There have been a lot of headlines lately about the out of control cost of real estate in Vancouver; standard (and sometimes substandard) homes are being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking price ($153k in North Vancouver here, $1.1mil in West Vancouver here, $80k on this outrageously priced $2.4mil home in Point Grey, $785k on this $3.4mil home in Kitsilano, and most recently $1 million on this “teardown” in Point Grey with 11 CASH offers) These price points are simply unattainable by so many people, the majority being in my age group which is currently in and around the time to buy a home and start a family, and an entire generation of Vancouverites are essentially being priced out of their own city. People are looking for more affordable options elsewhere, which is exactly what we did over 2 years ago when we bought our home on Gabriola Island. Since this has been such a hot topic lately and so many of my friends are frustrated renters, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about how we’ve made it work.
Let’s talk money: I don’t have a million dollars. I don’t even have half a million dollars. When I went looking for my first property my limit was [a generous] $450,000, and even that was a major stretch to finance. I found a property on the cusp of Gastown that was 817sf for $425,000 and went for it. I was left balancing a $2000 monthly mortgage payment, $170 monthly property tax payment, $275 monthly strata payment (that increased every single year, in addition to the odd levy we were charged for something around the building), gas and hydro bills, phone bill, groceries, car insurance, parking, gas, etc etc. It was actually fairly insane and I was living entirely paycheck to paycheck. I was unhappy and wanted to sell in order to find something more affordable but due to my relationship at the time was unable to reach an agreement that satisfied both of us… so I was stuck. Eventually the relationship ended and I promptly put the condo on the market so I could look at minimizing my financial stress. No one is happy when they are working every waking minute in order to make money to meet basic living expenses… it’s awful! You work to pay through the nose for a home you never even get to spend any time in, because you’re always working! Ha.
When I began looking for a new home it became really obvious really fast that Vancouver was not within my budget. I’ve always had a connection to the gulf islands and Gabriola in particular, so I started by looking at real estate there. I was shocked by how low the prices were. At first we thought we would buy a cheap lot and build something, but then decided instead to go with a property that was inexpensive and fix it up. There were numerous options at the time for homes under the $300k mark that would just require a small face lift. In the end we decided not to settle on something we weren’t 100% happy with, and splurged a little extra for our current home, priced at $359,000 but purchased for $325,000. It was more than we originally planned on, but bear in mind it was still $100k LESS than the shoe box I had in Vancouver.
Let’s take a look at the MLS listings right now; for $325,000 today I could buy a 2 bed 1 bath 753sq condo right by a skytrain station near the Burnaby border, or a 1 bed 1 bath 662sf condo in the slightly more convenient location of Mount Pleasant. Don’t want a condo, want an actual house with a yard? The cheapest house in Vancouver listed on the MLS site today is priced at $799,000 and gets you a 3 bed 2 bath in 1050 square feet. Next one up from that is this little disaster just off Kingsway and Rupert priced at $928,000 for 1400sf, 2 beds and 1 bath.
This is what we got by leaving the city; 2100+ square feet, 2 generously sized bedrooms, 2 bathrooms (one is easily wheelchair accessible) plus laundry room, walk in pantry, sauna, sun room, 2 south facing balconies, large kitchen, 2 massive living spaces, plenty of closet space, a protected carport, and a 1/2 acre of sunny landscaped yard including an orchard with apple, plum, cherry and hazelnut trees.
So now we’re living on an island. How does that work? I still have a job in Vancouver that pays my bills, so there is a bit of juggling to be done. I work for a not-for-profit housing society that serves the Downtown Eastside where I coordinate a women’s social housing facility. I work three 12 hour shifts a week. I come over to Vancouver either on the last ferry of the day from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay the night before my first shift or I splurge on a flight with Harbour Air that leaves the morning of my shift and runs anywhere between $69 and $99. The walk from the Gabriola ferry terminal is about 5 minutes, then I fly for 20 minutes to downtown Vancouver and go straight from the terminal to work. I stay with my Mom during my 3 days in the city then leave on the earliest ferry the day after working and get home by 10:00am. I work 3 full days then get a 4 day weekend in the gulf islands every week. Not bad.
This set up is not ideal for everyone, obviously. If you are relying on work in the city it is going to be a big drag. If you can do a short work week and spend longer weekends on the island though it’s feasible, and of course if you can find work on the island or even work from home then you’ve got it made! I know lots of people that commute from Gabriola and have known others that have commuted from other islands like Bowen and even the Sunshine Coast every day for work and/or school. People do it.
Commuting of course leads to lots of people griping about the ferries; they are pretty expensive and as a required mode of transport to get to and from the island you are at the mercy of BC Ferries. We learned very early on that by not taking the car off island we save a bundle of money. A pedestrian return fare is $6.10 ($11.25 regular fare, discounted when you have a preloaded experience card) and a car is $26.45. Clearly, leaving the car at home cuts the cost of your trip by a lot. And forget about bringing the car to Vancouver… that will cost you $55.40 EACH WAY. Plus the $16.90 for yourself. In summary: a trip from Gabriola to Vancouver and back as a pedestrian costs $39.90 total (if you walk between terminals and don’t stampede to the White Spot on board to eat an overpriced burger). I choose to walk between terminals (they are separate) which is free and good exercise, but you can also take the bus for about $2.75 or a cab for around $15. A trip from Gabriola to Vancouver and back with your car will cost $171.05. Thanks BC Ferries. So if I go to Vancouver 4 times a month I spend $160 on ferry transport, plus bus fare in the city ($2.10 twice daily, 3 days a week, 4 weeks a month = $50.40) So the monthly total is $210.40. It sounds high, but imagine instead of moving to the island I moved East to Surrey or Langley and used the skytrain – I would need to buy a 3 zone monthly transit pass which costs $170. For $40 more I get to live in the Gulf Islands… that’s an easy spend. When I had my car in the city and drove to work Mon-Fri from North Vancouver I spent $12 A DAY on parking alone (that’s $240/mo) and I know of tons of people that pay even more outrageous prices for their monthly parking spots. Then there’s gas, insurance, car payments, and tickets if you ever get pulled over or forget to plug the meter. Ugh everything is so expensive.
There have been a limited number of occasions where one of us physically could not leave the island due to stormy weather that affected ferry service, and I was delayed one morning when it was too foggy for my flight to take off on time. But if you plan ahead and/or have a flexible workplace it’s not a huge deal.
So our monthly expenses are way lower here… the mortgage payment is just $565.99 from each of us. We have a wood stove and no gas bill… wifi, cell phones, and electricity are our only utilities/bills (plus MSP because this is BC and we are the only province that bills monthly… for now) I bought a new car which I make payments on for the next few years, but it’s easily within the budget. Car insurance is super cheap here too, just $96/mo. Once a year we pay a levy for garbage pickup from the city of Nanaimo which is about $130, and property taxes which are lower here than they were on my condo. And there are NO F*CKING STRATA FEES. Yaassssss.
Got any questions about what it’s like to live here and commute to the city?