For shrewd Canadians who purchased a low-priced snowbird property in the wake of the U.S. housing crash, rising home prices and a weak Canadian dollar are prompting the question: Is it time to sell?
Since the bottom of the market in 2011, real estate prices have risen across the United States, including the states most popular with Canadian snowbirds – Florida, Arizona, California and Texas.
For example, according to online real estate database Zillow.com, the median residential sale price in Sarasota, Fla., rose from $126,000 in September of 2011 to $284,000 in November of 2014. In Phoenix, Ariz., the median sale price went from $116,000 in April of 2011 to $187,000 in December of 2014.
"The value of properties has increased over the last few years, and the market is getting back to normal – it's more stabilized or balanced than a few years ago," says Alain Forget, head of sales and business development for the Royal Bank of Canada in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Although the National Association of Realtors (NAR) doesn't have statistics about Canadians selling U.S. properties, some real estate agents south of the border have noticed an uptick in Canadian clients eager to sell.
"Oh my gosh yes, I'm doing a lot of listings," says Diane Olson, a Canadian-born real estate agent who specializes in snowbird properties in Phoenix. "And a lot of them are making money. Some of my clients have doubled the price [they paid for the property]. They also obtained their money at or close to par when they first bought, so they basically have a 15-per-cent-plus foreign exchange gain. What a great way to put cash in the bank."
Canadian clients who are opting to sell are either pocketing the profit or reinvesting by upgrading to a bigger home, Ms. Olson says. Then there are the people who bought 15 or 20 properties for investment purposes.
"Some will keep holding, because their return on investment is unbelievable," she says. "Where are you going to go to get a return like that? Others are saying, we're going to free up our money, take it while it's good and not get greedy."
Ken O'Brian, a real estate agent based in Naples, Fla., says that while some of his Canadian clients are selling their properties, most are holding because they feel the market will get even stronger in future.
"The projections we are hearing say that prices will be back to 2006 levels by 2019, 2020, so they are going to wait for a better time," he says. In particular, clients with waterfront homes are banking on the fact that their properties are even more likely to increase in value.
"Those are a different animal than inland properties," Mr. O'Brian says. "They aren't building any more beaches, so [property owners] are holding on to those."
In December, realtor.com chief economist Jonathan Smoke forecast that home prices across the United States will rise by 4 to 5 per cent in 2015, due to low inventory levels and demand driven by improved employment opportunities. Zillow.com predicts a more modest 2.9-per-cent increase nationally in 2015, specifically a 2.8-per-cent increase in Florida, a 3.7-per-cent increase in California and a 3.5-per-cent increase in Arizona.
But while most analysts agree that prices across the United States will continue to rise, some suggest that the pace of increase is slowing. In January, S&P Dow Jones Indices released the latest results of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, a leading measure of U.S. home prices. While the average home price in their 20-city composite was higher than it was a year ago, the rate of increase has been decreasing month by month. For example, prices in the 20-city composite gained 4.3 per cent year-over-year in November, compared with 4.5 per cent in October, and 4.8 per cent in September. (It's worth noting, however, that eight cities did see prices rise faster in that time period, including Miami, Tampa and Las Vegas.)
"Is it a good time to sell? If you are in upgrade mode and you have something on your radar, there is strong demand down there," says Don R. Campbell, senior analyst at the Vancouver-based Real Estate Investment Network and co-author of Buying U.S. Real Estate: The Proven and Reliable Guide for Canadians. "The economy for the country as a whole down south seems to be catching a bit more fire than it has in the past, and that means that you won't be selling just to investors or snowbirds, also to locals."
"But it will be even hotter next year from a market point of view. If these U.S. economy greenshoots that are showing up with job growth, especially in the southern sunbelt, if they are real and they stick, it should be much stronger even next year."
Mr. Forget says that in his experience, most buyers of snowbird property aren't risk investors looking to sell and make a profit. "They are more conservative and looking to buy for the long haul," he says. However, there are factors that are convincing some Canadians to take advantage of their profit potential.
"For snowbirds who are aging, in their late 70s or 80s, the cost of health insurance is so expensive, so they are saying they don't want to be in a crisis mode if one of them gets sick," Mr. Forget says. "They are selling their property, because they are saying, 'If we stay in good health and keep coming back, we will just rent.'"
Sometimes, it's a demographic change, Mr. Forget says. Perhaps they bought five or six years ago and now they have grandchildren. "They want to be all together at March break and they are finding that their condo cannot fit their family – kids and grandkids. Some are selling their two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo to buy a bigger property, while others are choosing to buy a larger property and keep and rent out their original one."
On the other hand, says Mr. Campbell, some snowbirds may be feeling relieved after buying property a few years ago and then realizing that U.S. home ownership isn't for them.
"A lot of people did get caught up in the dream and now reality starts to kick in – maintenance and tax rates and Home Owners Associations," he says. "Some people are saying, 'Thank goodness prices are up, I feel guilty whenever I go anywhere else except this property. Let's get out.' "
If you are considering selling your U.S. property, speak to your cross-border accountant first, Mr. Campbell says, because there are tax implications that could ultimately cost more than you anticipated.
"There are things like the 1031 exchange down in the U.S., where if you sell a property and you put that money back into another property or similar investment, you don't pay the tax, but this is the kind of thing you need to check with an accountant," he says.
While the potential to make a profit may be exciting, says Mr. Campbell, it's important to consider both the emotional and financial costs before selling a snowbird property.
"I would suggest that before you sell, you should know what you're going toward," he says. "What's next?"
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Jonathan Smoke is chief economist of NAR (National Association of Realtors). In fact, he is chief economist of realtor.com