The Millennials are here, but are we ready?

The Vancouver Sun, September 15, 2014

‘Millennials’ are the kids crammed into overcrowded B-Line buses headed to and from UBC. They are the many under-employed servers and clerks, unpaid interns and contract workers.

They are frequently dissed as being entitled, lazy and arrogant. But they are also the largest demographic group to come along since the Baby Boom.

What they do, want and aspire to already influences everything from fashion to urban design.

But for urban planners, the most important question isn’t what do they want now, it’s what will they want in the future.

Because meeting their future wants and needs means building that infrastructure now — whether it’s more transit and more tightly packed cities, or more suburbs and freeways.

At this point, no one’s sure which they will choose.

Right now, they are flooding into urban centres like Vancouver.

“It has built ‘up’ instead of ‘out’. It has good transit, walkability. It has an interesting arts scene, music, cafes and shopping,” says Markus Moos, who teaches urban planning at the University of Waterloo. “Millennials seek vibrancy.”

TransLink statistics indicate that Millennials are three times more likely to live close to transit, and much more likely to live downtown than other age group.

Unlike previous generations, Millennials no longer see getting a driver’s license or owning a car as rites of passage.

Only half of Metro’s 16-to-19-year-olds can drive, while among 25- to 29-year-olds, car ownership has dropped 10 per cent in the last decade.

But as they get a bit older and start to have families, will they want to raise their children downtown?

If more of them do, something will have to be done soon because Yaletown’s only elementary school already can’t cope with the unprecedented increase in the number of children.

Then, there is the question of housing. Some Millennials may be content to raise children in one- or two-bedroom apartments and condos. There are some larger units, but Moos says many of those are already beyond the reach of a generation strapped with larger debts and poorer job prospects than their parents.

To make it work, he says, there will likely need to be some form of government intervention. What kind is an open question.

It could, for example, be encouragement to developers to build different forms of housing with more shared communal space to keep costs down, even higher density or some sort of incentive to developers to forego expensive finishes like granite counters and stainless-steel appliances.

Of course, the Gen-Yers may decide they want to return to their suburban roots where land prices mean cheaper housing.

But Moos believes that returning Millennials will want a different, more vibrant suburban experience that is close to what they have become accustomed to in the cities, and less reliance on cars because many are not only used to transit, they prefer it.

Accommodating such tastes means that suburbs need to change. Short of sprawling ever further onto prime agriculture land, adding more cars, more exhaust and more carbon into the air, planners and politicians need to be preparing for higher-density developments and more transit rather than more roads.

American studies suggest that young adults are more practical about their transportation choices and more concerned about the environmental impacts of their choices.

They will walk or ride bikes if that is easiest. For longer trips, they prefer buses and rapid transit because it gives them time to catch up on social media or work. For trips to big-box stores, Millennials are the most likely to use car co-ops and car shares.

So what does it all mean for planners?

Transit. Transit. Transit. That is one of the clearest messages that Moos says we should be getting.

Regardless of whether the Millennials choose downtown or the suburbs, they are likely to continue to demand access to transit.

Two-thirds of the region’s jobs and nearly half its residents are located within walking distance of rapid transit. And while the population increased by 15 per cent between 2002 and 2012, transit ridership increased by 85 per cent to 1.2 million riders a day, 233.9 million trips a year on buses, trains and SeaBus.

But the system needs improving to meet rising demand, and TransLink needs money beyond its current budget of $1.2 billion a year to do that.

And that is only going to be possible if citizens approve new funding sources for the regional transportation authority in next spring’s referendum.

Beyond that, Moos says, Millennials’ choices of where they live will definitely impact housing prices.

And while some people speculate that this will mean higher prices for suburban single-family homes, Moos suggests the bigger demand might be for urban condos.

There, the competition won’t only come from other Millennials, but from their deeper-pocketed parents, who are discovering the joys of downtown living now that the kids have left home.

Vancouver real estate breaks $2M mark east of Fraser Street

CBC News, September 24, 2014

East Vancouver prices mirror what’s happening on upscale West Side.

Vancouver’s East Side may no longer be the affordable, funky alternative to the tony, high-priced real estate west of Main Street.

At least if a recent sale is any indication.

A house at 846 E 27th Avenue, on a 33 ft. wide lot just east of Fraser Street has sold for the asking price of $2,150,000. And the realtor who listed it says the new buyers traded UP from their last home on the West Side.

“It’s significant because it shows there is not that sort of same discrepancy between the East Side and the West Side as there once was. I think the gap has narrowed in terms of price,” said Paul Eviston, of RE/MAX Select Properties.

As prices rise in the West Side, more buyers are finding they get more for their money east of Main Street, Eviston says.

“There are many buyers that have sold their homes on the West Side and have moved to the East Side, put money in the bank, and there are many buyers that once would buy only on the West Side that are considering the East Side based on the value quotient.”

The house is three years old and comes with a laneway house. Both structures have a combined total of six bedrooms and six bathrooms within 4,150 sq. ft. The house was only listed a couple of days before selling in the spring.

The house was built by Mercia Construction. The company built two other similar houses on the same block, without laneway houses, that sold for $1,395,000 just four years ago.

“There are funky, affordable neighbourhoods in East Vancouver but they’re a little further east now and they are different neighbourhoods than they were five and 10 years ago,” said Eviston.

Downtown Vancouver residential boom creates need for services, amenities

Vancouver Sun, July 15, 2014

New Downtown South neighbourhood lacks food shopping, family dining options.

One of Vancouver’s fastest-changing neighbourhoods is facing a dearth of services and amenities amid a boom of residential tower construction, say residents, developers and other stakeholders in the city’s Downtown South.

The roughly six-block section of Downtown South wedged between Howe and Seymour streets near the Granville Street Bridge has arguably undergone one of the city’s most dramatic transformations. There are roughly eight recently completed or proposed residential buildings that will both alter the skyline and draw in thousands of new residents.

Among the new buildings will be Westbank’s 52-storey Vancouver House, with its 407 condominiums and 95 rental apartments. The new tower is under pre-construction and due for completion in 2018.

Mike Orchison and Lilian Yan moved into the recently completed Maddox Downtown at Drake and Howe streets in April with their 12-year-old son. They had been living in Yaletown, but made the slight shift west after they found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit in the development by Cressey.

The couple said they were attracted to the neighbourhood because condo prices were a little lower than in Yaletown and there were several new buildings to choose from. They quickly discovered, however, that the area lacks shopping, dining and service options.

“Now that we’re living there we’re really starting to feel that there is something missing as far as the downtown lifestyle that we can enjoy with a family,” Orchison said in an interview.

In Yaletown, almost all of the restaurants were family friendly, he said. “And Granville South, well, it’s [only] the Subway [restaurant] that allows kids. Most of them are just bars and they’re not kid friendly.”

Yan and Orchison said this particular pocket of Downtown South could also use a new grocery store, more family friendly entertainment and new shopping options.

“Grocery wise, in Yaletown there is an Urban Fare that was one block away from us,” Yan said. “In south Granville there is no real grocery store, except for a corner store. That’s a bit of an inconvenience.”

Charles Gauthier, President and CEO of the Downtown Business Improvement Association said the association raised that same issue with city officials just weeks ago. He said the experiment of including small commercial spaces in the podiums of residential towers in the area has failed to generate a diverse set of amenities for what is quickly becoming a very densely populated corner of the city.

“We think that [the city’s] policy of trying to encourage that kind of retail, or commercial activations, at the base level of residences along Howe and Seymour may not have been the most successful strategy,” Gauthier said, adding that the solution may be found in turning the south end of Granville into more of a traditional shopping district with larger commercial spaces.

He said the area needs more day-to-day amenities and services. “It could be a dry-cleaner, it could be a hairdresser, the barber shop, that kind of thing.”

The boom in residential development in the area has created an “instant consumer base,” he said, adding that wise business operators would be looking now for space in the area.

Most of the new residents in Downtown South are young people, he added. “When we had that planning meeting with the city a couple of weeks ago they identified that it’s a 20-to-39-year-old demographic, rather than a much older demographic that you see in the West End.”

Cressey Development Group first purchased the land for the Maddox building in 2007. Executive vice-president Hani Lammam said he’s witnessed the neighbourhood change dramatically since then.

“I would suggest that it is one of the last precincts of downtown that wasn’t developed, and now all the available sites are taking shape,” he said.

“The residential towers get built and then the commercial tenants try to find space to support them,” he said. “In many locations, there wasn’t enough space built to accommodate the future commercial space demand.”

He agreed that residents in the area need another food store plus more restaurants and services so that people don’t have to jump in their car or a taxi to get what they need.

“You shouldn’t have to do that,” he said. “That’s the whole point.”

There is no question that the demand for new and different businesses is increasing, he said. “Whoever gets their foot in the door first and establishes their customer base, they’re going to have the advantage.”

InvestorForum Vancouver, a smashing success

Canadian Real Estate Magazine – November 23, 2011

What can we say? The Vancouver InvestorForum was a huge success, exceeding both delegate and exhibitor expectations.

It’s all courtesy of Diamond sponsor Vision Investment Properties, which helped bring together more than 350 professional real estate investors for Canadian Real Estate`s first major event in Western Canada, at Vancouver’s Convention Centre.

Each was treated to first-class seminars featuring some of Canada’s greatest names in real estate, including Don Campbell, author of the newly released Secrets of the Canadian Real Estate Cycle; Philip DuMoulin, star of the hit TV series Urban Suburban; Peter Kinch, author of The Canadian Real Estate Action Plan; Dan and Nikki Hall, the twin brother-sister team of the W Network series Sibling Rivalry.

A real treat was the InvestorForum’s keynote speech, say the vast majority of attendees, calling Olympian-turned real estate entrepreneur Cary Mullen a moving and compelling speaker.

