Is Canada's housing market finally coming in for a soft landing – or is it just stuck in the snow?
That's the key question following Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s housing-starts report for January, which showed that construction starts of new homes fell to an annualized rate of 180,200 in January – the slowest pace in nine months, and below economists' expectations. Since topping 200,000 last fall, sparking renewed concern about a Canadian housing bubble, housing starts have receded rapidly over the past three months.
Urban multiple-unit starts – essentially, the condo market, which is notable for its volatility and has long been considered overheated – fell by 6 per cent in the month, their third straight decline. Urban single-family starts rose 3.4 per cent, but that's after posting their lowest non-recession rate in 17 years in December.
The January pace is roughly in line with, or even a bit below, the number of new households formed each year in Canada. After spending the better part of the past three years producing more homes than the country's demographic trend seemed to support, construction is showing signs of returning to sustainable levels.
Or maybe not. Market watchers worry that the slowdown may be a weather-induced mirage, caused more by a miserable winter than by a genuine cooling of the Canadian housing market.
CMHC's housing start numbers are seasonally adjusted, which means that, as much as possible, they have been statistically corrected to factor out the typical fluctuations in building activity that come with a Canadian winter. But seasonal adjustments are based on historical norms; they can't fully account for months where the weather is considerably outside the range of normal. For large swaths of the country, this winter has been far beyond normal: Bitter cold, heavy snowfall, crippling ice storms. Those are all conditions that could contribute to construction delays, rather than true declines.
It's pretty hard to assess weather-related statistical hiccups anywhere other than the rear-view mirror; we won't know for sure if the recent home construction slowdown was merely temporary until spring arrives and we see whether there's a bounce-back. Still, the six-month rolling average for housing starts – a figure CMHC uses to identify a longer-term trend – sat at 191,500 in January, a third consecutive monthly decline.
Meanwhile, residential building permits – indicative of builders' intentions in the coming months – fell more than 9 per cent in December (the most recent month available). That's their lowest level in nearly a year, though again, there may well have been a strong weather-related component to the figure.
Bank of Montreal senior economist Robert Kavcic noted that the inventory of completed new homes that haven't yet been absorbed (i.e. bought) by the market has been declining since last spring – a sign of a market moving closer into balance. Meanwhile, home sales nationally have declined for three straight months, and the Teranet-National Bank of Canada home price index has been flat since the summer.
The trends all point to a moderation of the housing market in 2014; indeed, economists forecast that housing starts for the full year will be roughly in line with January's pace. But the trend has fooled us before. Remember that housing starts were a mere 155,000 annual rate a year ago, and averaged barely 170,000 through the first four months of last year, before the apparent slowdown was obliterated by a resurgence of demand, and construction through the middle of the year. Before we get too excited about this welcome cooling of Canada's housing boom, we'd better wait to see which way the snow blows.