The Canadian real estate industry is in a tight spot these days.
With home-ownership rates headed for record levels and the federal government tightening lending rules to cool the market, the question now is whether we have reached the saturation point.
Bank of Nova Scotia economist Adrienne Warren says that when the latest census figures come out next month she expects us to be in the elite company — depending on your view — of countries with more than 70% of households owning their own homes.
Based on the 2006 census, we were at 68.4%. “It’s similar to the U.S., U.K. and Australia when they came up with the mid-decade census,” Ms. Warren said.
The government is saying you should not be a homeowner if you cannot afford it
Some countries, like Italy and Spain, could be as high as 80% while in others with expensive real estate, like Switzerland, home-ownership rates are more like 30%, she said.
Ms. Warren said the biggest jump in home-ownership rates going into the 2006 census was among young people buying condominiums. Do we need another census to tell us that that group expanded or can we just look up at the cranes across the country? “It was people in their early 20s buying as opposed to waiting until they got older. It probably continued,” Ms. Warren said.
Interestingly enough, the United States is believed to have cracked that 70% threshold before the bottom fell out of its housing market.
Already Ottawa has stuck a pin in the housing balloon with new rules, including a restriction that limits amortizations to 25 years, which ultimately increases monthly payments for consumers and limits how much they can borrow.
The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions added its own rules tightening up regulations for financial institutions.
“The government is saying you should not be a homeowner if you cannot afford it,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets Inc.
The Canadian Real Estate Association released data last week that showed home prices across the country had actually slipped 2% from a year ago to an average of $353,147.
“We are at the peak of home ownership in Canada,” Mr. Tal said. “In fact, we are probably too high and it will probably go down.”
It’s not that 70% is some type of threshold we can’t break through but renting is becoming that much more attractive as the gap between home ownership and renting costs widens.
It’s impossible to argue against the emotion of owning your home or the advantage of forced savings that comes with a mortgage — a clear edge for people with no financial discipline.
The principal advantage is you can leverage your investment by putting only 5% down because the government will back your mortgage with the bank. But leverage means nothing when your investment is decreasing in value — it just compounds your losses.
If you consider that average $353,147 home with a 5% down payment, it will cost you close to $1,600 in monthly mortgage costs, even at today’s 3% interest rates with a 25-year amortization. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said in June the average two-bedroom apartment in new and existing structures was $887 a month. Add in other home-ownership costs like taxes and the gap widens.
Beyond the current expansion, there’s no arguing against the long, steady price appreciation of housing, which has been going on for decades, but there is an alternative to home ownership if you want upside exposure to the market.
Michael Smith, an analyst at Macquarie Equities Research, has published a report for the past five years comparing condo returns to apartment real estate investment trusts.
“REITs win,” said Mr. Smith, adding in a report in January the REITs would have returned 31.5% over the past year compared to a condo return of 12.4% in Toronto and 6.1% in Calgary. Going back another four years, the numbers are even more in favour of the public vehicles.
“What I would say now, since I did the last study, is if anything the outlook for the REIT versus the condo is even more compelling given where the condo market seems to be correcting,” Mr. Smith said.
Sam Kolias, chief executive of Boardwalk Real Estate Investment Trust, Canada’s largest apartment owner, says he is already seeing the push back into apartments.
“If you wanted to be hedged against housing [going up], you could rent and buy stock in our company,” said Mr. Kolias, who added that occupancy rates have climbed close to 99% as house prices have risen steadily. “We’ve never been as full as we are now.”
While this may all be bad news for housing, Phil Soper, chief executive of Royal LePage Real Estate Services, still sees room for expansion.
“There is nothing magical about 70%. The U.S. rate fell from this rate because of a collapse in their financial system,” said Mr. Soper, who points out home ownership in the U.S. is still about 66%, even after “one of the worst meltdowns.”
He said one key driver of the housing market that has not changed is the rule that allows consumers in with just a 5% down payment.
“We have public policy in place that supports home ownership,” Mr. Soper said.
Okay, you can probably still get into the housing market. But with prices falling and the gap between renting and carrying a home widening, the question is do you really want to make that investment?