He took delegates on a journey through his 10-year career as a top athlete competing in international downhill ski tournaments. The presentation included video highlights of him capturing the gold in World Cup downhill competition in 1994 and setting a world downhill speed record of 156 kilometres per hour in Kitzbuhel, Austria.

Mullen outlined the ways they can apply his own training lessons to their own investment careers, the subject of his popular book How to Win.

The challenge for delegates, he said, is to overcome their fear and to “lunge forward” into their next business venture, taking their portfolios to that next level. It’s not unlike what Mullen did when he started out investing in Canadian residential properties. He’s now developed a 250-unit resort on the Pacific coast of Mexico near the city of Puerto Escondido.

In an attempt to capture some of the Forum’s most memorable moments, Canadian Real Estate has provided a brief summary of some popular sessions.

Campbell debunks real estate myths
Don Campbell, president of the Real Estate Investment Network, stepped on to the stage during the first day of the conference to dispel some widely held myths about real estate investing.

The first myth he took aim at was the seemingly blind belief many investors have in the plethora of statistics reported daily in the media, which include average prices, monthly sales and days on market.

In fact, Campbell even argued against focusing on housing starts. All too often the media gets wrapped up in reporting the next doomsday for the Canadian real estate market, based that long-term opinion on the very short-term fluctuations in the annualized rate of housing starts.
He told delegates they only need to worry about housing starts if the number falls below 197,000. They current sit 205,000.

Campbell told delegates to turn off the noise and start focusing on what really matter: economics.

In order to do that, however, Campbell homed in on another myth perpetrated by the get-rich-quick gurus; that is, the old cliché, “location, location, location.” Really, investors really need to stop focusing on aesthetics and the hunt for the next cheap neighbourhood.

“It has nothing to do with the price,” said Campbell, the owner of 171 investment properties. “Cheapness is not investing. If you’re looking at price you’re way behind me, and you’re way behind sophisticated investors.”

To find the right market, Campbell said investors only need to keep three key things in mind:
•    timing,
•    transitions
•    tactics.

Timing means understanding real estate cycles, while transitions refer to the major stages of that cycle, and, of course, tactics refers to the strategies used to deal with each cycle.

Campbell said investors who understand these three factors and use his “momentum formula,” which begins with looking at gross domestic product (GDP), employment and population growth, will be 18- to 24 months ahead of other real estate observers and the media, who remain obsessed with average prices and monthly sales statistics.

“These are the three things that you must have in a long-term sustainable real estate market,” Campbell said. “You must have economic growth. You’ve got to have job growth, and you’ve got to have population growth, because if you don’t have those three things supporting the market it doesn’t matter the price of that property is.”

Campbell told delegates committed to investing in Canada to smile. After getting back from a European tour last fall, Campbell said he was happy to report that bankers, investors and economists on that continent believe that even in a global economic slump Canada will reign supreme because of the country’s strong resource base.

That’s because the strength of Canada’s natural resource sector will steam ahead, especially in the production of what Campbell terms the “Four Fs”:

1.    food,
2.    fuel,
3.    fertilizer and
4.    forestry.

“We are going to be over the next decade the safe and secure suppl(ier) of the four Fs.”


Canadian Mortgage Trends – November 25, 2011

Four prominent economists met on a CAAMP panel Monday:

Avery Shenfeld (CIBC), Warren Jestin (Scotiabank), Stefane Marion (National Bank Financial) and Carlos Leitao (Laurentian Bank).

The eurozone crisis, employment, rates and CMHC were the topics of the day. Here’s what they expressed about each:

On Interest Rates

“It is not normal to have 2% inflation and a 1% overnight rate,” said Marion. Rates will normalize. “Do not sell (mortgages, especially shorter or variable-rate terms) to clients who may not be able to afford higher rates.”
“Prime should be the norm for variable rates.”—Leitao

Regarding rate cuts, we “can’t rule it out,” said Shenfeld.
The BoC suggests rates will stay low “for a long period of time.”—Jestin
Central banks will give inflation a longer leash (before raising rates), noted Leitao.
Despite a conditional commitment to keep rates low until mid-2013, “Don’t trust the Fed too much,” Marion advised. The Fed cannot “keep a promise on the long end of the curve” so we “can’t be too complacent.”

On Housing

The housing market is strong because rates are “at extraordinary levels,” said Jestin. “What worries me is that we’re at record levels of home ownership.”
There will come a point when rates will go up and house prices will come down, said Shenfeld. He warned: Watch out for more 5%+ annual price run-ups because “the bigger they are the harder they’ll fall.”
“Every other week OSFI is stress testing banks for falling house prices.”—Marion
If people continue to be qualified by reasonable standards then there is no housing bubble, declared Leitao.
Employment is Jestin’s #1 indicator for measuring the health of the housing market.
“I don’t pay attention to one month’s numbers on employment,” said Shenfeld. He added: Slow employment will lead to slow mortgage growth.
The “higher house prices go, the bigger mortgage [that] people need,” said Shenfeld. If prices level off it will impact originations.

On the European Crisis

“This is the first time we’ve face a sovereign global debt crisis.”—Marion.
Do you want to know if Europe is going to “blow up?” Watch the Italian 10-year yield says Shenfeld. The higher it goes, the worse the crisis gets.
Unlike European banks, there are “no liquidity issues” among Canadian banks, stated Jestin.
Shenfeld said that the mess in the rest of the world and a strong loonie have “to some extent been a friend of the mortgage consumer” (because of their depressing effect on rates). Yet, there is a point at which low rates are old news. Canadians have now started to say, “Maybe I’ve borrowed enough.”


CMHC might be worried about cities with big price run-ups (like the GTA and GVA). “Ottawa may adjust CMHC’s risk regionally,” speculated Shenfeld.
“Competition in the mortgage insurance market is not a bad thing,” said Laitao, adding that private default insurers add value in various ways.

More Canadians plan to do holiday shopping online

The Vancouver Sun –  November 28, 2011

Online shopping is gradually becoming more mainstream with a new survey showing almost half of Canadians asked say they’ll access the web for some of their holiday gift purchases this year.

The survey, commissioned by Bank of Montreal, had 46 per cent of respondents saying they would buy gifts this year over the Internet, up from 41 per cent in a poll done last year.

“This is a growing trend, with almost half of all Canadians now doing at least some of their holiday shopping online,” Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist for BMO Capital Markets, said in a statement.

Most of the gains between this year and last were with women, with 43 per cent in the latest survey indicating they would do some online shopping compared with 34 per cent last year. With men, 49 per cent said they planned to shop online this holiday season, unchanged from last year’s poll.

Such results were released on Cyber Monday, primarily a U.S. phenomenon but becoming more of an event in Canada. It is the first Monday after the American Thanksgiving and is usually the busiest online shopping day of the year.

The BMO survey was done online by Leger Marketing between Oct. 17 and 20, using a survey of 1,508 Canadians. BMO said a random sample this size would be representative of the population within 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Stuck in ‘decision quicksand’ – why we get mired in trivial choices

Vancouver Sun, November 14, 2011

Second only to the Bermuda Triangle, lengthy restaurant menus surely claim the most lost souls. You go in with plans for a simple meal, but it’s not long before the question of chicken or fish, salad or french fries, becomes a full-blown existential crisis.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, investigators call this “decision quicksand.”

You presume a choice will be easy but get confounded by other factors and thus spend more time on it than expected. And the more time you spend, the more meaningful the decision feels, causing you to sink deeper into contemplation — whether it’s ordering an entree, choosing a flight or selecting a brand of toothpaste.

“People experiencing a conflict in choice make an implicit inference that the decision must be important, because of this association we all have between importance and difficulty,” explains lead author Aner Sela, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Florida.

In fact, in an 80-person survey, 91 per cent of people indicated that important choices are generally more difficult and require more time than unimportant ones. Sela remarks that this belief is so strong that people will artificially complicate big decisions that seem too easy, in order to feel they’ve done “due diligence.”

But what he and the University of Pennsylvania’s Jonah Berger sought to test was why, and how, people get mired in trivial choices.

The pair conducted four studies using hundreds of participants and different types of choices, each framed as either important or unimportant. Confounding factors included giving people too many options, setting up too many trade-offs (for example, do you want a toothpaste that brightens but doesn’t clean well, or one that cleans well but leaves your smile looking dull?), and using fonts that were hard to read.

While difficulty had relatively little effect on decisions that already seemed important, they found it led people to spend more time on unimportant decisions.

“Like quicksand,” they write, “the additional effort that people exert to resolve the situation can lead them to get caught up even further.”

It was only after the participants regained their perspective, and realized the decision was inconsequential, that regret sank in.

“Getting sucked in will eventually make people less satisfied with the overall experience, and maybe even less happy with the product,” says Sela. “It can make us feel kind of stupid in hindsight.”

Fortunately, quicksand can be escaped. The study suggests that if people make themselves aware of potentially confounding factors in advance, and take a step back during decision-making, they can avoid getting tripped up.

“Distract yourself. Make a joke to someone. Look at the big picture,” says Sela. “Then come back to the decision and you’ll be surprised how refreshed your outlook will be.”

Luxury Home Sales Surge in Metro Vancouver

REW, November 12, 2011

From January 1 to the end of September of this year, 953 homes sold in Greater Vancouver for $2.5 million or more each, according to Eugene Klein, president of the commercial division of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. “That is almost as many as the three previous years combined,” Klein said.

The eye-popping sale prices have spurred considerable international interest, with the Board interviewed by major news outlets from the US, Europe and Asia, Klein said.

The demand for luxury homes is not seen just in the traditional high-end markets, such as West Vancouver or Vancouver’s West Side, but is also in the new home market from the Fraser Valley to Greater Vancouver, according to studies.

