Nicholas Read, Vancouver Sun, June 11, 2005
Ah, the good life. Sailing, golf, a good wine as the sun hits the yardarm and money in the bank when ennui settles in and Paris beckons.
For most people, it's a fantasy. Something to dream about after handing over a toonie on a 6/49 ticket.
But for an increasing number of lucky people -- people like Ben and Jean Hartman of Kelowna -- it's life's next chapter after years behind a desk. The proof is in the number of million-dollar-and-more retirement and vacation properties springing up outside the Lower Mainland, Victoria and Whistler.
Two years ago, the Hartmans, a retired couple, bought a vacant lot on Okanagan Lake for $600,000 -- an exorbitant sum, Jean Hartman thought at the time.
Today they're selling the same property and the one-level ranch house they built on it for $1,995,000.
"It's just crazy," says Jean. "What's been happening over the past two years has been crazy."
Proof is in the B.C. Assessment Authority's 2005 list of properties worth $1 million or more. More than 800 of them are in places such as Parksville, Fernie, Kamloops, Salmon Arm and especially Kelowna, where the number of such properties rose from 57 in 2003 to 291 in 2005.
In the surrounding Central Okanagan Valley, there were five such properties two years ago. Now there are 124.
Also hot on the 2005 listings were Tofino, where the number rose from one to 33; the Gulf Islands, where it climbed from 10 to 61; Invermere and environs, where it jumped from seven to 38; and Sechelt, where it leaped from five to 70.
Money is on the march out of the province's urban centres to what, only a decade ago, was still regarded as a kind of hinterland -- places where, in the view of West Side hauteur, a coffee bar meant a truck stop and dinner was a ride to Wendy's.
According to David Baxter of the Urban Futures Institute, people are looking for "Bonanza with a Starbucks image," and they're finding it in places like the east and west coasts of Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and, if you're from Calgary, the Columbia Valley.
"They're looking for that rural, more tranquil setting with less of the background noise we have as urbanites," Baxter says. "But at the same time they're not pioneering; they're going into well-finished real estate."
"It's tame nature that they want. They want to get the newspaper and the decaf latte and the latest book, and they want to be within 45 minutes of the nearest airport because they're still engaged in the larger world."
And financing these rural (but replete with every urban mod con) idylls are, for the first time, couples with two pensions and a house to sell. That means not just cash in the bank, but cash coming in on a regular basis, too.
"It's revolutionary," says Baxter. "Never before in the history of mankind have we seen this before."
It's also prompted a price boom where properties that sold for thousands 10 years ago are selling for millions now.
Daryl Caunt of Mibroc Construction in Kamloops is building them to order. His dream houses, which cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million, are designed for people "who are just about ready for retirement," he says. People who want peace, quiet, a good climate, spectacular views and a drive to a major city within four hours.
That doesn't surprise Rudy Nielsen of the Landcor Data Corp., who believes in a so-called golden circle when it comes to buying property -- an area no more than four hours' drive from the nearest major urban centre. From Calgary, that's Invermere and the Columbia Valley. From Vancouver, it's the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island.
"The penturbite [a word coined by University of Washington urban development professor Jack Lessinger to mean residents of areas expected to experience significant property rises in the next 20 years] still wants to come back to Vancouver to attend the opera and do some shopping," Nielsen says.
At the same time, they want to get out of the rat race to a place where property and house prices aren't so prohibitive.
"Give me an acre, give me two acres," people are starting to say, Nielsen says. "I've worked hard all these years, so I want two acres."
But even in places like Invermere, Tofino and the Gulf Islands, two acres -- especially two acres on or near water -- are at an increasing premium, and that premium is commanding West-Van-sized prices.
On Saltspring Island, realtor Tom Navratil says there are currently 34 properties for sale at $1 million or more.
"I would question some at the bottom of that list," Navratil says. "Out of the 34, one could argue that three or four might slip below [the million-dollar line], but otherwise they're all worth over a million."
It's not surprising on an island where Barbra Streisand is known to moor her yacht for an afternoon's shopping and Robin Williams is rumoured to own acreage. It's simply the cost of living in such a desirable, beautiful and convenient (with three regular ferry runs to Vancouver Island and Vancouver each day) locale, Navratil says.
But it's not just the eastern side of Vancouver Island that's experiencing a property boom. Tofino on the westernmost coast of the island is also seeing prices rise like surf.
Tofino district treasurer Martin Gee attributes that to the publicity the community earned in the early 1990s when protesters were trying to stop logging on Meares Island and in Clayoquot Sound.
People appreciated the protests, Gee said, but admired the scenery more. Suddenly, international tourism was a going concern in what was until then a backwater fishing village.
And with the rise in tourism has come a concomitant rise in property prices.
"It's getting to the point where some of our residents are concerned they can't afford the rising taxes to live here," says Gee. "Property that was reasonably priced 10 years ago now has a very high price and it's getting expensive to support that. I've heard a number of people complain that they're going to be driven out."
Invermere Mayor Mark Shmigelsky tells similar tales. With the influx of blue-eyed oil sheiks from Calgary "who can sign cheques for $3 million without blinking an eye," has come a rise in property prices -- particularly of recreational property -- that is making life increasingly expensive for long-time Invermere residents.
"It's certainly presented us with a number of challenges," Shmigelsky says. The city even had to go so far as to buy its own plot of land on nearby Lake Windermere to make sure the public could continue enjoying what has traditionally been the town's beachfront. The rest has been sold to private individuals or developers.
According to Tim Pringle, executive director of the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., a typical property on Windermere Lake cost about $70,000 in 1972. By 1992 it was up to $135,000. Twelve years later it hit $830,000, with about 30 per cent of that increasing occurring in the last two years.
But nowhere has the rural property boom been quite as loud as it has in the Okanagan Valley where, because of low interest rates and an influx of about-to-retire wealthy baby boomers, tear-downs are now going for $1 million and more, says realtor Ann Petrone.
"Smaller old-style homes on the water are going for over a million," Petrone said. "A 50-foot lot with a two-bedroom house on it would be a million or more."
Westbank regional director Aaron Dinwoodie says that's been great for economic development in Kelowna, but when pressed, he admits it has created problems too, primarily around affordable housing, an issue on which he says Kelowna officials "have a long way to go."
It's not unusual, Dinwoodie says, for people working in the service industry to have to "partner up" just to afford a roof over their heads.
"They have to be creative. They have to partner up and have a couple of different incomes for it to be affordable. It's a very difficult challenge."
But for couples like the Hartmans, it's meant an unexpected windfall.
"We're very surprised," Jean says of their enviable straits. "We often say to each other that we have been so fortunate. Because if anyone had ever told us we would live here and do the kind of travelling we do, we'd say that was a nice dream."
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