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New housing construction in Calgary, Thursday, June 26, 2014. (Jeff McIntosh For The Globe and Mail)
New housing construction in Calgary, Thursday, June 26, 2014. (Jeff McIntosh For The Globe and Mail)

Albertans see household debt soar as home prices surge Add to ...

The Globe’s Real Estate Beat offers news and analysis on the Canadian housing market from real estate reporter Tara Perkins. Read more on The Globe’s housing page and follow Tara on Twitter @TaraPerkins.

Consumers in Alberta and British Columbia are taking on a surprising amount of debt, much of which stems from high home prices.

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And there are signs that Canadians are placing less of an emphasis on saving, with reasonably healthy stock markets, rising home prices and low interest rates bolstering their confidence.

The result of these trends is that consumers have continued to fuel the country’s economy at a time when corporations are not spending as much as policy-makers would like. But some economists are now questioning whether consumers will be able to shoulder the economic load for much longer.

At the national level the pace of household debt accumulation is the slowest it’s been since 1995 and the slowest it has been in any non-recessionary period over the last 40 years, according to CIBC. That’s been welcome news for officials in Ottawa who have been concerned about consumer debt levels.

But the average level of household debt in Alberta jumped to $124,838 this year, from $89,026 last year, according to a new study conducted by Pollara for Bank of Montreal. And the average level in B.C. rose to $99,834 from $79,089.

“Policy-makers have been worried about Canadian household debt for some time and it appears that for most households they are getting the message and slowing their rate of borrowing, but in Alberta that doesn’t appear to be the case,” said BMO economist Sal Guatieri. “It looks like mortgage debt, in particular, is rising quite rapidly.”

Ontarians, in contrast, have been cutting back, with average household debt levels falling to $67,507 this year, down from $76,970 last year.

Home prices in Alberta have risen at a fast pace, pushing consumers to take on larger mortgages.

But Alberta’s economy has been on a roll, and it’s B.C. that Mr. Guatieri said he found particularly surprising. “Number one, we’re very surprised that Vancouver’s housing market has come back so quickly,” he said in an interview. “House prices are back to their record highs after falling for most of 2012 and 2013. And it looks like households are building up their mortgage debt again in the province to get into the housing market.”

Vancouver’s real estate board said on Tuesday that 3,061 homes changed hands in and around the city during July. That was up 3.9 per cent from a year earlier, and slightly higher than the 10-year average for the month.

The benchmark price of a home (a measure that attempts to capture the price of a “typical” house, because averages can be skewed by the high and low ends of the market) stood at $628,600, up 4.4 per cent from a year earlier.

Meanwhile, realtors in Calgary say there is some evidence that the pace of home price growth is stalling as more supply comes onto the market. The benchmark price of a single-family home was $511,600 in July, according to the Calgary Real Estate Board. That was up 10.8 per cent from a year earlier, but was only a little bit higher than it had been two months earlier.

“Following two years of annual increases and several months of monthly gains that exceeded 1 per cent, unadjusted benchmark prices appear to be levelling off,” Ann-Marie Lurie, chief economist at Calgary’s real estate board, stated in a press release.

While house prices have also been rising in Toronto, the city’s large and growing condo market has not seen nearly the same degree of price appreciation and some other parts of Ontario, such as Ottawa, have had more lacklustre housing markets.

The debt levels that Albertans are accumulating are not too concerning yet, because that province has the strongest labour market and highest economic growth rate in the country, said Laura Cooper, an economist at Royal Bank of Canada.

“Households are vulnerable, but as long as they have rising incomes and strong economic growth it’s not as much of a concern,” she said. The vulnerability would become an issue if there was a sudden rise in either unemployment or interest rates, but neither is expected at the moment, she said in an interview.

Economists at CIBC pointed out in a research note Tuesday that Canada’s economic growth isn’t going exactly as policy-makers had planned.

“For the last couple of years, the narrative was that an exhausted and heavily indebted consumer would take a break, and a cash-rich corporate Canada would boost capital spending and take the reins of the Canadian economy,” they wrote. But consumers have continued to carry the economy.

While the pace of debt accumulation has slowed, savings rates have also petered out. “Sanguine Canadians have stabilized their savings rates at around 5 per cent [in the first quarter of this year], a drop from levels seen in early 2013,” the CIBC report said.

“How long can consumers hold the fort? Not long,” they concluded. “Confidence has started to slip, and the savings rate is vulnerable to a climb ahead.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article said the number of Canadians holding mortgage debt was 13 per cent last year. In fact, 13 per cent represents the increase from last year in the number of Canadians holding mortgage debt.

Follow on Twitter: @taraperkins

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