The Teranet-National Bank composite new home index shows that the typical price for a new home in Metro Vancouver increased 9.9 per cent as of August, compared to a year earlier. This is the highest increase for new home values in Canada.

“The strength of the upper-end segment continues to defy expectations,” said Elton Ash, regional executive vice-president, Re/Max of Western Canada, which profiled the luxury market in a study earlier this year.

According to the report, the improved financial standing among high net worth households is the major factor driving strong sales activity at the top end of Canada’s housing markets. The report notes, though, that foreign buyers also account for a number of luxury home sales in BC.

Re/Max examined 12 major Canadian centres and found that luxury sales surged in close to two-thirds of housing markets in the first four months of 2011, compared to the same period in 2010.

In terms of percentage increases over the period, Metro Vancouver — where foreign investment has also played a major role — led the nation with a 118-per-cent increase in luxury home sales, which ReMax defined as prices of $2 million or more.

That was followed by:

• Ottawa (59 per cent)

• Calgary (51 per cent)

• Halifax-Dartmouth (27 per cent)

• Winnipeg (24 per cent)

• Hamilton-Burlington (13 per cent)

• Greater Toronto (9 per cent).

“Greater Vancouver’s luxury market continues to show unprecedented strength, with the number of sales over $2 million more than doubling in the first four months of 2011,” the report said.

New home buyers should not be deterred by all the action in the high-end market. A tour of new home projects shows that there are many new condominiums, townhouses and even detached houses priced well below the seven-figure range.

Canadians likely more cautious than U.S. holiday shoppers

Financial Post, November 14, 2011

Canadians will be more cautious holiday shoppers than their U.S. counterparts this season, while sales at some U.S. retail stores operating in this country are weaker than the stateside division.

Average retail sales in the U.S. are projected to grow 5% in November and December, Sal Guatieri, vice-president and senior economist at BMO Capital markets, said in the firm’s annual holiday sales outlook on Monday. That is down from 5.7% in the same period last year.

In Canada, holidays sales are projected to grow 2.5% in the period, compared with growth of 3.1% a year ago.

“Consumer spending after inflation in Canada has downshifted quite meaningfully form a year ago and is running weaker than the U.S. pace,” Mr. Guatieri said. In real terms Canadian consumer spending is expected to slow to 1.2% for the fourth quarter of the year, down from 3.2% in the fourth quarter of 2010. In the U.S., real consumer spending growth in the fourth quarter is expected to be 1.7%, down from 3% a year ago.

While consumers on both sides of the border are both cautious, analysts said, Americans are spending more on discretionary items, reflecting a pent-up demand, but are still less willing to splurge on big-ticket items.

Like Americans, “we have also built up a lot of debt in the past decade and we are starting to cool our pace of spending to more modest rates and I expect that to continue in the holiday season.”

That means a lot of retailers are offering Canadians unexpected early deals, said apparel market analyst John Morris.

“We are finding the Canadian portions of the businesses in apparel have been below expectations and weak through the period,” a trend that began during the back-to-school period and is expected to continue into the new year, he said. “The Canadian performance in apparel retail has been below commensurate business in the U.S., with retailers such as TJX Cos. (owner of the chains Winners, Home Sense and Marshalls) and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. noting softer than anticipated sales in this country. “Lululemon we expect to continue to perform very well,” he said of the popular Vancouver-based sportswear retailer.

But any caution on the part of consumers might not take too much of a toll on retailers, who have inventory levels 5% to 10% below that of last year due to higher fabric costs and higher labour costs in the far east, Mr. Morris said. “Retailers do not want to be stuck with a lot of carry over goods at the end of the season.”

A popular retail trend this season will see customers getting a gift with their purchases, Mr. Morris said, citing such incentives from retailers including Aeropostale, Victoria’s Secret and Children’s Place.

Toy analyst Gerrick Johnson said real growth in the category, generally considered to be “recession proof,” will be flat, “about as weak as it gets in the toy category.” With low inventories on the retail side, however, it won’t lead to deals; many retailers could be out of stock on popular selling toys well before Christmas, he said.

Canadian existing home sales up 2.7 per cent in September

Reuters, October 17, 2011

Sales of existing homes in Canada picked up in September after three months of stable activity, led by strong sales in Toronto, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) said on Monday.

The industry group said sales rose 2.7 percent from August and were up 11 percent from September 2010, a period of relatively weak activity.

The national average price in September rose 6.5 percent from a year earlier to just under C$352,600, which was below the record level heights reached earlier this year, CREA said. The year-over-year increase was the smallest since January.

“The Canadian housing market remains a bright spot against a backdrop of mixed headline news about the global economy,” Gary Morse, CREA president, said in a statement.

“Low mortgage rates continue to draw buyers to the housing market, while recently tightened mortgage regulations are working as intended.”

The number of newly listed homes nationally was little changed from each of the previous two months. New listings were up from August in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Oakville, Ontario, and Vancouver, offset by fewer new listings in markets such as Edmonton and British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.

The monthly rise in sales resulted in a tighter national housing market but one that is still well balanced, CREA said. The national sales-to-new listings ratio, a measure of market balance, stood at 52.8 percent in September, up from 51.6 percent in August.

Based on a sales-to-new listings ratio of between 40 to 60 percent, nearly two-thirds of all local markets in Canada were in balanced market territory in September, with an even split of buyer’s and seller’s markets among the remainder, CREA said.

The number of months of inventory stood at 6.1 months at the end of September on a national basis, little changed from the 6.2 months at the end of August.

Protesters remain at Occupy Vancouver, Victoria

CBC News, October 17, 2011

Protest camp didn’t affect traffic in downtown Vancouver on Monday morning.

Protesters who occupied the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery and Victoria’s Centennial Square over the weekend say they’ll stay “as long as it takes” to fight corporate greed and social inequity.

Thousands gathered in front of the art gallery in downtown Vancouver over the weekend, but on Monday morning about 65 tents remained.

The demonstrations are part of the global wave of Occupy protests staged in more than 80 countries around the world. They have been inspired by the month-long Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City.

Vancouver police Const. Jana McGuinness said police had no problems with protesters over the weekend.

“We’re just monitoring it as far as how many resources we need to safely manage the situation and keeping an eye on things, but it’s pretty festive in terms of the atmosphere, there seem to be no issues for us at all right now,” she said on Sunday.

Police will continue to monitor the situation as long as protesters are gathering, said McGuinness.

The protest did not affect traffic in downtown Vancouver on Monday morning.

The protesters say they plan to hold a general assembly on Monday to plan their next steps.

In Victoria, about a dozen tents about remained in Centennial Square following the weekend protests.

Demonstrators in Victoria held a meeting Sunday to organize for what they expect will be a long stay.

Some of the practical issues discussed include setting up a bank account for any expenses and arranging a field kitchen to accept food donations and prepare meals for the tent city occupants.

So far, police haven’t enforced the city’s no camping bylaw and residents and businesses have donated food and blankets.

“We are not here to break the law. We are here to be law-abiding citizens and make our point and stand as one,” said Don Cameron, one of the people camped out in Victoria.

Similar protest camps also remain in place in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax, Edmonton.

Meanwhile, political commentators expect the Occupy movements in Vancouver and Victoria will have a lasting impact.

“A cynic would say it’s a temporary fad and it will go away and I suppose some people actually hope it will,” said Patrick Smith, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University.

“But it seems to me that they’ve gotten down to a nub of an issue, which is broadly around inequality in our economy and that seems to me to have the potential to resonate across a much broader spectrum.

“If you think back to the spring and the only people protesting were the Tea Partiers, and they were saying give us less government and let the rich get richer, this is a counter to that.”

The protestors have been speaking out about several issues, including what they see as a widening gap between rich and poor.

Norman Ruff, a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Victoria, said the protests prove young people are not disengaged from politics, just from mainstream political parties.

“They were talking about economic unfairness. They’re talking about the inequality in our societies,” said Ruff.

“The other thing that struck me was the preponderance of young people. Those age groups aren’t voting in federal or provincial politics. Clearly it’s a mistake to say the young are apathetic and have removed themselves from politics. They’re taking part in another form of political activity.”

Ruff said politicians should be paying attention.

“Any politician who just dismisses this as an isolated protest could be in for a surprise down the line … what I think is happening here is a change in the political agenda.”

Dunbar Haunted House moves to new location after its huge success spooks the neighbours

Vancouver Sun, October 15, 2011

Will success spoil the Dunbar Haunted House?

When Brad Leith, Gideon Flitt and their families and friends first set out to scare their neighbours at 50th and Dunbar on Halloween in 2004, it was because the previous year had seen fewer kids than you can count on 10 fingers show up to claim candy in the trick-or-treat tradition that the grown-ups so loved from their own childhoods.

It was time to scare up some more visitors. An easy afternoon’s worth of preparation in ’04 led to Flitt standing in a driveway “graveyard” built from scrap lumber, portraying the only spook in sight and scaring about a hundred kids who showed up for the fun.

In 2005, Leith and Flitt led a growing team of family, friends and neighbours in building setpieces and props, stitching costumes and playing various creepy characters. The effect was electric. Over the course of a couple of weeks preceding Halloween, hundreds of people showed up nightly and, on Spook Night itself, 500 folks lined up to file through a maze of monstrous effects.

About $5,000 was raised for the B.C. Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund.

Then all hell broke loose. From 2006, the Dunbar Haunted House started to take weeks to set up and hundreds of zombie-hours of labour for what was truly a tour to the dark side. People were now lining up around the block for hours to get in, and donations to good causes began growing to the point that, in 2010, $67,000 went to the Burn Fund, the Vancouver Police Union Charity Foundation and the Lower Mainland Christmas Bureau.

“Now it’s basically a yearround, all-consuming hobby,” Leith says. “I’ve been working 12-to 16-hour days since June 1 and, I mean, I have a day job teaching at Vancouver Film School.”

