October 9, 2015

Chasing real-estate deals in the Okanagan

The region is becoming a mecca for Lower Mainlanders willing to relocate to find reasonably priced housing

Retired schoolteacher Karen Struve couldn’t believe her good fortune. First, it took just one day for her modest 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom bungalow in Port Coquitlam to sell two years ago for above her asking price of $465,000. Then, when she and her partner Rob decided to settle in his hometown of Penticton, she was delighted to find she could build a brand-new, 3,300-square-foot detached house with a swimming pool for just $660,000 in a new development called Sendero Canyon.

“I have a really good pension and Rob has a full-time job, so we easily qualified for a mortgage,” she said. Struve and her husband are among many Lower Mainlanders who have discovered in the last few years that there is a better (meaning affordable) life outside Metro Vancouver, if one only looks.

A recent labour-market study conducted for the Okanagan Valley Economic Development Society found that Lower Mainland residents account for about 21 per cent of people migrating to the Okanagan Similkameen. In Struve’s new neighbourhood in Sendero Canyon, eight of the 51 lots sold so far were purchased by people from the Lower Mainland, said real estate agent Wes Stewart.

“Most of the people come up to enjoy the savings as well as the lifestyle,” he said. “It’s a much slower pace here and we have seen a healthy mix between people who are retiring earlier and those who are looking for a change in lifestyle.” Curt Jansen, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Skaha Hills, a new development in Penticton, says about 30 per cent of all buyers in the sold-out Phase I of the project and about 47 per cent in Phase II are from the Lower Mainland.

“We have situations where we have quoted prices with the house and the lot, and people from the Lower Mainland think that that was the lot price alone,” said Jansen. “They are pleasantly surprised when they find out the price I am quoting — between $500,000 and $600,000 — includes the house and the lot.”

Snowbirds are flocking to Osoyoos

The southern Okanagan city is drawing Canadians who want to escape winter’s wrath, but don’t want to head to the U.S.


Not all snowbirds fly south of the border. Some Canadians who want to escape the worst of winter are heading to Osoyoos, drawn by its dry, temperate weather and stunning desert scenery. For local hotels, snowbirds have been a godsend in what has traditionally been a painfully slow season.

“Five years ago, in the winter, nobody was here,” says Ingrid Jarrett, general manager of Watermark Beach Resort on Osoyoos Lake. But since local businesses started promoting Osoyoos as a destination for snowbirds, she says, occupancy rates have jumped to a healthy 70 per cent from a meagre 10 per cent in winter.

An estimated 2,300 snowbirds came to Osoyoos for all or part of the last winter season, says Gail Scott, managing director of Destination Osoyoos. That’s a 35-per-cent increase over the previous winter, she says, driven in large part by the slumping Canadian dollar.

Osoyoos has the warmest winters in Canada and gets about as much snow as Arizona

Most winter visitors come from rural areas of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and northern B.C. where the season is long and unforgiving. Many cite the unfavorable exchange rate and the cost of health-care coverage in the U.S. as reasons for not wintering in more well-known snowbird locales like Arizona, Florida and California, and some don’t like the extreme heat in those destinations.

“We’re the warmest spot in Canada — nobody can argue with that,” says Scott. “And we also have about as much snow as Arizona will get in the winter. You can use a broom instead of a shovel.” Many snowbirds come to Watermark for three to five months to stay in one of the hotel’s fully equipped condo-style suites, Jarrett says, and they often return at other times of the year. “People who are coming are telling their friends and family, and they’re coming back in the spring, summer and fall.”

Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort is also cashing in on the snowbird boom. Like Watermark, it offers suites with kitchens that are well suited to long-term stays. So what is there to do in Osoyoos in the winter months? Whether you’re a snowbird or you’re just looking for a short-term escape, there are plenty of options to fill your days.

Osoyoos and nearby Oliver are home to about 33 wineries with tasting rooms, and about a third of them keep their doors open year-round, says Tony Munday of the Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association. Another 15 or so will open for tastings by appointment. Those numbers are only expected to grow as more local businesses cater to snowbirds.

Tinhorn Creek in Oliver and Nk’Mip Cellars in Osoyoos are two of the wineries that stay open year-round for visitors. Nk’Mip (pronounced IN-ka-meep) is the first winery in Canada that is aboriginally owned and operated. The Osoyoos Indian Band opened it in 2002 as part of the Nk’Mip Resort development, which also includes the Spirit Ridge resort and the nearby Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre.

The centre, housed in a stunning rammed-earth building that blends into the desert landscape, features an indoor display focusing on the history of the local First Nations people. Outdoors, there is a well-tended desert walking trail that is a tangible reminder that Osoyoos is on the northernmost tip of the Sonoran desert, which extends as far south as Mexico.

Osoyoos has a number of hiking trails that are well used by winter visitors, Scott says. “It might be a little chilly but you’re not having to walk through snow.” And golfers can tee up as early as February at one of the five courses in Osoyoos and Oliver. Local community centres and seniors’ centres welcome snowbirds, who can play bridge, take exercise classes, go dancing or play pickleball, says Scott.

Those who appreciate the farm-to-table cuisine for which the Okanagan has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence can book a cooking demo and dinner with Chris Van Hooydonk of Backyard Farm in Oliver. His Chef’s Table program, which is open year-round, can accommodate up to 20 people at one sitting by appointment, and he encourages guests to bring wine from local wineries to pair with their meal. Scott says there’s a growing trend in snowbirds coming to Osoyoos for a winter or two, then deciding to move there permanently.

The Residences at Spirit Ridge, a collection of luxurious low-rise condos, hopes to capitalize on that phenomenon with properties that are specifically oriented to buyers who intend to live there most or all of the year. All the homes, which range in price from the low $400,000s to the mid $500,00s, have either two or three bedrooms and boast spectacular views of the Okanagan Valley.

Although residents have the option of putting their homes in a rental pool for stays of seven days or longer, less than a quarter of the people who bought into the first of four phases of the development have opted to do so, says Rudy Tomazic, vice-president of Desert Lifestyle Realty, which is selling the condos.

With the loonie still hovering well below the U.S. dollar, it’s a safe bet that Osoyoos will see even more snowbirds this winter. In fact, by late August, some hotels were already reporting that they were booked solid for the prime winter months, Scott says. So if you want to join them this winter, it’s a good idea to book early. And you might want to brush up on your golf and pickleball skills before you go. •




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