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Resale-home sales in rut

Worst March in almost 20 years; weather, rules cited

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Winnipeg's resale-homes market experienced its bleakest March in nearly 20 years, which industry analysts say is the result of everything from Old Man Winter to tougher mortgage rules.

The Winnipeg Realtors Association (WRA) said only 844 properties changed hands last month through the local Multiple Listing Service (MLS). That was a drop of 26 per cent from a year earlier, when 1,138 properties were sold, and was the lowest March sales total since 1995.

"Instead of March madness, it was March calmness, with buyers noticeably absent from our MLS market at this time of year," said WRA president Richard Dettman.

First-time buyers, in particular, were staying away.

It was the second consecutive double-digit, year-over-year, sales decline for the Winnipeg market, which saw sales tumble by 11 per cent in February after posting the second-busiest January on record at the start of the year.

The question is whether the last two months were just a pause in the action, or whether the market slowdown gripping some of the country's most overheated markets such as Vancouver and Toronto is finally gaining traction here.

Most of industry players and observers interviewed Monday said the answer to that question likely won't be known for at least a couple of more months.

Dettman said local real estate agents will watch April sales closely to see if the spring thaw brings more buyers out of the woodwork.

And Dianne Himbeault, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s senior market analyst for Winnipeg, said what happens during the next two months, traditionally two of the busiest sales months of the year, should give a better indication of where the local market is heading.

Himbeault said April alone might not give a true indication because of the looming spring flood, which can be a distraction for both homebuyers and sellers.

Dettman and two past WRA presidents -- Claude Davis of Royal LePage Dynamic Real Estate and Ralph Fyfe of Century 21 Bachman and Associates -- maintained the weather was one of the biggest contributors to last month's decline in sales activity.

"I think the biggest thing going on is that this is the seventh month that we've had snow on the ground," Fyfe said. "People are fed up with it."

He said the snow was long gone and the spring market was already in full swing by this time last year, and this year it isn't even out of the staring blocks yet.

"When people still see snow on their lawn, they're not quick to either buy or sell or move," Dettman added.

He and Davis said last summer's tightening of federal mortgage insurance rules is also keeping some first-time buyers on the sidelines until they can save up a bigger down payment for a home.

"But I don't think it's been as big an issue in Winnipeg as it has in some other cities," where house prices are considerably higher, Davis added.

Himbeault said other factors have also been at play here. Wage increases haven't kept pace with inflation, and employment growth hasn't been as strong in the key 25- to 44-year age group.

She said she's also heard some agents say some buyers are being more fussy about what they buy, opting to wait for the right house at the right price rather than settling for whatever they can get.

Robert Hogue, senior economist with RBC Economics, said the Winnipeg market may also see "a little bit of payback" after January's strong performance.

"But that's not different from other markets in Canada." he said. "That (a softening in the demand for homes) has been the general trend... and Winnipeg is not an island unto itself."

Hogue said he wouldn't be surprised if sales bounce back a little here and elsewhere in Canada during the next few months, and then level off.

"But I'm not suggesting a major rebound," he added.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 B6

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Updated on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:14 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds fact box

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