Vancouver’s house prices driving buyers to half duplexes

When Eileen Holt stepped into Vancouver’s dizzying housing market, she never imagined she would come out with a half duplex.

A business-development manager for an engineering consultant firm and a recent empty nester, Ms. Holt had spent two decades in a large suburban home and was looking for a detached house with a suite that she could rent out in Vancouver’s red-hot Commercial Drive area.

But as prices skyrocketed, she was left contemplating fixer-uppers that required major repairs – and found herself at the losing end of several bidding wars. “Anything that was in the $800,000 range was going for $1.2-million or more,” she says, adding that there were often 10 or more buyers vying for the properties, most of which sold in a single weekend. “One of them went for $1.6-million.”

The only bidding war she won came with an inspection report so damning that she walked away.

So when her agent sent her a listing for a 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom, three-bath property that was in nearly new condition, in a perfect location and within her price range, she jumped at the chance. The difference? It was a half duplex.

“I’m thrilled. The space is actually bigger than the house that had the accepted offer, it’s newer, I have no strata fees and I have a lovely kitchen,” Ms. Holt says. A small garden and a mountain view were also big selling points. “Everything is new, fresh and clean, and I don’t have to be in repair mode from the very beginning.”

Ms. Holt is not alone. In fact, as legions of Vancouver buyers get priced out of the detached-home market, more and more are turning to half duplexes and larger townhouses, which boast many of the same features, but at a significantly lower cost.

“Because of the rapid appreciation of detached-home prices, there’s pressure on the next best thing, which is a duplex,” says Real Estate Board of Vancouver president Darcy McLeod, who says the trend is happening across Vancouver but especially in East Vancouver, where zoning allows for more duplexes to be built. “They get a little bit of a land, a reasonable sized home, and in a neighbourhood they want to be.”

That increasing demand, ironically, is pushing prices up at a pace usually reserved for single-family homes – and triggering bidding wars. According to Mr. McLeod, in the last quarter of 2014, the average sold price for an East Vancouver half duplex was $786,816; one year later at the end of 2015 it was an astonishing $961,460. Now most three-bedrooms are selling for $1-million or more.

On the West Side, prices range from roughly $1.2-million to $2-million, a sizable leap from prices even one year previous.

The demand for larger townhomes is also rapidly ramping up. Revard Dufresne and his wife purchased a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom townhouse on Victoria Drive near East 19th for $735,000 in 2013; less than three years later, they put it up for sale at $988,000. The demand was so great that potential buyers were making cash offers even before the first open house; after a bidding war a few days later, it sold for $1.1-million.

“I couldn’t believe the demand. I follow real estate but I still couldn’t wrap my mind around how many calls our agent got,” says Mr. Dufresne, who bought a large detached house outside Vancouver where he and his wife plan to raise their kids. “And when it went for $112,000 over asking, it totally floored us. We were jumping around like we had won the lottery.”

Agents Ruth Chuang and Corey Martin of popular East Vancouver real estate company Ruth & David say that a growing number of buyers are choosing half duplexes – not only because of the more manageable prices, but because they tend to be newer and more efficiently laid out; and, unlike older fixer uppers, have more bathrooms and come with storage and a garage. What’s more, expenses such as property taxes and maintenance costs are shared between co-owners – without having to fork over hefty strata fees.

Ms. Chuang adds that most families buying single-family homes in Vancouver rely on the income from secondary suites, which can come with their own headaches; and in the end, the floor space the owners occupy is often smaller than most duplex properties, which generally range from 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, but can be as large as 2,000 square feet or more.

Mostly, though, it allows them to stay in the neighbourhoods they love, and still raise a family.

“There is more acceptance of the half duplex as our major primary residence, something that people can actually stay in for a long time – whereas before, it was more of a stepping stone,” Ms. Chuang says. “You can stay in the neighbourhood and still go to school, go to work, go shopping, so it’s no different than the detached. People will sacrifice the big house, because it’s more about community.”

But young families entering the market aren’t the only ones boosting their popularity: many empty nesters are downsizing into half duplexes because they can cash in on their pricey houses, pass on some of their gains to their kids, and still have the feel of a detached home.

Of course, half duplexes aren’t without their downsides. The property is shared, and if you end up with a bad co-owner, you’re stuck. What’s more, if one owner wants to perform a particular repair – replace an old roof, say – and the other doesn’t, there is nobody to break the tie.

As it stands, most neighbourhoods aren’t zoned for half duplexes, and in those that are, it’s only in very limited pockets, which is another factor that’s propelling demand; but Mr. Martin is hopeful that will change. Residents in single-family neighbourhoods don’t tend to want condo towers because they’re concerned it will ruin the area’s character; but duplexes look like single-family dwellings, so they’re considered a more palatable option in the city’s drive for density and affordability.

“A half duplex ties in with the surrounding neighbourhood. Most people wouldn’t even know that’s what it was unless they were specifically looking at it. And it’s a way to make homes for families. The reality is, with more condos going in, there is such an incredible lack of three-bedroom properties for anybody who has a family that it’s actually shocking,” says Mr. Martin, who adds that three-bedroom duplexes and townhouses get snapped up almost instantly. He would also like to see the city allow secondary suites in half duplexes, because they could help alleviate the lack of affordable rentals and give growing families room to expand. “To me it’s such an easy fix.”

Ms. Holt couldn’t agree more. Six months after her purchase, she’s still thrilled with her half duplex, loves her neighbours and is looking forward to her first spring in her small garden. As with most half-duplex buyers, she was comfortable with sacrificing a large yard and sole ownership for a more manageable mortgage and a prime urban location. She’s also building equity fast: since August, the value of her property has risen roughly $70,000, if not more.

“I feel like this is where I always should have been,” Ms. Holt says assuredly. “And from the city’s point of view I can see the attractiveness. From the outside it looks like a 2,500-square-foot house, but there are two families living here. And 1,200 square feet is lots of space for a family.

“I think people need to retweak their thinking about how much space they really need.”


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