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Has the Calgary Market Hit Rock Bottom? Matthew Boukall of Altus Group

Calgary Market Podcast

Matthew Boukall from Altus Group is an expert on the Calgary real estate market and he’s also an investor himself. Hear from someone who lives in Calgary and knows this market better than anyone why there are some very positive signs that the market has bottomed out and now is the time to invest in Calgary.

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Andrew la Fleur:
Is this the bottom of the market for Calgary? Find out on today’s episode.

Speaker 2:
Welcome to the True Condos Podcast, with Andrew la Fleur, the place to get the truth on the Toronto condo market and condo investing in Toronto.

Andrew la Fleur:
Hi there. Welcome back to this show. As always, Andrew la Fleur here, your host from True Condos. If you ever want to reach me, you can call me at (416) 371-2333, or you can email me, Andrew@TrueCondos.com. Thanks for tuning in, and if you haven’t listened to the last episode of the podcast, make sure you stop this, pause and go back and listen to that for more context into exactly why we’re talking about Calgary.

Andrew la Fleur:
So, if you haven’t… I did an episode about why I’m personally investing in Calgary, a Minto’s project called Era Condos, and I’m very excited about this one. A lot of my clients are super excited as well about this opportunity, and the opportunity in general that Calgary represents. So, wanted to bring on an expert. An expert on the Calgary market to help educate us real estate investors here in Toronto on exactly what’s happening in Calgary. What does the market look like? And specifically want to look at the question of is this the bottom of the market?

Andrew la Fleur:
The market in Calgary, as a quick snapshot, has been doing poorly, very badly you could say over the last about four to five years. The real estate market and the economy in general in Calgary has been struggling. So, you probably are aware of that in some sense. It’s probably not news to you. So, as always, there’s two ways to look at that. When you’re looking at a market that is struggling, it’s either you take that and you say, “Well, why why would I buy there? That’s a bad market to buy in because it’s struggling.” Or you look at it the opposite side of the coin and you say, “This is an opportunity. Now is actually the time to buy in a market like this because it is a buyer’s market.” So, obviously that’s the perspective that I’ve taken and that many of my clients are taking with this opportunity to buy in Calgary with Era Condos.

Andrew la Fleur:
So, I sat down with, as I said, the expert, Matthew Boukall. Matthew is with Altus Group, who is a company that does the stats and tracks the housing markets and the economy and other indicators across Canada. And his official title is vice president, product management and data solutions. He’s been with Altus Group for a number of years. He’s a frequent speaker at events, and regularly you’ll see his name in the media about… In particular Vancouver, Calgary, Western markets. He lives in Calgary. He was born in Calgary.

Andrew la Fleur:
He’s also… Interestingly enough, this is why I was really excited to talk to him. He’s an investor himself in Calgary. He’s also investing in properties in Calgary. So, it’s great to have somebody who not only knows the stats inside and out, knows the market inside and out from an expert perspective, but also is an investor, a landlord like we are as well. So, it’s really exciting and cool. Looking forward to bringing this to you.

Andrew la Fleur:
So, without further delay, and again, if you… Well I guess here’s one more delay. If you want to get the information on Era Condos, make sure you reach out to me, text me, call me (416) 371-2333, or send me an email, Andrew@TrueCondos.com. Or check the show notes for this podcast, TrueCondos.com/podcast to get the link for TrueCondos.com, where you can pick up the info, the floor plans, prices, and more for this opportunity. It’s limited, it’s not going to last long. Demand is very high, so make sure you reach out to me ASAP. It is a fantastic deal.

Andrew la Fleur:
Okay, so here’s my interview with Matthew Boukall of Altus Group, enjoy. Matthew, welcome to the show.

Matthew Boukall:
Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Andrew la Fleur:
Yeah, excited to have you on Matthew, and excited to get to know you a little bit better and hear your thoughts on the Calgary market specifically. Why don’t we get started? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in real estate?

