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RBC says home affordability to deteriorate with rising mortgage costs

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For sale signs stand in front of a condo September 27, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

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For sale signs stand in front of a condo September 27, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

OTTAWA - The Royal Bank of Canada (TSX:RY) says the ability of Canadians to keep up with housing costs has been improving of late, but warns that's about to change.

RBC's latest housing affordability measure shows home servicing costs relative to incomes dipped slightly in the last three months of 2013, after having risen the previous two quarters.

But the relief will be temporary, the bank says in a new report, because mortgage rates are due to start rising this year.

"RBC anticipates that as longer-term interest rates begin to moderately rise, the costs of owning a home at market value will gradually outpace (growth) household incomes by late-2014, leading to strained affordability in several markets across Canada, much like the trend in Toronto," RBC chief economist Craig Wright said in the report.

The finding bucks the recent trend, which has seen mortgage rates remain stable or even moving lower, with some brokers offering five-year fixed rates below three per cent.

Still, the report predicts that with bond yields expected to drift upwards on the strength of an improving economy, mortgage rates will be pushed north as well.

The RBC notes that bond yields influence long-term mortgage rates more directly than the Bank of Canada's rate setting, which impacts short-term rates and is not expected to change until sometime in 2015.

In the fourth quarter, the bank estimates maintaining a detached bungalow at current market prices would have taken up 43.1 per cent of average household income, while the cost of a two-storey home would have taken 48.7 per cent.

Both measures are 0.2 points lower than was the case in the third quarter.

The improvement was mostly attributed to growth in average household incomes outstripping moderately increased home ownership costs in the last three months of the year.

But the change is in the margins, the report adds, noting that home affordability in Canada has remained largely stable in the past few years.

Given the nature of the Canadian market, the measure varies widely by location. For instance, the affordability measure on a detached bungalow in Vancouver dropped 2.3 points in the fourth quarter but still stood at 81.6 per cent, by far the highest in the country.

Toronto was the second least affordable market tipping in at 55.6 per cent on the RBC index, followed by Montreal at 38.8, Ottawa at 36.7, Calgary at 33.8 and Edmonton at 33.3 per cent.

As well, there is a major difference in affordability based on the nature of the home ownership, with owning a detached home at market value "more of a stretch" for homebuyers than owning a condominium, the report states.

The RBC index represents the percentage of pre-tax household income that is needed to service the cost of owning a home at current market prices, including payments for a mortgage, utilities and property taxes.

The affordability measure has more relevance to newer home buyers since the vast majority of Canadians will have bought their homes in the past, when prices were lower.

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