"Home ownership costs came down for a second consecutive quarter as a share of household income thanks primarily to small declines in mortgage rates and home prices in several markets across the country," the RBC report says.
But it notes that there were also back-to-back back cost increases in the first two quarters of 2012, extending a pattern of alternating decreasing and increasing affordability that has been going on since 2010.
"The absence of clear direction in the trend in the past three years, in turn, means that affordability pressures continue to be somewhat greater than they have been on average historically.
"RBC’s measures still modestly exceed their averages since the mid-1980s, with the imbalance being more pronounced in the two-storey home segment."
Vancouver showed the biggest improvement from the third quarter but remained the least affordable home property market tracked by RBC Economics Research.
In that city, the cost of mortgage payments, utilities and property taxes for a benchmark detached bungalow would eat up 82.2 per cent of a typical household's pre-tax income.
That's down 2.6 percentage points from the previous quarter but still indicates the cost of basic home expenses in Vancouver is beyond the reach of many people.
The RBC Housing Trends and Affordability report, compiled four times a year by the group that owns RBC Royal Bank, estimates it would take $147,700 of annual income to qualify for a benchmark mortgage on a Vancouver detached bungalow.
In Toronto, the second-most expensive market tracked, the qualifying income in the fourth quarter was $111,400, resulting in an affordability measure of 52.8 per cent — down four-tenths of a point from the third quarter.
As is often the case in national real estate statistics, Vancouver and Toronto tend to have a disproportionate impact on the overall numbers.
On a national basis, the bank estimates the cost of owning a detached bungalow eased by two-tenths of a point to 42.1 per cent of household pre-tax income. The qualifying annual income in this case is $77,200 — roughly half Vancouver's rate.
RBC estimates it took 28 per cent of pre-tax income to cover a condo's basic costs and 47.8 per cent of a typical family paycheque to pay for a two-storey home — down two-tenths of a point and three-tenths of a point respectively.