OTTAWA — With the loonie losing value against the American dollar, U.S. home prices climbing and the potential for higher mortgage rates, Canadian snowbirds may have missed the best time to buy a winter getaway property.
But that doesn't mean the window has closed completely, industry experts say.
According to the most recent data from the Washington-based National Association of Realtors, the median home in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2013 fetched $176,000. That's about 12 per cent more than a year earlier, although it remains well below a peak of $227,000 prior to the 2008-09 recession.
Even so, the national figure vastly underestimates the plunge in some sunbelt regions such as Florida and Arizona _ the two most popular destinations for Canadians _ since the heady pre-slump days when prices shot through the roof and financial controls for issuing mortgages were practically non-existent.
Starting in about 2007, Florida, and to some extent Arizona, were hit by a ``tsunami'' of factors that contributed to the plunge in property values. Along with the national recession, these states were also hammered by years of overbuilding, a higher level of foreclosures, and a steeper fall-off in demand.
Joe Morgan, a.k.a. the Golf Home Guru, an agent specializing in golf-related properties in southwest Florida, said prices for vacation properties where he lives in Naples tumbled by 50 per cent or more.
It was coincidentally also a time when the Canadian dollar appreciated in value to parity or above, sweetening the pot for snowbirds.
The realtors report shows 2012 and 2013 were the best two years for sales to foreigners in history, with Canadians accounting for almost one-quarter of those purchases _ twice as many as any other source nation.
The median purchase by Canadians in the past year was for a home valued at $183,000, with Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Naples, Fla., and Las Vegas, Nev., being among their top choices.
``(Snowbird) business has been solid now for three years in a row,'' said Morgan. ``Probably two, three years back was the ideal time to buy, but our prices have started going up over the last 12 to 18 months.''
Last year, the median price of a home in Naples rose 17.4 per cent, and continues to rise at about 10 to 12 per cent so far into 2013.
Still, that's a long way from the peak.
``Distress properties, foreclosures and short sales, are a lot more limited now than they were, but there's still some opportunities out there,'' he said. ``So I don't think there's any reason for Canadians to give up on the dream at this time. There's still some strong values. It's just that they didn't catch the market at its bottom.''
With the American economy widely projected to pick up steam starting in the second half of 2013 and returning to a more traditional growth rate of near three per cent in 2014, the national real-estate association predicts home prices will continue to appreciate over the next few years.
Meanwhile, the Canadian dollar is no longer worth more than the U.S. dollar and is now trading four to five cents below parity, meaning any purchase comes with a surcharge once exchange rate conversion costs are added.
Some economists believe the loonie will hold at the current level for the rest of the year, but some, including the TD Bank, is projecting a fall to 90 cents US by the end of 2013. Few think the Canadian currency will strengthen this year.
But Jed Smith, a research director with the realtors' group, said the current conditions still represent a bargain for Canadians historically.
``Obviously earlier would have been better (but) later will probably be worse,'' he said.
Although conditions are tightening, Richard Silver of Sotheby's International Realty in Toronto says that may actually spur more Canadians to take the plunge in the next few years.
``As the market moves up, sometimes people buy because they are afraid that if they wait longer they are really going to have to pay more,'' Smith explained.
``It's like when rates go up, people say, 'I've got to buy now because in five years they'll really be high and I won't be able to afford it.'''
Morgan said Canadians who do buy American properties should be realistic about the potential investment returns.
While prices may still be 25 or 30 per cent below pre-slump peaks, those heady real estate values were both extraordinary and a bit of a mirage, and may not be seen again for many, many years.
``They were artificial prices caused by phoney financing that was available, and the inventory got so low that it didn't matter what the property was, people wanted it. It got ludicrous,'' said Morgan. ``I think the market is much more conservative now.''