Parents pushing strollers and scruffy young professionals wearing ties and ear buds exit the Dartmouth ferry after it docks in Halifax on Friday morning. A 10-minute boat ride away at the King’s Wharf Just Us in downtown Dartmouth, two women in their 20s man the coffee counter while construction workers, presumably working on the still-rising towers next door, hang around sipping java, conversing and people-watching.
For at least five years now, this side of the harbour has been on the precipice of becoming the new downtown, the hipster hub, the coolest Halifax neighbourhood. Commercially and residentially, revitalization or gentrification (depending on how you see it) is happening: more restaurants, boutiques, cafes and art galleries populate downtown Dartmouth than in previous years. The Alderney Landing farmers’ market is fast becoming as beloved as the one across the harbour. Slowly, very slowly, people are moving here, and the area is densifying.
Sipping coffee at King’s Wharf, realtor Trevor Parsons says he likes to call the neighbourhood “Old Dartmouth,” lending it an appealing veneer of authenticity. (For more on Downtown Dartmouth’s ascent, see “The Dark Side rises” in May 2013, Halifax Magazine.)
While downtown Dartmouth is drawing nesting young parents and a few 20-something professionals, “very little has changed” for the city as a whole compared to a year ago, Parsons says.
According to MLS statistics, the two-month period from January to February 2014 when compared to 2015 shows nearly no change in average price for the entire city and suburbs: only a 0.3-per-cent increase.
The average sale price of a residential property in urban Halifax was down by two per cent from $358,000 in January 2014 to $351,000 in January 2015. And in Dartmouth prices were down 2.2 per cent for January 2014 compared to the same month in 2015, with the average price at just under $228,000 for that month this year.
But a closer look shows certain areas are seeing a slight upswing. From January to February 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, downtown Dartmouth saw a slight average sale price increase of 2.7 per cent. And in the longer term, that trend appears to have legs. In 2014 compared to 2013, downtown Dartmouth saw a four per cent average price increase—the second highest increase in the entire Halifax region.
So while sales are lagging for the city as a whole, downtown Dartmouth is perking up.
Halifax’s residential market endured a harsh spring. Relentless snowstorms and icy sidewalks gripped the city for a month, discouraging prospective buyers, especially those in rural areas who can’t easily drive into town.
While bigger Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto are seeing heated residential markets, Nova Scotia’s winter weather dampened an already depressed market. Halifax’s housing market experienced a little bubble after the shipbuilding contract announcement in 2012, which encouraged buyers and sellers to act quickly.
Since then, however, the market has cooled. The exception is the urbanization trend of rural folks moving to Halifax, both to rent and buy. Suburban and rural areas are slowing or shrinking while more central areas, especially neighbourhoods near the peninsula with shorter commute times, including downtown Dartmouth and Fairview, are finally densifying.
From 2013 to 2014, Fairview saw a higher price increase than Old Dartmouth. It had the highest average price increase in the whole Halifax region for that period. From January to February 2015 compared to the same months in 2014, the area has seen a dip of 5.5 per cent in average price, but overall the trend is up, says Remax Nova realtor Cohen MacInnis.
The 27-year-old moved from Antigonish four years ago to Clayton Park, where he rented and watched the market closely. When the time was right, MacInnis bought a condo in Fairview.
Recently he has received emails from people his age back home in Antigonish asking about buying homes in Halifax. He’s advising them to get into the Fairview market.
“It’s very much a neighbourhood in transition,” MacInnis says. Fairview is close to the peninsula, which keeps commute times short, while still maintaining its affordability compared to other areas of the city. MacInnis says buyers can find a home in the area for an average of $230,000—a steal compared to more gentrified areas.
Like the North End before it, Fairview is shedding its stigma and attracting lower-budget buyers, contributing to a staggering 11.2 per cent average sale price increase from 2013 to 2014, according to MLS numbers.
Similar to downtown Dartmouth, restaurants and cafes are popping up around Fairview, and new condo developments are adding supply to the market. MacInnis says his neighbourhood is also becoming more walkable than it used to be.
“Fairview has come a long way in the last few years,” he says, adding that change is slow and it does take years to see it.
Another area to watch, says MacInnis, is Spryfield. He recently sold a home in that area to a former NSCAD student, and he says over the past decade Spryfield has “beaten the market” and is holding its value.
In the North End, where anticipation of the shipbuilding contract drove both rental and sale prices up due to its proximity to the Irving Shipyard, the past year hasn’t been terrible, but activity has certainly cooled from 2012 rates. For Central Halifax and Halifax North, also known as districts one and three, from 2013 to 2014, average prices went up by 0.6 and 2.0 per cent respectively.
While the shipbuilding contract announcement drove sales across Halifax in 2012, this year’s relentless onslaught of winter storms have sought to kill them.
Terrible weather has kept buyers from the south end too, says Sandra Bryant, but the realtor with more than 30 years of experience is optimistic that when spring arrives prospective buyers will flood the market, making up for lost time and sales.
“You can feel it in the air, there’s definitely an upswing,” Bryant says of 2015. “Certainly we won’t go down.”
For a few years now, across Canada and in Halifax there’s been a trend toward renting rather than buying. Now, low interest rates are giving young professionals a chance to enter the market, Bryant says. “The cost of money is low. That is unbelievable. We’ve never seen money this low.”
People who can afford high-end real estate (fancy condos and South End castles) are still buying, she says. Fewer condos have sold each year since 2011 while the average sale price continues to rise. “The only reason fewer condos have been sold is because fewer everything has been sold,” Bryant reasons.
Condos are not the worst market in Bryant’s book. “The suburbs are the hardest,” she says. Continued sprawl construction plus the urbanization trend have combined to hit that market hard.
Parsons says the suburbs are the only areas in Halifax that might have “a bit of a bubble” with over-inflated values right now. And MacInnis points out that 2013 compared to 2014 saw the largest drop in average price in the Harrietsfield, Sambro and Ketch Harbour area.
For prospective buyers who can afford to enter the market now, the urban but still affordable areas are Old Dartmouth and Fairview. Money is cheap, as Bryant says, although it won’t stay that way forever. So if you’re ready to buy, you might celebrate after with a downtown Dartmouth latte.