Thursday, August 29, 2013


Alberta's housing market continues as one of Canada's most affordable: RBC Economics
RBC Economics
 Aug. 27, 2013, 2013 (Menafn - Canada NewsWire via COMTEX)

Alberta homebuyers continued to enjoy a relatively affordable housing market in the second quarter, despite some increases in ownership costs in late 2012 and early 2013, according to the latest Housing Trends and Affordability Report issued today by RBC Economics Research.

"Despite the fact that the market has kicked into higher gear since spring - thereby boosting prices and increasing ownership costs - Alberta continues to be a relatively affordable market," said Craig Wright, senior vice-president and chief economist, RBC. "We will likely see some disruptions in market activity trickle through in summer data from the floods in southern Alberta; however, we anticipate the strong provincial economy will endure, supporting further housing growth in 2014."

In the second quarter of 2013, RBC's housing affordability measures, which capture the province's proportion of pre-tax household income needed to service the costs of owning a home at market values, edged higher for all three categories tracked (an increase in the measure represents deterioration in affordability).

RBC's affordability measure rose by 0.7 percentage points to 32.4 per cent for bungalows and 0.4 percentage points to 34.5 per cent for two-storey homes. The measure for condominiums rose slightly by 0.1 percentage points to 19.6 per cent. All measures stood at a level below their long-term average, indicating that homeownership in the province remained historically attractive.

Calgary's housing market moving forward despite flood adversity.

The flooding that hit Calgary at the end of June did not appear to have slowed Calgary's housing market progression in the second quarter of 2013, says RBC. On a quarterly basis, home resales in the area posted a 12 per cent gain - their second-strongest improvement in four years.

"Though prices are now on a steeper upward trajectory, the effects have yet to undermine affordability in a material way. In fact, affordability levels in Calgary continue to be among the best in Canada," said Wright. "Demand for Calgary housing will continue to benefit from a strong provincial economy, solid labour market, fast-rising population and attractive affordability."

RBC measures for Calgary showed little movement across all housing categories in the second quarter of 2013. RBC's measure for two-storey homes rose by 0.5 percentage points to 33.6 per cent and for condominium apartments edged lower by 0.2 percentage points to 19.4 per cent; the measure for bungalows remained unchanged at 33.0 per cent.

RBC's housing affordability measure for the benchmark detached bungalow in Canada's largest cities is as follows: Vancouver 82.1 per cent (up 2.2 percentage points from the previous quarter); Toronto 54.5 per cent (up 0.5 percentage points); Montreal 38.1 (down 0.7 percentage points); Ottawa 37.1 (up 0.5 percentage points); Edmonton 34.0 (up 1.8 percentage points); Calgary 33.0 (unchanged).

The RBC Housing Affordability Measure, which has been compiled since 1985, is based on the costs of owning a detached bungalow (a reasonable property benchmark for the housing market in Canada) at market value. Alternative housing types are also presented, including a standard two-storey home and a standard condominium apartment. The higher the reading, the more difficult it is to afford a home at market values. For example, an affordability reading of 50 per cent means that homeownership costs, including mortgage payments, utilities and property taxes, would take up 50 per cent of a typical household's monthly pre-tax income.

Highlights from across Canada:

--British Columbia:
affordability takes one step back

Homeownership of single-family homes in the province became less affordable in the second quarter of 2013 amid a surge in resale activity since early spring following a near two-year long cooling stretch. RBC measures rose by 1.1 percentage points for bungalows, by 0.8 percentage points for two-storey homes, and by only 0.1 percentage points for condominiums.

seesaw affordability pattern endures

Affordability in the province continued to experience a seesaw-like pattern which has characterized this market in recent years. RBC measures rose modestly by 0.9 percentage points for bungalow and 0.5 percentage points for two-storey homes in the latest period, while the measure for condominiums inched lower by 0.3 percentage points.

housing affordability a mixed bag

The province's second quarter housing affordability developments proved to be a mixed bag with RBC's measure for the two-storey home category rising by 1.8 percentage points, the measure for bungalows down slightly by 0.2 percentage points, and the measure for condominiums edging up by 0.2 percentage points.

steady as she goes

There was little change in housing affordability in Ontario in the second quarter. RBC's measures for both bungalows and two-storey homes rose by 0.2 percentage points relative to the first quarter, while the measure for condominiums remained flat.

bucking the deteriorating affordability trend

The Quebec housing market bucked the national trend by enjoying a broad-based improvement in affordability in the second quarter. RBC affordability measure for the province fell by 0.5 percentage points for bungalows and 0.4 percentage points for condominiums; the measure for two-storey homes remained unchanged.

--Atlantic Canada:
affordability stuck in neutral

Atlantic Canada's housing affordability levels remained relatively static at neutral levels in the second quarter of 2013. Affordability measures moved marginally in all categories tracked by RBC: bungalows and condominiums edged lower by 0.1 percentage points and 0.2 percentage points, respectively; two-storey homes edged up by 0.1 percentage points.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Calgary condo price and sales growth forecast for 2014
Median price hike best in Canada this year
By Mario Toneguzzi 
Calgary Herald August 28, 2013 

CALGARY — Record growth is not in the foreseeable future of the Canadian condo market, but it is also likely the sector will be able to avoid a major downturn, according to the latest Conference Board of Canada condo report released Wednesday by Genworth Canada.

