House of Blues

Rod MacKay pulls his cellphone out of his jacket pocket and checks the time. The veteran Vancouver realtor is standing outside a condo in Kits, waiting to show the two-bedroom-and-den to a Coquitlam couple and their realtor. They’re late—by more than 20 minutes—but he waits. Another person was supposed to come through but cancelled at the last minute. Two days ago, MacKay dropped the asking price by $20,000, to $439,900. When the unit hit the market last July, just before the economic hurricane, it was $499,900—a steal at the time.

A year ago, this scene would have been decidedly different. Shoes would have crowded the doorway. Buyers who cancelled appointments did so at their peril, because the first showings were often the last. Then, last October, realtors’ BlackBerries fell silent.

“Industry-wide, we all kept looking at them to see if they were on Silent or Vibrate,” MacKay says. “I thought mine was broken.”

They would have rung, had anyone cared to dial them. At one of the highest points in the market, in May 2007, 4,331 properties were sold in Metro Vancouver. Eighteen months later, that number was just 762. Between February 2008 and February 2009, home prices fell an average of 13.5 percent.

For agents, the numbers are even more sobering. On the West Side, there are over 2,700 realtors; in December and January combined, a total of 382 properties sold. That’s a sale for one agent in seven, and a paycheque of zero for the rest. One of MacKay’s more successful colleagues admitted that he hasn’t sold a single property since September; another is now pouring espressos at a local coffee chain.

“The sales volume in the last three months has been off roughly 70 percent,” says MacKay, who, at the peak of the market, was selling over $10 million in real estate per year, in addition to running the property-management end of his company, Maude, MacKay & Co. “That means most people’s income would be down 70 percent too.”

Of course, fewer sales do not necessarily translate into less work. Realtors are carefully courting buyers, who in turn expect to view far more properties before they decide. And sellers, having watched their equity shrink and their portfolios tank, anxiously await updates as their agents hold unfruitful viewings.

The young Coquitlam couple finally show, and they breeze through the apartment, opening closets and cabinet doors and glancing cursorily at the patio and mountain view. Within minutes they’re gone.

Still, there are some upsides to the downturn. At the peak of the market, well-priced houses and condos were selling within hours, not days, so real-estate agents had to be ready to jump morning, noon, and night—and they did. Now, with fewer buyers deliberating longer, MacKay is able to spend more time coaching his son’s baseball team, seeing his daughter’s school play, and running with his wife at Kits Beach. He was even able to take his family to Mexico for a week in January, completely guilt-free.

“I just kept my phone on. More people called to wish me happy birthday than called on any of my listings,” he says. MacKay can afford to be relaxed; it’s not the first time he’s faced lean times. He began working as a realtor in 1978, and by 1981, at age 26, the former national-team baseball player owned the house he lived in, half of two others, and 30 percent of 15 more condos, and had treated himself to a Mercedes convertible. Then, as his mortgages were coming up for renewal, interest rates doubled and he was forced to sell all the properties and the car at fire-sale prices.

“When you’ve seen it before, you know you’ll come out of it. You don’t feel like you have to jump out a window.”

Andrew Carros has not seen it before. He’s the agent for another set of prospective buyers, and he bustles them through the Kits condo, pointing out the efficient layout, the large storage area, and the en suite washer and dryer. His father, Greg, is also a veteran realtor, but Andrew has only been in the business for six years, so until last fall, a booming market and around-the-clock work were all he knew.

“I feel like I got my life back,” says Carros, who has also been enjoying more time with his wife and son. “I had a full weekend off a couple of weeks ago, and I had the greatest time. But I have to admit on Sunday night, I got really nervous about why I’d just had the whole weekend off.”

It’s neophytes like Carros who are the hardest hit, and MacKay says many of them will likely pack up their signs and look for more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. (His secretary was, until recently, selling properties in Kelowna.) Those who decide to ride out the storm will have to swallow a serious pay cut.

“They’re used to making $150,000 a year, and now it might be $40,000,” he says. “It’s human nature—most people expected the good times to continue. They didn’t say, ‘I’ll take that money and pay off the car or the condo.’ They said, ‘I’ll buy a bigger condo and a nicer car.’ ”

But things are starting to look up. MacKay’s jacket pocket is making more noise these days, and at a recent open house, he showed 30 groups through the one-bedroom garden suite rather than watching the football game. Sure, prices are expected to sink even deeper this year, but the number of listings is down and buyers who were priced out of the market are becoming more curious.

MacKay locks up for the day and offers me a lift home. I say thanks, but I don’t mind making my own way.

“I’ve got time,” he says with a smile. “But a year ago, you would have been taking the bus.”