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15 real estate myths and realities – The List

Derrick Penner , Vancouver Sun - April 26, 2008

 1. Albertans are buying up B.C's recreational property.

While 94 per cent of all property sales in 2007 involved British Columbians buying B.C. real estate, Albertans were the biggest out-of-province consumers of ski chalets, resort condos and lakeside cabins, as measured by the destination of property-tax notices.

In 2007, B.C. land title records show out-of-province buyers bought 9,375 vacation homes valued at $3.8 billion, with Albertans accounting for almost 60 per cent of those, 6,319 properties and $2.2 billion of the value.

Calgarians accounted for almost half the Alberta purchasers in B.C. buying properties in what B.C. recreational property guru Rudy Nielsen refers to as "golden circles" -- those areas within a four, six or even eight-hour radius of their homes.

Places "touching water" are popular, with communities such as Windermere Lake near Invermere, Radium Hot Springs and Shuswap Lake all reporting a high number of Alberta-based recreational property owners. The Comox Valley on Vancouver Island has been another popular destination since airlines started offering direct flights from Calgary.

2. My home's assessment tells me what the property is worth.

The property assessment that BC Assessment mailed to you in January might have been close to the value of your property last July 1, when the calculation estimating its worth was made, but it likely isn't now. And if you were to sell, chances are that the price you negotiate will be different, probably higher, than your assessment.

That was especially true in the hot markets of recent years, when values shot up faster than can be captured in an assessment done once a year.

In 2005, the median variance (the point at which half are above and half below) between assessment and sales price on Vancouver detached homes was 10 per cent in January. By December of 2005, the median variance between a home's assessed value and its sale price was over 50 per cent. Yet in 2007, the telltale sign of a relatively cooler market is seen in the absence of variance over the year.

Your assessment is likely to be closer to accurate if your home is newer, because your home has probably been seen by an assessor.

The older your home, the less likely it has been seen by an assessor for many years. Most properties are assessed by means of a computerized formula.

3. Real estate prices in Greater Vancouver can't keep going up, they're too high already.

With the average detached-home price in Metro topping $918,000 in March, it is hard for many to envision real estate values climbing even higher. The blogosphere is populated with anonymous bloggers calling for an imminent end to the record upswing.

Realtor Robert Chipman, who administers a bylined blog on the state of real estate hears from a lot of those who think the market is overvalued already, "but they've been saying that for two years."

"If the numbers make sense to buy, and you can look out to the downside, buy," is his advice, based on the assumption that over the long term, Vancouver real estate will continue to appreciate in value, though right now people should be prepared for change.

The Vancouver market has had its ups and downs over the decades, and while no one is promising that prices will keep going up in a straight line forever, the economic cards that British Columbia is holding indicate more price growth this year and next.

Prices have already risen in the order of 100 per cent over the past five years or so in many Metro municipalities, winning the region status as having the least affordable real estate in the country. (The RBC Affordability Index measure estimated that at the end of 2007, it would take almost 80 per cent of the average Metro Vancouver household's income to cover the cost of owning the average standard two-storey home.)

High prices have proven an enemy to a growing number of first-time buyers. Provincial economic growth has slowed compared with the past two years.

The growing housing recession in the United States also worries many, as do Central Canada's troubles in its manufacturing sector.

Western economies still have strength in their commodity bases, save for the struggles in B.C.'s forestry-dependent communities.

Metro Vancouver's economy is still adding jobs, many of them providing rising wages, and people are still moving to the region in high enough numbers to push prices up even if sales are falling off from all-time highs and the inventory of unsold properties on the MLS is rising.

Mortgage rates, which wavered up a bit last year, are expected to remain low. Forecasters estimate prices will rise in the order of eight per cent this year, slowing to five per cent next year.

4. Spring is a good time to buy or sell a residential property.

There is truth to the notion that spring brings out the daffodils, the cherry blossoms and the house hunters with renewed visions of new homes in their minds. Records show that spring is the best time to sell. An analysis of land title records since 1993 shows that the busiest months for sales to close (closing usually takes place 60 days from the accepted offer), are March through June.

There are slight differences between which months are hottest for condo sales and which are hottest for detached home sales. Condo sales are more likely to be higher in March, April and June. But hunters looking for houses are most likely to jump on their dream home from April through June.

