Million Dollar Houses

houseIs this what $1.2 million looks like? I don’t think so either. But apparently that’s the going price for old houses like this one in my neighbourhood. This is my house, by the way. Small lot. Old garage. New kitchen. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Circa 1912.

James and I always said we’d stay in this house until we couldn’t do stairs anymore. We raised our daughter Katie here, and a few dogs and several cats. (There’s a secret pet burial ground in the back yard). Katie is 26 now, out on her own, but she still calls this home. Still has a key.

There’s an outdoor pool nearby, and an ice rink. Katie took lots of lessons at those places. The school is a good one, true inner city, and with a heart of gold. The playground in the park has been re-vamped a few times in the 20 years since we’ve been here, and the current version is the best. (Although we used to have an old red firetruck which kids just loved).

James and I have talked over the years about moving to the Quay or Vancouver when we retire. But we always came back to how much we love this neighbourhood, and how much it has meant to us over the years. He grew up here too, in a house around the corner. His parents still lived there up until a few years ago. He swam in the pool, played in the park, and went to the same schools that Katie did.

I used to work at a nearby church, and now at the library. Walking to work is so great, especially because I get to walk through the big park everyday.

We’ve watched the neighbour’s kids grow up, and now I watch their grandchildren growing up. For years we had a dent in our garage door from the street hockey players, but it didn’t bother us at all. We’ve been treated to the sounds of garage bands and musician neighbours, and that’s been a pleasure. We’re old rockers at heart.

We were on one of our walks the other night, with our dog Buddy (who thinks he owns the neighbourhood). Looking at all the for sale / sold signs I made my usual comment, “Well, should we sell up and move to the Quay?” And for the first time, James said, “Yeah, maybe we should”. It could have been the thought of the chafer beetle lawn, or maybe the thought of all the landscaping we want to do. Or the never-ending renovation. Or chatting with our neighbours who have sold, and hearing their new and exciting plans. A cool million. So tempting.

But then what? How will our daughter ever get into a house of her own if we don’t leave this one to her? What if we discover we aren’t condo people? What if we move somewhere and it’s quiet…too quiet? For all its challenges, we love our old house. And the day will come when we move on, out of love (so Katie can live here with her family) and necessity (because we just can’t do the stairs anymore). But until that day, we’re banking on memories, not money.

Worth Saving

City Councillor Jonathan Cote has been busy this past little while up at SFU learning about Urban Studies. He’s recently completed a report on rental housing, and it’s an interesting read. Although I have owned a home for about a decade now, I was a tenant for a long time, and the availability and pricing of rental housing in the 90s is what drew me to New West when I left Vancouver Island in the first place.

I asked Cote how he chose to write a term paper about saving purpose built rental housing.

“Finding inspiration for my term paper on housing was not a difficult task,” he said.

“All I needed to do was look out my living room window to see a purpose built rental building being torn down on Royal Avenue. I am not trying to single out the developer on this project; given the economic situation, the property owner made a very rational development decision. The existing rental building was aging and facing expensive maintenance issues and the market was ready for a condo project in this neighbourhood.”

I lived in the very apartment Cote refers to. In its place a six storey wood frame building has been approved for construction. This is significant for a few reasons – six storey wood frame buildings were previously not permitted within the BC Building Code, but the code was altered in 2009 to allow for it after studies demonstrated they were safe in earthquakes. Secondly, this is the first one to be approved for construction in New Westminster and I think it is a sign of things to come.

New Westminster is such a tight, dense, and compact city. This is great for walkability (except someone really needs to do something about the hills) and for getting around without a car. We have lots of transit access points with five Skytrain stations in the city. But we’re out of land, and if you can’t build out, the only place to build is up.

By comparison, I visited Calgary about five years ago, and my brother and I checked out a new housing subdivision on the very outskirts of town. I went back only few years later, and discovered the City of Calgary had crept another 100 kilometers from the centre of the city with another 20 new subdivisions with made up names and cookie cutter houses. What had been sold as “on the edge of it all” was now billed as “easy commute to downtown”.

I don’t recall how many units exactly were in the now-demolished Royal Avenue apartments. I want to say about 40-50 altogether. The new building is approved for 118 units, which no matter how poorly I’ve estimated, is at least double. But here’s the big difference – these units will be individually owned as a strata building, and although the strata bylaws will likely allow for owners to rent out some of the units, this still represents a loss of rental housing.

