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Whistler real estate market stabilizing

July residential property sales comparable to last year

The real estate sector may have gotten off to a shaky start this year, but agents in Whistler reported this week that residential sales are picking up pace and returning to "normal" levels.

According to the latest statistics, 40 properties were sold in Whistler in July at a total value of $28 million.

During the entire third quarter last year, July to September, 118 properties were sold at a total value of $93 million.

Pat Kelly, owner of the Whistler Real Estate Company, said the real estate sector is well on its way to matching last year's transaction numbers.

"It is building," said Kelly of the market place.

"You don't go from zero to 100, but it is picking up at the moment... If it continues to grow, I think we'll be able to see a return to levels of business by the end of third quarter."

Kelly said in the last two month he has noticed a strong improvement in the confidence levels of buyers, and people in general are more interested in purchasing real estate.

"You can't underestimate the power of buyer psychology," said the 30-year Whistler resident.

"If they are scared or unsure about the future, they are not going to make any big decisions. I think we have gone through that period where the buyer is unsure about the future and is now prepared to make commitments again, but they are cautious and they aren't chasing things."

Over at Sutton, real estate agent Ron Mitchell reconfirmed Kelly's observations.

"Things are picking up," said Mitchell.

"It is selective, but there is definitely more than there was four or five weeks ago."

And Ann Chiasson, president of Sea to Sky Premier Properties, added: "I think a lot of people are starting to make decisions now."

Residential real estate transactions are up across the board for different property types compared to the start of 2009, with the strongest area of the market right now homes valued between $400,000 and $1 million.

This summer's real estate rebound spells good news for a sector that saw a huge hit at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 as stock markets around the world tumbled with the financial crisis. At the beginning of June, residential real estate sales were down 35 to 60 per cent for almost all property types in Whistler compared to the same time last year.

The agents generally cited three main reasons for the real estate market comeback: prices have come down and mortgage rates are low, real estate markets around the world are also stabilizing, and the Greater Vancouver real estate sector saw a significant rebound in June.

"Many people just basically sat and put their hands in their pocket and waited to see what would transpire," said Mitchell.

"We are seeing Vancouver people come back. These are the people particularly who have been sitting on the fence. Their market since June has been incredible. They have seen a real rebound in activity," he said, adding that approximately 60 to 70 per cent of Whistler's real estate buyers hail from the Lower Mainland.

Meanwhile, tourist accommodation units, like condominium hotels, aren't moving as quickly. Both Kelly and Mitchell said this is probably because the typical buyer from Vancouver is interested in a recreational property, not an investment property.

"The hotels, relative to where they have been in years past, the income is down, and as a result, it doesn't make a hotel condo look all that attractive from an investment point of view," said Mitchell.

Mitchell added he believes that trend may change as tourist accommodation revenues increase and the prices come down some more.

Homes valued over $2.5 million are also not selling as fast, although Kelly reported sales are starting to pick up.

Despite this summer's boost in residential real estate sales, the real estate market may not be out of the woods yet.

"I don't want to use the word fragile, but it wouldn't take much for it to slow down again," said Kelly.

"As a resort, we are so controlled by things that happen outside of the resort... We are a discretionary item. Nobody has to buy here other than people who live here, which is a small part of the market."

He added that he expects at the end of the year residential real estate sales will be down 30 per cent compared to an average year.

How the approaching Olympics will impact the real estate market also remains open to debate. Generally, real estate sales leading up to the Games in other Olympic cities have been slow, but this year's drop in pricing and mortgage rates add a twist to the equation.

"Typically, in other Olympic cities, there has been such a lead up to the Olympics that it scares people, but we haven't experienced that here because our prices have been soft for so long," said Mitchell.

"Once we pass December, I anticipate things being quiet as we settle in for the Olympic period. It will be next spring or summer before we see a return to more activity."

Chiasson said the Olympics may be helping out Whistler's market a bit but "our market is already fairly solid."

She said the greatest benefit is people are finding out about Whistler that didn't know about it before.