Friday, May 23, 2014

Hey Vancouver, there are affordable homes – 20 minutes away

The tiny old city of New Westminster just might be the answer to the high price of Vancouver real estate.
Last year, Rick Vugteeven and his wife, Lana, were renting a Kitsilano apartment when they decided to go shopping for a house. After quickly discovering that Vancouver house prices were impossible, they decided to look in New Westminster, only a 20 minute SkyTrain or car ride away, if the traffic is kind.
Because it’s a historic city, the oldest in B.C., it’s got neighbourhoods that are packed with sleepy tree-lined streets and houses that ooze charm – Queen’s Park being the most famous among them. But it’s also one of the most walkable cities in the province, unlike surrounding suburbs, which were built for cars.
“We wanted to stay in an area that was very walkable, and had a sense of history and character,” says Mr. Vugteeven.
Last fall, he and his wife purchased a 1,900-square-foot character house in good condition for $583,000, on a lot that is 55 by 100 feet. The asking price was $585,000. It needs a new furnace and some of the windows need to be replaced, but otherwise it’s a solid and charming house.
The house, built in 1926, is in a part of New Westminster called Brow of the Hill, which is a mix of old fixer-uppers and rental buildings, with a commercial area nearby. It is, like other parts of the city, an area in transition, changing from a rundown and depressed neighbourhood to a place where young families want to fix up their houses and raise their kids. It’s also a short walk to the SkyTrain station, which is another major draw. New Westminster has five rapid transit stations.
“The only reason the price is what it is, is that it’s in an area mixed with apartments, and historically, is on the wrong side of the tracks. But many of the older houses have now been restored, and there are still plenty awaiting restoration,” says Mr. Vugteeven, who is 31, and works at home, for a Boston-based start-up.
“I’d imagine that much of the change is due to the relative affordability of homes here, compared to Vancouver.”
He is one of a growing group of former Vancouver residents who’ve been drawn to the city that sits on the north bank of the Fraser River, across the river from Surrey, sandwiched between Burnaby and Coquitlam.
“The fact is, New West has character and the surrounding areas don’t,” says real estate agent James Garbutt. Mr. Garbutt is also owner of the Steel & Oak Brewing company, which will open in five weeks in New Westminster. It is a joint venture with business partner Jorden Foss. Both men are typical of the urban-dwelling young person drawn to the city to lay down some roots.
Mr. Foss recently tweeted: “A guy is pushing a fixie up 3rd. With a baby on the back. That’s dedication to a lifestyle. #New West: where hipsters go to have kids.”
With a population of 70,000 and a land area of only 15.6 square kilometres, it’s not just a hilly city, but also a dense city – with a rapidly growing condo market of about 20,000 units and a couple more thousand on their way, according to Mr. Garbutt. But the housing stock, at around 8,000 to 9,000 houses is fixed, which means house prices will go up with demand.
“Eventually, all those condo people are going to want to live in houses,” he says.
Mr. Garbutt was raised in Burnaby and lives with his wife and kids in a 120-year-old fixer-upper in Queens Park.
“It seems like 75 per cent of the traffic at my open houses is Vancouver people. This year it’s stood out that Vancouver people are moving to New West. We are more on the map than before, that’s for sure. We’re getting more attention than we ever have before.”
Landcor Data Corp., which happens to be based in New Westminster, provided The Globe and Mail with all the sales for detached homes in the city for the past year. The median price was $650,000. The lowest priced house was for $179,906 and the highest was for $1.7-million. Of 254 sales, only eight of them were for more than $1-million.
In Vancouver, the median price of a detached house is $1.29-million, according to Landcor.

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