Success is a slippery slope, and the Dunbar Haunted House has simply become too big to remain on its original site.

Leith learned that the hard way last year when the city of Vancouver’s special-events office reared its bureaucratic head.

“At least a quarter of all the people who volunteer have come from the neighbourhood,” says Leith, “but a couple of neighbours didn’t like it, and they pushed the buttons at city hall.”

Leith and his team were ordered to attend a meeting with building inspectors, fire and police representatives and special-event officials.

“It felt strange,” Leith recalls. “They started out by kind of reading us the riot act, and after about five minutes of it I said, ‘You make us feel like we’re a grow-op or sex-trade smugglers; we’re just trying to do a community event and raise money for local charities.'”

Leith and his team scour the city for free materials, call on their friends to donate expertise in building sets or engineering the animatronics, and even come up with the coin needed to attend hauntedhouse trade shows in the U.S. in search of spooky masks and special props. They decided to be proactive about their problem and Leith set out to find a warehouse where neighbours wouldn’t be a worry.

The special-events office now lent a helping hand, but Leith’s only option proved to be a long-term lease on the Shaughnessy Street building. For the first time the Dunbar Haunted House will charge admission instead of simply collecting funds for charity, and so this year’s donations will be diminished by the amount needed to pay rent.

Sitting in an industrial district beneath the Oak Street Bridge, the warehouse can only be accessed by walking down a narrow alley between buildings. Flitt assures visitors that a couple of dozen of the 120 volunteers will devote their time to helping people park south of  Marine Drive, from Shaughnessy along Kent Avenue to the short spur of Oak Street below the bridge, and showing them the way to “Barbaric British Columbia.”

“I can’t reveal too much,” says Flitt of this year’s theme, “or else you’ll kill the surprise, but I can definitely say that you will be very amused and spooked at the same time.”

Dunbar Haunted House goes out of its way to be kid-friendly. On weekends, families can visit during the day and for a $5 fee, the wee ones can go through as many times as they like.

The volunteer spooks start their shift at 7 p.m., but even then the emphasis is on a good laugh.

“What we do is called lowimpact spooking,” Flitt says, “so we don’t terrorize people. It’s more fun than it is scary.”

Flitt warns that the coming week is the best time to visit if you don’t like crowds, because the week leading up to Halloween can see waiting times of up to an hour to get in.

For more information, go to dunbarhauntedhouse.com.


When: 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday evenings; 7 p.m. to midnight, Fridays and

Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, to Oct. 31

Where: 8934 Shaughnessy St., south of Marine Drive next to the Oak Street Bridge

Tickets: $5 unlimited access during the day; $10 ($5 for children 11-and-under) after 7 p.m.

Clarity needed on transition from the HST; Building industry has questions, but it could be folly for consumers to wait to buy new home

Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association, September 26, 2011

If you think British Columbians, in general, are fed up to the teeth with the HST debacle, many members of the residential construction industry are biting through their lips to keep from screaming.

I mean, enough already; when is this stomach-churning, roller-coaster ride going to stop?

First, the provincial government said it would be implementing the HST, when prior to the election it said it would not. Then, despite considerable angst from consumers, the HST was implemented. Things settled down for a while, then talk of a referendum fanned the embers. The referendum was held, the result announced, and we are again mired in uncertainty as transition back to GST/PST is underway.

A transition time frame of 18 months has been announced. During that period, British Columbians will likely still fix a leaky roof, get haircuts, purchase electronic gizmos and dine out, but will they sit on their wallets instead of buying a new home or starting a major home renovation?

No one knows what the transition rules will look like, not even, it seems, our elected officials. A long-serving Liberal MLA called me a couple of weeks after the referendum result was announced. He said he is fielding many calls from his builder constituents who express concern they will not be able to sell any homes during the next year or so, and did I have any details I could share with him. I told him I am just as much in the dark on this issue as everyone else.

Hopefully, provincial Finance Minister Kevin Falcon sees the light and is pressing the feds to quickly draft the transition rules. He has indicated he will work closely with the business community to provide input into those rules, a welcome promise.

It is apparent that very little spadework was done on the transition file prior to the referendum result, so it’s time to pick up the pace. The HST was rolled out in lightning speed, so why can’t it be rolled back just as expeditiously?

Home builders and renovators across the province are sounding the alarm. Before I get into their concerns, here are some points of clarification that might provide comfort to some homebuyers. Resale homes are not subject to HST, but buyers will pay HST on fees from realtors, lawyers, etc.

If you are considering a new home or condo priced under $525,000 there is some impact, but you will not be paying much more for your home under HST than you will under the GST/PST system. Check with your builder or realtor to determine how, if at all, your home purchase is impacted. Some builders are offering incentives.

By the way, it could be folly to wait to buy a new home priced above the $525,000 threshold in order to save the HST. During the next 18 months, it is possible that interest rates, municipal development charges, and land, labour and building material costs could rise, pushing up home prices and offsetting a big chunk of tax savings gained by a return to the GST/PST system. And homes in prime locations will undoubtedly be sold by the time you get around to making a decision.

Although there is no HST on resale homes, new-home construction creates thousands of jobs, and this is where uncertainty over the HST transition rules has a profound impact. I am hearing that some folks considering homes priced above $525,000 are indeed delaying their purchase decisions, not just here in the Vancouver region, but throughout B.C. Homeowners, too, are putting off major renovations until more clarity is provided on the HST transition rules.

Consumer resistance could have a calamitous impact on the economy. For example, in Metro Vancouver, the 16,300 housing starts and $4.4 billion in home renovation expected this year will create nearly 70,000 jobs, generating about $3.5 billion in wages. Even higher numbers are expected in 2012.

As I wrote in an another column recently, a firing-on-all-cylinders residential construction industry is essential to our region’s economic growth and durable prosperity. A member of your family, a neighbour or friend probably earns a living in an industry sector that has a direct or indirect link to residential construction. If the tools are idle, many livelihoods will be affected.

In response to a province-wide survey, the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of B.C. (CHBA-BC) received scores of emails and letters from residential contractors worried about their companies, their staff and the many sub-trades and suppliers they put to work on their projects. The correspondence has been sent to Premier Christy Clark, Housing Minister Rich Coleman, Falcon and other ministers.

Accompanying the correspondence was this message from CHBA-BC president Vicki Gerrits, a small-volume home builder from Summerland: “You will read first-hand testimonials from small-business owners like me who are contributors to the province’s economy. Their correspondence will demonstrate their anxiety. Be bold, we need immediate meaningful action.”

CHBA-BC is requesting two actions: One, remove the PST portion of the HST on new homes, including second homes. Two, introduce a two-per-cent tax rebate on all renovations completed by renovators registered for HST, and four per cent on “green” carbon-footprint-reducing renovations.

I would add one. Reduce the property transfer tax on new homes to a level that neutralizes the current impact of HST. The province doesn’t have to wait for the feds’ transition rules to do this.

The following are excerpts from correspondence from worried contractors around the province:

“I have a $50-million project going into pre-sales. Purchasers will not want to pay the HST. Should I delay the project and lay everyone off, or can Falcon announce the transition rules now?”
“The uncertainty of the HST has devastated new home sales. I have two grown daughters who are fed up. One has moved to Alberta, the other one is moving this month. If the HST doesn’t get dealt with soon, there will be huge repercussions in the workplace.”
“The province needs to bring in some form of rebate immediately and have it run until the PST takes effect, or there will be a severe slowdown in construction that could trigger a provincial recession.”
“I am a builder who deals with more than 150 trades and suppliers on a regular basis. They rely on me for their employment. Without houses being built, many workers will lose their jobs.”
“It has been a difficult couple of years for my company and my workers. The introduction of the HST has been a major factor, and now the rescinding of the HST has made things worse.”
“We have had to lay off 60 employees in the past year and a half, and we are looking at laying off considerably more. Our company does 80 per cent new homes and 20 per cent home renovation.”

And so it goes, more than 60 pages of comments, anxiety the common thread.

On Thursday, Premier Clark announced her job-creation initiative – Canada Starts Here: The BC Jobs Plan. The premier needs to be mindful of the possibility that while she announces employment opportunities at the front door, construction-related workers could be disappearing out the back door.

She might need a new plan.

Cruise-ship cabins inspire design for small houses

The Vancouver Sun, September 19, 2011

‘Mi-Pads’ incorporate elements such as built-in bunk beds and wooden lockers

When pondering how to construct smaller homes that young adults and renters could afford, homebuilder Tom Hignite turned his attention from the land to the sea. Cruise ships, to be exact.

He studied how the essentials of living were shoehorned into a small space in cruise-ship cabins, then figured out ways to incorporate some elements – such as built-in bunk beds and wooden lockers instead of closets – into a house containing a little more than 1,000 square feet. The result is what Hignite, owner of Miracle Homes, calls the “Mi-Pad” – a home with three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms and a fireplace for as little as $89,000.

“They’re contemporary in look,” Hignite said. “They are little bit more in size than a garage. But they’re extraordinarily compact, using cruiseship technology and cruise-ship design architecture to create cabins instead of bedrooms.

Some of the bedrooms are six feet by nine feet and they sleep two.”

While a far cry from the roomy McMansions that sprang up during the U.S. housing bub-ble of the last decade, Hignite’s houses pack lots of amenities in a small space. One model includes a 10-foot-by-12-foot attic play loft for children.

Master bedrooms are shaped to handle queen-size beds. High ceilings help to blunt the smallness of the homes, which, facing the road, are only 26.5 feet wide. Patios are out the back door.

Although construction of houses the size of the Mi-Pad was common during the 1950s in Milwaukee and many suburbs, houses got bigger in the years that followed.

