Your search results

30 Years of Real Estate in Ottawa: Then and Now

Posted by Dorene Wharton on January 11, 2021


Susan Chell - real estate agent/broker in Ottawa for 30 years

I wanted to take a moment to pause and celebrate a personal milestone at the end of this unique year. Thirty years ago, I started in the real estate business in Ottawa. I would like to share and reflect on the changes, observations, and lessons from these three decades. I cannot believe how time has flown!

Facts and events in Ottawa and Canada in 1990:

• Brian Mulroney is Prime Minister.
• David Peterson is the Premier of Ontario, and later that year, Bob Rae’s NDP party win a surprising majority.
• The GST becomes law and was enforced at the beginning of 1991.
• Wayne Gretzky becomes the all-time leading scorer in the NHL after his trade to Los Angeles.
• The Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup for the 5th time in 7 years.
• Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev visit Ottawa.
• Petro Canada is privatized.
• The top 20 singles of 1990 included: New Kids on the Block’s – “Step by Step,” Madonna’s “Vogue,” and Phil Collin’s “Another Day in Paradise.”

Significant Changes in Ottawa Real Estate in 30 Years

I was 23 years old, just completed my real estate license and stepped into the world of buying and selling homes. Like all agents back then, I started green – there were no training sessions, courses, or mentoring programs; everything I learned was on the job. I was one of the younger agents in Ottawa, working with homebuyers who were on average, 40 years of age or older, as these were the consumers who could afford to buy a house. Fortunately, home buying today is more accessible to all demographics and age ranges.

During those early years, much time and effort were invested in order to gain trust and respect in the industry. To make matters more challenging, I started at the beginning of a recession, which saw the number of Ottawa agents reduced by over 50% and forced numerous office closures. Through all this turmoil, market values remained flat, which is no comparison to the fast-paced, escalating, real estate market we have in Ottawa now.

susan chell business card in 1997

My business card back in 1997


The Ottawa Market in 1990

The market, cost of living, and business dynamics were entirely different from today.
Interest rates were 14.25% and consumers were locking into this rate for five years! It is no wonder homeownership was predominantly for older, higher-income consumers.

Ottawa Average Residential Home Prices and % Price Increases from 1990-2020

Graph of Ottawa housing prices and changes 1990-2020

Source: Ottawa Real Estate Board

• The average price of a residential home in 1990 was $141,138 compared to $582,267 in 2020.
• The average mortgage payment in 1990 with a 10% down payment at 14.25% was approximately $1515 per month.
• In comparison, an average mortgage payment in 2020 with a 10% down payment at an interest rate of 2% was approximately $2220 per month.

Considering the increase in Canada’s consumer price index over the last 30 years, little has changed in terms of relative affordability.


Ottawa Real Estate without the Internet or Computers

Without the luxury of the internet or computers, conducting business was much different; it was more interactive, more connected, instead of transactional and fast-paced, like today’s world. Agents always met with clients, offers were completed in person, and our primary technology was a pager clipped to our belt, which served as our messaging system. Calls were returned by payphone or landlines since cell phones and plans were expensive.  Service contracts and low-cost plans were not an option back then, until widespread use in the mid-’90s. Fax machines were introduced to our offices at that time, but only original documents could be legally executed.

Offers were completed on paper and lots of it!  Six copies of every offer were required, and each page was signed or initialled by the buyer and seller, then witnessed by the agent. This process made negotiations lengthy and exhausting. Agents delivered changes or counteroffers to clients in person, at any time and anywhere in the city. Additionally, limited data did not allow REALTORS® to provide the depth of analysis of market trends and statistics to help buyers and sellers make fact-based decisions like we are able to provide today.


motorola tech for the industry in the 1990s

Our real estate technology in the ’90s


Forget the Beautiful Photos and Easily Accessible MLS Listings at your Fingertips

In 1990, the real estate industry’s primary resource was the MLS book, a thick catalogue of home listings with limited descriptions and details, with only one exterior photo per listing allowed. There were no enticing interior or exterior photos to help prospective buyers narrow down their preferred options. New MLS editions were printed and delivered every two weeks, making timely changes to a listing impossible. Any revisions had to wait until the next print date!

Once pictures became an essential part of the industry’s marketing efforts, I added photography to my list of responsibilities. Without the ease of digital cameras, I dropped off countless photo rolls to be processed at nearby photo centres.

Marketing our services were limited to the sign on the property, newspaper advertising, open houses, agent tours, and word of mouth.

Often, real estate agents would meet in person to discuss business and celebrate closings. Similarly, we knew our clients very well because of the amount of time spent with them. As life pressures increased through the years and more tools were available for business, this in-person time has been drastically reduced. However, this experience fostered the value of in-person relationships that we maintain with our clients today.

The Evolution of Real Estate Services

Many valuable services caused the real estate industry to evolve, and each has either simplified transactions for sellers and buyers or added value, and/or safeguards to protect them. Here are some of the biggest innovations:

Home inspections are a safeguard to protect consumers today. Previously, the onus was on the buyer to exercise due diligence to ensure the home’s integrity.

Home staging services were not integral to the industry. We did our best to make suggestions to improve the marketability of the property. Today, home staging consultations are invaluable in achieving the optimal sale price for so many of our clients.

Buyer Representation did not exist in the ’90s.  Although REALTORS® worked with sellers and buyers, their obligation was to represent only the seller in negotiations. Buyer agreements were later introduced to protect the buyer in the real estate transaction.

Electronic signatures were officially introduced in July 2015, allowing all real estate documentation to be signed electronically, saving time and effort on contracts, amendments, and negotiations.

Professional photography, virtual tours and video have made home buying not only enticing for people but a major time saver in decision making.

The Internet, websites and social media have allowed our clients to shop online and stay informed. This infrastructure has enabled us to build a more professional, connected, and timely business model for our clients.

Reflections from my last 30 years

Susan chell 30 years as an Ottawa Realtor


I’m proud that the real estate industry has evolved into a more professional and responsible industry. Legal documents are in place for both the buyer and seller. Technology allows us to make more informed, data-driven decisions for our clients, and we level up our skills with continuing education every two years.

Upon reflection, I wish I would have created a team structure in my business much earlier. Real estate teams didn’t exist when I started, which was another improvement in our field years later. Working and collaborating with other agents and leveraging each others’ expertise has improved our service to clients and helps us manage all business functions much more effectively.

Through it all, one thing has remained constant, my love of helping people with one of the largest financial transactions of their lives.  To see the joy experienced by both buyers and sellers upon completion of their deals has been the largest single motivating force that has driven me to improve, both as a person and a real estate agent.  For this, I thank each and every one of you!




2 thoughts on “30 Years of Real Estate in Ottawa: Then and Now

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.