Vancouver Island’s Vibrant, Waterfront Lifestyle Is Catching on With More Than Retirees
The 12,000-square-mile landmass west of Vancouver is replete with farm-to-table restaurants, ocean views and a sense of community
By Michael Kaminer. Originally Published June 24, 2021.
Of Canada’s 20 best retirement spots in a 2019 ranking, seven were on Vancouver Island, the 12,000-square-mile landmass just west of Vancouver, British Columbia and about 200 miles northwest of Seattle.
Along with some of the warmest weather and lushest scenery in Canada, the island won plaudits for low taxes and dynamic business growth, abundant culture and recreational opportunities, and easy access to health-care.
Today, even as the pandemic propels its property market to stratospheric heights, Vancouver Island’s appeal to retirees only keeps increasing.
In fact, a 2019 survey by the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board revealed that 57% of buyers were purchasing a home as a retirement residence. In the southeastern coastal communities of Parksville and Qualicum Beach, the survey said that 75% of buyers were purchasing homes with retirement in mind.
“A lot of what we’re seeing is due to the pandemic, which has accelerated retirement plans for some people,” said Brendon Ogmundson, chief economist of the British Columbia Real Estate Association. “They may have thought they were doing it in five years, but they’re doing it now instead. And they’re competing with people who can work from home and are choosing the island.”
The market has remained turbocharged into 2021. “The market is crazy, and inventory’s at an all-time low,” said Ian Lindsay, founder of local brokerage Lindsay & Associates and a four-decade veteran of island real estate. “But Vancouver Island remains the most coveted place for Canadians to retire.”
Glynis MacLeod, a Realtor at The MacLeod Group/Sotheby’s International Real Estate Canada in Victoria, agreed. “The property market is frustrating,” she said. “Buyers are outbidding each other for what little there is. A million dollars no longer goes that far.”
Vancouver Island Homes
The average home price on Vancouver Island in April was C$668,493 (US$548,294), according to the BCREA, a 28% increase over the same period a year ago.
Each island community has its own personality, Mr. Lindsay said. Parksville-Qualicum Beach “is always ranked on top because of its incredible beaches, waterfalls and mountains,” he said, adding that Nanaimo, on the island’s east coast, “has become a strong small city, with a great harbor and good access to the mainland.”
The capital, Victoria, meanwhile, has developed into a vibrant and busy place thanks to young people coming in, as craft breweries, coffee shops and hip restaurants have proliferated.
Langford, a southern Vancouver Island town with a population of about 43,000 and an average home price of C$725,300, even topped a national ranking of Canada’s most livable places in March. The town’s become a hotspot for both retirees and families, said Stew Young, its mayor of 28 years.
“A big thing for retirees is selling your home and moving somewhere more affordable, and we have the lowest taxes in the region,” Mr. Young said. “But it’s also a great mix for seniors. We’re a city with a small-town feel and incredible walkability, surrounded by nature. You’re close to ferries, the city of Victoria, the island airport and several hospitals. And our crime rate is low, with lots of police to make sure we keep it that way.” Langford’s consistent growth attests to his success, he said. “We’ve grown 700-800% in new business coming out here.”
During his tenure as mayor, Young’s strategy has been to invest in housing and amenities that appeal to both young families and retirees, from a new bowling alley and climbing wall to a new YMCA and bicycle trails.
Outdoor Recreation Opportunities
Along with spectacular scenery and “a different pace of life” from big cities, retirees get drawn to Vancouver Island specifically because it doesn’t feel like a retirement village, according to Mr. Lindsay, the local agent. The island’s lifestyle, which emphasizes outdoor activities and recreation, suits a new generation of retirees who want to stay busy.
“This isn’t retirement in terms of old people out to pasture. It’s an active, vibrant community, with opportunities to engage in sports, fine arts, ongoing education, or getting involved in the community,” he said. “Here, everyone competes for ice-time at the hockey rink, whether you’re 14 or 75 – there are leagues for everyone. And there’s connectivity between all of those groups.”
Active retirees also “have every opportunity at their back door,” said
Ms. MacLeod of Sotheby’s. “You can go from hiking to fishing to surfing in the same day. Yet you’re connected to all major centers,” including Victoria, the provincial capital. When borders are open between Canada and the U.S., Washington State is a ferry ride away.
Entertainment and Culture
In normal times, Vancouver Island also overflows with cultural events, Ms. MacLeod said. “I’ve lived all over the world, and when I moved here, I thought I’d have to go to Vancouver for culture,” she said. “But we have great art galleries, theater, ballet and orchestra, as well as stars who come to venues around town.” The island’s vibrant food culture, with an emphasis on farm-to-table and organic, also makes it appealing to affluent retirees, Ms. MacLeod said. “Per capita, Victoria must have more brunch restaurants than anywhere in Canada,” she joked.
Retired people have also taken active roles in Langford’s civic affairs, its mayor said: “I’ve got four retired people on the city council” out of six members, he said. “At 60, I’m one of the younger people in politics here.”
For Elizabeth Mitchell, a former petroleum-industry geologist, Vancouver Island has been “magical” as a retirement destination.
“If you’re bored here, something’s wrong,” said Ms. Mitchell, 67, who moved to Parksville with her partner, retired food executive Jos Rehli. “It has a vibe that’s unbelievable. The environment is pristine. Culturally, it’s so fertile. And there’s a sporting and recreation aspect year-round.”
The pair, who settled in Parksville after a stint in Qualicum Beach, also prize the diversity of their new environs. “While our street’s mostly retired people, the community’s much more mixed, with people of all ages, from all over,” Ms. Mitchell said. Among her other activities, Mitchell has joined the board of the Parksville Museum, which showcases local history; Mr. Rehli’s become a farm-to-table aficionado. “You get the best fresh food from local markets here,” he said. “The best restaurant is our kitchen.”
The island’s abundance of waterfront property drew Warren Wagstaff, a retired Vancouver investment adviser in his 60s who moved to east-coast Nanoose Bay with his spouse last year.
“Waterfront property in Vancouver would have cost five times what I paid on the island,” Mr. Wagstaff said. “And it’s non-existent anyway because of demand.” A native of the island, Wagstaff bought a ranch-style home on a waterfront half-acre “with a beautiful view of the area where my dad used to take me to fish.”
While the island’s not as “vibrant” as the big city, “you have the quaintness of a rural community, and everyone here is friendly,” Mr. Wagstaff said. “And I have more access to the arts and culinary assets than when I was working. I had a 45-minute commute to the city, so we wouldn’t go in that often for events or dining. Here, there’s a lot to do, and it’s close.”
Wagstaff recalled a warning he got when he moved back to the island. “A neighbor warned me about traffic jams,” he said with a laugh. “The next day, I hit one. It was three minutes.”
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