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B.C largest land agent really deals in water

Frank O'Brien, Western Investor, May 30, 2016

LandQuest Realty Corp.celebrates its 20th anniversary this year as the largest dealer in land in British Columbia: but scratch the surface of the clamouring global demand the company is now experiencing, and LandQuest is really dealing in water, according to the company co-founders.

“Every time it rains in B.C, we should get down on our knees and give thanks,” said Rudy Nielsen who, with Richard Osborne started LandQuest as a specialized – and still unique – real estate company.  Backed by Landcor Data, which Nielsen developed into the most sophisticated land title data engine in the country, LandQuest is recognized as the source for rural land, recreational, farms, ranches, guest ranches, resorts, golf courses, ski hills, islands, oceanfront, lake and riverfront, timber, resource, unimproved development sites, ghost towns and remote fishing and hunting properties in B.C.

Widely relied on by government, assessors and utility companies – and other real estate firms – Landcor has granular information on every land title in the province. Its computers can provide instant appraisals, complete with satellite imagery and comparable values, on any property in the province. In the past five years Landcor has done $26 billion in appraisals with a better than 75 per cent accuracy on the final sale price, Neilsen said.

Harnessed with a network of a dozen agents across the province, Landcor provides LandQuest with the most detailed information possible on what is happening in real estate across B.C.’s outlier markets.  Its sophisticated tracking allowed LandQuest to predict the 2008 real estate downturn.

So what does Landcor research show for future land values in B.C.? An upward trajectory, Nielsen said, fueled in large part by Asian investing.

Right now, he said, B.C. is experiencing the hottest land market since 1974, and “we are selling some property sight unseen.”

Like Nielsen, Osborne said the biggest international demand is for farmland, and not just in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver where an acre under blueberries can sell for $80,000 or more, the highest values in the country.

It is in B.C.’s high country, the hayfields and ranchlands from the Cariboo to Vanderhoof, where global demand is concentrated. And that demand could grow exponentially.

It is a market and geography that Osborne, the president of LandQuest, knows well.  He was already a specialist in rural land across northern B.C. when he linked with Nielsen, then a top land agent and appraiser based in Prince George, to form LandQuest in 1996.  Osborne’s first big transaction under the LandQuest banner was the sale of B.C.’s 12,000-acre K-2 ranch for $12 million.

For the last decade, he said, B.C. farmland values remained fairly constant, “We hadn’t seen any speculation in years,” he said.  But he has noticed a change since 2014, he said from LandQuest’s New Westminster headquarters.

Now, as a lingering drought turns the focus of the world’s largest agriculture economies onto lush B.C. croplands, it is not speculation but desperation that is driving demand.

After years of record-breaking drought across China, groundwater levels hit historic lows this year in northeast and central parts of China where hundreds of millions of people live. More than half the country's 50,000 significant rivers have dried up and left hundreds of cities facing a severe water crisis.  Widespread chemical runoff and other pollution have contaminated 60 per cent of the country's groundwater. From rural China to Mongolia, livestock are being slaughtered because there is not enough water to grow feedstock.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that more than 15 per cent of the continental U.S. is facing drought conditions. California, which produces nearly half of the fruits and vegetable grown in the United States, is in a state of emergency and the fifth year of a prolonged drought. Ranchers and farmers in the Midwest, from Alberta border to Texas, have battled drought since 2000.

B.C, however, has rain and huge tracts of fertile farmland, some of which can produce two and even three cuts of prime hay a year, Osborne explains. China-based buyers were the first foreign climate-driven investors to begin buying B.C. farmland, primarily for hay crops. “We are now seeing ranchers and farmers looking to expand their operations to ensure climate diversity. This includes not just China-based buyers but [those from] the U.S. and United Kingdom, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan,” he said.

A favoured target is Nechako Valley hayfields that have rail line access to the Port of Prince Rupert. As Neilsen explained, much the hay is dried and compressed into small, dense bales that are then shipped in containers to Asia to feed the world’s largest sheep herds. One China-owned farm near Vanderhoof is shipping about 30,000 tonnes a year, just a fraction of China’s annual demand for forage.

But it is not only China that is looking at B.C. farmland, recreational property and rural acreages. The LandQuest web site, which has more than 330 active listings, has dealt with buyers from 190 countries and 7,000 cities in the past 12 months, Osborne said. “We market British Columbia to the world,” he said.

British Columbia is the only western province that has no restrictions on the foreign ownership of farmland. In fact, B.C. has just started to even track foreign ownership.

So far, B.C. farmland prices remain relatively low by international standards, especially with the low-cost Canadian dollar. It can cost less to buy an acre of working farmland than a square foot of a condominium in Vancouver or Hong Kong.  LandQuest, for example, currently has the 5,000-acre Heart Lake Ranch near Vanderhoof listed at $1,000 per acre, and it comes with a hay export contact. LandQuest has also listed a 240-acre farm near Williams Lake for $395,000.

Neilsen recently spent a few weeks travelling through China and he said it opened his eyes to how many in the world must see B.C. “Nearly every river in China is polluted and, in the cities, you never see the sky for the smog,” he said. There was another constant, he said. “They want to come to B.C.”

Despite the growing international interest, Osborne confirms that Canadians still make up about 85 per cent of LandQuest buyers, and this demand ranges from farms and ranches to urban retreats and trophy recreational titles.

He believes that the bargain-priced Gulf Islands and Sunshine Coast, for example, are about to experience the first major land lift in a decade as retirees and others from the Lower Mainland recognize the opportunity. Osborne’s top pick is sandy Sidney Island off the southern coast of Vancouver Island, where two-acre oceanfront lots sell from $275,000.

But LandQuest has an amazing assortment of property listings that would fit any budget or recreational aspiration. The company has water-access lots on Indian Arm near North Vancouver for $99,000; the 23-room Dark Waters Lodge at Bella Coola for $299,000; a waterfront hunting camp with access to 750 acres for $495,000; and lakefront land and oceanfront cottages from the Columbia Valley to the north Pacific.

Nielsen is convinced that British Columbia represents the most promising real estate market in Canada, if not the world.

The legendary agent, who is also the founder and owner of Niho Land & Cattle Company, B.C. believes the province is at the start of an unprecedented up cycle in real estate, the likes of which the province hasn’t seen in more than 40 years.

Neilsen’s personal motto, and his parting advice to western investors:  “Don’t wait to buy land. Buy land and wait.”