If you have ever read an article about Commercial Real Estate in Vancouver, chances are you have read an article by Frank O’Brien. This week, Cory and Matt welcome senior writer Frank O’Brien, of Glacier Media (home of Business in Vancouver and Western Investor) to discuss some recently published articles on the booming Commercial Real Estate market in BC.
Frank sheds some light on each asset class and where he sees the winners and losers in the post-COVID era. He also gives us a sneak peek at the upcoming Best in BC which is published each year in the Western Investor where Frank and his team predict the 5 best real estate markets in 2022. If you’re looking to see how things play out in the coming months or want a glimpse into the next commercial market to boom, this is the episode for you!
Vancouver Real Estate News, Market Updates, Insider Tips, Stats, & Analysis
Please tell us about yourself.
I’m a journalism graduate from Ottawa and I moved out here in the early 70s. I’ve written for many publications like The Globe & Mail and Financial Times, including a series about the development of Coal Harbour. I’ve been in the Vancouver market for quite a while and I find it exciting. I like it out here.
Was real estate always a passion or did you fall into it?
I kind of fell into it. I did an article that got some big coverage across Canada and so started getting calls to write more about real estate. But once I got into it, I realized it’s such a dynamic and diverse market. Real estate touches everyone in the country. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.
What has been the most surprising aspect of Vancouver real estate?
The resilience of this market. Metro Vancouver is made for commercial real estate. We’re surrounded by the border, the mountains, the ocean; we have a population of high income earners. We have an intense real estate market with no signs of slowing down. I see no end to the market in Vancouver, even though prices are absolutely astounding.
Has the resiliency of the market through covid surprised you?
Covid is a small black swan compared to what we’ve seen before. The election of the NDP government was another black swan. The 20% foregin buyer’s tax was another, and that’s permanent. Covid won’t last forever. Vancouver will be roaring when this is over.
You mentioned Vancouver is made for commercial real estate. Besides geographical constraints, what else makes Vancouver a perfect market for commercial real estate?
The sales of commercial real estate since covid started is an indicator that we have a very strong market. To anyone else looking at Vancouver, this is mecca.
The downtown office market is in trouble short term, and maybe long term, because of covid. A study came out tracking cell phone activity pre and post covid. There used to be 6000-7000 people downtown on their cell phones. Now it’s like 1900. That’s a huge drop.
You see Amazon taking over a lot of space in the new Canada Post building. But they’re saying workers are being encouraged to work two days in the office, and the other days at home. So there’s a lot of people who will keep working from home, not commuting, but making the same money. So office space may be in trouble. There’s a difference between office space being leased and being full. I do think the retail side will be strong though.
I was at the BIV office last week and normally we have 110-120 people in our building in Mount Pleasant. Last week we had 10. In downtown Vancouver there’s millions of square feet of office space coming back onto the market or coming out of the ground. We’re not seeing people come back to the office at the rate that all the developers hoped they would. People are not rushing back. So the big question is: When will these office buildings be full? And when will the landlords say they don’t need this much space? We won’t know the answer for another 18 months.
Do you think companies may move into smaller office spaces outside of downtown Vancouver?
That’s exactly what I think is happening. If you look at the office take up in Surrey, it’s stronger than it is in Vancouver. The growth is in the suburban markets. There’s a big movement out of Vancouver and towards the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.
Let’s talk about retail.
I think the downtown shopping areas will be quite strong. People might not be coming into the city to work but they will come into the city to play. People are making money and not having to spend on commuting, dining out, etc. But they are spending that money on shopping. I don’t think covid will slow that trend, so I’m quite bullish on the retail market.
Are there any other markets, besides downtown, that you think will see an uptick in retail?
Burnaby, especially the Brentwood Mall area, is a good pick. I think the retail market across Vancouver will be very strong. If you look at what’s selling in retail, it’s very promising.
In Metro Vancouver there is 35 million square feet of retail inventory and only 4% is vacant. That tells us there is a lot of demand for retail space in Vancouver.
In terms of timelines, are you surprised it’s taking longer for downtown to come back?
If you consider there’s only been one real launch of a tower downtown, with 60% sold and fairly steep prices, I don’t think we’ve seen the strength of the downtown market yet. There’s been a pause on launches. But that new Burrard building is showing that downtown Vancouver has legs.
