His desk has a large gleaming knife sticking into it at the corner, dramatically, as if someone got angry and left it there as a threat. On the floor is cowhide and on the wood-panelled walls, there are mementos such as snowshoes, antlers, and pictures of John Wayne.
Rudy Nielsen’s large New Westminster offices feel more like the set of a western than B.C.’s largest provider of real estate data.
Anyone who keeps up on real estate will know his company’s name. Landcor Data Corp. regularly makes the business and real estate pages for its comprehensive reports on all things to do with B.C. property. And we are a province that is obsessed with property – what it’s worth, what it will be worth, and who’s buying it.
In B.C., the impact of property development, in terms of gross domestic product, is around $8.2-billion, followed by the natural gas industry at $7.8-billion, and tourism at $7.4-billion. The film and television industry is way down the list at around $1.4-billion, according to figures supplied by the Urban Development Institute last year.
Property is big business in B.C., but anyone who lives here already knows that.
The man behind Landcor has been playing the B.C. property game his entire life, as a logger, a renovator, a flipper, an appraiser, an agent, an agency owner, a cattle rancher, a landowner, and now as a real estate analyst. This year, he celebrates the 50th year since he became an agent, although he gave up his licence in the eighties, when he decided to become B.C.’s biggest private property owner instead.
Lately, he’s been shifting gears, selling off acres of properties owned by his Niho Land & Cattle Co., as demand grows for real estate analysis. He once owned 450 properties, and he’s now down to around 200, all of it cattle, fishing or farmland, or “anything without a house on it.” And he still owns LandQuest, a real estate company that has 24 agents around the province, specializing in rural properties.
With access to B.C. Assessment records, and in partnership with mapping and demographic companies, Mr. Nielsen provides automatic valuations, monthly assessments and detailed breakdowns on 1.7 million properties in B.C. His database holds B.C. sales going back to 1972. His long list of clients includes mortgage lenders, banks, municipalities, developers, utilities, insurance companies, and private homeowners.
In his boardroom, Mr. Nielsen shows me a fascinating, although anonymous graph of the loan-to-value ratios for all mortgage lenders – in other words, the amount of the loan compared with the actual value of the property. A bank commissioned the report.
One lender soars above all others. “If the market went down 10 per cent, they would be underwater,” says Mr. Nielsen.
Landcor also supplies a steady stream of media-friendly data. It determined that 74 per cent of luxury homes in Vancouver had been purchased by Chinese buyers in 2010, at a time when there had only been speculation.
But that’s only half the picture.
Mr. Nielsen’s life experience offers perhaps the best real estate lesson of all, particularly the story of how he went from a poor kid with nothing, to a man worth $7-million who got cocky and ended up on the hook to creditors for $1.8-million.
He recalls going to court in 1981 and trying to convince the judge he only had $45 to his name because nobody would believe he had nothing left.
“At first, I used to tell everybody that the recession got me, but to tell you the truth, it wasn’t the recession,” Mr. Nielsen says. “I could have survived it, I had so much land. The reason was that I was a smart ass. I made so much money I thought I was indestructible.
“The desk I have right now cost $180. In those days, I had a $10,000 desk. I couldn’t spend money fast enough.”
Incredibly, over an eight-year span, Mr. Nielsen dug himself out of that hole. In the first four years, he paid off his creditors, and went on to build a real estate empire even bigger the second time around. But the pain of his humiliating fall taught him an economic lesson. “Today, I don’t have any debt,” he says. “I own everything clear title.”
Debt, especially in a volatile market, is a ticket to disaster, he says. The less debt you carry, the safer you are in any market. When the economy starts to look dire, he sells off properties.
But to get to that realization, he needed to climb a mountain first, and he means literally. As his world collapsed, he took a break and got into his beat up car with his dog, a fishing rod and a rifle, and drove far north. He and his dog hiked into the forest, built a lean-to, and lived off trout and grouse for 10 days, until he figured out a solution. The solution turned out to be a new mindset.