A serialized story called ‘House Hunter Chronicles’ was posted through the summer at the website REW.ca. Here it is, for the record:
“Follow local house hunters as they experience the highs and lows of buying a home in the intense Vancouver real estate market. Elaine L. is the first to share her search with us. We’ll check in with her every couple of weeks to see how it’s going.”
Family size: Two — a single woman and her mom
Currently: Own a condo
Budget: $800,000 – $ 1.1 million
Neighbourhoods Collingwood, Fraserview, Renfrew, Renfrew Heights, Killarney
Looking for 2000 – 2500 sq. ft. newer detached house with rental suite down, move-in condition
1. Meet Elaine L. (June 16, 2012)
Elaine L. is only in her twenties, but she’s already a veteran in the Vancouver real estate game. She and her mom, Patty, sold the first condo they lived in back in 2004. They rented for a while, thinking Vancouver house prices would go down, but when that didn’t happen they bought their current condo in 2008.
Since then their condo has appreciated by $40,000, and its 880 square feet are starting to feel a bit cramped for the two of them and their dog. When one friend bought a rental property and another bought a house, Elaine was inspired to start house hunting again.
So she’s contacted the same Realtor they worked with before and asked her financial advisor what kind of price she can afford, and the house hunting is on! She hasn’t put her current home on the market yet, and there’s no deadline for buying, but she’s started doing a lot of online research and visiting open houses.
Elaine and Patty would like to stay in southeast Vancouver, where they are now. Finding the right neighbourhood involves researching crime and average income statistics and using Google Maps Live View to check out the look and feel.
Her ideal house is at least 2000 square feet with a mortgage helper in the basement, living area on the main floor and bedrooms upstairs. Elaine says that it’s mostly older houses that offer that layout, and they tend to be out of her price range. But more affordable Vancouver specials, both the classic ones and the newer versions, have suites on the main floor and living and sleeping areas up, all on the same floor.
Chinese traditions also play a part in her search for a good house; for instance, if you need to go down a couple of stairs to get to a house, it’s off the list.
Is she looking for a fixer-upper? Definitely not. “I can build IKEA furniture — that’s about it.”
Elaine credits her friends with keeping her on course. “My emotions get the best of me sometimes,” she says. “I look at a house and I don’t really like it, but I talk myself into it, and then I have to get my friends to talk me out of it.”
2. Elaine Loves and Lists (June 22, 2012)
Follow local house hunters as they experience the highs and lows of buying a home in the intense Vancouver real estate market. Elaine L. is the first to share her search with us. We’ll check in with her every couple of weeks to see how it’s going.
It was a bit like falling in love. The house ticked all of Elaine’s boxes: 2300 square feet, 3 bedrooms on the top floor with the kitchen and living area downstairs, and a 2 bedroom rental suite on the same floor that would cover $900 of the mortgage. It was built just last year, so it’s like new but without the HST. Her mom, Patty, liked it too.
But alas, her love was unrequited. When her Realtor inquired about putting in an offer subject to the sale of the condo the seller said, Don’t bother. “No one wants to sell to you if they have to wait for you,” Elaine says.
That’s why every day last week Elaine and her mom were hard at work — lugging a heavy elliptical trainer down to the storage locker, taking boxes of bric a brac over to a sister’s garage and removing all traces of Elaine’s Hello Kitty collection. They’re staging their condo, and by next week they hope to be able to get their Realtor in to take pictures and put the condo up for sale.
“I don’t want to go through that again,” says Elaine about having her subject-to-sale offer rejected. “We have some places where we can stay for a few months if we don’t find anything. And when we sell we’ll try to set a really late possession date.”
Meanwhile, “It’s a great feeling to be tidy. We’ve decluttered and depersonalized it to get an open, contemporary look. We had the floors redone with a dark laminate and it really opened up the space. We’ve cleaned all the walls. The place looks fantastic.
“A friend warned me not to fall in love with it and decide not to sell. But I want to live in a house.”
The house she fell in love with — actually a half-duplex — has been sold. But the good thing is that there are lots of similar places in the same neighbourhood, so Elaine’s optimistic that something with the same appealing layout will come up… after she’s sold the condo.
