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As loonie surges, Canadians snap up US homes

Emboldened by the surging value of their "loonie," Canadians are combing the Internet for potential bargains in the U.S. housing market.
Image: Canadian Doug Farley shops for houses in the U.S.
Doug Farley of Calgary, Alberta, stands on the balcony of a condominium for sale as he hunts for investment property in Chandler, Ariz. The U.S. housing slump, combined with a strong Canadian dollar, makes investing in warm-weather areas appealing to Canadians.Paul Connors / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two hours after his flight landed in Phoenix, Calgary resident Doug Farley already was cruising the city's vast stuccoed suburbs in search of the one attraction Canadians cannot seem to get enough of these days: cheap homes.

There are thousands of them here: almost new, unoccupied and dropping in value. The mortgage meltdown, combined with a surging Canadian currency, has Farley — and many of his countrymen — dreaming of winter golf on grass that's always green.

"My dollar's the same as your dollar, finally," Farley said, grinning as he peered through a pool fence at a sparsely populated condominium complex in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb.

For moderate-income Canadians like Farley, the race is on to take advantage of the "loonie," which in September reached parity with the U.S. dollar for the first time since 1976. Many are combing the Internet for anxious American home sellers and looking with an investor's eye at the condos they rented while on vacation in sunbelt states.

"Now it's more than just the snowbird coming down and staying in a condo. It's people looking for business opportunity," said Frank Nero, president of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic development arm in south Florida.

Canadian condo-builder Solterra Group of Companies also is riding the surge in the Canadian economy as it plans to snatch large chunks of land in Las Vegas. Michael Bosa, the company's vice president for development and acquisition, said the loonie has bolstered his company's bids.

"We're looking now aggressively," Bosa said. "We think we'll see more opportunities in the next six to eight months."

In Arizona, Jason Sirockman of Edmonton, Alberta, said he watched as home owners flooded the market with 58,000 homes, more than twice the amount in 2005 when home values peaked.

Now is the time to buy, he said. Alberta, a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Phoenix, is experiencing a modern-day gold rush from booming work in its vast oil sands.

"Fifteen of my friends are on buying trips down here, and we're all cheap," Sirockman said. He brought his family to Scottsdale this month while he submitted a lowball all-cash offer for a three-bedroom home.

Real estate agent Mark Dziedzic, left, and his client Doug Farley, of Calgary, look over some features of a kitchen in a condominium for sale as Farley hunts for a piece of investment property Friday, Dec. 7, 2007, in Chandler, Ariz. The housing slump, combined with a strong Canadian dollar, makes investing in warm-weather areas appealing to Canadians. (AP Photo/Paul Connors)Paul Connors / AP

"I don't want to take advantage of a guy who's having trouble in the market and is losing his shorts," Sirockman said. "But I have no problem with a guy from California who bought on spec and has five houses in Arizona and never lived in them."

Single-family homes and condos in the Phoenix metro area now sit an average of 99 days before getting sold. That's three times the wait for homes and four times the wait for condos compared with two years ago, according to the Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service.

The market has shifted totally in the buyer's favor, especially those offering cash, said Jeff Russell of Alberta. Last month, Russell snapped up a patio home next to a golf course in Scottsdale with a $299,000 check. It was listed at $463,000.

"I was actually going to come down here and buy a seven-series BMW because cars are ridiculously cheap here," he said. "But I discovered that, forget cars, houses are on deep discount. I could never get anything on a golf course as nice in Canada for this type of money."

Real estate agents in Phoenix, especially those with Canadian ties, are hustling to reach potential buyers up north while the American housing market and the U.S. dollar continue to slump.

Rick Morielli, a former real estate broker from Toronto, received his green card in November, posted a Canadian realty Web site, took out some newspaper ads in Canada, and already he has about a dozen clients looking for homes.

"There's a real 'Wow' factor here for Canadians," said Morielli, who now lives in Phoenix.

"When I take them to a brand new subdivision, and for $210,000 can get them four bedrooms, 2,000 square feet, all appliances, brand new, that's something they haven't been able to buy in Canada for 10 or 15 years. In my opinion, everyone should be buying now."

Mark Dziedzic, a former financial planner from Toronto, now sells homes full time in Arizona and holds seminars in Canada to push the American housing market on fellow Canucks. Dziedzic said he's had to hire more staff at his office to keep up with the influx of Canadian investors.

"When (the Canadian dollar) hit a dollar ten, it really created a real buzz for Canadians, not only those looking to buy second homes but we're also seeing it from buying purely from an investment standpoint," Dziedzic said.

Still, with so many homes on the market, the interest by Canadians isn't about to fix the housing slump in Arizona, real estate consultant Elliott D. Pollack said.

"You have a massive oversupply in the face of a lower demand," Pollack said. "And you're going to have to work off those excess units. And to do that you'll need two or three years."