Whistler real estate is hot property 

To no one’s surprise, Whistler real estate continues to attract national and international attention, generating more than $400 million CDN in sales to date this year – approximately $100 million more than in 1999.

Figures show the biggest percentage increase in prices this year has occurred in single family lots, which are up 45 per cent over 1999 due to the short supply. The biggest market overall is in the condo and townhouse categories, which tend to be dominated by Canadian buyers and influenced by regional economic conditions.

However, it is the high end of the market that has seen the biggest price increases, with international and U.S. investors comprising the bulk of purchasers.

"In 1998 around 15 properties over the $1 million mark sold in Whistler, compared to more than 70 homes in that bracket for the year to date," Pat Kelly, president of the Whistler Real Estate Company, said in mid-December.

The highest priced home sold in Whistler in 2000 – and indeed in all of Canada – was the 5,000 square foot Akasha mansion on Sunridge Plateau built by Munster & Sons. It was bought in February by Californian-based publisher Chris Anderson for $7.9 million.

Developer Andrew Munster saw the huge potential of the high end market years ago, and says other builders are now following suite. However, he says massive projects like Akasha are years in the making and the market needs to be analyzed thoroughly before starting off.

"The market can change," he said. "The dot-comers for example aren’t spending as much as they used to and other factors such as finding the right location must be taken into account."

He says he is considering a number of new big housing projects that utilize energy efficient technologies, but construction is at least a year away.

Kelly, says there has been "a dramatic increase in (housing) prices in all categories and in overall sales volumes." Limited supply and a positive investment reputation overseas are the factors commonly sited for the record sales this year.

Kelly says increasing real estate prices have not put off investors, with 10 per cent more buyers in the market in 2000 compared to last year. He emphasizes, however, that any percentage statistics should be taken "with a grain of salt, given the limited size of the Whistler market."

Still, Kelly says it’s a complete turnaround from 1998, when Whistler was competing head-on with Colorado resorts that were riding the wave of two bumper snow seasons. Since then there’s been a change in the weather – figuratively and literally.

"There is an increasing perception internationally and in Vancouver that Whistler is good comparable value to other North American ski resorts, plus Colorado has had very little snow for two seasons," Kelly says.

The high value of the U.S. dollar compared to the Canadian buck has helped attract American investors, Kelly says, but not to the extent that people think. Whistler’s number one resort ranking has also helped, he said.

Ann Chiasson, owner of Windermere Sea to Sky Real Estate, says the lower price range market is not as strong as the high end, but overall, things looks positive.

"You hear all this doom and gloom about falls in the dot-com buyer market, the depressed Asian economy and the weak Canadian dollar, but Whistler is individual and does not seem to be affected," Chiasson says.

She believes Whistler is just beginning to tap into the high end market and the days of Lear Jets flying into the area won’t be too far off.

"We have only been building the high end product in the last 18 months and the Americans are just beginning to discover it," she explained. "These people want big houses so they can bring their families and friends up here and take time out."

The saying, "people go to Vail to be seen, they come to Whistler to hide," really does apply, she added.

However, she says local zoning restrictions may hinder the development of the luxury home market and the municipality should look into this.

"These big homes pay top dollar property taxes but it is locals who benefit from any surpluses, since they are the ones typically using the community’s facilities, not the home-owning visitors."

Chiasson admits big housing projects also have their downsides but says the current 5,000 square foot house restrictions may need revising.

According to the Whistler Real Estate Company’s internal statistics, the geographic origin of buyers has remained consistent over the past two years, despite the increased sales volumes. It says Canadians comprise approximately 60 per cent of Whistler real estate buyers, with the majority being from within the Sea to Sky corridor and the Lower Mainland. U.S. buyers make up around 20 per cent of the market, with Europe and South-east Asia each taking around three per cent.

Kelly says Tourism Whistler and other promoters have done an excellent job marketing the resort to world-wide investors and the dividends are now paying off. However, he cautions the need for price sensitivity in all sectors.

"Money is mobile, it has no loyalty and will go where the best value is perceived to be," he said. "Rumours are already circulating that Whistler is damn expensive and it is crucial for its long term success that investors feel they are getting good value for money."

Real estate sales are not independent of wider consumer pricing and the cost of living, he adds.

While Whistler remains a valley of hot properties, it’s got a long way to go to reach Vail and Aspen. According to the Aspen Times , members of the Aspen Board of Realtors sold more than $1 billion (US) in real estate during 2000 for the second year in a row. And the Denver Post reported that a single real estate firm sold $1.1 billion (US) worth of properties in and around Vail from October 1999 to Sept. 30 of this year.

However, direct comparisons with Whistler are not valid. Both Aspen and Vail real estate figures take into account sales in towns near the two ski centres, whereas Whistler sales figures do not include Pemberton or other areas.

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