A tempting bright-red advertisement for a new condo development in a Vancouver suburb circulated online this fall, sparking excitement from first-time homebuyers and concern among long-standing real estate observers. The developers of The Landing, a 78-unit complex in Langley, were offering to pay the mortgages for a year of the first 20 buyers and give remaining buyers a $10,000 discount. It looked like a sign of the times: had provincial and federal government measures to cool the market been too successful? Were developers stuck with a glut of inventory as sales and prices dropped off a cliff? Not really, according to the marketer behind the promotion.
“The way we run our sales programs is we run basically a different promotion almost every week. I’ve been working in suburban markets for a long time and honestly, what I’m seeing right now is it’s not even at a normal market. It’s still a lot better,” said Trevor Street, CEO of the Partners Marketing Group. “What’s normal for me is having four or five other sites that are active, that are open, that buyers can go to and shop around. I remember a time marketing developments when I ran out of registers to call in our database and started cold-calling rental buildings.” That was back in 2013 or 2014, he said, before Vancouver’s real estate market exploded and a ripple effect moved through its suburbs and the rest of British Columbia. By 2016, Street definitely didn’t have to run any promotions — he even told developers not to bother building sales centres.
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The Fraser Valley, east of Metro Vancouver, has long been considered a more affordable haven for first-time homebuyers. After prices and sales climbed across the Lower Mainland in 2015 and 2016, the B.C. and federal governments stepped in to attempt to cool the market. In the past nine months, sales have slowed and prices have curbed their meteoric rise. But while the market is softening, it’s not overcorrecting, just returning to a more normal state after a wild few years, experts say. Street said he realized about six months ago that suburban developers needed to bring back promotions to entice buyers. But while amateur investors are sitting out, professional investors are jumping on board, he said.
“They’re coming in right now and it’s a feeding frenzy,” he said. “These guys know this isn’t going to last. These downturns last nine months to a year, and we’re already nine months into it.” The average price of an apartment in the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board coverage area, which includes Surrey, White Rock, Langley and other communities, was $383,204 last month, still up from $359,053 in November 2017. In the same month in 2014, it was $200,952. As for detached housing, the average price was $1,017,754 last month, up from $1,011,787 in November 2017 and considerably higher than $653,426 in November 2014. The real estate board prefers to use a “benchmark” price, which adjusts for the high and low ends of the markets, and that figure was $976,200 for a detached house last month and $422,500 for an apartment.
The market started really heating up in the beginning of 2015, said board president John Barbisan. Barbisan said he uses the sales-to-active-listings ratio, referring to the number of sales compared to active listings, as a thermometer. In a balanced market, the ratio sits around 18 per cent, meaning almost two in 10 homes are selling. The higher the ratio gets, the more advantage to the seller, and in 2016 it was 60 per cent, he said. Things began to cool in the spring of this year, he said, and now the sales-to-active-listings ratio is 14 per cent. “It was like a tap turned off,” he said. “It’s as if all the buyers got together in a hall one night and decided nobody’s going to make an offer anymore.”
The federal mortgage stress test initiated in January appears to be a major factor, he said. The stress test requires mortgage-seekers to prove they would be able to make payments even if interest rates rose substantially, reducing borrowing power by as much as 20 per cent. “That has to come out somewhere. They’re either buying cheaper homes or they’re not making the offers they would be,” he said. Provincial government measures, including a 0.5 per cent speculation tax on secondary homes left vacant and a 20 per cent foreign buyers tax, have had a “negligible” effect compared with the stress test, Barbisan said. But he said he’s “not at all” concerned about the slowdown, noting that he has spoken with mortgage brokers who say relatively similar numbers of people are still coming to get pre-approved. People still want to buy homes, but they may not be finding what they’re looking for or are waiting for prices to decrease further, he said. “I’m not sure what they’re waiting for, but when you want to buy a home you’re only putting it off for so long,” he said.
Barbisan added he hasn’t heard of anyone being underwater on their mortgage, as prices have still risen so much that owners have a fair bit of equity in their homes. Steve Saretsky, a Vancouver real estate agent, said the market across the region is going through a downturn but it’s not “major,” and it’s to be expected after the run-ups of the past few years.