The Summer 2013 Metropolitan Condo Outlook suggests population growth and employment gains will help maintain demand levels to absorb supply inventory.

Calgary starts will be hampered in the third quarter by the flooding earlier in the year, but as the “youngest” city in the survey, it is expected to enjoy the highest growth in starts and resale volumes in 2014, with price growth at a moderate level of two per cent to 3.5 per cent over the next few years, said the report.

The report forecast the median price for a resale condo apartment in Calgary will rise this year by 2.8 per cent, the highest in Canada, to $251,237 and by another 3.3 per cent in 2014 to $259,640.

However, it is forecasting sales to drop by 11.6 per cent to 3,508 units this year but rebound by 10.2 per cent in 2014 to 3,867 sales.

“Whether it’s first-time homebuyers entering home ownership, empty nesters looking to downsize or professionals seeking a shorter commute, condos appear to remain a popular option for urban Canadians,” said Brian Hurley, chairman and chief executive of Genworth Canada.

The report said economic factors affecting the housing market, such as employment, interest rates and population growth, will only undergo moderate changes. Employment is expected to rise modestly in the medium-term and interest rates are expected to increase gradually, while population expansion and demographics will continue to support demand in regional markets.

“As condo starts near past averages and inventories edge closer to demand, we are seeing the condo market stabilize both in terms of the price of existing units and the volume of new construction,” said Robin Wiebe, senior economist at the Centre for Municipal Studies at the Conference Board of Canada. “Softer prices and positive economic factors continue to make condos an affordable way for Canadians to achieve home ownership.”

The report said condo sales in Calgary had been doing well before the flood, averaging over 3,900 units at an annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.

“Active apartment listings had tapered off, hovering below 1,000 units in the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of 2013,” said the report. Still, for 2012 as a whole, active listings averaged 1,263 units, up 30 per cent from 2011. The flood has presumably damaged at least some actual or potential apartment listings. This will cut active listings in the third quarter by 10 per cent and lead to a 26 per cent decline in listings for all of 2013.

“The lower listings last autumn lifted the sales-to-active-listings ratio slightly above 35 per cent, its highest level since 2009 and likely approaching sellers’ market conditions. The ratio is forecast to stabilize near 34 per cent in the third quarter of 2013 and end the year at 31 per cent. A solidly balanced market featuring a sales-to-active-listings ratio between 33 and 35 per cent is our call for between 2014 and 2017.”

According to the Calgary Real Estate Board, year-to-date until August 27, there have been 2,767 MLS condo apartment sales in the city, up 14.20 per cent from a year ago. The median price has risen by 3.60 per cent to $259,000 while the average sale price has increased by 7.01 per cent to $297,954.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Should homebuyers be warned about a property’s dark past?
By Douglas Quan 
Postmedia News June 20, 2013

Want to know if that property you’re eyeing might have been the site of a murder or suicide? Be prepared to do your own digging, real-estate experts say.

While laws and regulations require sellers and realtors to disclose physical defects of a property that may be hidden from view, there is nothing that legally requires them to disclose so-called “stigmas” attached to a property. Same goes for landlords when dealing with prospective renters.

The lack of regulation in this area was highlighted Monday by the revelation that the apartment suite once occupied by Luka Magnotta, the Montreal man accused in the high-profile killing and dismemberment one year ago of university student Lin Jun, had been rented out.

It was unclear if the tenant was aware of the suite’s dark past, The Canadian Press reported. “We don’t advertise it, obviously,” building superintendent Eric Schorer told the news agency.

Mark Weisleder, a real-estate lawyer and author in Toronto, said provincial disclosure rules need to be more explicit, especially given the number of Canadians whose cultural backgrounds may make them more sensitive to property stigmas. “Because news like this could affect someone’s decision to buy or rent, my advice would be why wouldn’t you disclose?” he said.

Most appraisers will tell you that an unnatural death that occurs in a home will have an impact on that property’s value, he said.

Weisleder advises people who are interested in a home to do searches of that address online for any related news stories. He also advises knocking on neighbours’ doors to get the scoop on any problems that may have occurred there.

“Usually, you’ll find a talkative neighbour,” he said.

Homebuyers, who are suspicious, should straight-up ask sellers whether there has ever been a murder or suicide on the property and get them to put the answer in writing as part of the offer.

One Ontario couple, Eric and Sade-Lea Tekoniemi, reportedly bought a home last year in Bowmanville only to discover that it was the scene of a double homicide 15 years earlier. They subsequently sued the former owners, the selling agent and the real-estate firm in a case that is still before the courts.

Pierre Leduc, a spokesman for the Canadian Real Estate Association, acknowledged Monday that disclosure requirements across Canada fall into a “grey area.” Homebuyers are best off to hire an expert who knows the right questions to ask and can guide them through the process, he said.

A bulletin issued in March by the Real Estate Council of Ontario encouraged agents to have “full and frank” discussions with sellers and that if stigmatizing issues associated with a property exist, agents should advise sellers to “seek legal advice regarding their rights and obligations related to the issue, and get written instructions regarding the disclosure of the stigma to buyers.”

Agents representing buyers should have detailed conversations with buyers about what issues they may be sensitive to and “be prepared to do some additional investigation or research,” the bulletin said.