Now, such huge homes have become harder to sell in a weak U.S. housing market and atmosphere of high unemployment and wide-scale foreclosures.

The final cost of a Mi-Pad varies depending on what’s included and where the lot is located.

One model can be developed to have five bedrooms, Hignite said.

“These are targeted at renters. There’s a one-car attached garage,” Hignite said.

“They are meant for people who have a no-car garage right now,” he quipped.

“There’s a large marketplace in rentals that could segue into this for the same cost as rent.”

Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, said Hignite may be on to something.

“It sounds like he might fill a niche,” Ruzicka said.

Ruzicka said construction of such small homes presents a “back to the future” scenario because small homes were built en masse in the post-Second World War era.

They could be an alternative by offering an all-new product instead of a foreclosed property that may need repairs, he said.

Houses selling for less than $100,000 often are foreclosed properties that need a lot of work.

“We kind of looked at repo prices and decided to create a product line that would compete with that sort of repo price area of $90,000 to $150,000 – and get you a new home,” Hignite said.

Because of the Mi-Pad’s small size, he said, “they work well on urban lots” as well.

“There are little pockets around that allow it,” he said.

Hignite has been known among southeastern Wisconsin homebuilders for sometimes quirky innovations.

Previous high-end models have included a movie theatre and themed children’s bedrooms, for example.

Hignite made headlines six years ago when he hired almost a dozen laid-off animation artists from Walt Disney Co. to create Miracle Studios, which intended to make TV commercials and a feature film starring his company’s mascot, Miracle Mouse.

The studio at his Richfield, Wis., headquarters has shrunk to “one or two” artists, Hignite said, but there still are plans to produce the movie.

“Of course our main business is still homebuilding, and everybody has a passion beyond their main passion or job,” Hignite said.

The Mi-Pad houses on Gates Street in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin – which include extra features and finished spaces beyond the base-price models – are the only two in existence so far, Hignite said.

He wants to see if they catch on before building any more on speculation.

“It’s a launch, and we’re looking to see whether the public will accept it, because there haven’t been 1,000square-foot houses built in many years,” he said.

‘Green is good’ the mantra for builders of city’s new office

The Vancouver Sun, September 26, 2011

Credit Suisse plans to construct 30-storey building to highest LEED standard

In the race to build multimillion-dollar commercial office buildings in downtown Vancouver, the prevailing mantra appears to be a new take on an old expression.

Green is good.

The latest manifestation of a sustainable office building is being proposed by global financial giant Credit Suisse, which is jumping in with a $200-million plan to build a structure that will vie to be among the world’s greenest.

Among other things, the building at the corner of Howe and Pender — to be completed by 2015 — is targeted to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum and ‘Living Building’ certifications with cutting-edge features such as on-site waste water treatment and reuse, energy consumption at a rate about half that of similar towers, a high-efficiency heating and cooling system, storm water retention and reuse, and solar thermal panels.

And tenants will be able to open their windows on warm summer days.

“It will be a very distinctive building,” Selwyn Dodd, partner with design group Iredale Group Architecture, said in an interview. “This won’t be your cookie-cutter Vancouver office tower.”

Credit Suisse, through one of its real estate funds, has secured the 1929 Stock Exchange building, along with an adjacent property on Pender, and is proposing to build the 30-storey, 400,000-square-foot tower incorporating the heritage stock exchange building.

The investment firm is now unveiling plans for its tower, the latest in a growing number of office projects in downtown Vancouver that are aiming for the LEED rating system, a third-party certification and internationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. Platinum is the highest rating.

The planned tower is Credit Suisse’s first B.C. investment and would be the tallest in the company’s real estate inventory of 260 buildings.

There is an open house today at the Terminal City Club, 837 West Hastings, and the group will apply for rezoning within two weeks.

Although constructing a LEED Platinum building will increase construction costs by 10 to 15 per cent, Herbert Meier, director of real estate asset management for Credit Suisse, said building green reduces operating costs and attracts clients seeking out sustainable offices.

“It’s not the highest building. It’s not on the waterfront. But it’s the best package.

“We really believe green buildings are the most sustainable investment.”

Franz Gehriger, president of minority investor Swissreal Investments Ltd., said his group will utilize local materials from local contractors as much as possible.

“There’s a light manufacturing company in Langley that makes advanced [energy-efficient] LED lights. We’re talking with them about making the whole building LED.”

Gehriger added: “We believe this is a great way for Credit Suisse’s real estate fund to expand into Vancouver, the greenest city in Canada.”

Others are also aiming for LEED Gold or Platinum standards.

Last month, the British Columbia Investment Management Corp launched its 24-storey, 745 Thurlow St. office tower, making it the second of three other anticipated major office projects in downtown Vancouver to jump onto a construction timeline.

That project — scheduled for completion in 2015 — follows Oxford Properties’ announcement that committed its pension-fund sponsor to build 1021 West Hastings, a 25-storey tower to be built by 2014.

Another building is the 22-storey, 500,000-square-foot office tower that is part of Telus Corp.’s $750-million redevelopment of the entire city block bounded by Robson, Georgia, Seymour and Richards streets, which the company and developer Westbank Projects aim to complete in 2015.

B.C.’s home sales, property values to slow as job growth ebbs: BCREA

The Vancouver Sun, August 25, 2011

Slower job growth in British Columbia’s economy will mean slower increases in home sales and property values through to 2012, the B.C. Real Estate Association said Thursday.

And by the end of 2012, the association expects the high-flying prices in some of B.C.’s bigger markets to show small declines.

Home sales through the realtor-controlled Multiple Listing Service should hit 74,640 by the end of 2011, which is up four per cent from 2010, and then rise to 80,300 in 2012, association chief economist Cameron Muir said in his report.

However, those estimates are below B.C.’s long-term average for sales and the forecast for 2011 represents reduced expectations from Muir’s forecast from earlier this year that B.C. should see 78,200 sales this year.

“Following a decade where unit sales broke all records, consumer demand for the next few years will be relatively moderate,” Muir said in releasing the report.

A positive note, however, is that weaker global economic growth and uncertainty in world financial markets are signals that interest rates, including mortgage rates, will remain low and “help underpin housing demand.”

Across the province, Muir is forecasting that the average home price, which has been heavily influenced by strong sales in the more expensive pockets of Metro Vancouver, to hit $559,179 by the end of 2011.

However, by the end of 2012, Muir is forecasting that the average price will fall back 2.5 per cent to $545,964.

The 2012 price declines, however, are expected to show up primarily in the Lower Mainland Markets, which influence the overall provincial averages.

Muir expects Metro Vancouver’s average price to slip 3.5 per cent in 2012 to $742,000. However, that will be a decline off 2011, which Muir predicts will end with the average price having shot up 14 per cent to $769,000.

And Muir is forecasting that the Fraser Valley will see its average price in 2012 dip 1.4 per cent to $498,000. But that follows 2011, where he expects the average price will have gained 12 per cent from the previous year to hit $505,000.

HST Referendum: Voting with Spleens Instead of Brains

BC Business, August 26, 2011

The HST is dead. Long live the new tax regime, which will be exactly the same, only in two parts and much more expensive.

So, the HST goes down, knifed in one of the greatest examples of emotions ruling heads in B.C.’s long history of emotional politics.

As one (sorry, unnamed – he doesn’t want hate mail) economist said after the results, “This is the most ludicrous economic action I’ve ever seen.”

What an unholy alliance went into the defeat of the HST in the recent referendum. A mixture of me-first and the hell-with-the-rest-of-you thinking, hatred of the governments and political enemies, all willing to give up all principles of community and what could only be described as a “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” form of road rage.

But then, I guess that’s what amounts to public discourse in the modern age. The “people” get their say, even if they don’t know what they’re saying.

This wasn’t a referendum on a tax – that was only the excuse. Anybody with an ounce of sense could tell it was the only fair way out for a government that has to raise money for the ever-increasing demand for services such as health care.

It was a referendum on anger and “class” (big business vs the little guy) and hatred of those supposed big shots who seemed to be ruling our lives.

The tax was doomed the minute Gordon Campbell, who said no HST in B.C. during an election, turned around afterwards and said, Oh darn, we just discovered we have to put in an HST. If there was one person in B.C. who believed that, I’d like to meet him or her.

But cynical politicking is nothing new in this country. We’ve seen it for years. It’s just that no one ever could do anything about it.

Now they could. Modern communications allows a version of discourse to reach into all aspects of society. Social media has told everyone they have a right to voice their opinion, no matter how knee-jerk, bilious, and vacuous it is.

Anyway, what’s done is done. HST is dead.

Not taxation, however. Now we return to a tax system that will cost every B.C. resident far more than the HST ever would have.

One good thing that might come out of this ridiculous excuse for a vote on an important issue: maybe when they bring back the PST, they’ll fix it so it actually works. It’ll be the HST, but split into two parts.

Of course, then everyone will hate that. But who are they going to vent their spleen on then?

B.C. residents have unrealistic hopes of shedding debt: poll

The Vancouver Sun, August 30, 2011

B.C. residents have high hopes of retiring debt-free, but for many, this reality show has an unhappy ending.

While most B.C. residents believe they’ll be debt-free by age 58, fewer than one-third of B.C. residents aged 45 to 64 don’t owe any money, according to a Harris-Decima poll conducted for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

About one-quarter of B.C. residents report that they’ve abandoned hopes for a debt-free retirement. Fourteen per cent believe they will pay off all debts in their 70s and one in 10 says they will never be debt-free, the poll found. That compares with only four per cent of Alberta residents who believe they’ll carry debt into their 70s.

Part of the problem is that many Canadians who have a financial plan don’t factor in their debts, said Mike Stevenson, CIBC senior vice-president, Western Canada. For example, polling shows that about three in five Canadians meet with a financial planner to talk about financial goals and retirement strategy, but only one in five incorporates a debt repayment plan into that strategy.

