Yes, you can afford to live here — if you’re willing to do a little work

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Shelley Fralic

Prices in Metro Vancouver aren't as unreachable as you might think; you just have to look -- and be ready to swallow your pride, at least for a little while. Photograph by: Mark Van Manen, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

There is a theory — well-oiled and much-flogged — that home ownership in Metro Vancouver is beyond the limit of ordinary working folk.

And while there is some truth to that theory, that only the rich or lucky can afford the best neighbourhoods, it’s a promulgation fed beyond logic by those who rail about our cost of living, about leaky condos and greedy developers and non-residents driving up prices, about the average cost of a detached house in the region being too close to $1 million, and about the area’s 22 municipalities falling short on affordable housing for all kinds of residents.

Not to dash all that outrage, but surely a little clarity is in order, because the evidence suggests things aren’t quite that dire here in the promised land.

In fact, if you’ve been paying any attention at all you’ll know that house prices, at least for post-recession Metro Vancouver, are pretty decent right now. Regional sales announced this week reflect that — up 18 per cent to 3,512 sales in April, compared to the same month a year ago. Inventory is up, too, and then there are those interest rates, which are on the rise but are still historically low.

Need more proof that we’re not exactly Manhattan? Or Paris, London or Rome, for that matter?

Last Saturday, the 164-unit third phase of a condo development called Quattro, clustered near the Gateway SkyTrain station in Surrey, went on the block. Hundreds lined up to claim the smart modern units, some of which cost as little as $139,000, and half of which were priced under $200,000.

Out in Langley, according to weekend newspaper ads, a new project is offering “Euro-inspired” condos for $149,000 for a one-bedroom, $229,000 for two bedrooms.

A new home, for $139,000, for $149,000? Well, that’s the ‘burbs, you say, and who wants to live in the ‘burbs? (Besides the majority of the region’s 2.5 million population, that is.)

Saturday’s paper also advertised “downtown Vancouver’s lowest-priced concrete one-bedroom homes” on the edge of Yaletown at Nelson and Seymour, its units promising stainless steel appliances and wood cabinetry. The price? Starting at $239,000.

You mean you can put $10,000 down, snag a good mortgage rate and own a brand new place in the heart of the city for, like, $1,200 a month? Sweet.

Turns out there are a lot of sweet deals out there. The national Multiple Listing Service site has 382 listings for apartments under $300,000 in Vancouver alone, with hundreds more in surrounding municipalities.

But what about a house, you say, one that comes unattached on dirt, one for raising babies and planting perennials, one that doesn’t cost more than, oh, $500,000, which by all accounts is almost reasonable given recent local real estate history.

In Vancouver, as in Richmond and Burnaby and North Vancouver, there are only a handful of houses selling for less than $500,000, but according to the MLS on Friday, there are 88 in Coquitlam, 145 in Langley, 420 in Abbotsford, 212 in Maple Ridge and 753 in Surrey.

Many are less than $400,000. Are they ready for their Architectural Digest close up? Do they have hardwood floors and landscaped yards? Are the appliances shiny and new?

Get real.

This, of course, is where it gets tricky for many a property virgin, especially those who subscribe to self-entitlement. We want it all and we want it now, and first-time home buyers often have trouble lowering their standards, brainwashed by a spendthrift culture and HGTV.

Barring an inheritance or a winning lottery ticket, everyone has budget limitations, and that means sacrifice and compromise. It means getting over the fact that no matter how hard you work, you probably missed the boat on buying an Edwardian pile in Dunbar like the one your grandparents paid $15,000 for 50 years ago. It means you might have to buy what you can afford and not what you want.

Join the club. I was born and raised in Vancouver in the 1950s, but when it came time to buy my own home, 30 years ago, I went from a condo in Burnaby to a townhouse in Surrey to a tiny home in New Westminster, with a postage stamp yard, orange shag carpet and a basement bathroom with a dirt floor. It took years to trade up to my current home, with a lot of being house-poor and wondering how the bills would get paid along the way.

For most of us, no matter the generation, that’s the reality of first-time home ownership.

The property ladder, despite that kvetching grapevine, is not a phantom hope. Here in paradise it just requires some whittling of the wish list. You might have to save for a few more years. The kids might have to share a bedroom. Your first backyard might be a condo balcony. You will likely have to embrace the ‘burbs. The commute will be longer than you like. You might need a mortgage helper.

And you’ll definitely need to get over your petulance that it will always be cheaper to live in pretty much any other Canadian metropolis. It is, but then you’d have to move to Toronto, Winnipeg or Saskatoon.

So stop with the despair already. If your grail is to own a little piece of Metro Vancouver paradise, get on with it.

You may not find your dream house right out of the gate, but that’s why they call them starter homes.

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