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How one couple got swept up in Port Moody’s pandemic housing rush

When COVID-19 revealed cracks in their city life, Berkeley Loh and Tom Holmes joined the ranks of thousands of new home buyers in search of more space, community and something of their own
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Tom Holmes and Berkeley Loh are part of a wave of new home buyers who have turned to the suburbs and beyond after the pandemic restricted life in the city core.

A year ago this week, pandemic living began to squeeze the lives of many British Columbians. As the restaurant sector hemorrhaged jobs, many had their incomes tank, throwing them at the mercy of government support. 

But for young professionals like Berkeley Loh and Tom Holmes, working from home meant big savings as travel — once eating up a massive chunk of their income — was put on hold. 

“Previous to the pandemic we were like, ‘this apartment is pretty spacious,’” said Holmes. “But when you’re working and living inside 24/7, you realize 850 square feet is not big enough.”

The couple joined a wave of new buyers across British Columbia looking to escape the rental life in the big city, where the promise of a public life shut down. 

As their savings grew, they joined the ranks of thousands of new home buyers in search of more space, community and something of their own. By February 2021, monthly residential unit sales spiked to nearly 90% of their 2020 levels, ushering in a new monthly record a thousand units higher than the previous February record set in 2016. 

“In my 30 years in the business, I’ve always seen an acceleration or price increases in the core,” said developer Kush Panatch. “In this case, it was the exact opposite, it started in the Fraser Valley and moved inward.”

“It was coming from the valley back into the city.”

A PANDEMIC ACCELERATION

Loh, a 29-year-old tech worker at a large fashion retailer, and Holmes, a 35-year-old creative director working in branding and design, had flirted with the idea of buying before the pandemic.

At the same time, they were comfortable in a reasonably-priced rental in Vancouver’s Olympic Village. City life, the sea wall and friends were all within walking distance. 

“We’ve been pretty lucky,” admitted Loh. 

But pandemic life quickly started taking its toll and the couple began looking further afield, knowing they’d never be able to afford a condo in Vancouver’s core.

“We ended up looking everywhere, from North Vancouver, to Coquitlam to Burnaby,” she said.

Growing up in Vancouver, Loh said she’d never even been to Port Moody. Then, one day after checking out a new condo high-rise in Burquitlam — something the couple said had nothing of the community vibe they were looking for — Holmes had a targeted ad pop up on his phone for a new development at 50 Electronic Avenue in the nearby but very different Port Moody.

On the way, Loh remembers passing by the seaside Rocky Point Park and Brewers Row, a collection of breweries that attracts a regular crowd. 

“There were people with kids, dogs, pushcarts,” said Holmes. “It felt like a mini-Olympic Village vibe.”

Arriving at the showroom, everything fell into place: the price was right and the extra few hundred square feet of space was enough should the couple decide to start a family. 

Within 24-hours, they’d pulled the trigger on a 1,100-square-foot, $800,000 condo.

“I never thought I’d be a suburbs girl, but here we are,” said Loh.

SUBURBS IN FLUX

Recent statistics from BC Stats paint a mixed demographic future for the suburban neighbourhoods of the Tri-Cities, which include Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody. 

Whereas Coquitlam’s population continued to grow at a modest pace last year, increasing by 1.4%, and 6% since 2015, 2020 saw a net population decline of -0.4% in neighbouring Port Moody after two years of small population hikes.

At the same time, recently released Google Trends data ranked Port Moody as the fifth-most searched for city in the country among people browsing the search engine for a new home. 

Andy Yan, who heads Simon Fraser University’s City Program, attributes the discrepancy to a certain portion of the population retiring and selling their homes to downsize in other communities. 

At the same time, towers may appear to be fully finished, but many — including Low and Holmes’s condo, which isn’t slated for completion until 2023 — are still awaiting occupation, he said.

“Really, when did these towers come online? Are they online? Are they still being built? Sometimes what looks like a building and looks like it's coming online may still be a year or two away and that could have a downward trend on the numbers,” he told the Tri-City News.

EXPLOSIVE PANDEMIC DEMAND

Developer Kush Panatch has owned property in Port Moody for the last two decades. But his company’s latest development at 50 Electronic Avenue is its biggest to date. 

Made up of 358 units, the development includes roughly 18,000 square feet of commercial space and a variety of amenities, including a co-working space, a guest suite, dog park, community garden, yoga studio and gym, as well as a kids play area and adult lounge. 

“There’s a difference in what’s getting built right now. It’s not just ‘pack as many people onto the land.’ People want amenities,” said Panatch.

In the year leading up to the pandemic, Panatch said he pre-sold 138 of the 358 units. When the virus hit B.C., his company made the decision to move nearly everything online, from video tours and a new chat bot to the ability to sign contracts and wire deposits. 

Appointments at the property’s sales centre, where demonstration units were built, were conducted one group at a time to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, Panatch said his company poured over a million dollars into digital marketing, a strategy that would eventually lead to an ad popping up on Tom Holmes’ phone last fall. 

The Vancouver couple weren’t the only ones who came calling. Over the next few months, interest in the development exploded. Many of the buyers came from the Tri-Cities and Vancouver’s city core, but others came from as far away as Toronto looking to pick up one of the units ranging from $400,000 to as much as $1.4 million. 

“We’ve ended up with people from literally all over the place,” said Panatch. “It was a very scary time, but an interesting thing happened: In the first 60 days, we sold 50 homes. It absolutely blew me away.”

What at times felt to Panatch like panic buying subsided to normal levels over the summer, only to come roaring back in the fall. By Christmas of 2020, he said some buyers had gone from taking months to make a decision to less than 24 hours.

“The market was just accelerating at a very unusual pace,” he said, noting that over the last year, sales at the Port Moody development hit benchmarks 40% faster than predicted, to the point where he only has eight units left. 

“In my 30 years in the business, I’ve always seen an acceleration of price increases in the core. In this case, it was the exact opposite, it started in the Fraser Valley and moved inward. It was almost a reverse.”

Now, says Panatch, those price increases have made their way back into cities like Burnaby, Richmond and Vancouver, a trend he expects could plateau over the coming months as more developments across Metro Vancouver open up for sales.

‘THIS IS OUR LIFESTYLE’

While for some, the charm of Port Moody rests in its small-town feel, for Loh and Holmes, it promises even more. Since buying a unit at 50 Electronic Avenue, several of the couple’s friends — also young couples looking for their next step in life — have purchased homes in the city as well. 

The draw, they say, is that combination of a tight-knit community and the offer of big-city amenities, like Brewers Row, state-of-the-art rec centres and access to the sea.

“When we do move there, we'll feel like we’re with friends,” said Loh. 

Despite his current Olympic Village address, Holmes grew up in the U.K. countryside, and for him, Port Moody “felt big” when he first arrived.

“We’re also working remotely now,” he said. “Just living a little further out is not really a big issue anymore.”

And while many in the town have expressed frustration at what they see as rampant development, the couple said they’re going where the market allows them and to a community that suits their lifestyle.

“We’re just a young couple wanting a house and a place to live that’s our own — and we found it,” said Holmes. “Are we the people gentrifying this neighbourhood? Maybe we are. But this is what we can afford.”

—With files from Diane Strandberg

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