Buy a Condo? Probably Not

Published at 10:37 on 21 January 2024

Having been granted permanent residency in Canada, I will be selling my Bellingham condo soon. This whole move north has in some ways been fortuitous: there are not many condos available in Bellingham, and what is available is generally carpeted and with clauses in the deed requiring carpeting for its soundproofing qualities.

The problem with carpet is allergies; there are two types of carpeting:

  1. Old carpet full of dirt and allergens.
  2. New carpet that outgasses toxic chemicals.

I began my ownership with the condo in the first state, and two years ago invested in bringing it to the second state. I did a significant amount of research in trying to select carpeting that outgassed less. It didn’t matter: it still outgassed to an excessive degree. Fortuitously, it was about two years ago that I got my job offer in Canada, so I never had to deal with what to do about the whole situation (absent the job offer, there were no good solutions).

Now, there is an excellent solution: Just sell it. Pristine carpeting will be a selling point.

That begs the question of whether or not to use the proceeds to purchase a condo in the Vancouver region. The answer is probably not, at least not now.

It’s sort of ironic, as the big problem with condos in Bellingham is not so much of an issue here; carpeting just isn’t as popular in Vancouver. I think this has to do with the high proportion of immigrants in Vancouver; carpeting is not as popular outside of North America, and the market is simply catering to overall demand.

Alas, there are other problems with the condo market here.

Money is probably the biggest one. If you divide the list price of a condo by the yearly rent of an equivalent apartment, you get about 29. The rule of thumb is home ownership seldom makes economic sense unless that ratio is 15 or less.

So absent a strong economic case, some other case must be made. Several possible cases exist:

Stability in general
It is hard to be evicted from a property you own. Unfortunately for this argument, British Columbia has strong tenant protection laws: it is hard to be evicted from a rental. Easiest way for my landlord to push me out would be if he wants to move into my unit himself or move an immediate family member into it. My unit is so small that he and his wife are unlikely to want it. It contains stairs, so it is unlikely to be appealing to an elderly parent. In other words, I am likely to be able to stay here indefinitely long.
Price stability
On top of that, one of those tenant protections is rent control. By contrast, Canada lacks long-term mortgages, for the simple reason that the federal government here has never taken the sort of policy to create them (long-term loans like 30-year mortgages are something a market will never create on its own. So any financing I undertake will be limited term, and have to be renewed (typically, after five years), possibly at a much higher interest rate.
My current rental is a so-called laneway house, a small, detached dwelling unit behind the main house. I share no common walls with anyone. I am in a completely residential area on a quiet side street. The only way to do as good as this with a condo would be to find one in a cottage development, but such developments are extraordinarily rare here.
Ham radio aspects
It would be nice if I could erect a few antennas. I have done that in other condos by hiding antennas in the attic space. Another alternative would be a penthouse condo with a roof I could climb up to from my deck. Both of these are in the strict sense forbidden, but if one is discreet about it, one can in my experience get away with it. The sort of tower developments popular here mean only a minute fraction of units are top floor units, and that those units sell at a disproportionate premium. (Being on the top floor is also critical from a quiet standpoint; I have lived under simply too many people who apparently keep a pet rhino that they attempting to teach how to tap dance.)

The bottom line is that a condo purchase could make sense if I find something reasonably-priced on the top floor with some sort of roof or attic access. Such units do exist, but they are almost always in older buildings, and these have several problems:

Before the 2000’s, it was unusual for condos to restrict smoking. Condos are not airtight. Have a smoker as a neighbour and it is likely that their stink will intrude your unit. In my case, this raises allergy issues.
Older condos tend not to have in-unit washers and dryers. I am allergic or sensitive to most scented laundry products, which makes wearing clothes washed in shared machines problematic. Yes, even the residue from a previous usage can make clothing effectively unwearable to me, causing itching, rashes, and migraines. This has caused me significant issues when I have had to contend with shared laundry facilities, to the point that the only reasonable conclusion is that having my own private laundry facility a must.
The exterior building envelope
There was a huge spate of shoddy condo designs built in the late twentieth century in British Columbia, to the point that the leaky condo crisis has at times been a significant political issue here. Buying an older condo that has not already been renovated to correct this issue is taking on a significant risk.

The bottom line is that the available facts seem to indicate that owing my home simply does not make much sense in this region.

This may change in the next five years or so, however. A number of of zoning changes have been made or are underway that make it reasonable to suspect that a batch of smaller condo developments are about to be built in residential areas, and that some of these will take the form of accessory dwelling units (like the one I currently inhabit) being offered for separate purchase. That would change the calculus significantly. Such changes are, however, at this point only theoretical.

So unless I really get lucky, the best answer for the time being is almost certainly to continue renting.

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