Should you invest in the Whistler property market?


Everyone has a property investment story, and in Western Canada the stories often have a pretty strong Whistler element. Whistler has in the past offered spectacular payoffs for property investors. You could in 1980 have bought a prime waterfront property on the lake in Whistler for $10,000. Today the land alone would command $2m upwards, and other plots of land can sell for $3-4m. Add a house and you could be looking at up to $20m (the ludicrous - price being asked for The Couloir, a ski-in, ski-out location on Whistler Mountain). Prices have at least doubled in the last 5 years. Talk to realtors in Whistler and you will invariably be told that there is still considerable upside. Is there any mileage in buying in at these prices?

The quick answer is: probably not. Rental yields in Whistler are currently hovering around 1% net, with many people not even making enough to cover their taxes, let alone make a positive return. Add debt into the financing structure and you are looking at an asset which costs you significant money every month you own it. You are essentially speculating on either a continued decline towards 0% in the yield that other investors are willing to accept, or a dramatic turnaround in occupancy levels and rates to compensate. There is no reason to believe in either of these events.

The facts are that while the rest of the property market in British Columbia stagnated for years, Whistler grew like crazy, peaking at about the same time that the rest of the BC market bottomed out, circa 2002. The market is almost entirely divorced from the factors which drive prices in the rest of the province (interest rates, unemployment levels, wages, general optimism about the strength of the economy). Rather, the market is linked to demand for Whistler skiing from the international community which can afford the elevated prices that Whistler requires. And this demand has declined precipitously, made up for by demand from the local (Vancouver) market as well as the Seattle market. So while visitor numbers are up, the value to be extracted from these visitors by property owners is well down, since local visitors stay for less time and are way more price sensitive.

So the canny investor should continue to stay out of the market. Economic fundamentals suggest that this market will stagnate or decline for quite a few years to come. However, that is no reason to avoid visiting Whistler, which continues to offer fabulous skiing and excellent restaurants, as well as all its other attractions.


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