Alberta property markets could be a buying opportunity, but maybe not yet

When property markets are roaring, everyone says they just can't wait for a downturn so they can jump in. As some Canadian markets begin to reverse direction, prospective buyers have a chance to see if that remains true.

What others can learn from real estate markets that are currently on the way down

Back in 2013, Calgary was classified with Vancouver and Toronto as one of Canada's hot property markets, but now, as prices turn down, Don Pittis asks whether bargain hunters should jump in to stop the fall? (The Canadian Press)

What a fabulous buying opportunity. Or is it? After years of sharp price increases, the costs of Calgary houses are finally down nearly four per cent from where they were a year ago.

While real estate company statistics show prices and sales continuing to climb across the country, a number of markets have turned, offering Canadians a useful experiment in the behavioural economics of the housing market.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece saying that house prices could fall like oil. The point was not to predict a property market crash, it was merely to remind us that the smartest people in the oil industry failed to predict the current tumble in energy prices that now seems so obvious.

Unsatisfied demand

At the time, the response from many was that a property market crash could not happen, simply because there were so many people waiting to get into the market. As soon as prices declined, those hungry house hunters would respond by snapping up anything that was offered.

When house prices are rising, people exhibit herd behaviour by jumping into the market, says a Calgary behavioural economist. (Reuters)

According to long time investment adviser and real estate guru Hilliard MacBeth, the bargain hunting in Alberta has already started.

"I've heard of lots of people who say, 'The prices are down. I'm going to jump in,'" said MacBeth, Edmonton-based author of When the Bubble Bursts.

In fact, some of the people he advises have already identified a buying opportunity and jumped into the market, at least on behalf of their kids, who they are helping out in the role of bank of mom and dad.

"I would have counselled them against it," said MacBeth by phone as he put on his ski boots in the Lake Louise parking lot. "I would have said, 'Wait,' because we're early days yet."

Lagging indicator

Housing is considered to be what's called a "lagging indicator," meaning that real estate markets only respond long after the economy has started to go sour. 

And according to Calgary-based behavioural economist Robert Oxoby, that's at least partly due to something behavioural economists refer to as "loss aversion" by current home owners.

Behavioural economists love to point out when conventional market rules are overturned by psychology. Especially when human behaviour makes us act contrary to our own interests.

Behavioural economists say loss aversion, the fear of forfeiting something that was once valuable, can force us to make bad economic decisions. (Reuters)

Normally, economic theory tells us that when things get cheaper, we buy more. When things become more expensive, we buy less. In the property market, that often turns upside down.

"There's a lot of herd behaviour here. We behave like cattle," said Oxoby, a professor at the University of Calgary.

"People see the prices going up, and they go, 'Oh, shit, I better buy a house now before it gets worse.'"

Fraser Valley rising

In a place like B.C.'s Fraser Valley, where prices have risen 27 per cent this year, following the herd doesn't look so stupid.

"Speculative fervour thrives on expectations of rapidly rising prices — rising rapidly enough that buyers find it rational to make bets they could not normally afford," said a writer for The Economist discussing not houses but the price of baseball cards.

House prices in the more populated parts of British Columbia's Fraser Valley, above, have shot up by 27 per cent in the past year. (Reuters)

It is on the way down when loss aversion kicks in, this time hurting people who want or need to get out of the market. 

"When the value of that house is high, they tend to view that as a gain," said Oxoby.

Loss aversion makes sellers refuse to sell, preferring instead to wait until house prices bounce back again. 

The problem arises when that bounce-back fails to happen. And the people it hurts most are those who bought just before the downturn began, when the market was at a peak.

"So, what happens is as prices start to fall even more, people get trapped with those big assets that they have a lot of debt on but aren't worth as much anymore," said Oxoby.

MacBeth calls the price the seller expects to obtain the "anchor price" and says the refusal to accept anything lower seizes up the market. That's because buyers are expecting a bargain.

He says that the conflict between high selling prices and low offers, demonstrated in the current slowdown in sales in places like Calgary, can take a long time to resolve itself, often only does so after banks begin to call in loans, forcing foreclosure sales at the true market price. Thus the lag.

According to colleagues in Calgary, the market for houses priced at less than $500,000 is stronger than more expensive offerings, but as the latest figures show, the entire market is slow.

Timing the market

For prospective buyers, suddenly, the challenge is exactly opposite from what it was a few years ago. Instead of being forced to buy before prices become unattainable, they wait, wondering when the market will hit bottom, fearful that further declines will wipe out their down payment and leave them owing more than they own.

There is only so much people in other parts of Canada can learn from housing markets devastated by falling energy prices.

"One of the things that was supporting Alberta home prices was the fact that our incomes were 40 to 50 per cent higher than the rest of Canada, and that's changing very rapidly," said MacBeth.

But property owners and prospective buyers elsewhere would be wise to watch and see if, indeed, the plunge is nipped in the bud by bargain hunters or whether prices continue to fall for a while yet.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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