Canada's housing boom will continue this spring as exceptionally low mortgage rates - and the expectation that borrowing costs will soon be headed higher - add a sense of urgency to consumer buying.
A Scotiabank global real estate trends report released Tuesday predicts most Canadian regions will remain sellers' markets for the first half of the year, as strong demand and rising prices continue.
"I think you're going to have a very active spring market, probably some cooling off in the second half of the year," Adrienne Warren, the Scotiabank economist who wrote the report said in a presentation Tuesday.
"We're looking at once in a lifetime interest rates that people are taking advantage of...but certainly confidence is coming back, the job markets are stabilizing," she said.
Scotiabank expects about 510,000 home sales this year, up 10 per cent from 2009, but just shy of the 2007 record. Average prices are forecast to increase about 8 per cent to a record $345,000, while housing starts are expected to reach 190,000, up from 149,000 last year.
The economic recovery from last year's painful recession has improved consumer confidence, although a bounce back in the jobs market is taking more time. Just over a third of the 417,000 jobs lost in the 2008-2009 recession have been replaced and the jobless rate is still at 8.2 per cent, only half a point below its high last August.
Most experts predict the rise in consumer confidence about the economy, and low interest rates, is behind the continued strength in the housing market.
Ms. Warren said the spring rush will be driven by an influx of buyers hoping to pre-empt tighter lending rules for mortgages and the introduction of the harmonized sales tax in Ontario and B.C. But a steady increase in the number of listings and a rise in construction are helping to restore a more balanced market.
"We're starting to see better balance, we're seeing more listings. There was a real lack of listings for the better part of last year...we're moving back into a better balanced situation," she said.
Ms. Warren said the hot spring market should give way to more subdued activity in the second half of the year, as higher interest rates and higher home prices erode affordability.
Economists expect the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates by between half a percentage point and a full point over several months beginning in late spring or early summer to fight inflationary pressures in the economy.
With many Canadians taking on larger and larger mortgage debt in expensive markets across the country, higher rates could create financial problems for some homeowners.
Ms. Warren added that the incentive for builders to add new houses to the market should also fade as supply increases and prices cool.
The front-loaded activity in the first half of the year will also contribute to lower sales, prices and construction in 2011, she said.
Canada's recovery continues to outpace developed countries around the world with housing prices in the fourth quarter up 19 per cent year over year. The strong performance has carried through into 2010, with sales in the first two months just slightly behind the near-record levels seen in late 2009.
Ms. Warren said that year-ago comparisons are amplified by the sharp drop in sales and prices at the end of 2008, but still represent a remarkable turnaround in a short time.
"We're not seeing a lot of evidence of speculative activity, I think you're just looking at a tight market, more buyers than sellers and people have to pay a premium in that environment," she said.
She added that milder that unusual temperatures across the country may have also put a bit of spring into a typically slow winter sales season.
Meanwhile, housing prices in countries including the U.K., Japan, and the U.S. were still below year-earlier levels in the final quarter of 2009.