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The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board tallied 75,140 sales through its Multiple Listing Service for all of 2022, 38.2 per cent below the 121,639 transactions seen in 2021.Mitch Fain/Mitch Fain

The real estate market in Toronto, Ottawa and many Ontario cities is off to a slow start in January with thin inventory, jittery buyers and Bay Street predicting another interest-rate hike.

John Lusink, president of Right at Home Realty Inc. and, says the market is more balanced between buyers and sellers at the moment but also complicated and unpredictable.

“It’s going to be a tough year,” he says.

The executive says listings are typically low in the first half of January and this year is in line with the trend. In the second week of January, his firm’s inventory stood at 1,884 listings across its 14 offices.

That compares with only 1,100 at the start of January last year when “fear of missing out” among buyers saw properties snapped up quickly.

“We aren’t seeing a surge of inventory,” he says, adding that many of the listings he sees coming on now are properties that did not sell in the fall.

For all of 2022, the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board tallied 75,140 sales through its Multiple Listing Service. That’s 38.2 per cent below the 121,639 transactions that flowed through the MLS in 2021.

With fewer deals to go around, another trend that Mr. Lusink has noticed recently is an exodus of real estate agents from the business. With sales volumes nearly cut in half, many who entered the industry in recent years are returning to their previous careers in information technology, teaching and other areas, he says.

According to TRREB, more than 70,000 licensed agents make up its membership, but Mr. Lusink believes the number has dipped.

Some people figured they could work part time in real estate while working from home during the pandemic, he explains. When the market turned, those who dabbled realized they would have to work much harder.

“It’s expensive to be in that business and not that easy.”

While Mr. Lusink senses some underlying optimism among market watchers that the spring will bring improving sales, he cautions that buyers remain hemmed in by unaffordability.

Some economists revised their interest-rate forecasts after the latest Statistics Canada data on employment showed unexpectedly robust growth. Financial markets are pricing in another 0.25-per-cent hike in the Bank of Canada’s benchmark on Jan. 25, with some pundits advising that the chances of a 0.50-per-cent increase have risen.

Buyers are already finding it more difficult to qualify for a mortgage, Mr. Lusink says, now that the key rate stands at 4.25 per cent and borrowers must pass a “stress test” on top of that.

Last week, Canada’s banking regulator, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, proposed changes to lending criteria and the stress test that could result in borrowers finding it even harder to qualify for a mortgage.

The tougher restrictions on the big banks would likely push more consumers to private lenders (who are not governed by the OSFI), Mr. Lusink says.

Sales volumes are down dramatically throughout the province, he says, with areas outside the main cities seeing a significant slowdown.

The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board reported sales tumbled 48.2 per cent in December compared with December, 2021. Mr. Lusink estimates that January’s transactions are also off 40 per cent or more compared with the same month last year.

But each sale is unique: in family-friendly Toronto neighbourhoods with good schools, Mr. Lusink has been surprised to see that some houses are still selling with multiple offers.

By contrast, properties are lingering longer on the market in the Niagara region, and in the communities surrounding Ottawa and Barrie, for example. During the height of the pandemic, people lined up the length of a block to buy new houses outside of the city, he points out.

“That home in the middle of nowhere seemed nice at the time, but maybe isn’t as good an idea now that they’re being called back to work.”

Andre Kutyan, broker with Harvey Kalles Real Estate Ltd., says the lack of affordability in Toronto continues to push some first-time buyers out of the city.

And even though house prices have come down in many areas, the increase in interest rates means they would still be paying more each month than if they had purchased one year ago.

One couple has a preapproved mortgage agreement that expires at the end of March.

“They’re locked in and motivated,” Mr. Kutyan says. “They are ready to pull the trigger but really don’t care where they live.”

The young professionals have a combined income of about $180,000 and a down payment of $200,000. They’re trying to move from their rented downtown condo to a house in the $850,000 to $950,000 range.

“I’m looking from Bradford to Brooklin,” Mr. Kutyan says of the wide territory.

In one case, a condo townhouse in Markham was listed in the fall with an asking price of $899,000. It failed to sell and now it is freshly back on the market with an asking price of $948,000.

The 1970s-era townhouse backs onto a railway track, he adds, but the seller may be hoping the higher price will be supported by the spring market.

In many cases, sellers are stubbornly unrealistic about their asking price, he says, pointing to the days on market.

One condo unit Mr. Kutyan visited with clients had been on the market for 207 days.

“You’re the first one here in a while,” the concierge said when he signed in.

Mr. Kutyan points to one new listing he is currently bringing to market at 96 Duplex Ave. in midtown Toronto.

A builder renovated the older house and listed it for sale with another agent in the fall for $3.25-million.

The house failed to attract a buyer and the builder asked Mr. Kutyan to take over the listing. He recommended a significant cut in the asking price to $2.849-million.

Mr. Kutyan has a positive view of Toronto real estate in the long term but he is not seeing signs of a spring rebound.

“In the short term, I think there’s going to be some pain,” he says.

In Burlington, Ont., Tanya Rocca of the Rocca Sisters Team at Royal LePage Burloak Real Estate says the average price jumped about 65 per cent during the pandemic, then dropped 25 per cent from the peak in February of last year.

Some homeowners have lamented missing the high water mark, but Ms. Rocca believes they are getting past that now.

“I feel like people are starting to come around to reality.”

Today, potential sellers are trying to choose the best time to list.

Ms. Rocca believes sellers are better off listing in January and February when fewer competing properties are on the market.

Some prospective buyers have been sitting on the fence for six to eight months and they’re keen to move on, she adds.

Rishi Sondhi, economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, says calling a bottom in housing is notoriously difficult, but he is sticking with his call that the market will level out in early 2023.

Mr. Sondhi says the timing of the trough is consistent with the central bank’s tightening cycle, which he expects to end with one additional hike this month.

Activity will likely remain depressed because the affordability backdrop is the poorest since the late 1980s and early 1990s, he cautions, adding that he expects 2023 to mark the weakest sales year since 2001.

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