“It’s around $900,000, and at first I thought it was expensive for a half-duplex, but it feels just like a detached house. The two halves barely share a wall. Only the rental suites connect. I haven’t seen anything like it in Vancouver.”
Though Elaine was looking to buy a house in Vancouver, this place is in Burnaby, which hadn’t been on Elaine’s radar until a friend alerted her to the listing. It turns out, it’s just across the Burnaby border, only two minutes from where she is now, so she’d still be close to friends and family.
Of course, that’s if all this works out.
The upheaval is stressful. Elaine says “I’m always worrying. What if we sell this and don’t have another place to live? What if the market crashes and my house ends up not being worth what I paid for it?
“But then I remind myself that I’m not biting off more than I can chew. I’ll be living comfortably, even if the market crashes. I always plan for the worst case scenario, so I’m planning everything as if the suite isn’t rented. We’ll be okay.”
3: Keep it Clean (July 18, 2012)
Now comes the hard part: living in a home that has to be clean, shiny and spare at all times.
“Having to clean up after myself all the time is making me want to get it over with,” says House Hunter Elaine L. “I want someone to buy it so I can leave”
The condo she and her mom share has now been on the market since the beginning of July. After hauling out everything that wasn’t nailed down, and getting new flooring installed, she’s thrilled at how great the place looks. But it has to be kept that way.
“I gave my dog a haircut!”
The dog was the worst culprit in the keep-it-clean campaign. Elaine’s mom, Patty, had been spending part of every day vacuuming up the dog hairs that showed up particularly well against the dark wood of the floors — one of the new selling features of the condo.
A canine cropping took care of that problem. Now it’s a matter of always putting things away, dusting and doing the dishes.
All that upkeep is worth it. Their Realtor says that it shows really well, and he’s had favourable comments from people viewing it. Considering there are three other condos for sale in the same building, that’s hugely important. Elaine and Patty indulged in a little spying, going to the open house at one of the other condos to check out the competition, and they’re satisfied that their efforts have given them the upper hand.
The other side of feng shui
They’ve even had some serious interest. A mom and daughter came to look at the condo twice, but they rejected it because the mom said that the ensuite bathroom door facing the bed was bad feng shui. Elaine and Patty are Chinese too, and they have a few criteria based on feng shui principles. But not that one.
“The bed can be moved.” says Elaine. “We’ve lived here for four years and haven’t had bad luck!”
As her Realtor — and every Realtor the world over — says: It’s just a matter of finding the right person.” There are three showings coming up; three chances to find that right person. And with all those prospective buyers coming through her home, Elaine’s decided not to spend the week constantly keeping everything spotless. She’s going to Vegas instead. She’s got a phone with a US number, so anything that needs to be handled can be handled from there.
Let’s hope Elaine and Patty’s luck holds.
4: Elaine’s Las Vegas Luck (July 27, 2012)
Last time we talked to House Hunter Elaine L., she was off to Vegas with a group of friends. She was fed up with having to keep her condo spotless and ready to show at a moment’s notice, so she figured she couldn’t make a mess if she wasn’t there. Problem solved.
So there’s Elaine enjoying a delicious lunch in Sin City when her phone rings. It’s her Realtor. He’s got an offer. Can she look at it now?
They talk a bit and work out a counter offer and the Realtor sends it off. Lunch is interrupted several more times as offers and counter-offers fly back and forth. Finally, when Elaine is in the back of a cab on the way to an outlet mall, the Realtor calls with the final offer. He scans it to her phone and Elaine signs it, gets it witnessed, returns and continues to the mall… with considerably more to spend than she had when she set out.
Digital transactions like this are more and more common with the advent of wi-fi, tablets and smartphones. So far there’s never been a problem. Digital signatures are informally accepted as valid, although the real estate industry has not yet had occasion to test them in court. The Realtor also took the contract to Elaine’s co-owner — her mom, Patty — for an ink-on-paper signature.
The condo was on the market for exactly two weeks before the offer, with one open house and 10 private viewings. The buyers saw it in one of the private viewings. The time on market is bang-on for Elaine’s Collingwood neighbourhood. Since May, the majority of comparable condos there have sold within 18 days.
