British Columbia

When it comes to Vancouver real estate, millennials don't appreciate comparisons to the 90s

Defining the source of the tension is straightforward. Finding a way out of it is another matter.

Empathy gap between homeowners and renters is growing and telling folks to consider the suburbs rarely helps

A home in East Vancouver. The average price of a single-detached home in Greater Vancouver has risen 414 per cent in the last 25 years, according to figures from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

Do you ever see a comment online that you just have to respond to?

It happened to me this weekend. There was an online debate about — what else is new — Vancouver real estate, and young people feeling they have to leave the region because it's too expensive.

Laura Ballance, the owner of a PR company that represents some of the largest events and companies in Vancouver, tweeted: "For the record, it was the same in the early 90s. So I left, worked hard, bought where I could afford, sacrificed having nice cars & vacations & dinners out, fixed up & sold 13 houses & worked my way back."

Now, I'm a reporter that loves statistics, historical comparisons and talking real estate.

But I'm also a renter in my early 30s who has lived in converted garages and basement suites in the suburbs to make ends meet. And in my personal time, I'm surrounded by friends who continually wonder if they will ever own property in Vancouver. 

So I responded, in a professional and personal capacity, with some numbers (and a dash of snark): 

"For the record, the average price of a detached home in Greater Vancouver in Feb. 1993 was $337,100. Adjusted for inflation, that's $522,306.71 today. The average price of a detached home is now $1,732,992. Scrimping on "vacations & dinners out" won't make up that difference."

The response was bigger than anything I've ever tweeted (and I have tweeted far more than any sane person should), because it struck an obvious nerve. 

"There's frustration from people that have been told their parents worked hard and saved up and did all the right things," said Aaron Best, a real estate agent and co-owner of Coronet Realty who often works with entry-level buyers. 

"Largely, they're doing the same stuff. They're working hard. They're saving but not seeming to get ahead." 

A one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in the City of Langley. The average price of an apartment sold in Langley has gone from $215,608 in January 2010 to $378,035 today. (MLS)

No sympathy on either side

Ballance says the point she was trying to make was the suburbs are a possibility more young people should explore, just as she did when her career was beginning 25 years ago.

"It wasn't easy. They weren't handing out houses in 1992 when I was looking to buy. Interest rates were a challenge, but I was able to do it by moving out further from a metropolitan centre and having a clear goal that I wanted to invest in a home," she said.

"I've become a very passionate advocate. I think sometimes people may not consider it and really that was the intention, to encourage people."

Older people telling younger people what they should consider in this housing market sparks a certain outrage. 

But the lack of sympathy can go both ways. Consider just days earlier, after the B.C. government announced that annual school taxes on homes worth more than $3 million would be going up

The Vancouver Sun profiled an upset homeowner in Point Grey with a home worth just under $6.5 million, worried that it could mean an extra $12,000 a year in taxes, with no immediate money, as retirees, to pay for it.   

The vitriolic response by some led a reporter to denounce some critics of the homeowner — who could defer his property taxes until he sold the home — as "snarky online real estate armchair quarterbacks."

"A lot of people, especially older people, who spent their life paying off their debt, simply do not want to defer taxes. To their mind, this is an additional debt," said Michael Geller, a Vancouver developer and planner.  

But he also sees the empathy gap that's growing in the housing debate, with old homeowners and young renters speaking different languages in barbed tones.  

"To a young person out there, it's almost absurd that someone should be complaining about their good fortune." 

No easy way out, either

Defining the source of the tension is straightforward. Finding a way out of it is another matter.

"It's really a no-win situation. You're going to have people upset either way. There's a constant tug of war," said Best. 

Median housing prices continue to be 15, 25, 35 times higher than median incomes, and those who can't enter the market will continue to be contemptuous of those upset about higher property taxes. 

But have housing prices drop 15, 25, 35 per cent, and tens of thousands of homeowners will suddenly be under water.  

The B.C. government believes that a ban on foreign buyers is no "silver bullet", and hopes its 30-point plan, a complex mixture of supply and demand measures, will "moderate the market" over time, though they've been reluctant to state exactly what that means when it comes to hard metrics. 

In the meantime, millennials will continue to be annoyed when someone suggests that the debate over housing affordability and the tradeoffs of living in Vancouver "was the same in the early 90s."

What about interest rates?

If there's one metric of the housing affordability debate that has gone down, it's interest rates — while they were over 10 per cent for virtually an entire generation of homeowners, they've been below five per cent for well over a decade now. 

"Then the big question for first-time homebuyers would have been interest rates: would you qualify for a mortgage given debt service ratio? The down payment was still an issue, but it was more the servicing cost," said Helmut Pastrick, chief economist at B.C's Central 1 Credit Union.

But even accounting for inflation, the mortgage payments required by high interest rates aren't comparable to today's market.

Consider the example of former health minister Terry Lake.

He told CBC News that in 1991, he purchased a three-bedroom home with an unfinished basement in Port Coquitlam for $164,900, when interest rates were at 14.5 per cent. 

"Kind of one of those Coquitlam box specials," he quipped. "That was certainly the flavour of the day back then."

If Lake put down 20 per cent on a downpayment and had a five-year fixed mortgage, his monthly payments would have been $1,596.13 — which when factoring for inflation is the equivalent of $2,563.33 today, according to the Bank of Canada. 

Coincidentally, there's exactly one three-bedroom with an unfurnished basement being marketed as such on Real Estate Wire, which lists virtually all homes available for sale in B.C.  It's on the market for $1,099,000.

With five-year-fixed rates from CIBC at 3.19 per cent, the monthly mortgage payment — assuming you can pay the 20 per cent down payment of $219,000 — is $4,246.96.

Adjusted for inflation, that's a 65 per cent increase from the mortgage payments someone like Lake would have paid in 1991. Assuming you can save up that bigger down payment. 

"It's still much more expensive today," said Lake. "But considering interest rates does give a better comparator." 


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.