Councillor Cote says this is a concern. “As I began to research the challenges facing purpose built rental units it became very clear that market rental developments cannot compete with market condo projects. Given the important role rental housing plays in housing low and moderate income earners in our region, this should be cause for concern. Our rental stock is aging and the economics simply do not work for the development of new purpose built rental buildings.”

With the recent news that New Westminster has been selected as a community the provincial government with pilot a poverty reduction program, Cote’s report is timely.

“As I continued my research I realized that there was no easy solution and a variety of policy tools would need to be implemented to change the economics of rental housing.”

So what does Cote suggest?

“We need to create incentives for developers to consider rental housing as a sound investment, and parallel that with more restrictive land use policies. We need to create an entirely separate housing market for rental housing. Only by addressing this issue will the region be able to ensure that low and moderate income earners have a place in Metro Vancouver’s housing system.”

Cote plans to present his term paper to City Council and also other municipalities. You can read the full report here.


Park safety, property values on the agenda for Feb. 26 QPRA meeting

The Queens Park Residents’ Association is tackling two timely topics in its next meeting: park safety and property assessments. Because these are two issues with broader reach than the immediate neighbourhood, the QPRA has invited interested residents from the rest of the city to attend.  The agenda for the Sunday, February 26 meeting includes guest speakers on both topics.

After Councillor Betty McIntosh’s daughter Lisa was mugged walking home through Queen’s Park, it raised safety concerns for many frequent users of the park. The first speaker, City of New Westminster Director of Parks, Culture and Recreation Dean Gibson, will brief residents on planned lighting enhancements for Queen’s Park, and provide an overview of upcoming long-range planning work. Residents are encourages to come with questions and ideas to bring forward.

The second half of the meeting will shift gears to discuss property values. The average New Westminster property assessment increased by 5.16% this year. Receiving the assessment always makes homeowners wonder how those numbers are calculated anyway. BC Assessment Deputy Assessor Zina Weston and New Westminster appraiser Carmine Guadagno will explain how property values are determined with specific focus on the Queens Park neighbourhood. There will be an opportunity to ask questions.

The Queens Park Residents Association meeting is 2-4pm on Sunday, February 26 at Centennial Lodge. Coffee and refreshments will be available by donation.

Urban Monsters

This is a guest post by Remo Pistor. Remo grew up in South Burnaby.  He moved to the West End of New West in 2003.  He’s passionate about the community he lives in and is interested in seeing New West have successful growth in areas such as small business and development while staying true to its heritage and character of its neighbourhoods.  Remo is an IT Manager for a small software development company, the tech guy behind his girlfriend’s fashion blog and all around tech wizard.  You can find Remo on twitter @remop

Edinburgh St. character homes. Photo: Remo Pistor.
Edinburgh St. character homes. Photo: Remo Pistor.

I bought a house in New West about 8 years ago, just as the housing prices were starting to rise and just before the market ballooned and went crazy.  I bought in the West End of New Westminster which I always describe to people as a mini Queens Park; a quaint, quiet neighbourhood with large lots and a lot of old character homes.  Even now you can find a nice house with a large yard for around $600,000.

In spite of City council being as progressive as a community of Amish, there are lots of positives to living in New West and I have really enjoyed living here.  You’re 30 minutes from everything, and you don’t need to cross a bridge or tunnel to get to Vancouver.  The neighbourhoods have lots of character, they’re quiet, and there are lots of parks and community areas.

I felt New West has always remained somewhat of a hidden gem, until lately.  Seems the word has gotten out to those interested in building new homes, and the word is that New West has reasonably priced lots (relative to other areas) and their building codes are far more lax than anywhere else.

Vancouver Special, coming up. Photo: Remo Pistor.
Vancouver Special, coming up. Photo: Remo Pistor.

Now I don’t want you to get me wrong; I’m not against new houses being built.  There are some absolutely beautiful homes being built, in keeping with the style of the neighbourhood. My problem is with the character destroyers or urban monsters that are being erected.  They have foundations wide and deep enough to support a small condo high-rise and even though you are legally allowed only one rental suite the basement has 2 entrances.  The giant wood cube structure built on top are built to their maximum allowable height with flat roofs and every window boxed out to avoid violating the maximum square footage bylaw.  They make no consideration for the character of the neighbourhood or their neighbours.

