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At a time when cranes dot the Toronto skyline and economists debate the possibility of a real estate bubble, Altus Group Ltd. has scooped up one of the leading sources of data on the closely scrutinized condo market.
Toronto-based Altus Group is a TSX-listed company that specializes in providing advice and information to the commercial real estate industry, including major owners of office towers and factories, such as pension plans and real estate investment trusts. It has struck a deal to buy RealNet Canada Inc., a smaller firm that gathers its own data on the commercial market but also researches the construction and sale of new homes and condos in Toronto.
The deal illustrates the demand for information about Toronto’s condo market in particular, which economists and policy-makers have expressed concern about, amid a boom in construction. Local real estate boards and the Canadian Real Estate Association, which represents realtors, track information on sales of existing houses and condos over the Multiple Listing Service. But a few private firms such as RealNet have filled an information gap by doing their own research on sales and construction of brand new houses and condos – information that has become increasingly valuable amid speculation about overvaluation and overbuilding.
The deal also highlights the increasing overlap between commercial and residential real estate. When residential real estate was largely made up of houses, it was seen to be quite distinct from commercial real estate such as office towers, industrial complexes and shopping centres. But with cities aiming to curb urban sprawl and promote densification in their downtown cores, so-called mixed-use developments (which might contain, for example, condos and offices) are increasingly common.
One of Altus’s growth initiatives recently has been to ramp up in the residential space, says Colin Johnston, president of Canadian research, valuation and advisory at Altus Group. Altus has been tracking and selling some data on the residential markets in Calgary and Montreal, but it lacked data on Toronto.
“There’s just such demand in the residential sector,” Mr. Johnston says. “People ask ‘what’s the risk, is it overbuilt, is there too much development?’”
RealNet tracks information such as the price paid for land, sales and prices of new houses and condos, and the total inventory of condos that are planned, under construction and complete.
Founder George Carras started RealNet in 1995, shortly after the real estate market went through a major downturn around 1990. He felt that a lack of real estate data had allowed major players, including developers, to make bad decisions. The company now has about 40 employees. Mr. Carras says that he decided to put RealNet up for sale because it lacked the resources to grow to its full potential on its own. He hired investment bankers at GMP Securities LP to run the sale process. The companies did not disclose the purchase price and suggested that it was too small to be material to Altus Group.
Altus was already subscribing to RealNet’s data on commercial real estate, which the firms say will complement Altus’s information about inventory, vacancies and new supply.