Northern house prices rise – still more affordable than the south

Written By Keith Norbury

In August 2020, newly single Michelle Gordy went house hunting for a place of her own in Mackenzie. She and her ex-husband had recently sold the five-bedroom house they had bought new six years earlier in Lake Country near Kelowna. The house had gained so much value, almost double what they had paid for it, that she was able to take her share of the equity and pay $239,000 cash for a four-bedroom home in Mackenzie.

“I wanted to be able to actually afford something on my own,” said Gordy, who is now 35.

Her parents and her sister and brother-in-law had moved to the District of Mackenzie a few years earlier. But what cinched her decision was the “amazing” house prices compared to the lower mainland, where she grew up, and in the Okanagan. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, house prices have grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars in southern B.C. locales like the Okanagan and Greater Victoria.

In Metro Vancouver, prices have spiked by about 36.5 per cent since the pandemic started.

Like just about everywhere else, house prices in Northern B.C. have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2021, those prices had increased 17.6 per cent over the previous December, and about 28 per cent since the pandemic began, according to the BC Northern Real Estate Board.

But where a typical house price in, say, Mackenzie rose by about $21,000 in the last two years, a typical house in Metro Vancouver gained about $500,000 in value. That increased equity alone would cover the full cost of two houses in Mackenzie.

Cashing in and moving north

Of course, moving to northern B.C. isn’t for the faint of heart. One had better like six months of winter. Mackenzie gets about eight feet of snow a year, said Janey Morgan, officer manager of the Mackenzie Chamber of Commerce.

It could be worse. When Morgan first moved there in 1972, it received double that.

Snowmobiling is a favourite pastime in the Mackenzie area. [Photo Michelle Gordy]

The chamber fields frequent calls from people inquiring about relocating to Mackenzie. Many are from retirees. One newcomer from Princeton told Morgan he came for winter activities like snowmobiling and ice fishing.

“We hear those stories a lot,” she said.

Gordy has already tried her hand at snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

“The snow has definitely been an adjustment and so has the cold,” Gordy said. “We had about two weeks, maybe three weeks, of a pretty decent cold snap where it got down to about -40. And it snowed – I don’t even know how much but more than what I’m used to from the Okanagan.”

Phenomenal” snow removal

On the plus side, Mackenzie has a “phenomenal” snow-clearing system.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before. The streets are so clean; the boulevards are tidy,” Gordy said. “When I lived in Lake Country, they had little to no snow cleanup. It was just basically like here’s a plow and good luck.”

Gordy didn’t even have to change jobs when she moved to Mackenzie. During the pandemic, she worked from home for about six months as a conveyancer for TNG Legal Services MDP, a multi-disciplinary legal practice. When she relocated to Mackenzie, she seamlessly transitioned back to remote work.

“I’ve had no issues,” Gordy said. “It’s been great.”

Realtor Melissa Pineau of Century 21 in Mackenzie, who sold Gordy her house, said she had another client who bought a house and is working remotely for a dentist’s office.

That’s a bit ironic, considering that Mackenzie, with a population of about 3,700, down from about 6,000 in 1996, doesn’t have a dentist of its own.

“So because of COVID, you’re getting people that have the opportunity to be able to work from home so it doesn’t matter where they’re based out of,” said Pineau, 32, who moved to Mackenzie from Langley about a dozen years ago after her parents had relocated. (Pineau is also related to Gordy by marriage.)

“And then, of course, I got my own house,” Pineau said. “I would have never been able to afford my own property in Langley even 10 years ago on what I was making then.”

“I would have never been able to afford my own property in Langley.”

Melissa Pineau

That the nearest dentists are 190 kilometres to the south in Prince George is one of the drawbacks to living in the community. However, Mackenzie does have a nine-bed hospital and a nearby health centre with salaried physicians employed by Northern Health, one of five regional B.C. health authorities funding largely by the provincial government.

No dentist but doctors aplenty

“So you could move to Mackenzie and get a family doctor, which I know you can’t do in many places,” Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson said, referring to such places as the B.C. capital, where about 100,000 people don’t have a family doctor.

Low house prices are also attractive to young physicians, who might have $100,000 in student loan debt. “That house that was going to cost them a million dollars in Vancouver is going to cost them under $200,000 in Mackenzie,” she said.

Elected mayor in 2018, Atkinson had been a councillor since 2007.

When she moved to Mackenzie in 1997, it had a very young population. “But now 25 years later, the fastest growing demographic is seniors,” Atkinson said. “I would say 25 to 30 per cent of the community are now over the age of 60.”

Despite the closure in recent of years of Mackenzie’s major employers – the Canfor sawmill and the Paper Excellence pulp mill – the 1960s “instant town” is experiencing a bit of a real estate boom.

The 1960s “instant town” is experiencing a bit of a real estate boom.

Sellers include those who have lost their jobs and are having to relocate for work elsewhere, as well as people cashing in on rental properties they own. (Rents are also low in Mackenzie but so is supply.)

Home buyers include those who work at the Mount Milligan gold-copper mine about 100 kilometres to the west and the Willow Creek coal mine about 100 km to the east. (A company called Iris Mining is also planning a Bitcoin mine in Mackenzie.)

“I’m also getting a lot of even people that are working in camp, and they just want a home base. And because Mackenzie’s so affordable, they can find that here,” Pineau said.

Lots for $45,000

Fully serviced lots within 200 metres of the health centre are selling for $45,000, for those who’d like to build. A downside is that construction costs are higher in remote areas.

Fully serviced lots in Mackenzie are available for $45,000.

The most expensive of 47 houses for sale in early February was a 3,200 square foot 1990s five-bedroom house for $299,990. A 10 percent down payment on that house would result in a monthly payment of $1,317 on a three percent mortgage amortized over 25 years.