The bulletin suggested that a home could be considered to have a stigma if it was used in the ongoing commission of a crime, such as drug dealing; a murder or suicide occurred at the property; the property was previously owned by a crime boss; or if there were reports the property was haunted.

Amy Spencer, president and CEO of the Rental Housing Council of B.C., which represents landlords and property managers in the province, suggested Monday that given the differing interpretations about what constitutes a stigma, it might be difficult for lawmakers to spell out what needs to be disclosed.

She said landlords should be given discretion over what information to disclose, as they need to balance privacy interests of previous tenants with the health and safety concerns of future tenants.

But if asked pointed questions about a property’s past, landlords do have an obligation to be truthful, she said.


Calgary MLS sales in August on pace for 2nd highest ever
August 2005 set the record
By Mario Toneguzzi

Calgary Herald August 23, 2013

CALGARY — Calgary home sales are on pace for the highest August total since 2005 and the second highest on record for the month, says a Calgary realtor.

Mike Fotiou, associate broker of First Place Realty, said month-to-date between August 1-21 there have been 1,462 MLS sales in the city, up 32.4 per cent from last year.

That’s down from the 1,516 sales pace set in August 2005 for the same period. Sales ended up at 2,326 for the entire month of August in 2005.

According to the Calgary Real Estate Board, for the first three weeks of August, the average sale price increased by 10.14 per cent to $456,105 and active listings of 4,089 were down 24.57 per cent.

Tanya Eklund, with RE/MAX Real Estate (Central) in Calgary, said there are so many factors that have helped the real estate market reach such impressive numbers.

“The flood did throw a wrench into things in some communities, yet we have seen other communities flourish from the flood. As long as the price of oil stays strong, the pipeline out east goes forward, the vacancy rate stays low, all of these will contribute to the continued strength in our economy,” said Eklund in a live Herald web chat on the real estate market with Ann-Marie Lurie, CREB’s chief economist and Don Campbell, senior analyst and founding partner of the Real Estate Investment Network.

“We are in a seller’s market currently I would say. I base it on number of sales versus listings and I also consider days on market. We are fairly low in inventory based on last year and our sales have increased substantially.”

Campbell said Calgary entered the year with a real estate market that was performing exactly how it should have been, based on its underlying economics.

“While the world turmoil was continuing to grow, Calgary’s economy almost felt sheltered from the storm. Economic growth, population growth, housing demand right on trend ... then the floods hit and turned the city and its market upside down,” he said.

He said, now post flood, the numbers will not be indicative of the actual underlying market and although will still look good, they won’t be reflective of how the market is really performing.

“The bottom line is this: the results of this flood will play a role in the housing numbers for at least 12 months in all cities and towns affected by it and will skew the market health readings,” he said.

Lurie said strong resale growth numbers will likely persist for much of this year, outside of the flood, as migration levels posted stronger than expected levels, supporting stronger than expected demand growth.

“The housing market will continue to benefit due to strong fundamentals, assuming the energy sector remains strong,” she said.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Roof repairs: Face-lift or transplant?

Aging factors
Asphalt-based shingles (used on four out of five new houses) can take the abuse for 20 to 50 years. The wide range is due to many factors, including the weight and design of the product. Weight is standard roofing language for how much the material weighs over 100 square feet, called a square.
Single-layer shingles generally weigh about 200 pounds per square.
Multilayer shingles (often called architectural shingles) that simulate slate or wood shakes can weigh more than twice as much. Warranties follow suit, in the 20-year range for the lightest shingles, more than twice as long for the heaviest shingles. But the house environment can skew the numbers.
With a sunny, windy climate that dries out shingles, they'll deteriorate faster. The same goes for the other end of the spectrum with a roof socked in by trees that regularly cover it with leaves or pine needles.
Whatever the circumstances, more than 2 million homes need a new roof each year.
Instead of relying on age to make a decision about reroofing, consider the actual condition of the roof.
You can spot several indicators — even from the ground — before consulting a contractor. That helps you sort out the realistic estimates from the scams.
Start in the attic or crawl space, looking for leaks, preferably during a big rain.
Wet spots are fairly obvious and glisten in the beam of a flashlight. Excessive condensation in poorly insulated and vented attics can confuse the issue. But long-term leaks that rot plywood decking and its supporting rafters typically leave dark brown stains. They are traces of tar that wash through the roof with the water — a sure sign that the problem is a leak from the outside and not condensation from the inside.
Outside, you can check shingles close up if the roof has a low slope (walkable) and you're comfortable climbing a ladder to take a look. But you don't need to. From the ground, you can look for the four basic stages of shingle wear.
Washed-out color: Surface granules that protect the singles and add color begin to wear away. That leaves discolored, blotchy patches that are easy to see in a light-colored roof.
On a roof with dark granules, the wear is still visible as black, shiny areas. Also look for granules at the ends of downspouts. Spotty, marginal loss in a few spots doesn't cause leaks.
•Timeline: Think about reroofing in a year or so. As more bare spots of asphalt are exposed to the elements, shingles deteriorate rapidly.
Prone to cracks: As bare spots become larger and cover most of a tab (the exposed flap between slots), asphalt becomes brittle. That leads to cracking, particularly on sun-struck roofs.
•Timeline: Think about reroofing now while the shingles are still relatively flat and leak-free.
Falling apart: As the brittle tabs crack more and curl, you'll start to find little chunks of shingles on the ground and in gutters.
At this point, water can leak in through exposed nail heads.
•Timeline: No time to waste — reroof now. If curling is minimal you can replace those shingles and reroof. If curling is widespread, you have to strip the roof or new shingles won't lie flat.
Emergency: When many tabs have broken off and most of the shingles are curled, the old roof must be completely stripped.
•Timeline: It's urgent. And yes, you have to start from scratch.


