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August 2, 2020 | The Crash

A best-selling Canadian author of 14 books on economic trends, real estate, the financial crisis, personal finance strategies, taxation and politics. Nationally-known speaker and lecturer on macroeconomics, the housing market and investment techniques. He is a licensed Investment Advisor with a fee-based, no-commission Toronto-based practice serving clients across Canada.

“We’re doing a story about the potential for a residential real estate crash,” the email from glitzy mag Toronto Life read. “The premise is basically that prices have held steady for the past few months, despite crippling economic conditions, so does that mean the bottom will inevitably fall out?”

A follow-up phone call materialized from the editor (I explained no crash was near). Then another note arrived. Housing is a hot thing these days. Apparently, even bigger than the virus and glory holes. ‘Okay,” I relented. ‘Send me the questions.’

“Has anything surprised you about how the market reacted during the pandemic? Pls explain.”

The current market sucks. Bidding wars. Blind auctions. Bully bids. Multiple offers. Prices rising double-digits. Many are incredulous how this could take place in the midst of a global pandemic with the downtown core a ghost city and a withering 13% unemployment rate in the GTA. Eight million Canadians have been on government pogey for four months, and the GDP has crashed the most on record. Yet when it comes to real estate, we’re partying like it’s 2017 again.

The reasons are profound, and temporary. There was no spring market in 2020, since we were all going to die of Covid, and stayed home in our underwear. Hence a big pent-up demand once it appeared life was going to carry on. What normally happens in April this year took place in June.

Second, lots of demand was unleashed on scant inventory. Available listings shrank faster than a dude in the Humber when the virus arrived. Live showings halted. Owners were totally unwilling to have anyone view their homes. The choices for buyers once public fears started to dissipate were thin. Good properties were immediate objects of desire and competition. Prices popped.

Third, money’s cheap. Ridiculously cheap. The major lenders are quietly giving mortgages for less than 2% on a five-year term. Even decade-long loans are 2.5%. As central banks rushed to rescue the economy from the pandemic, rates were slashed and billions thrown at buying up mortgage securities. Liquidity is sloshing over the gunnels. As mortgage costs decline, of course, people can borrow more money on the same income. So they are. The fact we no longer have any fear of excessive debt is driving real estate higher, unwisely.

But these things are temporary. The demand surge will temper. More properties will hit the MLS. Unemployment will stay elevated. Any economic or public health reversal now could make those who overpaid in June regret things in November.

“You mentioned the likelihood of a potential residential real estate crash is “basically zero.” Can you flesh out how you came to that conclusion?”

Sure. If this were Calgary or Kelowna or Windsor, a protracted period of decline would be no surprise. Lots of places in Canada will have many problems for the next couple of years. But the GTA will fare better, because of a highly diversified local economy, the financial core, migration and the synergy of a six-million-strong market.

No, no crash – which we’d define as a 20% price correction. But this does not mean a rosy market, either. There are several worrisome trends.

“You mentioned there might be a flatlining in the 416. What factors do you think would contribute to that? How long would you expect that to last before prices recover?”

After this little boomlet, it reasonable to expect a far different market to emerge. As mentioned, swollen unemployment is not going to shrink anytime soon. It will be well in 2021 before we get back to the levels of February. Second, a serious number of people deferred mortgage payments,  ending in the next few months. An unknown number will still be without work and forced to sell, so more listings. Also many coming up for renewal may be unpleasantly surprised at the reception they get from lenders who were just denied six months of payments.

And big troubles with condos. Airbnb has collapsed. Pre-virus, the GTA had over 21,000 short-term rental properties. Hundreds of those have been hitting the market lately, with thousands more to come. Add to this the 15,000 units coming available as new construction is completed over the next two years. Supply will overwhelm demand. This is why condo prices and rents will decline, pulling the entire market back.

Finally, the virus. It freaked out millions. No surprise that detached sales in 416 have actually declined while those in the boring, soulless expanse of 905 have jumped. People want backyards. Front doors to the street. No elevators or garbage rooms, corridors or parking garages. Besides, Covid showed that a lot of companies can function perfectly well with employees working remotely. So no need to spend three hours a day on the QEW and Gardiner Expressway. The burbs are suddenly sexy. The clogged Kingdom of 416 is tarnished.

“How do you think it would impact the market if there was a much-dreaded second wave of coronavirus?”

Like an asteroid. Combine that with joblessness, more shutdowns, the condo plop, mortgage deferral cliff, CMHC rule tightening (no more HELOCs to finance rental props) and more risk-averse lenders and the market would be a smoky hole in the ground for at least a year. Until the vaccine.

But why would this happen? We’re all wearing masks now. Leaping off the sidewalks from each other. Lining up like ducks at the grocery store. Washing hands all day and bathing in sanitizer. This is not March. The authorities are not going to lock down society or turn off the economy again. If infections rise and hotspots develop, so be it. The virus risk ain’t going to zero. It never will. And it will be a long, long time before the herd is dosed and social distancing ends.

The best time is to buy a house is when you need it and can truly

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August 2nd, 2020

Posted In: The Greater Fool

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