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Squamish real estate market limping back toward normal

In Squamish, you can't walk 100 metres these days without seeing a "For Sale" sign in front of homes, flapping in the wind. They are everywhere and their ubiquity tells the tale of a real estate ship struggling to fill its sails.

In Squamish, you can't walk 100 metres these days without seeing a "For Sale" sign in front of homes, flapping in the wind. They are everywhere and their ubiquity tells the tale of a real estate ship struggling to fill its sails.

Merely three years ago, the Squamish housing market was a roaring success: the total home sales for 2007 were 679, the highest number of home sales in a decade. Not only that, in 2007 the housing prices in Squamish climbed faster than any other community in the Lower Mainland, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

But with 2008 came the economic downturn (we don't mention the R word here, a real estate agent said wryly), and suddenly the market fizzled out like a pricked balloon. Home sales plummeted to 369 in 2008 and dropped to 367 in 2009.

In 2010, there have been 222 sales until July, a number that has inspired some optimism, although of a cautious variety, in at least one group: real estate agents.

"You could feel the market shifting," said Lisa Bjornson, the managing broker at Black Tusk Realty looking back on the approaching 2008 recession. "We had been going up for the past seven years and then the downturn really startled us. The number of sales just stopped."

She said the boom in 2007 was a result of new residential projects launched in anticipation of the Olympics, the highway construction and the low interest rates. In 2007, she said, no one could have predicted the market would have tanked the way it did the following year.

"It was just a different beast," Sam Stoddart, the managing broker of Macdonald Realty, said of 2007.

"The economy was good, the highway was being built and growth was very strong. But the real estate market is a cycle and we had a pretty good go at it," he said.

Bjornson hopes to see at least 400 home sales by the end of the year, a number she said would came close to the historic trend in Squamish before the 2007 boom.

"Patience is the order of the day," said Candice Dyer, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Realty in Squamish. She said the new waterfront development is a positive sign of things to come in Squamish, one which has the capacity to inject life into the now anemic market.

"It's a large development and I think people need to see visible signs of development. Squamish has a diverse mixture of openings and there is a lot planned here," she said.

Squamish has a large number of homes listed for sale (about 550). But slow sales have been attributed to a range of factors, from HST on new houses, to economic anxiety about the future and even to higher prices.

Of the large inventory, Dyer said sellers have waited the past two years during the recession and now deem this as the right time to sell their home. Some like Sam Stoddart, however, say Squamish home prices are still not a bargain for someone who might want to move from the Lower Mainland to live in Squamish.

"Either the prices have to come down or we have to create some excitement. We also need to have more jobs in Squamish for more people to afford homes," Stoddart said.

Squamish real estate prices have been dropping gradually, becoming a buyer's market. A townhome that went for $340,000 about three years can be bought for close to $300,000 today. Similarly, prices are leveling in Garibaldi Highlands, an area where you had to shell out at least half-a-million to call it home. Now, there are homes that you might be able to get for less than $500,000.

Squamish mirrors the trend that's being seen all across the Lower Mainland. The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver reported last week that the number of residential property sales in Greater Vancouver fell 45 per cent when compared to the same month last year.

A similar but slightly rose-tinged prognosis was delivered by the British Columbia Real Estate Association. It said the residential sales are forecast to decline by seven per cent this year, but will increase five per cent next year.

"Housing demand has fallen back to earth from its break-neck pace at the end of 2009," said Cameron Muir, the chief economist at the board.

Muir also said a large inventory has been created, making it a buyer's market. But that might change quickly once homes start selling.

Those planning to buy should perhaps start paying a closer look at the For Sale signs. In Squamish, the winds might change sooner than expected.