By Nichola Saminather
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s pandemic housing boom has attracted a larger-than-usual share of speculators, many of whom took advantage of falling variable mortgage rates to take out multiple loans, but the central bank’s surprise warning this week about an early interest rate lift-off could douse a rally fueled by cheap debt.
Earlier and faster rate hikes could trigger higher payments for many of these buyers, and investors with multiple properties could respond by selling some of them into ebbing demand if their commitments become too onerous.
Already, the housing market has started to cool as fixed rate mortgages rose 60 basis points on average this year, according to Ratehub.ca, tracking rising bond yields. On Wednesday, the Bank of Canada said it could increase its benchmark interest rate from the current 0.25% as soon as April, three months sooner than previously forecast.
Money markets expect a rate hike in March, with nearly 100 basis points of tightening in 2022.
“People living in their homes are a much more stable source of demand; investor demand is much more fickle,” said Philip Cross, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
“Once (investors) start seeing that rising interest rates and/or falling house prices makes it unprofitable to speculate on housing as an investment, that source of demand can disappear quite rapidly.”
Investors accounted for a quarter of all August home purchases in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the highest in at least a decade, according to Teranet, underscoring the heightened risk in the current housing cycle. They were the biggest group of buyers, a marked shift from 2011 when they were the smallest.
The number of people with three or more active mortgages climbed 7.7% in the second quarter from a year ago, double the pre-pandemic pace, according to Equifax Canada.
Record-low rates have lit a fire under housing demand, pushing some Canadian cities and their surrounding areas into bubble territory. Canada’s 11% home price jump in 2020 was the fourth largest in a 60-country International Monetary Fund housing index. House prices are up another 14% this year, the Teranet-National Bank Composite House Price Index showed.
Swiss bank UBS ranked Toronto No. 2, behind Frankfurt, in this year’s Global Real Estate Bubble Index https://www.ubs.com/global/en/wealth-management/insights/2021/global-real-estate-bubble-index.html, with Vancouver at No. 6.
The market is showing signs of easing. The Teranet-National Bank index rose 0.1% in September from August, the fourth consecutive month in which growth slowed from the previous month.
To be sure, few anticipate a broad market crash, as a shortage of inventories and a renewed immigration push are expected to keep a floor under prices, mortgage broker Ron Butler said. A stress test, which ensures borrowers can make…