May 14, 2015 / 4:45 PM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 1-Canada PM warns on household debt as housing boom turns patchy

(Adds mortgage offers)

By Andrea Hopkins

May 14 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned on Thursday that some consumers are overexposed to mortgage debt even if the housing market remains stable, a rare nod by the government to high consumer debt levels in an uneven housing market.

Reiterating his stance that Canada’s housing market should be strong and stable “over the longer term”, Harper said his Conservative government would not consider a tax on foreign purchases of real estate.

While Australia already restricts foreign real estate investment, Canada does not even track it. Some analysts believe a tax on foreign buyers would cool hot markets in Toronto and especially Vancouver, where a backlash against wealthy Chinese homebuyers is building.

Harper said he was not considering such a tax “at the current time” but said the government is watching the housing market closely.

“Now, all of our data indicate that - both for lenders and for borrowers at low interest rates - this debt is very manageable. But there are some people who are overexposed, so we encourage people to exercise caution in terms of their borrowing,” Harper told reporters during an appearance in Windsor, Ontario.

“It remains our analysis ... that the Canadian housing sector should be strong and stable over the longer term,” he added.

Canadian house prices are at a record high nationally and in Toronto and Vancouver but have cooled dramatically in some other markets, including the oil-industry capital of Calgary. Home prices in nine of Canada’s 11 major cities have passed their peak, according to the Teranet-National Bank price index.

Still, national house prices have risen 37.8 percent since June 2009, when the global financial crisis stalled price gains, according to the Teranet-National Bank house price index. Vancouver prices are up 42.3 percent and Toronto prices are up 59.2 percent in the same period.

While the household debt-to-income ratio is at a record high 163.3 percent, Canada’s big banks continue to roll out new mortgage products with low introductory rates, an innovation that reminds some of the U.S. subprime lending model that left many borrowers unable to cope when interest rates eventually rose.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was offering on Thursday to “lower your mortgage rate for nine months” by charging an introductory rate of 1.99 percent on a four-year fixed-rate mortgage. Even without the offer, mortgage rates are near historic lows in Canada, often below 3 percent. (Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Peter Galloway)

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