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Salmo, a small mountain village in interior B.C., has seen average property values increase by 60 per cent from $199,000 before the start of the pandemic to $319,000 in July 2021, upending years of a relatively flat marketSalmaan Farooqui/The Globe and Mail

For years, Salmo, B.C., was the kind of place travellers would drive by without noticing. It isn’t even on the main highway tourists use in the province.

Nestled at the bottom of the Kootenay Pass, one of Canada’s highest mountain pass highways open year-round, the southern B.C. village of roughly 1,000 people was mostly a place to fill up with gas after a hair-raising drive. With an out-of-the-way location that is roughly eight hours of mountain driving from Calgary or Vancouver, property has always been cheap.

But like a gentrifying neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, the sense that things are changing is palpable. More young families with strollers can be seen walking through the village centre. A craft brewery opened in 2020 that wouldn’t look out of place in Vancouver. New residents and people in the region say the community’s “country bumpkin” image is changing.

Salmo is also roughly half an hour from Nelson and Trail, mountain cities where housing prices exploded during the pandemic, causing a cascading effect in the surrounding West Kootenay region. Salmo is just one community that has had its reputation as a sleepy, aging village turned on its head as people in the area look for a refuge from skyrocketing housing costs. The village might have been seen as too remote or too rural by many Canadians in years prior, but increases in the cost of housing have made it an affordable option.

Calgary

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85

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BRITISH COLUMBIA

ALTA.

Nelson

Vancouver

Trail

Salmo

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

Seattle

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS

Calgary

0

85

KM

BRITISH COLUMBIA

ALTA.

Nelson

Vancouver

Trail

Salmo

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

Seattle

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS

Calgary

0

85

KM

BRITISH COLUMBIA

ALTA.

Nelson

Vancouver

Trail

Salmo

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

Seattle

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

Average property values have increased by 60 per cent from $199,000 before the start of the pandemic to $319,000 in July, 2021, upending years of a relatively flat market, according to data from B.C. Assessments.

Those price increases are still low compared with Nelson, where realtors say people from out-of-town have been snapping up million-dollar homes sight unseen. And Trail, a city where livable housing could be bought for $79,000 five years ago, had its first million-dollar home sale two years ago. Property values also increased by nearly double from an average price of $155,000 in 2017 to $303,000 this year.

Kate Bonner sits with her dog in the backyard of the $250,000 fixer-upper she bought in Salmo, BC. For the same price, she could barely afford a condo in nearby Nelson. She much prefers the space she has to herself here.Salmaan Farooqui/The Globe and Mail

Kate Bonner grew up in the region and recently lived in Nelson while working a comfortable job at Teck TECK-A-T, the multinational mining company headquartered in Trail. After ending a relationship, she moved to Salmo in search of an affordable place to call her own.

She ended up finding a fixer-upper with a spacious yard for $250,000. As a carpenter, she plans to do much of the work herself, and has already redone her kitchen and bathroom.

The cheap housing has also allowed her to pursue her own business in town fermenting foods.

She has to drive to Nelson or Trail to get well-priced groceries or clothing, but the way the community comes together makes up for the inconveniences.

“There’s a good community. People carpool, people buy and sell stuff to each other, and there are people who buy things together en masse,” Ms. Bonner said.

Villages such as Salmo aren’t only attracting people from the local region.

Kassandra Smith and Jonas Rigaux, who are both 30, moved from Nanaimo, which is an eight-hour drive and two-hour ferry away, in October. They were looking to move from the Vancouver Island city to buy their first property, as prices became too expensive for their quality of life.

Their search included communities around Victoria, B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Calgary and Salmo. In the end, they landed on Salmo because it was the only place they could get something within their budget of roughly $300,000.

“You can buy a starter home for around $300,000, and when we were on the island, a starter home was $600,000 or $700,000 and it was in a bad part of town,” said Ms. Smith, who works remotely as an accountant. Her partner travels around the world for work as a geologist.

The couple decided they were better off buying a spacious home in a small community like Salmo, rather than having to compromise in a larger community. They currently rent, and the change in lifestyle in Salmo is suiting them well. Their dogs are much happier with the space, and the couple love the easy access to the outdoors.

Paul Butler, a branch manager for the regionally based Kootenay Savings Credit Union, said he might have approved a couple of mortgages a year in Salmo before the pandemic, but there has been a major uptick in the past two years.

“I used to maybe get the occasional application for a car loan, there wasn’t much activity out there,” said Mr. Butler, who is also a city councillor in Trail.

“But now we have two lenders on location and there’s mortgage applications coming out of Salmo just as much as any other location.”

Loans for constructing or renovating a home have risen too. His branch alone received eight applications for construction mortgages in the past year after many years with none.

Salmo Mayor Diana Lockwood said she tries to meet every newcomer to the village, and noticed that most of them are people between the age of 30 and 55. She said many of them moved to Salmo to be able to buy their first home or capitalize on equity they’ve been able to build from homeownership in larger cities.

However, she thinks the population of her town isn’t necessarily growing, since many young people who were raised in the community are leaving in search of post-secondary education and better job markets elsewhere.

Ryan Chamberlain stands in front of his home he bought two years ago. He moved to Salmo because of the cheap housing prices in the area.Salmaan Farooqui/The Globe and Mail

Still, people in town see a noticeable change in the culture. Ryan Chamberlain, 47, moved to Salmo two years ago from Sooke, which is 30 minutes outside Victoria, and says even in that time he’s noticed a stronger presence of young artists in town. Mr. Chamberlain himself is a DJ.

“It’s building kind of a cool community,” said Mr. Chamberlain, who saw the same story play out in his old town.

“Sooke was an old logging community and now it’s kind of a hipster place with all these fancy coffee shops and breweries popping up, and you know that it’s on the way here.”

He bought his Vancouver Island home in 2015 for around $300,000 and after building it up he sold it for $825,000. He was looking to settle down in a new community and found Salmo. The market in Salmo was even more competitive during the height of the pandemic he said, noting that he was outbid on one home where he offered $50,000 over asking.

He eventually bought a home on a large plot of unzoned land for around $300,000, and is working on starting a business on the property.

While Salmo has been a happy story for people from out of town, Ms. Lockwood worries about what will happen to people who grew up in town, or for some of the young people who left town and want to return one day. There isn’t a large amount of housing being built, and property prices are expected to continually rise.

“We have always been very affordable, but in the last two years it’s changed,” Ms. Lockwood said.

“It has become affordable for city folk, but it’s become unaffordable for people just trying to get into the housing market.”