“Many people lack a comprehensive and cohesive plan or strategy,” he said.

On the bright side, 37 per cent of all B.C. residents are debt-free, compared to 21 per cent nationally, the poll found.

The trend of more British Columbians carrying debt into retirement is one that Scott Hannah, president and CEO of B.C. Credit Counselling, has noticed.

People have a higher tolerance for debt because interest rates are very low, Hannah said. Compounding the problem, many are unwilling to make the hard choices required to dig themselves out of debt.

“People have to make some sacrifices, and the more severe your financial situation is, the bigger the sacrifice you’re going to have to make,” Hannah said, using the example of a cash-strapped family going from two cars to one.

“But none of us wants to give up what we have.”

The poll showed that people tended to predict they would have all their debt paid off 10 to 15 years from now. For example, those 18 to 24 picked 32 as the average age for being debt-free, those 25 to 34 said 44, people 35 to 44 said 54, 45- to 55-year-olds said 60, and 55- to 64-year-olds said 65.

Rob Abboud, an Ottawa-based financial planner with Raymond James, said many people underestimate the effect of 30-year amortizations, consumer debt, their children’s education and various things that can come up, such as buying a new car.

Hannah advocates setting up a financial plan that involves debt repayment and retirement savings coming out of the account first.

“What you’re probably going to find is that the amount of funds that a person has available for discretionary spending is somewhat limited,” he said. “But at least you’re taking care of your financial goals and those things that are most important to you first, as opposed to doing it after the fact.”

Many homeowners who are mortgage-shopping still ask how much they can get instead of how much they can comfortably afford, he pointed out. “For a lot of people who put themselves into a tight spot, it makes it difficult to get ahead,” he said.

It’s not only expensive real estate that has British Columbians cash-strapped.

One in five B.C. residents who responded to an ING Direct survey released Monday said their biggest monthly expense — besides mortgage or rent payments — was loans and credit card payments, compared to 16 per cent nationally. Half of B.C. respondents reported that they could not afford to save $25 more per week.

Gasoline expert: Expect to pay less at the pump this fall

Vancouver Sun, August 15, 2011

20% dip in oil not reflected at the pumps

With stock portfolios in shock given the markets’ recent gyrations, consumers have at least one thing to look forward to: The slump in oil prices happening in neartandem with the stock market blowout means motorists should see pump prices drop, if not immediately.

The benchmark price for crude oil is now about $86 US a barrel in New York – rebounding from an almost 12-month low below $80 a barrel last week – after reaching $110 US in early May. That marks a decline of about 20 per cent, raising the question of why gas prices haven’t followed.

Looking at different gauges of gasoline prices in Canada, the average price at the pump has come down less than 10 per cent over that same period.

Kent Marketing Services’ – formerly known as MJ Ervin and Associates – weekly Canadian gas price survey showed the average price for regular fuel this week nationally was a little more than $1.25 a litre and $1.15 in Calgary.

Kent’s records show the average pump price hasn’t been less than $1.20 since February and was as much as $1.35 in May.

During the financial crisis in 2008, while many lost money on the stock market or even their jobs, consumers got a big break on pump prices.

Crude oil fell from more than $145 US a barrel that summer to less than $45 US by the end of the year. The average price for gasoline went from more than $1.40 a litre to just more than 70 cents by the end of the year.

Jason Parent, senior consultant with Kent Marketing Services, said people often mistakenly think gasoline prices are supposed to move in direct correlation to the cost of crude oil, which is one of many factors that determines the price of gasoline.

He said refiners tend to get bigger profit margins on the finished gasoline product during the summer because there is more demand for it.

“In general, the refining margins over the last couple of months have been high,” Parent said. “Normally, this time of year, in the spring or the summer months, refining margins – or crack spreads, as people like to call them – come up and retail prices come up accordingly. It’s just a supply-and-demand thing.

“More people are driving in the spring and summer months, so demand tends to increase and that puts pressure on supply.” Parent said because quoted oil prices are usually for shipments due the next month, drivers should not expect an immediate effect on gasoline prices.

There is good news, however, with Parent saying the combination of lower demand for fuel and slumping prices on oil due for delivery next month likely bringing about lower pump prices in the fall. He declined to speculate how far gas prices would fall, but said it would likely be too optimistic to expect the average Canadian rate to fall to $1 a litre or less.

Tom Kloza of the U.S.-based Oil Price Information Service said gasoline prices will probably hit bottom by November and then climb.

“The rest of the world’s appetite for oil is growing,” Kloza said. “Notwithstanding what we are seeing now, the chances for a very robust winter-spring price increase are very high.”

Internet Killed the Video Store

BCBusiness, August 1, 2011

Online retail and downloading are slowly killing our traditional movie and music stores. And as with friends, virtual video stores just aren’t the same as the real thing.

Particular time periods can often be identified by their trappings and technology. See a photograph with a zeppelin and you know it was taken between the two world wars. A movie with a rotary-dial phone was likely set pre-1990. A Pacer or a Gremlin signifies the malaise era. The Berlin Wall marks the period from 1961-1989. A mullet should suggest you are in costume for an ’80s night, although unfortunately this is not always the case.

We are nearing the point where video stores will become the new zeppelins. The movie rental era that began in the 1980s with a proliferation of new storefront video shops, some of them surely located in former AMC dealerships, may now be coming to a close. The possible Berlin Wall moment for retail movie rental shops arrived in May when the Canadian arm of Blockbuster Video Inc., that monolith, went into receivership.

Not many locals got weepy over that development. Blockbuster stores were the 7-Elevens of the rental world – character-free franchise outlets that added nothing to a neighbourhood save convenience (and sometimes offered edited movies to boot). But tears were surely shed for other announcements, notably the pending demise of Videomatica, Vancouver’s primary repository of hard-to-find film and television. At press time business partners Graham Peat and Brian Bosworth estimated that their West Fourth Ave. movie rental store would soldier on for a few more months until the steady decline in business resulted in its final closing. Not long before that, Happy Bats, a distinctive video-rental shop on Main, unexpectedly shut its doors. Downloading, it seems, has killed the video store.

The Internet meteor strike has been blamed for more than one retail extinction. Online competition certainly explains the relative dearth of porn theatres in B.C. these days – when it comes to that product line, the Internet is what you might call handy. But before you raise a toast to the web for an inadvertent bit of urban renewal, consider the victims that followed. Just as Videomatica was announcing its pending demise, Ardea Books and Art shut its doors just up the street, the latest Vancouver independent bookseller to drop out of that ever-shrinking retail category. Music shops are not yet completely gone, but if you scan the business page archives for years back, you won’t find any start-ups in that particular line either.

Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and SmuttyJoe’sStripperama.com may never have had urban redevelopment in mind. But the web, the invisible landscape that exists everywhere and nowhere, has reshaped our neighbourhoods. From A&B Sound to Duthie Books to Videomatica, online competition has at least hastened the downfall of many a Vancouver business landmark.

But those tears I mentioned are a very localized precipitation. The rise of Netflix et al. has been a boon for smaller communities. Lonely movie buffs in Castlegar and Prince Rupert couldn’t care less about the fate of Videomatica. They just know that given an Internet connection, they have pretty much the same access to movies and books as anybody in Kitsilano. The demise of bricks-and-mortar shops has been a triumph for retail democracy. Living in small towns simply doesn’t come with the same cultural penalties in the 21st century.

Still, I will shed tears for Videomatica, Castlegar be damned. Its demise will leave a gap and it doesn’t seem to me that the gap has been filled by online sources quite yet. Plus, I still resent the constant technological demands of the new online retailing realities. Those who don’t constantly upgrade equipment suffer for it.

And I had friends at Ardea Books and Videomatica. Not Facebook friends, either. Kits won’t be the same without them.

The Merits of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

BCBusiness, August 1, 2011

Some 10 years ago, word of mouth emerged as a form of guerrilla marketing to help cash-strapped small businesses get noticed in the marketplace. Word-of-mouth marketing aims to generate buzz about a business, with the hope that it will eventually reach those who actually need whatever the business is selling. One Vancouver company has raised word-of-mouth marketing to new levels as it has expanded over the past decade. And it’s doing it in an industry that hasn’t changed substantially in 100 years.

The Problem
Nurse Next Door Professional Homecare began as a home-care business that wanted to shake up an industry that has operated in the same way for more than a century: caregivers provide nursing services in the homes of clients instead of in hospitals. But how would Nurse Next Door, which uses franchisees to deliver its services, let potential customers know it was disrupting this traditional industry?

The Solution
Brand Defense: John DeHart chooses blogging over litigation after a perceived slight

Co-founders Ken Sim and John DeHart decided to avoid traditional marketing altogether, opting instead for a guerrilla approach. Following a technique postulated by the writer Seth Godin, they relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth marketing to build their business.

Sim and DeHart outfitted their six initial caregivers with pink cars and encouraged them to park them in their driveways and at strategic locations around the city. The cars were instantly recognizable and created curiosity in passersby, who mentioned them to friends who needed such a service. The pink cars have now become a staple marketing method for the company.

Believing that a recommendation from a friend, neighbour or authority is the ultimate form of marketing, Sim and DeHart also worked diligently to build relationships with doctors and hospital workers. Their only conventional marketing material was a brochure.

Nurse Next Door didn’t advertise, didn’t go to trade shows and didn’t do any of the other kinds of marketing done by other home-care providers or franchise businesses. Today, the company has 43 franchises in Canada and one new franchise in the U.S., where it hopes to expand further.

Even today, the company has no traditional marketing materials. However, it does recognize that new technology such as social media can greatly amplify its word-of-mouth technique. Claiming to be the “loudest” and “boldest” operation in the industry, it uses Twitter as a brand builder.