Matthew Boukall:
Sure. I’m with Altus Group, and my current role, I’m managing our products, so all of our platforms. Most people in Toronto are familiar with Realnet, but we also have a number of other data platforms across the country. I’m actually scarily going into my ninth year here at Altus Group, but my background and where I started was actually more on the advisory and analytics, and in Calgary, where more than 15 years ago, again a scary number, started tracking condominium activity in Calgary.

Matthew Boukall:
Where 15 years ago, a condo was a new concept. Thinking back, there was two or three high rise condominiums in the downtown and Beltline area in Calgary, and the vast majority was your more typical kind of wood-frame apartments in the suburban areas. And it’s changed a lot over the last 15 years. But it’s been interesting to see how the market has adjusted to changing consumer preferences, but also more specifically developers coming into the market, and doing it just a little bit differently.

Andrew la Fleur:
Interesting. Yeah. So, where do you see the market right now? Sort of, we’ll get into more specifics. But in a sort of snapshot, where do you see Calgary? How do you summarize Calgary to somebody who’s not from Calgary?

Matthew Boukall:
Calgary is still trying to find its feet after the oil price adjustment in 2015, and it’s still looking for areas to grow and become a big city. As someone who was actually born in Calgary, Calgary still is to a degree a small town, where you… The commutes are relatively easy. There’s a lot of services. It’s a very friendly community. A lot of young people are in Calgary, but it has a very, very dense urban core. Where historically it’s been all office… Offices for oil and gas. It’s starting to diversify.

Matthew Boukall:
And what’s happened basically since the oil price adjustment in 2015, is that the market I think is going through a bit of truthing, where it’s trying to figure out what Calgary wants to be when it grows up. It does want to diversify. The market and the city is trying to grow into new industries and expand its employment base. And it’s learning that oil and gas isn’t the only industry in the market.

Matthew Boukall:
So, the way it’s finding its feet, and is trying to adjust, means that there’s pockets of activity there that are kind of interesting. And I think from an outsider’s perspective, are actually really normal in a lot of other markets across the country. It’s kind of Calgary that’s been abnormally excelling in the downtown core, just given all the oil and gas money that was building new office towers and strong job growth and strong incomes. That was kind of fueling some activity, that now that’s kind of exited the market, we’re seeing other sectors come in and pick up some of the slack.

Andrew la Fleur:
Interesting. I mean, it’s like, from my perspective… Uneducated sort of perspective on Calgary, seems to me the market has sort of a long history of sort of boom and bust cycles, like from a real estate perspective of big highs and big lows. And it seems to me, a lot of it is tracking along with oil prices and the oil and gas industry. Is that accurate to say that? To describe it like that? And are you basically saying now is sort of a turning point for Calgary, where the city is going through a fundamental change moving forward?

Matthew Boukall:
Yeah. So, the boom bust cycle, it’s a bit… There is truth in it. In that Calgary, when it grows, it grows fast and furious. And when it falls, it has tended to fall equally fast and furious. But it’s a bit more of a fiction. I mean if you look back historically, Calgary’s been through kind of three massive growth periods in the last 30 years, 40 years.

Matthew Boukall:
So, the ’80s, when oil and gas was the only industry in Calgary, that drove a lot of the initial growth, initial development. And if you look in Calgary downtown, you can pretty much find all the 1980s, late ’70s era, both apartment buildings. Back then, rental apartment buildings, but also office buildings. And then Calgary went through a period of kind of lull. And the first big boom was actually back in 2004, 2005, when again, oil prices skyrocketed. And we saw in the period, and over that period. And those economic growth periods created a lot of what you see when you go to Calgary. So, apartment buildings, infrastructure and office buildings were all kind of built in those.

Matthew Boukall:
But in terms of transformation. And what I think is starting to happen in Calgary, and it’s happening probably slower than a lot of Calgarians would like. But the economy is shifting away from oil and gas. There is more diversification coming in. It’s just happening a little bit more slowly. And transformation doesn’t happen overnight. And I think that’s the confusion. People are looking for a sharp recovery while the market and the industry is transforming, and that is just going to take a little bit longer.

