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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spin City

In recent days, both the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) have been coordinating the same message to potential homebuyers: sales have dipped slightly, while listings & housing starts are rebounding, which is leading to an “improved balance between demand and supply.” The result, we are told, will be stable or modestly increasing home prices, simultaneously proving that the bubble everyone was whispering about was false. We can all breath a sigh of relief, and go out to buy that condo.

Personally, I find this spin-doctoring offensive. The CREA argument about supply and demand is rather like arguing that the Nasdaq was not overpriced in 2000, since there was a balance in demand for Internet stocks. In fact, one characteristic of bubbles is that demand suddenly plummets when people realize that there is no one left who wants to buy. So, to know the real story, we have to talk not about supply and demand, but rather about valuation.

By financial standards, a home is considered “comfortably affordable” if monthly mortgage expenses are 32% of pre-tax monthly income or less. As this number increases, one’s standard of living becomes increasingly tenuous. When monthly debt payments reach 40% or more of income (including mortgage payments, car payments and others), financial survival becomes a struggle.

The facts about Canadian housing are straightforward. According to RBC research (November 2009), if a median-income family bought an average 1200 sq ft bungalow in Canada, their monthly payment would be 40.2% of pre-tax income -- well above the 32% recommended, and in fact already above the monthly limit for total debts. In major cities, the numbers look even worse. In Toronto an average home requires 48.6% of pre-tax income: in Vancouver, 66.8%. This effectively means that if an average couple bought an average home in Vancouver, they would pay their income taxes, make their mortgage payment, and have nothing left.

And, the above statistics are the case today. Canadians, normally known for financial prudence and common sense, have actually been increasing their personal debts – not paying them off -- since the credit crisis began. The Bank of Canada stated that, “overall risks to financial stability arising from the household sector have continued to increase.” If current interest rate and savings estimates remain unchanged, Canadian debt payment levels will reach record highs by the fourth quarter of 2011. By the middle of 2012, roughly 1 in 10 Canadian households will have debt payments that leave them “financially vulnerable.”

In order for home prices to remain at current levels, one of the following must occur:

A) All homes and condos built from this point forward must be bought by foreigners/immigrants (since locals are already incapable of safely purchasing homes at today’s prices).
B) Wealthy investors must buy -- and continue to buy -- multiple homes for speculation, and keep them for years.
C) Wages in major cities must increase by approx. 8-30% (depending on the city) within the next 12 months, with no rise in unemployment.
D) Home prices must drop.

I can’t blame the CREA for their rosy interpretation of the numbers; after all, their mandate is to represent “more than 98,000 real estate Brokers/agents and salespeople working through more than 100 real estate boards and Associations.” With such allegiances, it seems unlikely that the CREA would ever say, “we think homes are overpriced and that you should wait to buy one.” Still, for the CREA to pooh-pooh the notion of a real estate bubble by citing supply and demand is either foolhardy or immoral.

Ockham’s Razor states that for any given problem, the simplest explanation is generally the best one: Canadian home prices must drop. For the record, my educated guess (it is only a guess) is that this drop will begin sometime between the 3rd quarter of this year and the 4rth quarter of 2011. And it will be nasty.

“There is virtually no risk of a national housing bubble based on the fundamental demand for housing and predictable economic factors.” David Lereah, former chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, 2005 U.S.A.