More sales are an indication that more buyers are out in the springtime, which means a bigger market and potentially more competing bids for your listing. If you are buying, however, you might want to browse in the spring but focus your attention on buying in the fall and winter. Since 1993, the nadir month for sales to close has been October, which means fewer competing bidders out there with you.

5. A bathroom or kitchen renovation is the best way to add lasting resale value to your home.

Renovation is the way to turn a tired old home into the fresh, modern palace of your heart's content, which might make it more valuable on the open market. Not all renovations are created equal, however.

Start with the kitchen, the social centre of any home. Renovating won't return all of the money you put in, but any improvements you make to a kitchen will repay you 75 to 100 per cent of what you put in to the reno if you ever choose to sell. (Appraisers will discount up to 25 per cent of what you spent when calculating the value, because there is often an uncounted cost in tearing out the old cabinets and appliances.)

You spend less time there, but renovating bathrooms with new counters, tiles and fittings will repay the investment by a similar amount. Potential buyers will love the fact they don't have to touch a bathroom renovation themselves because with all the fittings, it can be a difficult project to take on.

However, how much you should spend depends on the surrounding neighbourhood. Installing the highest-end finishes in a mid-market neighbourhood might become what appraisers refer to as "super-improvements" that won't repay as well as renos that are more in keeping with the neighbours.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. , Dan Jones, Campbell & Pound Ltd., past president B.C. Association of the Appraisal Institute of Canada.

6. Swimming pools are a negative when it comes time to resell.

Lots of us remember having that cool friend when we were kids whose parents put in a backyard pool that was so much fun for summertime parties.

Now that you're all grown up, however, don't rush to judging it a great idea to put a pool in your own backyard. And don't be fooled into thinking it a good investment, even if houses with pools sell for more than those without them and become more of an expected amenity in tonier neighbourhoods. The biggest market for pools consists of buyers who skew toward middle age with teenage children.

Younger parents look at a pool and see a potential death trap for their kids; post-boomer seniors see a money pit that will suck up their pension income.

An appraiser will discount the amount of money you lovingly poured into the pool with its tiled deck, cabana and landscaping by anywhere from 40 to 60 per cent when determining what value it adds to your property.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. Dan Jones, Campbell & Pound Ltd., past president B.C. Association of the Appraisal Institute of Canada.

7. More than half of all Lower Mainland houses will soon be worth more than $1 million.

Rising markets over the past three years have certainly made a lot of Metro residents "paper millionaires" with the property that they hold, but not so many to push anywhere near a majority of them into that category. That day may come, but not soon.

Across Metro in 2000, just under one per cent of properties were valued at over one million. The number has skyrocketed since, but was still only about 11 per cent as of 2008.

However, there are communities in Metro Vancouver that have already reached, or in some cases have surpassed that 50 per cent over $1 million. On the UBC Endowment Lands, virtually all homes were worth more than $1 million on their 2008 assessments. In West Vancouver, 86.5 per cent of homes are worth $1 million or more.

On the east side of Indian Arm, Anmore had a majority of property millionaires on its 2008 assessment roll with 61 per cent of homes assessed at $1 million or more, as does Belcarra where almost 54 per cent were assessed at that level.

If you live right in Vancouver, chances are rising that the house you are in is assessed at over $1 million, as 31 per cent of them were in 2008. When might Vancouver cross the 50-per-cent-over-$1-million mark? Assuming no market corrections and the average annual inflation since 2000, 2014. If inflation averages the post-2006 level, it will happen in 2011.

8. A house with a south-facing backyard is likelier to appreciate more than the equivalent house facing the other way.

"South-facing backyard" reads like a siren song in the MLS listings, but if you're trying to sell that as an attribute, it won't necessarily be worth more money to you compared with the neighbours' house on the north side of the street.

Yes, people enjoy lots of sunlight, which chases off seasonal depression in the winter. Sunlight also helps beat back moss on rooftops, offering homeowners a bit of natural help with their maintenance. Gardeners love the sun too. However, those south-facing, light-drenched yards that are havens for sun worshippers can turn homes without air conditioning into ovens for those who like cooler temperatures.

