Opinion: When is the best time to buy in a down market?

[January 14, 2019 – Vancouver Courier]

Many first-time buyers are taking a wait-and-see approach, in case home prices drop further – is that the best strategy?

Recently I was asked to guest live on CityTV’s BT Vancouver morning news show to recap a range of industry predictions for real estate in 2019. During the interview, I was asked what strategy first-time buyers should adopt if they’re hoping to get into the market but are waiting to see what will happen. 

This question, of trying to time the market, is one that comes up time and time again — no matter whether we’re in a rising market, in a down market, or in a steady market (which, in fact, we have now, in terms of prices for entry-level homes). People have a terror of buying a home at the “peak” of the market, or at another point where prices will drop after they’ve bought the home — but I don’t think this is something to fear.

To make my interests clear: I’m not a real estate agent or adviser, I’m a writer and editor who specializes in real estate and spends her days analyzing and reporting on market statistics. I have nothing to gain from advising anyone to buy homes, and I am not paid by anyone other than the media company for which I work, which gives me free rein to share my views as I see fit. I own a condo (my home) plus a long-term investment studio in Vancouver. I don’t offer advice to try to buoy the market, but simply because I’ve been lucky enough to get into this position (largely by ignoring those who told me not to buy yet) and I want to share what I’ve learned.

The very smart senior analyst of the Real Estate Investment Network, Don Campbell, once said to me, “The past two decades are littered with the bones of those who stayed on the sidelines of the real estate market.” That phrase stayed with me, as I see it all the time — friends in their 50s and 60s who are still renting, and will now likely pay rent throughout their retirement years. They all tell me, “I wish I’d bought when I was younger. Homes seemed so expensive, even back then – but that’s nothing compared with what they are now.”

Exactly. The £182,000 (British pounds) I paid for my tiny first flat in South London, a 50-minute commute from work, seemed astronomical 15 years ago. I could only raise a 5 per cent down payment and take out an interest-only mortgage. And everyone told me not to buy it, as “we’re at the peak of the market.” They said the same thing when I moved up to a larger place even further out of town, for £240,000, in 2008. That really was the then-peak of the market, as immediately after I bought it, the recession hit and its value dropped by 15 per cent.

But no matter. I was still above water, as my mortgage was still only £175,000, and over the next few years the value more than recovered. I sold it for £280K in 2014, and that’s how I had a down payment to buy a condo in downtown Vancouver. 

That’s how real estate works. There is no price “peak,” only a fluctuating, but generally upward, line. If you’re looking at holding onto a home for a reasonable length of time, if you can afford the mortgage and if you have a decent down payment, just go for it — trying to time the market is a fool’s errand. Those price predictions I spoke about last week differ considerably, so nobody really knows what will happen this year, or next. Sure, the general consensus is that here in Metro Vancouver, average home prices might dip by a couple of per cent this year. But even if that happens, interest rates are rising. So a lower average home price a) doesn’t mean the specific home you want to buy will be any cheaper and b) even if it is, it doesn’t mean it’s more affordable, if mortgage costs are going up. 

The only buyers I’d recommend to wait are speculators looking for a quick flip. For everyone else, if you hold on to your home for long enough, it will always end up higher than you bought it for.

Now we are facing an influx of one million additional people in Metro Vancouver by 2050. Political migration, climate migration, our relatively stable economy, our Pacific Rim position, and many other factors will, in my opinion, mean that even if prices dip in the next year or so, they will at some point over the next decade exceed their previous peak. And by the time we get to 2050, I predict that today’s Millennials will be wishing they had bought 30 years previously, when the average cost of a condo was “only” $600,000 and they could’ve gotten a great little pad in Surrey for $250K. 

You really don’t want to be on the wrong side of the price rises that could be ahead of us over the next 10 or 20 years. 

So if you’re lucky enough to be able to buy a home — whichever location you can afford, and in whatever size home — just go for it. I did, and I’ve never regretted it.

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