Considering it was one of the worst winters on record for everyone outside of B.C., the one hour commute to the sunny Okanagan is becoming the ideal choice for an increasing number of working Albertans.
New house sales around Penticton, Osoyoos and Kelowna have picked up due to the increasing demand from Albertans in the oil and gas industry. Sales are buoyed by the temperate wine country climate, a robust real estate market in Calgary, comparatively better property values in B.C., and direct air routes, including Westjet's recent decision to add a route between Calgary and Penticton. There are already direct flights out of Kelowna to Calgary and Fort McMurray, aimed at oil and gas industry commuters.
These new buyers are looking for primary homes, not recreational properties. They are still working, and they want to commute short distances within the same time zone.
Julie Tilley and her family moved from Chestermere, Alta., last year. They rented a house while looking around, and recently bought into Osoyoos's The Cottages new lakefront community. Ms. Tilley and her husband work in Alberta's oil and gas industry, but since they work from home, it didn't matter where they lived. So, they decided to head for the good life in B.C.
"Most people who work in the oil and gas industry are travelling anyway," Ms. Tilley said. "Even in Calgary, they are commuting two or three hours to get to the site anyway. You might as well commute from elsewhere."
To fly to Calgary, Ms. Tilley could hop on a flight out of Penticton and be there in hour. That was a huge advantage, as well as the climate.
"This was an actual lifestyle choice. We could have chosen anywhere to live. I just couldn't endure another winter in Alberta," Ms. Tilley said. "Last October, my kids sent a message to one of their friends and said, 'We went swimming in the lake today.' Their friends replied, 'We went skating on ours.'" she said, laughing. "I've sat more on my deck in the eight months that we've been here, than I did in the entire seven years I was in Chestermere. And when I'm done work, the walk from my house to the beach is one minute."
The other advantage is the value. The Albertan market is strong, so the Tilleys got a good price for their Chestermere house and parlayed it into better value in B.C.
"If we could find a lot like this with this view in Alberta, it would be $10-million. But it just doesn't exist. Their lakes aren't as beautiful as Lake Osoyoos. It's just different."
For $700,000, the Tilleys got a four bedroom, 2,300 square-foot house. They moved in two weeks ago, and are one of the first families to settle in. The clubhouse and the pool haven't even opened yet, but Ms. Tilley says new residents have already started tai chi classes.
The Cottages developer Eric Van Maren says he's seeing a trend: "Fifty per cent of our recent buyers are from Alberta. Last year, about 30 per cent of our buyers were from Alberta."
"There is a lot of money moving back into the Okanagan right now," developer Trent Blackwell said, standing in the show home for his Sendero Canyon Homes project on a hillside overlooking Penticton. The 72 acres was purchased in 2007 and developed by Canadian Horizons land developer, but when the market went soft in the downturn the project stalled. After another long delay involving a burst water main, the land development company brought Mr. Blackwell and his house construction company on board to help build out the subdivision. They started construction last November, with plans to build a total of 351 houses.
Sendero had its grand opening May 1 this year and is currently working out the details of its 14th sale. They currently have 35 houses under way. Mr. Blackwell is surprised at the response, especially for a market that just a couple of years ago was sluggish due to a surplus of supply. He's also pleased because Penticton is an unknown entity from a marketing standpoint. The city has hardly any new house construction.
"We had to find where the market is, and we are now seeing what product is hitting with the consumer, what kind of price point, things like that," Mr. Blackwell said. "We didn't think it would be this active, this quick.
"We're seeing some people moving here who want a second home, people are coming here who want to work and live, and then we are going to see people who want to retire here," he said. "So they may be buying their second home and working on transitioning out of city. The hot spot is the 40- to 55-year-old demographic."
A short distance from the show home, there is a completed house already occupied by one of the first residents, a Manitoba purchaser who bought in before Sendero took over. He is surrounded by construction and empty landscape, but his isolation won't last for long. They've sold almost all of the 35 houses that have been built, and even have an offer on the show home, which is priced at $485,000. It's a 3,200 square-foot, four-bedroom rancher with a full, above-grade basement with extra ceiling height. The prices range from $425,000 to a little more than $700,000.
Another attraction for Albertans is that the houses in this new subdivision are for living large. The rooms are spacious, there are tons of bedrooms, and some houses have basement suites. The development is open to buyers choosing their own builders, but they have to follow architectural guidelines in keeping with the overall look of the project.
Sendero is marketing the project as "affordable luxury," which means there isn't radiant heating in the floors or television sets in the bathrooms, but there are quartz counter tops, stainless steel appliances, big decks, nature trails and views of the canyon below. Prices range from $425,000 to a custom built in the low $700,000s.
Developers are keeping the prices affordable for this emerging market, and appear to be proceeding cautiously. After all, these are big projects, and they just went through a dry spell for the last several years. The massive Lakestone master-planned community near Kelowna sits on 550 acres and in five or six years, will be comprised of 1,365 homes, as well as a $3.5-million clubhouse. Like the other Okanagan developments, this one is gauging the market as it builds, careful to avoid overextending itself. The single-family housing market appears to be humming along, but they've got to be ready to shift gears, said sales and marketing director Jason Koverchuk.
"Right now the market has told us, 'We want single family lots,' so that's what we're developing. But as Lakestone matures, we may realize people want three-level townhomes with elevators for $1-million, or two-level-and-den one levels for $500,000. We're gathering the intel."
It's a project by well-known Vancouver developer Rob Macdonald, who's built other communities in the area. So far, the first two phases are almost sold out. They expect to sell the 34 lots of phase three by the end of the year, which are lake-view lots starting at $225,000. Lakestone is located near Kelowna International Airport, so it's an easy commute for Albertans.
"When we opened last August, we needed a substantial $4.5-million in presales for the lenders, and I thought, 'This is going to be challenging,'" Mr. Koverchuk said. "But the market responded so well , and you throw in the location and price, and once word got out, it took six weeks to meet that target.
"I guess the market has just been so flat since 2008, it was just the right time. Here we are five years later, and okay, enough's enough. People who've been sitting on fence are saying, 'It can't get any lower. I waited this out, I think we've hit bottom and it's going to start going the other way.'"