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Real estate sales down 35 to 60 per cent

But some agents remain optimistic heading into the Olympic season



Ask almost any real estate agent in town and they'll tell you: it's a buyer's market.

Residential real estate sales are down 35 to 60 per cent for almost all property types in Whistler compared to the same time last year, based on statistics from the Whistler Listing System.

By the end of the first quarter, March 31, only eight chalets had sold in Whistler compared to 22 chalets during the same period in 2008. Fifteen townhouses had sold compared to 65 the year before, and 15 condominiums compared to 43.

This trend continues into the second quarter, which wraps up June 30.

"Last winter was not pretty," said Drew Meredith, an agent with Whistler Real Estate and former mayor of Whistler.

"We didn't get the occupancy, and we didn't get the sale activity."

Real estate sales tend to happen when occupancy levels in the resort are up, with the winter and the summer being the strongest seasons.

Also, prices have dropped compared to last year.

The average price of chalets sold in the first quarter this year was $1.9 million, compared to $2.1 million in 2008 - a 9.5 per cent decline. And the average price of a townhome was $738,000 in the first quarter this year compared to $971,000 last year - a 32 per cent drop.

Added Meredith, most sales this year valued under $1 million, even though the average property in Whistler is worth more.

"There are lots of people looking, but you (the real estate agent) is not necessarily pulling the trigger," said Meredith.

"There is an expectation of a deal, and in Whistler I would suggest that might be hard to deliver."

Ron Mitchell, an agent with Sutton, said most properties that sold this year were residential sales, not "resort recreational" sales. For example, sales in the village and the Benchlands - where people wanting a second, recreational home tend to buy - are down 62 per cent to date compared to last year.

"Most people would agree - unfortunately for us resort realtors - that right now buying a secondary recreational property is probably not on the top of everyone's list, particularly if they are not sure about their job or their wealth portfolio has shrunk," said Mitchell.

"Where we see a fair amount of stability is the residential purchaser. Those buyers are either buying for personal use to live in or buying because the residential rental market is in short supply and strong demand."

Such steep declines in sales and prices echo other real estate markets across the globe.

However, while the housing market was going wild in British Columbia up until the global recession kicked in around September 2008,Whistler's residential real estate market has been trending downward for some years.

Ann Chiasson, president of Sea to Sky Premier Properties, also warned that transaction statistics do not always tell the full story.

She said product launches in recent years have boosted Whistler's sales numbers. And while no new product has come on the market this year, the numbers might change once Fitzsimmon's Walk and Rainbow are added to the mix.

"We are down 40 to 60 per cent, but in reality it might be down 30 to 40 per cent," said Chiasson.

While the latest numbers seem to spell out doom and gloom, many agents remain optimistic.

"Things are starting to improve," said Meredith.

"Based on what we were reading at the end of the year, we thought we were all going to be in the soup line. It now appears we are not. It may be the shortest depression I have ever experienced. There is volume and activity, and that is good."

Meredith predicts low mortgage rates will keep the Whistler real estate market chugging along at the same tempo for some time.

Traditionally, real estate activity slows down six months prior to the Olympics, and continues to remain sluggish six months afterwards.

Vancouver market sees a change

Meanwhile, just 115 kilometres south of Whistler, the real estate situation is steadying.

According to a recent report from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, the number of residential property sales this May in Greater Vancouver were 17.4 per cent higher than the number of sales recorded in May 2008.

And while home prices are still trending downward, valuing approximately 10.9 per cent less this May compared to May last year, the Housing Price Index benchmark for residential properties is up 4.5 per cent.

"The increased level of buyer activity over the last few months has had a stabilizing effect on home prices across the region," aid Scott Russell, REBGV president. "MLS (House Pricing Index) data continues to show a trend toward a balanced market in the region."