Calgary has a glut of unsold condos, so earlier this year, with a tax on foreign buyers in Vancouver and another looming in Toronto, real estate developer Brad Lamb decided to take a chance on China.
Sales representatives with the Juwai.com Chinese real estate portal had been pestering Mr. Lamb to advertise with them. He posted listings for developments in Calgary and Edmonton to see if he could drum up foreign interest.
"I gotta tell you, it's been a gigantic waste of time," said Mr. Lamb, founder of Lamb Development Corp. Mr. Lamb had a long-standing suspicion confirmed that Chinese buyers prefer dealing with Chinese brokers. But on top of that, it reinforced fundamental differences between Canada's second tier of real estate markets, and Vancouver and Toronto – foreign investors just aren't that into Calgary. "They'll have their kick at Montreal and maybe Calgary, but they'll never be as big as Vancouver or Toronto."
Real estate watchers have spent months on the lookout for a ripple effect in other parts of Canada from recent attempts to cool overheated real estate price growth in Vancouver and Toronto. Their gaze has often turned to Canada's other top markets by size, Montreal and Calgary.
Those cities have their attractions: less expensive, direct flights to China and post-secondary schools hospitable to foreign students.
But they have relatively small Asian communities and they are not the lucrative speculative investments Vancouver and Toronto have been. Montreal has the added hurdle of requiring two languages for full engagement in economic and civic life.
Recently in Montreal, some real estate brokers were excited to report foreign buyers were helping move downtown condos and million-dollar homes in Westmount and the West Island – market segments that had long languished.
While the Montreal market is hot for Montreal, so far there is little evidence of a speculative bubble or the kind of influx of foreign buyers that could inflate one.
Prices in Montreal grew by 6 per cent in May compared to the same month last year, and sales volume set a record for the month with 15-per-cent growth.
Paul Cardinal, an economist with the Quebec Federation of Real Estate Boards, recently upgraded his 2017 forecast for the city, saying he expects it to be the fourth best year in history.
City council even recently debated incorporating the city's own foreign buyer's tax out of fear the city might be next. With long steady growth in real estate and prices two-to-three times lower than Vancouver or Toronto, the measure was shot down by Mayor Denis Coderre, who called Montreal a "distinct market."
The market, Mr. Cardinal says, is being driven by low interest rates, record-low unemployment and a strong economy. "Local demand from buyers is still the main driving force in the market," Mr. Cardinal said. "Foreign buyers who buy here tend to want to live here."
Montreal is in a relatively unique position in Canada because it has data on foreign buyers. Each residential transaction in Quebec is recorded at the provincial land registry with the residency of the purchaser. Quebec market research firm JLR scrapes data from the registry.
In 2016 there was a 60-per-cent increase in foreign purchases in Montreal, according to JLR. While a 60-per-cent hike sounds like a lot, it translates to an increase from 477 sales to 766 – still only 1.3 per cent of the 57,500 residential real estate transactions in Montreal. Numbers through May showed another 44-per-cent increase compared to the same period in 2016, but once again amounts to 352 transactions – a drop in the bucket among the tens of thousands of transactions for the period.
By comparison, foreign buyers are estimated to make up just under 5 per cent of the Toronto market. British Columbia's government says foreign buyers were 4.2 per cent of the market this spring, down from 15 per cent last summer.
Foreign buyers have a different profile in Montreal than the other major cities, notes JLR economist Joanie Fontaine. American and French buyers still outnumber the Chinese. "The strength of the American dollar remains a significant amplifying factor in Montreal," she said.
Still, anecdotes abound about Chinese interest.
Yu Li, a Montreal real estate agent who caters to Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking clientele, said million-dollar houses and new high-rise condominiums are attractive to his growing client list, but he said he doesn't see Asian investors frothing up the Montreal market. Many of his clients are not super-rich and are attracted by what they see as Montreal's bargain prices.
"I don't see a bubble forming. It's going to take quite a few years yet before it becomes a true sellers' market balanced out with buyers," Mr. Li said.
Mr. Li said he often sells to parents buying condos to house children attending one of the two English-language universities. McGill has had 242-per-cent growth in Chinese students attending the school in five years. Concordia has had a 35-per-cent increase in all foreign students in the same period. That kind of interest has helped chip Montreal's condo inventory down from 14 months to about nine – a level that still makes it a buyer's market.
In the wake of the Toronto tax, only Calgary registered a spike in interest. There wasn't a ripple in Montreal or other Canadian cities.
Calgary realtor Emma May set up a Mandarin website with Chinese partners to target luxury buyers. "We had over a million hits but nothing has translated yet," she said. "Does it mean it's not coming? I don't know."
Several players and experts in the real estate industry believe the big money will just end up back in Toronto and Vancouver once people adjust to the taxes and new rules. The fundamentals of the market – high demand and low supply – have not changed that much.
"Unlike Vancouver and Toronto, Calgary is able to add housing stock very easily and Montreal has great balance between supply and demand," said Brad Henderson, president of Sotheby's International Realty Canada.
"You know, if Vancouver and Toronto weren't getting all the attention, Montreal would be known as a very healthy market. Words like 'stable' and 'balanced' don't grab a lot of attention because they're boring. But boring is good."