What a real estate crash could mean for Canadians

A collapse of Canada's housing market could have far-reaching ripple effects.
A collapse of Canada's housing market could have far-reaching ripple effects. AP Photo/John Bazemore, File

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) latest report warns of “problematic conditions” in the country’s largest housing markets.

Overall, there is “strong evidence of overvaluation across Canada,” the report states, with Canada’s hottest housing markets leading the pack.

“In Toronto and Vancouver, this is due to the combination of price acceleration and overvaluation.”

The federal agency in charge of supervising Canada’s banks released a revised stress test guideline Tuesday, suggesting banks test if they could weather a 50 per cent drop in real estate values in Vancouver, a 40 per cent drop in Toronto and 30 per cent fallout elsewhere in Canada.

The Bank of Canada said skyrocketing housing prices in Vancouver and Toronto are not sustainable.

The warnings of an out of control housing market keep coming.

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But what would a real estate collapse look like in Canada?

The ripple effect of a real estate collapse

There is certainly a chance prices could drop dramatically, said University of British Columbia professor Thomas Davidoff. He said a 50 per cent drop in Vancouver real estate values would be “catastrophic.”

“Now, by no means do I think that is a likely scenario.”

READ MORE: Reality check: Reining in Canada’s red-hot housing markets

If a bubble were to burst, the real estate market would slow to a crawl.

“You’d probably see very little transaction volume,” said Davidoff. “People would be locked into their homes and their mortgages.”

There would be winners and losers. Those in no hurry to sell can sit tight and hope prices rebound. And those looking to buy could be in for a great deal.

WATCH: The British Columbia government is trying to cool the housing market by imposing a controversial tax on foreign buyers. But as Mike Drolet reports, some realtors are already finding ways to circumvent the rules. 
Is a foreign buyer tax the way to cool the housing market?
Is a foreign buyer tax the way to cool the housing market?

But anyone who is having trouble covering their mortgage could be in real hot water, if their house loan ends up eclipsing their property’s readjusted worth.

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“They’re underwater. And so they can’t sell their home or they’d have to bring money to the closing or they’d have to endure a credit hit. They banks have recourse,” Davidoff said.

“The interesting question to me is whether banks really would pursue recourse … Politically, would a small number of Canadian lenders really get into the business of you know, chasing people down and breaking kneecaps when they don’t pay off their loan?”

If people can’t make payments, they may have to give their property back to the bank, which then sell the properties at a loss, potentially flooding the market.

“It’s a potentially very, very ugly scenario.”

WATCH: Concerns over a real estate bubble in Canada 
Is there a real estate bubble?
Is there a real estate bubble?

A spike in interest rates could lead to “catastrophe” all around, said Davidoff.

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A lot of people make money off real estate, directly and indirectly. Real estate agents would make less, as would lawyers drawing up the sales paperwork.

Unemployment for those in the building industry could be widespread, from contractors and labourers to security guards and cleaners.

READ MORE: Vancouver housing prices jump over 30%; Toronto also sees spike

Mortgage lenders won’t be making as much money, leading to fewer profits and bonuses for employees. And less money in the bank means decreased spending elsewhere.

Provinces (and some cities, such as Toronto) would take a hit from a loss of revenue due to property transfer taxes drying up.

While many loans are insured, those that aren’t could easily spell trouble for lenders.

“The financial sector, they’d certainly be making less money, might get into losses and it would be very, very frightening,” said Davidoff.

READ MORE: Should Canada create a real estate tax for foreign owners?

The province of British Columbia is attempting to pump the brakes on foreign ownership, long suspected of driving up prices in Canada’s hottest housing market, by imposing a 15 per cent tax on foreign nationals buying property in Metro Vancouver.

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Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned that restricting foreign investment is risky.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on foreign ownership affecting home prices 

Ultimately, no one can predict the future, but Canadians should be encouraged that banks do stress tests to ensure they could survive a real estate collapse, Davidoff said.

The test is for lenders “to determine whether they are in sound financial condition,” said Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) spokesperson Annik Faucher in an email to Global News.

“We have provided some stress testing parameters … to assess whether they have adequate capital to survive severe, yet plausible, shocks to some housing markets.”