Short-lived Housing Market Rally Likely to Lose Steam

On Friday, July 14, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) released its national housing statistics for the month of June 2023 along with an updated forecast. Below, CREA’s Senior Economist Shaun Cathcart provides an update on the current state of housing markets in Canada and explains what the data means for members:

We’d been forecasting a spring rebound since last year, so I find it interesting that this month in our first forecast since that prediction came true, we had to downgrade the market outlook.

Even before the resumption of Bank of Canada rate hikes, the spring sales rally had displayed signs of losing steam. The biggest month-over-month increase in sales activity was in April, followed by an increase only half as big in May, then by a small 1.5% gain in June.

This was likely because new listings had fallen to a 20-year low, and you can’t buy what isn’t for sale. The existing housing market is supplied by owners who list, sell, and move away. It’s no wonder that move-up buyers aren’t inclined to finance an increase in their mortgage debt at the highest rates in a generation! But that means their current home doesn’t go up for sale for someone else to buy – the opposite of what happened in 2021.

The lack of listings amidst a burst of demand tightened the market rapidly, which was reflected in month-over-month price gains of about 2% in each of April, May, and June. Those are big gains for a single month, and now we’ve seen three in a row. The only time I’ve seen bigger price gains was at the height of the pandemic. The spring rally has so far played out more on the price side than the sales side.

That said, I don’t think it will last because new listings have been rebounding recently. There’s finally more out there to buy just in the last couple of months. That’s the good news.

Although expected, the bad news is that at the same time the Bank of Canada has resumed raising interest rates. Less expected was the Bank’s messaging in their final rate decision before the summer break, which included but was not limited to:

    1. People are still spending money like crazy.
    2. Year-over-year inflation is now expected to remain close to where it is now for an entire year before starting to move back to where the Bank would like it to be. That will take another year, bringing us to mid-2025.

Author’s Note: I wonder to what extent this “spending like crazy” has to do with demographics. This is the first time in history we have ever had such a huge cohort of people over age 60 who are increasingly not working, increasingly not saving, increasingly debt free, and generally in their spending years. The Boomers are a big chunk of the population and these days they’re likely a lot less sensitive to the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy than they would have been in the past. Something to keep an eye on moving forward.

That second point is known as “pushing out the goalposts,” and this was a big push. So how should we interpret this? I’m wondering if the Bank feels it will cause more problems than it solves by going any higher with rates, so maybe they’ve resigned themselves to the reality that inflation will have to come down slower than they would like. I know policymakers have been wondering how close we are to the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some mortgage holders. Maybe they’ll have no choice but to raise interest rates further. To be determined.

This new inflation forecast, should it come to pass, has implications for people renewing mortgages in the next few years because it means we won’t be seeing any rate cuts for a long time.

In the near-term, this summer and fall, I would expect the impact on the resale market to be similar to what happened in 2022 – uncertainty around all of this pushing some buyers back to the sidelines. More supply coupled with less demand should calm price growth and lead to a slower more balanced market over the second half of the year. This was the largest factor in our most recent forecast revision.

We now have a couple of weeks (September 6) until the next Bank of Canada rate decision to watch the incoming data for clues about what comes next. Remember that after the April rate announcement, many observers thought we might be seeing rate cuts this year, so a lot has changed, but a lot can still change. Let’s cross our fingers.