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How to hack into Vancouver's real estate market with a laneway house

In order to afford to live here, you have to hack the Vancouver housing market. Touted by the City as affordable rentals, laneway houses can be so much more. Your affordable Vancouver property is just around back.

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Laneway house kitchen
Laneway house kitchen (Smallworks)

Of course, you need access to a property that sits on a laneway, or that stretches the entire depth of a block.

Most frequently, Fry says, it’s a parent or an aunt or a grandparent who owns the property. “Usually mom and dad are happy to help out, and their willing to give up their garage or their backyard for their kids to have their first home.” Sometimes, though, the client is older, building and occupying the LWH while renting out the main structure.

As did Tunic-Grandjean, Fry has encountered some downsizers: “We’ve had a few occasions where mum sells her house in Kerrisdale and moves in with her kids in the East End.” This means an older person can liberate the money tied into their old house, using it to face the increasingly-expensive process of growing old.

Smallworks consulted with the City as they revisited the LWH by-law. As do Tunic-Grandjean and Henry, Fry also champions the LWH contribution to non-tower growth: “We’re positioned to continue to deliver urban homes that are focusing on gentle density.”

In the video above, Ludacris tell us, “If you ain’t got no money, take your broke ass home,” but it turns out we might actually find a physical house, and a nice one at that.

If you don't have family in Vancouver, or at least not family with whom you want to share a backyard, perhaps you have (very) close friends with whom to join forces. You could create a sort of tiny cohousing collective, with the backyard held in common. Make sure that you really get along, though. Maybe even do a few group counseling sessions first. Not kidding.

Laneway house in Vancouver"Come on, it's your turn to water the garden!" (Smallworks)

How big can a laneway house be?

Jillian Harris from "Love it or List It"  lives in a laneway house, albeit an unusually large one. Unless you’re building on the grounds of Wayne Manor, yours will not be as large as hers.

This is because the size of a laneway house depends on the size of its property. Remember, young hummingbird and/or kestrel, your nest must not break the branch or stone to which it clings.

The 2013 by-law change means that up to 16% of a property’s overall square footage can be taken up by a laneway house, but that includes the garage. Previously, only 12% of the square footage was laneway-house-able, but you could also build a garage. The change means that a covered parking space would cannibalize your living space.

Smallworks’ sales director Kim Little puts that last bit rather succinctly: "Do you want a house for a family or do you want a house for your car?"

Laneway house in Vancouver
Laneway house with carport (Smallworks)

Little notes that many of her customers are fairly minimalist in their lifestyle anyway, not owning a car of their own. Rather than fill a garage with their junk, they just stash it in sub-floor storage built into the base of the home. You won’t be able to keep your Steinway, though.

In any event, superior interior design will make a smaller space much more livable. How many of those "You won't believe this tiny house" videos have popped up on your Facebook page and Twitter feed over the past few years? You know, stuff like this:


 If you build it...

Vancouver’s laneway house pilot program saw just 100 LWH approved (pdf), but that number is growing rapidly. Little says that Smallworks alone has built “85 or so”, and they’re just one of several companies with a hand in the game. Her smile audible over the phone, Little adds, “The bylaw change for Vancouver was a good thing.”

For the City’s planning department, it’s been kind of a bad thing. City Council approved an expansion of the laneway housing program in 2013, but actual permit approvals has been sluggish: the City has basically choked on the laneway construction application increase that it had triggered.

The backlog of permits has led to a slowdown in approvals, which in turn has had a deleterious effect on LWH builders; ranging from nervousness to outright panic. Fry attributes it to a “perfect storm” of the planning department’s move between physical office spaces; the influx of tree-related permits in the wake of the Protection of Trees By-law; City staffing changes; and a glut of applications filed before a green-building by-law was supposed to take effect. (The City is now scrambling to meet the backlog, perhaps mystified as to how it painted itself into this corner: Vancouver is globally famous for rapid development.)

While able to start a new LWH project every eight to nine days, Smallworks is currently stuck in the fifteen-day range due to that permit slowdown. Once given the go-ahead, Smallworks’ timeframe is, according to Fry, “Eighteen to twenty weeks from the day we break ground ‘tip the day they can move in.”

Tunic-Grandjean doesn’t just champion LWH professionally, but personally as well. One of her close friends built a laneway house a few years ago which is currently serving as a rental property.  Even though it’s a pre-2013-by-law LWH with two stores and 755 square feet, Tunic-Grandjean’s friend has had no privacy complaints from neighbours. That friend plans on taking it over once she retires. Said Tunic-Grandjean with a laugh, “I’d live there in no time. It’s bigger than the house I live in right now.”

So, despite its position on the Affordability Task Force's continuum, perhaps the laneway house comes into its own as an ownership option.

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