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For James Hsiung, selling in the Greater Toronto Area and buying outside the city made sense.Tanja-Tiziana/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When James Hsiung and his wife decided to sell their Aurora, Ont., home last winter, the Greater Toronto real estate market was hot. By the time they made their move to Niagara Falls earlier this year it was on fire.

Even in Niagara Falls, they found themselves in a fast-paced real estate market. They lost out on two properties before finding the home for them.

“You lose out on bidding wars and it’s so easy to fall into that emotional trap and say, ‘What the heck, what’s another $100,000’ because it’s tough to find a property you like,” says Mr. Hsiung, 46, director of business development, Asia-Pacific, at Telus Partner Solutions. His advice? “Don’t get emotionally attached. Be objective about it because that bidding process is cruel.”

Despite the uncertainty spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the real estate market across the country is booming. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, national home sales set a record in March, with activity up 76.2 per cent year-over-year. Sales decreased slightly in April but remain strong.

For Mr. Hsiung, selling in the Greater Toronto Area and buying outside the city made sense. Both he and his wife, who is an artist, are able to work from home.

“We saw an opportunity to recalibrate our life from a work-life balance perspective,” he says. “It was good for my mental health, and it was good for our finances.”

Mr. Hsiung is not new to real estate. He bought his first home in Markham, Ont., for $250,000 in 2006 and paid off the mortgage in six-and-a-half years. He and his wife bought their house in Aurora in 2015.

Both Mr. Hsiung and his wife, who is an artist, are able to work from home.Tanja-Tiziana/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When Mr. Hsiung and his wife decided to accelerate “semi-retirement” and move out of the GTA, they ensured they had a place to live so they wouldn’t be rushed into a decision. Most importantly, they did the math and set a budget.

“I don’t know how many people you see in Toronto who are house-rich but cash-poor,” he says. “All their assets are tied up in the house, so you end up with a negative impact on the quality of your life.”

Toronto and Vancouver are the hottest real estate markets in the country. Home sales were down slightly in April from March, but both cities set records; Toronto at 36.6 per cent higher than the 10-year average for the month, and Metro Vancouver at 56.2 per cent above the 10-year average.

It’s not a buyers’ market, yet buyers there are.

Taylor Biggar, chairperson of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, says house hunters need to be patient.

“Everyone’s getting really wrapped up in the craziness and I think that these times don’t last that long,” he says. “The right time is when you can do your due diligence and find what you’re looking for that meets your needs.”

For buyers, he recommends assembling a team you’re comfortable with – a mortgage broker, realtor, accountant, lawyer, notary – all the expertise you might need.

“That team will help get you prepared so you can execute quickly and make a sound decision, at least as sound as you can, given the fast pace,” he says.

There are reports that sales are going ahead without a home inspection or other conditions as bidding wars heat up. Mr. Biggar says consider pre-inspections, which many sellers will allow, or at least ask for what is called a sellers’ inspection.

“The buyers all have access to one inspection done by a professional, so they can all take a look at the same document,” he says. “Whether or not they trust that is a different thing.”

Mr. Hsiung's new 2,300-square-foot home has good neighbours and a backyard.Tanja-Tiziana/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The real estate market is cooling slightly, he says. Already, patience is paying off for buyers who waited out the frenzy in March.

“We’re going to start tapering off,” Mr. Biggar says. “There’s only so many buyers and sellers out there.”

In Vancouver and Toronto, however, there are also only so many homes, says William Strange, professor of economic analysis and policy at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

“We don’t build enough housing, which is kind of surprising from the perspective of both Toronto and Vancouver, where we’re building a whole lot of housing but a whole lot [still] ends up not being enough,” he says.

His advice to potential home buyers is, well, maybe don’t.

“The first thing I say to people is maybe renting would make more sense for you,” Mr. Strange says.

His second piece of advice is to consider somewhere else more affordable outside of Metro Vancouver or the GTA.

That said, real estate markets are unpredictable, but it’s unlikely that housing prices will drop drastically in either city, he adds.

“Unaffordable cities are likely to be unaffordable forever. I don’t think somebody who buys a house in Toronto today is probably going to get crushed on it,” he says.

He suggests potential buyers do their own financial stress test.

“The banks require stress tests on income and payments, but you might want to be even more cautious than the banks,” he says.

“A lot of people have the idea that you must buy a house; that if you don’t you are somehow a financial failure. You should just approach it like any other financial calculation. In which situation am I going to be better off in the end, buying versus renting at a comparable price?”

Mr. Hsiung is happy he bought. Their new 2,300-square-foot home has good neighbours and a backyard.

“My wife does have a green thumb,” he adds.