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Economic Insight Time may be soon for real estate decline in key markets

Residential and commercial buildings are pictured in Vancouver, British Columbia on June 20, 2011.

Jason Lee/Reuters

Toronto and Vancouver will be the key housing markets to watch when new statistics are released this week, raising the spectre of the B word.

"For lack of a better word, I would call it a bubble. A lot of people don't like using that word because it doesn't sound very scientific," economist David Madani of Capital Economics said in an interview. "But anyone who hasn't been asleep for the past 10 or 15 years will realize that there have been bubbles in stocks, commodities and housing markets in much of the developed world."

The question is whether it will soon be time for Toronto and Vancouver to start suffering a decline in real estate values. The Teranet-National Bank composite house price index (HPI), which tracks single-family homes in 11 regional markets across Canada, will show robust price growth in both markets when October numbers are released on Friday.

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Mr. Madani, who has been raising red flags about investing in Canadian real estate since 2011, said Edmonton and Calgary are feeling the pinch from lower oil prices. The weakening Alberta economy has prompted some recent house buyers in that province to harbour doubts about their timing in purchasing homes, he said.

"Regret is beginning to creep into people's thinking and feeling," Mr. Madani said, asserting that as energy companies continue to reduce spending and lay off workers, downward pressure will be put on housing prices in Alberta's two largest cities.

What the economic trigger might be in Toronto and Vancouver is anybody's guess, he said.

Canada's two most expensive housing markets comprise 54.1 per cent of the Teranet-National Bank index (the Census Metropolitan Area of Toronto accounts for 34.6 per cent and the Vancouver region 19.5 per cent).

Nationally, the index will likely show an increase of 5.8 per cent in October, compared with the same month in 2014, according to a research note from Capital Economics.

Vancouver and Toronto are experiencing a boom in real estate. Prices for single-family detached houses averaged $2.2-million in Vancouver proper in September, while the city of Toronto averaged slightly above $1-million.

Including suburbs, the Greater Toronto Area saw the price for detached homes in October average $823,177, up 9.2 per cent from a year earlier.

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Greater Vancouver's October average of $1.58-million for detached properties set a record high, a 26.7-per-cent jump from a year earlier. The price gap between detached houses and condominiums is now wider than ever at $1.09-million. Condo prices rose 5.7 per cent over the past year to an average in October of $494,689, short of the record $521,666 this past August.

A case study of sales of detached houses in three neighbourhoods on Vancouver's west side suggests a significant presence of buyers from China, according to Andy Yan, an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. Mr. Yan reviewed 172 detached properties sold over a six-month period, mostly in the Point Grey and Dunbar neighbourhoods.

The B.C. Real Estate Association forecasts that in Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, there will be 60,800 sales of detached houses, townhouses and condos in 2015, up 25 per cent from last year.

Mark and David Goodman, principals at HQ Commercial, said they are witnessing deep-pocketed investors from China leaving their mark on commercial real estate on the West Coast. "Targeted acquisitions in Greater Vancouver include development sites, strategically located land plays with development prospects still years off and existing commercial and multifamily assets," they wrote in their Goodman Report newsletter.

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