Canadian home sales fall again, seller 'sense of panic'

TORONTO/CALGARY (Reuters) - Sales of existing homes in Canada slipped further in January as the drop in oil prices hurt homebuyer demand in western Canada, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) said on Tuesday, with one analyst saying seller panic has set in.

Realtors' signs are hung outside a newly sold property in a Vancouver neighbourhood where houses regularly sell for C$3-C$4 million ($2.7-3.6 million) September 9, 2014. REUTERS/Julie Gordon

The industry group for Canadian real estate agents said sales activity was down 3.1 percent last month from December, the third consecutive monthly decline.

The data suggested Canada’s prolonged housing boom may be ending after more than five years of rising sales that pushed home prices to record highs.

Canada escaped the U.S. housing crash due largely to more prudent lending standards, but the long boom and high consumer debt levels have raised fears of a U.S.-style collapse.

Prices, which lag sales, remained 5.2 percent higher than a year earlier, according to CREA’s home price index, but fell compared to a month earlier in several markets, including the Western Canadian cities of Calgary, Regina, and Saskatoon.

A sharp, sustained drop in oil prices has sideswiped the economy in the resource-rich provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where homeowners are trying to sell houses before values decline further.

“What is interesting to note about the housing measures is that there is a clear sense of panic,” Mazen Issa, senior Canada macro strategist at TD Securities, said in a research note.

Issa said the West was the epicenter of housing-related weakness in January, with sales down 24 percent in Calgary, 10 percent in Edmonton, 7 percent in Regina and 18 percent in Saskatoon.

“The regional breakdown reveals a rush of homeowners looking to obtain top dollar before their respective regional housing market nosedives on the price,” Issa said.

One realtor in Calgary, Canada’s bellwether city for the oil industry, said overall sales there are down 40 percent compared to last year and sellers are bracing for a price correction, but not a crash, as oil prices slump and fewer people arrive there looking for work.

“That’s certainly going to take a lot of capital out of the province and the city and we anticipate housing prices will likely soften over the next couple of years, but talk of a mass slide of 20 or 30 percent is wrong,” said Jim Sparrow, a realtor with Royal LePage.

“Nobody is giving their house away and sellers are reluctant to start slashing the price of their homes,” he added.

The national sales-to-new listings ratio dipped to 49.7 percent as the number of newly listed homes rose faster than sales. It’s the first time the measure dipped below 50 percent since December 2012, CREA noted.

Months of inventory rose to 6.5 months, its highest since April 2013.

The national average price, not seasonally adjusted, for homes sold in January 2015 was up 3.1 percent from a year earlier to C$401,143 ($323,581), the smallest year-over-year gain since April 2013.

($1 = 1.2397 Canadian dollars)

Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jeffrey Benkoe and Meredith Mazzilli