Toronto’s Unbelievably Fragile Condo Market

img_7318Did you know that Toronto was in a market “lull” when it came to condos? No? Neither did I. I also wasn’t aware that Toronto was sitting on a vast precipice of economic gloom when it came to our condo market. And that is precisely the take away from both the Globe and Mail and Global News about a recent economic statistic about Toronto’s condo market.

My headline is misleading. Deliberately so. But I thought I would try my hand at provocative titles to spur readership. But I have a bee in my bonnet about this kind of reporting which peddles controversial titles while failing to offer insight to investors or potential buyers interested in the market. And while that kind of reporting is common, it’s rare for such significantly differing accounts about the same market pronouncement. For instance, this is the Globe and Mail’s title and opening line to their article:

 Toronto Condo Market Booming Again –

After years of slow growth Toronto’s condo market has come roaring back to life.

Meanwhile this is what Global News had to say:

Unsold condo’s pile up in Toronto, hit 21 year high –

As far as statistical outliers on charts go, the Bank of Montreal produced a dandy on Tuesday that should get some attention from condo market watchers in Toronto.

Both of these articles start with the same source material, a brief report from BMO Capital Markets from late February, but come to different conclusions, spinning stories about either the health or weakness of the same market. The report is frustratingly short, offering little more than the statistic that a record number of condo units came on the market in January. Far from being a new normal, the record number was the result of three things, including delayed projects being finished, regular projects reaching completion and the result of strong sales from 2011.

toronto-condo-boomHowever both these articles are technically accurate, Toronto did have a record number of units come into the market, an amount eight times greater than the monthly average over the last decade. And it is true that the amount of unsold units is at a 21 year high. But to make sense of which article was correct I thought it best to reach out to BMO Capital Markets’ Director and Senior Economist Sal Guatieri, the author of the document. Sal was kind enough to make some time for me over the phone and had some useful insight about each media outlet’s take on the one-off statistic.

“They’re both right,” in answer to my question, “but one is really about the broad health of the market, which Toronto’s market really is. Last year was a very strong year for sales. But in a few years, as nearly 50,000 units are completed and when rates eventually go up, there could be some weakness in the pricing on those units.” Sal had a few other points but they largely revolved around this dynamic, that future challenges to the market are laid in the foundations of our current success.

For journalists this kind of nuanced take on the markets isn’t helpful. It isn’t provocative, and I suspect that there is a fair amount of confirmation bias for those journalists who feel strongly about the market’s relative health. Regardless, there simply isn’t enough information in the document released to promote one view over the other, and yet that is exactly what writers at the Globe and Global News pursued, versions of the story that were both more provocative and definitive than accurate. It might help with readership, but it does nothing for informing investors.

That’s the real story, and the underlying problem of reporting business news. It isn’t advice so much as a view point. Most readers will not search for the original source, nor have an opportunity to corner the economist and author to find out more. And yet depending on which story you came across you might be forgiven for thinking you had gained some real insight into the nature of Toronto’s Real Estate Market.

On the other hand, I’m highly mistrustful of the news anyhow, which is my own confirmation bias. As the author Jon Ronson once said, “After I learned about confirmation bias I started seeing it everywhere.”

 

 

 

Toronto has a Real Estate Problem

imageIt is a common family tradition for my father and me to head down to the St. Lawrence market in Toronto for a bacon sandwich and then grab a coffee before heading off to the bookstore. As my family has grown it now frequently includes our significant others, especially my daughter Sophie who with her own limited chomping power continues to devour an ever growing portion of my breakfast!

However our trips to the bookstore have been dwindling in recent months. Nicholas Hoare, a staple on Front Street closed it’s doors in early 2013. The next nicest bookstore to head to is Ben McNally’s, up on Bay by Adelaide. But this year’s inclement weather has meant we frequently didn’t bother to make the trek.

Bookstores in general in Toronto aren’t doing so well. Last month we lost 3 bookstores; the Cookbook store, the Annex location of Book City, and The World’s Biggest Bookstore. Even Indigo/Chapters are feeling the pinch. This loss has been noted in several newspapers, but nobody is sure what to do.

Ben McNally, when I stopped by his store last week, told me that we don’t have a book problem in Toronto, we have a real estate problem. Inflation in Canada is around 1%, but every year rents go up on retailers. Small businesses, whether they be local grocers, tailors or bookstores operate with fairly fixed margins, but find that their rent is frequently the source of where they are being squeezed. They do consistent business with loyal customers, but can’t increase their sales fast enough to keep up with their rents.

This is an experience mirrored in residential property as well. A new report found that 50.6% of young Canadians in Ontario between the ages of 20-29 are still living at home. What’s keeping these young Canadians at home? There are many factors, but the most common is cost. The cost of living is simply out-pacing what you can earn.

