Opinion » Editorial

No longer front-page news



Nothing quite makes headlines like a good Whistler housing story — our workers sleeping in windowless crawl spaces, our realtors setting nation-wide records for selling the most expensive house, our municipality dealing with hidden, extravagant illegal construction.

It feeds the flames and the perception about this playground of the rich and famous, where the have-nots sleep curled around hot water tanks, and the haves sleep worry free in their mansions on the hill.

This time of year was traditionally a time for Whistler to make the news as property assessments hit the mail and homeowners in the resort found their assessed values climbing once again.

It hasn't been that way for a few years now.

This year it's Kitimat's turn to grab the headlines. Not nearly as sexy but still newsworthy as it becomes the new B.C. boomtown of 2013 with its assessed home values up 26.7 per cent in the last year, according to BC Assessment.

It doesn't seem that long ago that was Whistler's story.

But that was then... and this is now.

Consider this: in 1998 the average price of a Whistler condo was $215,000. At the market's peak, the mid-2000s, that average was $534,000. In 2013 it was $314,000.

It's a similar story across the board in townhouses and single-family homes — this dramatic rise and fall of Whistler real estate in the last 15 years.

In 1998 the average value of a single-family home was $775,000. There were 64 transactions in that category. At the peak in 2006, the average rose to $1.86 million with 114 transactions. Last year it was $1.4 million with 133 deals.

That's not a shabby return on your investment... if you were in the right place at the right time.

Whoever said real estate wasn't a high stakes game?

Think back 15 years ago: it was about that time that Whistler made headlines for the highest priced home sold in the country. It was called Akasha on Sunridge Plateau.

The price? A never-before-seen $7.9 million.

It made people sit up and take notice of this upstart little ski town.

High-end development was becoming commonplace. Hundreds of new units were coming onto the marketplace every year. Upscale spec homes were getting snapped up.

A few years later the Four Seasons Resort made headlines.

In less than six hours $152 million was poured into Whistler as the yet-to-be-built hotel suites sold out in record time.

Hugh O'Reilly, mayor at the time, put the success down to four things: the spectacular nature of Whistler, the loyalty of Four Seasons users, the fact that the community was almost at build-out, and the low Canadian dollar.

He told the Pique then "The sales in that time frame speak volumes about what people see in the resort."

Like the Americans, who saw BARGAINS.

With each of their dollars in the range of $1.50 Canadian, Americans couldn't resist. They bought our "cheap" lift tickets and ski jackets and lattés.

Our real estate seemed like one of the biggest bargains of all.

On top of that, the growth cap loomed, the finite number of housing units that we seemed to be in an almighty rush to reach.

If you were on the outskirts of all this action, you couldn't help but feel that something big was passing you by. You wanted to beg, borrow and steal to be a part of the game.

And then...

Well, we all know how the story goes from there.

In this new reality, real estate is a different game, one where the stakes are perhaps not as high.

Where once real estate was almost THE defining thing about Whistler — our rate of growth, our cap on growth, our type of growth — now it gets barely a mention in the recent Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) report.

In its snapshot of the Whistler Economic Model, the EPI report lists several sectors: arts, entertainment & recreation is 12 per cent of Whistler's GDP, food and beverage 15 per cent, accommodation nine per cent, professional services 30 per cent, retail 26 per cent.

The mighty construction industry, once the fuel of Whistler's economic engine, barely made the pie chart — two per cent of the $1.3 billion GDP.

And so, like the resort itself, Whistler's real estate has matured, settled down, gone through its rambunctious teenage years and become a little wiser.

But that doesn't make for headlines; in fact it deserves barely a mention. Take this year's news from BC Assessment: Whistler real estate has levelled off, a 1.4 per cent growth in the overall assessment roll, after three years of decline.

As one realtor who's been in the valley for three decades put it this week, where once Whistler was much like a growth stock — shares in a company whose earnings are expected to grow at an above-average rate — it's now more like a bond; certainly not without risk, but safer.

And as Whistler looks to diversify, protect itself as much as it can from outside elements beyond its control, its real estate has come full circle.

It makes you think — it's not a bad gamble... if you get to be a part of the game and call Whistler home full time or even just for a few weeks a year.