Deep freeze in housing market suggests mortgage rules have overshot their mark

  2/22/2019 |   SHARE
Posted in Canadian Housing Market by Marti Philp| Back to Main Blog Page

Real Estate Information

The deep freeze in the Canadian housing markets continues. The latest housing market stats show that housing sales and prices in January were lower than the ones recorded a year earlier.

A retrospective view of the housing markets raises significant concerns. The impact of stringent mortgage regulations appears to be longer lasting than was initially expected.

In January 2018, housing sales declined after stricter mortgage regulations, including a stress test, were enacted. The January 2019 numbers are the first piece of evidence suggesting that housing market slowdown is deeper rooted than a direct and immediate reaction to policy interventions.

The sustained slowdown in housing markets presents at least two alternatives to the government. The first alternative is to maintain the status quo and do nothing. The second alternative is to rethink the policy interventions made in the recent past and see if there is any new evidence that warrants a change in policy.

The decline in housing sales in January 2018 was expected. A whole host of new regulations designed to tighten mortgage lending became effective on the first day of January last year. Sales in December 2017 were higher than usual as households rushed to close deals to avoid being subject to stricter mortgage regulations a month later.

When January 2018 sales were 14.5 per cent lower than the month before, there was no surprise, and the decline was attributed to the new stress test. Similarly, year-over-year sales were down 2.4 per cent from January 2017.

The January 2019 sales figures are more disturbing. Compared to the year before, sales last month were down by four per cent. In fact, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) revealed that sales in January 2019 have been the weakest since 2015.

In addition to sales, housing prices have also softened. The average house price across Canada was $455,000, 5.5 per cent lower than the same time last year.

The January 2019 statistics offer the first opportunity to compare the annual change in housing market dynamics after the stress test came into effect. The decline in last month above and beyond what was observed a year ago is indicative of the fact that the markets are not merely reacting to new regulations, but the markets have embraced a more systematic response that is characterized by fewer transactions and lower prices.

The weakness in housing markets also affects mortgage lending, a business The Big Five banks continue to dominate in Canada. The continued slowdown in housing sales may have influenced banks’ mortgage portfolios — the first signs of such an effect could soon be visible when the banks release their updated earnings report in the coming days.

The past few weeks have witnessed diverse voices both questioning and supporting the efficacy of the more stringent mortgage regulations. Some believe that stress tests are working fine. Phil Soper, CEO of Royal Lepage, thinks that the stress tests are needed “for the longer term health of the economy.”

Others believe that the stress tests have adversely impacted homebuyers who are either unable to buy at all or are forced to consume less adequate shelter space than they would have afforded in the absence of stress tests.

After reviewing the sustained decline in housing sales, Dave Wilkes, President and CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), believes that the stress test “has overshot its target.”

BILD has advanced two proposals for the feds to contemplate. First, to consider lowering the stress test threshold that requires borrowers to qualify at 200 basis points above the contracted rate. As the interest rates have been revised upwards since the stress test was implemented, there is merit in reviewing the threshold.

Housing trade groups are also advocating to reintroduce the 30-year amortization for CMHC insured mortgages, which was available until July 2012.

First-time homebuyers are likely to benefit more from these changes. The ability to stretch the amortization period to 30 years lowers the monthly payment and allows many to participate in homebuying who would otherwise be forced to rent at a time when rental vacancy rates are at historic lows in large urban housing markets.

Critics of the 30-year mortgage point out its two obvious shortcomings. First, borrowers end up paying considerably more in interest. Second, longer amortization periods contribute to house price inflation.

Good public policy should be responsive and rooted in evidence. Recent housing market data indicates that the impact of tighter mortgage regulations has been longer lasting than what most housing experts expected. A course correction might be a prudent way forward.

Murtaza Haider is an associate professor at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at www.hmbulletin.com.

Source: VancouverSun



Canadian Home Sales, Canadian Housing Market, Home Buyers, Mortgage Consumers, Mortgage Rates Canada, Mortgages & Real Estate, Real Estate Market, Real Estate News, Stress Test