You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.
ROMA: We’re back for Season 3 and we’re starting off with the topic everyone is talking about.
ROB: That’s right. Today’s episode is about housing. Today we’re hearing from you, in the trenches of Canada’s hot real estate market. What’s really going on out there? Why are Canadians so riled up about housing?
ROMA: I’m Roma Luciw, personal finance editor at the Globe and Mail.
ROB: And I’m Rob Carrick personal finance columnist at the Globe.
ROMA: Rob, here we are again.
ROB: Yes, 12 months into the pandemic, we have come full circle back to recording in lockdown. In fact, we’ve never recorded it any other way. Have we?
ROMA: We haven’t. Now doesn’t the bread baking feel like a distant memory?
ROB: Yeah, I never baked any bread myself. I’ve eaten a lot of bread over the pandemic, but I haven’t baked any.
ROMA: The big change in our house is that I am now completely converted to online grocery shopping. I have no idea why I didn’t do it earlier. It’s a complete time saver. I do one order. I get it still for my parents. I pick it up for ourselves. And then I just pick up everything I need. Are you still completely opposed?
ROB: You know what? My wife did an online curbside grocery pickup and the grocery chain gave us a nice loaf of sourdough bread as a free bonus. So I am completely turned around now. Big thumbs up to curbside ordering.
ROMA: Okay, I guess the other news is that Stress Test is up for a Webby.
ROB: Yes, we’ve been nominated in the category of Best Business Podcast. Wish us luck on that one.
ROMA: Yeah, I’m super proud of our podcast, despite the fact that we’re recording from home and we’ve had all kinds of obstacles. You know, we have fans and we love hearing from them. And I’m pretty excited about season three.
ROB: Yeah, I am, too. You know, we’re working double-time to talk about things that we know our listeners are interested in and worried about, especially in the pandemic.
To say this pandemic is a unique time is an understatement. But the principles of personal finance remain the same. Stress Test is all about helping you get through this pandemic, financially intact.
ROMA: For example, weddings. So many people have had their wedding plans disrupted. That’s one topic we’ll be exploring this season.
ROB: We’re also looking at leaving the big city for cheaper real estate, negotiating a higher salary. And I bet dating in the pandemic is just terrible. So how do you set up your finances if you’re single, maybe for the long term?
ROMA: But let’s get to today’s topic, Canada’s red-hot housing market, and how hard it is to buy a place of your own. That’s up next.
PRE-ROLL: This podcast is brought to you by CPP Investments. Take comfort knowing the Canada Pension Plan Fund will be there for you. We invest to help ensure the CPP fund remains resilient over the long term, sustainable and secure for millions of Canadians. Learn more at CPP Investments Dotcom.
ROMA: One year ago, in season one, we spoke with a woman named Jackie. She’s in her 20s and had just closed on a condo in February. Yep, right before the pandemic hit. She was watching the market and was worried that her new home was going to lose value.
ROB: That didn’t happen. The biggest financial surprise of the pandemic by far has to be the incredible rise of the housing market. Real estate prices have picked up momentum. And in spring 2021, we’re looking at monthly price increases of 20 to 30% on a year-over-year basis. It is flat-out unbelievable what is happening to housing.
ROMA: So Rob, remember a year ago, when we first locked down? There was a period when the housing market stalled and we had a sense of “everything is on hold,” and nobody wanted to make any moves. New homes and sales fell. There was, you’re right, this idea that there was uncertainty and anxiety about what the pandemic would bring and everybody was on the sidelines. And the condo market stalled. Right?
ROB: Yeah, you know, when I look back at what happened to housing in March 2020, I think the market stalled for, I think it was about 10 to 15 minutes.
ROB: And then it picked up again - it just never happened, people never stopped selling and never stopped looking for houses. I wrote a column, I think in late February 2020, and I, already the pandemic was out there and people knew, and we were already seeing the stock market go down. And I was talking to a real estate guy, and we were saying, Is real estate the new gold? And one year later, I almost think it is. People have treated it like this storehouse of value that is impregnable, and you cannot go wrong by housing. But of course, in the pandemic, there were other factors that work in housing, why don’t you describe some of them?
ROMA: Well, we had a perfect cocktail of record-low interest rates, sky high demand for detached houses, we had people locked in their homes for you know, unforeseen periods of time, and everyone just started to go stir crazy. And so they really wanted the extra space they wanted the yard and what happened in the beginning was we saw this outflow of demand for houses in suburban areas and it took off from there.
ROB: So with this on everyone’s minds, we wanted to give you an opportunity to tell your stories. What has your experience been like? What has it been like trying to buy a home where you live?
