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Canadian Real Estate Is A Brand. Here’s How Developers Are Trying To Retain The Image

Canadian Real Estate Is A Brand. Here’s How Developers Are Trying To Retain The Image

Mark Carney thinks Canadian real estate is a bubble. When asked about it, the former governor of the Bank of Canada (BoC) once said “real wealth is built through innovation, it’s gained through hard work. It’s not through some magical asset inflation.” That was in 2013, when he was still the BoC Governor, and before Carney took his low-inflation circus over to the Bank of England. Since he’s said that, prices in Canada didn’t cool – they actually capitulated higher. How do prices continued to rise, especially in the new construction segment? It looks like smart real estate developers are using a very interesting trick that’s widely used in the apparel industry – massification.

Don’t Alienate Buyers

This may come as a surprise to many, but people have a finite amount of money. I know, shocking, right? The higher the price point of the product, means fewer buyers will be able to afford that product. As prices increase, volume drops, but ideally the seller gets to make up the total dollar volume with even higher prices. The problem is, eventually prices get so high you can’t find enough people to maintain your dollar volume.

You can slash the price, and try to stimulate more buyers with a discount. Unfortunately, this alienates existing buyers of the product. Afterall, you feel pretty crappy if the next round of buyers are paying less money than you, for the same product. Instead, smart brands adopt a strategy that luxury companies have been using for decades – massification.

Oh Yeah, We All Know What Massification Is… But Tell Us Again

No. Not that thing your priest told you would make you go blind.

Massification is a strategy that companies use to attain maximum growth, while maintaining brand image. The strategy is relatively simple, you create another product line, that creates primary revenue at a lower price point. Now you have two lines, something cheap and attainable, and one that people strive for. Together they add up to even more profits than you would get using a single line. You know have two distinct marketplaces.

Buyers of the two seemingly distinct brands have a very different opinion of the product. The high end consumer believes the lower priced products are inferior. You know, because the stuff they buy never gets discounted. The buyer of the lower priced product can’t justify (or afford) the high end consumer’s product. However, they can be convinced to pay a premium on a cheaper product with similar branding. Sometimes the lower priced product is of equal quality, sometimes it’s not even related.

Examples of Massification In The Wild

There’s a couple of examples that illustrate this point to people in the business. Most notably, designer perfumes and department stores. Perfumes are one of the first applications of this. Have you ever seen one of those fashion shows, where apparel companies show completely unwearable clothes that are more art than fashion? Those outfits run in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dressing like a butterfly covered in sequins isn’t for everyone though, so the market is pretty small. They mostly are only sold to people going to galas or award shows… if sold at all.

The market is fairly limited, and some companies don’t even make enough sales of these pieces to cover the cost of the show. The solution? Purfumes. You may never buy a $100,000 ballgown, but there’s a chance you’ll pay $150 for $5 worth of smelly oils in a bottle to feel like you’re the kind of consumer that pays for that ballgown. Now you know why high margin perfumes are the first floor at every department stores. Speaking of department stores…

Department stores elevated this concept even further, by segmenting the discount apparel into another store. Fancy department stores might have a sale, but once the markdown gets to a certain point, they don’t want consumers ready to pay the premium to see these discounted stock. Instead, they move it to a clearance centre, an “Off Fifth” location. The same product, just in a less premium or visible location. Ew, visiting a discount store? How gauche.

Canadian Developers Are Pioneers In Massification of Real Estate

If you’re from Toronto and Vancouver, you may have noticed that prices are way beyond typical incomes. Despite this, towers keep getting taller, and the units appear to be selling at an ever increasing price point. Some clever Canadian developers took the concept of massification, and applied it to real estate development. We’re seeing two distinct forms of massification to maintain price points, level phasing and overseas sales.