There are two lessons here:
1. It pays to get kids saving and planning their savings early. Not just RESPs, which are savings parents put away on behalf of their kids, but getting kids to save and invest their money once they start working, especially if they can’t afford to move out yet. A solid financial plan will give them a better shot of keeping up with rising costs.

2. There is only so much financial planning can do. At some point cities and councilors and neighborhood associations are going to have to wrestle with the fact we need lots more building to go on within cities to keep living standards affordable and attainable. Maybe that can be an election issue.

Canadians Losing the Battle to Save For Retirement

Money WorriesPeople sometimes ask why I seem to be so focused on housing and its costs as a financial advisor, and I think the answer is best summed up declining rates of RRSP contributions. Currently many Canadians seem to be opting out of making a RRSP contribution this year, with both Scotiabank and BMO conducting separate and disheartening surveys about likely RRSP contribution rates. Unsurprisingly the answer most Canadians gave to why they would not be contributing this year was because they “did not have enough money.” These surveys also found that 53% of Canadians did not yet have a TFSA either for similar reasons. The expectation is that by 2018 Canadians will have over a trillion dollars of unused contribution room.

These kinds of surveys invariably lead to a kind of financial “tut-tutting” by investment gurus.

As one member of BMO’s executes put it, an “annual contribution of $2,000 to an RRSP… costs less than $6 per day.” which is true but does not really spell out a viable path to a retirement, merely the ability to make a contribution to a RRSP. While there is nothing wrong with the Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s of the world handing out financial advice and directing people to live debt free, Canadians simply do not live in some kind of financial vacuum where all choices boil down to the simple mantra of “can I afford this?” Frequently debts are incurred either because they must be (educational reasons, car troubles, etc.) or because it is not feasible to partake in an economic activity without taking on debt (like buying a house). Similarly it is not practical to assume that every decision be governed exclusively by a simple weighing of financial realities. It’s true it would cost less to live in Guelph, but many people do not wish to live in Guelph and would rather live in Toronto (Nothing personal Guelph!)

What we do have though is a precarious situation where the economy is weak (but maybe improving), which sets government policy through low interest rates. Low interest rates means borrowing for big ticket items like homes in places where supply is limited, like the GTA, or Vancouver or Calgary. This in turn keeps both house prices and debt levels high. It’s telling as well that a growing number of Canadians are beginning to look at their homes as a source of potential income in retirement. All of this seems to be happening while different financial “experts” argue whether the Canadian housing market is actually over valued, or not

This is where I get a chance to make a personal plug for the benefits of my role. While I don’t have much say in government policy, or even directing housing development in big cities, it is rewarding to know that financial advisors like me have a significant impact on the savings rates of those Canadians that work with us. A study called Value of Advice Report 2012 reported that Canadians that had a personal wealth advisor (that’s me) were twice as likely to save for retirement, and that the average net worth of households was significantly higher when they had regular financial advice from an advisor (again, me). The RRSP deadline this year is March 3, so please give me a call if you haven’t yet made your RRSP contribution. 

It’s Official, Young Canadians Need Financial Help

I thought I had more saved!It must be terribly frustrating to be a twenty-something today. It’s hard to find work; you probably still live with your parents and a whole culture has developed around criticizing your generation. But beyond the superficial criticisms directed at twenty somethings, there are structural shifts going on within the economy that are making paupers of the next generation.

Some of these shifts do extend from things like a lack of good paying jobs in manufacturing and an increasingly reliance on service sector jobs. There are many university graduates that now find themselves in work that they are overqualified for and underpaid in. But some of the changes also come from an increasingly high cost of living that is making it financially untenable to move out of a parents’ home. This phenomenon has been dubbed “boomerang kids”, or “boomerang generation.”

The challenge that the Millennial generation is facing is that costs are rising as a proportion of their income. Consider the cost of a house in Toronto. In November of this year the average cost of a home sold in Toronto was $538,881, up 11.3% from November of last year. Assume you make the minimum downpayment to get a home, 5%, your downpayment would then be $26,944 (roughly).  Your monthly payment on a 25 year fixed rate mortgage would be $3,077 per month, or close to $36,924 per year. If we factor in real-estate tax and an average heating cost, that would bring annual costs to roughly $43,000 a year. That would mean that to qualify for the mortgage with a bank you would need to be earning at least $134,375 before taxes. The average income in Canada is $47,000.

We can quibble about how accurate these numbers are, but it would still amount to the same end. It costs a lot today to be like your parents. Buying a house for the first time is incredibly expensive and forces young people to make different choices about how to spend their money. For many millennials this has meant “postponing” growing up, financially as well as spiritually. But what today’s young generation actually need is a working budget that lets them get a big picture of their spending and allows them to set and reach financial goals. There are free services, like Mint.com (which I am very much in favour of), but even better is that young people should be encouraged to seek out professional financial help. People with a small amount of savings often feel discouraged about seeing a professional, but getting this guidance early on can lead to significantly better financial outcomes, comfort with the markets and wiser tax efficient planning!

