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Seeking Solace Within 4 Hours of City

Larry Pynn, The Vancouver Sun, June 15, 2005

Clarice Perkins wanted weekend recreational property that would eventually transform into the perfect retirement home. Ed Witzke sought an investment alternative to leaky condos that would also enhance his quality of life. And Minnesotan Charles Hanson wanted an affordable escape from an America that had lost its way.

Meet the modern faces behind the current boom in recreational property in B.C., a trend fuelled by low interest rates, by baby-boomers, Albertans, and Americans with cash to burn, and by a simple desire for peace of mind.


"Today is the hottest recreational real-estate market in 40 years," says Rudy Nielsen, the fit 64-year-old founder of Niho Land and Cattle Co. Ltd., a New Westminster-based firm specializing in B.C. recreational property. "I've been through ups and downs, but I've never seen this much demand for recreational land."

Problem is, rising prices are making it more difficult for working-class buyers to locate affordable property within the desirable four-hour driving radius of the Lower Mainland. For them, options include teaming up with friends, families or other investors to buy property or swallowing their pride and looking farther afield where the forces of supply and demand are less extreme.

(One exception is Sunshine Valley, just east of Hope, where, just down the road from the Hope slide, prices remain affordable: as little as $40,000 for a building lot, $80,000 for a small cabin.)

"Nobody realizes that 95 per cent of B.C. is owned by the government," Nielsen says from a rustic office adorned with cattle hides and snowshoes. Take away residential, commercial, and industrial lands and what have you got, he asks -- just 250,000 to 300,000 recreational properties in B.C.

Ontario has its definable cottage country: lake-studded landscapes that include the Muskokas, north of Toronto; the Haliburton Highlands, farther east; the Lake Huron shore, known as Ontario's West Coast; and, closer to Toronto, Georgian Bay; and in eastern Ontario, the Land o' Lakes.

In B.C., it's not that easy. Recreational property might be located at a ski resort or golf course, on a coastal island or stretch of waterfront, or perhaps a remote mountain-fed river or lake.


The options span the range of ecosystems, too, from semi-arid grasslands to coastal rainforests to sub-alpine mountain meadows. B.C. would seem to have it all: it's just a matter of finding what buyers want and what they can afford.

Statistics on raw land sales for recreational property, calculated by Nielsen's Landcor Data Corporation, reflect the market trends regionally across the province:

- Vancouver Island: sales increased to 1,722 properties in 2004 from 931 in 2003; the average value increased to $124,941 from $108,717.

- Okanagan: 1,357 sales, up from 799; average value of $89,725 up from $75,707.

- Omineca (Prince George): 237 sales, up from 112; average value of $43,001, up from $34,777.

- Peace River: 171 sales, up from 114; average value of $48,304, up from $41,826.

In the Northwest region, land sales declined to 48 properties from 65, while the average price increased slightly to $56,179 from $55,226.

Prices dropped in two other regions: the Kootenays had sales of 466 properties in 2004, up from 352 in 2003, whereas the average value of $96,916 represented a drop from $108,363; the Cariboo had 292 sales, up from 200, but a decline in average values to $42,565 from $45,249.


For people who already own property, rising prices are good news.

Recreational property may be a lifestyle move, but owners also expect a return on their investment -- the sort of appreciation that justifies a property they may use only a few weeks each year yet imposes additional new costs such as taxes, maintenance and, no small-ticket item, provisioning.

Because it's impractical to lug basic items between your main home and recreational property, that typically means buying two of everything, from furnishings to appliances to kitchenware.

And it also raises the spectre that because your recreational property is not lived in full-time, there is a real risk of break-in when you're away.

The Bush Man of the Shuswap, John Bjornstrom, garnered national headlines when he escaped from jail in 2000 and spent almost two years hiding in the woods around Shuswap Lake, east of Kamloops, plundering cabins to survive, before RCMP captured him.

While break-ins are rarely so newsworthy, they are repeated in recreational properties around B.C.

Homeowners at Hemlock Valley ski resort east of Mission have (despite ownership problems that could lead to the sale of the resort soon, and better times) have watched values increase dramatically.