ROMA: We did a call out on Rob’s newsletter, Carrick on Money, and on social media, and we got so many responses. So we’ve devoted this episode to you. So you can sound off and tell us what the home buying journey has been like.
Today, we’re hearing from three people all in their 20s. We’re starting our episode in British Columbia.
JESSICA: So my name is Jessica. I’m almost 28 years old. I live in Abbotsford BC, so that’s about an hour outside Vancouver, an hour and a half, if you’re fighting traffic and I work in admissions in a post-secondary institution. And I’m married. My husband is the same age as I am and he’s a teacher.
ROMA: When it comes to real estate, there’s the money aspect, learning the ins and outs of what it takes to purchase a property. And then...there are the feelings..
JESSICA: I can’t overstate how powerless you feel, sitting back and watching these prices just skyrocket in front of you, knowing that there is absolutely nothing that you can do.
ROMA: They were living in Vancouver but they moved back to Jessica’s hometown of Abbotsford for family reasons. And with the goal of buying a home.
Now, we’ve all heard the stories about Vancouver’s housing market - but things in Abbotsford are looking just as bleak for buyers.
Jessica and her husband make around $115,000 a year, combined. Jessica came out of university with no debt and her husband only has a few thousand dollars left to pay off. They also have car debt, which they should be finished paying off next year. It’s safe to say they’re not big spenders:
JESSICA: The only other major expenditure that we’ve had recently was for our wedding. And we tried to be really, really careful to limit our spending there. Because we knew that we were having to get into a competitive housing market. And that’s the understatement of the century now given where we are versus where we were a few years ago.
ROMA: Jessica is meticulous about tracking expenses in spreadsheets.
JESSICA: As soon as we paid for the wedding, any spare money that came in, it’s been earmarked for that.
ROMA: Earmarked for a down payment. And they’ve got saving down to a science.
JESSICA: I’m sitting here with my spreadsheets, doing my calculations. Even if I cancelled my Netflix subscription, even if I never ordered a pizza, even if I bargain-shopped as much as humanly possible for everything, and I wore all my clothes until they had holes in them, the difference would only be a couple hundreds of dollars a month.
ROMA: They’ve managed to save about 70,000 dollars for a downpayment. But with each passing month, even buying in Abbotsford gets less attainable.
JESSICA: The vast majority of the places that I would have been looking at last year are selling by $100,000 or more from a year ago.
ROMA: When news stories say “prices are skyrocketing,” this is the reality on the ground.
JESSICA: We’ve been so careful, so diligent, we’ve saved, we were prepared, we knew what we were getting into. And then all of a sudden you kind of feel like the rug has been yanked out from under you because you’re looking at paying, possibly like $130,000 more than you were expecting -- for the same thing.
ROMA: And what about getting some help from mom and dad to try to get your foot in the door?
JESSICA: My dad actually approached me, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t say that he is necessarily wealthy. We’re not a family with generational wealth.
ROMA: But still, Jessica told her dad how tough it’s been trying to buy a home. They had a frank conversation.
JESSICA: He went away from that conversation and then he called me back a week and a half later and said, I’ve thought about it, and I have this money. It’s invested right now, but I’d be happy to give it to you, as an advance kind of on your inheritance, so to speak, to help you.
ROMA: He had $25 000 to give.
JESSICA: But the sad reality is to, you know, $25,000 is a lot of money in any other context. But in this one, it doesn’t even really make that much of a dent.
ROMA: For this generation, so much has come down to timing. And life goals. Remember we said that Jessica and her partner moved back to Abbotsford for family? Jessica’s been thinking a lot about when they’re going to start their own family.
JESSICA: In the last year or so I’ve kind of really realized that I do want to be a mom.
ROMA: That’s where a lot of pressure comes from, when it comes to buying a house. Jessica had the big realization that yes, she really wants to have kids.
JESSICA: So having that happen, at the same time, as I’m watching housing stability slipped out of reach is really, really difficult, because in my mind that then delays parenthood for myself and my husband. And that’s something that’s really important to both of us. And I hear that from my peers across the board, too. You know, we want children, but we need that stability to be able to have kids. People don’t want to have a baby in a studio apartment.
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ROMA: Jessica, thank you so much for sharing your story so openly with us. Now, we’re going to head to another very hot market: TORONTO.
CARMEN: My name is Carmen, I’m 28 years old, I live in Toronto and I work in business consulting. We’ve been looking for a few months now. And it’s absolutely insane. It feels basically impossible for a first time homebuyer in our position to even be able to get on the ladder.
