Housing experts themselves are divided on that question.
Ted Tsiakopoulos, Ontario regional economist for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, laid out the optimistic case.
"We don't see a U.S.-style housing market meltdown in Canada for three very important reasons," he told Canada AM on Monday.
- Canadian housing prices have grown in a "steady, sustainable way"
- Mortgage arrears are at a low level, which suggests financial institutions have been prudent in their lending practices
- Canada's overall economic fundamentals remain healthy
In mid-March, however, the Royal Bank reported that home ownership costs have risen to the highest point since 1990.
That year marked the "peak of the housing bubble," it said.
However, the bank was optimistic the current situation should ease. "Going forward, falling mortgage rates, cooler forecast house price gains and decent income growth should all lead to improved affordability across most markets," it said.
Tsiakopoulos said the CMHC sees moderate price growth continuing. But Ontario MP Garth Turner has a different view.
The author of a new book, "The Greater Fool: The Troubled Future of Real Estate," Turner thinks the pieces are in place for a real estate collapse in this country.
The U.S. financial sector has been rocked by subprime mortgages, which essentially provided a way into real estate for people who wouldn't qualify for conventional mortgages. But Turner told CTV.ca the real story is that housing prices in the U.S. got more expensive than Americans could afford.
In Canada, real estate prices have essentially doubled in five years. Turner said he didn't think that was a "reasonable" increase.
Over that period, household incomes have stayed essentially flat, he added.
Mortgages in Canada?
"What's been the Canadian response? Well, guess what? We've brought in a new kind of mortgage -- 40-year amortizations," Turner said.
You can also get a home for virtually no money down, Turner said. "You tell me what the difference between subprimes and a 40-year, no-down-payment loans in Canada is. The net effect is exactly the same. People buy houses who otherwise couldn't buy them."
In the biggest markets, people are unquestionably house-poor, he said.
The RBC's affordability measure for a detached bungalow in Vancouver is about 74 per cent and more than 47 per cent in Toronto.
Places like Calgary and Edmonton come closer to the national average of 41 per cent.
The affordability measure is the proportion of median pre-tax household income required to service the cost of mortgage payments (principal and interest), property taxes and utilities.
The measure has traditionally been around 30 per cent, Turner said. "We've got a very screwed-up personal financial situation right now, and I see some dangers in that," he added.
RBC's Amy Goldbloom told CTV.ca that an RBC study finds that for 2007, the U.S. situation was worse than here. Mortgage debt there was 119 per cent of disposable income versus about 79 per cent in Canada. Total household debt was also much higher in the U.S. than Canada. "Americans are more indebted and more leveraged," she said.
Goldboom said the RBC's analysis and prediction of moderate price increases took into account a slowing U.S. economy's effect on Canada. "We aren't forecasting outright declines in prices as we're seeing state-side," she said.
But Turner rolled off some troubling statistics, such as sales activity of resale homes in Canada falling six per cent in February -- although some critics have argued that blip could be due to stormy winter weather.
In his own riding of Halton west of Toronto, houses are staying on the market for up to 12 months and are falling in price, he said.
"Why you would want to be a new purchaser of real estate right now is beyond me," he said, adding that many young people have only known real estate to go up in value.
If you still want to buy a home, Turner makes the following recommendations:
- Don't take out a 40-year mortgage
- Aim for a 20 per cent down payment
- Don't make monthly payments -- accelerate if possible
- Consider what future homeowners will want to purchase (i.e., don't buy a huge, energy-hogging suburban home)
- But if you don't own real estate right now, consider remaining a renter for the short term.
"We're into the most incredible renter's market coming up. If you simply want to make money and secure your finances, you're going to rent, because renting is far, far less than the cost of owning right now," Turner said. "And it will remain that way for the next couple of years."
Mar. 24 2008 8:35 PM ET Bill Doskoch, CTV.ca News