It used to be that when kids grew up, they would leave their small towns and move to the big city,” says Brooke Playfair, a server at the Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet. “Now the opposite seems to be happening.”
Lillooet—located 250 kilometres northeast of Vancouver and 170 kilometres west of Kamloops—is a place that many are used to driving through. But now, an increasing number of people are not only stopping, they are moving there.
I was recently invited to Lillooet to meet Mayor Peter Busse, local planner Kevin Taylor and Jeremy Denegar, the district’s chief administrative officer. They are currently preparing a new Official Community Plan 20 years after the first OCP, to guide future planning and attract investment. They wanted me to hear about their vision for the community.
Long an important centre of Indigenous culture, the town evolved as one of the main centres of the 1858-’59 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, when it was said to be the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. The District of Lillooet was founded in 1946, so next year is its 75th anniversary.
This was my first visit to Lillooet in over 40 years and in some respects, little had changed. The main street lives up to the community’s branding tagline “Guaranteed Rugged,” which is prominently displayed everywhere, even on the mayor’s business card with its missing corner, as if eaten by a bear.
But while some things have not changed, others have.
Taylor and Denegar moved to Lillooet from Vancouver Island as a young couple ready to start a new life. Upon arrival, they found a building lot for $78,000 and within five months had completed construction of a modern four-bedroom house for less than the price of a condominium apartment in Victoria.
Playfair and her fiancé were also attracted to Lillooet, in part, because they could purchase a house on a three-quarter-acre lot for less than a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver.
They are not the only ones buying property in Lillooet. During my visit I learned that offshore investors have also been purchasing land in anticipation of future growth.
It is not surprising that people are now considering Lillooet. Anyone who has visited Squamish and Pemberton recently will have discovered both are growing rapidly. Each is becoming an attractive place to live, with well-designed mixed-use and residential developments located along beautifully landscaped streets.
While many buyers were initially attracted to Squamish by its lower housing prices, especially when compared to the Lower Mainland, this is no longer the case.
In September 2020, the average price of a home sold in Squamish was $758,000, with detached houses selling for an average of $1.1 million. Three-bedroom townhouses are selling for $760,000, and one- and two-bedroom apartments are selling for an average of $400,000. Prices in Pemberton are not much lower. A single-family house on Eagle Drive recently sold for $1.55 million and a 780-square-foot apartment on Crabapple Court sold for $475,000.
Meanwhile, in Lillooet, of the 21 houses for sale in early October, the average list price was $420,000, and several very livable houses were listed under $300,000.
Many planners and real estate professionals attribute the rise in single-family house prices to COVID-19. The pandemic appears to be encouraging buyers to sacrifice proximity to downtown Vancouver and move further afield where they can buy or rent a larger home, with space for a home office and enough room to raise a family. After all, thanks to technology, many of us no longer need to live close to the office or places of work.
What few of us know is whether this is a trend that will continue once the pandemic subsides.
Even before COVID-19, people were moving away from Vancouver and Toronto to surrounding communities offering larger, less expensive homes.
A similar pattern occurred in London years ago. I recall visiting a crowded local pub one Thursday evening and asking the bartender whether the place was always this busy.
“Yes,” she replied, “but especially on Thursdays.” “Why not Fridays?” I asked. “People go home on Fridays,” she responded. It seemed that most of the people in the pub lived three or more hours outside of London and commuted, not daily, but weekly.
Adventure Lives Here. Hardwired for Adventure. Guaranteed Rugged.
While Pemberton, Squamish and Lillooet initially chose these branding taglines to attract tourists, they will continue to attract people like Playfair, Taylor and Denegar, ready to move away from larger Canadian cities to smaller communities where they can find more affordable housing and more active, healthier lifestyles.
I predict this is a trend that will continue long after COVID-19 subsides.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant, developer and retired architect. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. He can be reached at [email protected] and his blog is found at gellersworldtravel. blogspot.com.