Our interviews with top experts on the market amidst Covid-19 identified these key factors making an impact now - and what to watch for next.
After hosting over 20+ hours of top expert interviews at our online Toronto Real Estate Summit last week at MoveSmartly.com, we feel like we've just completed a killer crash course in real estate, finally ascending to the ranks of those who’ve learned something new in lockdown (move over, pandemic sourdough bakers). You can now watch all Summit sessions on demand here.
When the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) crisis reached Toronto in mid-March, we were, like everyone, frightened by the loss of life and suffering of those around us and around the world - and stunned by the near total shutdown of our economy and our real estate market.
And then the questions from worried home owners, buyers, sellers and renters started coming in.
We decided to launch an online Summit, co-hosted by Realosophy Realty, to try to help by providing high quality information to real estate consumers given the anxiety we're all feeling.
After a week of truly insightful conversations with top experts, we can't say that the troubling and uncertain times we are in will be over anytime soon - but we've heard from many Summit viewers that gaining knowledge has made them feel a little more in control of their situations and better able to do what is best for them.
Here are the top seven takeaways from the Summit:
1. A beach ball bounceback?
Pre-Covid, the Toronto area real estate market was red hot in Feb, with 17% appreciation in home prices year over year; pre-construction condo sales were similarly robust, and the main worry was that the market might be overheating.
In spite of real estate being declared an essential service, the market came to a near complete stop in mid-March as we entered lockdown with April seeing an unprecedented 70% drop in sales volume.
Summit experts across the board were surprised by the near total bounce back of the market in June, as buyers and sellers returned in strength and sales volume recovered to the same level as last year.
Speakers Jason Mercer, Chief Market Analyst at the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board (View session here), and Shaun Hildebrand, President at Urbanation (View session here), a leading Toronto condo market research and consulting firm, suggested they will likely return to pre-Covid price projections with the average Toronto home price expected to rise to $900,000 and condo prices per square foot to rise by 6.5% by the end of this year.
This early strength has made the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) forecast which projects a fall in Canadian home prices of up to 18% by the end of the year in the wake of Covid-19 seem too pessimistic.
But experts at the Summit expressed caution about the longevity of a bounceback that was largely linked to the pent-up demand of active buyers who were unexpectedly locked down. Speaker Frances Donald, Global Chief Economist at Manulife Investment Management (View session here), has elsewhere recently likened consumer behaviour in the wake of the Covid lockdown to that of a temporarily submerged beach ball springing up out of the water. Summit co-host, speaker and frequent Move Smartly contributor John Pasalis of Realosophy Realty (View session here) has also previously written on why it's important to keep an eye on the factors more negative forecasts highlight. As Hildebrand told Summit viewers, without a recovery of the normal, longer-term drivers of home prices - such as immigration and job and income growth - the market would be "running on fumes."
2. A tale of two workers.
With 14% unemployment in Canada in the wake of Covid, many Summit viewers wondered just who is buying homes today and how home prices are staying up and even rising?
One explanation shared by Mercer and other experts at the Summit is that the unequal impact of Covid-19 on job sectors, with those in the services being hit much harder than those office workers able to transition to working from home, has a parallel in the real estate market, with office workers more likely to own (and be able to continue buying) homes and service workers more like to rent.
But the complexity of the jobs story will only continue - sharp falls in consumer demand in certain sectors coupled with re-opening restrictions on how organizations will have to operate going forward may result in a reduction in income even for those who have managed to keep on working in higher-end occupations such as dentists and university professors.
3. Working from home has driven buyers to outer burbs and cottage country.
Real estate professionals at the Summit reported a strong uptick in sales in the outer burbs and cottage country since June as many seek out better conditions as they work from home, home school children and bunker down in multi-generational bubbles while trying to avoid the risks of getting Covid felt to be higher in more dense urban areas. Recent sales stats show that the seven hottest municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with sales up by more than 40% are on average 86km from Toronto.
Summit speakers Donald and Lu Han, Professor of Economic Analysis and Policy at the University of Toronto, highlighted this as an important behavioural trend that may impact the Toronto area housing market in the years ahead.
Speaker Andrea DelZotto, Director and Executive Vice President, Community Development at the Tridel Group of Companies (View session here), Canada's largest condo builder, noted that just how long-lasting such consumer behavioural shifts will be are harder to assess: How long will we want to work from home once we no longer need to? Will there be a return to pre-Covid trends such as the preference for dense, mixed-use "15-minute" cities?
Even if Covid-19 health exigencies are shorter-term (far from a sure thing given concerns about returning Covid waves this fall and new pandemics in the future), a second trend, that of Canadians wanting to deleverage and downsize their mortgages as the Covid crisis has us all thinking about our personal finances more closely than usual (see point #6 on debt below), may make the movement to less expensive outlying areas a longer-lived one.
