Well, what do you mean? What geographical location or what kind of house? We had both problems – very little understanding of the geography, and no idea what kind of houses were available. Let’s deal with the houses themselves first…
Renting is very popular. Vancouver is a real mixing pot of cultures, and not all cultures have the same obsessive need to own a bit of land as the British, so renting is common and a very good way to get yourself settled and find out where you really want to be before you buy. We had heard mixed stories about rental properties, and it is true that the standard of landlord varies a lot. When we were looking, we saw a filthy derelict, a crazily decorated place in a beautiful location, and a tiny townhouse in the most depressing complex. Then we lucked out and spent a lovely year renting while we found the ideal house to buy.
Townhouses are rows of houses (I suppose we would call them terraces?), usually tall and thin and usually in a complex. When you buy into a complex, you have to pay monthly complex fees which will pay for the communal gardens, swimming pool, community room, playpark or whatever other facilities are on offer. We were put off by the close proximity of neighbours at first, but when we rented a 3-bedroom townhouse on the side of Burnaby Mountain, we found the community spirit was a wonderful introduction to life in Canada. Our complex didn’t have a pool or a community room or even adequate parking, but it was a safe, welcoming environment for the children to play in. Most townhouses don’t have gardens (called yards), which can be awkward if you have a dog, but the children tend to play in the parks and streets.
Duplex is a semi detached house, and Triplex is 3 houses in a row. They are more likely to have yards, but there is still the risk of noisy neighbours.
Basement Suites. Most houses have basements and some are converted to become separate apartments. These are often referred to as “mortgage helpers” and can be a way to get a better mortgage if you are prepared to rent out part of your house. If you want to convert a basement you will need a permit from the City.
Many basements are used for the most successful BC industry – Grow Ops. A Grow Operation is the cultivation of marijuana plants and, despite what you may have heard, IT IS NOT LEGAL! If you buy a house which has been a grow op, you can pick up a bargain, but you need to be aware of the risks:
- Grow Ops use a huge amount of electricity. In order to avoid detection and paying for it, the main power cable has probably been bypassed and therefore damaged. Usually the main cable to the street connection and the main power board in the house will have to be replaced.
- The plants need humid conditions, which leads to mould. The house is made of plasterboard and wood, so in the worst cases everything will have to be ripped out and rebuilt internally. The mould also gets into the flues and the heating ducts, the chimney and under the floor coverings. As well as rebuilding internally, you will have to have an ozone flood done, to kill any remaining spores.
- And of course, you may be subjected to a trail of dispirited hippies approaching your door to see if you are still dealing.
Apartments or condominiums are very popular – this is a city, after all, and land is at a premium. There are lots of new developments springing up, and you could even buy into the Olympic Athletes’ Village. Apartments are a great rental investment, or maybe a good choice for small families with ambitions to live and work in the downtown core.
Houses are nearly all built of wood frames, covered in ply sheets, covered in tar paper and then covered in siding (cedar shingles, concrete sheets, vinyl, metal etc). The building materials suit a location where The Big One (earthquake, that is) could happen at any time, and it explains how some people manage to load their house onto the back of a lorry and move it to a better location. However, this means that a vintage or Heritage House could be as old as, oooh, 70 years. I know that is not very impressive if you are from a country where houses can be 700 years old and still habitable, but consider that this is essentially a wooden shed in a very wet climate, and you can see why they don’t last long. Always get building inspection before you buy and when you move in, make sure you have plenty of fire extinguishers and smoke alarms.
We were caught off guard by how unattractive many of the houses are. Our advice is to not be fooled by the externals; very often the houses are warm, well decorated and very comfortable inside, so always go for a viewing.
Realtors: you can buy a house in less than 6 weeks if the cards fall right. Usually 2 estate agents (or realtors) are involved, one for you and one for the vendor. They do all the communication, all the paperwork and guide you through the process. They won’t get paid until the deal is done, so they work fast (we saw our house on 13th February and moved in on 31st March).
In the next part we’ll look at the geography of the Greater Vancouver area, and the things we have noticed about the character of both the places and the people who live there.