In my case, the house next to me, although it was built not long before I bought my house, it was built to maximize every last square inch.  On top of being a giant ugly box that destroys the character of the neighbourhood, it was built so close to the property line and so tall that even at the peak of summer it casts a shadow covering a quarter of my backyard.  In the winter my “lawn” has enough moss growing in it that I could keep the local craft stores supplied through to the next season.

What bugs me is that all the while that this destruction of our neighbourhoods is happening, the city does nothing to curb it (bad pun not intended).  Compounding the situation is an Official Community Plan that is disjointed and poorly put together.  In section 2.6 Heritage and Neighbourhood Character, New West identifies the importance of its heritage but really that’s it.  It states that residents and community need to be involved in the conservation of New West’s history and heritage buildings.  But, once again the city falls short in doing anything about the most important part, and that’s making sure there’s a policy that addresses new developments and construction staying true to the neighbourhood’s character.

In contrast, in Burnaby, they have a strong Official Community Plan that’s succinct and covers all aspects of the city.  In section 4.0 Residential, goal number three is: “To maintain and improve neighbourhood liveability and stability.”

It states in goal 3 that, “Residential neighbourhoods are important sub-units of the City. They serve as ‘building blocks’ creating a community through their diverse and distinctive characteristics.”  It goes on to state in the final point that, “Future plans for residential development, as they relate to residential neighborhoods, need to recognize the following… new development should respect the character of the neighborhood and protect those aspects that make each area unique.”

Why New Westminster is unable to take the same approach to protect the character of their neighbourhoods, which they so prominently display on their website, is beyond me.
At the end of the day, I don’t mind you building a large new house; I hope to be able to do the same one day, just have a little respect for your neighbours and your neighbourhood.
In the mean time, another house on my block has been knocked down and replaced with another Vancouver Special.

Mayor to recognize award-winning heritage properties

New Westminster’s heritage architecture is one of its biggest assets. While there are pockets of heritage neighbourhoods throughout the Lower Mainland, New Westminster is lush with vintage appeal. At June 14th’s Regular Council meeting at 7pm, Mayor Wayne Wright will recognize two award-winning local historic properties and present plaques to a number of recent homes that have received municipal heritage designation status.

Here are the details, from New Westminster Heritage Planner Julie Schueck:

Two projects were nominated by New Westminster to stand against heritage projects from around the province and both projects were recognized for their achievements at the Heritage BC conference that recently took place in Victoria.

Boiler House
The Boiler House at Victoria Hill has won an Award of Honour from Heritage BC

The Boiler House at Victoria Hill won an Award of Honour from Heritage BC. The Boiler House was constructed in 1930 by the provincial Department of Public Works. The original intention of the Boiler House was to provide a reliable source of heat to all the buildings on the site, using what was then an advanced technology. It was designed in the Art Deco style of architecture and consists of cast-in-place reinforced concrete, a circular smokestack with decorative banding, and gothic-inspired quatrefoil inset panels in the centre window bay.

The distinctive board-formed concrete was repaired where necessary, windows were repaired rather than replaced, unsympathetic additions were removed. New structural elements, including the seismic bracing, were left exposed in a manner that respects the old while being clearly new. The main interior feature of the Boiler House is its fitness room with an impressive 2-storey high ceiling and exposed structural and mechanical systems, which gives the space a gritty yet modern feel. The washroom facilities are completely accessible. The remainder of the Boiler House consists of rooms for friendly gatherings, billiards, a theatre with raked seating, meetings, and reading – where there are overstuffed chairs and a gas fireplace. Inside and out, the Boiler House has been rehabilitated into a pleasant and functional space that honours the past and looks forward to the future.

-The heritage conservation plan was developed by Robert Lemon of Robert Lemon Architects
-the architectural work was carried out by Doug Johnson of Doug Johnson Architects
-the landscape plan was developed by David Stoyko of Sharp and Diamond Landscape Architects
– the owner, Onni Group of Companies

Howay Cottage
Howay Cottage received a Certificate of Recognition from Heritage BC. The 500 Fourth Ave house was created through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement that saw the property at 340 Fifth St subdivided and an at-risk heritage house relocated to the new lot from the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood.

