From Record Lows, to Record Highs, How Canadian Housing Markets Faced a Tale of Two Extremes

On Monday, May 17, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) released its national housing statistics for the month of April. Below, Shaun Cathcart, Director and Senior Economist, Housing Data and Market Analysis at CREA provides an update on the current state of housing markets in Canada and explains what the data means for members.


A long-standing joke around here for whenever someone is trying to make a big deal or a big news story out of one of the year-over-year numbers we publish, which happens a lot, is that we should answer them by saying, “well, it’s really a story about last year.”

A lot of the time that’s actually true. But it’s probably never been more true than in April 2021, now that we’re one year out from the worst of the initial COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, or as I like to call them: the Mad Max Beyond Toilet Paper Dome days.

If you compare your life now to what it was like back in those early days of the pandemics, I suspect you would find a pretty vast difference, and the stats that came out of that time in our collective history reflect that.

It’s something known as the “base effect”, which is the impact on statistics that results from the nature of the point of reference that you’re comparing it to in the past.

In the case of the April 2021 housing numbers, the year-over-year is a comparison to the worst numbers ever published in April 2020, while the month-over-month relationship is to the strongest numbers ever published in March 2021.

The result is a relatively more “reasonable” set of numbers in April 2021—though it should be noted they’re still very strong—looks both way up or way down depending on what crazy part of the last crazy year you compare them to.

Summary:

  • National home sales declined by 12.5% on a month-over-month basis in April.
  • Actual (not seasonally adjusted) activity was up 256% year-over-year.
  • The number of newly listed properties fell back by 5.4% from March to April.
  • The MLS® Home Price Index (HPI) rose 2.4% month-over-month and was up 23.1% year-over-year.
  • The actual (not seasonally adjusted) national average sale price posted a 41.9% year-over-year gain in April.

Year-over-year gains appear outsized

Since we’ve known this was coming for a year now, the year-over-year part anyway, my colleague Ryan Biln got ahead of it and wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago to get people prepared for some pretty extreme numbers. Not surprisingly, we’ve already had quite a few “this can’t be right” emails, what with many local markets seeing year-over-year sales up in the 200-300% range in April.

So, what are these numbers at the national level? Canadian home sales were up by 256% on a year-over-year basis in April 2021. The average price of those sales was up 42% year-over-year. Those are the biggest gains ever for both of those variables.

But they were also both down—from March.

In my view the way to interpret these big numbers is to see the April housing numbers came in somewhere in between those extremes (albeit much closer to the high end), which is arguably a good thing.

Of course, we’ve also had some scary COVID-19 variants, highest cases ever and new lockdowns in the last month, which makes it harder to say why we’re seeing what we’re seeing and what might come a little later this year.

I said in my blog last month the “pent-up supply may be coming to save the day” story might be delayed by the third wave of COVID-19. New listings were down month-over-month in April and you can’t buy what’s not yet available for sale. Does that mean this will be another year where a COVID-19 scare pushes some activity into the summer or fall?

I see it as a still very hot but moderating market, with the extent of that moderation perhaps having been overstated in the April numbers because of COVID-19. We’ll see.

Skyline view

MLS® Home Price Index (HPI) gains

The MLS® HPI jumped by 2.4% from March to April, a big gain but less than in February and March, so it’s in line with measures of market balance that are still very tight, but not as tight as they were to start 2021.

It all falls into the “slowing down—but from a very high starting point” narrative. I’ve compared it to those rocket cars on the Bonneville Salt Flats going for the land speed record. We may still be going 600 mph, but last month we were going 620 mph.

I think we’ve all wanted to see the temperature turned down on this market after the last year and it looks as though that’s finally happening, or at least starting to happen.

That said, a Goldilocks market (not too hot, not too cold) will probably not appear overnight, so these moves in the right direction are the bits of good news we want to be looking out for.

As our Director and Senior Economist, Housing Data and Market Analysis, Shaun Cathcart provides housing market intelligence to Boards, Associations, members, and real estate industry stakeholders. He spends much of his time analyzing and writing about Canadian housing trends. In his downtime, you can find him on his bike, on the volleyball court, and enjoying time with his family.


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