Once we have the Canucks playing and the concerts start back up, I think there will be a migration of younger people back into the city again.
Let’s talk about multi-family. What is one of the catalysts making that asset class so hot right now?
We have big REITs coming into Vancouver. We’re seeing people who have held portfolios of rental property in Vancouver who are now cashing in. And we have more institutional buyers coming in.
It’s the older apartment buildings that really have the potential if you want to make money. They make up 60-70% of the market anyway. That’s where investors should be looking.
What are the biggest challenges facing the commercial real estate market in Vancouver?
Government restrictions and the inability to get things built quickly enough. We have delays with almost anything you try to build. But when the immigration gates open and travel restrictions lift, those challenges will be overcome by the strength of the private market. As long as interest rates stay where they are and we continue to have the demand for space, I don’t see anything slowing down.
What markets will be the best performing in three years? What are you buying?
Vancouver Island. I think the Island is the growth market for BC over the next 5-10 years. It’s a combination of demographics, with both seniors and young people going to the new tech centre, and prices that are high for the Island, but nothing compared to Vancouver.
On REW, the top 10 places people were searching for real estate were all on Vancouver Island. Nanaimo was number one and Greater Victoria was number two. Victoria is just waking up. I was there last weekend and it’s amazing what’s going on. For $600,000 you can still get a home with a view up-island. If you work from home, Vancouver Island is the place to be.
Victoria is what Vancouver was 20 years ago. It’ll be one of the most important cities in Western Canada. It has a lower industrial vacancy rate than anywhere else in the country. The office market is roaring. And it has the provincial government as a tenant to back everything up.
In Vancouver, Strathcona is area to watch. The prices are already pretty high but they’re nothing compared to what they will be a few years from now. You have the new St. Paul’s going in, a big biotech company is coming in, and you have the skytrain right there. Strathcona is going to change the conversation in that east downtown area. Right now, it’s the best buy in the city.
Chinatown is very undervalued. But it’s tough to get things done there with the politics of the city. If you try to build residential, you have to have 30% social housing, which makes it hard to make the numbers work.
What about the interior?
Kelowna is an interesting market. All of the new stuff is coming out of failed projects that died in 2008. But if you go just outside the city, you can buy acreage for $30,000, whereas it’s over $1 million downtown.
Developers are gun-shy. This could be the final boom for Kelowna. It looks promising but it’s not Vancouver – their prices are close to Vancouver prices though. So if you’re looking at Kelowna you have to go out of town and think long term.
I’d be cautious. Kelowna is a headline-making market but it seems overpriced in the core. If you get outside, like to Penticton, that’s a better bet for an investor.
Kamloops has always been a blue collar town. It doesn’t have the cachet of Kelowna, though Sun Peaks is doing well. But it doesn’t have the waterside, downtown excitement that Kelowna has. It’s probably a good place to find an affordable rental or home, but it won’t get the big waves we’ve seen in Kelowna and Vancouver Island.
But I haven’t been up to Kamloops for a couple of years, so I may be wrong. I’m going to take a look at it. Kamloops gets overshadowed by Kelowna. But I do like that market. When Kamloops realizes they’re on a major waterfront, that may change things.
You mentioned releasing the top five markets in BC in December. Could you mention any of those?
The top three are Victoria, Surrey and Kelowna. The rest of the shortlist is Cranbrook, Penticton and Squamish. Penticton is underpriced in the Okanagan right now and is a good pick for young investors. Surrey is crazy booming. My wife is at the Civic Hotel right now and that’s a world class building. It’s an amazing market out there. And Victoria we have already talked about.
Cranbrook isn’t officially on the list but it’s a place to watch in the Kootenays. Squamish has been surprising to me. I never really liked Squamish but it’s coming along really well. The downtown area is transforming and it’s popular with the younger people. Squamish has legs.
Victoria, Surrey and Kelowna were pretty low-hanging fruit for us to put in our top five. They’re three of the best areas, especially if you have deep pockets.
What is one piece of advice you have for our listeners about commercial real estate?
Metro Vancouver is the best commercial real estate market in Canada. Have faith! This market is stronger than the press and government think it is. We’re doing $8 billion in retail sales per month in BC and only 4% of that is online. The office market will survive; even though Calgary has more office space leased than Vancouver does, we have a brighter future.
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