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Toronto was the “hottest” city in the world last year among the growing number of rich and not-always famous scouring the planet for luxury real estate.
Toronto saw a staggering 37 per cent surge in high-end residential real estate purchases from so-called HNWIs — high net-worth individuals — in 2014, according to the third-annual survey of luxury buying trends by Christie’s International Real Estate.
Thanks to factors like the weak Canadian dollar, Toronto came out on top for growth in demand among highly desirable urban destinations, out of more than 80 global markets examined by Christie’s.
The buying spree by multimillionaires and billionaires was fierce worldwide in 2014, says Christie’s, given the continuing explosion of newly wealthy — some 200 new billionaires just from 2013 to 2014.
Plus, buying in Canada has become a real bargain given the slumping dollar and what’s happening in the rest of the world: Globally, a record 18 homes were listed at more than $100 million (U.S.) last year.
Five of them sold at those stratospheric highs, the most expensive a $147-million mansion in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island and a home on the French Riviera for $146 million.
Toronto was also catapulted into the Top 10 “Best of the Best” cities of the world, along with Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney.
But pricey and picturesque Muskoka also hit the luxury real estate radar, with an almost 70 per cent surge in sales among wealthy looking for iconic and idyllic “weekender” getaway places.
That put the Bridle Path of Ontario cottage country above sales growth seen in Massachusetts’ Berkshires and Nantucket, according to Christie’s, which features a handy dollar conversion feature on its Canadian listings.
That six bedroom, eight bathroom “one-of-a-kind luxury escape” now for sale near Seeley Bay with its private tennis court, oversized entertaining dock and “standalone fitness building” may be listed by Christie’s for $14.7 million Canadian, but that’s a mere $12.2 million U.S.
The growth in demand for multimillion-dollar Toronto houses and even $1 million-plus condos outstripped sales gains in London, New York and San Francisco, which was the 2013 record-holder, having “startled the world” with an “astronomical” 62 per cent increase in luxury sales over 2012.
Christie’s notion of “luxury” puts the world and its wealthy into perspective.
For Toronto, San Francisco and Paris, the average is more than $3 million (U.S.), New York and London are $6 million plus, Hong Kong is $5 million plus, Los Angeles is $8 million plus.
The real estate agent to the rich also points out that 2014 was a bit of a come down from 2013, when “the world’s top cities experienced an explosion in luxury home sales . . . fuelled by pent-up demand, increasing consumer confidence, and robust stock market returns.”
Through 2014, the world’s luxury real estate markets settled into “a slower but stable velocity” — with the notable exception of Toronto, now basking in the glow, like many global cities, of a booming downtown and unprecedented demand from both young professionals and downsizing baby boomers to live closer to the action.
Toronto has also been a major magnet the last few years for wealthy foreign buyers looking to relocate, add to their extensive real estate holdings or move their families here because of the country’s top universities, stable government and perception as a safe place to park money.
In fact, 2014 was the second-best year on record here for luxury sales, according to Chestnut Park Realtor Justine Deluce, who is quoted in the report, pointing to a problem now plaguing much of the Toronto market.
“If there had been more inventory, the record would easily have been shattered,” said Deluce.
The report looks at real estate purchases in jet-set destinations (Canary Islands, Spain saw the most sales growth in a sector that averaged a 75 per cent increase in sales in 2014), Lifestyle and Regional Resorts (Sun Valley, Idaho) and Suburban (Connecticut Shoreline.)
Christie’s also noted the growth in “experiential luxury” purchases among the new wealthy who are “more informed, more globally exposed and more sophisticated than previous generations.” They are even less materialistic, the report notes.
In Toronto, the desire for “experiential” home features includes adding meditation gardens or outdoor showers, says Deluce.
At the central bank in Ottawa, officials are forecasting a soft landing for the housing market. On the ground in Canada, brokers and homebuyers see prices that keep going up.
Re/Max, the country’s largest residential real estate agency, raised its forecast for home price growth to 3 per cent from 2.5 per cent on Friday because transactions and values were so high in the first three months of this year. In March, housing sales rallied 4.1 per cent, the most in 10 months.
