CanaData 2014: Canadian housing is flat but fine: Norman

by Andre Widjaja, Daily Commercial News, "If I were to say that housing starts are 15 per cent ahead of last year and I expect 15 per cent more next year, I think that would be more impressive to builders," he says.

"However, housing starts are pretty much where they were last year and next year is going to be more of the same."

Norman notes that housing markets are unusually consistent by historical standards. About 188,000 Canadian housing starts were recorded in 2013, with 192,000 predicted for 2014 and 195,000 for 2015.

"Steady markets are great for a lot of us," he says. "Slow and steady does not necessarily mean that the market is moving or particularly weak."

Of some concern, however, is a weakness in dollar value invested in housing as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product — currently under three per cent. Possible causes include a demand for smaller homes and a preference for apartments.

The predicted trend for housing starts in 2015 varies by major city: down in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg; up in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

Immigration is an important factor in driving housing demand with record numbers of new Canadians entering the country over the past three years: 253,000 in 2011; 266,000 in 2012 and 274,000 in 2013.

"It looks like 2014 will be a strong year as well," says Norman.

Regional net migration is also an important factor in housing demand. That's good news for Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, but explains a weakness in the Atlantic Canada market, where more people are leaving than arriving.

Saskatchewan and B.C. are also experiencing net migration, but excess inventory is absorbing the new housing demand. The improved Quebec market, on the other hand, is based to some extent on a bounce following a dramatic decline in 2013.

Norman says the Canadian market has adjusted to a ground shift in housing make-up that occurred about five years ago.

"We're now getting used to a situation in this country where we are producing about 40 per cent of our housing in apartment form and the remainder in single family," he says.

"That's much different from the 2000s and even before when we were talking 75 to 80 per cent of housing as single family."

In part, that may be the result of the large immigration numbers, he says. However, while immigrants tend to live in apartments initially, their buying patterns soon converge with the rest of the population. After a five-year lag, these renters convert to buyers and at 10 years up to 70 per cent become property owners.

Despite moderate Canadian economic growth and interest rates remaining at historic lows, a slowdown in employment may be the most significant economic factor challenging the housing market, says Norman. Canadians 55 years and older are experiencing the best employment growth, he says, and builder reports confirm the strength in that demographic market.

While housing prices remain high in many urban markets, Norman notes that average prices are rising by about 3.4 per cent per year.

"That's just about perfect," says Norman. "If it were much below that, there would be lack of interest in housing investment."

Norman's overall prediction for 2015: "More of the same, but expect to see a little more single family and a little less apartment going forward."

Norman spoke at the CanaData 2014 Conference, held in Toronto.

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