ROMA: At 28 years old, Carmen and her fiance make up to $300,000 combined. That puts them almost in the top 1% of household incomes in Canada. They’ve also saved $80 - $90 000 dollars for a down payment. So, with all of that - how is the house hunt going for them?
CARMEN: I think people who aren’t in the market right now, don’t realize how absolutely brutal it is. And that’s been, you know, one of the things that’s been hard to reconcile is, you know, we had an idea of what we wanted. But we’ve had to be like, Okay, we got to adjust our expectations downward. And then we got to adjust them downward again, and again and again. And at some point, it’s like, well, we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.
ROMA: I think when you hear this you can’t help but think - why is home ownership so important - why keep pushing for it if it feels impossible?
CARMEN: I rent right now, and I’ve rented for you know, some years now it has been really difficult for two people to work from home for a whole year in a 700 square foot condo. And that has created some urgency of you know, we need to move out of this place for own kind of sanity.
ROMA: When Carmen and her partner started looking for property, they thought about a semi-detached house. But they were constantly being outbid. So they began to look further out from the city, into the suburbs, and they started looking at condo townhouses. But they still kept getting outbid.
CARMEN: Our budget was around $800 000 to a million dollars and everything that was actually listed in that price range was going over a million so we did have situations where we were bidding like, $100,000 over the asking price and still being outbid.
And so we saw ourselves, you know, very quickly getting priced out of neighborhood after neighborhood. And one of the strange things about kind of this pandemic housing boom, is the old kind of advice of like “drive till you qualify” almost doesn’t apply anymore because the suburban housing market, the outer suburbs, and even rural areas are booming so much so we kind of felt squeezed from all angles, like we can’t afford something in Toronto or near Toronto, but if we keep driving out, the markets outside the city are also incredibly hot. So we’re kind of out of options.
ROMA: It’s a terrible feeling to be out of options. Especially when you’ve been doing the right thing all along.
CARMEN: We’ve spent years kind of working up to being able to purchase our first house we’ve been saving we’ve been working hard we’ve been financially responsible you know we have great credit scores we have high incomes and when I say we I’m referring to me and my fiance and it seems like it doesn’t actually matter because we are missing the one key ingredients that everyone we know who has bought recently or is in the market now has --
ROMA: What Carmen’s talking about is money from the bank of mom and dad. Generational wealth - a significant number of home buyers have that going for them. But Carmen and her partner do not.
CARMEN: I come from a low-income family. And so there was no money to give. And I have found that most of the people I know, who are able to buy in this market, are people who have help from family. And it’s not just money for a downpayment, right? If you had years of your adult life, living at home, rent free, where your parents paid your bills, like that’s financial help from parents, if the parents paid for your education, you don’t have student loans, like your parents helped finance your adult life. And we like, I don’t have access to that.
But you know, I shouldn’t have to right? Like, a working professional who’s successful and financially responsible shouldn’t have to go to the bank of mom and dad to be able to afford a house.
ROMA: We talked about this in a previous season - parents helping their adult kids with their everyday finances, something the pandemic has made increasingly common. And when we did our own survey less than a year ago, asking parents how much financial help they were giving their adult kids - over 2000 parents responded and 95 per cent said they give their adult kids financial help.
To Carmen’s point, we found out that parents help in all kinds of ways -- tuition, rent, groceries, even. But the big one that matters today is help buying a home.
ROB: Almost one-third of those who responded to our survey said they gave their kids a gift of cash for a home down payment. Now, parents helping kids buy a house is not new, but the amount of help is absolutely growing.
ROMA: It seems that for millennials, a gift from mom and dad is the only way to even think about getting into the housing market, at least in a big city.
WALEED: It seems like unless your parents are going to give you, you know, $100,000 up on your down payment or $200,000 then it’s really not going to move the needle enough to do anything
ROB: That’s Waleed. He is our next guest.
WALEED: My name is Waleed. I’m 25 years old. And I live in Courtice, Ontario.
ROB: Courtice is an hour east of Toronto. Waleed graduated recently, works in marketing and makes around $70,000 a year. It’s less than the sky-high income Carmen and her partner make but 70K for a 25-year-old is a really great income! And he’s worked hard for it, saving and staying focused on his goal, which is to buy a house.
WALEED: Even from an earlier age like I always knew I didn’t want to be, you know, renting for a long time, I didn’t want to be spending a lot of money on rent. And, it goes back to kind of being mindful of my finances. So I knew that I didn’t want to rent and I’d have to save up so I can buy a place. And I’ve always had the goal that, you know, in 2021 maybe by the summer I wanted to you know, put down a down payment on a house, get a mortgage and just start with something and I don’t you know, it doesn’t have to be detached home or you know something with a big yard but I wanted to get my own property.