This recognition of the power of social media stood the company in good stead earlier this year when a more traditional competitor slagged it on a website. Nurse Next Door linked to the website, and answered with a description of its model. Then it spread the word on the Internet, and asked everyone to pass it on.

The campaign earned Nurse Next Door publicity in a Wall Street Journal blog and Inc. magazine. This coverage in turn became fodder for more word-of-mouth marketing.

• Be choosy. Marketing today, especially for smaller businesses, is about talking with not just anyone, but with those who appreciate your approach and style.

• Think in real time. Keep an eye on events, and when you find one that might fit your philosophy and style, act fast. Do what’s needed to get people talking about you.

• Replace money with creativity. In word-of-mouth marketing, talk about you flows from the bottom to the top and covers all points in between. Using it is much more cost-effective than trying to sell to people directly from the top down.

Housing bubble fears over-inflated

Vancouver Sun, July 27, 2011

Savvy shoppers can still do relatively well in Vancouver by searching for the right unit in the right location.

Vancouver’s existing housing market seems to defy economic logic. The Conference Board’s Metro Resale Index shows that Vancouver remains a balanced market. Since neither buyers nor sellers should have bargaining advantage under these conditions, prices should grow near their trend rate.

But the average resale price was up more than 20 per cent from a year earlier in both May and June, the latest in a six-month string of double-digit price hikes, and well above the six-percent long-term trend of price growth.

Sales have recovered from a dip in 2010, but are easing gently. This has steadily eroded the sales-to-listings ratio. With few signs that the market is going to cool significantly, there is chatter that Vancouver’s housing market is a bubble waiting to pop.

Yet, the situation facing homebuyers seems somewhat less dire than at first glance. Vancouver’s average resale price has been skewed upward by trading of expensive units in tony neighbourhoods and by a modest shift toward single-detached homes that carry higher price tags. Those seeking shelter, both physically and from high prices, can still find relatively affordable units and decent bargaining conditions if they are careful, knowledgeable, flexible and ready to shop around.

Vancouver’s housing market certainly is top-heavy. The clearest signal is a widening difference between Vancouver’s average price, which exceeds $800,000, and its median price (the price of the middle unit when houses are ranked by price), which was below $600,000 during the first quarter of 2011 (the latest data available).

Why the significant gap between the average and median price? Segments – and regions – of Vancouver’s housing market are boosting the average price. Single-detached units, which are higher priced, are taking a bigger bite of the market. Singles have a relatively high sales-to-active listings ratio and strong price increases. The expensive West Vancouver district is also gaining market share – its first quarter sales-to-active listings ratio was at a four-year high, and prices are rising robustly.

Fortunately for those on tighter budgets, market conditions in all price ranges below $500,000, which includes many apartment condominiums and row units, have shifted in favour of purchasers. Resale markets for both town houses and apartments were either in or near a buyers’ state (where a large supply of listings gives buyers more choice and bargaining power) during the first quarter, with correspondingly modest price growth.

As well, the market is softer in more affordable areas like Maple Ridge, Port Moody and Coquitlam, which have lost some market share over the past year. Median price growth is relatively subdued here – Coquitlam’s median price fell both last autumn and over the winter.

In light of these facts, the prevailing wisdom that Vancouver has a housing bubble should perhaps be reconsidered. Certainly normal metrics, like the ratio of average price to income, are extraordinarily high and could well be in danger territory. But, existence of more affordable geographic pockets in the Lower Mainland where buyers’ conditions prevail, and softness among apartment and townhouse dwellings, suggest that some markets are much less inflated.

In sum, price growth due to a changing composition of sales (and rising prices in individual neighbourhoods) does not necessarily produce a housing bubble. Savvy shoppers can still do relatively well in Vancouver by searching for the right unit in the right location, which after all, is the whole mantra of real estate.

Robin Wiebe is a senior economist with the Conference Board of Canada.

Brokers lead rent-to-own lender to 400% gain in funded volume

Mortgage Broker News, July 24, 2011

A private lender relying on a lease-to-own model is reporting a 400-per-cent increase in “refi buy-backs” this year over last as more and more brokers send business its way and more and more Canadian families hit an economic rough patch.

“That 400-per-cent growth in the value of funded deals is significant and yet it hasn’t been because of the mortgage rule changes,” said Guy Lew, president of Home Owner Soon Inc., a private lender headquartered in the GTA, but doing business  across the country. “The two biggest drivers have and continue to be that we are gaining name recognition and a following with brokers, but also that the economy continues to present a challenge to many Canadian families. The truth is so many of us are only a paycheque away from losing our homes.”

Lew and his team of six BDMs, scattered from coast to coast, are actively promoting their rent-to-own model as an alternative to eviction, relying on brokers to hawk their wares – a requirement set down in legislative changes both in Ontario and other regulated provinces.

The strategy is paying off, said Lew, pointing to growing broker buy-in for his refi buy-back – accounting for 80 per cent of his business. Under the terms of that agreement, brokers access 100 basis points in finder’s fees for referring clients, who, in turn, agree to sell their homes for “fair market value” to one of Lew’s private investors.

They then lease back that residence for an amount largely in line with the appraisal’s rental value assessment, he said, with 20 per cent of that rent directed into a down-payment account, which is then applied to the buy-back, often after a three-year term. The homeowner – now renter – also agrees to pay commitment, activation and credit rebuilding fees along with a security deposit, equal or greater than 10 per cent of the home’s appraised value.

Those costs add up and have raised concerns with some brokers who’ve advised clients to sell their home and move rather than enter into rent-to-own deals. Still, the strategy allow clients to avoid uprooting themselves and their families, said Lew, at the same time Home Owner Soon focuses on helping rebuild credit – all with an eye to positioning the client to access A lending at the end of the term.

“Our default rate of about 10 per cent speaks to the success of our program,” he told MortgageBrokerNews.ca, suggesting higher security deposit requirements translate into higher down payments, which, ultimately, make his rehabilitated clients more attractive to A-lenders.

World’s 10 most nocturnal cities

Vancouver Sun, July 27, 2011

A new study about the world’s most 24-hour cities ranks New York 32nd on the list, well behind most European capitals.Of the top ten most nocturnal cities in the world, six of the top 10 were in Spain — Malaga, Zaragoza, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. Click here for photos of top 10 nocturnal cities.

China’s Real Estate Spree in Vancouver

July 1, 2011, BC Business Online

It all started with a ?Post-it note from a Chinese investor: one Vancouver ?couple’s roller-coaster ?ride through a real estate ?market gone mad.

The note, one of those yellow stickies from 3M, was stuck on the door of our west side Vancouver home late one Tuesday night in March. My wife, Cynthia, found it early Wednesday morning while letting our dog out and called to me upstairs: “Baby, you’ve got to come down here.”

In clear, studied script it read, “I would like to buy your house. I am not a realtor. Please call me.” It listed a local phone number and was signed “David” in block lettering. We looked at each other, both resisting the urge to cackle with glee and dance around the room with our winning lottery ticket. Barely resisting.

Like just about every other homeowner, non-homeowner or potential homeowner in the Lower Mainland, I was aware that property values had soared in recent years. I also knew that this was largely due to overseas buyers – and that “overseas buyers” was a euphemism for several strata of mainland Chinese buyers, some of whom are visiting the region on property-buying trips, some of whom live here already (or have family who do) and some who, so sure are they of the wisdom of investing in Vancouver, buy sight unseen from China.

However, there are property value increases – and then there is the uncontrolled feeding frenzy around select parts of Vancouver that began in January 2011. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, in March 2011 the benchmark price of a detached house on Vancouver’s west side – a disparate area that encompasses everything from one-acre parcels in stately Shaughnessy to the smaller but desirable view lots in West Point Grey to the less-than-grand neighbourhoods that nestle in the big-box shadows of Southwest Marine Drive – was $1,914,693, a 15.5 per cent increase over 2010 and up 32.2 per cent since 2008. During the same three-year period, the S&P/TSX Composite Index – normally a bastion of stability and, more importantly, where the money came from to buy our house – had increased by less than one per cent.

Until David’s Post-it note showed up, the figures and stories were just that: cocktail-party fare that seemed largely divorced from our day-to-day lives. In theory, people who had purchased their homes long ago were now presented with the opportunity to make exponential gains over their initial purchase price. We were in a less rarefied group since we had bought our house only three years ago: a large lot in what we euphemistically called South Kerrisdale, an area realtors call South West Marine that’s frequently called Marpole by our friends. We had paid what had seemed an ungodly sum: $1,875,000, which was, everybody told us, “definitely” the peak of the market. But now, three years later, the stories circulating around town telling of impossible windfalls made our “peak of the market” purchase look as if we’d merely hit the base camp of Mount Everest. And the sudden presence of a suitor opened our eyes to the reality that the mere act of overpaying for a house three years ago might have been the smartest financial decision we had ever made.

But the figures, while crazy, don’t tell the whole story of the madness that has gripped the market. The real estate board doesn’t keep figures for specific neighbourhoods, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benchmarks from which to gather intelligence. There are the stories, passed on through friends, retold at Caffè Artigianos. A realtor friend told me about one particular house in Quilchena, and within two weeks I must have heard the same story a half-dozen times.

The Greek Church House, as it came to be known, sits on a moderately quiet street, Maple, behind Saint George’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral. After hearing the tale, I decided to drive by and check it out. It was a nice enough house: a one-level rancher, the type of place you’d be proud to show your parents if you didn’t have to tell them how much you’d paid for it. It had last changed hands in 2006 for $1.5 million; in 2010 it had been assessed at $2.3 million; and then, amid a flurry of missives on the late-March “offer day,” it was sold to an overseas buyer for $4.3 million. Its listing sheet cooed about its Sub-Zero appliances and walk-in closets (you can see the listing at julialau.ca), but its 12,482-foot lot was the real kicker: it meant that the next house to be built there could conceivably be almost 8,000 square feet.