“You could sell your apartment in Vancouver and buy a house in Mackenzie and put a bunch of money in the bank.”

Joan Atkinson

“With COVID, people don’t want to live in high rises anymore,” Atkinson said. “You could sell your apartment in Vancouver and buy a house in Mackenzie and put a bunch of money in the bank.”

It’s a similar situation across all of northern B.C.

“We are seeing interest from all sorts of places — even eastern Canada like Ontario,” said Sandra Hinchcliffe, president of Northern BC Real Estate Board. “It’s all anecdotal because we don’t keep track.”

This $299,000 house was the most expensive listing in Mackenzie, B.C. on Feb. 8, 2022.

Hinchcliffe, who is an agent with Re/Max Bulkley Valley in Smithers, said “the COVID effect” is partly responsible for the increased interest.

“And even though our market’s going up a lot, it’s still very affordable in comparison to a lot of the places that people are coming from,” Hinchcliffe said.

Diverse and vast region

Northern B.C. is vast and diverse, covering about a third of the province’s geography. Median single-family houses prices also vary. As of December 2021, they ranged from a high of $467,492 in Terrace to $178,287 in Mackenzie.

The larger cities, not surprisingly, tended to have the highest prices: Prince George ($457,804), Prince Rupert ($427,776), and Smithers ($403,282). Smaller and more remote communities were at the lower end: Fort Nelson ($206,844), Burns Lake ($221,647), and Fort St. James ($243,955).

A 2020 housing affordability study prepared for the BC Northern Real Estate Board found that the region had a housing affordability indicator of 26.1 per cent, about a quarter of the 103.3 per cent index for the Vancouver region.

[Natural Resources Canada map]

The least affordable community in the north for home ownership was 100 Mile House, with a rate of 45.1 per cent.

“This is the chiefly result of median household income in 100 Mile House being markedly lower than that of other communities in Northern British Columbia,” the report said.

Like every other community in the north, 100 Mile House’s average house prices spiked in the last two years. In 100 Mile, homes averaged $410,600 at the end of 2021, up from $323,579 in December 2019. Fort Nelson’s prices, though, have nearly doubled from $119,797 two years ago.

“You have to be careful of stats in a small market because it doesn’t take much to skew the market,” Hinchcliffe cautioned.

She noted that northeastern B.C. had suffered when oil and gas prices had slumped. The economy there has improved of late but not to the same extent as in Terrace, Prince Rupert, Kitimat and Smithers, which are benefiting from construction of the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline and expansion projects at the Port of Prince Rupert.

Remote work has a future

A lifelong resident of Smithers, Hinchcliffe has worked in real estate for about 10 years. She too has recently had clients who moved to the region and are working remotely “and loving it.”

She expects remote work to become an enduring phenomenon.

“People are going to go where they can enjoy their lifestyle, whether that means being able to buy a cheaper home, or walk outside and have fresh air, or not have to do a two-hour commute,” Hinchcliffe said. “They’re going to be making choices based on lifestyle more than the necessity to be able to get to work every day.”

One drawback, though, is that the internet in the north can be spotty or sporadic, particularly in rural areas.

Hinchcliffe lives five minutes out of town and doesn’t yet have fibre optic internet, although what she has is adequate for her work. Fortunately, local governments are working to improve the infrastructure, she said.

“It’s getting better all the time,” Hinchcliffe said. “If you’re living in a town, you usually have pretty decent internet. But if you want to come up north and live rural, you definitely have to look into that.”

The Regional District of Fraser-Fort George and the communities of Mackenzie, McBride, and Valemount have commissioned a $79,000 study into rural internet broadband service. To that end, the parties have also applied for funding to the federal government.

“My understanding is they have just started to release the names of successful communities. So we’re hoping for a phone call,” Atkinson said.

Not bugged at all

Despite its shortcomings, the broadband in Mackenzie is adequate for Gordy’s work.

“I’ve had no issues,” she said.

So far Gordy hasn’t had any issues with northern B.C.’s notorious bugs, either. Those she encountered in August weren’t too onerous, even when temperatures reached upwards of 25 degrees C.

All in all, Gordy’s experiences haven’t left her pining for the big city.

“And it’s not just because I wanted to move to a small town to begin with but it’s just simply because I have everything that I need here,” Gordy said. “Yeah, we don’t have the big box stores but everything is online. And hey, if you really wanted to go downtown overnight, you just head out to Prince George, get a hotel, go have some dinner, stay overnight at a fancy hotel and come back home.”

While house prices are a fraction of what they are in southern B.C, other living costs are higher in the north, although not greatly so.

The website gives Mackenzie an A+ rating, with a cost of living 20 per cent below the national average and 53 per cent less than for B.C. overall. Goods and services are four per cent above the national average in Mackenzie, with groceries three per cent less than the national average and five per cent less than the B.C. average.

Outdoor sports practically from the doorstep, said Mackenzie mayor Joan Atkinson. [Photo Michelle Gordy]

Love the great outdoors

Other categories don’t rate Mackenzie so highly: Amenities and schools each receive an F rating, employment is at C-, and the school score cited a graduation rate 11 per cent below the provincial average.

In the amenities category, areavibes cited few amenities nearby. However, the mayor noted Mackenzie has “a beautiful rec centre,” which includes an arena and pool, as well as abundant outdoor activities.

‘If you like shopping malls and fine dining and theatre, this is not the place to come,” Atkinson said. “But if you love the great outdoors, the recreational opportunities are unbelievable. And because it’s a small community and everything is so close, you can be from your house to sitting in a kayak in 10 minutes. Or walk out your back door and go on a hiking trail.”