Makin’ It Work: Three Real-Life Homebuying Stories
By Claire Porter RobbinsAugust 25, 2023
How are young people coping with housing affordability crisis? We spoke with first-time buyers in Calgary about three different approaches to homebuying in today's market.
When it comes to forecasting the Canadian economy, no topic seems to get as much airtime as homeownership.
Purchasing a home has long been framed as a straightforward, essential step on the so-called checklist of adulthood, but there is growing recognition of the many challenges associated with buying and owning a home in today’s hot real estate markets. Thanks to housing supply shortages and uncertainty around inflation and interest rates, home ownership is one of the most fraught decisions young people are juggling with today. While the cost of owning a home has gone down slightly in the past few months, RBC Economics said in a recent report that “parts of Canada remain in full-blown affordability crisis.”
To get a sense of how first-time homeowners are approaching the housing market, Inspired Investor spoke with three young people in Calgary, Alberta – a city typically ranked as one of the most affordable real estate markets for a major city in Canada. We wanted to know how these current and prospective homeowners are managing what will very likely be the biggest financial decision of their lives.
The pandemic factor
For Mark and Lee, both 35 years old, the decision to buy their home came together more quickly than they had anticipated. Originally, they were set to have a wedding in May 2020, but when the pandemic struck, their plans changed dramatically. Suddenly, says Lee, the couple was working back-to-back in a 600-square-foot rental condo. Mark, a lawyer, was in the middle of a trial, interviewing witnesses, and Lee, an HR professional, was learning the ropes for a new job virtually. “We needed space – as soon as possible,” says Lee.
Once it became apparent their wedding would have to be postponed indefinitely, they worked with vendors to get their deposits back. In addition to some existing savings, they realized they had enough to make a down payment for a home, and after three offers, finally landed a detached new build in the community of Killarney. They moved in the same week they had originally planned to be married.
The record low interest rates of the early pandemic months were an important factor for Mark and Lee, who locked in a fixed 2.45 per cent mortgage rate for five years. “We saw it as an ideal time to lock in a rate, but we knew we’d be readjusting in 2025, so we’ve oriented our finances around anticipating a bump,” says Lee.
Mark expects gradual increases in income each year, but the couple wants to avoid lifestyle inflation so they can save more and pay off the principal amount on their mortgage a bit.
“We’re also trying to do more of the home maintenance ourselves,” says Lee. “We’ve been taking classes at the hardware store.”
Many new homeowners made the leap in the months following the early lockdowns, incentivized by low interest rates and the possibility that remote working could facilitate living away from expensive downtown areas.
Bolstered by parental support
Sarah, a 26-year-old PhD student in Calgary, realized pandemic-era low interest rates meant she could be spending less on mortgage payments than on rent. But as a student on a strict budget, and with a couple more years of study ahead of her, she didn’t have much in savings and knew she would need help with a down payment.
Sarah and her mother decided to split the down payment on a one-bedroom condo in an area close to Calgary’s 17th avenue, near busy shops and restaurants, and with public transportation options to get to school. Purchasing a condo in 2021, they were able to lock in a 2.24 per cent interest rate for five years.
“I know I’m really fortunate to have my mom helping me with the down payment. Most of my peers don’t have that level of security or privilege, and it will really help set me up financially for later down the road,” says Sarah. All furniture for her condo was purchased used, from family, social media sites and consignment stores, which she says helped lower her costs.
Sarah is certainly not alone in requiring financial support from family to make home ownership happen. A 2022 Ontario Real Estate Association study found that 4 in 10 Ontario parents provided financial support to their 18-to-38-year-olds to help purchase a home. On average, parents who gifted money to their children for a down payment gave $73,605.50, the study found.
Beyond going in on the down payment with Sarah, her mom also contributed her years of experience dealing with interest rates and the real estate market. Sarah says that, as a single parent, her mom was highly conscious of the financial stability home ownership can grant, but also the risk that creeping interest rates can present to a household budget.
“We decided we would need to buy a condo in a building with low management fees, so that even when the time came to renegotiate the mortgage interest rate, we’d still have one of our locked-in costs staying low,” she says.
Sarah says that the biggest lesson she learned came when her most recent property assessment was lower than the original 2021 purchasing price. “I realized how volatile it can be in terms of your investment – fortunately I’m not planning on selling anytime soon, but it made me realize there are no guarantees.”
Trying to time an unpredictable market
That lack of certainty has confounded many potential homeowners, like Noor, a 32-year-old social worker, and her boyfriend Pat, a 38-year-old government employee. They rent a 1,000- square-foot apartment near the Elbow river in Calgary’s Mission neighbourhood.
“We’re just waiting for the housing market to cool off before we buy – but the problem is, there seems to be no end in sight,” says Pat. “Calgary is supposed to be one of the most affordable markets for homebuyers, but the fact we’re still struggling really says something.”
“At the moment, we’ve got a great landlord who we negotiated with to keep our rent at $2,200 until the end of April 2024, when he’s planning to sell it,” says Pat. “We could always find another place to rent, but now Calgary has extremely high rental prices too.” As of March 2023, condo vacancy rates in Calgary were 1.8 per cent, according to RBC Economics, among the lowest in country.
RBC Economics also predicts that Canada’s shortage of rental housing will quadruple by 2026, meaning that for renters like Noor and Pat, relief isn’t likely to come soon.
“We probably couldn’t find as nice of a place without paying a lot more in rent, so we’re starting to think a mortgage would be more affordable, if we can save enough for a down payment that will meet the stress test requirements,” says Pat.
“We’re also reassessing our spending in other areas to see if we can save more towards a down payment. We’re cutting back on our Uber spending, and we’re not planning to do any big trips,” says Pat.
Like many prospective homebuyers, Noor and Pat are hoping to time things so that they can lock in a relatively low interest rate, yet also make a purchase once housing prices cool off.
Most current homeowners can relate to the desire to time the markets, but like Matt, Lee, and Sarah, sometimes serendipity plays more of a role than the best-laid plans.
“It’s not super realistic, we know,” says Pat. “But we’re trying our best to make the market work for us.”
Have you heard about the First Home Savings Account (FHSA)? It’s a new registered plan that can help you save for your first home tax-free Find out more at rbc.com/firsthome.
*Some names have been changed for privacy.
Financial planning services and investment advice are provided by Royal Mutual Funds Inc. (RMFI). RMFI, RBC Global Asset Management Inc., Royal Bank of Canada, Royal Trust Corporation of Canada and The Royal Trust Company are separate corporate entities which are affiliated. RMFI is licensed as a financial services firm in the province of Quebec.
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