What Canadians need to know about moving to the U.S. for more affordable real estate

A U.S. flag decorates a for-sale sign at a home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, August 21, 2012. President Barack Obama said on Monday the U.S. housing market was
Home prices have run up in the U.S. but are mostly more affordable than major Canadian markets.(REUTERS) (Jonathan Ernst / reuters)

Like many real estate markets around the world, U.S. home prices have run up during the pandemic to the point of some saying it's in bubble territory.

But the whole time and for years before, Canada has said "hold my beer" as prices rocket through the stratosphere in a number of major markets.

The discrepancy really jumps off the page in comparisons of the most recent benchmark prices and household income. As the chart below from Karl Schamotta, chief market strategist at Cambridge Global Payments, comparing Canada to the U.S. shows, a picture paints a thousand words, especially when it's presented as an exploding gif.

The situation has gotten so bad for first-time buyers that many may have given up. Ontario is home to markets with the biggest recent run-ups. A survey by Right at Home Realty found 74 per cent of younger Ontarians aged 18 to 34 say they may never be able to afford a home where they currently live.

Michelle Makos, broker-owner at Royal Heritage Realty, sells real estate for a living but doesn't like what she's seeing, especially after a conversation with her recently engaged daughter who wants to buy a first home.

"She made a comment that they may have to move to the United States to find something they can afford and truly I would hate to lose my children simply because they feel like the housing situation here is out of their reach," Makos told Yahoo Finance Canada.

"Being in real estate, it just made me realize, the one thing I love doing is the one thing that could cost me my daughter, if she were to leave."

So she took to Twitter to see if other Canadians were feeling the same way as her daughter. She conducted a Twitter poll that showed many were in the same boat.

She was flooded with messages from frustrated Canadians who were seriously considering leaving the country because of high home prices and shared many of them on Twitter. She eventually put a selection of the messages she received in a handy document for everyone to see.

"We as a country can do better," said Makos.

But not so fast if you're like any of these people and thinking of moving across the border. There are a number of things to consider.

Immigration rules for moving from Canada to the U.S.

The first thing to consider is immigration laws. If you work from home, you can't just grab your laptop and start working from the U.S.

Sara Herbek, managing partner at Global Immigration Associates, says you need a U.S. employer to sponsor you and be qualified for a TN or L-1 visa.

"If a Canadian employer has a U.S. entity, this could potentially be another option, however, it depends on the visa category," Herbek told Yahoo Finance Canada.

It's the same deal if you plan to work for a U.S. employer.

"Canadians are able to present TN and L-1 visa petitions at the border (now by air is recommended versus by land)," said Herbek.

"In other visa categories, the employer would need to file the visa petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and obtain approval first."

Herbek says it's important to have all of the correct paperwork when entering the U.S. to avoid being turned away.

"They should ensure they have original documents when appearing at the border: approval notice, as applicable, educational documents, birth or marriage certificates," said Herbek.

Mortgage rules for buying a home in the U.S.

Unless you're lucky enough to be able to buy a home outright, you'll need a mortgage and things are mostly similar to obtaining a mortgage in Canada if you're moving to the U.S. permanently, but with some key differences.

Rob Mclister, mortgage editor at RATESDOTCA says one of them is proof of income.

"It may be harder to prove income to the U.S. lender's satisfaction if you have already moved to the U.S. before applying for a mortgage," Mclister told Yahoo Finance Canada.

"That's because most mainstream U.S. lenders generally want to see at least two years of U.S. tax returns. If this is the case, find a good broker in the U.S. to advise you."

If you plan to buy before your immigration and job situation are sorted out, Mclister says most lenders will want 20-25 per cent down instead of the 5 per cent minimum in Canada.

Also See: The latest real estate news for housing prices, mortgage rates, markets, luxury properties and more at Yahoo Finance Canada.

"If a Canadian has the equity, provable income, good credit and reasonable debt ratios, it's no harder to get approved in the U.S.," said Mclister.

"It's a LOT more paperwork, however. Canadian closing documentation is as thick as a magazine. U.S. closing documentation is as thick as a book."

Mclister says one of the things that is very different is fees.

"There are lots of fees on a U.S. mortgage that you'd never see on a Canadian mortgage, including upfront costs like application fees, loan origination fees, as well as back-end costs like stamp taxes (which even apply to refinances) and so on, depending on the state," said Mclister.

"U.S. lenders commonly quote points with their rates. Points are upfront cash you pay at closing to buy the rate down. Canadian lenders don't use points."

Amortization periods are also different. The U.S. has 15 and 30 years versus five years in Canada.

"The most common term in Canada is the 5-year fixed, which you can find for 2.14% or less (uninsured)," said Mclister.

"The most common term in the U.S. is the 30-year fixed, which you can find for about 2.94% or less."

If you already deal with a Canadian bank with operations in the U.S., that can make the process smoother.

"Often, if you're their customer, they can approve you based on your Canadian credit history, with fewer documents. That makes the process a little easier. You might also get a slightly better rate," said Mclister.

Overall, Mclister says things take longer in the U.S. and there's more red tape. He says another option could be using your HELOC.

Tax implications for Canadians moving to the U.S.

You'll also need to get up to speed on how taxes work.

Gerry Vittoratos, national tax specialist at UFile, says if you move to the U.S. permanently, you'll pay what any other resident pays. But things could get complicated as you try to leave Canada.

"Be mindful of the potential for a departure tax when exiting Canada. Depending on the assets that you possess at the time of departure, you will have to declare "sales" of those assets on your last tax return, even if you haven't actually sold those assets, for example, shares in stocks in a non-registered brokerage account," said Vittoratos.

"This could mean that you will owe tax on money you haven't received."

But Vittoratos says there is a workaround.

"Thankfully, you can defer these deemed dispositions by electing through the appropriate form and including it with your last tax return; however, when you actually sell the asset or come back to Canada, whichever is first, you will owe Canadian income tax on those assets at that time," said Vittoratos.

When it's time to buy a home in the U.S.

Florida-based realtor Sam DeBianchi says Canadians have always been seen as great cash buyers, but competition is heating up locally and from international buyers. She says cash usually gets a better price.

"In today's market, Canadians are also competing against non-cash buyers who may be contingent on financing but they're coming in with a higher price (generally about $20,000+ over list price, depending on the property) and they are waiving their appraisal contingencies— which has been very enticing to sellers and many times wins the deal even over a cash buyer," DeBianchi told Yahoo Finance Canada.

Many Canadians are used to bidding wars, and they are a reality in the U.S. as well. So, DeBianchi says if you find a property you like, you should put in the highest bid you can and not regret losing out.

DeBianchi says she's seeing a lot of sellers accept bids from buyers who've seen the property in person over those who haven't.

"This is happening because the majority of properties listed enter into a bidding war and a seller wants to ensure that the buyer has seen it, instead of solely trying to 'hold' the property by getting it under contract and then using the inspection period to see it and decide if they like it and want it," said DeBianchi.

In that case, sellers can lose out on buyers who were more serious about purchasing the property. With that said, there are things you can do if you are unable to physically view the property to make yourself more appealing to sellers.

"It's important to have a dedicated period of time to spend here to look at property and also work with an experienced agent who will FaceTime you the property and explain appropriately to a listing agent as to why you physically aren't present," said DeBianchi.

"When you work with someone who's experienced and connected, they can vouch for you as a qualified and serious buyer."

That's a lot to take in, but hopefully helpful to any Canadian buyer thinking about making the move to the U.S. in search of a more affordable place to call home. A list of 20 relatively affordable U.S. cities and their average home prices can be found here.

Jessy Bains is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jessysbains.

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