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Just a Country Boy at Heart

B.C. Ultimate Guide to Buying & Selling, March 1995

When you walk into the offices of the Niho Land and Cattle Company, it's easy to believe you've slipped back to earlier times in British Columbia.

Cattle skulls, guns, knives, frontier pictures and paintings displayed on barnboard walls might not be the norm in real estate office décor but then Rudy Nielsen isn't exactly your run-of-the-mill guy. When he and his commercial real estate business went belly up in the late 1970's, Nielsen headed to the wilderness to find strength and direction. He lived in the bush for two weeks, and came out determined to pay off his debts and rebuild his business.

Niho is now one of the biggest players in BC's booming recreational land market with a portfolio that includes 65,000 feet of ocean frontage, 96,000 feet of lake frontage, and 60,000 feet of river frontage. There are also the "mini-ranches", timber stands, and previously logged sales. This summer, they put 100 of its 400 titles on the market and business skyrocketed; the busiest Nielsen has ever seen.

But Niho relies on more than the land - savvy instincts of its' president when it comes to finding the best deals in the province. Behind a rustic door lies one of the best weapons in buying recreational real estate today. This is what Nielsen calls his "war room", and it contains a state of the art computer system, satellite images, aerial photographs, wall-to-wall maps and literally thousands of photographs that are all catalogued. The computer program lists every single piece of rural property in BC and, when Niho gets interested in acquiring some of it, six gigabytes of storage space kick in, and cross-reference 64 categories of information on that chunk of land. If you can't find out what you need to know on Nielsen's computer, you can't find it anywhere.

GUIDE: How did the Niho Land and Cattle Company get started?

NIELSEN: I started the company strictly to teach my two sons who were very young at the time the ways of nature. Every good businessman should know something about nature. That's where we came from and it's important to keep our connections to it. To me, nature is what it's all about… I have to go out there and look at the trees, the animals, and then come back and do business. I bought some islands in the Fraser River at Crescent Spur near Prince George in 1972, and took my sons there. I taught them to snare rabbits, how to run the river by canoe down white-water, how to build a lean-to out of brush, how to catch fish and smoke salmon.

I used to be a commercial realtor and I hit real bad times in Prince George in the late 1970's. I lost it all, and ended up owing almost a million dollars… had 132 judgements, no car, no nothing, and had to start again from scratch or declare bankruptcy. You go back to nature if you're in trouble, so I borrowed a car and drove as far as I could into the bush. I got out and walked for five days. I lived off the land for two weeks. I realized when I was out there that I had to protect two things: my mind and my drive…my motivation. If I could protect those things, I could do anything I wanted to do in life. I sat out there, ate lots of rabbit and fish, set some short term and long term goals. When I walked out I decided I wasn't going to go bankrupt. I'd pay the $728,000 back, get rid of the 132 judgements and start again- and I would always protect my mind and my motivation.

I was still a realtor, so I headed off to Vancouver, and went to work. In six months, I closed six big real estate deals and paid off my debt. I starting looking for a new business and then one day realized there was a business right under my nose. The sheriff never got my islands, so I decided to sell one property and buy another. Get the whole thing moving. I've always been a pack rat and I had all these loose leaf binders full of information and statistics…and a whole lot of maps. My sons decided they'd take all of this and work on developing a computer program on an old XT computer. I went looking for money to build up the program and everybody turned me down…got so far behind in my rent that the sheriff put my company up for sale. In 1986 you could have bought the Niho Land and Cattle Company for $1800.

I had to do something, so we got an old beat up Bronco and knew we had to go out and find a deal, write an interim agreement, bring it back and make some money from that agreement before we ran out of money. We were down to $300. We found a deal and brought it back. We were in business. By 1990, we'd acquired 350 properties and between 1990 and 1992 we sold off a few , and clear titled the entire portfolio.

GUIDE: Did you see the trend that was coming that people would be so interested in buying recreational land?

NIELSEN: I saw the trend coming because I've always been in recreational land since 1964 and I've always seen the ups and downs, but this company was not prepared for such a strong demand. We find it incredible that in two years time, we've received 13,800 inquiries at our office- we've gotten 150 to 180 phone calls a day. We stopped all of our advertising four months ago because we couldn't keep up with the traffic.

GUIDE: Why is the demand so high?

NIELSEN: Back in the 1960's and 70's there were a couple of types of buyers. We had the buyers that wanted a piece of land to build a cabin on for the weekends. We also had a lot of survivalists who wanted to buy a safe place because of the nuclear war scare. Now we've got all sorts of different buyers. We've got the weekenders who want a cabin five or six hours from Vancouver, as well as those looking for a small ranch a day's drive away. We've got the short term investor who buys, improves the site and sells it for profit, and the long-term investor who buys it for his children or grandchildren. Just lately we've noticed buyers who are convinced we're not going to pull out of this debt crisis, and want a place to go if things get really bad. There are also buyers who can't afford the Gulf Islands… but can afford a quarter section up around 100 Mile House for $50,000 to $95,000. Because of technology, "satellite" workers can leave the city and still work via computer and modem/ There are the "stressed-out" urbanites who are leaving the city for smaller communities. People from Vancouver move to Kelowna, people from Kelowna move to Nelson and people from Nelson move to Nakusp and so on.

