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Report On Business Immigrants, echo kids, longer lives fuel housing market

It was the culmination of a long-standing dream. Earlier this year, Basant Singh and his wife Manjit Brar traded in their cramped basement apartment for a spacious four-bedroom house.

Their home in the Toronto suburb of Brampton gives the couple, who are from India, what their former residence could not: independence, bright sunlight, space for a big television and room for their 11-year-old son to wrestle, play soccer and have sleepovers.

"We are feeling really, really free," said Mr. Singh, who owns a small construction company. "It's like a dream." Mr. Singh, 39, who came to Canada in 1992, bought the home for $360,000 in May because he and his wife, 35, were eager to build equity and put down roots.

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Newcomers to Canada like the Brampton couple are, in part, fuelling the country's housing boom as they move from renting to owning, according to a new Statistics Canada report.

Most observers credit the long stretch of low interest rates for the housing boom of the past few years.

But the report shows that to fully explain the boom, you need to look at who is living inside those houses.

For the past decade, the housing market has been kept afloat by a growing number of young people, a growing number of old people, a surge of immigrants, and more single people and divorcees who want to live on their own, the Statscan survey shows.

"These people are out there buying as soon as they can," said Derrick Thomas, author of the article released yesterday and a senior analyst at Statscan. "Almost everybody wants to buy a home."

The early members of the "echo" generation -- children of the baby boom, born in the 1980s and early 1990s -- can be credited with part of the hot housing market, the paper says. This generation is large and growing, and now numbers about three million, or one in 10 Canadians.

This group of young people often rents housing, but because of its sheer size, the echo generation is sustaining the rental market, pushing up rents. This, in turn, has made buying more attractive. Plus, since mortgage rates are low, this group has a higher probability of buying a house than any other age group, Mr. Thomas said.

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At the other end of the age spectrum, older people are staying in their houses longer. Now, since they're healthier and living longer, they are not selling their houses in favour of renting or moving into an institution.

Also, since people are getting married later in life, and divorce rates are higher than in past decades, single people are abundant, and wanting to buy homes, the study shows.

"In short, Canadians have been spreading themselves over more housing units," it says.

The average size of a household in 1961 was 3.9 people, but that dropped to 2.6 people in 2001. The study is based on data from Statscan's survey of household spending from 1997 to 2003.

In cities, newcomers to Canada have been a driving force in the housing market. Immigrants typically arrive as young families and settle in cities.

"Their impact on the housing market is rapid and direct," the study says.

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In 2000, more than 40 per cent of households that had arrived in the previous five years lived in a home owned by a family member, according to census data.

That newcomers are driving the housing market is no surprise to immigration lawyer Max Berger, who sees a "growing degree of affluence" in his Toronto clientele. But home ownership is not limited to well-heeled immigrants. Former clients he represented as refugee claimants have gone on to find work and eventually buy homes, a process that can take about a decade, he said.

"They really had nothing, but through hard work and perseverance they've accumulated enough money for a deposit on a home and are able to arrange a mortgage and they're off to the races," he said.

But just as low interest rates don't tell the whole story of the housing boom, neither do demographics. They go hand in hand.

Each percentage point drop of interest rates between 1997 and 2004 lured about 16,000 additional home buyers into the market, Statscan data show.

The huge demand for housing in the early part of the decade, however, has driven up prices. And now that rates are on the rise, it's not clear that demographics alone can sustain the housing boom.

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Immigrants will continue to arrive, the baby boom echo is still large, and old people are still living longer. But the housing market is riskier now, especially at the high end, as other investments begin to look more attractive, Mr. Thomas said.

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