Urban Refugees

Cars driving off ferry in Nanaimo
Posted: April 15, 2018 at 10:53 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

By Laurie Jones
Top photo: Richard James Milne

With the continuing trend of rapidly rising home prices in Canada’s major centres, particularly Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto, many hard-pressed urbanites are looking to smaller towns for affordable properties. To their delight, Vancouver Island has turned out to be a prime place to buy.

“Vancouver Island will continue to be a destination place for many Canadians right across the country. We are seeing an influx of people from Alberta in particular,” says Don McClintock, president, Vancouver Island Real Estate Board (VIREB). “That has to do with a number of things, one of them being that they can purchase property in the Comox Valley and fly directly in from Alberta. Real estate prices, while high in the Courtenay/Comox area, are still favourable to Albertans.”

VIREB markets real estate from the Malahat, just north of Victoria, to the upper end of the Island, and out to the west coast in Port Alberni and surrounding areas.

McClintock notes VIREB has what he calls a “sprinkling” of purchasers from the Lower Mainland. “Those people coming from the Mainland undoubtedly are able to purchase comparable properties here for much less money than is the case in Vancouver.”


Nanaimo housing development (Photo: Laurie Jones)

In some cases, they sell homes for windfall prices and purchase properties of comparable or greater value on the Island for cash. McClintock recently worked with a couple in their 30s who sold their 900-square-foot rancher listed for $1.3 million. “People are coming over here looking at properties in the $700,000 range and they can afford to buy that mortgage-free. In this case, the husband’s job was in IT and he could telecommute, and only go back to Vancouver on occasion.”

McClintock says the properties that are selling fastest in Nanaimo are between $400,000 and $500,000, with the average home price in Nanaimo being around $500,000. “Because mortgage rates are remaining relatively low, even homes in the $500,000 range are within reach of many first-time buyers,” he explains.

In the Comox Valley, Welcome Wagon representative Charissa Edelman has noticed a similar influx, including “lots of young couples. They like the lifestyle here. They can work, they can recreate. And it’s great for children.” Edelman says that most of the newcomers arrive without a job in-hand, but that “because the island is booming, they’re usually able to find one.

“Before, I was seeing kids coming back home to be with their parents — the sandwich generation,” she adds. “Now it’s everyone moving to the island.”

Condos remain relatively affordable for couples or first-time buyers. In some areas, sales of single-family homes are by people who are ready to downsize and move into condominiums.

Ward Clapham in his waterfront back yard.

Ward Clapham in his Nanaimo back yard (Photo: Laurie Jones)

For retired RCMP officer Ward Clapham and his wife, Karlene, moving from South Surrey to Nanaimo was the right choice for several reasons—one being that Nanaimo is his hometown. “Our house sold quickly in 2016 and we weren’t sure where we wanted to go,” he says.

“We looked into moving to Kelowna, but the prices there were almost as high as Vancouver. So we decide to check out options on Vancouver Island, starting in Victoria, and we went up as far as Qualicum. When we found a great house on the water in Nanaimo, we decided to stay.”

Clapham says when real estate prices started going up in Surrey, he and his wife were in a perfect location. “We had the smallest house – only 2,000 square feet – in a really nice neighbourhood. But in 2015 and 2016, the value of our house was increasing by approximately $50,000 a month. It was crazy.”

What was the reason for such a drastic increase? Clapham says they lived in the school catchment that included an International Baccalaureate program at Semiahmoo High School. Families wanted to live in the district in order to send their children to the elite centre. “If parents couldn’t get their children in a private school, the next best option was Semiahmoo to ensure entry into university,” Clapham explains.

In addition to growing up in Nanaimo, Clapham had been stationed at the RCMP detachment in the city from 1998 to 2001 and was happy to come back. “After we moved here in 2017, we had several friends and relatives move to Central Vancouver Island as well. Everyone realizes how reasonable the prices are and they want to take advantage of that just like we did.”

Chart of residential home prices on Vancouver Island in 2018With a high volume of newcomers to the city, new subdivisions and apartment buildings are springing up every year. Can the infrastructures handle such a drastic increase in use? Chris Midgley, manager, strategic initiatives, Regional District of Nanaimo, says “yes.”

“We have forecasts for expansion of our infrastructure,” he says. “Whenever a new development occurs, there is a payment to accommodate the additional pressure on the lines that are connected to wastewater systems, for example.”

He adds similar charges occur for water systems to accommodate new users. “From a planning perspective, that side of it is accounted for. That’s basically service delivery. We have plans in place to expand our infrastructure when it reaches certain thresholds for population.”

Midgley says there is a need for local governments to anticipate some of these changes and contemplate how services might have to evolve in order to meet the expectations or needs of people coming in from other areas. “We need to make sure we’re not stuck having an influx of population without a corresponding improvement in service delivery.”

Some newcomers want to see growth managed too. As Edelman recalls, with a laugh: “I had one woman who had just moved here say, ‘Okay, that’s enough people for now.'”

For the foreseeable future – or as long as the skyrocketing price of real estate in big city centres continues on an upward spiral – Vancouver Island will remain the destination of choice for people who are able to purchase the perfect home to suit their lifestyle, and budget.

VIREB market update

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