The Howay Cottage at 500 Fourth Avenue won an Award of Recognition from Heritage BC. Built in 1902, the Howay Cottage was originally located at 506 Tenth Street. In 2008, the cottage was under threat of demolition when it was spotted by Felicity and Chris Rudolph. Unlike most people who saw a badly run-down house, they saw a house with potential.

Through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement and with the help of architect Eric Pattison and contractors Basil Restoration, the Howay Cottage was relocated to the Rudolph’s property in Queen’s Park and rehabilitated using an approved heritage conservation plan.

The rehabilitation of the cottage retained the clarity and simplicity of its form, scale and massing; the deep enclosed roof eaves and wide frieze boards; the wood sash multi-pane windows; and the cantilevered window bay. Contemporary asphalt shingle siding was removed and the original wood siding was restored. Corner boards and trim were restored and replicated where necessary. The masonry chimney was rebuilt to its original profile. The front porch was replicated to match the original and paint scrapings established the original paint scheme that was able to be matched. All original windows were repaired or restored. All non-historic windows were replaced with matching historic style windows. The non historic front door was replaced with just the right salvaged door that took months to find. New cedar roof shingles were installed. New elements to the house included a 450 sq ft addition on the side of the cottage that was set back 12 feet from the street. This allowed for a family room and a second bedroom, making the house more liveable.

The Howay Cottage has quickly settled into its new location and its new life; showing that a run-down house could be turned into a sought-after gem when in the right hands.

The heritage conservation plan and the rehabilitation plans were developed by Eric Pattison of Eric Pattison Architects; and the construction was carried out by brothers Mark and Miles Wittig of Basil Restoration.

Home assessments demystified

This is a guest post by Greg Holmes, who is the realtor Will & I used to sell our Quayside condo a few years ago. We called him to get his opinion on our ginormous property tax increase. He kindly offered to share his response on the blog. – Briana

It’s a new year, and as a realtor, the beginning of January always comes with calls from past clients about questions regarding their property assessment.

It’s important to know that property assessment values are determined by appraisers based on market value at July 1, the previous year (so in the current assessment, it was July 1, 2009). Assessment values are not the same as current market values, since real estate, like any other investments, fluctuate over time. Summer 2009 home prices are no longer the same as today’s current market, especially considering the busy activity in the last few months.

As a general rule of thumb, when you are thinking about selling, you’d like to have your assessment value be as high as possible in order to get the highest dollar for your home. For instance, if a buyer is looking at two comparable places both priced at $500,000, and one place has a tax assessed value of $480,000, while the other is assessed at $430,000, then buyers usually perceive better value in the home assessed at $480,000. And don’t think buyers don’t know about the assessed value – in today’s internet age, it’s easier than ever for buyers to find this info, plus the buyers’ Realtor can easily provide it for them too. Now remember, we always tell our clients that this is only a guide as assessed value and current market value are different. After all, assessed values can be judged based on reasons not important to a buyer (ie- type of renovations, size of the lot, or location backing onto an industrial park, etc). Overall, there are many factors that get a home sold for higher…including, but not limited to, the age and condition of the home, the marketing plan to get it sold, and the assessed value.

For people not planning on moving in the near future, it’s a double-edged sword to see your property value increase. On one hand, it’s nice to see the home you bought so long ago continue to rise in value – it reassures people of a good investment. On the other hand, an increase in property value may mean an increase in property taxes, and since we already pay too much in taxes, nobody likes to pay more. In fact, a lot of people consider appealing their property assessment in hopes of decreasing the value so they can lessen their taxes. Don’t bother giving that as your explanation though since that’s not really a legitimate reason….just more of a complaint. Reasons such as extensive home renovations and changes in zoning regulations are more likely to get their attention.

If you’re considering an appeal, spend some time on the BC Assessment website at It’s a fantastic resource and you’ll probably learn a lot about your neighbourhood’s property values. I’d recommend that you check your property’s value with that of similar homes on your street. Does yours seems significantly lower or higher than a comparable home? If you still have questions or concerns, the next step is to call the Assessment Authority and speak with an appraiser about your property. If you’re still not satisfied after speaking with an appraiser that’s when you begin the formal appeal process…all the details are explained on the website. On top of filling out the appeal form, you’ll need to provide a detailed explanation as to why you’re appealing. And a tip, you’ll need a better reason than “you don’t want to pay more in taxes”.

Remember, there is a deadline to appeal your property assessment. Appeals will only be accepted until February 1st, 2010 at 11:59pm PST.