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Dec 18 (Reuters) - Canadian condominium construction has surged but population growth has kept oversupply in check, the federal housing agency said in a report on Wednesday that also showed declining mortgage arrears and high home-equity levels.
In its annual report on the housing market, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp pointed to steady mortgage debt and an increasing number of households as evidence that residential real estate is in good shape, despite warnings from observers that the market is overheated.
Canada's housing market avoided the crash experienced in the United States five years ago, due in part to more conservative lending standards and a stronger economy. While economists have long predicted an eventual correction in Canada, they are divided over whether prices will drop sharply or simply stagnate in a so-called soft landing scenario.
The agency's report showed some 41 percent of homeowners have no mortgage, while the rest typically have solid equity levels, accelerated mortgage payments or declining arrears.
As of June 2013, 0.31 percent of residential mortgages were three or more months in arrears, compared with 0.33 percent 12 months earlier, CMHC said. Arrears averaged 0.41 percent in the decades 1990-2010.
About 31 percent of recent buyers made lump-sum payments or increased their regular payment in 2012 to pay off their mortgage sooner, and 44 percent had their payment set above the minimum, the report showed.
The average amount of equity for homeowners with mortgages was 47 percent, and 71 percent have at least 25 percent equity in their home. Only 7 percent had less than 10 percent equity as of April 2013, suggesting only about 7 percent of homeowners would be "under water" if prices dropped more than 10 percent.
With the once-booming but cooling condominium market widely perceived to be the weak spot in Canada's urban housing market, the CMHC said condo construction was far outpacing construction of detached homes. Even so, there were no signs of oversupply yet because of the growing population, mostly because of a strong influx of immigrants and an increase in the number of people living alone.
While single-detached dwelling starts rose just 1.5 percent to 83,657 in 2012, multiple-dwelling starts - typically condos - rose 17.6 percent to 131,170 units. Condos comprised 61 percent of all construction in 2012, continuing a trend that began in 2002.
The surge was most notable in Canada's biggest cities, where cranes dot the skylines and tens of thousands of new units come on line every year. The share of condominium starts out of total starts was highest in Vancouver at 64 percent, followed by Toronto at 59 percent and Montréal at 58 percent.
While the number of starts suggests huge supply in the pipeline that will come to the market in the next year or two, the building boom has begun to slow and CMHC said inventories so far are not above historical levels.
Housing starts began moderating in the last half of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013, with multiple-dwelling starts declining for three straight quarters before rising modestly in the second quarter of 2013.
In 2012, urban inventories averaged 4.7 units per 10,000 people, only slightly above the long-term average of 4.6 from 1992 to 2012. By the second quarter of 2013, however, inventories were at 5.1 units per 10,000 people.
CHMC said population growth and a shift in the way people are living suggests the demand for smaller housing, including condos, will grow.
"As a consequence of population aging and the increased tendency to live alone, one-person households are expected to show the fastest pace of growth to 2036, making it the single biggest type of household by the 2020s," CHMC said.