ROB: Waleed works in Toronto so that’s where he started looking. But he quickly realized that the Toronto real estate market was way out of his budget.
WALEED: When I started looking, I was looking in Toronto, because you know, I work out of Toronto, I don’t want to have too big of a commute. But then when the pandemic hit, everyone started to kind of move out of the city and kind of push further and further out. And prices in Toronto were already very steep there. And so I started to push instead of Toronto, sort of looking at maybe Scarborough, Pickering. Ajax Whitby; I kept pushing further and further out.
ROB: It’s like he’s reading a map. He’s just naming all the suburbs moving out further and further east from the downtown core of Toronto. Waleed had saved $60 000 dollars for a down payment. He got to know exactly how much he would qualify for, when it comes to a mortgage.
WALEED: I was hoping originally to put down you know, 20% down payment, But the reality is, you’re on a single income with the stress test that the banks out there, I wasn’t getting approved for anything like, you know, I was in the $350 000 range getting approved, and I have good credit, I have a decent salary. But it seems like $350 000 was, you know, I spoke with a few banks, I spoke with some brokers and it seemed like that was the range that most were comfortable to provide.
ROB: The dream initially was to buy a townhouse. He was looking outside of Toronto in those eastern suburbs he mentioned.
WALEED: I realized that, you know, these townhouses were starting to go for $700, 000, $800 000. And it was, you know, you start to get very unattainable.
ROB: Condos in the burbs were next on his list.
WALEED: So then I started looking at these condo-style townhouses or the row housing where, you know, you kind of just get one floor and one little section of it. And those were starting to kind of fall in my range, like, you know, they were 450, or the low, four hundreds, but they were still getting bid up. And the problem with these as they start to, you know, you’re starting to look at condo fees, you know, $300, $400, $500 a month. And once you start layering in those considerations, brokers told me, well, if there’s going to be condo fees, you got to bring down what we’re gonna approve you for.
ROB: That’s right -- the higher the condo fees, the lower a mortgage you can get. So those fees really do matter. As we mentioned before, a lot of millennials get financial help from their parents. But just like Carmen, that wasn’t an option for Waleed.
WALEED: My parents have always been very supportive, but it’s just, you know, immigrating, and you know, kind of building from scratch, it’s like, they never had a lot of savings, they never, you know, were able to start, you know, fund for me when I was a kid and just save all, you know, all these years. So, I have three other siblings. So there’s four of us, and then my two parents, and just always going to school, I kind of knew that I had to fund it myself, and kind of get through it myself. And so that’s why I always work part time jobs, and I worked on campus, and I did the summer internships. When it comes to buying real estate, like I think I can, you know, they’ve, we’ve spoke about it, and we can get a little bit of help, but it’s not going to be enough to move the needle.
HOST: So house prices in the city are out of reach, house prices outside the city are out of reach - what options are left?
WALEED: It’s like, Okay, well, these are the prices in Toronto, and these are the prices of one hour outside of Toronto, these are the prices two hours outside of Toronto. Is there a point in even trying to stay like is that really that convenient? Being two hours from where you want to be? So I’m like, Okay, well, should I, you know, do I need to start expanding this search, Ottawa was looking the same as the GTA now, so you can’t really go that way. Kingston started with the same and Belleville started to kind of look the same. So it’s like, do I need to go push myself to Calgary? Or do I need to go, you know, out west where maybe the housing bubble hasn’t kind of inflated like that, or I need to look south of the border, you know, look somewhere else, like looking in Texas, in El Paso or in Austin, Texas, where you know, a three bedroom house with a pool is like $300,000. It’s like, how can I justify paying $600,000 for a condo here, when you can get all that south of the border?
ROB: It’s clear millennials think the only path to home ownership is to make these massive sacrifices - to move out of the city away from friends, and family. How does this all feel?
WALEED: It’s been a little bit demoralizing
ROB: Demoralizing is a word that I think describes a lot of the feedback we’re getting from readers about their experience in the real estate market. They are depressed, they’re giving up, they’re losing hope.
ROMA: I’m absolutely struck by the intensity of the drive that I’m feeling right now from young people to buy and own a home. It’s something that I haven’t seen in this kind of intensity. And I think it’s all been amplified by the pandemic. Young people feel betrayed. They feel like they’re being lied to. They did all of the right things. They went to school, they got their degree, they saved some money. And the next step as prescribed to them is going to be homeownership. And they’re not able to do that. And so of course they feel upset. Rob, what do you think’s driving this intense need to get into the housing market right now?