A coat of paint on wood siding provides a protective coating on the surface, but for strict aesthetics, the paint can transform an ordinary house into one that stops traffic. Any professional painter will tell you the devil is in the details, and the best looking and longest lasting job is the result of time spent preparing the surface before rolling on a good quality latex exterior paint.

To prepare, prime and paint 1,500 square feet of wood siding on a house, a painting contractor will charge $1,850, which includes the material and labor. You can buy the materials and do it yourself for $195 and pocket a 91 percent saving. If the siding is damaged or requires removing layers of paint and repair work, the time and cost will be considerably more.

The painting process includes several phases. If the siding has areas that are dirty or covered with mildew, wash them using a garden hose with a scrub brush attachment or rent a power washer. Scrape any loose or flaky paint and sand them; also sand any bare spots so they're smooth. Then apply a first coat of primer, followed by a topcoat of paint to all the surfaces allowing it to dry between applications. Protect the surrounding plants and shrubbery with drop cloths while doing the prep work and painting.

If your house was built before 1978, it is possible that lead paint was applied to your siding. If lead is present, dry scraping and sanding the old paint is highly toxic to you and your neighbors, especially to small children. It is a job that should only be done by professionals trained in lead-safe practices. To learn more about dealing with lead paint, check out

To find more DIY project costs and to post comments and questions, visit and on smartphones.


Flood zone businesses reporting brisk August traffic
Owners relieved by customers’ return
By Amanda Stephenson

Calgary Herald August 14, 2013

CALGARY - In the immediate aftermath of the June flood, Vine Arts was not a busy place.

The Victoria Park wine and spirits store had no water damage, but its regular customers — residents of the many highrise condos and apartments in the neighbourhood — had been evacuated. They weren’t out shopping, and people from other parts of the city weren’t venturing into the flood zone either.

“It was definitely slower. People weren’t sure if we were open or if the street was open,” said Vine Arts owner Jesse Willis.

Fast forward less than two months, and it’s a different story. The shop’s customers have returned, and then some.

“Our sales are really strong, even higher than expected or projected,” Willis said.

Vine Arts’ experience is not unique. Shopping and dining districts around the city — from Inglewood to Kensington to Chinatown — are reporting a strong August so far.

“The general consensus is things are as good, or even a little better, than can be expected. August is usually a slow time for everybody, but it seems like there’s just a little bit more activity around than what people normally experience,” said David Low, executive director of the Victoria Park Business Revitalization Zone.

The extra traffic comes as both a surprise and a relief. Calgary Economic Development estimates 4,000 businesses were affected in some way by the June flooding. Even businesses that experienced no water damage suffered due to prolonged power outages or a simple lack of customers.

“Many of our small businesses lost $10,000, $20,000, even $30,000 in revenue,” said Mary Moran, vice-president of marketing and communication for Calgary Economic Development. “Even though a lot of them were open, they were seeing traffic returning at a very slow rate ... Even in early July, we had some people who were reporting up to a 45 per cent decrease (in sales) year over year.”

Moran said there are likely several reasons traffic might be up in August — including the fact that some flood-affected Calgarians likely cancelled their summer vacations and stayed closer to home this year. Weary of cleaning out basements, they’re finally taking the time to go out to eat and socialize again.

However, Moran said she also hopes businesses are also benefiting from the Rediscover Our City campaign, a massive advertising blitz launched by Calgary Economic Development in late July to drive visitor traffic to flood-affected neighbourhoods.

The campaign — which will soon start promoting communities outside of Calgary like Bragg Creek and High River — aims to clear up misperceptions about the state of certain areas. On social media, the campaign goes by the hashtag #yycisopen.

“We needed to encourage people — give them the confidence that there is enough open for them to have an enjoyable time,” Moran said.

Low said he thinks a lot of Calgarians are being driven by a sense of community to support local businesses that have been through a tough time.

“I think the flood has kicked the idea of supporting local into people’s consciousness just a little bit higher,” he said.

Photo By: Carl Delzer


Calgary leads country in housing market price growth
Prices up nearly 7% from last year
By Mario Toneguzzi

Calgary Herald August 15, 2013

CALGARY — Calgary led the country in July with the best year-over-year price growth in the resale housing market.

The Canadian Real Estate Association’s MLS Home Price Index, released Thursday, indicated prices in Calgary were up 6.79 per cent — more than doubling the national aggregate of 2.66 per cent price growth.

The index measures the rate at which housing prices change over time taking into account the type of homes sold. Nine major Canadian centres are surveyed.

“Our market is trending towards a selling market. Listing inventory is 20 per cent lower than this time last year and pricing is approximately seven per cent higher overall,” said Tanya Eklund, with RE/MAX Real Estate (Central) in Calgary. “The Calgary floods created a short-term surge in house purchases in certain areas. People who could afford to buy have purchased, so their families were not displaced. Due to the very low vacancy rate, rental inflation and difficulty in finding rental accommodation, this made some consumers turn to purchasing instead of renting.

