Not long ago I was talking to a young doctor who’d just started working at a new clinic on the west side. When I mentioned I write a column on real estate, she actually sneered. “Why on earth would you want to write about Vancouver real estate? I think it sucks.”
The young doctor and her husband had relocated to the city from the ’burbs and couldn’t afford to purchase a home. Her resentment was palpable. A friend told me about an established lawyer with two kids who couldn’t afford to buy property here either. The lawyer declined to comment for this story, however, because “he doesn’t want to be the poster boy for ‘good job, but can’t afford a house.’”
If doctors and lawyers can’t afford the high price of Vancouver real estate, what does that say about the social landscape? It used to be that the professional class was the first to own homes as soon as they landed their career jobs. When it comes to the dwindling middle class, it isn’t east versus west anymore, or white collar versus blue collar. Simply put, the great divide is home ownership, and because it’s largely a question of circumstance, it’s ticking people off. You could inherit money, or borrow money from your parents or grandparents, which is now the way for young first-time buyers in Vancouver. Or, if you are lucky enough to land a high-paying job, you could scrape together a down payment for your first purchase, although that could take years, especially if you have kids along the way.
A quick survey among friends in their 20s and 30s who hadn’t had the good fortune of being a trust-fund kid said they weren’t even close to considering a property purchase. For them, it’s a non-issue.
“It’s just putting the cart before the horse in terms of life decisions,” says Jonathan Kassian, who left Vancouver for a job in Victoria, where he rents. “It’s crossing hypothetical bridges.”
I know of several 40-somethings who haven’t purchased property, and for some of them, property envy has become a major source of anxiety. But it’s like any traditional rite of passage. Instead of obsessing, the more rebellious and unconventional among us simply opt out. For Vancouverites, “title free” is the new “child free.” People who own often pressure their title-free friends to do the same, much the way parents often pressure their friends without kids to have kids.
“For years, my friend who had a house on the north shore said, ‘Buy, buy, buy,’” says former Vancouver Sun theatre critic Peter Birnie, 56, who was never interested. Instead of real estate, Mr. Birnie has his money in conservative blue-chip stock investments. And he’s not regretting his decision, either.
“And I can use this money to travel, and I’m more than happy. I’ve always been a contrarian.
“When condos came along, my thought was, ‘you are buying a slice of air up in the sky, this non-existent thing,” adds Mr. Birnie. “And obviously, since then, condos have become the way to go for anybody who’s young and wants into the market. And I’ve never felt there’s any reason to be spending money on those things, and these days I think I’m proved right.”
He’s not alone. An estimated 55 per cent of the city is renting, according to the Vancouver Renters Union.
Writer and TV producer Doug Murray, who spends half his year in Guatemala, lives in a hotel.
“I’ve given up ever buying or renting,” he says. “I’ll be moving to either Nova Scotia or Guatemala soon. I’ll leave Vancouver to the rich and the too-hard-working,” he says. “There’s so much more to life.”
And then there are people who already own property who are fearful, especially with the high cost of retirement looming.
“Honestly, the bigger fear is hanging onto my current home,” said Janice Jaaguste. “Making ends meet in this city is difficult. The cost of everything keeps going up, but not salaries. Add to that a spouse contemplating retirement, and the tight budget gets even tighter.”
Photographer Roger Mahler believes that the hard-working middle-class couple in Vancouver can pull off condo ownership, but not without “huge sacrifice.” He and his photographer wife Holly Truchan own a condo and a work studio. It’s meant they’ve had to cut way back on dinners out, new clothes, and other indulgences.
“We are struggling a bit to make payments, but I’d rather have that than throw money away that I would never see again if I rented,” says Mr. Mahler.
As well, the soft condo market has made it a little easier for some. Vancouver realtor Glenn Feldstein says about 50 per cent of his current buyers are first-time buyers, and about half that group are people who inherited money or borrowed from their parents.
“It is what it is,” says Mr. Feldstein. “It’s a tough pill to swallow. People say, ‘but you can get this property in Winnipeg for far less than what you pay in Vancouver.’ They make that comparison. But we’re not in Winnipeg.”
His clients Stacey Landers and Katherine Collins, both 33, fall into the small group that actually scraped and saved, managing to pay off their student loan debts while saving for a down payment at the same time. They had resigned themselves to renting, but fortunately, the condo market softened and they squeezed their way in. They just purchased a two-bedroom condo that needs a renovation, in the Main Street area for $400,000.
“I remember looking at condos six or seven years ago and they were all at the $600,000 mark,” says Ms. Landers. “Now, I feel like in the area where we were looking, it feels like things are more affordable than they were before.”
Adds Ms. Collins: “While we were renting, I truly believed that it was the right thing for us … But now the banks are being nice to us for the first time ever, and I can see the financial opportunities that we didn’t have before.”
Ms. Landers says they couldn’t have done it, however, if they hadn’t acquired high-paying jobs and become a double-income couple with no kids. She works as a development executive for TV and Ms. Collins is a scriptwriter. She agrees that there’s a pervasive sense that people are fed up with the unaffordability issue.
“I think it’s a combination of fed up and a certain hopelessness to the situation,” she says. “Unless you have this amazing influx of money, it’s just not going to happen for you to be able to purchase anything. It seemed so unattainable for us to purchase.
“We had settled into the idea of renting for a very, very long time. And both of us are very keen to remain in an urban centre, which probably meant we would rent forever.”
Among their peers, they are a rarity.
“It’s just not realistic in our peer group to purchase a home,” says Ms. Landers. “They are very impressed with us,” she adds, laughing.
As for the future, they are fine with raising a family in a condo. The park will be their playground.
“The one thing we know for sure in the long run is, we will probably not have a home with a yard in Vancouver.”