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Property in Whistler, B.C. which is currently experiencing a real estate downturn despite recent improvements in highway access.

Could it be that Whistler has become more than a ski and party destination, and is now a place to hang your hat year round?

While the drive time has shortened with the improved highway, the drop-off in property prices also makes Whistler a draw.

Years ago, Whistler was the playground for west-side skiers who kept a second home there for winter weekends. Now, the ski resort town's realtors are hoping that with easier access and some additional draws – such as developer-philanthropist Michael Audain's up-and-coming art museum – Lower Mainland residents will start to view Whistler as an extension of Vancouver.

People already commute between Vancouver and Squamish, either solo or in van pools. Whistler as a commuter town is the natural next step. Whistler real estate prices are better than prices in the Lower Mainland, which, despite doom-and-gloom forecasts, have held steady compared with the rest of the country. The benchmark price for all Vancouver properties last year was $590,800, according to a new report by the Real Estate Association of Greater Vancouver. Whistler, by comparison, had a benchmark of $457,500.

"Whistler is good value right now," says Pat Kelly, president of Whistler Real Estate Co. Mr. Kelly has been a Whistler realtor for 30 years. "It's the reverse of Vancouver. And in light of some of the new developments, it's not only a good investment from a buyer's point of view, but it's also reasonable to live here full time. The new highway changed the drive.

"You can get pretty good housing for $1-million or less that's only a relaxing one-hour, 20-minute drive away."

If Whistler is a relatively good deal these days, it's in large part because it's been dependent on the U.S. economy. Many of the Americans who once fuelled the condo-hotel market in Whistler have pulled out, what with the financial crisis and the rise of the Canadian dollar. Now that the average American is in penny-pinching mode, the luxury of having an occasional vacation getaway that they own outright simply doesn't make sense. As well, the American who purchased a decade ago will do well on the sale of their property now, even if the price has fallen 20 per cent.

"The Americans were a real driver of real estate transactions here in Whistler, but they have gone from being buyers to sellers, and in some cases, I don't think they have tried to hold on for the top price," says Mr. Kelly. "If they wanted to sell, they sold.

"There are almost 5,000 units in that condo-hotel style in the Whistler area, and there probably aren't as many buyers for that today as there are for lifestyle product," he says, referring to homes to be lived in, as opposed to investment properties.

"Our buyer now comes mostly from the Lower Mainland, and that unit was aimed at somebody, for instance, from Toronto, flying in for a week. You just don't do as many transactions in that category. And combined with performance problems due to the financial crisis, lack of discretionary income, and lack of credit – you can't borrow on those units as easily – it has all led to that market being hit."

He estimates that more than 80 per cent of all homes in Whistler are less than $1-million. The market dropped around mid-2009, and mostly stayed down throughout 2011 and 2012.

Landcor Data Corp. data shows the current median price of a Whistler condo at around $358,500, at the same level as 2001 prices. Overall, volume of sales has plummeted in the last couple of years, with a minor spike in 2010, during the Olympics.

Landcor president Rudy Nielsen, the largest owner of recreational property in B.C., believes Whistler will hold its own in terms of desirable property. If he were to purchase in the next few months, he'd choose Whistler over the Lower Mainland, he says.

He thinks the improved highway and the faster commute may even be responsible for slowing the recreational property market in Whistler.

"I think that might have some of the effect on why houses haven't been selling like in the past, because people know they don't need a second house. They can drive there for the day."

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