“We are seeing many inner-city communities flourish with sales, however I am seeing certain suburb markets higher in inventory in the plus $1 million, so sales have not been as abundant as other communities closer to the interior of the city. Overall, it appears to be a great time to sell. Buyers have less time to think about their purchases with hopes of not losing out on their ideal home. I am confident we will continue to see a stable real estate market as we enter into the fall.”

CREA stats indicated Calgary MLS sales in July of 2,976 were up 18.9 per cent from last year while the average sale price jumped by 7.0 per cent to $438,192.

Across Canada, sales were up by 9.4 per cent to 44,829 units and the average price rose by 8.4 per cent to $382,373.

In Alberta, transactions increased by 17.8 per cent to 6,853 units while the average price was up by 4.3 per cent to $379,696.

“Canadian home sales have staged a bit of a recovery in recent months after having declined in the wake of tightened mortgage rules and lending guidelines last year, but the numbers for July suggest that national activity is levelling off at what might best be described as average levels,” said Gregory Klump, CREA’s chief economist. “Sales dropped sharply in August last year, so we may see some year-over-year increases in sales and average prices next month that would reflect weakness in the rear view mirror.”

Sales and prices in Calgary are continuing their upward trend in August. According to the Calgary Real Estate Board, month-to-date until Wednesday, total MLS sales of 945 were 32.17 per cent higher than the same period last year and the average sale price was up 13 per cent to $455,688.
In another report released Thursday, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. forecast MLS sales in the Calgary census metropolitan area to rise to 27,800 transactions this year from 26,634 in 2012. Sales are expected to jump to 28,300 in 2014.

The agency forecast the average MLS sale price in the Calgary region to rise from $412,315 in 2012 to $435,000 in 2013 and to $445,000 in 2014.

Nationally, the CMHC’s point forecast is for MLS sales across Canada to decline from 453,372 in 2012 to 448,900 this year and then rise to 467,600 in 2014.

The national average sale price is expected to see year-over-year growth of 2.7 per cent this year to $374,800 followed by an increase of 2.1 per cent in 2014 to $382,800.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Hiding an Ugly Garage Door

Q. There’s an ugly garage door that dominates the front of my house. Is there anything I can do to give it more curb appeal?
A. You’re right to be concerned about how your home looks from the street.
“Curb appeal is everything,” said Ed Feijo, a vice president at Coldwell Banker in Cambridge, Mass. “When people come to the house, this is going to be their first impression.”
That could influence their perception of the home before they ever step inside.
As he put it, “You’re selling a lifestyle,” and potential buyers want to think they would be proud to own your home.
The simplest, least expensive solution may be to paint the garage door slightly darker than the rest of the house.
“You’d want to do it a few shades darker, in the same color,” he said. One of Mr. Feijo’s clients did just that, he added, and “we were all taken aback by how it really worked” to minimize the visual impact of the door.
Similarly, Ellie Cullman, president of the New York design firm Cullman & Kravis, suggested taking the emphasis off the garage door by brightening up the front door.
“You could paint your front door a wonderful color, so that it takes the eye away,” she said, noting that red is often a good choice. “You grab the attention.”
And putting planters next to the front door, filled with boxwood trimmed into geometric shapes like spheres or squares, could help to soften the facade, she said. But to really make a difference, she recommended tackling the garage door head-on. The best option might be to replace it.
“Instead of having a regular unsightly garage door,” she said, “a carriage door would look so much better.”
Or you could install a pergola in front of the garage door, with supports on either side of the driveway.
“It could be small and go two feet out from the building, or larger,” she said, covered with climbing plants. “The nice thing about that is that it would put the door into shadow,” she said. “And if you can grow things on it, it adds to the curb appeal.”
If budget isn’t an issue, “the most effective thing would be to do surgery,” Ms. Cullman said, and move the garage entrance to the side of the house.
“Then you would no longer have the door, and you could either have windows or a flat wall with ivy planted up the side of the building,” she said.
Ms. Cullman has done that kind of operation, she said, but she conceded it’s “probably way too expensive for most people to even think about.”
Speaking of grandiose gestures, she offered another idea. “Park a red Ferrari in the driveway,” she said. “That’ll add to the curb appeal.” 


The Passive House: Sealed for Freshness 
NEW YORK TIMES August 14, 2013 

SEATTLE — When you visit Sloan and Jennifer Ritchie’s new passive house in the Madison Park neighborhood here, it takes a while to notice all the things you’re not hearing.

Look out the living room windows and you can see a gardener wielding one of those ear-piercing leaf blowers in the yard, but you would never know it inside.

There is no furnace or air-conditioner clicking on or off, no whir of forced air, and yet the climate is a perfect 72 degrees, despite the chilly air outside.

Then there are the things you’re not feeling. In one of the most humid cities in the country, you aren’t sticky or irritable, and the joints that sometimes bother you are mysteriously pain-free.

The air inside the house feels so fresh, you can almost taste its sweetness.

On paper, at least, the Ritchies’ home sounds too good to be true: an environmentally responsible house without traditional heating and air-conditioning systems that will be an airy 70 to 74 degrees on the coldest day of winter and the hottest day of summer, but use only a fraction of the energy consumed by a typical house.

And yet it’s not some experiment or futuristic dream. Nearly 30,000 of these houses have already been built in Europe. In Germany, an entire neighborhood with 5,000 of these super-insulated, low-energy homes is under construction, and the City of Brussels is rewriting its building code to reflect passive standards.

