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opinion

Shaadi Faris is vice-president of Intergulf Development Group in Vancouver.

The headlines coming out of Vancouver these days are almost exclusively focused on how unattainable housing is becoming for first-time buyers. Reports placing the city second only to Hong Kong in terms of unaffordability reflect a growing concern about the future of home ownership. It's been a common mantra for years that the best store of wealth for our residents is in real estate. But in a market like ours, how is a first-time buyer to participate? The answer lies in financial literacy.

Financially literate investors understand that purchasing real estate in the kind of market we've seen in Vancouver, and a few other Canadian cities in recent years, is attainable with the right approach. Aspiring buyers have to understand their finances before setting out to make what may well be the largest investment of their life. This reflection often requires an adjustment of expectations.

First, they have to cut through the stats game and turn their focus to markets with good price points for first-time buyers. For instance, in popular, established neighbourhoods, prices aren't ever likely to be "affordable" again, and we shouldn't dwell on the sky-high prices in such enclaves, which can skew averages for entire regions. Instead, growth areas present both lower points of entry and runways for value appreciation.

Last month's Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver statistics showed that while the benchmark price for a single-family detached home in the city's west side was $2,554,900, there were more affordable options available – with the Greater Vancouver benchmark apartment sitting at $396,900, and townhouse at $501,000. To the financially literate home buyer, these homes provide a prime opportunity to get in the market.

The first-time buyer is often investing with a goal of upgrading in the future, whether that be to a larger home, a better location or both. But how does a first-time buyer decide where to begin? Start wide, and then focus. Compare neighbourhoods based on the factors that matter to most people: Population density and growth, proximity to transit and major arterial roads, and distance to work, services and amenities. From there, focus on the property itself. Look into the reputation of the builder, the quality of the structure, even the reliability of the appliances. Greater Vancouver, like most cities, has several emerging areas that present opportunities for first-time buyers to position themselves.

As these centres develop they attract further migration and investment from new buyers. Having secured their investment early, a first-time buyer has a good chance of realizing gains and moving up the real estate ladder.

Meanwhile, interest rates in Canada are historically low, with the overnight rate sitting at 0.75 per cent, meaning that money is cheaper than ever. If aspiring homeowners have the opportunity to finance a home, now is the time to get their foot in the door. Be prudent, however, recognizing that rates will inevitably will go up, along with mortgage payments.

With all this in mind, financially literate aspiring home owners will be better equipped to get past the headlines about "unattainable" home ownership. Their expectations may need to be adjusted, but not necessarily their quality of life. By comparing their financial capabilities to the options available in the market, aspiring buyers will be in a good position to enter it.