Andrew la Fleur:
Interesting. I mean, to summarize the market, so far we’ve talked… I mean the market in Calgary has been down. It’s been pretty bad for the last several years. The city is going through a transition. Things are changing. It’s a buyer’s market to put it in very simple terms right now.

Andrew la Fleur:
But what I found interesting, Matthew, as I said, you’re investing in Calgary as well personally, you’re an investor. I’d love to hear from that perspective, personally as an investor, but also obviously as an analyst in the business who knows the numbers inside and out. Why are you investing in Calgary? What sort of are the key indicators that you’re tracking that make you feel positive or feel bullish on Calgary from an investment perspective moving forward?

Matthew Boukall:
A couple. I mean, number one is the employment or unemployment rate. Depending on which way you want to look at it. Just to get a bearing on where the market is at. Population growth is probably the most important metric in Calgary to track. Because one of the advantages in Calgary, and I kind of described that we’ve been through boom and bust cycles, is in the inner city, there’s not much a brand new housing that’s been built. It is coming to market.

Matthew Boukall:
But a lot of the existing stock is quite old, especially in the apartment rental market, where the vast majority is built before 1980. And as an investor, the opportunity is that I can go purchase a brand new condo, have low maintenance, and condo fees are fairly reasonable for most of the buildings in Calgary. Taxes are relatively low.

Matthew Boukall:
And where it kind of nets out is actually it generates positive cashflow or break even kind of quite easily. So, the advantage I’m finding in Calgary to invest is that the cost to enter the market is low, given the affordability. We’re dealing with $500 to $600 a foot for concrete, high rise or mid rise condos. If you look at some of the more affordable product, in the wood-frame, you’re down in the inner cities in kind of the $400 to $500 a foot mark. And out in the suburbs, you’re as low as $275 to $300 a foot. So, the cost to enter as an investor is quite low.

Matthew Boukall:
I’ve found personally is that there are a lot of rental tenants over there. And one of the advantages in Calgary is that during a downturn, people still need housing. They just choose to buy… To not buy. So, while it might be a buyer’s market, in terms of the opportunities to invest, a lot of consumers are looking to rent because it gives them some flexibility. And the uncertainty is what they’re looking to solve for, which rental is a flexible housing option. You’re not fixed in a location, you’re not fixed to a mortgage. And if you want to go work in a different part of the city, you can just pack up and move to a rental unit down in that part of the city.

Andrew la Fleur:
Yeah. And one of the things, going back to the two indicators you mentioned population growth. So, the city is growing. That was something that I discovered early on, just in researching the market. Even though the economy has been struggling over the past few years, the population is still growing.

Andrew la Fleur:
Just like in Toronto, one of the main things that we always talk about in this podcast, that’s driving the growth in Toronto, is the fact that we’re the fastest growing city in North America. Calgary is also a growing city, despite its economic troubles, more people coming there. I think part of the reason probably you would agree is, like you said, it’s a very affordable place to be.

Andrew la Fleur:
And the other thing you mentioned was employment growth. And you said earlier before we were talking, interesting stat. Correct me if I’m wrong, you said there’s actually more people employed in Calgary now then at the peak of the last cycle from 2014, or so. Is that right?

Matthew Boukall:
Yeah, looking at some of the stats, the data available from Stats Canada. But even just logically, the city has been growing. We saw this past year about 10,000 migrants move to Calgary. If anyone is looking for some of the stats in Calgary, one of the advantages we have is that the city actually does a census every year. So, it comes out kind of in the summer, but you can actually get updated stats drilled down to the neighborhood level, in terms of who’s buying, household formation, housing stock, everything, which is a great resource.

Andrew la Fleur:
Wow, that’s great. Yeah.

Matthew Boukall:
So, we don’t have to wait for every five years for census data. But 10,000 people moving here a year, we’re seeing job growth. It hasn’t been in the more traditional areas, and that’s where I think people are a bit confused. We still have high office vacancy downtown, and the job growth hasn’t been in those more traditional Calgary opportunities, which are kind of six figure incomes, downtown engineer, or a developer, designer.

