When the Guinness family built the Lions Gate Bridge to connect their British Properties in West Vancouver with downtown at the height of the Great Depression, it was almost an act of desperation.
Previous developers had gone broke attempting to entice homeowners across the fast moving waters of the First Narrows, but the ferry service was never successfully up to the task.
The huge estates carved up on the sinewy streets above the Capilano River were designed by the famous architectural firm Olmsted Brothers of Boston, Massachusetts.
Fans of landscape architecture have no doubt read and re-read Witold Rybczynski’s classic, "A Clearing in the Distance," about Frederick Law Olmsted and the creation of Central Park and Mount Royal. The Capilano Golf & Country Club was designed by Stanley Thompson.
Even today, British Properties' street names evoke a certain colonial nostalgia. Craigmohr, Ballantree, Glengarry. “Southborough,” for instance, sounds like it should be lined by equestrian estates. "Bonnymuir," set beside a fell, heath or loch.
The value, as always, is in the land, and, even here, not every house is a mansion. Humble, functional bungalows built in the 1960s are often overshadowed by magnificent gardens and landscaping. A friend of mine who runs a landscaping business can attest what happens to such places when the older owners “let the places go and can no longer control the foliage.”
Some streets have spectacular views while east-facing homes above Capilano Pacific Park might not see any sunshine for days during the rainy season.
There are a few original estate homes of historical consequence, including Modernist creations by architects like Ned Pratt, Ron Thom and Arthur Erickson.
That WASP parochialism that once barred people of Jewish descent from buying homes here is fading like a Union Jack left in the sun for too long. The original purchasers who snapped up homes in the immediate postwar period into the 1970s are downsizing and cashing out. They’ve had quite a run.
All of which made setting the dollar value of a particular house and property at 625 Southborough Drive a challenge for Shelley Williams, a realtor based in North Vancouver. When Williams prepared the market evaluation in early July, there were 91 homes on the market in the British Properties, with 25 of them priced at under $2 million. Even in Canada’s richest postal code, there’s a glut of places for sale.
“We listed the property as land only. The home was built in 1954 and there had not been any updates, but the lot is large: .63 of an acre or 27,878 square feet," Williams said. He didn't stage an open house and there was no need to. The property was listed on July 24 at $1,888,000 and it sold four days later–with seven offers–for $2,810,000. Who said that bidding wars were over?
The buyer of the property is from China and has two high school-aged children attending school in West Vancouver. The seller will be moving into assisted living.
“We were all shocked,” Williams said. “Elated, but shocked.” And Williams, despite receiving some criticism that the house was priced too low to start with, said that, “In a buyer’s market, it’s difficult to price a home in order to make it attractive."
With huge inventory to choose from, it’s a challenge to interest buyers in your listing and even more challenging to get them to put pen to paper.”
Selling the family home can be a highly emotionally charged and complicated issue. Williams, who is a designated Seniors Real Estate Specialist, often works with clients for a long time before they are ready to sell. In this case, Williams had been talking to the client’s nephew for nearly five years before the property was listed.
“Often it can take people a year or two to get used to the idea of selling their house,” said Williams. “And then I work with them to get their house organized and fixed up, so that they will get the best price possible with as little stress as possible.”
With baby boomers aging and family members wanting to unlock the equity in their parents’ homes to finance their own entry into the housing market, Williams likely has a niche that will guarantee plenty of listings in the years to come.
West Vancouver’s British Properties is one of the most expensive, and lovely, neighbourhoods in Canada. It’s a mix of Bentley-driving, old-money types, seniors who bought in years ago, and the nouveau riche who’ve only recently made it big.
The shifting market that’s happening throughout the Lower Mainland is illustrated perfectly on Southborough Drive, a winding road that cuts through the Lower British Properties and wraps itself around Capilano Golf & Country Club. While a house may sit unsold for months despite huge price reductions, another can still go for more than asking.
There is a lovely three-bedroom rancher on the south side of Southborough that has been on the market since early this year. It sits so close to the golf course that I could see the 18th tee while standing in the front yard, which is more like a park, really. When I viewed it, the owners were asking $3.695-million and I hear they’ve recently re-listed at $3.198-million. That kind of major price slashing is not unusual, either.