Serviced building lots that sold in the $20,000 to $30,000 range in the fall of 2001 now fetch $94,000 to $138,000, says Hemlock Valley realtor Stewart Green, while $35,000 condos now sell for $100,000 to $160,000. One cabin reached a new sales high of $360,000.

But the community is not immune from crime. In May, 10 homes sustained break-ins. In one fourplex building, two doors were kicked in, while a third unit was empty and for sale. The fourth unit had a posted alarm and was left alone, suggesting alarms can pose a deterrent.

Agassiz RCMP Staff Sgt. Emil Spitkoski said the break-ins, while not the norm at Hemlock Valley, emphasize the importance of all cabin owners to secure their properties, to avoid leaving valuables behind during long periods and to get to know your neighbours.


Two Mounties who haven't let the risk of break-ins spoil their fun are Joanne and Barry Cooke of White Rock, who, discouraged by high land prices in the Okanagan, paid $48,000 three years ago for rights to a Crown lease on one-fifth of a hectare with 45 metres of waterfront on East Barriere Lake, an hour's drive northeast of Kamloops.

Then they bought the property outright from the B.C. government for $108,000, tore down the old cabin, and put up a small log home built by a Kamloops manufacturer. The only downsides have been an unexpected $13,000 for an engineered septic system, and a series of break-ins that included the homes on both sides of them in October.

The upsides are a warm lake ideal for water-skiing with their two sons, aged 10 and 11, and Sun Peaks ski resort less than an hour's drive away.

So satisfied are residents that no properties have come up for sale at East Barriere Lake for two years.

"Ever dream of a cosy warm log cabin as a child?" asks Joanne, who plans to use the cabin this summer to recover from breast cancer. "Well, we have it."


Waterfront tends to be the ultimate goal for people seeking recreational property.

Clarice and Bob Perkins, a registered nurse and college instructor living in North Delta, spent at least six years scouring the province for property, taking advantage of the Internet multiple-listing service. They finally paid $195,000 in 1995 for a half-hectare lot with 30 metres of waterfront on Sproat Lake, close to Port Alberni, the Vancouver Island pulp town where she was raised.

The plan is to retire within a decade, sell their North Delta property, and build a new home on the lake. "Clear, clean warm waterfront, fabulous water and mountain views, and close to ocean beaches," she says. "What more could you ask for?"

That is the sort of enthusiasm recreational property owners tend to generate about their investments. It makes Ed Witzke, the Abbotsford owner of a building inspection company, wonder why anyone would pour their disposal investment money into a "rotted-out, mould-infested, stinking strata" or time-share property.


"It's a quick and easy way to leave the rat race of the city behind," says Witzke, who purchased a log cabin on a small waterfront lot on the Cariboo's Bridge Lake a decade ago for $220,000. Still, he admits to keeping a "shotgun behind the door" in case crime does finds a way to his home.

Of course, not all buyers of recreational properties are homespun British Columbians.

Oil-rich Albertans are big investors in areas such as the Kootenays and Vancouver Island (thanks largely to regular WestJet flights between Calgary and Comox).

Americans have also been buying up what Nielsen calls the province's "jewel properties," including the best coastal waterfront properties and Interior ranches.

"Americans are coming up in waves, and they're buying. B.C. has the best-priced land in North America; you can ski, golf, and fish for salmon all in the same day."

Minnesota's Charles Hanson, a neuro-scientist who made his profits in the high-tech boom of the 1990s, bought 13-hectare Battleship Island -- named for its shape -- which rises from the waters of Stuart Lake at Fort St. James for $180,000 in 2001.

In Minnesota, he couldn't find anything even close to that price. "It was incredible," he said of the buy. "And I'd been to B.C. before and was impressed by the nature and quality of the land."

Today he wouldn't sell the island for less than $300,000.

There is more at stake than value for money. Hanson, his wife and two children hope to move here in a few years and settle on the island, a piece of paradise far from everything that is wrong with today's America.

"We want to quiet down, slow down, a less-connected lifestyle. It's Canada in general. It's quieter. There's peace there, the quality of life is different."

Ignoring the irony of his wilderness investment, he concludes: "It's a more civil society right now."