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Three affordable places to retire in British Columbia. (Yes, they exist)

Kerry Gold, The Globe and Mail, February 10, 2014

This is part of a series of stories on retirement and second home destinations in North America.

While British Columbia boasts some of the most temperate climates in the country, its real estate can also be some of the priciest.

For those thinking of retiring or buying a second home in the province, it makes the choice of locale somewhat complex, says Don Campbell, a senior analyst with the Real Estate Investment Network (REIN).

He advises potential buyers to look further afield from Vancouver and Victoria, to smaller communities with thriving economies. There are still B.C. regional markets that are relatively affordable, says Mr. Campbell, who is also an author and real estate investor.

First, though, retirees should make a carefully calculated decision, he says. If they want to cash out of large family homes in a city for a quieter life, they should consider smaller communities near solid infrastructure, such as an airport, ferry service, a hospital and a retail centre. These factors can help when it comes time to sell the property.

They should also consider that they might still need a home big enough for overnight guests, he says.

“Where are the grandkids going to sleep?”

And, if the whole point of retiring is living the good life, they should then look for a temperate climate, community amenities and access to trails, water, ski slopes and vineyards – the best features of British Columbia, he says.

Several areas of the province fit those criteria. Prices in several regional markets have softened in the past five years, which means it’s often a buyer’s market, according to Landcor Data Corp.

Peachland, outside Kelowna, the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, and the Sunshine Coast are three retirement hot spots that offer affordability and favourable climate, says Rudy Nielsen, who, in addition to Landcor owns LandQuest Realty, which specializes in rural properties throughout British Columbia.

“They’re soft markets,” Mr. Nielsen says. “And I think throughout this year it’s going to be the same market as last year.”

Bill Dupuis, 77, and wife Joan, 78, live in Peachland, B.C., a community of about 5,200 people that is divided by the highway, with houses built up a hillside, and the remainder on the flat portion next to large, deep Okanagan Lake. The town enjoys an average summer temperature of 27 C and little rain.

Peachland has become a bedroom community to West Kelowna, which is only a five- to 10-minute drive away. The average single-family house is 2,356 square feet and was priced at $476,256 in 2013, according to Landcor data.

The town has two major developments under way – the Ponderosa, with a winery and 18-hole golf course, and the 125-acre New Monaco. The town has the convenience of all the amenities in Kelowna, as well as vineyards that surround it, and access to Apex and Big White ski resorts. There is even a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta from Kelowna Airport.

Mr. Dupuis and his wife built their lakefront dream townhome there five years ago, and they’re selling it to do as much travelling as they can before they go into an assisted living home. Their 2,300-square-foot house features a fireplace in the living room and master bedroom, a $40,000 private elevator, ensuite bathroom with cast iron tub, gourmet kitchen, and spectacular view of Okanagan Lake. Once appraised at more than $1-million, their home is on the market at $825,000.

In Vancouver, the equivalent would easily run more than $2-million.

Mr. Campbell says if he were going to retire, he would look for a property in Peachland. “You have a desert, so your bones don’t hurt. You just have to be able to afford to live in the area. It is a little higher. But if you’ve lived in Vancouver, and you are selling your place for $1.2-million – which is easy – you’re pretty set up.”

North of Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast seldom dips below freezing, with a normal January temperature of 2.3 C. It’s a 45-minute ferry ride between West Vancouver and the Sechelt Peninsula, and it’s also accessible by plane. With a population of about 60,000 people, it’s made up of little towns and islands, with a retail centre and small hospital in Sechelt.

“It’s gorgeous,” Mr. Campbell says. “It’s definitely not driven by job growth. It’s driven more by lifestyle choice. That can still drive a market, but the market is much slower. I think it would be an unbelievably cool place to hang out and retire. And if you have a boat, then suddenly you are not reliant 100 per cent on the ferry system. But just go in with your eyes open.”

According to Landcor data, the single-family dwelling on the Sunshine Coast has been slipping steadily in value. It now sits at an average of about $440,000 for a single family house, which averages 1,872 square feet.

“There are bargains to be had,” Mr. Nielsen says.

Helen Christian, 80, and husband Art, 84, have lived in Pender Harbour since 1968. They raised a family and retired in the same house. They built a 2,000-square-foot house surrounded by trees, on the water, with a dock for their boat, and have decided they need to relocate to a house in the same community that isn’t so big, and is on a level property.

They initially listed their house for close to $1-million, but have reduced it to $825,000 a year later. They’d like to sell, but they are constrained by the slow market.

“Our house would be great for someone who wanted to retire here, who are in their 60s or younger,” Mrs. Christian says.

Comox Valley made REIN’s top-10 list of best investment areas in B.C. for 2010 to 2015 – in large part because of direct flights from Comox Valley Airport to Calgary and Edmonton. That addition has opened up the region to Albertans who are driving its real estate market. Its economy is strong, and the valley, which includes Courtenay, Comox and several small towns, has an average winter temperature that remains above freezing. The area is known for a number of festivals, water sports and skiing at Mount Washington. There’s St. Joseph’s General Hospital in Comox and large retail shopping centres.

The average sale price for a 1,900-square-foot, single-family home in 2013 was $369,066, according to Landcor figures.

A major bonus is that the region is surrounded by a labour-driven market. That’s good news for a retiree who needs to sell quickly, and who wants a strong infrastructure.

“If you have a thriving economy near you, the value of real estate will stay stable,” Mr. Campbell says. “The potential for growth – for example, retail and hospitals, is much higher than in smaller communities that don’t have that economy.

“If a town is putzing along, it will really slip under the radar. And let’s be realistic, even in the boomer world, it’s cool to have a thriving, exciting young community nearby that you can tap into whenever you want to.”