Elaine says the condo had numerous advantages that helped it sell so quickly. First was all the work she and Patty put into it.
“We took so much time to clean it up perfectly,” she says. “We got rid of every trace of our everyday life. It was completely staged. I don’t think other people go to that extreme. We saw other places, and they weren’t as perfect as ours.”
It was also listed in the mid-400,000s — a price that appealed to people getting into the market. Elaine says she’s seen more expensive condos sit ounsold. “A friend of mine has a sub-penthouse that’s selling for $150,000 more than mine, and she’s had it on the market for a year now.”
On top of that, the location is perfect: it’s right by the SkyTrain and close to an elementary school.
The couple who bought have two young daughters. At 880 square feet, the condo will be a tight fit, but in the Vancouver market, condos have replaced fixer-upper detached houses as the first rung on the property ladder for first-time buyers and new Canadians.
The buyers’ bank sent an appraiser, the home inspector did a report and the subjects were removed a little over three weeks after listing. The completion date is August 23. That’s too soon to find a house and move in, so Elaine and Patty are staying with Elaine’s sister for a bit.
“It’s nice not to have a set date for leaving. We can look around until we find the right place. But it’s a motivation as well. We don’t want to impose on my sister for too long.”
Elaine’s excited and a little apprehensive now that the deed is done. “It’s kinda scary. I don’t know where I’m going to live, and I’m going to be taking on a big mortgage. Plus, I’m worried that the market might go down and I will have paid more than the house can sell for,” she says.
But, “Mom believes that in the Vancouver market things won’t go down that much unless something big happens.” So even if the market starts to dive, that’s not going to keep them from looking… or buying
The search is on in earnest now.
5: Know the Market (August 16, 2012)
“I had wanted my dream house right away. I wanted to skip the steps. But now I’m thinking short-term house and long-term house.”
Elaine L. is finding the search to buy a house in Vancouver more frustrating than she had expected, now that she’s in serious search mode. She and her mom, Patty, are camped out at her sister’s place, and they don’t want to be an imposition for too long. On top of that, Elaine was recently promoted at work so her days are super busy. Her evenings are almost entirely occupied with searching online for new listings and going out on viewings or drive-bys.
She’s no longer thinking about a duplex. “It doesn’t feel like the responsible thing to do. I think it’s better to buy a whole piece of land because that’s where the money is, that’s where the resale value is. It just seems more secure.”
But even though she can buy a house up to $1.1 million, she’s finding it tough to find her dream home in Canada’s priciest real estate market.
There was one perfect house made even better by the fact that it was priced in the $840s. She found the listing as soon as it was posted and jumped on it, but despite her quick action, the house was sold before she got to it.
Then there was new Vancouver special that looked more like a heritage house. Not only did it have a unique look, it had the layout she’s after. But by the time she found it, the owners had taken it off the market.
The capper was the three-storey house with an above-grade basement suite downstairs. It was quite new and priced at $799,000. It looked like a steal… until she found out it was a former grow-op.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is, and for Elaine that includes any house priced under $800,000. With all the research she does, she knows house prices in her chosen neighbourhoods inside out, and she’s learned to distrust any listing with a price that seems too low for the area.
So the dream house is just going to have to stay in the future. “For now we’re going to look for one with lots of rental income and save up for the one we ultimately want,” she says.
The decision has lightened her load at a highly stressful time. It’s broadened the range of acceptable houses. She can look at the new Vancouver specials that she used to reject because they always had a rental suite on the main floor, and she wanted the main floor and upstairs for herself.
Now that first-floor rental suite is a desirable feature. The income from that will help her get to her ultimate goal, to buy a house in Vancouver that’s exactly what she wants.
[As of 6 Oct 2012, no apparent further updates. -ed]
The final chapter sounds like a dangerous recipe: a rationale for overpaying for a property that is very suboptimal for the owner (a house with the (necessary) rental suite on the main floor!). If Elaine takes the plunge, she could be regretting the decision for a decade or two. – vreaa