But in the United States, since the first passive house went up 10 years ago, in Urbana, Ill., only about 90 have been certified. Why aren’t they catching on here?

Part of the problem is the cost. Higher fuel prices and energy taxes in Europe provide a major incentive to embrace passive standards, which are complicated and make construction more expensive. In this country, it could be a decade or more before the energy savings someone like Don Freas enjoys in his 1,150-square-foot passive house in Olympia, Wash., offsets the extra $30,000 or so it cost to build.

“But those are such non-sexy ideas,” said Mr. Freas, 61, who is a sculptor and poet. “What matters is that I have never lived in such a comfortable house.”

Proponents of passive building argue that the additional cost (which is estimated at 5 to 20 percent) will come down once construction reaches critical mass and more American manufacturers are on board. And there are a few signs that day may be coming. More than 1,000 architects, builders and consultants have received passive-house training in this country; at least 60 houses or multifamily projects are in the works; and Marvin Windows, a mainstream manufacturer based in Minnesota, recently began making windows that meet passive certification standards.

For all that, there are plenty of people who aren’t buying it — even some of those who support passive principles.

Martin Holladay, 58, a respected voice within the building industry, writes the Musings of an Energy Nerd blog for and lives off the grid in Vermont. He doesn’t believe passive houses are right for the American market.

“What I’m worried about,” he said, “is that the current halo around the passive-house standard will result in its being incorporated into the building code. That would be unfortunate because they are unnecessarily expensive houses, from $300,000 to $500,000 on average, that cost more than will ever be justified by lifetime energy savings or carbon reductions.”

Mr. Holladay favors a more flexible formula called the Pretty Good House, which promotes modest improvements in insulation coupled with renewable energy from solar panels — an approach, he said, that achieves similar energy savings without the additional expense.

BUT COST IS NOT the only hurdle. The very idea of a passive house is counterintuitive. And when just explaining what it is remains so difficult, proselytizing is that much harder.

As Mr. Freas said, “It’s like trying to describe an environment that we, as Americans, have no experience with.”

The basic idea is that these houses are so airtight that warm air won’t leak out in the winter, and cool air won’t leak out in the summer. Windows are three panes thick, and there is far more insulation than you would find in a standard American home.

Stale indoor air is exchanged for fresh outdoor air without altering the internal temperature by mechanical systems you would not find in a conventional house: things like heat-recovery ventilators, which draw the heat from outgoing air and mix it with incoming air from outside in the winter, and do the opposite in the summer. (In high-humidity climates, an energy-recovery ventilator is used instead to strip moisture from incoming air.)

Vents that look like small, round audio speakers are placed throughout the house to exchange fresh air. These devices have prevented the formation of mold, which plagued the passive-solar movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

This system is based on a complex formula devised in the early 1990s by the German physicist Wolfgang Feist, which has been used for residential and commercial projects of various sizes, including a college dormitory recently completed in Virginia.

To be certified, a project must meet three crucial benchmarks. The first is a certain level of airtightness, as determined by a “blower door test.” The other two are measures of energy use: the annual energy consumed by heating and cooling the space cannot exceed a certain amount, and neither can the energy consumed by a range of other things, like heating water and powering electronic devices. Failure to properly meet these three markers (while also paying attention to variables like climate and orientation to the sun) means a building may not achieve optimum performance. Nor will it receive approval from either of the passive certifying bodies operating in the United States, which can charge thousands of dollars in fees.

To make things more complicated, no two passive houses are likely to be built to exactly the same specifications. Thousands of variables, including the architectural design, the size of the house, how many people will live there, and longitude and latitude, are taken into consideration by the sophisticated software created by Dr. Feist and his Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany.

The first time Mr. Freas’s design team tried the computer modeling, it took them 100 hours. Now they have it down to 6.

And that’s before the real work begins. During construction, special fog machines and infrared cameras are often brought in to detect the smallest air leaks. Special tapes, gaskets and sealants are used on the wall seams to ensure they won’t break down over time and result in drafts.

And the more extreme the weather, the more insulation is needed. In a place as cold as Minnesota, a passive home’s walls would have to be 18 inches thick, but even in the more temperate Portland, Ore., 12 to 14 inches is typical.

This kind of meticulous construction results in big energy savings, but just how much is a matter of some dispute. Passive House advocates claim their buildings require 10 to 35 percent as much energy as standard buildings, while others, like Mr. Holladay, put that at closer to 50 percent.

Either way, getting it right is tricky, which is why 32 builders, architects and consultants recently gathered for a four-day training session in Seattle run by the Passive House Institute United States, which is based in Urbana. Many had beginners’ horror stories. One representative of Habitat for Humanity in Washington State introduced himself by saying, “I’m here because the passive house we built failed, and I need to understand what went wrong so it never happens again.”

Katrin Klingenberg, 44, the German-born architect who leads the institute, has been at the forefront of the American movement. As far as she is concerned, “Washington and Oregon are a piece of cake for passive house design,” she said.

More than a third of the certified passive houses are in the Pacific Northwest, probably because the conditions are perfect, she said. “It doesn’t get too cold in the winter or too humid in the summer. It’s most similar to Europe.”

