The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for the sharp fall in home sales and listings as anxious buyers and sellers moved cautiously to the sidelines amidst unprecedented economic uncertainty.
Now, as the landscape tentatively brightens and the outlook becomes clearer, a new report from RBC explores the pandemic’s impact on one of the thorniest issues in Canadian real estate: housing affordability in some of the country’s major markets.
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In the first three months of 2020, before the pandemic upended the Canadian real estate market, housing affordability was already improving in all regions of the country except Ontario. At that time, home prices in the province’s major markets — Toronto and Ottawa — were rising at some of the fastest rates in the country, according to RBC.
Prices remained high in other historically unaffordable markets, including Vancouver and Victoria, but low mortgage rates and rising household incomes in those regions did more to improve homebuyers’ prospects.
With the onset of the pandemic, the outlook for home prices across the country has changed, with all markets expected to see declines in the coming months as supply outpaces buyer demand. Mortgage rates, which were already low early in the year, have sunk even further after a series of rapid interest rate cuts by the Bank of Canada as part of its pandemic response.
So while economic uncertainty persists and some Canadians are feeling the pinch more than others, RBC Senior Economist Robert Hogue wrote that homebuyers looking for better deals should benefit from the shifting housing market landscape. But the degree to which buyers are benefited also depends on the country’s employment picture improving as the pandemic wears on.
“We believe the scale will tip in favour of buyers in many markets across Canada and (benchmark) prices will fall modestly, possibly as early as this summer. This, along with historically low interest rates, will reduce home ownership costs,” wrote Hogue.
“The degree to which it translates into an improvement in housing affordability will depend on households’ ability to maintain their income. While the scope for such is limited near-term, we see the outlook brightening somewhat later this year as the economic recovery further progresses,” he continued.
Another trend that Hogue anticipates could play out in the coming months is a shift in buyer preferences away from high priced urban housing markets to affordable smaller markets. Spurred by broader adoption of work-from-home setups, this could simultaneously drive demand down in the expensive Toronto and Vancouver markets and increase demand in typically more affordable cities and suburban areas, potentially leading to price spikes in those markets.