The good, bad and ugly of Ottawa's hot pandemic housing market

·6 min read
A 'sold' sign sits in front of a residential property in Ottawa in August 2020 when the pandemic housing market was heating up. (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)
A 'sold' sign sits in front of a residential property in Ottawa in August 2020 when the pandemic housing market was heating up. (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)

The housing market in Ottawa has been wild and unpredictable during the pandemic, and that breeds some ugly — and also good news stories.

From 19 bidding wars to finding gems in rural Ottawa and Quebec, realtors, as well as new and to-be homeowners share their experiences in the region's hot market.

Forced to look elsewhere

Sydney Switzer and her partner actually discovered looking for their first home early in the pandemic became a blessing in disguise.

The couple began looking in June 2020 with hopes they would find a home in the nation's capital where their families reside. They quickly pivoted to searching across the river in Quebec where house prices were more affordable.

After what she says felt like a long two months and looking at about 15 properties, they bought a new build in Buckingham, Que., about a 30-minute drive from downtown Ottawa.

"Although it was much further than we wanted ... it was almost a fraction of the cost of a used house. And it was brand spanking new," she said.

Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada
Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada

Despite obstacles with their lawyers and the bank, delays due to building material shortages leading to an eight-month delay in building the home, Switzer finally moved in June this year and says she's "so satisfied" with the purchase. The housing market heated up even more after she bought.

"Every single day, when I hear other people talking about the housing market ... I think about how lucky we are."

Switzer says she's glad to have looked further away.

"If we hadn't, I honestly don't think we would have gotten the house or any house for that matter."

Flipping an eyesore with potential

Expecting their first child, Abdullah Saad and his wife began looking for a larger family home this past March. They honed in on Dunrobin, Ont., just 10 minutes away from his wife's workplace in Kanata.

Their first bid in the community was unsuccessful — and surprising to them, not even close to the sale price.

"We got outbid by almost double what we offered, over asking," recalled Saad.

Then a home was listed a few minutes down the road from the property they lost. It was far from turn-key and occupied by multiple tenants.

"It was difficult to look at the house," he said. "My wife was a little bit hesitant. There wasn't a lot of pictures online."

Submitted by Abdullah Saad
Submitted by Abdullah Saad

But Saad noticed its good bones and potential, so the couple submitted an offer below asking with no conditions. As his realtor suspected, Saad said their offer was the only one.

Now with the help of family, he is renovating the home himself.

"Everybody wants turn-key. All the multiple offers are on beautiful houses that have the nicest cabinets and the nicest hardwood, and that's not where the opportunities are in this market," noted Saad, who's also a commercial realtor.

"We are extremely happy," he said of finding their forever home.

Up against 23 offers and giving up

About 10 bidding wars and a year and a half later, Ashley Ha and her husband fear they've been priced out of the market.

The first-time buyers began searching in February 2020. They were pre-approved by the bank for a mortgage and had good jobs in the aviation industry — then the pandemic hit.

"We thought, 'Oh OK it's the pandemic, maybe it'll come in our favour and maybe the market will slow down a bit' — but it did the exact opposite," said Ha.

Every offer they put in was almost $50,000 over asking with no conditions. They went head-to-head with 23 bids on one house. Another home they bid on was sold, site unseen, for $100,000 over asking in Orléans — "which was absolutely insane," said Ha.

"We're just so discouraged."

David Donnelly/CBC
David Donnelly/CBC

Both Ha and her partner were then laid off in 2020, so they took a break from the bidding wars.

Now both working again, the two cautiously peruse listings, but noticed fewer homes on the market.

"We prefer to live anywhere closer to the downtown area, like Bank [Street] ... but we just can't afford it," said Ha, noting prices for starter homes have skyrocketed since. "We had to settle for Orléans."

Her realtor noted homes are selling below asking now, and some with conditions, as the market appears to be cooling off in recent months, but Ha isn't convinced.

"I'll have to see it to believe it," she said.

Fuel in the vicious cycle

Will Caron and Dave Charbonneau bought their home in August 2020 in the Qualicum neighbourhood near Bayshore mall.

"It was insane," Caron described the market at the time. They were losing bids by thousands over asking.

"We had just lost so many times and we were so sick of it and we just way over-bid on this place," he said.

The couple did find a home that checked off all their boxes.

"The only regret I have is that I probably set off this vicious cycle for someone else."

Submitted by Will Caron
Submitted by Will Caron

Charbonneau said the initial sticker shock was overwhelming, and they even ran into issues with the appraiser determining they overpaid by $30,000.

But not even six months after purchasing, they received good news from their realtor: their home was likely worth $150,000 more than what they paid for.

"That was kind of relieving," Charbonneau said. "We didn't overspend."

Now their pandemic puppy Juno has a nice yard, and the couple is able to put their intense experience behind them.

"The process itself was at times a little demoralizing," said Caron. "It all worked out in the end."

The market's ugly side

Andy Allen-McCarthy and Paddy Allen-McCarthy, realtors with Royal LePage in Ottawa, described the past year and half as a "wild," "exhausting," "fast-paced" seller's market.

Paddy said for the last three years or so, Ottawa was already in a solid seller's market.

"It was really going along quite strongly. And then when the pandemic hit, it poured gasoline on the fire," he said.

WATCH | Ottawa realtors share thoughts on market now and in future:

After guiding several clients through the pandemic — some who have put in 19 offers and lost — the realtors say their jobs quickly turned into delivering bad news multiple times every day, which takes a toll on the mental health of both clients and agents.

"The ugliest side of this is that buyers had to ... sacrifice mitigating risk in order to get into homes. And that's not good," said Paddy, explaining how financing conditions and inspections — protection for buyers — would get offers thrown out immediately.

"[People were] being left on the dock, as this real estate market [boat] pulled away," he said. "That dream kind of pulled away for a lot of people, and that's a real shame."

Some of their clients were priced out of their neighbourhoods of choice within a year.

"The baseline price just kept increasing so dramatically," said Andy. "That was really ugly to me, to watch clients that are pre-approved, that are qualified, that have saved money for two years working three jobs ... [and] all of a sudden people were just stuck.

"That to me breaks my heart."

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