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Toronto and Vancouver markets charge ahead despite mortgage rule changes

OTTAWA – Moves by Ottawa to tighten mortgage lending rules did little to cool the country’s two hottest real estate markets as home sales in Toronto and Vancouver continued to charge ahead last month.

The Toronto Real Estate Board on Tuesday reported record high sales volumes and another jump in prices in the first quarter, anchored by a strong March, the first full month for the latest change in mortgage regulations that require larger down payments on some homes.

The results followed a report Monday by the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver that home sales there hit a monthly record in March.

TD Bank economist Diana Petramala was surprised by the relative strength for March.

“January and February were really strong as well, so I thought maybe that was activity being pulled forward to get ahead of the new rules,” she said.

Ottawa has tightened mortgage lending rules five times in recent years, including increasing the minimum down payment and reducing the maximum amortization period.

March was the first full month for the latest change. It requires a minimum down payment for new insured mortgages of at least 10 per cent on the portion of a home that costs more than $500,000.

The changes were aimed at slowing the torrid rise in prices in the red-hot markets of Toronto and Vancouver without hurting sales in other markets.

Petramala said the federal government had already done quite a bit to push first-time homebuyers out of the market before the latest change.

“The majority of people who get an insured mortgage or have that small of a down payment are generally buying homes that are worth less than $500,000 anyway,” she said.

“It goes back to that notion that only four per cent of overall sales in Toronto and Vancouver are both within that price range — $500,000 to $1 million — and insured.”

National Bank senior economist Marc Pinsonneault said sales growth outpaced new listings growth in both cities.

“As a result, the number of houses listed for sale fell to their lowest level for a first quarter in at least 12 years,” Pinsonneault said.

“The combination of high demand and low supply of course puts pressure on prices.”

In Toronto, there were 22,575 sales through the real estate board’s members in the first three months of the year, including 10,326 in March. That was up about 16 per cent compared with the same month and quarter last year.

Meanwhile, Vancouver home sales totalled 5,173 in March, up 27.4 per cent from the 4,060 sales in the same month last year.

The record sales come as many raise concerns about housing affordability in Vancouver and the impact of speculation and foreign buyers on the market.

The B.C. government said last month it will work to impose changes to protect sellers in cases of contract flipping where real estate agents flip a property multiple times at higher prices before a deal closes.

The new rules will require the original seller to provide informed consent for multiple sales and that profits would go back to that seller.