Canadian home prices and sales remain high,” said Diana Petramala, an economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank. She added that low interest rates continue to push demand and estimated that Canadian housing is 10 to 15 per cent overvalued, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver.

While Toronto has garnered much attention for its price appreciation and flurry of activity, it's not the only real estate market that's bustling.

In Regina, year-to-date prices are 9.4 per cent higher than the same period a year ago. Sales and average prices set a record last month, driven by strong population growth, including migration, and the lowest jobless rate in the country. The average home price in Regina is now $312,873, according to CREA.

“The picture that emerges from the April existing homes statistics continue to support our view that housing market activity – at least on the resales side – is on a path of moderation over all in Canada but that regional divergences remain,” said Robert Hogue, a senior economist at Royal Bank of Canada.

Not everyone is convinced there’s a housing bubble. Economic fundamentals are driving activity and prices, and many markets are still undersupplied, said Peter Norman, chief economist at Altus Group.

He points to an improving labour market, low interest rates, population growth and pent-up demand from the recession as driving activity. “I wouldn't say it's out of control but it certainly indicates strengthening demand in a relatively supply-constrained market,” he said.

Even in Toronto, where talk of a bubble is most concentrated, rising prices simply reflect population growth of about 100,000 people a year in a city where “severe land constraints” are limiting the ability to build single homes, he said.



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