The question that economists, journalist, politicians and realtors are all asking is: What’s happening to the Toronto real estate market? What they are discovering is that there are no easy answers to this question. What’s prompting the question is the most recent residential resale data for the month of February.
In February, there were 8,014 reported property sales, a 5.7 percent increase compared to the 7,583 sales that took place last February. The positive variance is not large, but considering that 2016 was a record-breaking year, substantially so, a positive variance speaks to the strength of the market in 2017.
Sales in and of themselves are not one of the major concerns related to the market. It’s the available inventory that’s the problem. At the beginning of March, there were only 5,400 active listings. This compares very unfavourably to the 10,902 properties available for sale last year at this time.
Even at 10,902 that was an insufficient number of properties for sale in the robust market of early 2016. The decline in inventory year-over-year is more than 50 percent. And it is not going to get better. In February, only 9,834 new properties came to market, a decline of 12.5 percent compared to the 11,234 properties that became available for sale during February of last year.
What these numbers mean is that for the greater Toronto area there is only 1 month of inventory, and for the City of Toronto, 1.2 months of inventory. These are unprecedented low inventory levels. By comparison only a year ago, there were 1.7 and 2.1 months of inventory, respectively available to buyers. To put these numbers into perspective, a balanced market is one in which there are between 3 to 4 months of inventory.
It comes as no surprise therefore that all listed properties are selling at the speed of light and for prices never seen before in the greater Toronto area and the City of Toronto. All properties listed for sale in February (on average) sold in just 13 days. Last year, which I repeat was a record breaking year, it took 21 days for all properties in the greater Toronto area to sell, more than 38 percent faster than last year.
But what has captured everyone’s attention is the sale prices that are being obtained in the greater Toronto area and the City of Toronto. Overall, for the entire region, including the 416 and 905 geographical areas, the average sale price for all properties sold in February was $875,983. That number represents a stunning increase of almost 28 percent in only one year. Last February the average sale price was only $685,735. If you were a buyer who decided to postpone purchasing a house in 2016 and now are in the market, the house you could have bought last year will now cost you $190,000 more.
Prices are substantially higher in the City of Toronto. A detached property now costs $1,573,622, a 30 percent increase compared to last year. A typical semi-detached property for the first time now costs more than $1 Million ($1,085,484). In Toronto’s central districts the average sale price for a detached property is now an eye-popping $2,503,188. Unbelievably, last February the average sale price for detached properties in the central districts was only $1,869,749, an increase of $634,000 or 34 percent. In February there were 389 properties that were reported sold with a sale price of $2 Million or more. Last year there were only 187 sales in this price category and a mere 103 in 2015.
The one plentiful source of housing, namely condominium apartments, has all but disappeared. At the end of February, there were only 1,301 active listings in the City of Toronto. In February 1,632 condominium apartment were reported sold. That’s 25 percent more sales than available listings. At that pace, you don’t have to be a mathematician to see the market wall that we are heading towards. By comparison only a year ago, there were 3,432 active condominium listings, a year-over-year decline of an incredible 62 percent.
So what is happening to the Toronto residential resale market? There is no easy answer to this question. It is a combination of factors that have come together to create the perfect real estate storm – imperfect if you are a buyer.
In no particular order, the following factors have come together to create the marketplace we are experiencing. Interest rates remain historically low, as they have for many years. Currently,a buyer can secure a five-year fixed mortgage with an interest rate of only 2.69 percent. The long period of low-interest rates has generated an insatiable appetite for debt. At the current low rates, and they have been lower, if you are a buyer why not take on all the debt you can. It’s cheap money, particularly when inflation is running at about 2 percent.
Because of Toronto’s strong economic environment, to a large extent driven by the real estate industry, particularly new construction, approximately 100,000 immigrants have been making their way to the greater Toronto area annually. That means 30,000 new households, perhaps more, require new shelter annually. That number begins to compound over time.
Historically, low interest rates and an increasing population have driven demand to unprecedented levels. This level of frenzied demand has in turn and over time diminished the available inventory. As indicated above, at the beginning of March there were only 5,400 active listings available to buyers in the entire greater Toronto area, which is very large geographical swath. By way of random comparison, in March 2002 when Toronto’s population was substantially less than it is today, there were 15,524 active listings. That was fifteen years ago. Ten years ago, there were even more available listings as a result of the economic upheavals the banking industry was experiencing.
Foreign buyers have also entered greater Toronto’s marketplace, although their impact is less a factor than some journalists and economists believe it is. A recent study by the Toronto Real Estate Board indicates the foreign buyers are involved in less than 6 percent of all resale transactions. Moreover, and unlike Vancouver, foreign buyers in the greater Toronto area are not simply parking their money in Toronto real estate, leaving properties empty for extended periods of time. In one form or another foreign buyers tend to be end-users.
There is no easy solution to the problem plaguing the Toronto marketplace. Greater supply would help, but the lead time to delivering new properties to the market is at least 2 to 3 years. In order to facilitate this solution governments at the municipal and provincial level will have to deregulate the existing legislation and free up land for development. What we don’t need is government intervention in the form of higher taxes or taxes targeted at specific buyers. That might slow the market, but it won’t bring prices down and the broader impact on the economy would be disastrous.