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Should You Sell Your Vancouver Condo Today?

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Cypress Gardens looks its 50 years, in good ways and bad. The complex, in North Vancouver’s Capilano Highlands, was built the year the nearby Trans-Canada Highway opened and the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly took the Cold War terminal. Its low-slung beige townhouses are a little shabby. From Westview Drive, its upper-floor siding—once cedar shakes, long ago replaced by vinyl—stands over a tired-looking fence. But Cypress is also an unpretentious break from the million-dollar houses of the North Shore. Even on this winter day, a couple of kids are running around its bridged ponds while parents sherpa loads of groceries from their cars.

That peace is deceptive. Behind the 177 doors of this jointly owned development, a war has been escalating for almost a year. Documents at the Vancouver Supreme Court refer to elderly people shoved out of their homes, new Canadians at the mercy of shady operators, chronic disrepair, contemptuous and illegal actions by owners, false allegations, and more. For the residents, these depositions make for disturbing reading. For almost a million homeowners around Metro Vancouver, they’re early warning signs of a coming legal apocalypse.

The tussle started last March when local developer Polygon Homes approached each of the residents and investor-owners. The offers to buy them out—totalling nearly $67 million, plus incentives like $30,000 discounts on future units—were far better than the single lowball offer Polygon had made in 2003, which the project’s board summarily rejected. This time, many owners were in favour, seeing the money on the table—more than they could get on the market—as the best way out of an aging complex with big repair and maintenance bills on the horizon. Others in the development pushed back, some arguing that the price was too low for what Polygon would build when the area was rezoned, others that no amount of money would make them leave one of the most affordable places in North Van. In the end, although more than half the owners wanted to sell, a substantial portion did not, and Polygon went away. In response, the pro-sale camp headed to the Supreme Court with a petition asking a judge to order the anti side to allow a sale, accepting any future “best price reasonable obtainable.”

Carlos Ruiz is one of those who refused to sell. Wearing a button-down shirt under a plum-coloured V-neck sweater, young-looking for his 62 years, he sits rigidly on a bench at the coffee shop in the Westview mall next to Cypress Gardens. He says that Polygon offered him $450,000 for his three-bedroom townhouse, $100,000 above current market value. “This complex was built with good materials,” says the onetime lawyer from Colombia. “It can last longer. We need to think about the old people here who can’t go anywhere else.” It’s not just the problems of the elderly, or even his own, that bother him. “What I see is that we Canadians have never foreseen the consequences of living together in a common property. We don’t have a system that allows people to understand what to do at the end of their unit’s life.”

End-of-life condo decisions are coming, and they’re coming quickly, says Tony Gioventu, president of B.C.’s Condo Homeowners Association. “We have a number that are coming up to the point where it’s not worth renovating them. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are up to 3,000 buildings up for redevelopment in the next five to 10 years.” Some buildings—those that were solidly constructed, run by competent strata councils, and built at such low density that they aren’t ripe for redevelopment—won’t face these issues for many decades. But for many other buildings, potentially messy funerals are on the way. Gioventu is already helping with some painful situations, like strata complexes in Vancouver where owners are being offered only 50 or 60 cents on the dollar. Because those owners face special assessments north of $100,000, those offers may be the best deal they get. Gioventu is watching another building where one owner controls the majority of units. He wants to sell and is refusing to approve maintenance; if he gets his way, the other two owners could be forced to accept a price that would bankrupt them.

This is just the first wave of buildings built either immediately before the B.C. Strata Titles Act of 1966 (like Cypress Gardens) or just after.

The province’s first strata project was a 1968 Arthur Erickson-designed complex on 40 acres in Port Moody. Problems will snowball as the massive buildout of the 1990s and 2000s times out. Vancouver has more condos per capita than any other city in Canada. The 2006 census showed 37 percent of people in Vancouver were owner-occupiers. (An unknown number more are renter-occupiers.) By 2009, there were 95,000 units in 4,100 strata-titled buildings, according to UBC professor Douglas Harris, who has documented the ubiquity of this form of ownership. Metro Vancouver statistics show there have been dramatically more strata units than single-family homes built in the last decade—four condos or townhouses for every house last year.

Most of these strata units are owned jointly by numerous individuals who must agree when it comes time to wind down—a scale of consensus that is unlikely at best. Ask anyone who’s tried to come to accord with even one other person—an ex-to-be, say, or a brother who’s deeply attached to the family cabin.

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