And don't discount the desire for a mountain view, which is a more likely attribute on the north side of the street. Also, a buyer who falls in love with the garden or trees on a particular piece of property won't care which direction the backyard faces.

Because of these splits in preference, appraisers likely won't value your house with a south-facing backyard any higher than your neighbours' place on the north side of the street. If you have a corner lot, that's another matter. Corner lots will be valued more highly on any street because they offer more versatility in laying out a new home.

Source: Dan Jones, Campbell & Pound, past pres. B.C. Association of the Appraisal Institute of Canada.

9. New condominiums are commonly flipped for a profit before they have even been occupied.

There are speculators out there buying the pre-sale contracts for condos with the sole intent of flipping them while the apartment is still only a notion in the air. Check online classifieds and you can find dozens of listings.

How much does it happen, though? The stories of condo-flippers making a killing by selling pre-sale contracts for units that haven't been completed, known as assignments, are perhaps more legend than legion.

Statistics on assignment sales aren't kept, because those units don't officially exist as properties until buyers close on their purchases and register them with the B.C. Land Titles Office.

An analysis of land title records shows that these days, the number of condos flipped within six months of purchase (or bought and resold within six months) ranges from under 10 to just over 15 per cent, depending on where you are.

Compare that with 1979 through 1981 when in Vancouver condo flips peaked at over 45 per cent as owners were forced to unload units at discounts and in high volumes in the market meltdown of 1981.

Now, for projects under construction, anywhere from 10 per cent to one-third of units might be flipped, depending on location.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. , Jennifer Podmore Russell, managing partner MPC Intelligence.

10. You can save money by buying a 'fixer-upper' and renovating.

It is a reality -- if you have the skill, time and patience to put the sweat equity into a home. In the right location, you can pick up an older home that hasn't been updated and add value to it.

The big home-reno chains, Rona and Home Depot, sell a lot of know-how along with the lumber, cabinets and slate-tile finishes that encourage homeowners along into home improvement projects. And simple things, such as cleaning and painting can give homeowners a high return for what they spend.

However, straying into projects that require higher levels of skill in carpentry or plumbing than the homeowner possesses or has time to deal with, can prove prohibitive.

What improvements a homeowner adds may actually detract from value. Turning that third bedroom into a dining room, for instance, might suit you and your family well, but in a market where buyers want three bedrooms or more, your hard work and expense might not be rewarded.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. , Dan Jones, Campbell & Pound Ltd., past president B.C. Association of the Appraisal Institute of Canada.

11. Buying a home outside the city and commuting to work is a good way to save money.

Graph out the median assessed values of homes across the Metro and the Fraser Valley and it looks like an undulating slope that descends from West Vancouver's summit to the District of Mission's base.

While the median price -- the point where half of properties are valued above and half are valued below -- is $730,000 in Vancouver and $662,000 in Burnaby, it is $426,000 in Maple Ridge and $386,000 in Abbotsford.

So buyers can buy more for less if they look for homes in the suburbs. But they have to take a serious look at whether the additional cost of commuting outweighs what they're saving by buying a suburban house. Commuting costs include additional time, the second car and insurance and the gas -- the gas! With regular gasoline topping $1.27 a litre in a lot of locations this week, it's enough to give anyone pause.

Urban studies experts note that people tend to underestimate the additional costs associated with commuting, especially the additional time spent away from family. This is one of the arguments raised to get people thinking about perhaps accepting less home in exchange for less travel time, more time at home and a few more pennies squirreled away in bank accounts instead of poured into the gas tanks of their cars.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. , professor Lawrence Frank, Bombardier chair in sustainable transportation at the University of B.C.'s School of Community and Regional Planning.

12. Buying an additional property to rent out is a solid investment.

The dream is to buy a rental property or two, or three and hold on to them while renters pay down the mortgage you took out to buy them. Once you've burned those mortgages, sit back and relax while your real estate pays you income. The bonus, after holding property for years, is that they've likely appreciated in value, giving you additional return once you sell. That's still possible, but probably not in Metro Vancouver. The challenge is to find a property that will command enough rent to pay a mortgage, property taxes, condo fees and whatever fixed costs a property might have, and still give a bit of return.

The rule of thumb used to be that you would aim to charge a rent that was one per cent of the purchase price ($1,000 a month for a $100,000 condo, for example). Lower mortgage rates or the size of the down payment will vary that formula. Regardless, it has become tough to do in the Lower Mainland.

