Jack Knox: House sellers hope to get lucky — 888,888 ways from Sunday

Jack Knox mugshot genericThe CBC story about the Fairfield house being priced at $888,888 to attract Chinese buyers was new to me.

Not to listing agent Daniel Clover, though. “It’s not a new practice here,” he said of the idea of using the number eight, which is considered propitious, to lure business. “It’s something that has been going on for quite a while, though not in a big way.”

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In fact, fellow Victoria realtor Tony Joe says the whole lucky eight thing, along with feng shui, matters more to Hong Kong Cantonese than to the mainland Mandarin-speakers who make up most of today’s wave of Chinese buyers.

Nonetheless, a steady stream of shoppers poured through the Bushby Street house last weekend. “We had 105 people through on the Saturday and we had 65 through on the Sunday,” said Clover, who works out of Re/Max Camosun. Two couples ferried over from Vancouver specifically for the viewing. The seller is now entertaining multiple offers.

Everyone, it seems, has a story — or at least an opinion — about the impact of Chinese capital on the real estate market. And, at least in certain parts of town — south Oak Bay, or within a two-kilometre radius of the University of Victoria — there is anecdotal evidence. “If I were to list a property in Gordon Head, odds are the buyer will be accompanied by a Chinese real estate agent,” Clover said.

But is it actually about China, or just Vancouver? And really, does it matter whether the buyer is from Beijing or Burnaby or Brentwood Bay, or just that something is pushing up property prices — which is either terrific or terrible news, depending on your perspective. If you’re worried about Victoria becoming a barren Children of Men elderscape, it’s frustrating to see the housing market take off beyond young people’s capacity to get in. But for those who are grey-haired and don’t have much of a pension plan, cashing in now (and moving to a cheaper community) might be the difference between a comfortable retirement and eating dollar-store dog food.

The latest real estate stats show 72 per cent of transactions here involve Victorians buying from Victorians, up a little from 2015. Less than one per cent of buyers are from Asia, same as before. And as was the case this time last year, about eight per cent of the buyers are from the Lower Mainland. The difference now is that the Vancouverites cross the strait clutching enough cash to knock the locals out of the game, Clover said.

Take this story, for example: Joe has a client who, having listed a 2,000-square-foot Yaletown townhouse for $3.5 million, spotted an Uplands house listed for $1.9 million. He wanted it badly, so he bid $2.5 million. “He’s bought a beautiful estate in the best part of town for a million less than his place in Vancouver.”

The Vancouver ripple effect is a factor in the hot Victoria market, but so is low inventory. So is the impact of technology, Clover said: Victoria is attracting people in the high-tech sector who now have the option of living here while working for employers based elsewhere.

Then there are the Americans, who are also inflating the market with foreign capital. Remember the mini-influx of post-9/11, don’t-like-George-Bush newcomers who fled the U.S. in the early 2000s? It’s happening again, a little. Clover just sold a place in Oak Bay to Americans, and has another couple from New York who are looking. “They don’t like what they see coming down the line in the U.S., and they get to live here six months out of the year.” One per cent of Victoria sales are to Americans.

Joe, the president of the Asian Real Estate Association’s Vancouver chapter, has been marketing to Chinese buyers — or, rather, Chinese-born residents of Vancouver and Toronto — for four years. Part of his strategy involved distributing flyers through Gordon Head and Oak Bay, looking for owners willing to sell (a wee bit ironic, given that some of the older properties still carry long-forgotten covenants banning sale to buyers of Asian or aboriginal descent).

Some balk at Joe’s approach, figuring the resulting churn will change the nature of the city. “I’ve been getting some guff from people who say I’m contributing to the downfall of society.”

He bridles at that, and says his buyers come here because they like Victoria’s character, not because they want to change it. “They love the safety. They love the clean air.”

In other words, it’s about where they’re coming to, not where they’re coming from.

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