How would Vancouver’s housing bubble burst? Look to China

No question is more on the minds of Metro Vancouver homeowners and renters than how and when the region’s housing bubble could burst.

After stratospheric escalation, a punctured bubble would be disaster for hundreds of thousands of over-mortgaged homeowners. Yet it could bring relief to those desperate to get into housing.

Last summer’s B.C. government 15-per-cent tax on foreign buyers and the federal government’s stress test for mortgages have slowed the volume of sales in Metro Vancouver, particularly at the top end.

But, despite suggestions from a few voices in finance and real estate, the city’s bubble is intact: Prices remain at record highs after jumping by 40 to 60 per cent in two years.

Unaffordability continues to be a crisis, especially for the young. No meaningful link exists between the city’s tepid median wages and runaway real estate values.


The conventional wisdom is you can’t be sure you’re in a housing bubble until it bursts. Yet there is little doubt Metro Vancouver is extremely vulnerable to a free fall.

The Swiss Bank UBS rates Metro real estate as the most likely to experience a sudden downward correction of 17 large cities, including London and Hong Kong. And the longer the bubble lasts the harder the crash.

China is key to Metro’s housing future

What is most likely to cause the bubble to rupture?

SFU urban studies professor Wu Qiyan, UBC geographer David Ley and others are most closely watching China, the fast-growing powerhouse of 1.4 billion people.

They make a convincing case that no other factor — including interest rates — is as important, as surveys showing 40 to 60 per cent of China’s wealthy individuals want to emigrate and buy housing in another country.

UBC professor David Ley.

UBC professor David Ley cites evidence the West Coast of North America is the top spot for China’s investors in real estate.JASON PAYNE /VANCOUVER SUN

In 2016 China’s rich injected more than $33 billion into U.S., Australian, British and other global housing markets. We don’t know how much they bought in Canada because, as Ley said, this country ranks among the few “in the civilized world” that doesn’t publish foreign investment data.

Yet it’s clear the West Coast of Canada and the U.S. is the most popular destination for China’s elite, according to the Hurun Report. China is now a “fundamental” of Metro’s housing market, says Ley, author of Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Lifelines.

Even though Metro is small, the Hurun Report shows China’s moneyed class are more attracted to Metro than even large “gateway” cities such as Sydney, London and Singapore.

Metro’s housing market has long been tied to China’s economy. Our real estate prices have gone up and down in tandem with China’s fluctuating economy since the 1990s, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

China’s trans-national citizens are especially drawn to Metro Vancouver, Ley said, for its clean air, climate, trusted universities, relatively short flight times and existence of a Chinese-speaking community that makes up one fifth of the population.

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