Red-hot market 'never before seen in Ottawa' hard on homebuyers

Ottawa real estate is a hard-core sellers' market, with demand for homes far outweighing supply, as it is in other parts of Canada. This first-time homebuyer describes the anxious process.

Multiple offers, well over asking prices, make for stressful process

A sign outside an Ottawa home indicates it sold for over the asking price in March 2021. According to the Ottawa Real Estate Board, the average price of a house in February 2021 was $717,914, up 27 per cent over the same month in 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A red-hot home sellers' market in Ottawa is great for boomers looking to downsize. But for every family who cashes in, there's one literally paying the price. 

The average price tag for a residential home in Ottawa in February 2021 was $717,914 — an increase of 27 per cent over the same month in 2020. The average price for a condo last month was $407,671, 17 per cent over February 2020.

Ottawa is just one of the Canadian cities experiencing a sales boom, being linked in part by ultra-low interest rates and the pandemic pushing people to purchase more private spaces. The national average home price is expected to rise by 16.5 per cent to just over $665,000 this year, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.

In the case of first-time buyer Anjali Daté, 33, who wanted out of her one-bedroom apartment, she spent six months actively searching for her dream home, armed with a preapproved mortgage and aided by a Realtor.

Anjali Daté wanted to move out of her one-bedroom apartment and buy a home with a yard for her dog Evie. (Sarah Boteler)

"I have a dog and I'm in my early 30s. I thought it was time to invest in a home. I didn't want a large home, but I did want to be able to go directly outside with the dog." 

Then came the sticker shock.

I would put in offers that were higher than the list price, which a lot of my friends never had to do," said Daté. "I kept on being outbid by fairly large margins.- Anjali Daté

"I knew that things had become more expensive compared to a couple of years prior, when friends had bought homes, but I didn't quite understand the magnitude of the increase," said Daté in an interview on CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Daté put in quality offers, to no avail.

"I would put in offers that were higher than the list price, which a lot of my friends never had to do," said Daté. "I kept on being outbid by fairly large margins … $[10,000] to $20,000."

Daté realized she'd have to dig deeper.

"I did keep upping my price point, as the months went on, but it felt like I wasn't quite keeping pace with the market."

She grew discouraged, especially when she was badly outbid — at times "by a full quarter of the list price. It really felt like it was impossible to purchase a home at all."

Daté considered suspending her search after her fifth failed offer, but her Realtor advised her to pace herself and be more selective in her house hunt to avoid burnout. 

Then, on March 16, Daté's fortunes changed — or rather, a homeowner accepted her fortune, in exchange for a house.

Daté put in eight over-asking offers on eight different homes, and was outbid each time. But her ninth offer was accepted. She takes possession of a three-bedroom home in Bells Corners in May. (Supplied by Anjali Daté)

"It was my ninth offer," said Daté, admitting, "I did have to pay over and above."

Still, she's happy she found a three-bedroom home in Bells Corners, with plenty of space for her dog Evie. She takes possession in May.

What's driving Ottawa's sky-high real estate prices? 

"It's definitely an exciting market, and a kind of market we've never seen before in Ottawa," said Debra Wright, president of the Ottawa Real Estate Board.

 "It is very challenging for buyers," said Wright. "Part of what is happening here is we've had pent-up demand for a number of years.

"Then, as the pandemic progressed, lots of people started thinking about increasing the space they have to live in," said Wright.

Debra Wright, president of the Ottawa Real Estate Board, says the unheard-of housing market in the city is 'exciting.' (Supplied by the Ottawa Real Estate Board)

The increase in demand is across the housing spectrum.

"Condo owners are looking to get in freehold houses," said Wright. "A lot of people are thinking about moving to the country. People are looking for properties with more yard."

While Daté was regularly outbid by $10,000 to $20,000, Wright knows of examples where the difference between winning and losing bids was six figures.

"There's a small townhouse … in 2018 I had it listed in the low $300s. It was quite beautiful, but it was really small. It took us a while, but we finally got it sold in the low $300s. In the last couple of months, it went on the market in the low $400s. It sold in the high $500s."

Wright shares another example, of a moderately sized, single-family home in a good neighbourhood. Last year, it would likely have been listed in the mid-$600,000s.

"This year it was listed in the mid-$800s and it sold for well over $1.1 million," .

The price creep is affecting even entry-level homes. In 2010, 35 per cent of homes sold in Ottawa went for under $400,000. In 2020, only 16 per cent of homes were sold for less than that, according to Wright.

"It's not because people don't want to buy [under $400,000], but because the prices have increased," said Wright.

Crunching the numbers further, she said, 60 per cent of homes in 2020 were purchased between $400,000 and $799,000. Early figures in 2021 suggest that trend will continue.

In April 2020, the family of Ottawa's Trinh Yogaratnam received six offers on their semi-detached home in Old Ottawa South. It sold in a week for over the asking price, with no conditions. (Tai Yogaratnam)

Wright's advice to homeowners?

Know what you can truly afford. She's seeing "risky behaviour" as people desperate to buy are waiving inspections and putting in unconditional offers that push their budget.

"When you've bought that house unconditionally, you've bought it. You've got to find a way to pay for it," said Wright.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning