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Affordable and scenic Sidney, B.C., attracts retirees from the West

Kerry Gold, Globe & Mail, March 7, 2016

When asked if he’s met many Albertans since he moved to Sidney, B.C., Fin Fairfield laughs.

“Everybody you talk to – it’s crazy. And it’s understandable, really. Alberta is not a very happy place for now, and Sidney is just a charming, cozy community.”

Mr. Fairfield retired three years ago from his practice as a family physician in the Alberta city of St. Albert, near Edmonton. He and his wife, Peggy, a retired X-ray technician, decided to downsize from their two-storey house. They chose the seaside town of Sidney, on Vancouver Island, because it’s near their children and it’s small. After looking at dozens of properties, they settled on a 1,500-square-foot condo that’s a five-minute walk to the ocean. It cost $340,000, and Mr. Fairfield calls it “a first-class apartment.”

They moved in a couple of weeks ago. He says he’s pleased with his new home, which has a partial ocean view if you crane your neck from one of the balconies. They look out onto a big park, and the building, built in 1982, has a swimming pool and gym. His wife attends yoga classes. The maintenance fee is about $500 a month, which, he says, is manageable.

“We couldn’t find any other area that turned our crank.”

Others have come to the same conclusion. Vancouverites and Albertans eager to cash out are driving the housing market in Sidney, pushing up prices again after a several years of stability.

Michele Holmes, who’s worked in Sidney real estate for 31 years, says people are coming mostly from Vancouver, Alberta and elsewhere on Vancouver Island, but also from all over the world, including countries such as China and Russia.

As a result, prices in the Saanich peninsula region have climbed about 10 per cent in the past year, according to Victoria Real Estate Board statistics. There have been a few big purchases for rural acreage just outside Sidney, in North Saanich, according to Ms. Holmes. Nearby Victoria is also being fuelled by Vancouverites and Albertans who’ve sold their homes and are looking to get more for their dollar.

Ms. Holmes says Sidney has become a seller’s market.

“It looks like a sleepy little town, but there are lots of large properties and people with large net worth all around Sidney. It is quite an interesting place. It’s a real magnet, what we call ‘Canada’s California.’ We get a lot of expatriates that moved to the U.S. and are coming back to retire. And we’re getting a lot of people from the Lower Mainland [in B.C.] coming to retire. They can sell a house in the Lower Mainland for $1.5- to $2-million and come here and pick up a gorgeous waterfront [home] for the same price.”

Developer Grant Rogers, owner of Marker Group, grew up in Sidney before travelling around the world. Now, he’s in semi-retirement himself, but his company has built two subdivisions of detached houses, three downtown condo projects, and has another 25-unit project in the works. He’s seeing a lot of people coming out from Toronto, too. And Alberta’s economic downturn has benefited the Victoria area, he says.

Home prices have only begun to climb again since last summer, with the influx of out-of-towners, Ms. Holmes says. The town has a population of around 11,000, and a downtown only a couple of blocks long, but it is central, scenic and within minutes of airport and ferries.

Sidney is compact, with a main street called Beacon Avenue, which is a vibrant gathering spot with coffee shops, a popular bakery and theatre. It’s the walkability to shops, ocean and parks that makes Sidney so appealing for people who don’t want the expense of the Lower Mainland, or the big-box tedium of more suburban communities.

That walkability is key for a retirement community, says Mr. Rogers. All his projects are about a block off Beacon Avenue. “We consider Sidney itself an amenity.”

Chris Gainor, 61, and his wife, Audrey McClellan, beat the rush when they moved to Sidney in 2013, after they decided they wanted to own a house instead of renting in Victoria. Mr. Gainor, who worked for the government before going back to school to become a historian, says that Sidney offered more value for their dollar.

In Victoria, their house was becoming too cramped, and they couldn’t afford to buy there. They purchased their 1970s split-level home in Sidney two blocks from the ocean, and a short walk to downtown, for $419,000. Mr. Gainor is writing a book on the space industry and his wife is a freelance editor, who also works at home, so they aren’t fully retired. Like a lot of baby boomers, they may never completely retire. But Sidney will suit their needs when they do slow down, he says.

It has far less rain than the Lower Mainland; it’s got an airport five minutes away, and the ferry to the Mainland is a similar distance. And it has the Saanich Peninsula Hospital. But mostly, it has a small-town vibe, ocean and mountain views, an active retiree community, and is still relatively affordable. As a bonus, it’s also got a good selection of bookstores, says Mr. Gainor, a book lover who needed a large enough house for his book collection.

“You don’t have to walk long to find retired people, so when that comes up for us, it will certainly be nice,” he says.

Aside from the views, amenities include a marina for boaters, a small aquarium for the visiting grandchildren, and a ferry service to Anacortes, in neighbouring Washington state, for a trip across the border. Sidney has views of Washington’s Mount Baker, which has a ski resort.

“Our house looks like it’s in your average boring suburban cul de sac, but just walk a couple of blocks and you’re at the ocean,” he says. “Just with the location, I shudder to think what this would cost in Vancouver.”

The downside of Sidney, he adds, is that some neighbourhoods are under the airport flight path. Also, if he and his wife do want to go to a larger theatre event in Victoria, they have about a 25-minute drive on the highway.

Because space is limited – the town sits between ocean and the Patricia Bay Highway – inventory is low. The average assessed value for a house in Sidney is $519,873, according to Landcor Data Corp. However, with demand high, the price for a mid-level detached house in a desirable location is closer to $1.1-million, according to Ms. Holmes. A high-end house near the water would cost around $1.3-million to $1.9-million. And a waterfront condo, which is difficult to find, would cost $600,000 and up.

Waterfront prices are not affordable for the average wage earner, but they are relatively inexpensive compared to the Mainland, where the average detached house price in Greater Vancouver was $1.83-million in January. That’s a 40.2-per-cent increase since January of 2015. The average price for a detached house in Vancouver city limits hit $2.87-million in January, a 46-per-cent increase, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

The vast majority of Sidney buyers are not investors, but rather, people who buy homes to live in. A lot of the new residents are semi-retired, says Ms. Holmes. They’ve done well with their businesses and no longer have to be chained to their desks at a downtown office. Call it semi-retirement, or pretirement, but a lot of people over 55 are choosing to slow down and work part-time, well into their senior years. Sidney works as a great location for remote or mobile work.

“A lot of them are independent business people who are making lifestyle changes and choosing to run their businesses from here,” says Ms. Holmes. They are very active people in their 50s and 60s.”