Most homes listed for sale in Calgary this year haven't sold: What that means for prices

Sales of single-family homes haven't been this slow in nearly a decade. But what does that mean for prices?

Single-family homes no longer immune as sales-to-new-listings ratio drops below 50% for first time since 2010

A sign advertising a home that has recently been listed for sale in Calgary. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Calgary's real-estate market hasn't exactly been hot for the past few years but it hasn't been a disaster, either, thanks in large part to the resilience of the single-family home.

Sales of condos were hit hardest during the recent recession, while demand for detached homes remained relatively strong.

But 2018 is off to a particularly slow start: Most single-family homes put on the market aren't selling.

Of the roughly 9,500 that have been listed this year, only 4,200 have sold, putting the sales-to-listings ratio at 44 per cent. It hasn't been this low, for this long, in nearly a decade.

Condo sales, by contrast, have been slow like this for years, and that's been reflected in the prices they fetch when they do sell. Condo values have dropped by 14 per cent in Calgary since the market peaked in late 2014. Single-family properties have, to date, held their value better, falling less than four per cent over the same period.

But analysts are watching closely as more and more people put their houses on the market, while fewer people seem to be buying.

What's at play, what's at stake

Part of the slowdown is attributable to changes in federal mortgage rules that took effect in January and mortgage rates that edged upward later in the year. There has been some thought that the market would pick back up, as the spring selling season gets into swing. But summer is fast approaching and sales remain relatively tepid, even by the slow standard of the past few years.

Of course, what most Calgarians probably want to know is: What does this all mean for home values?

After all, for most of us, a home is the single biggest purchase we'll ever make. So price fluctuations matter — a lot — whether you're a longtime owner looking to cash out and retire, a recent buyer wondering whether you made the right investment or a renter looking for the right time to buy into the market.

The answer, unfortunately, is: It's complicated.

Market conditions like these have coincided with price declines in the past. But analysts also see indications that this particular lull in sales may be temporary. It's never a clear picture, when it comes to real estate.

So let's look at the details.

Previous price dips

Calgary home prices have dipped sharply twice in the past decade — once in 2008 and again, less severely, in 2010.

In both cases, the sudden price declines came around the same time that the sales-to-new-listings ratio was stuck below 50 per cent for a period of at least six months.

We're now at five months and counting.

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Ann-Marie Lurie, chief economist with the Calgary Real Estate Board, cautions that the sales-to-new-listings ratio, on its own, does not necessarily predict where prices will go.

But it's often related.

"It really comes down to how long it stays at a lower level," she said.

"Really what we're talking about is oversupply in the market. If it persists for a longer period of time, it starts to weigh on pricing. It's never instantaneous, because prices tend to be a bit sticky."

In simple terms, the more unsold houses on the market, the harder it becomes for sellers to get the price that they want.

But that doesn't necessarily mean sellers will drop their prices — at least not right away.

Emma May, co-founder of Charles Real Estate in Calgary, says many people who have listed their homes recently are willing to hold out for the right buyer, even if the offers aren't coming.

"There's a bit of a waiting game," she said. "Some people need to transact and I think the people who need to transact are dropping significant price drops and they're taking the pain. For other people, they're like, well, let's wait and see what happens here."

The question becomes: how long are people willing to wait?

Buyers and sellers standing pat

Lurie says many buyers are now qualifying for smaller loans and facing higher mortgage rates than they would have in the past, putting homes they might have previously considered purchasing out of reach.

"It pushes people into different price categories," she said.

"This is a bit of an adjustment for people who have really gotten used to lower rates for many years."

As a realtor, May has seen several recent deals fall apart after buyers discovered they didn't qualify for as big of a mortgage as they'd need to make the purchase.

It can be a frustrating experience, she says, sapping motivation from buyers who might have been enthusiastic about the real-estate market a year or two ago.

"We're seeing people who no longer really want to transact because they're not getting more for their dollar," she said. "They're not going to end up moving up in the market, so they're thinking, why don't I just stay where I am?"

In a similar way, she said, the lack of sales can actually prompt buyers to stand pat, too, knowing that competing houses aren't selling, either. And, rather than sell for a discount, some people are choosing to to simply take their homes off the market altogether.

"There's a lot of that," May said. "There's been a lot of people who are like, look, maybe I just don't want to transact in this market right now."

It remains to be seen whether this slowdown in sales continues, but some see reason to believe it may be a temporary — and explainable — lull.

Back to those mortgage rules

Lai Sing Louie, an economist with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, sees the 2018 slowdown as directly related to those changes in the country's mortgage rules.

He noted a spike in market activity in December, when home sales in Calgary rose 16 per cent above the seasonally adjusted, annualized rate for the rest of the year. It was a similar story in cities across the country. 

"Lots of people wanted to take advantage of existing rules before they changed," he said.

"In the past when we've seen rule changes, there tends to be a run-up — a little bit of buying forward — and then a lull. So it's not quite clear if this is the end of the lull. We're moving into some of the stronger months where we should expect to see sales pick up."

So far, though, they haven't.

A sign advertises a home for sale in Calgary.
A sign advertises a home for sale in Calgary. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The past week (May 30 to June 5) saw another 1,008 new listings added to the market, according to Calgary Real Estate Board figures. During that same time, 395 homes sold.

That pushed the total number of active listings to 8,600, up 34 per cent from the same time last year.

When it comes to single-family homes, in particular, active listings have grown to 4,589. That's up 49 per cent from a year ago.

Of these thousands of would-be sellers, how many will find buyers at their asking prices? How many will choose to sell for less? How many will stand pat or choose not to sell at all?

In her work with clients and other realtors, May says many buyers and sellers are still taking the cautious approach, looking for more information before they make a decision.

"People are just sort of wrapping their heads around these new mortgage rules — and then waiting to see if this economic recovery that we're going through continues," she said.

Of course, no one has a crystal ball. It's impossible to predict with certainty where prices will go. As we've seen, a slowdown in sales can be a leading indicator of price declines to come but can also be part of a broader — and temporary — lull that tends to happen when there's a change in mortgage rules.

What is certain is that all of these individual Calgarians' decisions — buyers and sellers trying to do what's best for themselves and their families — will factor into where the city's real estate market goes next, as spring turns into summer.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist / Senior Reporter

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.