Snow is starting to fall, season passes are starting to sell and Whistler Blackcomb is ready for the onslaught of winter visitors. Among them will be people who’ve been thinking for a few years about buying a home in Whistler, and now they’re ready to get serious.
Well, now is the perfect time, according to Whistler Realtors Pat Kelly, Shauna O’Callaghan and Ron Mitchell.
“Years ago Whistler was the big-ticket item. Today it’s the exact opposite.” says Shauna O’Callaghan of MacDonald Realty Whistler.” Now people are coming up from Vancouver and going, ‘Oh my gosh, you can’t get this in Vancouver.’”
The rubber-tire market
The rubber-tire market is homeowners from the Vancouver area. They make up about 70 per cent of Whistler homeowners.
That makes the improved Sea-to-Sky Highway a big factor in the real estate market. Pat Kelly, of Whistler Real Estate Co. Ltd., says “We’re more accessible now. It’s an hour and 20 minutes from Lions Gate. Compare that to getting on a ferry or driving four hours to the Interior. If you’ve got an active family or you’re an outdoors enthusiast, where else would you go? It’s good value and people are reacting to it.”
The Olympics also affected the real estate market, but not in the way people were expecting. A lot of people were holding on to property until after the Olympics, but the games didn’t bring a surge of new buyers. If anything they cut Whistler off from its usual buyers. People who hit the slopes every weekend or take their kids up weekly for ski school didn’t go up during the Olympics because the roads were controlled.
Now that we’re one ski season beyond the Olympics, it’s clear that there’s not going to be a big run-up in prices. As Shauna O’Callaghan observes, “The sellers who have decided to sell are motivated, and I think we’re seeing such incredible value in the market that it’s pretty exciting for buyers.”
A quick history of the Whistler real estate market
Ron Mitchell of Sutton West Coast Realty, Whistler, gave us an overview of Whistler property values, then and now.
“From 1998 through 2002 there was large demand and property values went up 100%. Then the market softened slowly through 2006 where it basically bottomed out. At the same time, prices in Vancouver were going up and a lot of Vancouver people were jumping into the market. But the shock of 2008 put the brakes on all recreational and a lot of residential markets throughout North America.
“From 2008 people were holding on thinking the Olympics were going to spread some magic dust. Meanwhile, prices of unrestricted recreational properties — chalets, condos and townhouses — have softened by 20-25 percent. Condo hotels have dropped in value about 50 per cent from their peak in 2002-03, when American investors were buying them as revenue properties with their 65-cent dollar.”
Here’s the Whistler Listing System breakdown of this year’s average prices compared to last year’s.
January 1 to September 30, 2012
(excluding timeshare, quarter-share and employee housing)
Buyers want affordability and convenience. The days of building your own cabin or chalet are over. Now, buyers are going for condos or townhomes with all the bells and whistles. They want location, views and full amenity packages along with moderate strata fees, in complexes that are well maintained.
Pat Kelly says, “The bulk of the market is multifamily, and that’s where we’ve some seen improvement in activity: properties people can use easily and lock up and go back home, not something that requires you to be a slave to it.
“You want to go ski and bike and run and go to galleries and festivals and shows… the last thing you want to be doing is cutting the lawn or shoveling snow.”
He notes that buyers are being very careful with their wallets right now. “People are rationalizing their expenditure a bit more. They’re buying an $800,000 condo instead of a $1.5 million dollar house. And they’re buying what they need more than what they might want.”
Shauna O’Callaghan agrees. “You don’t see people building as much as you see them renovating — buying an older chalet or townhouse and upgrading or modernizing it. Which is a sign of people being more conservative and focusing on an affordable lifestyle.”
Ron Mitchell thinks the potential for Whistler’s aging chalets is very attractive. “The dirt value has gone down,” he says. “I just sold a 40-year-old classic Gothic arch cabin in Alpine Meadows, three bedrooms, one-bathroom, priced at $548,000. It sold within 31 days at land value: $534,000.”
Opportunities like that are beginning to attract people who want to live the Whistler life full time, says Shauna O’Callaghan. “I think people moving here is the upcoming trend. I think you’re going to see people who might have had a $3 million home in Kerrisdale and now all of a sudden you can cash out and that’s a lot of money in the bank. And these are younger couples, not so much retirees.”
Slow and stable
If you’re selling in Whistler, it’ll probably take you a while. And if you’re buying in Whistler, you might have to wait until your dream property comes on the market. Whistler is a small market, averaging 500 to 600 transactions a year, so that makes it a slower market than what Vancouverites are used to.
The Realtors say they have to manage seller expectations.
Pat Kelly says, “We’re dealing with discretionary items. Nobody really needs to have a second place at Whistler. So it does mean that the negotiation approach is more cautious, more investment oriented. We tell people we’ve had listings for two or three years, and that’s how long the absorption is for some of these properties. So if you don’t go into it with the expectation that you might not see an offer for six months, you’re going to get pretty frustrated, pretty quick.”
Ron Mitchell advises, “If you do not have to sell, if your expectations are not in line with the current market, don’t list it. It will just sit and sit.”
Shauna O’Callaghan emphasizes that it’s important to use a local Realtor who understands the market. For one thing, “Not everything gets on the MLS®, because the REBGV system does not let us put all the important criteria in the listings, for example if it’s a hotel phase two. Everybody here uses the Whistler Listing System.
“There are so many different types of property here — hotel condos, quarter-ownership, things like that. If you’re not working with someone who really knows the ins and outs of Whistler you’re going to have some unexpected issues: for instance, if people buy a townhome it might be in the rental pool and they’d have to honour upcoming reservations.”
Pat Kelly sees the Realtor’s role as managing risk. “You really need the Realtor to make sure you’ve got all the risk elements associated clearly in your head, and make sure it happens the way it’s supposed to happen. Then you turn over all the rocks and find out what’s underneath. Because when you deal with somebody who knows the marketplace, you know the history.”
This from a guy who often gets a chuckle out of going into a chalet for sale and remembering when he used to party there in the 80s.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” he says. “Whistler continues to evolve, and from the investor’s point of view we are a controlled environment, and that keeps the value up. The size of the community is controlled.”
Ron Mitchell adds that a permanent population of 10 thousand people plus year-round recreational activity makes it a viable real estate market.
He says, “I don’t see any major catalyst changing real estate value in the next five years. The international visitor who wants to invest can be a strong influence, but I don’t have a crystal ball for the world economy. Meanwhile there’s enough interest and financial stability coming out of Metro Vancouver to sustain Whistler at the level it’s at right now.”
* Phase 2 condos, or hotel condos, are operated by hotels and owners are restricted in the amount of time they can stay. The condos are in the hotel’s rental pool for the rest of the year and owners receive part of the rental revenue.