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“Smalltown B.C.” running hot

Ashley Ford, Vancouver Province,  August, 20, 2006

The Lower Mainland remains basking in the glow of the hottest residential market in living memory -- but the rest of the province is hardly in the shade.

"Smalltown B.C." is running just as hot and as hard. Double-digit price increases in small towns that once were struggling are now the norm, not the exception.

The robust economy, smart buyers, a growing army of retirees, or near-retirees, and investors from Alberta, the Lower Mainland, California and offshore have unleashed a housing demand outside the Lower Mainland not seen before.

Bidding wars and lineups of buyers seeking their piece of non-metropolitan "dirt" are not unknown.

Ozzie Jurock, publisher of the Real Insider newsletter, says smalltown B.C. is doing pretty well.

Just take a look at Vancouver Island, he says.

The average price of a single-family home in Campbell River in May was $284,331, a 21-per-cent increase from a year ago.

In the Comox Valley the average price has leapt by 23 per cent from a year ago to $315,497, while a Port Alberni home has increased 27 per cent to $192,958.

Similar increases are being seen right across the province and the economy continues to bubble along on the back of high natural-resource prices.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. July housing-start numbers back him up. In Kelowna, starts for the year are up 12.1 per cent from a year ago, in Prince George they are up 14.9 per cent while all other centres -- excluding major urban areas -- are up 14.9 per cent.

The whole of the Sunshine Coast is basking in real-estate activity. It's proving to be a huge magnet for retirees and baby boomers from Vancouver as it puts them only two hours away from the city.

Western Eagle Development is about to start The Trails, a master-planned community with outstanding views of the ocean just on the outskirts of Sechelt.

"This is the first master-planned community on the Sunshine Coast and unlike anything else in the area," declares Nick Askew, president of PaceSetter Marketing.

Jason Craik of MAC, a prominent real estate marketing firm says it is no different in the Okanagan.

There is huge interest in the region from Alberta and the Lower Mainland for all the understandable reasons -- lifestyle, price and ease of access.

"It is only [four] hours drive from Vancouver and when you look at the prices of non-beachfront but view property the prices compared to the Lower Mainland are reasonable." he says.

MAC's latest project Palomino Resort is just minutes from Mission Hill Winery, Westbank Yacht Club, and shops and services.

Craik says prices in the Gellatley Waters Resort Joint Venture that will offer 96 two-bedroom and two- bedroom-and-den condo homes from 991 to 1788 square feet will start at $399,000. "The appeal is pretty obvious," he adds.

In Penticton, Debbie Harding of Maverick Real Estate says demand is coming from all over, especially Alberta, Vancouver, pre-retirees, local and move-down buyers.

The company is about to bring the last phase of 160 Lakeshore Developments Ltd. to market. The first two phases have sold out and demand for the last 100 suites in Lakeshore 111 is expected to be high.

She says the suites varying between 850 and 1,400 square feet will range from the high $200,000s to more than $1 million.

Rudy Nielsen, the president of NIHO Land and Cattle Company and Landcor Data Corp., acknowledged as one of the most knowledgeable on B.C.'s non-metropolitan real estate, says he has never seen anything like it in the 40 years he has been in business.

Nielsen originally specialized in the recreation market but is now also involved in development.

"This is the highest sustainable boom I have ever seen. It is not just in recreation property, it is all over," he says.

"The retirement market is huge and they are buying a whole range of housing from single family homes, duplexes, condos and apartments outside of the Lower Mainland," he said.

"Actually," he says, "retirees are dominating the market and the vast majority of buyers are coming from the Lower Mainland," he says.

"Things are pretty good in B.C. these days. All of the planets are in line for those wanting to make the jump to a smaller urban area or recreation place," says David Baxter of Urban Futures, the Vancouver-based organization that closely monitors changing trends.

There is no doubt retirees and near-retirees are having a huge impact all over the province, he says.

"But don't discount the economic clout that the resource industries are having on communities," he says.

The forest industry has finished its downsizing and is quite healthy. The workers that are left are skilled and well paid, he says.

"We are opening new mines and the oil and gas industry is also strong. One result is we are now seeing a trend where workers in these industries work in one place but set up their homes in other towns," Baxter said.

Jurock agrees and points to Squamish as the perfect example of smalltown resilience.

When the Woodfibre plant, a major town employer, shut down in January one might have thought the usual "smalltown swoon" would have happened.

It hasn't and both the residential and commercial real estate sectors continue to prosper, partly because of the location closer to Vancouver and the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Developers have been quick to acknowledge the trend and cater to it. Numerous developments ranging from gated communities with a mix of homes, to golf course and other recreational-style communities are springing up like tulips in the chosen market areas such as Vancouver Island, Sechelt and the Sunshine Coast, Gulf Islands, Penticton, Vernon and Shuswap Lake.

The latest numbers from the B.C. Real Estate Association (BCREA), indicate another record year may be in the offing.

BCREA reports 10,349 homes, worth more than $4.13 billion, were sold across the province on the Multiple Listing Service in June representing a 9.5-per-cent increase in dollar volume from a year ago.

But that only tells part of the story.

Many properties don't hit the MLS and the full economic impact of the sector outside the Lower Mainland is often not taken into account.

A study by Clayton Research Associates Limited found the average B.C. home sold on the MLS between 2002 and 2004 triggered nearly $28,000 in additional spending, including legal fees, moving expenses, furniture and appliance purchases and taxes.

That in turn generates an additional $1.5 billion.


Be prepared before you buy

As with everything, "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) rules when it comes to buying property, especially land outside of an urban area. The NIHO Land & Cattle Co. offers the following advice:

Do your research and be motivated to act.
Having more properties to choose from heightens your chances of finding your dream buy. Use every source available to gather information.
Prioritize all your research and organize it so you know exactly what you are dealing with.
If dealing with a private individual, do a title search.
Maps, especially contour ones, and air photos of the property give you a better feeling about price and also shows the nature of the land.
Vegetation maps show what is actually growing on the property.
Get a plan of the property from the registry office and get a copy of the agricultural land reserve map to see if any of the land falls within it.
Make a field inspection and be accurate on the acreage and measurements of the property.
After completing the purchase, mark your property clearly so no one abuses it.