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(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

In Toronto, real estate prices pose a puzzle: Why so high? Add to ...

Anybody watching the Toronto real estate market this spring has noticed how fickle house hunters can be, but what really has some economists baffled is the fact that buyers have nudged resale house prices up for three consecutive months.

Sal Guatieri, senior economist with Bank of Montreal, was expecting house prices to continue the gentle decline that started last summer.

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“We are surprised that they’ve actually picked up,” says Mr. Guatieri. “They’ve now popped back to record highs.”

The average selling price in the Greater Toronto Area in the first two weeks of May hit $543,838, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board. That compares with $516,089 in May of 2012. Sales in the first two weeks of May dropped 9.7 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Mr. Guatieri points out that people who are keen to buy in the spring have to compete for relatively scarce detached houses available. “As we get into the spring market, we tend to see stronger demand and perhaps that is lifting prices.”

Meanwhile, some sellers are hesitant to list or have pulled their properties off the market if they don’t get the price they are looking for. Toronto hasn’t seen the pressured selling that caused the U.S. house price meltdown, he adds.

The market in much of Canada began losing steam last July after the federal government tightened rules surrounding mortgage insurance and amortization.

In the GTA, a relatively cool spring market has been enlivened by sporadic heated bidding wars.

Ken McLachlan, broker at ReMax Hallmark Realty Ltd., says houses in the segment above $1.5-million in Toronto are sitting around a lot longer these days. But below that mark sales are still quite good – if a bit spotty.

Mr. McLachlan says some agents have not experienced a slower market and he has to remind them that in the past it was not unusual for a property to sit on the market for 30 days or more.

He also advises agents to manage the expectations of sellers and not to make promises they can’t keep.

“They expect it to sell overnight,” he says of many homeowners. “The market is called the market because it’s ever-changing.”

Sales have slumped because there aren’t enough listings – especially in popular areas, he says.

Mr. Guatieri points out that detached houses are no longer affordable for many buyers in high-priced Toronto and condo units are the only option for many purchasers.

“Affordability is strained in the detached market.”

He still expects real estate prices in Toronto to resume their moderate decline over the next couple of years.

“It certainly seems a stretch to believe house price growth will continue to outpace income growth.”

A sharper drop is unlikely in his opinion, but he cautions that lofty prices could be vulnerable to a shock in the form of a spike in interest rates or swelling unemployment.

As for the condo market, Mr. Guatieri still sees strong underlying demand despite the recent downturn in the market for new projects. New home sales plummeted 44 per cent in April in the GTA compared with April, 2012. Both high-rise and low-rise sales tumbled. Builders have pulled back on new projects in the low-rise market, according to RealNet Canada.

Still, immigration remains healthy and the baby boom echo generation is likely to keep buying property, the economist says, and rental vacancies remain tight.

Mr. Guatieri points out that more than 250,000 condo units are currently on the drawing board in some phase of the planning process. There are 55,000 condo units currently under construction. But banks are not lending as easily and builders are deferring some projects.

“Unless you see a huge bounce-back in demand, it’s unlikely all those condos in the planning phase will come to fruition. Builders have slammed the breaks on.”

Follow on Twitter: @CarolynIreland

 

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