Thursday, September 22, 2005


Prices: where are they headed ?

Money is the source of all evils - so goes the popular saying. Money is also what makes real estate spin around. So the critical question of the year becomes: where are real estate prices headed? Short of using a crystal ball, there are indeed a few considerations that can be made to have a general idea as to whether prices will continue to surge - at the average rate of 15 percent a year for the past four years - or, alternatively, if we are poised for a shift in the market.
Record-low mortgages, pent-up demand and improving consumer confidence have made this the fourth consecutive best year for home and condo sales in the Greater Vancouver area. The sales-to-active listings ratio, defined as the number of sales at any given time relative and directly in function of the number of inventory listings available at the same time, is over 30 percent compared to about 20 percent in a balanced market. If we want to be even more technical, price increases have been rising at about 7 to 8 times the national inflation rate, a sure sign that demand has consistently exceeded supply which, in turn, has made real estate a Seller's market for the most part of the past four years.
And the consequence of this all, albeit you may not have directly noticed, is that Canadians are getting richer because of built-up equity. You bought a condo, for instance, in 2003 for CAD $150,000 using a $100,000 mortgage at 4.5 percent interest calculated semi-annually, not in advance. Your condo is worth, today, $195,000 in 2005 Dollars. Your loan has now diminished to an outstanding balance of approximately $97,770 so that, therefore, you have acquired a built-in equity of CAD $97,230. Since you initially invested CAD $50,000 of your own money, your return has been $47,230 in two years or a hefty 47.23 percent per year. Not too shabby. That sure beats the stock market.
Will you be making another 47.23 percent at the end of 2006 ?
You probably will, unless certain economic forces will conjure up against you. These forces - or variables as they are known in economics - are: energy cost, interest rates and affordability. Now, here there are a few clouds looming on the horizon that may make the future look somewhat different from the past.
Energy costs are on the rise. And Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita and the hurricanes that will come afterwards do not help. To be sure, energy prices were on the rise even before the hurricanes that have devastated the Gulf region came around. In fact, most economists still predict no overall long-lasting impact from Katrina. Yet, the same economists also predict that energy costs will not come down to pre-2004 levels. The rises are here to stay, and that applies to all motor vehicle fuels, natural gas, electricity. Everything that affects our capitalistic economies, and not solely in North America. Prices of consumer goods, henceforth, are on the rise as well because it is costing more to produce and to ship them all around. Each and every house component is bound to cost more as well. And the people that are in the process today of building your future dream home or your next real estate investment ... they too will have to pay more to go to the work site. And, taken globally, a rise in manufacturing and shipping costs typically translates in an overall currency devaluation, a noble way to avoid mentioning the infamous i-word: inflation.
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan - Mr. Monetarist as some affectionately call him - has been saying this all along this past year. Except that nobody wanted to listen. Reality was much rosier than the somewhat gloomy outlook offered by the venerable Chairman. And the Fed has been keeping the steady course of raising interest rates, albeit not hurriedly or in a draconian fashion. And they continue to hold this course.
Which, then, brings us to the third variable: affordability. Let's take a look back at the initial example of you buying a condo in 2003 for $150,000 with $50,000 of your own money. Ask yourself this question: could you, today, buy the same condo for $195,000 with the same $50,000 downpayment ? If you are like the majority of real estate consumers, the answer is probably no. You would need a $145,000 mortgage today as opposed to the $100,000 mortgage you took in 2003. Which means you would have to show your lender that your gross income has increased of $15,000 per year - which probably has not. Bankers say they cannot lower their qualifications standards as they are working on the bare minimum (I still have to meet a banker dying of starvation, but ...). Which, therefore, leads to the conclusion that you would not qualify today for the mortgage. Such being the case, you would no longer be what we in real estate call a 'market participant' . And if a lot of people are or will find themselves into the same situation, the end result will be a lower demand.
So, therefore, what's the verdict? Are prices going to continue to surge or are we heading for Apocalypse Now? Probably neither. But if the foregoing models hold true, it is reasonable to expect a slowdown in appreciation of property values - which in turn implies a correction in prices. Those of us who are involved into real estate on a professional level are beginning to see this already: asking prices are somewhat shifting down, although asking prices are not really reflective of market trends due to their very subjective nature. And it must also be noted that a shift downwards in asking prices is a far cry from the dreaded real estate bubble some people have been prognosticating all along. But it looks more and more that the market is due for an adjustment.
Luigi Frascati

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