As residential sales listings fail to keep pace with the rise in job postings, employers in the central Alberta community of Stettler are going where others may well fear to tread.
"We've got employers here buying houses to put their employees in. There's so much competition (for employees) here in Alberta that you want to go the extra mile to get the people," says Brian Lynn, a real estate agent with Royal LePage Central in Stettler.
Besides historic links to agri-food production, Stettler is a hub of distribution and manufacturing activity linked to the energy industry.
Its population hovers at approximately 6,000 people, with another 6,000 in the surrounding area. The self-dubbed Heart of Alberta, Stettler's trading area includes another 40,000-plus residents, and local estimates put current job openings in the community at more than 200, says Lynn.
By Easter Monday, Stettler real estate agents had 34 residential listings on their books. And that's good news, considering "we were down to about 10 a few weeks ago," says Lynn. Those looking for new homes in the area can also go to the nearby subdivision development at Buffalo Lake, where more than 100 properties are coming on the market.
Stettler's housing crunch pales in comparison to that of Red Deer, which Lynn describes as "still very scary.”
As president of the Red Deer and District Real Estate Board Co-op Ltd., he presides over an area that recorded 518 MLS residential sales in March 2006, up from 386 in March 2005.
Reflecting a trend across the province, those sales occurred at prices inflated by a decline in the number of listings.
With active listings down almost 28 per cent year to date, the average price of a single-family detached home in Red Deer increased 35 per cent to $268,522 in March 2006, up from $199,512 in March 2005.
In rural communities surrounding Red Deer, including Stettler, the average price of a single-family detached home rose 22.6 per cent from March 2005 to March 2006.
Statistics from the Edmonton Real Estate Board (EREB) reveal another link in an Alberta-wide story fuelled by a strong energy industry. The combination of low inventory and strong demand in Edmonton dropped to 19 the average number of days homes are on the market. The last "days on the market" record was 25 days, set in April 2002. In March 2005, homes sold in Edmonton spent an average of 40 days on the market.
By the end of this March, EREB stats showed 2,333 properties on the market, down from 4,444 the previous March. Statistics also show the average price for a single-family detached home hitting $256,159 in March, an increase of 18.5 per cent over March 2005.
The number of properties on the market in Edmonton is up over Calgary. By early last week, the Calgary Real Estate Board (CREB) noted 1,690 properties on the market.
In a low-inventory market characterized by bidding wars and historically high prices, CREB president Kevin Clark's message is about long-term market stability. Speaking at a recent media conference, Clark links current market conditions to a trend that began in 2002 with the province's success in deficit reduction.
By March 2005, "our inventory (of homes on the market) was no longer keeping pace," with demand for housing in Calgary, says Clark.
CREB statistics show Calgary recorded its highest-every average price for a single-family residence in the first quarter of this year. At $308,665, the price equals a 25.8-per-cent increase over 2005's first-quarter average.
Looking ahead to the second quarter of 2006, Clark predicts sales listings in Calgary will rise in step with historic second quarter increases in listings, which should precipitate a "softening" in prices. Price changes are unlikely to be dramatic, but more product on the market means fewer disappointed buyers, says Clark.
He also reminds buyers to look behind the statistics that make the headlines. Housing prices have affected affordability, but the city still posts some of the nation's highest per capita incomes and interest rates remain close to historic lows. Those buying homes in Calgary, even at prices boosted by the dearth of listings, are "looking at a community in an extremely privileged position."
Clark also draws attention to CREB statistics that show 60 per cent of the city's listings are selling at prices below the average increase of almost 27 per cent. Neighbourhoods where average price increases are below that mark include MacEwan Glen, Southwood, Whitehorn, Monterey Park, Palliser and Queensland.
CREB's first-quarter statistics show 30.6 per cent of homes selling above list price, with 15.3 per cent at list price and 54 per cent of the marketplace sold-below list prices, says Clark. While 24 per cent of the homes sold in the first three months of 2006 sold in less than 14 days, another 24 per cent sold in 14 to 28 days and 52 per cent took more than 28 days.
While top-end prices tend to garner at lot of excitement, the industry is full of stories about market losers, including those who sell homes before they have another place to move, or those who are determined to live in specific neighbourhoods.
Clark urges buyers to be flexible - and to keep emotions out of the deal. Those willing to look at different neighbourhoods and different kinds of houses are less apt to be disappointed by the process of house shopping in such a tight market.
He also says sellers "still benefit by doing all the things you would do in a normal market."
That advice makes sense to Lance Bussieres, president of the Fort McMurray Real Estate Board, where the very concept of "a normal market" defies typical real estate experience in the rest of Alberta.
Today, with a population comparable to Red Deer, MLS listings in Fort McMurray hover around the 300 mark, making it "more of a balanced inventory" when compared to last year's low of about 80, he says.
Those numbers mean "people aren't under as much pressure to make decision (about buying a particular home), you can actually sleep on it," says Bussieres.
According to that board's numbers for March 2006, the average price of a single-family home in Fort McMurray hit $430,000, down from a peak price of $452,000 last year. Sales in the northern city remain strong.
Overall, first-quarter total sales registered $90 million in the first quarter of 2006, up 72 per cent over the first-quarter total for 2005.
(Joy Gregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)