It remains a possibility in outlying communities, however, provided you find the right community, where rentable properties might still be bought in the $80,000 to $100,000 range. These would be communities where the vacancy rate is in the three-to-four-per-cent range, and which has an economic upside such as plans for new infrastructure that will make transportation easier.

Investors who buy properties counting on the value of the asset to increase, and need that to happen to justify the purchase are really speculators.

Sources: Ozzie Jurock,; Robert Chipman, realtor with Legend Coronet Realty Ltd.

13. A home that has been staged using professional design principles to make it more appealing to buyers sells and for more.

No one keeps hard stats on sales prices of staged versus unstaged homes, but expert opinions are that despite what you might believe about house hunters being able to see the jewel of your home amidst what might be the rough of your daily life isn't true.

Homeowners furnish and decorate their homes for their own personal tastes, and often those personal tastes might not be shared with a large enough segment of the market that is going to be scrutinizing it to consider buying it.

You might think that old couch you picked up at a vintage store as funky, a potential buyer might not. To you, the clutter of daily life that you've accumulated over years gives your home a "lived-in" look, but the potential buyer sees something that's perhaps not well loved or maintained.

Clean and well maintained is the look that sellers are after. A neatly trimmed yard and bit of fresh paint gets across the message that you look after your property and that it is worth a look.

And staging can help too. A professional design helps the potential purchaser see how well a home's rooms work, or could work if they owned it and were putting their own stamp on things. That is a vision that is more difficult to conjure up with your kids' toys piled up along the wall in the living room, or your impressive collection of National Geographics stacked in the hall.

Sources: David Wan, instructor, BCIT real estate marketing program, director of sales and marketing, Aragon Properties; Rudy Nielsen, president, Landcor Data Corp.

14. The bank owns my house.

Your name is at the top of the title, which means you control the property, although your bank will be registered as having an interest -- such as holding your mortgage -- that is also registered on the title.

Your bank is likely to hold more of an interest in your property, and will likely have it a lot longer than it used to with new mortgages that carry amortization periods (the time it takes to pay off the loan) ranging up to 40 years.

Long amortization periods can leave buyers vulnerable, because it takes a long time to pay back the principal amount of the loans and earn equity in the property, thus reducing the bank's interest. Some financial planners counsel against the 40-year mortgage and do not consider it a wise investment choice.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. , Gina Macdonald, registered financial planner, Macdonald Shymko & Co.

15. You've just sold your house and have made a ton of money off it.

Many people who have sold homes in the last few years have made a significant amount of money if they held the property for any length of time.

Looking at the City of Vancouver, the median house price was $338,000 in 2000. By 2008, it was $730,000 -- a 116-per-cent increase.

However, the gain that sellers realize will depend on whether they've poured any money into renovations, how much mortgage interest they've paid, property taxes and sale commissions. Those all have to be deducted from the lift in value to determine how big the gain is.

If a person has sold his principal residence, however, that gain will be tax-free. The money spent on renovations, mortgage interest and taxes was not tax-deductible.

Also, how much that gain is depends on whether you "release it" to invest or use in other ways.

Sources: Landcor Data Corp. Gina Macdonald, registered financial planner, Macdonald Shymko & Co.


Rudy Nielsen has been active in British Columbia's real estate industry since 1964, first as a realtor, then as a residential and commercial renovation specialist and recreational property developer.

Nielsen founded NIHO Land and Cattle Co. in 1972, a company that became one of B.C.'s largest developers of recreational property. In the same year, he earned a diploma in urban land economics and appraising from UBC, and his experience includes the appraisal of ranches, timberland, commercial and industrial property.

Nielsen hung up his realtor's licence in 1981 upon becoming principal of NIHO, and started Landcor Data Corp. in 1987 to begin filling the need for fast and accurate property valuations. Landcor's automated valuation model (AVM) is used by banks and real estate firms, and the company uses the system to analyse every property transaction in the province to identify buying trends and preferences.

Landcor's researchers turned to their database, which incorporates records from 1.8 million properties in the B.C. Land Title registry, the data of real estate boards around the province and other private sources of information to analyse the questions that The Vancouver Sun posed to them.