Housing Trends and Affordability - June 2021
- Housing mania drives RBC’s affordability measure to its worst level in 31 years: RBC’s national aggregate measure rose for the third straight time in the first quarter of 2021, up 0.9 percentage points to 52.0%—last reached in 1990.
- Few markets escape the deterioration: Only spots in the Prairies and New Brunswick bucked the trend last quarter. Affordability worsened most in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
- Prairies, parts of Atlantic Canada remain relatively affordable: Price increases have yet to apply abnormal pressure on buyers in these regions. Ownership costs are an excessively heavy burden in Vancouver, Toronto and Victoria, and increasingly so in Montreal and Ottawa.
- Situation to get even more challenging in the near term: Tight demand-supply conditions maintain intense upward pressure on home prices. This is poised to raise the ownership bar higher-still for buyers in most markets, including smaller cities and rural areas that have attracted a lot of interest during the pandemic. In big cities, the affordability of condo apartments—the more viable option for many buyers—will likely erode as prices have recently begun to firm up.
Hot, hot, hot isn’t good for affordability
Canada’s housing market heated up further in the early months of 2021, as the buying frenzy reached never-before-seen levels. Bidding wars—a phenomenon previously confined to the most expensive markets—spread to many regions, resulting in steep price escalations. The attendant rise in ownership costs far exceeded buyers’ income gains in the first quarter of 2021. The ratio of ownership costs to household income—which constitutes RBC’s affordability measure—jumped 0.9 percentage points overall in Canada to 52.0% (a rise represents a deterioration in affordability). This was the third-straight increase. And it more than reversed the material decline that occurred in the spring of 2020 when the rollout of massive government financial support boosted household income in the early stages of the pandemic. In fact, RBC’s aggregate measure hit a 31-year high in the first quarter. Higher prices entirely accounted for the deterioration.
More people want a single-family home, fewer can afford it
Surging demand for properties with larger living spaces continued to crank up single-family home prices and ultimately ownership costs. RBC’s measure for single-detached homes surged 1.2 percentage points to 56.8% in the first quarter. Things got slightly better for condo apartments, however, with the measure easing 0.6 percentage points to 38.2%. This reflected condo price declines in several major markets.
Less affordable to own a home in most major markets
With aggregate prices rising broadly across the country, a majority of markets recorded a loss of affordability in the latest period. The deterioration was most significant in Vancouver (RBC’s measure rising 1.9 percentage points), Halifax (up 1.7 percentage points) and Victoria (up 1.2 percentage points), though Montreal (up 0.9 percentage points) and Toronto (up 0.6 percentage points) weren’t far behind. The situation improved in a few markets concentrated in the Prairies (led by Calgary, Edmonton and Regina) and in Saint John.
Smaller markets’ affordability advantage has eroded
A strong influx of buyers—several of whom coming from big cities—has significantly boosted property values in smaller markets in Ontario, BC, Quebec and parts of Atlantic Canada. Large price gains have narrowed their affordability advantage over big cities. Since the pandemic, mortgage carrying costs have increased more as a share of household income in Windsor, Hamilton, London and Niagara than in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto.
Ownership costs still manageable for average buyers in many places
Despite widespread deterioration over the last three quarters, affordability remains within historical norms in many markets. That’s the case in the Prairie Provinces and most of Atlantic Canada (except Halifax) where ownership costs continue to be lower than their long-run average as a share of household income. The picture is much more difficult in the country’s most expensive markets though. Average buyers must spend 74.9% of their income to cover ownership costs of a typical home in the Vancouver area, 67.7% in the Toronto area and 55.8% in Victoria. Stress is also intensifying in Montreal (44.6%) and Ottawa (42.4%).
Persistent market imbalance points to further deterioration ahead
While home resale activity is poised to moderate from unsustainably-strong levels, it won’t be enough to instantly rebalance many markets across the country given how tight demand-supply conditions remain. We expect prices will continue to rise in the near term, further eroding housing affordability. We also expect condo ownership costs will pick up after easing for the better part of the last year. Buyers have recently renewed their interest in condo apartments and inventories are now shrinking.
Read the full Housing Trends and Affordability report for extensive market-by-market analysis.
Robert Hogue is responsible for providing analysis and forecasts on the Canadian housing market and provincial economies. Robert holds a Master’s degree in economics from Queen’s University and a Bachelor’s degree from Université de Montréal. He joined RBC in 2008.
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