Meanwhile, another house on Southborough Drive, on the elevated side of the road, sold at the end of July for a whopping $1-million over asking. The sale caused a mini shock wave among market-watchers and, probably, nearby sellers wondering why their houses aren’t selling for that price. Realtor Shelley Williams, who sold the house, wonders if it might have set a real estate record, although there’s no way to find out because nobody is keeping track.
The lot size is 27,878 square feet, not unusual in the area, and only slightly larger than the one down the road, at 20,947 square feet. Other than being a nice piece of property with view potential, why it was so in demand is anyone’s guess.
“The most important thing is to price the house right to begin with, and if you are in a market that is slow, and it’s a buyer’s market, and there’s a glut of inventory, you have to be under it, not at it,” said a straight-talking Ms. Williams, over coffee in the West End last week. She’s been a realtor for 11 years, mostly dealing with North Vancouver, where prices are generally lower than West Van. She got the listing through the seller’s nephew, whom she’d worked with several years ago.
When I asked her if this sale was an outlier, as in a complete fluky sale like no other, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely. This one came way out of left field. We were really surprised we did as well as we did. When I sat down with them, I said, ‘We have to be really smart or we’re going to be here for two years. There are move-in ready houses with renovated kitchens and gorgeous hardwood going for $1.695-million. Hello?”
The asking price of the house was $1.888-million, strategically containing the number eight, to appeal to Chinese superstition. You will notice a lot of number eights in the prices on the MLS listings.
The price created a seven-party bidding war, even though that wasn’t her intention.
“I just wanted to sell it for good dollar, and get interest right away, and not be in a situation where every 10 weeks we’re reducing it by $50,000 just to get it sold. Then we’d be following the market down.”
When Ms. Williams and the owner were in her office boardroom looking at offers, there was one buyer’s agent who asked if he could present last. Like all the other agents in the waiting area, he had his buyers with him.
At the end, he walked in with a bank draft for $100,000 and the written offer of $2.81-million with no subjects. She played it cool, but inside she was in a state of disbelief.
“I kept looking at it. I said, ‘Thank you very much. We need a few minutes,’ and he left. And the seller and I, we just kept staring at the number. The owner’s mouth was hanging open. I said, ‘Just keep looking at the number on the page and it might sink in.”
The next highest offer was for $2.5-million, but it was subject to financing.
The extremely private owner doesn’t want the address listed, but the house was typical of the lovely modernist ranchers built in the area in the fifties. Being aware that it would be a teardown, the owner didn’t allow anybody to view inside the house. It was a matter of “purchasing dirt,” says Ms. Williams.
The house had been assessed for $2.3-million, but Ms. Williams decided that was irrelevant. Ever since the B.C. Assessment Authority adjusted many West Vancouver houses and increased their value, realtors are not using them so much as a gauge for price-setting.
“The assessed values are grossly inaccurate,” agrees Eric Christiansen, who’s been a realtor in West Vancouver for 22 years. “I’ve had houses sell for $500,000 under or $1-million over the assessments.”
Mr. Christiansen, who routinely sells houses worth millions of dollars, hasn’t seen an August this bad for sales in his entire career. He says there were only 24 sales in West Vancouver in August, compared to 80 last August, and the usual August average of around 50.
He had a house on the market that took six months to sell. It started at $7.9-million and sold for $6.8-million. The mid-range houses in West Vancouver are even slower to sell. That said, he’s had four sales already this month, so things might be looking up for the fall.
Still, he’s wary of pricing low to start a bidding war, because these days, the bidding war might not happen. There are currently 530 houses listed in West Vancouver and buyers – about 50 per cent of them from Mainland China, according to anecdotal realtor input – are choosy.
“The market is very specific. Some areas have come down; some haven’t,” says Mr. Christiansen. “My philosophy is, price your house accordingly to sell it.
“As a seller, you can list it too high and become part of the inventory and add your house to that 539 sitting on the market. Or, you can price it according to this market.”
There’s the trick. Most sellers are living with yesterday’s sales figures in mind, and they want the old top dollar. The reality is, a house is only worth what this current market will pay for it – and sometimes, that’s anybody’s guess.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 14 2012, 1:29 PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Sep. 17 2012, 1:49 PM EDT
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