$300,000, one human soul, plus tax and maintenance: Your first Vancouver apartment
It's hard out here for a real estate agent. Caught between sky-high prices and cheapo renovations, an army of Realtors are giving their souls to the game.
She flushes, slightly, just for a moment. "You could do a lot with this kitchen."
"I'll have to," I reply. The apartment was supposedly built in 1982, but the kitchen renovation suggests an earlier era. Beige cabinets, countertops even more beige, rusty dishwasher.
The liaison broker has a name suggestive of a porn star. Nice suit, and I mean that unironically. He's clearly flirting with her as I inspect the living room. The lizard part of my brain screams, "Back off, chump, she's my realtor!" If she notices his advances, she gives no indication.
She and I check out the bathroom. The light switch is crusted over with what must be years of finger-grime. The owner is doing this place no favors. My Realtor stage-whispers, "Single white guy from Quebec." She's surely right. Given enough experience in the real estate industry, you can tell a lot about who lives in an apartment, even when they're showing it in what they think is its best light.
Single White Quebecois Male had this place on the market for $299,900. He got an offer and bugged out, thinking he could get more. Now he wants $309,900. There's no gentle way of saying this: no freakin' way. This place has now been on the market for a year and a half.
My Realtor and I are on an affordable apartment safari though East Van. My criteria: under $350,000 and within fifteen minutes' public-transit commute to Downtown Vancouver.
She's driving us in her Lexus SUV through the rain-slicked streets. The Lexus has a video camera to help you with parallel parking, but she doesn't seem to need it.
She lined up four apartments, all under $350,000. The cheapest is $250,000. None of them have ensuite laundry. If you think that giving someone a third of a million dollars would get you a washer/dryer, then clearly you've never apartment-shopped in Vancouver.
Go East, Young Man/Woman/Investor
East Vancouver is heating up, because nobody who works for a living can afford to buy in the West End anymore. Rising rents make an investment property in East Van a more viable option than it once was, though proper houses remain out of reach for anyone on a Canadian wage. This keeps the pressure up in the apartment/condo market.
My Realtor says that the sales market is slower than it's been in a long time: properties will sit for an average of 70 days. Still, there are vacant units that she won't touch with a ten-foot pole: "I'm afraid to sell in Olympic Village, to be honest. I steer my clients away." Dead neighborhood, small units, renovations that "probably won't stand the test of time".
I'm checking the closet space in Single White Quebecois' condo. There's not much. The entryway closet is mostly taken up by the water heater. In the hallway, though, he has installed a European-style washer/dryer unit. So there's that. Of course, should he sell, he might just take it with him, leaving the buyer to hoard quarters for the downstairs laundry.
It's not cozy, it's small
The first apartment she showed me was New-York small. 510 square feet according to the info sheet, but it felt smaller; even though the owner makes cunning use of the space. For the $250,000 asking price, you could actually do better in Brooklyn. In Queens, you could live like a monarch.
My Realtor marveled aloud at how the current owner maximized the space. She actually used the word "small", which won me over. You'd expect a broker to euphemize with "cozy". I immediately felt better about trusting her.
Okay, back to the apartment. Two closets. No window in the bedroom, just a translucent sliding door from the living room. This place looked like my last apartment in Brooklyn, except on the ground floor. And smaller.
Gorgeous kitchen. She told me, "Soft-close drawers are all the rage right now, but they can eliminate a good kitchen fight." True enough: you can't slam any of the drawers in a fit of drama-queen pique. They slide silently shut; you won't wake the neighbours.
Two bedrooms, huh?
We examine another apartment, one that boasts two bedrooms. Technically, that's correct. Bedroom Number Two was more like an office: no adult would be able to occupy it full-time, not unless their sole possession was a set of Matryoshka dolls. Currently, Bedroom Number Two is deployed as a baby's room.
She floats the idea of a guest bedroom, imparting words of wisdom: "A guest bedroom should be comfortable... but not too comfortable". Moving on to what the floorplan calls a "den", we're forced to re-label it as a nook.
The kitchen is small but functional. Soft-close drawers.
On the market for 47 days, the list price is $350,000. She hints, "The sellers have another baby on the way, so they're quite anxious."
We head off to examine the downstairs coin-op laundry. As she mashes the elevator button, she tells me that, as a prospective buyer, I'd have the right to demand the least two years' worth of strata meeting minutes, which would detail any issues with the building.
"Including a broken elevator?" She flushes, slightly, just for a moment, then smiles. "Exactly."