Matthew Boukall:
Where we’ve seen the job growth has actually been outside in industrial areas, and some of the areas that aren’t as obvious to everyone when you first go downtown. So, there is more full-time employment. As an investor, the fact that the nature of employment has changed, so we’re not just having high-income white collar jobs. It means that there’s actually probably a bigger pool of people who are looking to rent, because they don’t have the incomes to support ownership, which again, it means that personally, we haven’t had a challenge finding tenants for our spaces because there’s a lot of people just looking for rental opportunities.

Matthew Boukall:
And the areas they’re looking for are in kind of those up and coming new trendy neighborhoods where people want to live, with all the services, restaurants, and everything else you have.

Andrew la Fleur:
Interesting. I mean, everybody wants to know when you’re looking at a market like Calgary, that’s been a downmarket, that is a buyer’s market. Everybody is asking the million dollar question, especially as investors, is this the bottom? Right?

Andrew la Fleur:
And unfortunately when it comes to markets, you never know when the bottom is until the bottom has already passed. But from your perspective, what are some signs that… Are indicating that this… That now, or now might be the bottom of the market? What are the indicators that are looking to you from your perspective that would support that thesis?

Matthew Boukall:
Like you mentioned, finding bottom is one of the things that in hindsight is clearly visible, but when you’re looking forward, is difficult to find. Some of the signals I’m looking for, positive migration, and a stabilized unemployment rate, are two positive signs that consumers have employment and they have income to support purchasing.

Matthew Boukall:
The other key thing to watch, and this is probably going to sound foreign to a lot of people in Toronto, but from a pricing perspective, we do have a very rigid bottom in the market. In that if pricing gets to a point where it’s no longer economic to build, developers will just simply stop building housing, which means as the market grows, we’ll have a constrained inventory to pick from, and that is what’s going to drive some higher growth in pricing.

Matthew Boukall:
And right now where we’re at, where we’ve seen some projects launch in the $500 a foot mark for concrete. And taking out the land, taking out some of the adjustments in costs, that’s getting pretty much as low as a developer, I think would consider going. If pricing was to fall further, they would just simply stop building.

Matthew Boukall:
For me, what I’m watching is a positive market reaction to some of these more affordable options coming in, in the inner city. In the suburban market, we actually saw a bit of recovery in pricing last year, where we saw some new projects launch, introduced pricing at or slightly above some of the other market comparables, and have reasonably strong sales.

Matthew Boukall:
So, I’m kind of looking in the suburbs, that I think we have hit bottom. In the inner city, what I’m looking for is a more… An interest from both investors and owner-occupiers into some of the more affordable options. The one [inaudible 00:19:05]. Areas, there are still some projects that had inventory that was completed up last year, that they’re still working through. And the reason I’m less concerned about that is some of those units, the market may have already forgot about them, they’re not spending thousands of dollars in advertising anymore. So, they’re just kind of existing in the back of the market, but I don’t think they’re really weighing too much on other market pricing or on market concerns.

Andrew la Fleur:
Right. Another indicator would be when you see desperate sellers sort of disappear. Are you seeing that sort of behavior from? Like you say, you’ve got builders sitting on standing inventory, they’re not… The fire sales, the selling below cost. You’re not seeing that.

Matthew Boukall:
No. And we never… We did really briefly about two and a half years ago. But I mean, one thing to keep in mind, this is year four of a downturn in the energy sector. So, a lot of the motivated sellers have probably already exited the market.

Andrew la Fleur:
Right.

Matthew Boukall:
We didn’t see tons of foreclosure activity happening anywhere in the market. And again, that’s kind of worked its way through. The positive side as an investor, if you want to look just logically at the market, is we’re not seeing developers with standing inventory fire sell their inventory, because they can actually rent them out. And they can rent them out and carry them.