Figuring out how to make the model work in the hot, humid Southeast is a bigger challenge, something the Europeans have not had to deal with. With this in mind, Ms. Klingenberg’s organization is working to develop American standards, taking into account variations in energy use and leakage rates from one climate zone to another; they are expected to be released this fall.

As Joseph Lstiburek, an engineer with the Building Science Corporation, a research facility in Boston, put it, “there’s a really big difference between Minneapolis and Miami.” The German model doesn’t take that into account, he said. “The Germans don’t know how to do air-conditioning or humidity.”

Those differences have contributed to a two-year stalemate between the German and American passive house institutes, which have stopped collaborating on software, testing and certification. That puts designers here in an awkward position.

The Artisans Group, in Olympia, Wash., which designed and built Mr. Freas’s home, has decided to split its six new passive projects, collaborating with the Germans on some and the Americans on others, said Tessa Smith, a co-owner of the firm. “That way we will learn more,” she said.

But for those who are hoping to push the industry forward in this country, the split is disheartening, said Sam Hagerman, president of the Passive House Alliance, an association of passive house professionals, and the owner ofHammer and Hand, a construction company in Portland. Particularly, he said, when “we’re still trying to show proof of concept.”

WHILE THEIR BLACK, fiber-cement-paneled house was going up in a neighborhood of traditional million-dollar homes, the Ritchies couldn’t help noticing the openly hostile stares. Mr. Ritchie, 42, a wireless engineer turned sustainable builder and developer, speculated, “They probably wanted something Craftsman here.”

Ms. Ritchie, 39, who owns a public relations firm, said: “We could have toned it down. Our architect came up with six color schemes for the exterior.” Instead, they went with the boldest option, black.

They also put out a sign explaining in simple terms how the house is so energy-efficient that it will run on the same amount of power it takes to operate a hand-held hair dryer. After that, Mr. Ritchie said, “the negative feedback went back to almost zero.” An elderly woman gave him a big thumbs-up. Others stopped to chat.

But not everyone was won over. One man walked up to Mr. Ritchie and said, “I really don’t like what you’re doing with your house.”

Later, Mr. Ritchie realized what his comeback should have been: “And I don’t like what you’re doing with your furnace.”

Early passive houses were boxy, with few windows and even less style, but as designers have grown more comfortable with the modeling software, homes have become more elegant and inventive. In the Ritchies’ house, everything feels textured and substantial, like the metal-framed windows from Lithuania, the skylights from Poland, and the touches of spruce throughout, which came from a tree on the long, thin lot that had to come down.

Building it has been a learning experience for Mr. Ritchie, one he intends to continue, he said. But now he plans to build passive houses to sell.

“To me, the saddest thing is taking apart a building from the 1950s and realizing, ‘Is this all we’ve done in 60 years: added an inch or two of insulation?’ ” he said. “We can do better.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Calgary leads nation in building permit growth

June value up 16.6% from May

CALGARY — Calgary saw the country’s largest increase in June in the total value of building permits, according to Statistics Canada.

The federal agency reported Wednesday that estimated building permit value was $537.7 million for the Calgary region, up 16.6 per cent from May and a year-over-year hike of 36.0 per cent.

“Following a 41.0 per cent decline in May, the value of permits issued in Calgary advanced largely as a result of higher construction intentions for commercial buildings and multi-family dwellings,” it said.

Tom Dixon, business development manager for real estate and logistics with Calgary Economic Development, said there has been an increase in activity recently in the non-residential sector in Calgary.

“The principal factor is there is a very low vacancy rate and there’s low availability in both the industrial portfolio and in downtown office space. The Class A office space in particular is in very short supply,” said Dixon.

According to Statistics Canada, the residential sector in Calgary saw a 3.7 per cent increase in building permits from May to $344.5 million while the non-residential sector was up 49.65 per cent to $193.2 million.

In Alberta, total building permits of $1.4 billion were down 0.4 per cent on a monthly basis but up 24.3 per cent year-over-year.

The residential sector in the province saw a monthly decrease of 10.4 per cent to $757.9 million. However, that was up 15.8 per cent from last year.

The non-residential sector in Alberta jumped to $645.4 million, up 14.7 per cent from May and a hike of 36.1 per cent from June 2012.

Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB Financial, said a dip in residential permits in June in Alberta was almost exactly offset by a rise in non-residential permits.

“Residential building in our province has been consistently strong in 2013, so a small pull-back, as occurred in June, is neither unusual or cause for alarm,” he said. “The steady inflow of job-seeking migrants to the province this year has kept the demand for housing at a healthy level.”

He said non-residential building permits are much more volatile month-to-month but in June developers in the province continued to find market opportunities in office buildings, stores and restaurants.

“Building permits are an excellent forward-looking indicator of the actual construction activity that can be expected in the coming months,” added Hirsch. “The overall message . . . is that Alberta’s construction sector remains in excellent shape.”

Across Canada, contractors took out building permits worth $6.6 billion in June, down 10.3 per cent from May and the first decrease in six months. It was also off 4.8 per cent from June 2012.

After three consecutive monthly increases, the total value of permits in the residential sector declined 12.9 per cent to $4.0 billion in June. That was also down 10.8 per cent from a year ago.

In the non-residential sector, the total value of building permits decreased 6.1 per cent to $2.7 billion in June. But that was up 5.8 per cent from last year.


