[Editor's note: This is the second in a series by reporter Luke Brocki, who's on a mission to find out what it will take for a 30-something freelancer like him to own a home in Vancouver. Find the first in the series here. Priced Out is a partnership between The Tyee and the CBC. To hear and see more perspectives on this series, tune in to CBC Radio's On the Coast at 5:40 p.m. and watch CBC News Vancouver at 6 p.m.]
I can't say if this is how it always happens, since this is my first ever visit to a mortgage broker, but the woman I'm meeting seems keen to make me feel less like a 99-percenter and more like a Rockefeller. I've barely finished patting her two large fluffy white dogs pushing and wagging for my attention and started sipping the coffee she insisted on buying me at the cafe downstairs, when Rishel Tomlinson takes a look at my finances and suggests I consider borrowing nearly half a million dollars.
What?!"Waiting is never satisfying," says the bubbly 32-year-old owner of Custom Mortgages, a small office tucked into the second storey of a commercial stretch of East Hastings Street in Burnaby. Tomlinson came recommended by a colleague of mine who said she'd be good at figuring out just how rich or poor I was. She also recently climbed the property ladder herself, first "getting in" with a condo, then trading up to a townhouse and then again to a detached home in Burnaby.
Still, there must be some mistake.
"Once you're in, you're in. And I think that's the first real concept to grasp, is that just because you buy a small condo and it's not where you want to be in the end, it doesn't mean you'll never get to the house."
That's another joke, that leveraging myself to the hilt would still only afford me a condo in Vancouver, but right now I've got bigger problems. I'm trying hard to persuade this UBC economics grad and triathlete that I can't afford to pay a mortgage that high, no matter what a quick peek at Line 150 of my last couple Notices of Assessment tells her about my annual income. Every month is a new grab bag of small payments from various sources, I tell her, its total size dependent on the number of shifts I pick up in newsrooms and the number of rejection letters I avoid getting back from editors.
"Ah, you know what, you just get a roommate, or better yet," she continues unconcerned, "you get a temporary roommate. They come for the weekend and you get 300 to 800 bucks. They're lots of ways that Vancouverites are helping to pay their mortgage."
But I also need wiggle room to guard against rising interest rates and against a certain public broadcaster facing new rounds of funding cuts, I insist. I'm OK with risking my measly life savings on a down payment, but I still wouldn't be comfortable paying more than $1,500 a month. What kind of a mortgage can that get?
"Well, mathematically that equals a certain amount of money and that's it," she says, starting on a lesson in basic mortgage financing. "Because a loan has an interest rate, an amortization and a payment and there's no way to wave a magic wand and make that equal a loan greater than what it is."
She punches some buttons on a calculator, then delivers a verdict. "For $1,500 a month, it's going to be a $307,000 purchase price."
I take that to be excellent news and can't wait to go shop around, but then she drops a line meant to be encouraging, but also a taste of things to come: "The joy of home ownership. I think even if you're in a tiny box, you still feel it."
The next day I call a realtor I know downtown and we take a crack at the search through Vancouver's tiny boxes. Jay McInnes, a young guy with short black hair, piercing blue eyes and a crisp grey suit, meets me in the lobby of a development on the north side of East Pender Street, just west of the arched gates to Chinatown and directly across from the often-deserted International Village mall. He hands me a shiny blue Macdonald Realty folder filled with some listings and we head upstairs to see what he sniffed out in my price range. In the elevator I learn the first one we're seeing is a recent foreclosure.
"People usually leave them pretty good," says McInnes. "Obviously it hasn't been cleaned, but it's not trashed," he says, opening the door to a long skinny shoebox he insists is well-priced at $345,000. "I've sold units in this building, completed in '09, I've sold them as high as $400,000 for the same floor plan. Because this faces south, this is the desired view, gets direct sun," he continues. Maybe it's my raised eyebrow or my crossed arms, but he can tell I'm not buying it.
"This was classified as a one-bedroom and you can see where marketing comes in," he says, plainly. There's very little walking around. He completes the tour by spinning in place instead, pointing to a little living-dining-kitchen hybrid over here and a laundry-storage-bathroom cluster over there. I shake my head no. "Couldn't you live in this?" he asks. "I could. This is bigger than what I live in now."
New West bound
Poor guy, I think to myself. My rental in East Van, the top floor of a massive sagging beast of a house on a corner lot, has a spare bedroom, two porches and a big wraparound yard. That's why I'm devastated by his next find, a studio at Richards and Davie overlooking Emery Barnes Park.
"You can't really ask for more amenities right outside your front door than here. That's the biggest appeal to Yaletown, from amenities, to nightlife to parks, everything is here," he says, spinning me another tale of how this place has the perfect view of the city, but I'm not really listening anymore because I'm obsessed with a number he casually tossed into the story: 400 square feet.
The hole in the wall upstairs is exactly as I imagined. Even with the Murphy bed hidden away, there's still no room for a couch, and the single chair replacing it is so conveniently close to the oven you only have to lean forward to stick your head inside. McInnes insists I could make it work as a starter home for a year or two, but I get the hell out of there, hoping the next bedroom has a door. I really like that feature. If that's too much to ask, then I guess I'm a spoiled ass with a sense of entitlement, which is maybe why I head to New Westminster the following day to see how much further I can make my dollar stretch via a 30-minute train ride southeast.
"This layout is great because the bedrooms are separated by a living space," says Rebecca Permack of Royal LePage, a 30-something blonde that picks me up at the SkyTrain, buys me coffee (as per tradition), then drives me around the city in her black SUV. This latest stop seems a steal at $334,000 for a big two-bedroom on the ground floor of a low-rise apartment complex. "In-suite laundry is key. If you're a fussy buyer looking for new right now, people like granite, people like nice appliances, the floor is great."
There's only one problem, I tell her. I have no idea where we are, but I’m sure it's too far for a drunken stumble home from Commercial Drive.
"Royal Columbian Hospital is right there and this one little strip of Columbia St. has a coffee shop, pizza, restaurants, boutique shopping. It's not a bad location and it's only getting better now that Thrifty's is a block away."
Thrifty's is a highlight? This is some sort of a suburban joke, I venture, but clearly I hit a nerve and her retort stops me dead.
"Why do Vancouverites feel they deserve prime real estate in one of the most beautiful cities in the world for what they can afford? We don't save enough every month. Our generation, we're not like our parents. We don't squirrel away all of our hard-earned dollars and wait for another rainy day to spend it. We spend it now."
She's got me there, but her blow to my sense of entitlement also gives me an idea for where to look next.
Tomorrow: I explore the joys of home ownership in the deep suburbs by visiting an old friend from high school. He's by far the cheapest guy I know -- and now also a happy home owner in Maple Ridge.
Read more: Housing