Hoping for big bucks and a big buyer

As for our suitor, it took almost a day for Cynthia to call David back, a period in which we simultaneously imagined spending our impossible gains and then chastised ourselves for such greedy thoughts. One terrible idea then came into our minds: “David doesn’t actually sound like a Chinese name,” Cynthia mused. The implications of such a thought were dire, especially given that, due to his neat handwriting, he clearly wasn’t a doctor either. Even the most reckless North American buyer would be loath to pony up the sort of money we were angling for. We needed someone with a briefcase full of cash if we were to become the next Greek Church House.

But as soon as David picked up the phone, such concerns were assuaged. He spoke in competent but halting English and explained that he was looking for a house for his parents. While driving around town, he discovered our block and thought he’d skip the realtor fees by coming to us directly. He asked if he could return sometime over the next week to see the house, with parents in tow. We cleared our calendar.

Some might say smugness is a trait that comes easily to those on Vancouver’s west side, but for this recent real estate tear, we’ve had to share the limelight with a few of the Lower Mainland’s other burgs. Richmond, in particular, had growth figures that trumped even the excesses of south Kerrisdale. According to the real estate board, the Garden City has seen a 47.5 per cent increase in the benchmark price for a detached house over the last three years and a whopping 24.5 per cent jump in the last year alone. According to Richmond/South Surrey realtor Mike Terry, the spike is almost completely driven by mainland Chinese buyers, and there’s a trickle-down effect as well.

Terry has watched as condo developments as far south as White Rock have been bought in huge numbers not just by Chinese buyers, who see Canada as a very stable place to put their money, but also non-Chinese who are buying with cash from the sales of their Richmond and Delta homes to mainland Chinese purchasers. In Vancouver the pretty residential areas around Main and Fraser Streets have likewise swelled in price, as west-siders cash out to Chinese buyers and land on cheaper, if not higher, ground.

Attracting overseas buyers

Within Vancouver city borders, our neighbourhood in particular shines for certain traits that are seen as attractive to the overseas market. First and foremost are the large lots. Ours, at 75 feet by 135 feet, is not Greek Church House size but still desirable as it allows a prospective buyer to raze our restored 4,800-square-foot house and build a new 6,000-square-foot mansion. Secondly, we’re in the coveted Magee Secondary School catchment and with relatively close access to the private Crofton House School, both solid check marks. It’s also a neighbourhood with an already-sizable Chinese population, and as both houses on either side of us are already so-called Hong Kong specials – the box-like two-storey stuccos, frequently clad in garish peach and pinks, erected by the first wave of Hong Kong immigrants in the mid-’90s – a prospective buyer might find comfort in the immediate environment. Finally, our house doesn’t have any uniquely Chinese problems: we’re not located on a T-intersection – which we were warned by one realtor was the kiss of death to attracting Chinese buyers – and our address doesn’t have any fours in it. “We even have a red door,” said Cynthia hopefully.

If we were going to get serious about selling the house, however, we needed to get some more intelligence and develop a strategy. Cynthia mentioned our idea of selling to Mabel, our tough-as-nails next-door neighbour, who was part of the mid-’90s Hong Kong exodus (she has the peach-coloured box to prove it). Mabel often brings potato salad to our house as a gift and once a year at Christmas takes my wife and daughters out for an extravagant Chinese lunch and tells us the state of things, such as, “The former owner of your house was stupid to plant bamboo in your backyard. I told him so. If it disrupts my pipes, I’ll have to sue you.”

Mabel’s response to our thought of selling was equally measured: “You’re crazy.” In 15 years she had yet to develop a touch for the Canadian art of diplomacy. “The Chinese who are coming now are paying with cash – no mortgages. There will never be a downturn because they will never sell at a loss because they don’t have to. They’d rather just give their house to their kids than sell for a loss.” Her message was clear: anyone expecting a major market correction didn’t understand the psychology of the average Chinese purchaser, for whom concepts such as a change in interest rates were of no concern.

Mabel had us second-guessing ourselves. Were we like a mid-’80s Seattle couple selling our Microsoft shares because they had made such nice gains already? Mabel’s logic seemed ostensibly sound (about the house, not the bamboo), but before I made this big step I wanted to talk to an expert more detached from the situation.

Chinese investment in Vancouver

Realtor Cam Good, a marketing wizard whose company, Key Marketing Inc., has become a lightning rod for Chinese investment in Vancouver, was introduced to me by a friend just after David’s note appeared. If Mabel could speak about what it’s like to arrive here from China to buy property, he could speak about going in the opposite direction. His real estate sales company recently opened an office in Beijing (a Shenzhen one is soon to follow) to market Vancouver and Toronto properties to the Chinese on their home turf. In addition to the offices in China, Key will often go the extra step and chauffeur groups around the Lower Mainland in an effort to close the deal, even renting helicopters to show prospective buyers the lay of this new land.

I asked Good about his thoughts on the boom. “We’re just at the beginning,” he told me as we chatted. “With the restriction the government just put on the number of homes a person can own in China coupled with the uncertainty that flows from the Chinese government’s ability to change laws and rules overnight, I feel we’re at a tipping point.” I asked about the Lower Mainland condo bonanza I had heard about, and he confirmed that they were experiencing phenomenal sales success: in January and February alone they sold more than 500 homes to mainland Chinese investors.

Selling to mainland Chinese buyers

A few days after our conversation, I received an email from Good announcing his next venture. Seizing on what I assume was the same demand I was trying to surf, this summer he’s expanding to market of detached residential homes in Greater Vancouver to mainland Chinese buyers. Like a corporate version of our suitor David, Key will approach homeowners on the west side, in Richmond and West Vancouver – people whose homes are considered particularly salable – and convince them to sell, now, for 20 per cent more than whatever is the present market value. Buyers in China will be able to view the available properties through a website, potentially buying several million dollars’ worth of properties sight unseen.

All this had me pondering ?the advisability of selling at all when David and his parents arrived separately, a week after the note had appeared, to tour the house. His parents showed up first in a black Mercedes S600, a $190,000 bank vault on wheels that throughout the world announces, “I’m rich and powerful, and now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.” The father had dark glasses and a stripe of distinguished grey at the temples, and didn’t give his name upon shaking hands; the mother, Maggie, was more gregarious and, as she was taking English lessons, anxious to practice speaking like a local. David, who turned out to be all of 18, arrived a few minutes later in an electric orange $355,000 Lamborghini Murcielago.

The cars alone were a good sign. They marked David and his parents as belonging to the truly wealthy class of Chinese buyers. In my chat with Cam Good, he had spoken of the burgeoning middle class in China who he predicted would be the next consumers of Vancouver real estate, but I had some reservations. If middle-class Vancouverites could barely afford to buy a first house here, how could middle-class Chinese nationals afford second homes?

In McKinsey & Co.’s landmark 2009 study of the Chinese consumer, only two million households out of a population of 1.3 billion were classified as “wealthy.” And wealthy in this context was defined as household earnings of more than $30,000. Other reports are more generous: the 2010 Hurun Wealth Report says there are 875,000 millionaires in China, but even then they noted that the six per cent growth rate of millionaires in China was less than America’s 8.7 per cent and that the U.S. economy isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. A recent report from Deloitte projects the number of Chinese millionaires in 2020 to be 2.5 million – plenty, to be sure, but only seventh best in the world and significantly less than moribund Japan’s 8.6 million millionaires. Whatever the true figures, all I needed was one determined millionaire to make my dream a reality.

Cynthia led David and his family on the tour as I tagged along. The parents spoke little or no English, so David helped translate such phrases as “steam room with rain-shower fixture” and “programmable Nuheat floor.” (We decided we didn’t want to tax him too much, so we avoided making him translate knob-and-tube wiring.) The parents politely nodded at Cynthia’s detailed chronicling of every upgrade, no matter how small. Halfway through the tour of our cavernous basement, the father muttered something. “My father is very afraid of this space,” deadpanned David. “He would very much like to return upstairs.” In truth, I think we knew that the house tour was a flight of fancy. All the things we had spent $1.85 million on would soon be rubble, replaced most likely by a nondescript house of no discernible era or architectural style.

We moved upstairs to our living room to discuss business. Contrary to the stereotype of tough, straightforward Chinese negotiators, we actually ambled around the question of the house and a selling price for a good half-hour, a long time with most strangers and an eternity when major language barriers exist. Even a month later, I’m at a loss to recall what we talked about. I do recall the line that broke the ice: “The house down the street sells for $1.8 million,” the father instructed David to tell us. It had been an opening salvo but one I was unprepared for.

He was presumably referring to a house a few blocks away in deplorable condition on a small lot. Worse, that price was not only less than we paid but $750,000 below our woefully out-of-date assessed value from the city. The discrepancies were so great that had I been sitting with anyone else my stock response would have been, “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” It quickly became apparent we were at cross purposes, but I couldn’t muster any animus. We were the ones who had equated Chinese with irrational spending. They continued to express serious interest in the property, but although we continued to chat for a few minutes I knew our untethered dreams would not be granted by these particular visitors.

A few days after the visit, I called up Dave Peerless, the excellently named president of Dexter Associates Realty, whose firm had represented us when we bought the house. He helped put it in context for me: “Listen, mainland Chinese come here for the same reasons as anybody else does: clean air, good education and a welcoming environment. The only difference is that Vancouver has the added benefit of being relatively affordable for them.”

Ideally, this would have been a self-contained parable, a caution to greed, prejudgment and a score of other vices. A three-by-three-inch sticky note had turned us into speculators – and now a four-by-four-foot sign rises out of our newly reseeded lawn. The asking price? $3.5 million – twice what we paid just 36 months prior.

The open house is next Saturday.