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Research firm RealNet Canada Inc. found that there were 1,984 asset sales of more than $1-million last year in Toronto.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Real estate firms chased commercial properties in the Greater Toronto Area like never before in 2012, setting a record for both the number of deals done and the value of those deals.

Research firm RealNet Canada Inc. has crunched the numbers and found 1,984 asset sales of more than $1-million last year, for properties such as office buildings, industrial complexes, retail space, hotels and apartments. About $13-billion worth of deals were done in total – more than double the level of 2009, when the market bottomed out in the wake of the financial crisis.

These figures show the sector has undergone a speedy recovery in the last two years after transactions took a tumble in 2008, when credit dried up and companies were scaling back. Last year's record surpasses that of 2011 by $380-million. The number of large deals was up, with a record 14 asset sales of more than $100-million.

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The rebound, which comes at a time when the economy remains on risky ground, is raising questions about whether a peak is near. But the figures show that, for the time being, Canada's most populous city is on a roll, and real estate firms are willing to gamble on long-term investments in the area as job growth continues.

Even excluding the blockbuster $1.28-billion deal for Scotia Plaza in the heart of the city's financial district, investment in office properties hit $2.85-billion, up eight per cent from 2011. The TD Canada Trust Tower, Standard Life Tower and RBC Centre were among buildings that saw a change in their ownership over the course of last year.

And offices are fetching more. The value of office deals was a record, even though the number of deals – 153 – did not match the record 157 sales in 2006.

Land bought for residential, industrial and commercial properties accounts for the bulk of commercial activity, amounting to $4.89-billion, suggesting there will be plenty of construction down the road.

Total activity picked up as the year went on, boding well for 2013. The fourth quarter of 2012 was the strongest quarter of the year, with $3.87-billion worth of sales taking place. That's second only to the $3.95-billion worth of deals that were done in the fourth quarter of 2006.

"Toronto, Canada's largest city and commercial real estate market, remains one of the healthiest markets in North America, evidenced by the numerous cranes across the skyline," real estate firm Avison Young said in a report last week. "As 2013 commences, construction continues across the Greater Toronto Area in the office, industrial, retail and highrise residential condo sectors, setting the stage for continued healthy leasing and investment sales activity."

Nationwide, there is a shortage of product, as evidenced by the real estate investment trusts buying portfolios of properties, and by private funds buying REITs, the report said. "Very low current vacancy rates suggest more demand-side price upside, even though the large development pipeline may temper rent growth," Avison Young said. "As Canada appears to have reached a short-term top in pricing, the U.S. is just beginning to get its sea legs."

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"Coming off what will likely be a record year in commercial real estate investment sales in Canada, and given the small investable universe and competitive climate that has emerged, cross-border activity will grow further," said Bill Argeropoulos, director of research in Canada for Avison Young. More Canadian buyers will be looking for bargains in secondary markets, he said.

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