Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
By Stephen Vogler
For the article I wrote last month I barricaded myself in a library and set out to learn all I could about the history of real estate. Roaming the dusty aisles I discovered that there are myriad ways of dealing with land holdings, that plots of land haven't always been bought and sold like cars, and that our inflationary real estate prices create more of a crook's paradise than a healthy society. Pleased with my new perspective on the subject, I still felt that my knowledge was more theoretical than practical. I needed to get out in the field to see how real estate prices were really affecting the people of Whistler. For a writer, the field tends to be the phone, the cafe and the pub — so off I went to work.
Anthony Solomonson spends almost as much time at the Whistler Cookie Company as me, so it wasn't surprising that I caught up with him there. Anthony has lived in Whistler for six years, but just bought a small house in Fernie for $26,000.
"The cost was low," he says. "Friends were already buying places there so I know quite a few people."
At age 30, Anthony had been thinking about buying a house for the last three or four years, but knew it wouldn't be possible in Whistler.
"You see super wealthy people around in the restaurants, but you know you can never attain that," he says. "It's like a barrier. Those people are willing to work their whole lives."
Even if he could make enough money to support a house in Whistler, Anthony points out that banks are not likely to offer a mortgage to someone with a seasonal job. And if he did manage to get a mortgage, the huge payments would leave no time for ski touring and enjoying the mountains — the things that brought him to Whistler in the first place. Work may be a necessary evil for all of us, but to survive in Whistler these days you need to do a lot more of it than in many other places. By moving to Fernie Anthony hopes to spend less of his time working and more of it out in the mountains doing the things he loves.
But the problem in towns like Fernie is finding enough work to get by. Anthony says he'd move there right away if he could find a decent job, but that's not easy to do. For now he's willing to work a few months in Whistler to save money, then go to Fernie to fix up his house and enjoy the mountains.
"Here's where I'm making the money," he says, "there's where I feel like I have a home."
The high cost of Whistler real estate is also causing some families to move to other parts of the province. Lee and Ian Mounsey sold their house in Whistler Cay last year and moved with their three children to a house on a 10-acre orchard in Oliver, B.C.
"My concerns were, we were spending less and less time with the kids and more time working," Ian told me over the phone. "We had dual mountain passes and no time to use them."
Mortgage payments, combined with outrageous property taxes, meant the Mounseys both had to work full time and put the kids in daycare more than they liked. After living in the valley for 20 years, and with family here, it was difficult to leave, but Lee says "for us, economically and for family harmony, it was just the best thing."
The Mounseys sold their house in Whistler for $475,000 and bought the income-producing orchard with a house for $340,000.
"Because we owned a home we had a certain amount of equity," Ian says, "so we could change our position. We weren't stuck in it."
Mounsey believes that Whistler will likely go through a change over the next few years as more locals decide to move away.
"I think the demographics are going to change. A lot of the residents work in construction and are used to those wages. They're either going to change to the service industry, with a big cut in wages, or move elsewhere. That's going to change the town."
Another reason behind the Mounseys’ move was that real estate prices would likely force their kids to move away once they grew up.
"One of the futures in Whistler I saw," Ian says, "was that when my kids turned 18 or 19 they would have had to leave the valley. Ten years from now, I don't think wages are going to catch up to housing costs."
Ironically, the same situation is now occurring with orchard operators in places like Oliver. Real estate prices are rapidly rising and young people in the area can no longer afford to continue the lifestyle their parents enjoyed. The price of an orchard like the Mounsey's has recently risen from under $200,000 to between $300,000 and $400,000. In fact, the people who sold the orchard to the Mounseys moved to Squamish and two of their grown children now work in Whistler.
The high cost of housing is also what caused Heather and Vic Beresford to move to Pemberton last summer after living in Whistler for more than 15 years.
"We needed a bigger place and couldn't afford anything in Whistler," Heather told me over the phone. "Even a lot of two-bedroom townhouses are in the upper $200,000 range."
But the Beresfords discovered that the inflationary forces of real estate were alive and well in Pemberton as well. After selling their one-bedroom condo in Whistler's Eva Lake Village, they bought a lot in Pemberton last April for $84,000. An additional 18 lots adjacent to their subdivision sold in the fall over the course of a weekend, and other new lots are now going for up to $120,000. Houses in that subdivision will probably sell for $320,000 this year. Heather says they feel lucky to have a house in Pemberton, but adds that it is only possible because Vic is a builder.
But the fact that they had to move away from Whistler in order to build a house leaves Heather feeling somewhat pushed out.
"We both work here (in Whistler). We're contributors to the community, and there are few choices for people like us."
Heather cautions that she doesn’t want to be dubbed a whiner, and says she made a choice to pursue her love of skiing rather than a lucrative career. But lucrative career or not, Whistler’s doors are rapidly closing on young people trying to establish a home here. Nonetheless, Heather doesn't want to see Whistler’s development cap continually raised to build more affordable housing.
"I don't want to see the valley lose what attracted me here in the first place. I'd rather see the cap kept on so Whistler can maintain its character, because it’s a privilege to own a home in Whistler, not a right."
Another concern of Heather's is that soaring real estate prices are changing the nature of the community.
"I think things become so expensive when you're catering to a world market — people who come up only a few days a year. It affects the sense of community. When I first came to Whistler, people moved here for the skiing. Now they move here for the status. I think that changes Whistler for the negative as well."
While Whistler's expensive housing market may be attracting a new breed of local, it continues to turn away many of its existing residents. Cam Salay lives at his home in Emerald Estates and plays bass and banjo with Vancouver's Celtic-rock band, The Paperboys. I caught up with him at jam night at the Boot Pub where I managed to scrawl down a few notes on a beer coaster. Cam bought his house in the early 1980s when prices were relatively low, but he still carries a hefty mortgage and faces large tax hikes every year.
"I want to live here, but I can't afford the taxes," he says. "The house is worth millions, but I'm in the arts and I don't make enough money to live here."
If Whistler's real estate prices continue to soar, we will likely see more and more locals leaving the valley. The community will lose much of its diversity as fewer families, ski bums, artists and others from all walks of life can afford to live here. But Whistler isn't the only town suffering from the inflationary forces of the real estate market. Housing prices have risen ten-fold in towns like Nelson, Rossland and Pemberton in the last decade, and other towns like Fernie could be next.
If you buy in the right place at the right time you can turn a healthy profit by selling and moving on to the next town. But ultimately it depends where you want to live. Personally, I like it right here in Whistler, even if we are at the mercy of a huge real estate boom. If nothing else I can bare witness to the effect it will have on the community. The only thing is, I don't know if I can afford to stay.