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Selling in Secondary Markets: Salt Spring Island

( appeared on REMonline, December 2014. )

Witten by Gayle Mavor.

Salt Spring Island, the largest of B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands, is the canvas that managing broker Li Read has painted with sales since 1989. She relocated to the island from Vancouver 27 years ago to provide care for an ailing family member.

Li (rhymes with see) may be the only real estate professional you’ll ever meet whose fictional vignettes, her very own version of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, offer potential clients a pretty accurate snapshot of island life.

Ozzie Jurock, president of Jurock’s Real Estate Insider newsletter, describes Li’s true love for the island as one of her strengths as a local expert. “If you’ve ever gone for a walk with her, her local knowledge is astounding,” he says. “That and her progressive approach to technology means that she’s the Realtor of note there.”

In mid-September, she was on stage addressing an audience of 500 at Jurock’s annual Real Estate Outlook 2015 conference in Vancouver.

You have to sell the area first,” says Li. “You have to get people to come here.” As president of the Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce, (a two-year term), she’s passionate about doing just that. She is active on all the main social media channels including YouTube. She’s always been a natural champion of local events.

Although Salt Spring is home base, she has listings on every island in the vicinity including water-access-only retreats with multi-million-dollar price tags. In August, she had five waterfront listings on the island. She also lists and sells building lots. Her most recent endeavour is Skywater Acres, a new development on Salt Spring’s south end, which has five to 78-acre parcels.

In 2002, tourist visits in B.C. lined up like this: Whistler. Tofino. Salt Spring. In 2012, Salt Spring slid to around 18th place. It would be easy to blame that change on the cost of ferry travel. A report, Boatswains to Bollards: A Socioeconomic Impact Analysis of B.C. Ferries issued in September did just that, detailing how skyrocketing ferry fees killed $2.3 billion in economic activity in the last 10 years. But Li isn’t so sure it’s that straightforward.

“The Gulf Islands are self-qualifying,” she says. “The people who are meant to live here will come, regardless of perceived barriers. Customers scan the Internet from all over the globe now. They have the opportunity to buy anywhere in the world. The competition of choice in the recreational/rural market is stiff.”

No one has to move to Salt Spring or to Parksville/Qualicum or Sechelt. “These are ‘by choice’ regions,” she says. “In secondary home regions, people tend to act upon their personal dreams.”

From late 2008 to early 2014, discretionary and recreational properties have been slow to recover. Jurock went so far as to use the word “disaster”.

Li’s first entry into the business was with NRS. She then worked for a Re/Max brokerage for 11 years, seven of those as a managing broker. Two weeks prior to the 2008 crash, she joined Sea to Sky Premier Properties, a brokerage she refers to as an Internet-based business, complemented by agents who work from Whistler and West Vancouver.

Before the Internet, Salt Spring was mainly a place for retirees. “I’m seeing a shift in the demographic with different values,” she says. “In recent years, young families, entrepreneurs and knowledge workers with decent incomes are able to live on the island and work remotely. They might commute off island a couple of times a week by float plane or ferry. People arrive with a desire to live in an artist community, to do sustainable farming, to explore eco-housing design, to practice alternative approaches to healthy living and to enjoy a sense of apartness without being completely away from it all. We’re under an hour to Sidney and Victoria,” she says.

Li says current potential buyers seem to be from Vancouver, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. There are fewer Americans than there were a few years ago. She says there’s a smattering of buyers from the U.K. and other parts of Europe. Some Chinese buyers are seeking summer places. “It’s a very cosmopolitan mix.”

Recently, Li says she noticed an uptick in people from other provinces who are “interviewing” coastal areas. “Salt Spring and the Gulf Islands are always in competition with Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast,” she says. She surmises that these potential buyers may be planning to retire in one to three years and they’re trying to decide where they might be happiest.

The last time there was a downturn in the economy, Li capitalized in a way that’s still serving her. In 1995, she enrolled in an intensive course at The University of British Columbia called Multimedia Studies. She learned to build a website using hypertext markup language (HTML) and Flash. Few salespeople had a website then. She believes she was the first in her region.

“People were just beginning to use pagers. Fax machines were new. I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she says. The past few years, she says, have been the “perfect storm of change.”

It’s not easy to predict what’s going on in the market but she believes that there are indicators that suggest another uptick.

Selling recreational/rural property is not for the impatient. It means a more intense experience with the buyer. “I’ve been communicating with them on the phone or Internet, sometimes for months. I pick them up at the ferry, they’re in my car for one to five days and we really get to know each other.”

Listening, she says, is her greatest ally. “For five months – July, August, September and October – life is intense. You have to read between the lines, not only hearing their dreams but interpreting what they are saying, comparing that to the inventory and comfortable price ranges.”

In the end, she says, “What buyers purchase rarely ends up looking like what they thought they came to buy. Discovering a secondary market means bumping up against other life choices. You have to be open to the element of surprise.”