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Mortgages & Rates Real estate is no longer such a gusher for Alberta sellers

Ola Malik, looking for a new home in the Marda Loop area of Calgary, might be able to find a bargain but that means he will also take a hit on his own home when he sells it.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

This is the fourth in a series of stories looking at the challenges faced by different generations of people who are in the market for a home – from first-time buyers, to growing families, to boomers who are downsizing.

If Tasha Ptasinski had put her Calgary condo on the market last year before oil prices crashed, she would have come out farther ahead.

"I bought it almost exactly two years ago for $310,000," the occupational therapist says, describing the 1,100-square-foot unit she owns in the city's southwest.

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"I'm now hoping to sell it because I'm getting married and my fiancé owns a house. I was hoping to sell it for $399,000, but we've only had three showings in a week and a half, so now I'm looking at dropping the price by $10,000. I was hoping to list it for $20,000 more but it has been on the market for more than three months and it hasn't moved."

It's not much better for Ola Malik as a prospective buyer either. "I'm looking to buy a smaller residential home in Marda Loop [also in south Calgary]," says Mr. Malik, a 44-year-old lawyer who works for the city.

"The problem with buying is that there's a lot of inventory right now. You see a lot of homes for sale, and while they're at reductions of 10 per cent, if you're selling your house to buy one you also have to take a hit."

Welcome to the new reality in Alberta's post-oil-shock housing scene. It's not quite a bust – not yet at least – but it does leave buyers and market watchers wondering.

"It is expected that Calgary will move from a seller's market to a more balanced market," says analyst Ben Myers of Fortress Real Developments, who has just published the company's semi-annual survey of Canada's real estate scene.

"In October, Calgary was ranked as the top real estate market to watch for 2015. That optimism has faded. ... Demand clearly exceeded supply in late stages of 2014," he says.

Meanwhile, Fort McMurray, the oil sands centre to the north, experienced a 66-per-cent decline year-over-year in housing sales in February, after posting an annual decline of more than 53 per cent the month before. In February just 48 homes were sold in the city of 76,000, according to MLS figures.

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In Edmonton's market, by comparison, "Potential layoffs in oil and gas may be fewer than some expect," says Mr. Myers, citing a recent survey by the human resources company Mercer.

"The survey of 154 oil and gas industry organizations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico conducted in December and January reveal that just 16 per cent of those firms may reduce staff this year," he adds.

That's already a few months ago though, and as low energy prices linger, layoffs continue. Talisman Energy has cut its work force by 10 to 15 per cent (up to 200 jobs), ConocoPhillips Canada has announced 200 job cuts and Nexen has said it too is chopping 400 jobs. "These are good jobs. You have a lot of engineers getting laid off," says Mr. Malik. "Homes that are selling at $850,000 or higher are not moving very fast [in Calgary]."

Just this week, the Calgary Real Estate Board released statistics showing that home prices in the city slipped for the second month in a row in March, down 0.85 per cent since the start of the year. (Figures from Edmonton's board indicated average prices grew 1 per cent in February year-over-year and were slightly higher than in January.)

Calgary real estate agent Marc Doll agrees that the market is sluggish compared to a year ago, but he doesn't think it's time for anyone to push the panic button yet.

"There seems to have been a lot of speculation that Calgary was going to fall off a cliff when it came to oil prices going down, but I'm personally not seeing that," he says. There are still buyers and he has had properties with multiple bids offered (which is commonplace in still-hot markets such as Vancouver or Toronto).

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Realtors in the Calgary market are selling about 400 homes a week right now, Mr. Doll says. "It's kind of on the lower end, more tending toward the buyer than the seller. You'd like to see that market at more than 500 but it's not the end of the world."

In early March there were about 5,700 homes for sale in the Calgary area, Mr. Doll adds. That's a lot but not nearly as much of a glut as in 2009 just after the stock market crash, when 11,000 homes were on the market. "That was about the worst market I experienced in 10 years," he says.

Calgary homes of between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet in the $400,000 range are getting the most traction from prospective buyers, Mr. Doll says. Those in the desirable inner-Calgary communities that trend up toward $1-million are moving more slowly.

One thing keeping the market moving even with low oil prices and layoffs is record low mortgage rates. "It's basically free money," Mr. Doll says.

This doesn't make things easy for those in most need of housing, says Sue Tomney, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Calgary. "For the women and families we serve, it doesn't address their issues of poverty, which prevents them from renting an apartment if they could find one," she says.

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