Many people don’t realize that buildings are sold strategically to get financing for the project, and the last few units are the developer profit. Early buyers get a “discount” for the project, and it gets more expensive as the project reaches release. They used to be similar finishes, and about a decade ago you would get dinged an extra $2,000 on each floor higher. Now, many projects treat lower levels almost like a completely different building. They’re often tiny boxes, with mass market finishes.

Many of these units are only available through bulk pre-sale buyers, that sell them as “investor grade” to rent out. As the first few phases close, you enter different configurations with higher end products. Once the building registers, you more closely follow the “price per square foot” model for resales, but everyone in that building paid a very different price to get in. That means the mass units bought at a discount on lower floors, often end up getting the price per square foot averaged higher to more luxurious floors.

Canadian Real Estate Works In A Cycle, Here's Where We Are - Similar Buidings

More interesting is the overseas model we’ve been seeing pop up. An increasing trend is selling units overseas to investors in bulk. Typically at a deep discount, with various middle people taking a cut until it gets sold back in Canada at a similar rate to what the developer was offering here. Recently I came across a great example of this. One developer assigned a few dozen units to a marketing firm, knowing they would sell them overseas. Once the units were sold, they had attained enough for financing. They then rolled out a “locals first” campaign, where locals would get first dibs on… well, the rest of the “profit” units. Yes, they will probably claim ignorance on the bulk sale. Afterall, they sold it to a local, who just happens to specialize in overseas sales.

Condo pre-sale advertising, boasting the development is cheaper overseas.
Condo pre-sale advertising, boasting the development is cheaper overseas.

Basically, if you’re buying a condo in Canada – you’re shopping at Saks. If you’re an investor and you buy it through a domestic or international reseller, you’re shopping at Off-Fifth – a discount store. You both get similar products, and naive consumers buying won’t know the difference. They’ll still pay a premium, because the alternative was never seen.

Gap Between Household Formations

Many of you will probably never be offered a home at a discount, but how can you observe if there’s premium scalping? Look towards household formation, and completions. If investor demand exceeds actual housing demand, there’s a good chance investors are nabbing extra inventory to control the release. When that number gets in the tens of thousands, you have a lot of investors holding properties. When this happens, you’re likely seeing large blocks of units being bulk liquidated.

In Toronto, Bloomberg has noted, there is an “excess” supply in contrast to the number of households formed. Census 2016 showed an increase of 146,200 households formed from 2011. CMHC data shows that 175,825 homes were completed in the same area, during the same period. The author noted “supply exceeded demand by almost 30,000 units.” To give a sense of scale, if Toronto had no completions next year – it would be enough housing to fit another  couple of years of net population increase. To sell that much excess inventory requires pretty big discounts.

No, This Means S**t For Pricing

Many people are saying that prices are rising due to a shortage of inventory, which we can see isn’t exactly true. When that was determined, the narrative shifted to “it’s the wrong type of housing.” Agents scrambled to explain single-family homes are in short demand… so I need to pay a premium for a condo? That doesn’t make sense, even if you’re willing to be very generous with logic here.

We did receive a valuable lesson in consumer surplus, however. People are willing to pay what they have access to, regardless of whether they know what the true market value is. Consumers don’t know people are paying lower prices, so they’ll pay what they see other people paying. There’s no negotiation, because most of you don’t even know that’s possible. When you show up with a professional negotiator like an agent, the agent’s fee also becomes a part of the pre-sale price. Supply and demand isn’t as important, as the perception of demand for the supply.

Some brands are super chic for decades, some just fade out of style. How long can massification continue? As long as there’s buyers that think premium branding is worth more, than the discount goods being hawked down the street.

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15 Comments

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  • Reply
    Abhi 7 months ago

    Always use an agent to buy real estate, you need to understand the contract in detail. But understand that the seller will pay the agent out of money they collect from you, not out of their profit. You’ll pay more for the home, but that’s the price of ensuring your contract will be sound.

    Great article though, you very clearly have a good business sense.

    • Reply
      MH 7 months ago

      Contract verification is the job of lawyers. Always be careful about what agents tell you. Their motivations are very different from yours.

