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Local Economy

Finding Home: My Vancouver Odyssey

It took me months to find a place to live. Here’s what I learned about shag carpets and the wacky world of real estate.

Dorothy Woodend 9 Sep

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

If you’d asked me a year ago if I’d thought it was reasonable to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a box in the sky, I would have looked at you like you were a maniac and taken a few cautious steps backwards.

But here we are.

The reality of finding a place to live in Vancouver has been something of an odyssey. Homeric in one sense of the word, meaning that it took a really long time and it has the word home in it. When one sets out on a journey filled with sirens, sea monsters, cyclops, not really knowing what is about to unfold, it’s OK to be a bit nervous.

If you’re lucky, you get to come home to a place you’ve never been before. If you’re not lucky, well, there’s always Winnipeg. Seriously, it’s really cheap there! But, before we get to the end of the story, we must go back to the beginning.

So, how did this come to pass?

When my son Louis and I moved to East Vancouver in the fall of 2011, rents were averaging around $1,200 to $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. I had tried and failed to stay in our old neighbourhood. Even a decade ago, we were already priced out. So, wagons, east! We found the lower half of a Vancouver Special that was big, cheap and right next door to an elementary school. In a word: perfect. We moved in and there we stayed.

I knew it wouldn’t last forever, and eventually it didn’t. The folks who owned the house finally put it on the market in 2021. Less than a week later, it was sold. Having been in the same location for over 10 years, I was a bit out of touch with the reality of rental prices in the city. To say it was something of a rude awakening is putting it mildly. Rent for even the most modest of dwellings was pretty chin-dropping, if not downright projectile vomit-inducing. Studio apartments were pushing $2,000 and anything larger, forget about it.

After a sad bout of unsuccessful searching, my sister — who is more practical and infinitely smarter than me — said “let’s look into co-buying a place.” Without her help it would not have been possible, and I will never be able to pay her back in this lifetime or the next. Or even the one after that. Yes, she is the greatest sister in the known universe.

It all went pretty well at first. We got pre-approved for a mortgage and started looking, right at the precise moment that there was the lowest number of available listings since they started keeping track of such things.

Over the last eight months, I have discovered a great deal about the wonderful, terrible world of real estate. Like most things in life, one has to learn the hard way. But in the thick of things, Samuel Beckett’s famous statement about trying and failing, and failing again better, doesn’t help much.

Mostly you just fail and feel terrible about it. But onwards you sail, because there is no other recourse. I set forth, put my stuff in storage, house-sat and couch-surfed for the better part of the year while I searched.

A black and white painting on a red background depicts a Grecian-style boat bobbing on a stormy sea. The person sailing the ship is pointing towards the left of the frame.
I put my stuff in storage, house-sat and couch-surfed for the better part of the year while I searched for a new home. Illustration by Dorothy Woodend.

In a few months, 60 apartments

Of the 60 places I looked at, many were nice, a few were terrible. One was great, but more on that later.

It turns out that buying an apartment is just as complex just renting one, albeit in an entirely different way.

First off, there is the money. In most other parts of the country prices are high, but they won’t give you a nosebleed just by looking at them. Not so in Vancouver, where even a hole in the ground will set you back a cool mil and change.

In addition to paucity of available places, prices were beginning to take an almost perpendicular path, straight up. To say that the market was a little overheated this year was like saying, “The surface of the sun is a mite warm.”

In the course of looking, prices seemed to be rising in real time. The one-bedroom apartment that we’d been looking at a month prior, hovering at around at the edge of $500,000 was now closer to $600,000. Or as my sister liked to say, “Six hundred is the new 500.” Funny, until it wasn’t. And still it continued.

Of the places that I put offers on, I was mostly blown out of the water as other folks were bidding well over the asking price. Even the most basic provisos like home inspection were being waived away, like so many pesky insects. A home inspection makes certain the place you’re about to pay many thousands of dollars for isn’t in immediate danger of collapsing on your head. So, yes, this way lies madness.

Real estate drama is cuckoo, primarily because of the money aspect. The possibility of making giant heaps of filthy lucre does something odd to the human psyche. People mislead, they make stuff up and, after a time, you find yourself becoming a little cynical about human nature.

If something looks too good to be true, chances are almost 100 per cent that it is. Is there a serial killer next door, an open pit mining operation just down the block, is the apartment currently on fire? All of the above? Great, here’s an offer. Oh, there’s already 12 offers on the place? Prepare to sell a kidney or two.

Certain code words can alert you to the reality of what you’re getting for your money. “Cozy” means “closet-sized.”

“Centrally located” is code for “you’re on a major highway right across from the railway tracks.”

“Urban” means “A concrete bunker.”

Most of these indicators are pretty easy to figure out, but there are other ways of luring you in.

To make a room look larger, use a fisheye lens

Whatever is wrong with a given apartment, you have to physically go there to figure it out. Real estate photos lie like a rug, which in some cases look to be hovering a good six centimetres above the floor. The phenomena of floating furniture is a result of virtual staging designed to entice would-be buyers. This practice involves sprucing up bare rooms with photoshopped images of cool furniture and gleaming appliances, the better to make it look like a place you’d want to live in.

When it goes terribly wrong, the results are hilarious: fridges hovering in mid-air and the like. In some listings, a fisheye lens is used to stretch rooms into three times their actual length and width. Look too long and you start to feel a little seasick.