Andrew la Fleur:
Right.

Matthew Boukall:
And to me, that’s kind of a… It’s almost a backwards signal that investors should be buying those units, and renting them out. Because if a developer can do it, so can an investor.

Andrew la Fleur:
Yeah, great point. Great point. Yeah. Yeah, it shows that the psychology. If you’re looking for the bottom, if you think it’s still going down, well that would have to be supported by desperate sort of activities on the part of sellers. But if you’re not seeing that, and like you said, quite the contrary, they’re just saying, “Well, I can’t sell it, but I’ll just hold it and rent it because the rental market is good, and I can get a decent ROI by doing that.”

Andrew la Fleur:
And like you said, there’s… The incoming supply, a lot of those players have exited the market already in year four. So, you’re not seeing a lot of new supply being added. So, at some point, like you said, the turnaround happens, and you go from too much supply, and all of a sudden one day you wake up, and you don’t have enough supply, and you realize, oh, I guess we’re past the bottom, and now we’re going the other way. So, it’s sort of-

Matthew Boukall:
Pretty much.

Andrew la Fleur:
There’s indicators just starting to feel like that. We won’t know until it’s already passed. But there’s certainly a lot of signs pointing that it may be that point right now.

Matthew Boukall:
There are. I guess the other metric I should mention is just rental rates. We are starting to see rental rates increase modestly, but we’re seeing the incentives that have been offered to some of the new purpose buildings come off, and we’re seeing consumers willing to pay a little bit more then they would a year or two ago. So, we are starting to see rental growth. That to me is a positive sign that the market is starting to adjust. But we’re not seeing it on the new home market yet. We’re not seeing it in the resale market, because I think those consumers still have some signals that… There’s some concern in the market.

Andrew la Fleur:
Right. The psychology is certainly still there and that plays a role, and just the… There’s no sense of urgency yet, you can say from the buyer perspective.

Matthew Boukall:
No. But all it takes, like you say, is a little bit of a… A little bit tightening of vacancies. A lot of projects have simply started construction. The market came back really quick, where you would see rents increase $100, or as a landlord, we would have… I remember one of our units, someone was outbidding us just to get the unit secured.

Andrew la Fleur:
Nice, nice. Matthew, just as we’re getting to the tail end of the conversation here, maybe you could tell people, just as a local Calgarian, your perspective on Minto’s project, specifically Era Condos? And what do we need to know about the location specifically? From a local perspective, the Bridgeland neighborhood, what’s it like? What’s this location like?

Matthew Boukall:
It’s one of those inner city gems, which is a term probably everyone uses. But it’s walkable to the downtown. It’s right along the river. It has transit connections with the LRT throughout the market. But it’s one of those areas that was… For years, it was forgotten.

Matthew Boukall:
One of the defining features of Bridgeland is actually… It’s a city development called the Bridges. But that was one of the first hospitals… Actually, it was the first hospital. The general hospital was in that area.

Matthew Boukall:
And if you want to go way back to Ralph Klein, which I’m sure a lot of your listeners are familiar with the name. Back in the cut the budget days, in the ’90s, they actually closed the hospital and blew it up. And what that created was a large redevelopment opportunity, where they’ve… The city has been rezoning and selling land off to developers to build, and that’s created some interesting new developments, and kind of pocket developments. But it wasn’t on this Edmonton Trail corridor that the Era project is. The Edmonton Trail, namesake kind of makes sense. It connects east of the road that connected up to Edmonton. It has a lot of existing old retail and has been seeing more recently a bit of a redevelopment.

Matthew Boukall:
So, there’s small restaurants, a lot of independent restaurants, and little retail shops have opened up. There’s been a new office development that’s added employment. The city has been investing a lot in the infrastructure in the area. So, it’s become… It’s kind of an up and coming new urban little hub with really good access into the downtown. Good access to roads. Memorial Drive is the main east-west road that cuts right through the site.