Inner-city river communities say flood policies unfair 
Neighbourhoods band together 

Concerned with maintaining the integrity of their communities, a group of inner-city residents are hoping the provincial government will review what they feel are punitive flood mitigation policies.

The Calgary River Communities Action Group formed last month after a jam-packed community meeting July 24 at the Glencoe Club. There, residents expressed their concern and anger over the province’s disaster recovery program and required flood mitigation standards, said founding member Tony Morris.

Morris and four other community members representing inner-city neighbourhoods including Sunnyside, Erlton, Mission, Elbow Park and Rideau-Roxboro started the group to have a “constructive dialogue” with the government about their concerns. More than 100 people have signed up to volunteer, and there are more than 500 people on the group’s subscription list.

“That their first policy seemed to be very punitive of people who lived in the floodway and people who lived in the flood fringe was very upsetting,” said Morris, a Roxboro resident and local lawyer.

One of the group’s chief concerns is the province’s announcement it will place a notice on a person’s land title if the property is in the floodway or flood fringe, if that property owner used disaster recovery program funding to rebuild or repair their home. According to the province, the notice will be removed for property owners in the flood fringe who have completed the necessary flood mitigation measures.

Emma May, a realtor and fellow founding member, said these notices are unnecessary, and wrong. 

“Anything that sets you up for ineligibility for future disaster funding — we just think that’s fundamentally wrong and we don’t think that’s the direction the government should go in,” she said, adding that flood maps are publicly available and rules around disclosure of flood mitigation measures already exist.

“Homeowners already have huge burdens.”

Some of the group’s other concerns surround the types of material allowed and prohibited for flood mitigation and whether the province will undertake any upstream flood mitigation or prevention measures. 

Morris said upstream flood mitigation is the “only solution” to a future flood disaster.

Looking forward, the group also plans to explore whether overland flood insurance should be adopted in the province.

The group has met and spoken with provincial officials a number of times since the flood to address its concerns, and May said the response has been encouraging.

“They’ve really come forward and stepped up,” she said. “They’ve sent the right people to meet with us.” 

The group met last week with Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths as well as Andre Corbould, the chief assistant deputy minister for the Alberta Flood Recovery Task Force. Corbould said the meeting helped the province understand some of the community’s concerns.

“It was a productive dialogue from my perspective,” said Corbould, who added that provincial staff will consider the concerns as they review their policies. He will meet again with the group later this month.

“We’ll certainly consider what they’re asking us to consider,” he continued, noting that the province is doing the same in “almost every community” affected by the floods.

May said the group’s efforts will continue as more information emerges about flood recovery. She worries that some of the province’s policies might discourage people looking to move to the riverside neighbourhoods, and that some existing residents will want to leave.

“The biggest thing we want to accomplish is just the preservation of our communities as we knew them,” she said.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Calgary real estate industry heading for $9-billion plus year

MLS sales and average prices continue to rise

CALGARY — Calgary’s residential real estate market is on pace to record one of its highest ever yearly total dollar volume for MLS sales.

As of Tuesday, the local industry reached just over $6.8 billion in year-to-date transactions. That is more than $800 million ahead of last year’s pace which was just short of $6 billion as of Aug. 6, according to the Calgary Real Estate Board.

In 2012, total dollar volume for the entire year was slightly over $9.1 billion — only the third time in history it eclipsed the $9-billion mark. The other times were in 2006 at just under $9.9 billion and the record year of 2007 at $11.3 billion.

Christina Hagerty, a realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty Canada, said it’s been a busy real estate market in Calgary this year.

“We anticipated this activity in the beginning of the year with vacancy rates as low as one per cent in the inner core. Limited rental supply and increased rental rates, continued low interest rates with a positive influx of people transferring to Calgary, have made it an extremely buoyant real estate market,” said Hagerty.

“Inner-city condo prices in newer buildings are between $500 to $600 per square foot. There are competing offers from buyers ready to make a purchase when something of quality hits the market. This has caused a ripple effect into inner-city homes from both empty nesters downsizing, transferees, and condo sellers moving up. Many of our clients are renters moving into the buying market simply due to rental prices, investors seeing an opportunity or a significant amount of people moving here from across the country.”

She said home builders are picking up lots where they can find them and there have been several situations where lots are bidding for $100,000 to $200,000 above list prices in inner-city neighbourhoods.

“Alberta fundamentals remain sound and confidence in Alberta’s economy remains strong. It’s a testament to Calgary’s spirit and resilience that the post-flood cleanup has continued at its remarkable pace. Calgary has been leading the nation for the past few years and continues to grow,” added Hagerty.

According to CREB, there were 21,326 MLS sales in Calgary in 2012 with an average sale price of $427,912. In 2007, there were 26,709 sales with an average price of $423,145.

As of Wednesday, year-to-date, there have been 15,001 MLS transactions in Calgary, up 7.06 per cent from the same period a year ago and the average sale price has risen by 6.88 per cent to $457,499.
Becky Walters, CREB’s president, said pent-up demand is contributing to the continued rise in residential real estate sales in the city.

“This past year we saw 30 some thousand net migration to the city,” she said. “We’re getting more and more people moving here ... We’ve got fabulous job availability here.”

Another factor is that Calgary consistently rates high as one of the most affordable housing markets in the country due to its high level of personal income.

“People are seeing that there’s not a ton of inventory. So they’re getting out there making sure they get what they want,” added Walters.