You may also lose your faith in the human ability to make reasonable decorating decisions. Shag carpet in the bathroom? Yes! Lamps that resemble giant spermatozoa? Woo, mama! Or the place with a novelty sign that read “Pumping Station” proudly displayed over the bed. Some of these magnificent atrocities I saw in photos and others in the flesh. But I would gladly take ‘70s mood wallpaper over the more contemporary stuff of generic granite countertops and rooms so small they were better suited to a hobbit than a human-sized person.

In other places, apartments are staged like a softcore porn shoot, all gentle lighting and draperies wafting in the breeze, maybe an exquisitely photographed burbling faucet or dangling lighting fixture that screams “I am sexy but in a tasteful way!” One bit of advice: don’t canoodle the faucet. Listing agents do not enjoy gently prying you off the plumbing, even if the sign does say “Pumping Station.”

My sister and I sent each other particularly startling examples of decorating madness or plain old ineptitude, like the listing photos with some guy’s thumb in the middle of the frame or a single shoe lying square in the centre of the kitchen floor.

One set of photos of a place in New West took the proverbial cake. In amongst the heaps of trash, there was a huge teddy bear lying face down on the living room carpet, like it had been shot in a gangland-style attack.

The bathroom was the piece de la resistance. “Is that poo in the toilet?”

Yes, kids, it was. I’m still scratching my head over these photos.

Who in their right mind would post them, and why? No one knows. And if they do, they’re not saying.

But there are still many remarkable places out there.

Could I live where someone died?

A number of apartments came on the market because the elderly women who once lived in them moved on. Sometimes, it’s because these ladies (mostly ladies) have gone on to the great real estate market in the sky. Other times, they’d gone into assisted living facilities. They often leave behind perfect time capsules that speak to a different time and vintage of Vancouver.

As one listing agent explained when I asked her what happened to the woman who had previously lived there, “Well, she died. Not right there, in the kitchen, where you’re standing.” She laughed a little uneasily before segueing into a story about a house in Coquitlam, where an entire family had been murdered. When the place finally came on the market, people lined up to see the place and make an offer.

Some places still haunt me. Like the apartment of a single man, let’s call him Kevin, who left inspirational notes for himself, from himself on Post-its all over his apartment. The notes featured messages like “Be the best Kevin you can be!” or “Women will want to be with you!”

Even as the listing agent was opening drawers and saying, “Look at all this closet space,” I was busily reading all of the aphorisms about being good enough and smart enough written in sharpie on bright squares of yellow, orange and green paper.

Oh, Kevin, all this and you’re also being renovicted from your apartment.

A black ink painting against a red background depicts a character illustrated in a Grecian style. They are on the right of the frame, kneeling before a “for sale” sign.
What’s behind the ‘For sale’ sign on a home? The stuff of myth and beasts. Illustration by Dorothy Woodend.

Let the soft animal of your body find a place to live

Behind all the numbers, the hype and the endless prognostication about what the market will or won’t do lies a simple human need. You have to live somewhere. And even more fundamental and foundational than that, you need a home. Someplace where you can curl up like the mammal you are and feel safe.

With every place where I looked, imagined futures leapt out.

It’s this aspect that I struggle with the most. These projected lives. What or who I might be if I lived in this particular corner of the world. Even if I was actively trying not to do this it happened anyway: multiple imagined existences, different timelines unfurling towards some far-flung future. This constant sliding-doors scenario did something to my head. Although I’m not exactly sure what, it feels like a splintering of self into a thousand different possibilities.

Out there in the metaverse, there are multiple versions of Dorothy doing different things. One lives in a townhouse in Burnaby, another in a Richmond high-rise, a third on a Gulf Island in a rustic cabin. I’m a bit worried about her — she’s not fully feral, yet, but things are a little dicey.

Coming home again

The other day I walked around Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. At about the three-quarter mark, depending upon which direction you’re coming from, is a sign with a duck on it and the words: “Everyone needs a home.”

It stopped me in my tracks because, well, it was true.

“Thanks, Duck!” I thought. I too needed a home and after a lot of looking, I found one.

End of story? Well, not exactly. There was a lot of drama before things wrapped up. At one point the cops got called, but that’s a story for another day.

After 35 years of living in different parts of the city — Gastown, Kitsilano, Douglas Park, Trout Lake — I returned to the West End, one of the first neighbourhoods that I ever lived in. In spring of 1987 my sister and I moved into an apartment at the corner of Jervis and Pendrell, the sum total of our belongings in a bunch of black garbage bags.

Returning to the West End is a little like coming full circle. In many ways, it seems little changed, but in other places, newness rears up in the form of twisty, curvy new structures like the one on Alberni Street. Walking down these familiar streets, I bump into a ghost of my younger self, skinnier, brimming with unfocused ambition and notions of what is yet to come. Encounters with this will-o-the-wisp creature are a bit discomfiting, but also kind of strangely heartening.

One of the funny things about living in city is that different parts of it embody set periods of your life. University years, the first apartment you get together with your partner, the place you move after you broke up, the apartment where your kid grows from a scrawny elementary school wiener into a giant young dude, headed off to university.

One of the things that I learned, relearned perhaps, from this longish journey, is that people are good. Friends and family helped in big and small ways all along the way.

A friend let me housesit his new place for months. My realtor worked like a soldier, driving me all over hell’s half-acre from Richmond to New West to Burnaby. The folks at Vancity Credit Union answered endless emails that began with the sentence, “I hope this isn’t a dumb question, but....” My mother saved the day.

So, here in the deepest heart of the West End, close to the ducks, the park, in an apartment that rests amidst a canopy of trees, my ship has come home.  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy, Housing

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