Montreal Real Estate: Quebec Election, Separation Issue Chilling Market, Observers Say

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MONTREAL REAL ESTATE
A real estate sign is seen in front of a Montreal home Monday, January 17, 2011. First-time home buyers will have to save for a few more years before their dreams are realized thanks to new mortgage rules that make it tougher for them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson | CP

MONTREAL - Some observers of the Montreal real estate market say potential home buyers are holding off until they know who wins the Sept. 4 provincial election.

The market traditionally slows in summer and new regulations concerning mortgages have been imposed but some brokers say buyers are also taking a wait-and-see attitude to protect their investment or maybe get a better price after Sept. 4.

It's the type of news that would rankle the Parti Quebecois, which has had warnings of a flight of economic capital and an exodus of anglophones used against it since the 1970s.

Monique Assouline, a real-estate broker who works in Montreal's west end, says she's had both anglophone and francophone clients tell her they're not buying anything until after the election is decided.

"Their main fear is that the PQ government will win and that the separation issue will come back up and that the prices are going to fall down," she said.

Assouline said buyers fear property values will plummet amid an exodus of residents from the mainly English-speaking areas such as after the 1976 election, the first time the PQ took power.

"They're afraid to buy in this area right now."

Her listings range from $200,000 condos to $600,000 houses and Assouline said while she has shown a lot of properties, the offers are being made on real estate in other parts of Montreal.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois has brushed off suggestions of a sovereignty-induced market slowdown as a throwback to the early days of the PQ, when the threat of a flight of capital rose like a wrathful spectre to thwart the party.

In what's known in Quebec as "le coup de la Brinks," which translates as "the Brinks coup," media were alerted in April 1970 to a convoy of nine Brinks armoured trucks rushing billions in Royal Trust securities from Montreal to Ontario.

The move came amid growing support for the sovereigntist PQ and is considered one of the reasons Rene Levesque lost so badly to Robert Bourassa in an election called days after photos of the trucks on the highway were published.

So what do the numbers actually say about housing values?

History does record an exodus of corporate head offices and anglophones after the 1976 election of the first Parti Quebecois government, which was accompanied by fevered speculation of how far the new government would go. A famous editorial cartoon in the Montreal Gazette after the election showed Rene Levesque advising people to take a Valium tranquilizer.

While reliable statistics on home prices aren't available from the Canadian Real Estate Association before 1980, its data indicates a steady increase in housing prices in Quebec and Canada between 1980 and 2011.

The only years where prices actually dropped in both areas were 1995 — the year of the last Quebec referendum — and 1996.

The historical trend shows some significant swings:

—In the first year with available CREA data, 1980, the PQ was in office and it held a sovereignty referendum. That year, the average value of a Quebec home stood at 72 per cent of the national average.

—The rate jumped to 79 per cent in 1986, the year after the Liberals were restored to power. The PQ had been defeated in a December 1985 election.

—By 1995, with the PQ back in power and holding a second referendum, the ratio had plummeted again — to 65 per cent of the national average.

—The ratio grew again to 74 per cent of the national average by 2004, the year after the Liberals returned to power and the PQ was in opposition.

There are limits, however, to the influence of referendum fears.

The value of Quebec homes slid back to 71 per cent of the national average last year, following an era of skyrocketing prices characterized by an oil boom on the Prairies and a real-estate crunch in Vancouver.

Paul Cardinal, the manager of market analysis at the Quebec Federation of Real Estate Boards, said he has not heard any anecdotal evidence of any hesitation in the current market.

"We haven't heard about anything," he said.

The board, which releases monthly statistics on the state of the market, did not have preliminary figures for August but Cardinal said the trend for sales had been strong since the start of the year.

"It's doing pretty well since the beginning of the year," Cardinal said. "There's an increase of seven per cent in the number of transactions (in) all residential categories. It's the same thing for the province of Quebec, it's plus seven per cent.

"There's an increase in the median price of about three to four per cent in the Montreal area depending on the category of property you're considering but it's three per cent for single family homes and three per cent for condominiums. Generally speaking, we still have a market that is close to equalibrium."

He said central Montreal remained a seller's market and there is still a lot of activity in the high-end sector.

Andy Dodge, a real estate consultant who tracks the market in wealthy Montreal-area Westmount, says in his report on July numbers that bargain hunters were out in force and the volume of sales was up from the previous month.

Still, he said he had heard of pre-election jitters.

"For the most part you can't expect too much to happen in Westmount real estate (before the election)," he said.

Dodge said the market, which has been strong for some time, is likely due for a downturn but a Liberal win would probably make it less severe.

He said he had seen elections affect the market before, with the original 1976 election of the PQ dealing the hardest blow.

"It was falling off anyway in 1991. (Then) the PQ got elected (in 1994) and it took the market about seven years to recover." He said the re-election of the Liberals in 2003 had prompted the market to rebound.

Another broker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said politics is hurting the market. The broker in question has in the past contributed to the governing Liberals.

"Everybody's going to be in a holding pattern until after the election," said the broker, who deals in properties ranging from $200,000 to the millions. "Nobody's going to make a commitment to any significant investment here until they know what's up. I think that's only normal.

"I have many clients who are saying they want to buy this house but they're not putting an offer in writing until after the election."

But the broker said the election isn't the only factor making some buyers think twice.

Student protests have also gotten the attention of foreign buyers, particularly of commercial property.

"They don't like discord, they don't like dissent," the broker said.

"They were attracted to Canada because it's a peaceful nation without issues. It still is but that has been, from my experience, with my clients, a major turnoff. They're not impressed with what's going on."

The broker said several clients had considered relocating a large company to Montreal or opening offices there in the last year but decided against it.

"They're going to Toronto now instead. We're talking millions of dollars into the economy."

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