The median family income in Toronto would have been a juicy $130,832 last year if paycheques grew at the same rate as house prices in the city. In reality, an estimate based on the most recent Statistics Canada numbers shows a median total income in the city of $77,628.
Vancouver’s not too far behind in its growing chasm between actual incomes and house prices, Montreal’s a sort of middle ground. And then there’s Halifax and Calgary, two markets where incomes and the housing market have been relatively in sync. Suggestion for first-time home buyers looking ever further outside Toronto to find something affordable: Check out Calgary.
The gap between income growth and increases in house prices is a sometimes overlooked aspect of the argument of whether house prices in some cities are supported by underlying economic fundamentals. Low interest rates help to justify housing prices, as does population growth and scarcity of new house construction in some cities.
But at the same time, house prices in some places have jumped way ahead of the ability of middle-class people to afford home ownership. This disparity is part of the conversation about housing, too.
The idea of tracking what people would be earning if their wages kept up with house prices was suggested by a reader who was living in Toronto at the time and marvelling at how prices were shooting up at rates that far exceeded incomes. Let’s look at incomes and prices not only in Toronto, but four other cities across the country as well as the national average.
The baseline for this analysis is median total family income data from 2008, the year the national housing market paused before starting a long rally fuelled by falling interest rates. Incomes for 2008 were compared against estimated 2016 levels (calculated using 2014 Statistics Canada numbers and updating them to 2016 levels by applying the inflation rate over the past two years).
For fun, we’ll also look at how much incomes would have been in 2016 if they increased at the same rate as average house prices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Historical average resale house prices were supplied by the Canadian Real Estate Association.
Final numbers for the five cities highlight the futility of talking about the Canadian housing market as a single entity. More and more, real estate is a story of headline-hogging expensive cities and quietly affordable places to live. Toronto is the unaffordability king of housing based on disparities between income growth and prices, followed by Vancouver. The 2016 median family household in Vancouver was an estimated $78,422. Rising at the same rate as the average home price, median family incomes would have been a far more robust $117,635.
House prices in Montreal have run ahead of incomes, but not by anything like what’s been going on in Toronto and Vancouver. Halifax seems an even more reasonably affordable market if you judge by comparative income and price growth, but the real affordability star is Calgary.
The slide in energy prices over the past few years has hurt both incomes and house prices in the city, with the net effect being that incomes gained ground on houses. The estimated 2016 total median family income in Calgary was $3,179 ahead of incomes pegged to house price gains.
Toronto looks forbiddingly unaffordable for middle-class families who aspire to own a house, while Calgary looks just the opposite. Might it be time for aspiring buyers in Toronto to consider moving away to get into the housing market? People used to look to Calgary for its strong job market; now, the attraction is affordable housing along with median incomes that are well ahead of the other cities in this comparison.
Home buyers priced out of Toronto and Vancouver, there are other cities besides Calgary where median family incomes are strong and housing is cheap. The cities with comparatively high family incomes, according to Statistics Canada data, include Edmonton, Regina and Ottawa.
Average resale house prices in December averaged roughly $358,000 in Edmonton, $312,000 in Regina and $388,500 in Ottawa. These are places where the economics of middle-class home buying are still friendly.