“We’re not seeing any” signs of cooling, said John McKenzie, a real estate agent at Royal LePage in Sechelt, British Columbia. Government forecasters are “kind of like weathermen. Quite often they’re just wrong. Sometimes they’re going to tell you it’s pouring rain and you wake up and it’s a nice day.”
Prices in Canada have been rising since 2009, resisting regulators’ efforts to cool the market by restricting credit. In Toronto and Vancouver, values have surged as much as 56 per cent in six years. Now as the European Central Bank’s bond buying helps drive down rates to near-record lows in Canada, the housing market is poised to ascend even higher.
The Bank of Canada said in its quarterly monetary policy report Wednesday that it sees signs of moderation in the housing market, with starts and resale activity slowing since last fall. Residential investment as a share of gross domestic product is set to drop as Canadians spend less, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said in the report.
“Despite localized risks, the most likely scenario as the economy gains strength remains a soft landing in the national housing market,” Poloz said.
Gurinder Sandhu, executive vice president of Re/Max Ontario-Atlantic, detects no softness in housing.
“In Canada, we’re in a perfect storm,” Sandhu said. “Low interest rates are really driving the demand. Consumers are showing an incredible amount of confidence — more than we’ve seen in the past few years.”
For Re/Max, which has 19,000 agents throughout Canada, its revised forecast this month was a first for an agency that typically makes such changes in December. The company’s move was spurred by faster than expected gains in Toronto and Vancouver in the first quarter.
Re/Max boosted its prediction for price growth this year to 7 per cent from 4 per cent in Toronto, and to 6 per cent from 3 per cent in Vancouver. Sandhu said the flurry of activity in the two cities will push up national figures and spill over into surrounding regions.
Toronto home sales increased 11 per cent to more than 8,000 transactions in March over the prior year, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Prices in the country’s most populous city jumped 10 per cent to about $601,500.
In Vancouver, Canada’s most expensive home market, sales soared 53 per cent and the average cost to buy a home rose 11 per cent to $870,000.
It’s cheaper than ever for a Canadian home buyer to finance a purchase. The central bank unexpectedly cut its overnight lending rate in January as the plunge in oil prices threatened the economy.
The bank’s move prompted the nation’s lenders to drop their prime rates, which control everything from variable mortgages to lines of credit, and also pushed down the five-year government bond yield to a record low of 0.58 per cent in February.
The yield erosion has since led lenders like Bank of Montreal and Toronto-Dominion to further slash promotional fixed-rate mortgages to as low as 2.74 per cent.
Bond buying across the globe is also compressing bond yields, which banks use when pricing mortgage loans, in Canada. The European Central Bank’s negative bond yields have damped Canada’s mortgage bonds denominated in francs and euros.
Royal LePage’s McKenzie, who’s been an agent for about 15 years, said he’s been selling homes within days of offering them as buyers take advantage of the lower financing costs. A retiring couple he worked with a month ago listed their east Vancouver home on a Thursday for $699,000. Eighty couples attended an open house over the weekend and a dozen offers were submitted by Monday. The couple sold it for $89,000 over the listing price.
“Sales have been brisker,” said McKenzie, who sells about 100 homes a year. “There’s no fear in selling houses. They know they’ll get multiple offers.”
So far this year McKenzie has already sold 40 homes in what he expects to be his highest-grossing year yet.
Outside of big cities, there had been signs of a cooling market as the price of oil dropped 40 per cent since June, spurring companies to cut jobs. Housing transactions fell the most on record in December and January in Calgary, as prices were expected to follow.
The market in the oil hub of Calgary is now rebounding after four months of declines. Sales rose 12.5 per cent in March and prices gained 1.9 per cent.
“Buyers are in a frenzy,” said Brent Celestine, an agent with Century 21 Atria Realty Inc. in Toronto. “Interest rates are so low. People are trying to get in on that.”
In a sign of things to come as Toronto’s spring housing market heats up, the gap between the price of a new house and a new condo skyrocketed to nearly $300,000 in February.
It was a fresh record for a market where intense competition has pushed the average price of a detached house over $1-million, while a flood of newly built condos, many of them aimed at investors, has kept prices flat.