    • Reply
      Matt 7 months ago

      You only really need a lawyer if you’re going to buy a home. Though I do think that a *good* agent will find you a deal, or at least prevent you from overpaying.

      • Reply
        MH 7 months ago

        A *good* honest agent can provide added value. Unfortunately those are rare and statements like “a real estate agent will ensure that the contract is sound” make one question if they exist at all…

        Signing any half a million plus dollar contract without a proper review is not particularly clever idea regardless of what side of the contract you are on.

    • Reply
      Dave 7 months ago

      Why pay a Real Estate Agent commission to review a contract!? Real Estate Agents do NOT understand the contracts in detail! If you want someone qualified to review your contracts, retain the services of a real estate lawyer or contract lawyer who spends years in law school, articling for 2 years and then work as a licensed and insured lawyer who is an expert in the field! Most Real Estate Agent I have lately met are new immigrants who can barely speak English, let alone understand the complexities of contracts and other agents who were laid of or couldn’t find work anywhere else. Taking a few multiple choice exams in Real Estate at a grade 12 level does NOT make anyone an expert!

    • Reply
      Ham 7 months ago

      Just follow the money and you can see the default behaviours of anyone you deal with. In case of realestate agents, they will by default make a quick, over valued sales (both buyer and seller reps). They will not point out red flags in contracts and sales that can potentially delay or jeopardize deals unless they can sense that you are knowledgeable and/or working with a competent lawyer. It’s just the way their incentives work – you can’t blame them for looking out for themselves.

  • Reply
    L Mack 7 months ago

    Sequins not sequence! Very good article aside from that.

  • Reply
    M 7 months ago

    Hahah… a real estate agent chimes in. Typical. People reading these articles have an enhanced understanding of the real estate market, not rudimentary like your buyers/sellers. Peddling something that is not related is moot.

  • Reply
    Agent X 7 months ago

    In terms of using a lawyer for your transaction..sure, of course you can, nothing’s stopping you..

    But when your buying a property or selling a property, your not going to say to the opposing party at 8pm at night during a key phase in the property negotiation: “I’ll send the contract to my lawyer tomorrow morning…and he’ll get back to you as soon as he gets time”.

    …er…?

    When is your lawyer going to look over the contract? … after he’s finished dealing with his primary law clients who are paying him a lot more than a $1000 dollars to do your real estate contract. How will your lawyer know if your paying too much, how will he know that your not buying a lemon…let’s face it…will s/he really care…?

    Based on their incentives and their business model…no they won’t care as much as you would like them to. Why? Remember you only pay a lawyer $1000 to do the conveyancing. How much more do your think they make from their primary law clients…a lot more than what your paying. Right?

    So there is not incentive for them to offer any value over and above forming a contract. So “just” using a lawyer seems like a good idea. Maybe it is for very experienced purchasers, who have inside knowledge of the industry or property or opposing party.

    But look again at the business model and incentives for both realtors and lawyers and you’ll see it’s the “same difference”.

    • Reply
      MH 7 months ago

      Yes, this is exactly the right thing to say. And if the counterparty tells you that they have no time for your lawyer/experts to review the deal, walk away without looking back. At best, you are on the receiving end of the predatory sales tactics at worst the deal is shady.

      Also make sure that your negotiation process is slow and extremely boring. If you see cliffhangers like “8pm at night during a key phase in the property negotiation”, chances are that you are watching a show staged by “competing” agents. And you are paying for it.

  • Reply
    Fiendish Thingy 7 months ago

    And this exactly why the bulk buyers will head for the exits as the new stress test takes effect, eliminating tens of thousands of the very entry level buyers the condo markets depend on. In addition the 20% reduction in borrowing power of the remaining buyers who can qualify under the new rules will cause a domino effect, bringing condo prices in some areas (Surrey, Maple Ridge) down by 50% or more over the next few years…

  • Reply
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