Even amid pandemic, the northern housing market is hotter than ever, say realtors

When COVID-19 pandemic hit, some people suspected it would crater the real estate market. But northern realtors say they’re seeing more deals than usual this summer.

The real estate market has an ever-rising temperature despite doomsday predictions

A file photo of a sold sign on a home. 'We really can't keep anything under five hundred thousand dollars on the shelf,' says a Yellowknife realtor. (David Donnelly/CBC)

When Vanessa Thorson bought her duplex in Whitehorse's Takhini neighbourhood in 2015, it cost her just $285,000. Three years later, she moved to Alberta and sold it for $305,000.

But when she returned just 18 months later, in the fall of 2019, she says she was shocked.

"They're now worth $430,000?" she said. "That's substantially more. How?"

The answer is a housing market with an ever-rising temperature — despite doomsday predictions that the coronavirus would put a chill on the market.

Realtors in Whitehorse and Yellowknife, where most real estate transactions in the North take place, said they are seeing more activity this summer — and at higher prices — despite the pandemic still underway.

A house for sale in Whitehorse. Perreault said he is 'seeing lots of interest from outside' the territory in the real estate market. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

"We were a bit surprised that the market didn't stall," said Marc Perreault, a Whitehorse realtor and president of the Yukon Real Estate Association. "We expected a real significant slowdown, and we didn't see that."

In Yellowknife, "we really can't keep anything under five hundred thousand dollars on the shelf," said Adrian Bell, a realtor with Century 21.

Isolation may have piqued interest in new housing

In April, Bell predicted it would take the end of pandemic-related travel restrictions to see the housing market recover in the city. But it turned out the rebound took almost no time at all.

Bell suspects the pandemic has forced people to spend more time in their houses or apartments than ever before — and some are realizing they want a home that's a little more sweet. 

"Quite often they're self-isolating in homes that may be too small for them, and they're not super keen on the prospect of doing that through the winter," he said. "They're not going on summer vacations and they're also probably saving some money by not traveling. They're building up bigger down payments .. So they're buying homes."

A house complex under construction in downtown Whitehorse. The territory is building hundreds of new units this year. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

According to numbers posted by Bell, 47 homes that were listed with realtors in Yellowknife sold in July, compared to just 24 homes that sold the same month last year. 

In Whitehorse, Perreault says for every house he lists, he has "five or ten … serious, interested buyers" — including interest from outside the territory.

"We're seeing lots of interest from outside," he said. "We're hearing lots of people inquiring about properties and lifestyles in the Yukon."

But Perreault and Bell both said the market is only super active below a certain price point. Houses listed for more than half a million dollars in Yellowknife are spending longer on average waiting for a buyer, and are continuing to sell below their appraised value — a symptom of a weakened economy.

High-price sellers willing to wait

Perreault said in Whitehorse, it may simply be that many sellers are willing to wait a few months and hold out for a better price.

For buyers like Thorson, that can be frustrating, as affordable houses are snapped up in seconds and the listings are clogged with unattainable properties.

"Usually, if your house isn't selling, you drop the price," she said. "You don't leave it on the market for eight or nine months at the same price. But that isn't happening, the sellers are just hanging on."

Neither city's experience is totally unique. Statistics Canada recorded average property price increases of 4.4 per cent across the country. The Ottawa region alone saw prices jump by more 13 per cent compared to last year.

In Whitehorse, at least, developers appear to be capitalizing on high demand. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 143 new houses have been completed in Whitehorse since January, and another 305 are on the way.

Meanwhile in Yellowknife, the CMHC recorded 18 new houses built so far this year, and 26 now under construction.


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