4. Renting is about to get cheaper.
Summit speaker Hildebrand notes that that condo rents were already on the decline pre-Covid as new condo units continue to reach completion in the Toronto area adding to supply. Overall, 2020 Q2 saw a decline of 3.5% per sq foot, with rents dropping further from 7 to 15% in more expensive, high supply downtown Toronto areas like the Entertainment District, Liberty Village and CityPlace.
Tighter regulations of short-term Airbnb-style rentals were also on the increase pre-Covid, including in the City of Toronto, leading to more units being offered to longer-term renters, adding to supply.
On top of this, Covid-19 has led to an unprecedented drop in non-permanent resident and foreign student arrivals, immigration and tourism, furthering dampening rental demand. Hildebrand noted that 25-35K non-permanent residents arrive in Canada every month, a number which dropped to 4K in April, and 11K in May. Since then, most foreign students have been advised not to travel to Canada while Covid restrictions remain in place.
5. Is the condo market (finally) about to slow?
While the condo re-sale market and a few new condo projects were initially part of the market bounceback story (see #1 above), Hildebrand, Mercer and other experts flagged the condo market as facing the biggest number of uncertainties going forward.
In spite of Covid-19, Hildebrand notes that the Toronto area condo market may see 20,000 to 25,000 units completed, the biggest number since 2014, representing a significant increase in supply during a period where rental demand is falling.
Add to this the spectre of falling rents (per #4 above), and it remains to be seen how investors who have enjoyed good financial returns on their condo purchases up to now may judge prospects going forward.
6. Debt is a real drag.
Canadian households are in debt, our companies are in debt and our federal and provincial governments are in debt — and this debt was increasing before the Coronavirus crisis hit.
As Summit speaker Hilliard MacBeth, author and financial advisor (View session here), noted, Canadian household debt has been climbing at a much faster rate than in the U.S. since the last economic slowdown in 2008, and at 176%, we now have one the highest household debt-to-income ratios in the world.
Even pre-Covid, there was concern that Canadians may not be able to manage higher mortgage payments in the event of rising interest rates, risking a downturn in the market.
Now, a second concern, that this debt makes the market more vulnerable in an economic downturn is on the front-burner. With 16% of Canadians households currently deferring their mortgage payments, how many households, stretched too far by falling income and job losses due to Covid, will be unable to make mortgage payments the longer this economic crisis continues - and when government assistance ends?
Speaker Mikael Khan, Bank of Canada economist (View session here), suggests the risk of Canadians defaulting on their homes is somewhat mitigated by the amount of equity Canadians have accumulated over the last 20 years of rising home prices. But for how long? Donald points out that our debt levels may make our economic recovery a sluggish one for years to come.
(If the Covid crisis has made you, like so many Canadians, think more closely about your own personal finances and debt situation, don't miss our tip-filled Summit sessions with Gail Vaz-Oxlade (View session here), Preet Banerjee (View session here) and Kerry Taylor (View session here).)
7. A longer-term boost for Canada and the Toronto Area?
Summit speakers were united in their agreement that the Canadian economy - and the Toronto real estate market - faces an unprecedented (perhaps *the* word for 2020?) number of risks.
Given this, one Summit viewer wondered why some speakers were still bullish on Toronto real estate in the long-term.
For anyone watching Toronto real estate for some time, it may feel like we've been here before - and emerged relatively unscathed. This blog itself originated in the last severe economic crisis we experienced in 2008. However, Summit speaker Kevin A. Bryan, Assistant Professor of Strategic Management, University of Toronto, cautioned against making a comparison between these two very different crises (View session here).
While no one minimized the depth and complexity of the current crisis, Mercer and Hildebrand suggested that some factors may make Canada even more attractive once travel restrictions lift: Canada's more open attitude to immigration, foreign workers and students than has recently been seen in the United States and Canada's management of the Covid-19 crisis itself which has seen its cases and death per capita remain lower than in the States. "I'm upbeat on the GTA over the long-term in terms of a place to work and its ability to attract new people into the region with all of them needing a place to live ," noted Mercer.
But the biggest question for now is just how we and our market will fare in the short-term, and at MoveSmartly.com we'll continue to track just how the many different factors identified by experts at the Summit actually play out.
Urmi Desai is Editor at Move Smartly, a leader in Toronto real estate news & analysis, and is Realosophy Realty's Chief Content Officer with responsibility for Realosophy.com and all consumer education and tools.
Urmi holds a B.A. in Political Science and English from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Trade Economics) at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada).