A VANCOUVER PRIMER: FINDING AN APARTMENT

Here is the first of a series of articles I dub “A Vancouver Primer.”  They are meant to be a starting point for the prospective Vancouverites as they evaluate the pros and cons of living in this beautiful city, consistently voted as one of the best in the world.

Boxing Day.  The term conjures up dreams of great deals everywhere.  But it also means long lineups at every store, as each “boxer” fights for the elusive deal that everybody wants.  Vancouver’s apartment hunting scene reminds me somewhat of that latter part of Boxing Day unfortunately.  You might be able to get a great deal too, but that’s less likely as the rent/mortgage rates border insanity here.  The plain fact is, once you see something you really like, you’d better sign up right away or else the next person in line might just ruin your plans.

The main reason why finding an apartment is stressful in Vancouver is because all tenants need only notify the landlord one month in advance whether they will stay for another year or not.  Very rarely will you see, let’s say on December 1st, landlords listing available units for February 1st or March 1st or later.  The vast majority will be for January 1st only.  But actually, the race for the best apartment out there starts more on the second day of each month rather than the first, as landlords often give tenants until the evening of the first day of their last month to hand over their notice.  I think it’s safe to say that the most interesting ones will be going first so, if you can manage to find some spare time to visit apartments on the second of the month, by all means do so!  During my own visits last year, a couple of landlords told me, in all honesty, that they didn’t really care if I didn’t give them an answer right away: the occupancy rate in Vancouver hovers around 100% and if I didn’t sign up, somebody else would — all the more reasons to get out there early and waste no time finding that apartment.  If you’re planning to relocate, schedule your flight accordingly for the best “shopping” experience.

And yes, the rent is insane here (EDIT 2009-04-26: things could get even more insane very soon :s).  I tried to find an apartment with a rent comparable to the one I had  in Montreal, but it just wasn’t possible without moving quite a ways away from the downtown core.  Unless you’re the stay-at-home type, you’ll most probably have to make do with the increase in rent money you’ll spend each year here.  But thankfully, the salaries are higher here and there is less tax to pay than in Quebec, so that was a relief for me.

A 1-bedroom unit in the downtown area usually goes for more than 1,000$ (but the lower the floor, the more affordable it becomes).  Wherever you decide to stay — but especially around downtown Vancouver –, you will pay more for less than what you used to have.  And if that wasn’t enough, watch out if the unit you like has a balcony: landlords like to inflate the total square footage of their units with the space covered by balconies to attract more tenants.  Maybe it’s a common practice, I don’t know, but I do know that I don’t like it; I don’t think a balcony should be considered as a full-fledged “living” space.  Once you see the unit with your own eyes, you’ll be disappointed by how much smaller it really is.

As you look around, you can be sure of one thing (well, almost): if it looks too good, it’s a condo; if it looks “decent” or worse, it’s an apartment.  All condo owners must have a good portion of their monthly maintenance fees set aside for landscaping.  There are so many buildings that look so incredible out there — all condos.  Although there are some condos for rent out there, they’ll most likely be quite expensive.  If you live on a tight budget, there are other alternatives, of course.  The first is to go for a basement suite.  I saw many reasonably priced ones, but I craved my light too much to settle for living in a basement year-round.  Having a roommate is another obvious option, but cross your fingers that the “relationship” withstands the test of time (and ego).

While you may find many listings on the Web, don’t stop there.  Some buildings advertise their available units only on their front yard, or even not at all.  In the latter case, you can still look up the manager’s extension at the front door and call him/her up to inquire about what they have available right now.  A building without a sign does not necessarily mean nothing is up for grabs.

If you’re new to BC, you might find it strange that you have to leave the manager a cheque worth half a month’s rent as you fill up an application and they check your credit and so on in the next couple of days.  The idea of having maybe 3 different cheques — worth a good chunk of money each — in the hands of people I don’t know at all doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s how it works here.  I don’t understand why it’s so important for them to have that cheque in the preliminary stage instead of after the credit has been approved and you’re ready to officially sign a lease (this “security deposit” will be used against you if you mess up your unit).

To close off this article on finding an apartment in Vancouver, here are a few more interesting apartment facts for you:

– As you move into your new place, you might be pleasantly surprised at how clean your unit is — at least I was (Quebec landlords should definitely learn a lesson from their BC counterparts here).  The “Condition Inspection Report” ensures that you get a clean unit upon arrival and that you keep it clean yourself as long as you live there.  If not, you can kiss your security deposit goodbye — you’ve been warned! :p

– Don’t brush aside older buildings too fast!  On average, older buildings seem to give you more room for yourself (and maybe more noise, too; that depends on how thick the walls are or how much space there is between units).  It’s quite possible that, being older, landlords will charge you less for their space — but don’t expect them to “give it away.”

– Most high-rise buildings have their own personal gym and some also have an indoor pool and/or sauna and/or jacuzzi and/or game room (seen mostly in swanky Yaletown), too.  Vancouver is a health-conscious city and the means to keep fit are readily available here, whether it be in your apartment building or in a huge park not too far from your place.

Vancouver is an expensive city, but it is also very clean and the view does have a price.  The higher salary helps somewhat cover the higher cost of living but, with the steep increase in rents and mortgages the city has seen these past few years, it makes you wonder why it hasn’t followed a similar growth.  Lots of people I talked to foresee a drop in prices after the 2010 Olympics, but that’s just speculation, of course — don’t take my word for it.  That being said, I still think, as a nature lover, that it’s worth it.  I find the abundance of outdoor activities and green spaces so close to the city very enjoyable.  I’ll go into more details about the lifestyle aspect of Vancouver in a future primer.

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YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN VANCOUVER WHEN…

1) A bucket welcomes you — and your umbrella — at a restaurant’s entrance.
2) -5 degrees Celsius is considered a “deep freeze.”
3) In a public washroom, you can see someone poop behind a 3-foot high stall door (“Say what?!!!” :s).
4) Calling customer service begins with a pre-recorded message saying: “for English, press 1, for Mandarin or Cantonese, press 2.”
5) Real estate prices increase three times faster than your salary.
6) Downtown back alleys are as large as the streets of Montreal.
7) Putting your little toe on the street makes cars come to a screeching halt.
8) A 5 centimeter snowfall makes schools close and people call off from work.
9) You can see two Starbucks’ at the same intersection.
10) Most people you know were not born and raised here.

A NEW BEGINNING

The previous posts complete “The MySpace Days.”  Now I’ve moved to WordPress and look forward to a brighter blogging future here. :)

It has been a long time since I’ve done any real blogging, but it’s only because I was sooo busy finding new material for you guys to enjoy. :p  Before buying my first digital camera last February, I had taken probably around 500 pictures, in my life; but since then, I have now shot over 7,500 photographs!  The flexibility a digital camera offers is undeniable, although I believe film cameras still have the edge in terms of picture quality.

With the gray weather kicking in once again, I’m ready to blog about all the wonderful hikes I’ve been on this past season and all the different events and attractions I’ve witnessed in and around the area too.