Real-estate prices rising rapidly

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Not the best time to invest in the market as economy begins rebuilding

John Morrissy

Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada, is urging people to cautiously enter into the housing market, considering that interest rates will likely rise. Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, The Province

As Canada’s red-hot real estate market shows no signs of slowing down in 2010, analysts are beginning to caution some buyers that their best move may be to step to the sidelines.

“If you’re somebody in a situation that you have only five per cent down and you’re stretching to get in the market with a 35-year amortization, I think that would be a very precarious situation right now,” said BMO Capital market economist Robert Kavcic.

Conversely, he said, “if you’re sitting on a pile of cash and looking to move into the real estate market, it would almost be a no-brainer to just wait for lower prices.”

Notes of caution simmered to the surface this week after realtor Royal LePage forecast home prices would continue to “appreciate significantly” during the early months of the year.

Already in 2009, they’re up 19 per cent, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.

The trouble is that while prices are rising, incomes are not.

Yet rock-bottom borrowing costs continue to lure buyers, and investors are rushing in — despite a shortage of listings — for fear that if they don’t get into the market now, they’ll miss their chance.

“It’s absolutely not debatable that housing prices cannot rise faster than incomes over the long term,” said Will Strange, who is professor of real estate and urban economics at the Rotman School of Management.

Sooner or later, incomes have to rise, or home prices fall, for balance to be attained.

Many analysts argue that home prices are not yet out of line with the incomes it takes to pay for them, Strange said.

Yet with the job market still weak, and unlikely to drive new employment and higher wages, odds are that if something’s got to give, it will be prices.

“If I didn’t personally have most of my wealth tied up in housing, this would not be the time that I would choose to jump in,” Strange cautioned.

At the same time, interest rates have nowhere to go but up, which could leave some buyers in a position similar to U.S. homeowners, who had houses worth less than their mortgages after the subprime bubble burst and house prices crashed.

“We’re certainly urging people to error on the side of caution,” said B.C.’s Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada.

“If you’re paying an amount of money, whatever that might be, that you couldn’t sustain if interest rates rose by say 25 or 30 per cent — I can see that being a problem for a lot of people.”

Canada‘s not headed for anything similar to the U.S. subprime mess because lending standards here are higher and because people can’t just walk away from their homes as they can in the U.S., other than in Alberta.

But there may yet be an economic impact if home prices turn down, as home values relate directly to the economy, fuelling spending as they rise and tightening personal budgets as they fall, Strange said.

For now, many observers are predicting, as does Royal LePage, that the market will find its balance later this year as rates rise and more listings come on the market.

In the meantime, there are still many good reasons to buy a house, Strange said, “but don’t buy it because you think the price is going to go up.”

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