The fine art of hiding your stuff
The last place we see is not the largest, nor is it the cheapest, but it's my favorite. This surprises my Realtor. The selling point isn't the crown moldings, nor the ultra-modern kitchen (with soft-close drawers), nor the luxurious bathroom. The best part of this condo is all the places to hide your stuff. A walk-in closet, an efficiently-organized bedroom closet, and a floor-to-ceiling wall of cabinets at the far end of the dining area.
The owner has clearly flipped apartments before: the place looks like a movie set. Immaculate. No popcorn ceiling, no dusty light fixtures.
My Realtor is warning me, "This place doesn't exactly get tons of light." We explore the coin-op laundry room (if $350,000 doesn't get you ensuite, neither will $300,000), I notice a lending-library of discarded books. One is a book on rabbit surgery.
Outside, my Realtor warns me that this building will be tented with tarps for nearly a year as the roof is upgraded. Nobody casually drops a third of a million dollars: "By the time you're ready to lock in an offer, you will be intimately familiar with the property". In other words, whitewashing only wastes time. She does not waste time.
The tour is over, and she gives me a ride back out of East Van. The first time out with a client is about gauging whether he or she is serious. You don't want to spend four hours with a total stranger: you want to see how motivated they are, how realistic their expectations might be.
Lies, damned lies, and real estate hoaxes
I ask her about the MAC Marketing Solutions scandal, in which a real estate marketing firm used its own staff to create a story about fake Chinese siblings and their fake overseas-investor dad shopping for an apartment in the city. The ploy used racist undercurrents to spur would-be local buyers into pouncing on overpriced properties around Chinese New Year.
MAC Marketing Solutions characterized the incident as a "misunderstanding", and owner Cameron McNeill called it an "unfortunate occurrence", but it could be described less charitably as "a straight-up hoax".
My Realtor's response is immediate and sharp: "They'll lose their license, and soon." She is not sure how Canadian media swallowed the story so readily.
Sure enough, a senior manager at MAC has already resigned, but there still may be some fallout yet to come. Her eyes on the road, she says, "It makes us all look bad."
Boxes within boxes
Glass towers full of cookie-cutter apartments are springing up like mushrooms all over Vancouver, and they're forcing out the few remaining cultural elements that make the downtown core worth visiting in the first place. When Strathcona becomes Burnaby, why would anybody want to move in from the original Burnaby? At least your overpriced New York City apartment places you in New York City.
Vancouver cannot, by any metric, hope to rival that; particularly with its low wages. The average family income of $67,550 will not get you much. According to an online mortgage calculator, that average income will, presuming the taxes and maintenance fees on a one-bedroom condo, only pre-qualify you for a $980-per-month mortgage loan.
The condos my Realtor and I visited would require nearly double that per monthly payment. I don't care how good your mortgage broker is; he or she isn't a wizard. Most of your paycheque would get sucked up by your housing costs. In New York, the term is "rent-poor". Is "mortgage-poor" a term in Vancouver yet?
What recourse is there? Well, you could rent, but rental prices are quickly approaching monthly-mortgage-payment levels, particularly for a family-sized dwelling anywhere near a decent public transit line. If you're determined to live in the heart of Vancouver, you could rent a micro-loft.
The argument surrounding micro-lofts as gentrification tools misses the larger point, though: $850 per month for a 291-square-foot apartment fails to meet any reasonable definition of "affordable". Besides, you'd still just be renting.
If you want to buy, how low can you go? How about purchasing one cubic foot of Vancouver real estate? Hey, at least it's affordable to those who are not independently wealthy. Cube Living may be tongue-in-cheek, but points out the effects of speculative buying on a city devoid of truly affordable housing. A sophisticated joke about a sophisticated joke.
'It wears out your soul'
I ask my Realtor if she rents or owns. She does both: owns a place with her ex, rents in East Van. She tells me that 20% of the real estate brokers in Vancouver do 80% of the business.
Some brokers are making a fortune, while others, she says, "are starving." If you want to thrive as a Vancouver real estate agent, you have to give your life to the game... and there's a steep price to pay. The buyer is no longer the only loser in the Vancouver real estate game.
The job cost my Realtor her marriage. She's by no means alone, saying that real estate boasts the highest divorce rate of any industry in Vancouver. When you're introducing a first-time home buyer to a condo last renovated in the Reagan era, how many showings do you think will result in a deal?
So you work early, you work late, you work weekends. It's a numbers game. Keep in mind that Vancouver real estate prices are 10 times the median income: that's double the level considered "severely unaffordable". That's what your agent has to work with.
The real estate broker must spend a lot of time being the breaker of bad news, while still trying to earn a buck.
Is it hard out here for a real estate agent? She concedes, "It wears out your soul."
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