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The Great Land Rush

The Vancouver Sun, June 17, 1995

The foyer looks like a Cariboo bunkhouse: leather chairs, a Stetson hanging from a steer's horn, cowhides tacked to the wall and horseshoes for doorhandles.

It is from here at the 6th Street offices of NIHO Land & Cattle Company in New Westminster, that Rudy Nielsen runs his empire like some shrewd cattle baron from the 1880's.

But don't be fooled by the rustic entrance and the blue jeans- out back is a set of computer, a library and a mapping room where Nielsen and his two sons, Darin and Dean, run a high-tech real estate operation, one that places them among the big buyers and sellers of recreational property in BC.

Currently, he has 400 different lots in his inventory, ranging from the $2,900 city sized lots in his inventor, ranging from $2,900 city-sized lots in the Kootenays that he wants to sell to campers to a 1,000 acre chunk of land worth a couple of million dollars. From waterfront in the Queen Charlotte Islands to 800 acres near Pitt Lake, there's plenty of land out there bearing the NIHO brand.

Nielsen bought most of his properties in the 1980s, selling off timber to finance additional purchases and selling off lots when the time was right. He receives tips from real estate agents about properties that may be for sale, and he sometimes buys bulk holding which are improved and developed for resale.

Unlike some real estate agents who schmooze a deal over lunch with a cellular phone glued to their ear, Nielsen still spends his time flying, driving, or canoeing across the province, looking at potential properties, camping, backpacking and fishing along the way. He works in New Westminster, but home is a 4,000-acre ranch near Vanderhoof.

What's happening with recreational land in BC? In January, Nielsen sent out a survey to more than 13,000 people who receive their annual catalogue of property offerings, The response rate was a surprising 24 per cent, mostly from people living in the Lower Mainland.

Although he spent $100,000 advertising in Germany and the US back in 1993, Nielsen quit doing that after he found most people who wanted to buy land in BC already lived here- the majority in the Lower Mainland.

The survey showed that buyers want their recreational land within a five-hour drive or less of Vancouver; they don't want it on the Gulf Islands (too expensive); and they are prepared to pay between $15,000 and $75,000 for it.

"They basically want to be in the area bounded by Princeton on the east and 150 Mile House to the north, but everything in the Merritt area is already taken except for a few subdivision lots, so that leaves the 100 Mile and 70 Mile and 150 Mile areas- Green Lake, Canim Lake, Watch Lake- but prices are climbing fast," he says.

The most desired areas for recreational property include the Okanagan, south Cariboo and Northern Vancouver Island and most of those surveyed said they want riverfront, lakefront, or at least access to some form of water, be it a creek, river, or spring. Road access was also a priority with many respondents. "But nobody cared about phone or hydro. No, some wanted hydro, but nobody wanted phone," adds Nielsen.

A solid 90 percent said they wanted the land for recreational use, although Nielsen thinks some who want to buy for investment purposes many have fudged their response to that question. And more than half of the respondents, 55 per cent, said they plan to buy this year or next. Nielsen also says his research found that recreational sales in 1989 totaled $350 million, a number that rose to $1.25 billion in 1994, more than 400 per cent growth in five years. The average transaction price in the same years also grew, from $47,000 in 1989 to $84,000 in 1994.

Interesting stuff, but Nielsen also tracks the sale of all titled land in BC every 30 days, whether it's a half-acre plot or the Gang Ranch. His company then narrows the focus to single transaction of non-improved rural property. They found that there were 80,000 such transactions in the last six years.

They fed that information into a computer and divided the province into 13 different regions so they could see areas of the province where sales activity was declining, climbing or leveling off.

There are some surprises: between 1989 and 1995, sales in the South Vancouver Island and South Georgia Strait areas have steadily declined, while in the Okanagan sales have peaked in 1991 and have been falling ever since.

The other major decline is in the West Kootenays, where sales peaked in 1992.

Upward curves showing increased sales activities are found in the East Kootenays, Peace River and South and North Cariboo.