Monday, November 7, 2011

Chinese Fuel Vancouver Home Boom !!! Canada Real Estate Prices Driven Up By Chinese Buyers

A fresh wave of Chinese buyers, coupled with Canada's already frothy home prices, has vaulted Vancouver into the ranks of the world's most unaffordable real-estate markets.

Bungalows—small, detached, single-story homes, some in need of significant repair—can command prices well above a million Canadian dollars (US$1.02 million.) One local website,, invites visitors to guess whether homes pictured on the site are property sold for more than C$1 million or are alleged crack houses.

The Canadian Real Estate Association says the average house price in Canada in April was C$372,544, up 8% from last year. In Vancouver, it was more than twice that, at C$815,252, up 21% from a year ago.

Demographia, a property-affordability survey published by Illinois-based consultant Wendell Cox, estimates that median real-estate prices in Vancouver are 9.5 times median household income. Only Hong Kong and Sydney are less affordable by that measure. (New York comes in at 5.1.)

The price rises are especially sharp in the high end of the market, with real-estate agents pointing to a flood of foreign buyers, particularly Chinese. Condominiums are popular, but so are single-family homes, including fixer-uppers that buyers eventually tear down. While there is some speculative buying, Canadian and Chinese agents say Chinese buyers are looking for longer-term investments to diversify their holdings outside of the mainland.

Sales of homes worth more than C$2 million soared by 118% in Vancouver in the first four months of this year, real-estate brokerage RE/MAX reported in May. The average price in the high-end segment now tops C$3 million.

Eric Christiansen

PRICEY IN ANY CURRENCY: This house in West Vancouver hit the seven-figure mark in Canadian dollars.

Quantifying Chinese buying is difficult. Local authorities don't publish statistics on foreign ownership of residential property. Real-estate consultancy Landcor Data Corp. pored through sales data in two high-end Vancouver neighborhoods, looking for "pure" Chinese names—excluding Western first names or any "remotely non-Chinese" variants—in an attempt to get a sense of the scale of mainland buying. They found 74% of buyers of luxury homes in the areas last year fit the category.

Vancouver real-estate agents say Chinese buyers dominate the high end of the market, fanning demand and prices across the city. The strong demand for high-end homes has helped drive up prices for more modest houses. Some Vancouverites are selling their now richly valued homes and buying more-expensive ones, while new buyers are scrambling to buy before prices rise further, agents say.

"It creates this positive vibe, this dynamic to the market that is upbeat," says Elton Ash, vice president for western Canada at RE/MAX.

Canadian home prices have climbed steadily since the end of the economic and financial crisis, even as U.S. home prices resume their decline. Low interest rates have made borrowing easy, and the global commodities boom has fired up Canada's resource-rich economy. On Tuesday, the Bank of Canada kept its benchmark rate at 1%, though some expect the bank to raise rates by the end of the year, spurring some buyers to act before mortgage rates go up. Other markets, including Toronto and Montreal, have seen their own steady home-price increases, but nothing has approached the boom in Vancouver.

The boom has triggered a bit of a backlash. A former city councilor, Peter Ladner, in April caused a ruckus after he said Vancouver should study measures, which could include restricting both local and foreign real-estate purchases, to ease prices. "It's eroding business, the economy, because people can't afford to move here to take up jobs," he says. He recommends a study to quantify offshore buying as a first step.

The city always has been more expensive than most in Canada. Its location, sandwiched between the sea and the mountains, constrains the supply of available land. Vancouver also has long been near the top of global surveys in terms of quality of life. The 2010 Winter Olympics helped showcase the city to the world.

Several waves of Chinese have migrated to the city, beginning in the late 1800s, when Canada brought in workers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. About 20% of the city is of ethnic Chinese origin now. That makes it a natural market for Chinese looking for overseas investments, amid Beijing's recent attempts to cool its own property market.

Eric Christiansen, a top real-estate agent for affluent West Vancouver, estimates that Chinese make up a small percentage of the total Vancouver market, but dominate the high-end sectors of the city.


He has sold 60 houses in West Vancouver this year, compared with typical sales of 80 annually. Of those, five were for properties of more than C$5 million, three of which were purchased by Chinese buyers, he says. In West Vancouver as a whole, 16 homes sold for more than C$5 million this year, and 14 of those sales went to Chinese, he says.

Vancouver's soaring prices have gotten attention back in China, stoking fresh interest. Chinese buyers like Canada's relatively simple ownership rules, flexible immigration policies and its schools, according to Bunny Wang, director of international properties at Colliers International in Shanghai.

Some economists are starting to wave warning flags. Royal Bank of Canada says monthly carrying costs—mortgage payments, property taxes and utilities—for a detached bungalow represent 72% of the average Vancouver household income. That is more than double the 32% threshold that Canadian banks use to gauge whether a borrower can handle a loan.

"The prices appear disconnected to the level of activity and the balance of demand and supply," RBC economist Robert Hogue says.

—Esther Fung in Shanghai contributed to this article.

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