Investing in the busy real estate market of southern Vancouver Island and surrounding areas. New listings and sold signs can be seen around Victoria, B.C., on June 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Housing market ‘moderately’ vulnerable amid potential overvaluation of homes: CMHC

CMHC says there was a ‘moderate degree of vulnerability’ in the housing market as of the end of June

Canada’s housing market experienced overvaluation in some pockets of the country in the spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said in a new report released on Monday.

In cities such as Victoria, Moncton and Halifax, there was a widening gap between the selling price of houses and the price economists would expect, based on population growth, disposable income, mortgage rates and employment, the Crown corporation said.

That data comes from the agency’s housing market assessment, which gives the housing market a grade based on whether homebuilding and rising prices could ultimately affect the stability of the economy. The report doesn’t look at whether homes are affordable — but does try to inform homebuyers and lenders on what would happen to the equity in their homes if a sudden economic shock led to a spike in unemployment, for instance.

CMHC says there was a “moderate degree of vulnerability” in the housing market as of the end of June, the same grade the market received in February.

The preliminary report shows the slowdown during the height of COVID-19 lockdown measures, but doesn’t include the record-setting sales in July and August — nor does the data reflect the ending of government income supports and mortgage payment deferrals.

Because the report’s analysis of home price overvaluation relies heavily on analyzing Canadians’ income, the authors suggested that the risk might be underestimated.

“The unprecedented income supports from Canadian governments to households (such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Employment Insurance Benefits) provide relief to individuals experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis. These sources of income are, however, temporary,” said the report.

CMHC economist Bob Dugan said that — despite giving the housing market a steady grade this summer — CMHC still expects a severe decline in home sales and in new construction to come as the economy recovers from the pandemic.

“I don’t think we are out of the woods yet. I certainly hope our forecast is wrong,” said Dugan in a phone call with reporters.

In May and June, CHMC had given a grim outlook for the housing sector, including a steep decline in housing prices. Although realtors have reported record-high home sales and prices in July and August, Dugan said he is not convinced that there is a “sustainable basis” for the current homebuying demand.

“I’m not confident yet in walking away from some of our predictions, given the tremendous amount of risk to the economy and housing market,” Dugan said.

While Canada’s housing market as a whole does not show signs of overheating, outsized price acceleration or overbuilding, some regions do pose moderate risks, the report said.

Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary are areas where there is “moderate” risk of overbuilding, CMHC said, looking at both second-quarter data and monthly inventories from July and August.

In Edmonton, there has been increased construction of detached homes despite weak employment in the oil sector, while in Winnipeg, incoming migration has slowed, CMHC analysts said. Calgary, meanwhile, has seen row houses and townhomes sit empty as cost-conscious buyers opt for condos instead — leaving the city approaching its 2001 record-high of empty new builds.

The report also gave Canada a “low” risk of price acceleration, but noted that prices are rising moderately more quickly in Ottawa and Montreal. In Montreal, the supply of homes for sale was at a 16-year low, pushing prices closer to “problematic” levels.

The Ottawa and Montreal housing markets are also at a moderately higher risk of overheating, as are Hamilton, Ont., Quebec City and Moncton, CMHC said. Overheating happens when there is more demand to buy homes than there are listings.

“The high economic uncertainty and temporary public health and workplace safety restrictions placed on property showings caused a greater number of sellers to exit the market than buyers,” the report noted.

Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press

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