Matthew Boukall:
And it’s an area that we’ve seen a lot of new young people moving into. So, in Calgary context, we don’t… We’re not as big as Toronto obviously, but our inner city areas tend to be neighborhoods that have some unique little factor. And Kensington comes to mind, Mission, 33rd and Marda Loop. Those areas. And I think Edmonton Trail and Bridgeland is kind of the next up and coming inner city community, where you’re going to see a lot more vibrancy, see a lot more street activity than you would have 10 years ago.

Andrew la Fleur:
And what’s the inventory situation like there? It seems to me that this project Era is really the only new product that’s being added to this up and coming neighborhood. Is that right?

Matthew Boukall:
There’s not much. There were a couple of condos developed over the last kind of three years, more wood-frame, just a little bit further up the hill in Edmonton Trail. And then there is a project that’s being developed in the Bridges, it’s complete now, but there’s still some remaining inventory. But Era is really the only presale condo in the region right now that you can get in on kind of the ground floor.

Andrew la Fleur:
Yeah, yeah. It’s good news obviously. And like you said, at some point in time, this tide turns, and this is… If you’re buying pre-construction now, it’s not going to be built for four years and this is the only new project in the area that’s a desirable area. Whenever that market does turn, you’re well-positioned as an investor, sitting on top of the only new supply in a desirable area, when there is nothing else coming in that’s new.

Matthew Boukall:
Yes.

Andrew la Fleur:
Cool. Okay. Thanks, Matthew, so much. Anything else I didn’t ask you that you wish I did, about Calgary, or about the market, or about?

Matthew Boukall:
The one thing, I mean, I’d like to share about Calgary is just as… For anyone outsider looking in, Calgary is actually a really easy place to own and invest real estate.

Andrew la Fleur:
Tell me more.

Matthew Boukall:
There is no HST. There’s GST. You’ve got GST rebates. There are no development charges that are passed on. A lot of builders will offer lower down payments to start. So, you can get in with 5% or 10%. There’s bonding programs available. And I think the biggest opportunity is there’s no rent control. So, when the market does move. Now, it can go against you when the market goes down. But we’ve seen consistent rent growth over the period, and you’re basically free to do whatever you want with your units. So, if you want to increase the rent, you can increase the rent. If you want to put your mark… Furnisher’s fee, you can put into the furnished market, and take it out. You have a lot more flexibility than I think you do in any other market in the country. And that’s what just makes… It makes investing relatively easy.

Andrew la Fleur:
That’s great. Good to know. Yeah. Great market to be in as a landlord, as an investor. And as you said, just some of the numbers, the closing costs compared to Toronto, it’s night and day. There’s no land transfer taxes, there’s no development charges. It’s quite shocking for us here in Toronto, who are used to ever increasing closing costs. Right now, you’re probably looking at around $30,000, just for closing costs on a typical Toronto condo, versus that same 30,000 you could actually… That’s going to be your down payment for one or two condos in Calgary.

Matthew Boukall:
Yeah. I look at it the opposite way. I’m always shocked that you let the government push you around as much as you do in Ontario.

Andrew la Fleur:
Good point. What’s wrong with us? Yeah. We need to get on that, absolutely. Matthew, thank you so much for your time today. If people want to learn more about you or Altus Group, where do you want to direct people? What’s the best place to go? Or how they reach out to you or find you?

Matthew Boukall:
So, easiest way, LinkedIn. I’m Matthew Boukall, I’m the only one, so it’s pretty easy to find me. Or our group has a website within Altus Group. So, it’s DataSolutions.AltusGroup.com. My profile is out there. I think there’s even my email. You can learn a little bit more about some of the data products we have across country, what we’re working on.

Matthew Boukall:
And secondly, I’m in the media fairly often, a little more in the West. But you can probably find my name in a recent Globe Mail article, or Bloomberg, or anywhere else.

Andrew la Fleur:
Great. Awesome. Thank you, Matthew. And hopefully I’ll have you again on the show soon.

Matthew Boukall:
Thanks for having me.

Speaker 2:
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