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Managing Toronto realtors frustrated by the soaring housing market

A realtor's sign is placed on the front yard of a home for sale at 138 Barton Ave. in Toronto on Mar 20, 2017. The number of homes for resale in some parts of Toronto are very slim, with housing prices often going for well over asking in some cases.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Every time real estate broker Chander Chaddah has to tell one of his clients they didn't get the house they bid on, "I'm the guy who's punching my client in the stomach," he said. "Unless you're some kind of masochist, who enjoys doing that?"

That's just one of the reasons that Mr. Chaddah of Sutton Group Associates would like to see some of the heat go out of the Toronto area housing market, which saw the average selling price of a home climb almost 28 per cent in February year-over-year.

"People think this market is just awesome for agents," Mr. Chaddah said. But for GTA realtors – who essentially operate as small businesses – that atmosphere of "irrational exuberance" (to quote former U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan) creates a host of problems, from lengthier home searches to pressure on commissions and a generalized nervousness about how long the market can charge ahead at such a break-neck pace.

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One of the biggest problems is the supply of housing simply hasn't kept pace with demand. The Toronto Real Estate Board's (TREB) multiple listings service registered 9,834 new listings last month; down 12.5 per cent from the same time last year.

That translates to bidding wars on houses and condos, and plenty of disappointed buyers. Mr. Chaddah has represented clients who've put in six or seven unsuccessful offers. "It's demoralizing," he says. "You get buyers who just give up."

For subscribers: The real reason house prices in Toronto are soaring

Chris Carroll, a realtor with Royal LePage State Realty in Hamilton, says that GTA effect has expanded beyond the megacity as well. "The Toronto influence has been so huge that people come in and throw money at the housing market in a way we're not accustomed to," he says. "As long as Toronto remains unaffordable for a lot of people, Hamilton's attractiveness will increase."

It's common for properties to garner 10 to 18 offers in this "Wild West-ish market," Mr. Carroll said. As a realtor, that means he spends countless nights and logs numerous miles trying to find homes for buyers. "A lot of times you're sitting at some broker's office at 8 p.m. waiting to find out if you're even in the hunt," he says. "You really work for it."

On the opposite side of the coin, says Mr. Carroll, "you'd have to really screw up a listing not to get a sale." But that means sellers sometimes push for a reduction in commissions. "People are saying, 'You guys are making a good dollar and it's not going to take you very long,'" he says.

Some realtors justify their fees to clients by throwing in value-added services such as staging. But that involves a financial outlay that increases their risk level.

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"In the old days, prices were a lot lower, but my costs were lower, too," Mr. Chaddah said. "I never had to put up more than $1,500 to get a listing on the market. That was the level of my own financial commitment to the project."

Now, he says, it's not uncommon to spend $10,000 on staging for a big house. "That's all money that goes out the door and if the seller decides at the last minute not to sell their house; you've committed money that you may not see again," he says.

On top of that, sellers' agents typically pay for the MLS listing and advertising costs for the property, as well as marketing materials such as floor plans, photos, signs and video tours.

Both buyers' and sellers' agents pay hefty fees or commissions to their brokerage and cover their own marketing costs, client gifts, desk fees, vehicle and office costs. "That's money that goes out the door no matter what," Mr. Carroll said.

Worries about the long-term sustainability of home prices also weigh heavily on realtors' minds. Although no real estate agent wants to use the term "housing bubble," there's a panicky quality to this market that makes many nervous.

Real Estate Homeward agent Collette Skelly has represented buyers who are dead set on purchasing in a particular area and are prepared to pay more than the value of the house they want based on comparable sales.

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"This really feels like the top of the market," she said. "If we get a correction it may take three to five years before things return to normal and buyers might feel angry that they overpaid." Because real estate agents value return clients and word-of-mouth referrals, "I worry about angry, disappointed clients."

Mr. Carroll agrees. "Right now sellers are just solidly in the driver's seat," he said. The market has been "taking quantum leaps in value" that make it difficult to price homes based on historical data, and encourages buyers to take on more risk by increasing their debt level and waiving conditions to get a deal.

Mr. Carroll, for one, looks forward to a less frenetic pace. "I would not be a fan of seeing the bubble burst, but if the market levelled off for a few years to allow incomes to catch up, that would be great," he said.

The 2017 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit is a one-day conference of insightful sessions, proven business growth strategies and innovative ideas from the country's brightest business leaders. Full details at www.globesummits.ca.

A new real estate report from Royal LePage analyzing trends in the last quarter of 2016 suggests that the GTA will become the hottest housing market in the country in 2017, surpassing Vancouver.
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