ROB: You know, I think the pandemic just created this wave of desire to move into a home and it’s feeding on itself. And it’s growing. And it’s snowballing. And it’s creating almost a frenzy. I have to be honest, it looks like a frenzy to me. I think it’s, it’s detached from reality. I think there’s this drive to buy homes, people are looking at doing this getting into the housing market. And is it the right thing for them at this moment in their lives? Do they really need to own a home? Or do they feel that if they don’t get in, it’s game over and they never will? I think there’s a lot of FOMO To be honest, I think a lot of fear of missing out on the experience of homeownership if you don’t dive in now.
ROMA: Let’s not forget, too -- it’s really divisive issue, right? Because the people who own homes are sitting on this pile of wealth and the people that can’t buy one they want in. So I think the fear of missing out plays into that. And I think what’s alarming is the fact that people are, you know, getting placed into situations where they’re getting forced to make offers for homes that are not reasonable and putting offers on places they can’t afford.
ROB: I think it’s worthwhile interjecting here that what is happening in housing is not a good thing. It is stressing people out. It’s getting them into situations where they feel that homeownership is this goal that they really want, and it would be best for them, but they can’t get their hands on it. I don’t think what’s happening is healthy, but we have to live in the world in which we are and we have to concede that people want this. They see it working for other people, and it’s super important to them.
Let’s give our three guests the last word. Here’s Carmen.
CARMEN: I’m really disappointed and frustrated that the federal government is not even acknowledging that there’s an issue. And, you know, there’s been a lot of talk about what policies should be implemented to cool the market or possibly help first time homebuyers.
But before we can even get to a policy solutions, we have to get agreement that this is not okay.
And we need to ask ourselves some important questions about how much inequality are we willing to accept in our society? And how much do we want to tell young people that their ability to become homeowners and not be renters for life depends on luck, and the birth lottery?
ROB: What does Waleed think needs to change?
WALEED: I don’t know if anyone really knows what you could do to kind of efficiently or effectively kind of fix the issues. But just for me, I think I would feel a lot more comfortable if there was just more transparency overall, from realtors, from sellers and even from builders, it seems like overall, like it seems like it can be quite predatory.
ROMA: What changes would Jessica like to see?
JESSICA: First of all, I would want to change the opinions and perceptions of people who already own property. Because I think that is a significant battle that anyone who is trying to address the affordability issue is coming up against. You’re fighting against that instinct with a lot of these people who own homes, because they feel like they have earned that equity in their home. When they didn’t, they just, the reality is they just had good timing,
ROB: You know, hearing these comments makes me a little bit sad, because I know these young people have put so much faith in the housing market. And they’ve seen such success being had in the housing market. And I think some of them, some of the today’s young Canadians are going to have to face the fact that either they will never own a house or it’s going to take a fair bit longer than they expected or they’re going to have to live somewhere where they didn’t expect, because I don’t know if we can turn things around and return to the affordability levels of yesteryear. What do you think, Roma?
ROMA: Yeah, you know, I really do agree with you. I think they’re up against this huge change, this idea that widely accessible homeownership, at least in Canada’s big cities, that might be behind us. And you know, Toronto and Vancouver, they’re joining these other international hyper-expensive cities, where most people never own. They remain renters. And what they don’t realize is that this is when it’s happening for them. So unfortunately, they’re living through that change.
ROB: We’ve covered a lot of territory in this episode. Roma, what are your takeaways?
ROMA: Here they are. One, housing market has never been more frustrating, but prices can’t keep skyrocketing at this pace forever. No one can say for sure what will happen but don’t be pressured into buying something you can’t afford.
Two, in the meantime, keep saving, build your downpayment and be ready to make your move when the market finally cools down.
Three, take advantage of what the pandemic has made possible -- remote work, find something cheaper further away and build a life there.
ROB: Thank you for listening to Stress Test.
This show was produced by Hannah Sung and Latifa Abdin.
Audio post-production by Kyle Fulton and Carlay Reem-Neal.
Our executive producer is Kiran Rana.
Thank you to Carmen in Toronto, Waleed in Courtice, Ontario, and Jessica in Abbotsford, B.C.
ROMA: If you like what you heard, let the world know! Leave us a rating and review at Apple Podcasts.
And if you know someone who wants to figure out how to stay on top of their finances, send them this show.
Our next episode is sticking with the theme of real estate but going in a different direction. Out to St. John, New Brunswick to be specific. We’re examining the trend of leaving the big city in order to afford buying a home. Make sure you listen for that.
ROB:You can find Stress Test at Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.
And find us at the GlobeandMail.com, where we cover all things financial.
Thanks for listening.