Vancouver real estate cools -- could Toronto be next?

Prices continue to rise in Canada's two largest real estate markets, but a closer look at the numbers shows two housing markets headed in different directions.

Prices continue to rise in Canada's two largest real estate markets, but a closer look at the numbers shows two housing markets headed in different directions.

Both cities have been singled out by the Canadian Real Estate Association for either skewing the national numbers higher and lower in recent months. And both cities remain among the hottest real estate markets in the country.

And the similarities don't end there.

Resale prices move higher

On the surface, new data from real estate boards in the two markets shows prices for resale homes are indeed still rising. In Toronto, the average price of a resale home was $517,556 in April — an 8.5 per cent increase from the same month a year earlier.

The average price in Vancouver, meanwhile, was $683,800 in April, up 3.7 per cent compared to a year ago.

Rising prices are broadly perceived to be the surest sign of a buoyant housing market, but the number of homes sold — and the number of homes listed for sale — tell a different story.

In Vancouver, there were 2,799 sales on the Multiple Listings Service last month. That's a 13.2 per cent decline from the 3,225 homes sold the same month a year earlier. Indeed, the number of homes sold in April in Vancouver is the lowest total for that month since 2001, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver (REBGV) noted in a release this week.

"Although April sales were below what's typical for the month, we continue to see … a balanced relationship between buyer demand and seller supply in our marketplace," REBGV president Eugen Klein said.

On a square-foot basis, new condo prices in Toronto declined in the first quarter of 2012. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Others are not so sure. Real estate analyst Ben Rabidoux with M Partners says the drop-off in sales even as more homes come on the market is a trend worth noting. New Vancouver listings totaled 6,056 in April, more than double the number of homes sold and a 3.6 per cent increase on the level a year earlier.

The new listings figure is 6.7 per cent above the 10-year average for the month.

"This is something I've been watching for a while," Rabidoux said. "Inventory is ratcheting up even as sales are falling."

An increase in listings can sometimes be a sign of a market top, as people are eager to sell to lock in gains they've earned in a widely acknowledged strong housing market.

If the level of willing buyers for all those new listings can't keep up, it can create a buyer's market with more sellers than buyers. Prices are still in positive territory but that's unlikely to continue if such a large gap between buyers and sellers persists.

Contrast that with Toronto, where the number of sales continues to increase at a rapid pace — up 18 per cent to 10,350 in April. Yet the number of listings was up by almost as much, nearly 15 per cent to 16,436.

'Condos are usually the canary in the coal mine.'—Ben Rabidoux, housing analyst

An increase in listings is a relatively new trend in Toronto, and it mirrors what happened in Vancouver about a year ago, Rabidoux notes. "It hasn't been substantial enough to make a dent yet, but it's noteworthy because that's what happened in Vancouver," he said. "Listings took off before sales died."

To be sure, a change in the market's overall direction isn't showing up yet in prices. The numbers suggest there's still ample demand for housing in Canada's largest city.

"Interest in single-detached homes has been very high, both in the City of Toronto and surrounding regions," Toronto Real Estate Board president Richard Silver said. Prices for detached homes in the GTA were up nine per cent in the month, TREB noted in a release this week.

If there's any weakness in the Toronto market, it's likely in the condo sector, Rabidoux said. The average price of a condo across the 416 and 905 area codes was $339,978 in April, up four per cent.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty noted the city's condo market was one of the government's primary concerns in wanting to rein in control of Canada's national housing agency last week.

On a square-foot basis, new condo prices actually declined in Toronto in the first quarter of 2012. That's the first time that's happened since 2009, Rabidoux said.

"Condos are usually the canary in the coal mine," he said. "The whole Toronto story feels like it's been recycled from Vancouver 18 months ago."