Canada's luxury real estate market is attracting the attention of high-end auction houses, eager to provide a fast sale for multimillion dollar homeowners struggling to sell in the conventional way. And Alberta's depressed housing market, paired with a landscape rich in custom-built megamansions, is already proving successful under the gavel.
"Calgary is a significant market for us because of its boom and bust cycle," says Murray Lange, Alberta business development officer for New York-based Concierge Auctions. "During the boom times, people spend an exorbitant amount of money building big, customized, luxury properties, now we're in a more normalized market those homes aren't selling.
"There are 61 homes over $3-million on the market in Calgary today and only 13 sales so far this year. At the current rate of absorption, with no further listings, we've got a five-year supply. If you want to sell, there's huge competition; an auction can get you out in front of that market."
Concierge Auctions have sold more luxury real estate in Canada than any other auction house with 12 sales since November, 2013; eight of those sales have been in Alberta, with an average selling price of $2.4-million.
"Typically, properties we sell are upwards of $2-million and they're unique in some way, which means the buyer pool is shallower," says Mr. Lange, who sold his own home – a mansion in Southwest Calgary – via Concierge Auctions in June, 2016.
"Our home was custom built to suit our needs," he says. "Decisions we made during design had worked for us as a family, but made liquidity hard to achieve."
"We started the sales process with an ambitious list price in 2014," he continues. "The luxury market was still pretty good at that time but, after three price reductions in the first year, we fired our agent and appointed another. After another two price reductions and still no offers, we decided we needed a different solution."
Mr. Lange signed a deal to auction off his home to the highest bidder and, after a two-week marketing campaign, four bidders registered to compete for the home which sold for $2.5-million; it had previously been listed for $3.3-million.
It's a familiar story; in February this year, a custom-built estate home in Canmore – appraised at more than $4-million and on the market for more than three years – sold at auction for $2.4-million. Most recently, in June, a sprawling six-bedroom inner-city Calgary penthouse – previously listed for $2.325-million – sold at auction for $1.3-million.
Trayor Lesnock, founder of Florida-based Platinum Luxury Auctions, one of North America's biggest auction houses, says the vast majority of auction sales come only after all other methods have been exhausted.
"Less than 5 per cent of our sellers bring their home to auction as a first option. The majority have checked all the other boxes first before they arrive at an auction because auctions generally drive more demanding terms in order to make it work," he says.
Earlier this month, Platinum Luxury Auctions embarked on a joint venture with the only auction house founded and based in Canada, Garage Sale. The partnership, which is expected to result in the acquisition of Garage Sale by Platinum Luxury Auctions, was launched with the joint sale of a sprawling, 15-acre Okanagan estate on October 5. The home had been on the market for 15 years.
"The property actually set a new company record for us, being the longest listed property before auction," Mr. Lesnock says. "The last, expired, list price was $3.95-million and it was on the market at that price for a year with no offers."
A six week marketing campaign produced 198 enquiries, 102 showings, seven bidders and, ultimately, a sale price of $3.3-million.
The sale is Platinum Luxury Auctions' second venture into the Canadian market; their first was an estate sale in Thousand Islands, Ont., a year ago, which established an all-time-high resale price for the area. The home had been listed at $22.9-million and sold at auction for $7-million.
The sale confirmed to Mr. Lesnock that the luxury real estate market in Canada was viable and spurred his search for a business partnership.
"We knew that to break into Canada would require more operating bandwidth, so acquiring Garage Sale is a great fit. We plan to do a lot more business in Canada and we'll be taking Garage Sale's direction on where we focus our efforts," he says.
Alex Lambert, founder of Garage Sale, says Alberta is a top priority for the newly partnered companies.
"We're 100 per cent looking at expanding into Alberta; it's where I grew up and I'm very familiar with the area. A lot of folks in oil and gas, farming and logging are already very familiar with auctions as a platform for handling multimillion dollar assets," he says. "Albertans are auction people and the real estate market there is certainly ready for innovation."
Since 2014, Garage Sale has sold five properties in the Okanagan and on Pender Island, including the recent estate sale with Platinum Luxury Auctions, but Mr. Lesnock says he doesn't believe that's where their next auction will come from.
"We don't believe Kelowna will be the next sale because the market just doesn't sell that many high-priced homes each year; the market can't absorb that many," he says. "I think we'll be looking in a different market area; Vancouver or Alberta most likely."
For Mr. Lambert, Alberta's landscape makes most sense.
"Alberta also has a lot of very large ranches which require a different strategy to sell them" he says. "This isn't cookie-cutter housing, it's often highly specialized and some of those projects will require a very custom approach, which is what we do."
Meanwhile, Mr. Lange says that while Alberta, and in particular Calgary, remains a key market for Concierge Auctions, they're also focusing on expanding their presence into more buoyant markets like Toronto and Vancouver.
"If you have a sought-after property in a hot market and you sell to one of the first buyers that comes along, in the conventional process, how would you know you'd achieved the best price for your property? Why not invite all the interested parties to compete in a transparent way and achieve the best price possible?" he asks. "We think this approach works for all areas of the luxury-home sector and we believe it's just a matter of time before it becomes a more mainstream way of selling in Canada."