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Housing's new hot spots: Homebuyers driving Ottawa market shift to west and south

For years Ottawa has supported one of the country’s most stable markets for buying and selling homes. The benchmark price for a single-family home in December was $373,200 according to the Ottawa Real Estate Board — up just 9.4 per cent in five years. This is basically in line with inflation.

While this is bad news for homeowners who have missed out on the sharp price gains reported in Toronto (up 68 per cent over five years) and Vancouver (up 60 per cent), it’s great news for first-time buyers.

In Ottawa, younger residents — part of the millennial generation born after the mid-1980s — can still aspire to home ownership in districts reasonably close to the downtown core. Single-family homes in Bells Corners (west) and Vanier (east) could be had last month for less than $320,000. Benchmark prices for condominiums across the city were $219,000 — lowest within the country’s five largest urban areas.

The benchmark price, developed by the Ottawa Real Estate Board and other regional agencies, differs from average and median prices in that it also tracks housing characteristics such as age of property, number of bathrooms and type of roof. This permits the creation of an index on which the benchmark price is based, and a more consistent view of underlying trends in the housing market.

Nevertheless, while house prices overall have been tracking up slowly, this is less true of districts now favoured by older millennials — those born in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.

A Citizen analysis of 45 real estate districts across the city reveals that, over the past five years, homebuyers have been prepared to pay significantly bigger increases for properties in the west and south, and relatively less for homes downtown and in the east.

Consider what’s been happening just west of the downtown core, in a corridor that stretches from Bronson Avenue to Churchill Avenue along the Ottawa River. The area has long been a haven for government workers and professionals, but the coming expansion of light rail transit and likely development of LeBreton Flats has given the district extra cachet.

In the real estate districts known as Hintonburg/West Centretown, Ottawa West/Tunney’s Pasture and Westboro/Hampton Park, prices for single-family homes over the past five years have jumped 27 per cent, 21 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively. These were the biggest gains in Ottawa, roughly double that of the city as a whole.

“Westboro is seen as the trendy hot spot for millennials who aren’t looking for large lots and all the upkeep,” says Paul Rushforth, the owner of Paul Rushforth Real Estate. “The other areas (Hintonburg and Tunney’s Pasture) had lots of dated homes and were a prime target for development at a lower cost than Westboro,” he adds.

Indeed, the price for single-family homes in Hintonburg/West Centretown five years ago was only marginally ahead of the average for the city. The benchmark price in this district last month was $436,600 — 17 per cent ahead of the average.

Even so, it remains a relative bargain compared to Ottawa West/Tunney’s Pasture and Westboro/Hampton Park where single-family homes last month sold for $583,000 and $547,800, respectively.

Other districts that have seen higher-than-normal rises in benchmark prices are clustered south of the downtown core near the international airport. Single-family homes in Hunt Club/Windsor Park, Country Place/Pineglen and the Glebe all saw prices rise in excess of 14 per cent during the past five years.

The latter two districts are among the most expensive in the city with houses benchmarked last month at $591,000 and $648,000, respectively.

The priciest district, as usual, is Rockcliffe Park, home to most of Ottawa’s embassies, top mandarins and entrepreneurs such as former Cognos CEO Michael Potter and Corel founder Michael Cowpland. However, it’s the only district that, since December 2011, reported a drop in benchmark prices (to $1.2 million) — a distinction that owes much to the extremely low volume of sales.

Even so, nearby areas with a heavy component of senior bureaucrats and professionals — New Edinburgh/Lindenlea and Manor Park/Cardinal Glen — also experienced little improvement in benchmark prices over the same period. These were up 2.5 per cent and 4.0 per cent, respectively.

“The occupants of most of these areas are baby boomers,” says Rushforth, “and as they age they no longer want the large square footage and large lots.” So they are moving out, albeit slowly.

John Rogan, the branch manager at Royal LePage Performance Realty, has a different take on the recent softness in the market for high-end homes east of the downtown core. “Prices in places like Manor Park peaked earlier in the cycle,” he says, leaving prices nowhere to go. He added that area residents more generally are waiting to see how a recently announced major housing development at CFB Rockcliffe will play out.

Further east, districts such as Orléans and Blackburn Hamlet — traditional haunts for employees at the Department of National Defence — have seen growth in home prices slightly below the average for the city. The weakness is expected to continue as DND ratchets up its project to shift half its Ottawa workforce to the former Nortel campus at 3500 Carling Avenue in the city’s west end.

The first 300-plus employees — mainly in personnel and human resources jobs — have been installed in Building 8, with another 3,100 to occupy what will be known as the South Campus by this spring.

That’s somewhat later than expected. The plan put together last fall had anticipated the first full wave of 3,400 would be in place by March 31.

Two subsequent waves comprising more than 5,000 employees had been targeted for completion by March 31, 2018, and March 31, 2019, respectively. It’s not clear if these deadlines will still be met. In light of the delays in the first wave, it seems unlikely.

Even so, says Rogan, the DND move is already having an impact on real estate markets. “It’s happening,” he says, “People moving into Ottawa are looking to the west end.”

If they are moving here from Toronto or Vancouver, they will be pleasantly surprised at what it costs to live here.

source: James Ragnall, Ottawa Citizen, 6 February 2017