Winnipeg: Prairie oyster

Winnipeg has taken a lot of low blows over the years - often ridiculed for its freezing temperatures, its bloodsucking mosquitoes and its sky-high snow banks.

But chuckle as you will - Winnipeg is getting the last laugh. In fact, as many of Canada's major cities took a dip during the recession, this hardy Prairie city has not only survived - but thrived.

"Winnipeg certainly has done very well over the past 10 years," says Allan Asplin, president, Judy Lindsay Team Realty in Winnipeg. "In 2008 when we saw the subprime situation our market only fell approximately two per cent.

The great thing about Winnipeg is that we don't seem to ever have big "booms" but we don't have big "busts" either. Consequently we have a lot of investors that own property in Winnipeg, but live all over Canada and the States."

And things are only looking up. Economic conditions are looking more positive for Winnipeg this year with construction of some major projects including the new Winnipeg airport, which is scheduled to be completed this year, the greatly anticipated Human Rights Museum and the stadium on the University of Manitoba Campus. Couple these strong economic conditions with low mortgage rates and historically high migration and it adds up to more construction on homes.

According to the 2010 Winnipeg Census Metropolitan Association (CMA), 1,700 single-detached homes will be built - an increase of 13 per cent from the year before. In addition, in 2011, single starts will see another uptick to 1,750 units - a three per cent increase from 2010. Rental units are also dominating new home starts.

At 314 units in March, the number of rental apartments under construction was 56 per cent higher than the previous year. Although some of these units target low-income families, the balance of apartments under construction consist of condominiums.

Winnipeg recorded an apartment vacancy rate of 1.1 per cent in the October 2009 CMHC rental market survey, up slightly from the 1.0 per cent recorded in 2008. Despite modest increases, rental apartment vacancies will remain low through the forecast period.

The CMHC forecast calls for a vacancy rate of 1.2 per cent in October 2010 followed by a slight increase to 1.4 per cent in 2011. Following six successive years of double-digit price growth, Winnipeg's average resale price advanced 5.3 per cent in 2009.

The average resale price will see a gain of 7.1 per cent in 2010, reaching $222,000. A further increase of 3.6 per cent will bring the average to $230,000 in 2011.

Including 2009, these are the lowest average price increases since 2002 when there was a four per cent increase. Asplin says an investor concerned about monthly cash flow should invest in the North End.

However, this area is renowned for attracting low-income residents and has been riddled with crime. For investors looking for less hassle, Asplin suggests River Heights or River Park South, which attract a lot of young professionals and their families.

"River Heights is a good area because there is tremendous demand for good quality rentals," says Asplin. "River Park South also has good demand but the houses are generally newer and require less maintenance. Both areas have some of the shortest time on the market for houses to sell, giving an investor more liquidity."

In the North End, houses can be found for as little as $120,000- $150,000, and rents can range from around $350 per month for a small one-bedroom up to $1,200 for a threebedroom home.

Homes in River Park South and River Heights run between $250,000 and $300,000 where a two-bedroom detached home fetches around $800 up to $3,500 per month in a newer built upscale home.

Although Asplin couldn't pinpoint the exact occupancy rates of these areas, he says investors having difficulty filling vacancies in these sought-after areas is unheard of.

"I have never seen a statistic for vacancy in residential homes in the areas, however I have never had a client have any issues in finding tenants," says Asplin. "In some of my own rentals I have posted an ad on Kijiji and will have up to five responses within the hour."

And as far as Winnipeg's future, Asplin says he agrees with the CMHC's prediction that the city will continue to prosper with its relatively low home prices and low vacancy rates. "I think we will certainly see moderate growth; Winnipeg is still pretty cheap in comparison to the rest of Canada. I would also expect vacancy rates to remain low."

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