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Can the government save the middle-class wannabe homeowner in Toronto and Vancouver?

With a new federal housing strategy coming imminently, let's catch up on what the recent ups and downs in Canada's most expensive real estate markets mean for affordability.

Remember the Paul Simon song Slip Slidin' Away? That's your life if you're not a high earner and trying to afford a home. Toronto and Vancouver are markedly less affordable than they were two years ago, and Victoria and Hamilton are similar. Elsewhere, the news is quite a bit better.

Using an old-fashioned affordability measure that says a home should cost no more than three times your household gross income, housing markets in St. John's, Halifax, Saint John, N.B., Quebec City, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton look manageable. Calgary's only a little on the expensive side, as is Montreal.

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It was November 2015 when this column last looked at whether buyers had any hope of getting a house for three times income. Toronto and Vancouver were affordability sore spots then, and they're worse today. Toronto's average resale house price in October was 9.3 times median total family income; two years ago, prices were 8.2 times income. Vancouver came in at 12.7 times income in October, compared with 11.2 two years ago.

The story of these two cities is that while sales levels have been volatile in the past couple of years, prices have increased at a higher rate than income. You have to wonder if the tradition of middle-class home ownership in these cities will fade away should these trends continue. The national housing strategy expected Wednesday will be closely read for ways to address this issue.

The next tier of affordability is Victoria and Hamilton, located in the orbit of Vancouver and Toronto, respectively. Victoria and Hamilton are still markedly less unaffordable than their bigger neighbours, but they're still pricey on the basis of how incomes compare with prices.

The affordable markets across the country break into a few different groups, the first being cities where house prices are just plain cheap. Saint John is a great example – the average price in October was $168,575, just 2.1 times income. Average prices in Halifax, Quebec City, Regina and Saskatoon were below $300,000, with St. John's just a bit above that mark, and houses can be had in each for roughly three times income.

Another type of affordable city leans more on high incomes than cheap houses. Ottawa's a good example. The average house price in October was $369,200, while family incomes were second-highest behind Calgary at $107,100.

The third grouping of affordable houses is represented by Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal. Price-to-income ratios in these cities are in the 3.5 to the low 4 range – also not bad.

Incomes for this analysis were calculated by taking the latest numbers from Statistics Canada, from 2015, and then updating them to 2017 levels using the inflation calculator on the Bank of Canada website. The average inflation rate over the past two years was 1.4 per cent, while the average resale house price for the 15 cities looked at here rose by 6 per cent.

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As always, when you look at national housing numbers, the heavy impact of Vancouver and Toronto has to be noted. Average prices in these two cities rose 22 and 19 per cent, respectively, over the past two years, skewing the overall numbers higher. In fact, average prices in six of the 15 cities – St. John's, Halifax, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon and Calgary – fell over the past two years.

The Vancouver and Toronto markets have been volatile in recent years as measures taken by various levels of government to contain price increases butted up against strong demand from domestic and foreign buyers. Sales levels in the two cities have been down over some time frames, and so have prices. But the bottom line over the past two years is that houses are considerably more expensive for middle-class buyers.

Higher interest rates or a recession might reverse this trend, and so might new government measures to cool housing that kick in next year. Barring those developments, wannabe homeowners are going to have to look at other cities for homes that are affordable by the historical standards. For strong incomes and affordable homes, Ottawa and Calgary stand out.

Where the affordable houses are

Here's a look at housing affordability in 15 cities across the country. The measure of affordability is the ratio of price-to-gross household income. The old rule of thumb is that a house should cost about three times income. This is still possible in some cities.

City2017 Median Family Income ($)*October 2017 Average Resale House Price ($)Fall 2017 Ratio of Price to Income Fall 2015 Ratio of Price to Income
St. John's99,124308,0363.13.3
Halifax88,442286,0263.23.3
Saint John79,993168,5752.11.9
Quebec City90,119278,6723.13.0
Montreal79,190329,3004.24.5
Ottawa107,100369,2003.43.5
Toronto80,559747,8009.38.2
Hamilton90,140527,9915.95.2
Winnipeg84,264294,8433.53.4
Regina100,791289,0002.93.1
Saskatoon97,333299,9003.13.4
Calgary107,449433,0004.04.2
Edmonton104,836370,4843.53.6
Vancouver82,2571,042,30012.711.2
Victoria92,250620,4006.75.7
Average for these cities92,256424,3684.74.5

Source: Canadian Real Estate Association, Statistics Canada, Bank of Canada

* The most recent Statistics Canada data, for 2015, has been inflation-adjusted to 2017 levels. 

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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998. Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More

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