Housing sales were down 30% in July from a year ago, and the Canadian Real Estate Association is blaming the drop on the new harmonized sales tax in Ontario and British Columbia.
The Ottawa-based group, which represents 100 real estate boards across the country, said July sales plunged 6.8% on a seasonally adjusted basis from the previous month, a decline “almost entirely the result of fewer sales in British Columbia and Ontario,” where the HST went into effect on July 1.
The slowdown had been expected as consumers rushed to buy homes ahead of the July 1 implementation in those provinces. The HST only applies to services used in purchasing and selling an existing home, such as real estate commission, and not the actual sale price.
Phil Soper, chief executive of Royal LePage Real Estate Services Ltd., said the HST, combined with tougher mortgage rules, expectations of higher interest rates and the bounceback from the recession, drove the market earlier this year. “You take those four things and add them together and you get a highly front-ended year, which we forecast,” he said.
The housing market did get some good news from Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Nova Scotia, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Bank of Montreal, which all lowered interest rates Monday. The five-year, fixed-rate closed mortgage is down to 5.49%, which means that on a discounted basis, consumers can likely lock in a rate of less than 4% for five years.
But John Andrew, a professor of real estate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., doubts the cut in bank rates will be enough to reverse a declining housing market.
“With homes sales down 30%, that’s surprising. I was expecting a drop, but nothing that big. I think prices are next [to decline] although they are holding their own now,” Prof. Andrew said.
“Thank goodness rates are as low as they are. If we were seeing significant increases in interest rates, it would disastrous for real estate prices,” Prof. Andrew said.
The average price of a home sold in July was $330,351, just a 1% increase from a year ago. However, the average price of a home sold in June was $342,662, so prices are off 3.6% from a month ago.
CREA said the lack of activity in British Columbia and Ontario — two of the country’s most expensive markets — likely skewed average prices down. In B.C., sales dropped 14.1% from a month ago on a seasonally adjusted annual basis. In Ontario, the decline was 8%.
The two provinces accounted for 85% of the change in national activity.
“The soft sales figures we’re seeing right now can be attributed in part to accelerated home purchases earlier in the year,” said Georges Pahud, CREA’s president.
He warned activity will be off for the rest of 2010.
“Activity may remain at lower levels for some time, but ultimately we expect a more stable market to emerge, with demand coming back into line with economic fundamentals,” Mr. Pahud said.
Prices are getting a boost from a drop in supply. The seasonally adjusted annual number of new residential listings fell 7.2% in July from the previous month, the third consecutive monthly decrease and the steepest drop in more than a decade.
However, the overall inventory rate, which reflects all housing on the market, is climbing. The number of months of inventory, which represents the number of months it would take to sell current inventories at the current rate of sales activity, was seven month in July. A year ago the number was 4.4 months.
Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist of BMO Capital Markets, said most consumers who were sitting on the sidelines already pushed their purchase ahead in the spring, so he’s also expecting a soft market for the next few months.
“Although with long-term mortgage rates dropping, employment improved and prices stabilized, the longer-term outlook is far from dire,” Mr. Porter said.