West Vancouver's British Properties is one of the most expensive, and lovely, neighbourhoods in Canada. It's a mix of Bentley-driving, old-money types, seniors who bought in years ago, and the nouveau riche who've only recently made it big.
The shifting market that's happening throughout the Lower Mainland is illustrated perfectly on Southborough Drive, a winding road that cuts through the Lower British Properties and wraps itself around Capilano Golf & Country Club. While a house may sit unsold for months despite huge price reductions, another can still go for more than asking.
There is a lovely three-bedroom rancher on the south side of Southborough that has been on the market since early this year. It sits so close to the golf course that I could see the 18th tee while standing in the front yard, which is more like a park, really. When I viewed it, the owners were asking $3.695-million and I hear they've recently re-listed at $3.198-million. That kind of major price slashing is not unusual, either.
Meanwhile, another house on Southborough Drive, on the elevated side of the road, sold at the end of July for a whopping $1-million over asking. The sale caused a mini shock wave among market-watchers and, probably, nearby sellers wondering why their houses aren't selling for that price. Realtor Shelley Williams, who sold the house, wonders if it might have set a real estate record, although there's no way to find out because nobody is keeping track.
The lot size is 27,878 square feet, not unusual in the area, and only slightly larger than the one down the road, at 20,947 square feet. Other than being a nice piece of property with view potential, why it was so in demand is anyone's guess.
"The most important thing is to price the house right to begin with, and if you are in a market that is slow, and it's a buyer's market, and there's a glut of inventory, you have to be under it, not at it," said a straight-talking Ms. Williams, over coffee in the West End last week. She's been a realtor for 11 years, mostly dealing with North Vancouver, where prices are generally lower than West Van. She got the listing through the seller's nephew, whom she'd worked with several years ago.
When I asked her if this sale was an outlier, as in a complete fluky sale like no other, she doesn't hesitate.
"Absolutely. This one came way out of left field. We were really surprised we did as well as we did. When I sat down with them, I said, 'We have to be really smart or we're going to be here for two years. There are move-in ready houses with renovated kitchens and gorgeous hardwood going for $1.695-million. Hello?"
The asking price of the house was $1.888-million, strategically containing the number eight, to appeal to Chinese superstition. You will notice a lot of number eights in the prices on the MLS listings.
The price created a seven-party bidding war, even though that wasn't her intention.
"I just wanted to sell it for good dollar, and get interest right away, and not be in a situation where every 10 weeks we're reducing it by $50,000 just to get it sold. Then we'd be following the market down."
When Ms. Williams and the owner were in her office boardroom looking at offers, there was one buyer's agent who asked if he could present last. Like all the other agents in the waiting area, he had his buyers with him.
At the end, he walked in with a bank draft for $100,000 and the written offer of $2.81-million with no subjects. She played it cool, but inside she was in a state of disbelief.
"I kept looking at it. I said, 'Thank you very much. We need a few minutes,' and he left. And the seller and I, we just kept staring at the number. The owner's mouth was hanging open. I said, 'Just keep looking at the number on the page and it might sink in."
The next highest offer was for $2.5-million, but it was subject to financing.
The extremely private owner doesn't want the address listed, but the house was typical of the lovely modernist ranchers built in the area in the fifties. Being aware that it would be a teardown, the owner didn't allow anybody to view inside the house. It was a matter of "purchasing dirt," says Ms. Williams.
The house had been assessed for $2.3-million, but Ms. Williams decided that was irrelevant. Ever since the B.C. Assessment Authority adjusted many West Vancouver houses and increased their value, realtors are not using them so much as a gauge for price-setting.
"The assessed values are grossly inaccurate," agrees Eric Christiansen, who's been a realtor in West Vancouver for 22 years. "I've had houses sell for $500,000 under or $1-million over the assessments."
Mr. Christiansen, who routinely sells houses worth millions of dollars, hasn't seen an August this bad for sales in his entire career. He says there were only 24 sales in West Vancouver in August, compared to 80 last August, and the usual August average of around 50.
He had a house on the market that took six months to sell. It started at $7.9-million and sold for $6.8-million. The mid-range houses in West Vancouver are even slower to sell. That said, he's had four sales already this month, so things might be looking up for the fall.
Still, he's wary of pricing low to start a bidding war, because these days, the bidding war might not happen. There are currently 530 houses listed in West Vancouver and buyers – about 50 per cent of them from Mainland China, according to anecdotal realtor input – are choosy.
"The market is very specific. Some areas have come down; some haven't," says Mr. Christiansen. "My philosophy is, price your house accordingly to sell it.
"As a seller, you can list it too high and become part of the inventory and add your house to that 539 sitting on the market. Or, you can price it according to this market."
There's the trick. Most sellers are living with yesterday's sales figures in mind, and they want the old top dollar. The reality is, a house is only worth what this current market will pay for it – and sometimes, that's anybody's guess.