Obsession

As Bandit made a deposit on his lawn (I had a bag), my neighbour told me about his new house. “Bought a shack,” he said. I looked at his German muscle SUV and the wife’s exotic sports car and seriously doubted it. “In Florida. Cost a hundred and fifty. An 89-year-old guy died and I picked it up in an estate sale.” Turns out this is in south Florida, not far from Miami, and where the average house goes for $203,383.

So now my neighbour joins a burgeoning army of people – many of them Canadians – who have decided Florida is just too tempting-tasty to ignore. In fact it’s shocking but true: of the 43,200 condo units created and sold in south Florida since 2003, for example, only 13% are owned by people who actually live there. An astonishing 87% have been snapped up by investors.

And no wonder. Prices have just fallen another 7.6% in Florida from a year ago (not as bad as Nevada and Arizona, both down over 12%). One of the hottest housing markets on the continent (and the world) five years ago, the declines have been numbing – up to 70% in some overbuilt locations.

But this is even more quizzical when you contrast what’s happened there with our own mental market. Look at this:

Apparently the deputy chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns has discovered the jaw-dropping reality this pathetic blog has been pointing out for the last two years. Canadian houses now cost 200% of those in the States.

But, of course, most Americans are glorified Oakies, living on food stamps, unemployed and dreaming of glory days playing hand-me-down tuba in the high school marching band, right? Sadly, that’s what too many of us think, being the provincial snots that we’ve evolved into.

In fact the Canadian average family income is $63,800 (two or more people). The average US family earns $63,091 – virtually the same. Of that income, the typical family in Ontario hands over 31.15% in federal and provincial income taxes, not counting 13% sales taxes, health taxes and user fees. In Florida the average family making the average income would pay federal income tax of 25%. The state income tax rate is zero, and the sales tax is 7%.

We have 7.2% unemployed. They have 9.1% without a job. Are you getting my drift? Sure, people without employer health plans or government coverage pay health premiums. But then, American families get to deduct all their mortgage interest from taxable income – even their property taxes. Oh yeah, and 4% mortgage rates are locked in for 30 years. No rate roulette.

Most astonishing, the average US home costs $173,000. The average Canadian house (says CREA) costs $349,916. In Toronto it’s $454,194, and in zany Vancouver, $625,578. This, says BMO economist Doug Porter, “is not sustainable.” Adds the economics department at GreaterFool: “Duh.”

Porter figures there are three things that need to happen to narrow the bizarre gap. The loonie collapses (ain’t gonna happen). US prices recover (also a non-starter for at least half a decade). Or Canadian prices tumble (bingo). After all, logic dictates that in the US, with more than 300 million people, there’s a greater likelihood market forces have set real estate values at a more correct level than in Canada, with a tenth the people, more regionality and, of course,  Global TV.

And unless you are willfully blind, which pretty much includes Vancouver, it’s not hard to see the economic straits we’re in have already leveled real estate excesses in most of the western world. Canada increasingly stands alone as a weird place where seven in 10 families have a house and yet four in ten can’t pay their monthly bills. Anyone who believes this anomaly represents normal carries that secret Re/Max tat on their inner thigh.

But, I hear them cry, isn’t there a premium justified for living in the best country on earth?

Maybe there is, if we are. But what should it be? Ten per cent? Fifty? Is there an economic reason why the average Canadian is now paying 52% of pre-tax income to support a house (even with a 25% down payment), when Americans making the same shell out half?

Of course not. It’s hormones. Strip search the average Canadian and you’ll find a little ‘Royal LePage’ sign where their privates should be. We’re obsessed.

And it’s out of obsession that bubbles are born, and booms become busts.

By the way, my neighbour’s a smart guy. With very soft grass.