GUIDE: Are most of the inquiries from within British Columbia?

NIELSEN: We've advertised very heavily in Germany and the US, but we've discovered that approximately 95 percent of our purchasers are from the Lower Mainland. When the Vancouver Sun ran an article a few months ago about a "land grab by the Germans", I gave them hell because our computers which track all recreational sales in British Columbia on a monthly basis showed no evidence of this. We worked hard to get the German market- it's not there.

GUIDE: Are there areas that are attracting more buyers now than in the past?

NIELSEN: The most popular area is the six hour corridor from Vancouver. People buy there for a weekend retreat, but most of it has been bought up. Areas I think are going to be in demand are 100 Mile House, Lytton, Princeton, Cache Creek, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Prince George. The Kootenays are going to be big.

GUIDE: What's the process you take people through when they want to buy land?

NIELSEN: The first thing we do is give you our main brochure which lists all of our properties for sale. When you pick out a piece of land you're interested in, we'll give you our "mini" brochure which gives you the details on how to get there. We don't go out to the land with you, we don't run the boundaries for you. We try and keep the prices cheap so we can sell 160 acres for $25,000. If we surveyed, and took you out there, the price would probably be $35,000. But we do tell you specifically what to look for in our newsletters, as well as giving seminars.

GUIDE: What do you look for when you buy land?

NIELSEN: Because I've been around so long, I go by gut feeling. Computers can assist me, but I usually know a deal when I see one. Last week I bought five or six properties sight unseen. If we're in doubt about a property, my son or I will go out and look at it. You've got to remember that the most common property we look at is 160 acres- that's 121 football fields. Every single piece of property has its use. If it's a swamp, Ducks Unlimited will buy it. If it's got timber on it, you can take off 40 acres and take it to the saw mill. If it's got gravel, you can get a gravel pit going. Look for where the early homesteaders were and that will be your best site on the property. When I walk though the bush, I look for what's unique about the property and I see future possibilities. If it's out of the ALR- can it be zoned? Can you make a sub-division out of it? I also consider the setting and make sure it has water. Keep access in mind. I watch out for liabilities like slash, which is a fire hazard if it's been logged. It takes me three hours to do a 160 acre property, but I've done it all my life. If you're new at it, you should give yourself a full day.

GUIDE: What advice would you give people who are thinking about buying land?

NIELSEN: The biggest mistake people make is rushing through a deal without thinking it through. Sit down and order everything you need. Get your survey notes from Victoria. Get three maps: a preemption map, a contour map and an Air Force cover map so you know where you're going before you take off. Do your homework. It's amazing how many people take off and go in blind. People don't realize how big 160 acres is and you don't want to waste time. Try and get to know the property as much as you can before setting foot on it.

GUIDE: What's the biggest change you've seen in the recreational land business since you've started?

NIELSEN: The increased demand from all aspects of the community, from people who make less than $30,000 a year to $100,000 and over. And it's not just people from Vancouver, it's coming from the entire Lower Mainland... and they're buying for all the reasons I told you earlier. One of the best investments coming is in 'regen' land: properties that have been logged and are starting to grow up again with trees ten to fifteen feet tall. Buy 160 acres, use 20 or 30 acres and let the rest grow back. You'll have a whole new forest, maybe not in your lifetime, but your kids will have something that's worth a million dollars.

GUIDE: Any final tips for people interested in buying land?

NIELSEN: I think recreational land is going to be a big winner for a long time. Start small. Don't buy too high. I would look for a cheap piece of property with lots of acreage- $30,000 to $75,000 is good. Spend some time improving the site, so if you want to sell it, the buyer can imagine what's possible with a little work. I use my imagination when I'm looking at land and I look for what improvements will increase the value. Try and get the vendor to take the financing. Niho charges 12 percent interest and we finance everything. You give us 25 percent down, and we'll carry the rest. Don't get into a situation where you're putting up your house for security.

Once you get to know the game you can take a few risks. Try and get in that 'six hours from Vancouver' corridor if you can. The key thing is research, research, research. Keep your notes on any property you're interested in. If it's not available now, chances are it will be on the market in the future. If you use a realtor, make sure you get as much information on the property as you can. Don't be afraid to ask them questions. That's what they're there for. Get a map up on the wall and colour in the properties you've looked at. Mark down the price as well. You'll get a look at the total picture and I guarantee you'll develop a gut feeling about what you should be spending on a property. I don't like the second or third best deal- I go for the best deal. That's why I do my homework.