Lake Cowichan used to be known as a place where you could make your first foray into real estate or buy that dream home cheaply, but that’s not the case anymore.
The rising prices that have made Vancouver and Victoria notorious are now spreading up-Island and into the Lake area.
“It’s getting very tough,” said realtor Tracy Forrest. “It’s especially hard on first-time homebuyers. It’s sad. A lot of them are doing private sales. Three years ago, they wouldn’t think of that. Two or three years ago, a first-time buyer could probably buy a home for $200,000 in Lake Cowichan, Youbou, or Honeymoon Bay. Not so much anymore.”
She’s done the research.
“I looked at what was going on at this time of year for the past few years. You can see the rise in average house prices. In 2015, it was around the $200K mark. The next year it was up to around $250K and now we’re talking $300K. You can see the trend.
“But I also saw in the statistics that this year we haven’t sold as much as last year. And that comes down to inventory. We don’t have the inventory.
“Everything that people had considered selling has sold, and they are selling in a very short period of time.”
And snapping up that perfect property comes down to networking, as well, she said.
“The good realtors have lists. If they have clients and they know what they are looking for, as soon as it’s up, it’s likely to be gone. We get to see [listings] a day or so before they are available to the public, and then houses are gone.
“This morning, I got an offer and they haven’t even seen the place yet. What people are doing is making an offer subject to viewing it, subject to inspections — they’re making an offer so they’ve got it in. Then, they’re doing their due diligence after the fact,” Forrest said.
In the past, homebuyers have been warned to get a home inspection first, but in a hot market, the pressure cooker atmosphere can make that tough.
“That’s the problem. People don’t want to do multiple offers. Because they are not fun to do. One place had five offers. She listed it Wednesday; we didn’t show it till Friday. We had over 20 people on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. By 5 o’clock Monday she had five offers and she took one that was well over asking. And that was in Lake Cowichan.
“Keith Nelson [senior associate in their business] has been a realtor for 25 years and he’s never seen anything like that in Lake Cowichan.
“People are no longer out doing a lot of countering; they walk in and if they want the house, they offer the asking price. They may come in a little bit lower just to see what they can get but they have to be ready to step up to the plate because if they don’t someone else is going to. If there’s anything nice, it will get an offer the same day.”
And if it’s acreage or waterfront or water view property that’s wanted, the road is rockier, Forrest said.
“We had a couple in here last week, looking for a waterfront lot. We found one in Youbou that was 5,000 square feet. After that there were only huge parcels and they have no power, no services. But the normal, family size lot that people want, on the waterfront, there just aren’t any available.
“The whole climate of Lake Cowichan’s market is changing.”
And what about the Lake’s traditional buyer? Or people who bought and loved their house, but who now want to move into something smaller?
“That’s another problem. You’ve got to sell it and, yes, you’ll get top dollar but you’ve also got to buy something after the fact. Some people don’t have anything to go to after. We get them coming in the door and we say to them: Well, what if they want the house by the middle of next month? What are you going to do?”
Even people willing to build are confronted by problems.
”This year is probably the most building permits I’ve seen in Lake Cowichan in years. I had a gentleman in here looking for a rental while they built their place but we don’t have rentals to offer them either. That’s another whole issue. Most of the Island is experiencing that problem.
“Nobody has been building rental properties but there have been people in looking for things to do and we’re encouraging them to build affordable places for young families. It would be so nice to see that.
“We are getting some young familes back now and it’s great because we really lost a lot for a few years. They are coming back because it’s still affordable here. Lake Cowichan and Port Alberni are the two places that people find they can still find stuff,” she said.
Also off the beaten path, Port Renfrew is hot right now, but it’s a totally different market, according to Forrest.
“They were isolated for so long but now they’re really going, too,”
However, all this is leaving significant chunks of the population in difficult straits.
“That’s the sad thing. You’re lucky if you have family that can help you out. But most of us are not in that situation.
“People still think Lake Cowichan [real estate] is cheap, that they are going to come up here and buy a waterfront property for $200K, or they’re going to get a super place with the granite counter tops and all the rest for $300K. Well, that day is gone. Buyers are slowly starting to realize that’s not the way it is anymore,” Forrest said.
However, the renovation project holds out charm for some.
“We’re getting a lot of the young buyers in their late 20s or early 30s who don’t mind getting their hands dirty, who don’t mind a fixer-upper. But they all want a workshop/garage. [Selling to them] is about getting them to look past what’s in front of them, to see the possibilities in a home. Because some people can’t do that.”
A lot of older homes in the Cowichan Lake area were built in the 1950s or ’60s with lumber from local mills, and considering what was milled in those days, it’s probably twice the quality of any wood available now. That means an old place could have good solid bones that would handsomely repay the DIY type.
“That’s what we keep telling people. And it’s one of those trendy things right now. People think it’s okay to buy and fix up an older home. But, even five years ago, they wanted that brand new house. They wanted it all.”
Forrest used to be a banker and would counsel young buyers with stars in their eyes to be careful before plunging.
“I told them: you don’t want to be mortgage poor. You want to have time with your children, you want to travel, you want to have fun. You don’t want to just work for the sake of buying a house.”
At the other end of the scale, it seemed a few years ago that you couldn’t drive past a mobile home park without seeing at least one For Sale sign.
Forrest said that these places are now changing hands privately and quietly as a network of friends and friends-of-friends pass the word around.
“We used to be able to tell people about two or three available in a big park. But that’s not happening any more either.”
It’s the same story in the housing market all over the Island, and Lake Cowichan is just as affected as any other area. Realtors are ready with eager buyers but there is almost no inventory of homes to show them.
Homes that are priced right and marketed effectively sell quickly. Buyers have to have their financial ducks in a row and be ready to purchase right away if they’re interested. And sellers need to be well prepared, too, because they’ve suddenly become buyers in a new world of Lake Cowichan real estate.