As you celebrate Christmas this year, the one small lump of coal in your real estate stocking is that your house's value probably didn't rise at the same pace in 2010 as it did the year before.

The Toronto Real Estate Board pegged the median price of a home at $366,000 last month. That figure is a 3.4 per cent increase over the November 2009 median of $353,800.

The median is the point at which half the homes cost less, and half cost more. It is considered less distortion-prone than the average price.

Skip back one year. As 2009 wound down, homeowners could crow about their properties having increased by 13.4 per cent, as the median price in November 2008 was $312,500.

Al Sinclair of Al Sinclair Real Estate put 2010's flatter prices in this context.

"We had a really good spring, and then things seemed to even off in the summer. And we've had a pretty flat market since then," he said.

But 2010 was still a good year for real estate sales. It's just that 2009 was a great year, he said.

November 2008 was a period when the world had fallen into a nasty recession -- one that didn't spare Toronto, Sinclair said.

"We couldn't give houses away," he said.

In November 2009, the real estate market was roaring. The bull market kept going until about May, Sinclair said.

For those looking to get into the real estate market in 2011, he advised people to plan on steady price gains, but nothing crazy.

"To buy a property, ride the market and then flip it? Forget it," he said. "As they say in sports, sometimes the best trades are the ones you didn't make."

On the plus side for buyers, Sinclair didn't anticipate much in the way of bidding wars. "It's going to be a good, balanced market in 2011," he said.

Taxes, interest rates

Toronto elected a new mayor on Oct. 25, and Mayor Rob Ford has vowed to eliminate the Municipal Land Transfer Tax (MLTT), which is charged on real estate transactions. For example, a home with a consideration value of just over $500,000 would pay a total  MLTT of $5,725.

There are rebates available to first-time purchasers.

Sinclair did say that Ford probably won't act to remove the tax, which provides about $240 million in revenue to the city, until 2012.

In the meantime, he suggested that waiting for the axing of the tax is a bad investment decision, saying that any savings would be wiped out by price gains in the property itself.

Another consideration in buying is whether interest rates might start moving up in 2011.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, has been warning Canadians to avoid taking on too much debt as interest rates won't stay very low forever.

He also noted that Canadians' debt-to-income ration is now higher than Americans' for the first time in 12 years.

This has some policy analysts worried about whether some Canadians would be able to weather an interest-rate shock.

Most experts don't expect the central bank to start raising its prime rate until mid-2011.

Economist Will Dunning said for perspective, consider that current mortgage rates are low in historic terms.

Barring any inflationary shocks to the economy that would force a sharp rise in interest rates, Dunning said he expected mortgage rates would rise by about 0.5 percentage points in 2011.

Homebuyers who wish to be conservative can protect themselves by taking on fixed-rate mortgages, he said.

Sinclair suggested one could go with a variable-rate mortgage for the next six months before locking into a fixed-term one. "Even if (rates) went up a point, this is a great time to jump in," he said.

Over the next five years, you can build up some equity, he said.

As to where to buy, Sinclair warned that if you buy strictly on price, many areas of the city that offer low prices tend to stay low in price.

"One of the areas doing quite well right now is Leslieville," he said of the neighbourhood set along Queen Street East.

Many baby boomers are looking for East York bungalows, and the Beaches are always a safe investment, he said.

About one in three people who ask him about real estate ask about Liberty Village located just north of the Exhibition grounds.

Condominiums have been the strongest part of the Toronto market for the past year, "and whenever people are talking about a condo downtown, they're talking about Liberty Village," he said.

Many condo projects are either proposed or well under construction in the areas west of downtown, such as the Bohemian Embassy on Queen Street West.

With Toronto such a magnet for immigrants, "it's just filling up the real estate market every year," Sinclair said.