Teardown or not: What makes an old Vancouver house liveable?

Imagine my surprise when I went out on the town of Vancouver with three million dollars in my pocket to buy a new home and then discovered that it wasn’t quite enough!  I’m not  talking about a beautiful, brand new house.  I started out with the goal of buying a well kept old house with four bedrooms, big enough for my family of five, on a nice lot, off a corridor, on the west side of Vancouver.  I was even thinking, that with my fat wallet, I could buy a fabulous, but run down house with great potential, and throw in a few hundred thousand more for renovations or restoration. The first thing I learned was that three million doesn’t buy much of a house on the west side.  The next thing I learned was that most  of the houses I looked at were considered tear downs, and that most of the other buyers looking at houses in my price bracket wouldn’t  even conceive of living in them.  It was confusing at first. While I was walking through a house, carefully opening closet doors and examining the floors, other potential buyers were making cursory walk throughs, barely glancing around.  I soon came to realise that they were only looking at the house to assess its  rental potential while they got their plans and permits together for the new house that they would build on the lot.

There are several factors that determine whether an old house on the west side of Vancouver is a liveable old house, or whether it should be torn down.  Consideration goes substantially beyond the actual functional state of the house. The livability of an old house depends much more on the location of the lot than on the general condition of the house at the time of sale.

There are areas of Vancouver where not only run down, small, and outdated homes, but even  completely restored, gorgeous, heritage houses are torn down to build bigger, new houses with high basements.  In upper Second Shaughnessy from 25th Ave to 33rd Avenue, between Granville and Arbutus, almost every house is sold as a tear down.  Take a tour along Angus Drive, Marguerite Street, and Pine Crescent between 25th and 33rd to see one beautiful, grand home after another.  They are finely crafted, in deluxe heritage style, and they are all brand new.  The lots in Second Shaughnessy are large, and the streets are lined with mature shade trees.  The area is quietly, elegantly affluent.  Families with teenage children live in the houses.  The streets are lined with Lexus and BMW SUVs.  These are the homes of people who have built up some wealth over the years through professions or business ventures.  Believe it, or not, lot value properties in this area sell for about $3.4 million. Then the purchaser tears down the old house and builds a new one new in just the same style as the old.  Its like the modern child of old-country parents; bigger, taller, brighter, and smarter in every way.

The South Granville area between 37th and 57th Avenues, and from Oak to west of Granville, is also filled with new houses on large lots.  The more recent homes are the classic twin peaked stucco box, and the twin peaked cedar-sided, or shake-sided box of the 2000′s.  But there are also many late 80′s, and early 90′s, McMansion style houses.  This is a highly Asian Canadian influenced area.  Many of the original homes in the area were torn down and rebuilt for Hong Kong immigrant buyers prior to “The Handover” of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997.  The area is still popular with recent Mainland Chinese immigrants to Vancouver.  Rightfully so.  It is extremely convenient for travel to Richmond and the airport, and to downtown Vancouver.  It is surrounded by beautiful public gardens and dotted throughout with excellent public and private schools.

There are very few old houses left standing in the South Granville area.  Those that come up for sale are listed  as  “lot value only,” and sold at a premium price.  The storyline runs like this: The house is listed.   There may be a brief time when potential buyers can schedule appointments to view the house for it’s “hold now, develop later” rental potential.  A “presentation of offers” date is quickly set.  On the presentation day offers are presented at 10-15 minute intervals over a couple of hours, depending on the number of interested buyers.  If it is a desirable lot, one has to be prepared to pay top price to get it.   It might be helpful if the listing agent is representing an individual as their buyer’s agent.

Two areas that contrast with the teardown/rebuild frenzy in Second Shaughnessy and South Granville are First Shaughnessy and Kitsilano.  Although the two areas are widely divergent economically and socially, there is an underlying similarity in the reason to renovate and restore the old houses in these subdivisions.  Both areas have strict style guidelines that new home designs must adhere to.  In First Shaughnessy it is rumored to take up to three years, with multiple presentations to the First Shaughnessy Design Panel, to get the permits to rebuild on a lot.  There are many heritage design features that must be incorporated into the new home plans such as multiple peaks and variations in the roof line, all wooden windows, and large property setbacks.  In Kitsilano, the old homes are huge compared to the lot size, and a new house would have to be built much smaller than the original, making it unfeasible to tear it down. In both Kitsilano and First Shaughnessy buyers tend to rebuild the existing house, even if it means tearing the home down to the studs and raising it, or digging out a new basement.

More to come….