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Homes on Salisbury Ave. in Toronto are seen in this file photo.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canadian households kept debt at almost record levels in the first quarter, even as they benefit from rising asset values that saw their net worth rise to new highs.

Credit-market debt including mortgages, consumer credit and non-mortgage loans was 163.3 per cent of disposable income in the three-month period, compared with a revised record 163.6 per cent in the fourth quarter, Statistics Canada said Friday in Ottawa. Household net worth rose 3.4 per cent in $8.65-trillion.

Canadians have taken advantage of historically low interest rates to plow money into real estate and other assets, a practice that has fuelled national wealth amid rising home and stock prices. It's also increased the vulnerability of the country's financial system to any rise in interest rates or an economic shock.

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The Bank of Canada said in a report Thursday a crash in housing prices that are overvalued by as much as 30 per cent remains the biggest risk to the country's financial system, a danger that has edged higher on the drop in crude oil prices.

Total household credit market debt rose 0.7 per cent in the first quarter to $1.84-trillion, slightly below the pace of disposable income growth. Non-financial assets held by households, primarily real estate, rose 1.2 per cent while net financial assets jumped 6.2 per cent.

The gain was driven by a stronger U.S. dollar, boosting the value of assets held abroad by Canadians.

National net worth – including the government and corporate sectors – rose 2 per cent to $8.43-trillion in the first quarter, also a record.

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