Want to discuss your future planning?

Successful Cities Don’t Always Feel Successful

Toronto Boom Town

In the ongoing tedious and sad affair that is Rob Ford, I came across an interesting article from Edward Keenan written just before Mayor Ford won his election. The pertinent part of the article I feel is where the Ford campaign’s genius was to define the election around the idea that Toronto is a city in decline. This idea, which caught on as the election narrative suited the Ford camp well, and by pointing to traffic, city projects and basically the realities of a city that is rapidly growing made it appear that Toronto really was broken.

But Toronto isn’t broken, and many of the problems that we face are actually the problems of a city that is incredibly successful and growing rapidly. It’s ironic that the outward signs of our success are some of the things that aggravate us the most, but its a reminder that strong economies don’t look like lazy towns on a Sunday afternoon but instead are chaotic, busy, hot and frustrating. It’s also interesting that many of the problems that successful cities face (and things that define a successful city) don’t ever change, regardless of the age. Noise, construction, overcrowding, congested traffic and suburban resentment are the hallmarks of prosperous cities.

Since I am a great believer that cities are our economic future I think its worth pointing out that the problems we face today we faced in the past, and will continue to face in the future. Cities that are actually in decline have a totally different set of problems. So its better to worry about constant traffic congestion and debate how best to expand our public transit than to wonder whether we should have public transit at all. If you’d like to see Toronto dealing with this in the past, may I recommend Toronto Boom Town by Leslie McFarlaneNational Film Board of Canada, a ten minute long video from 1951, looking at Toronto, a booming city of tomorrow!

Great Further Reading: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer, Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser, Some Great Idea by Edward Keenan

Economists Worry About Canadian Housing Bubble, Canada Politely Disagrees

real-estate-investingThis week the Financial Times reported that “Canada’s housing market exhibits many of the symptoms that preceded disruptive housing downturns in other developed economies, namely overbuilding, overvaluation and excessive household debt.”

These comments made by economist David Madani have been repeated and echoed by a number of other groups, all of whom cite Canada’s low interest rates and large household debt (now 163% of disposable income according to Statistics Canada) as a source of significant danger to the Canadian economy.

This is not a view shared by Robert Kavic of BMO Nesbitt Burns who believes that the Canadian housing market has long legs, saying “Cue the bubble mongers!”

Since 2008 predicting the fall of housing markets has become a popular spectator sport. Canada seems to have sidestepped most of the downturn, which has only made calls for the failing of Canada’s housing markets greater. But the reality is that our housing markets are very hot, and we do have lots of debt.

So is Canada’s housing market heading for a crash? Maybe. And even if it was its hard to know what to do. Fundamentals in Canada’s housing sector remain strong (and have improved). People also want to live in Canadian cities, with 100,000 people moving annually to Toronto alone. In other words, there is lots of demand. In addition regulations in the Canadian financial sector prevent similar scenarios that were seen in the United States, Spain and Ireland from occurring.

But housing prices can’t go up forever, and the more burdensome Canadian debt becomes the more sensitive the Canadian economy will become to interest rate changes. Meanwhile I have grown far more weary of over confident economists assuring the general public that “nothing can go wrong.” 

The big lesson here is probably that your house is a bad financial investment, but a great place to live. Unless you own your home, a house tends to be the bank’s asset and not yours. In addition your home, like your car, needs constant maintenance to retain its value. So if you wanted to buy a house to live in, good for you. If you want to buy a house as an investment my question to you is, “Is this really expensive investment the best investment in a world of financial opportunities?”

No, Rob Ford’s Crack Smoking is not Hurting Toronto Businesses

If you happened to pick up the Toronto Metro paper on Thursday morning, you might have noticed an article claiming that “experts” said that the scandal is bad for businesses in Toronto. It’s been echoed by other news outlets as well, including the CBC.

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This is the kind of assertion that’s easy to make, but rarely seems to be backed by any hard numbers. While its true that Toronto Region Board of Trade would like Rob Ford to step aside, its not uncommon for businesses to be overly sensitive to potential threats. But while we may not enjoy the additional and unflattering media coverage regardless of how funny it might be, it’s hard to see how Rob Ford’s personal life can overpower an entire city.

Because of the circus that is Rob Ford attracts so much attention, many feel like he can do permanent damage  to the reputation of the city. But cities are much bigger than their mayors, and few cities have ever been held back by the sordid private lives of their politicians. If you don’t believe me, simply compare the fates of Detroit to Washington D.C. and guess what was more damaging, the collapse of the auto industry, or Marion Barry’s own drug related escapades?

In the end the only lasting damage that a mayor or city council can do to us will be in the form of poor infrastructure and runaway costs. In other words the damage Rob Ford was doing before we learned about his crack use.