Good luck finding contractors in Vancouver
Tradespeople cite traffic congestion as top reason to turn down jobs in the city
By KERRY GOLD
Friday, August 3, 2018 Print Edition, Page H3
VANCOUVER -- Owning a home in Vancouver already comes at a premium.
And increasingly, homeowners are facing the high cost of renovation and maintenance as tradespeople either opt out of working in the city entirely, or charge extra for having to go there.
A big reason for the premium cost of hiring the trades is the city's traffic, contractors say. Vancouver traffic is so congested and so time-consuming it makes working there a losing proposition. Considering that a lot of tradespeople live outside the city, it means the options are fewer.
John Van Kammen, based in Chilliwack, B.C., who owns Jovak Landscape & Design, no longer services Vancouver, citing "prohibitive" traffic and an employee base that simply doesn't want to deal with it.
"I started this business 13 years ago and primarily we did work in Vancouver while being based in Abbotsford," he said. "It took us typically one to one-and-a-half hours one way to be in most places around Vancouver - it now takes two to three hours one way. People in Metro Vancouver are going to suffer in the next 20 years, either not being able to find trades or they will be paying exorbitant rates to have them come [into the city]."
Mr. Van Kammen has his theories on why Vancouver has become a no-go zone for companies such as his own. The traffic, he said, is due to the fact people who can't afford to live centrally have moved east, but they still work in or around the city, where the jobs are located. As well, the infrastructure has not kept up with the growth - Highway 1 has only two lanes from Langley to Chilliwack, even though it's probably the busiest road in British Columbia, he said.
As a result, there are daily traffic jams in that long 64-kilometre section of highway that takes Fraser Valley residents into the city. It doesn't help that the toll was removed from the Port Mann Bridge from Surrey to Coquitlam, which has increased traffic and closed off that option to workers willing to pay the toll.
And anyway, who needs congested Vancouver? So many people have moved eastward that there are tons of construction work elsewhere in the region. On top of it all, Mr. Van Kammen's younger workers simply don't want to be stuck in a truck in a traffic jam half the day.
"They are willing to sacrifice dollars for more time," he said. "Everyone hates sitting in traffic, hence many of my employees who live in Abby [Abbotsford] or Chilliwack will quit if I continually send them to Vancouver. They either will not want to go to Vancouver or they will charge a hefty price for their time.
"Bottom line, as younger people who typically enter the trades move east to afford homes, homeowners in Vancouver will find it exceptionally hard to find competent trades or they will have to pay much higher prices," Mr. Van Kammen said.
"This, of course, will cause even higher home prices. Can we fix it with bigger roads, more tolls, transit, carpool lanes, higher rates from [the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia] based off kilometres driven, more roads et cetera? Probably anything can be fixed, but not without an impossible collaboration of minds, huge costs and, no doubt, an increase in taxes.
And unfortunately, these days, everyone thinks someone else should have to pay for it. Good luck to Vancouverites."
The housing market in Vancouver has softened greatly since a host of provincial tax measures and federal government lending measures were introduced. A flattened market often motivates people to renovate, since it's not a good time to sell.
While waiting for the market to go up, they may as well fix up the house.
In a high-priced market, it also helps if there's considerable equity to be tapped into, by way of home equity lines of credit (HELOCs). Altus Group released a report last week that said British Columbia is poised to lead the way in increased spending on home renovations. The majority of that spending will come from the 50-plus age group, because of the equity that group holds. In 2017, more than $17-billion of new borrowing in Canada was for the purpose of renovations, according to the report. Two-thirds of borrowing using HELOCs for the purpose of renovations was carried out by homeowners older than 50.
"Renovations are one of the top reasons why people borrow with lines of credit," said Patricia Arsenault, executive vice-president at Altus Group. "The upward trend we've seen in Canada as a whole, but it applies almost everywhere, is that renovation goes hand in hand with the fact that HELOCS are growing at the same time, and that also goes hand in hand with the fact that house values have been going up over time."
However, not all Vancouver homeowners have available cash for the climbing cost of repairs. Writer and broadcaster Jennifer Van Evra is constantly working on her old house on the east side of Vancouver. She said it's getting more difficult to find trades that'll quote on small jobs, which is making it harder to get the standard three quotes to help her determine a fair price. She's seeing people who get frustrated and settle for one quote, which opens the door to inflated prices and even shoddy work.
"We've had literally dozens of tradespeople through here, and I would divide them into two camps: those who quote based on a fair or typical market price, and those who quote based on what the market will bear - basically, how much they can get away with. I think it has a lot to do with the neighbourhood, as well as the level of knowledge of the client.
"Now that property values have skyrocketed across the city, there's a perception that everyone is flush with cash, and most people aren't because they're pouring every penny they have into their hefty mortgage and repairs. At the same time, when people have more equity, they spend more, and they renovate more, so in a roundabout way, that equity could be driving up renovation prices. The more demand and limited supply leads to higher prices. It also leads to some companies getting away with incredibly shoddy work."
Jak McCuaig, who owns a house on the east side of the city, doesn't buy the argument that traffic is scaring off the trades.
He said the bigger challenge is that a lot of tradespeople simply don't need the small residential jobs.
"I'm a consulting engineer and we work in construction. Part of my job is renovations and multiunit residential. We do lots of work for the City of Vancouver and BC Housing, so I have access to all of the best practices, and all the good contractors, all that stuff.
We're always working on several buildings in Vancouver, the whole Lower Mainland and elsewhere in B.C., so you would think I would have no problems at our own house.
"But I'm in the same boat as everybody else, with the caveat that I know when I'm being ripped off."
Mr. McCuaig advises homeowners to get everything in writing, get referrals and make sure tradespeople have up-to-date insurance coverage. You could also consider doing the work yourself if it's not specialized.
"There's so much work now and a lot of it comes from big-league players who are hiring all these guys, so it's a knock-on effect all the way down. For a homeowner, we can't compete."
Rod MacKay has been a realtor for 40 years and also manages about 50 properties around the city. He has lost handymen over the years owing to the high cost of commuting, and as a result is also having a tougher time finding trades.
"With smaller jobs, you can't even get a quote, and they bid high because they know you won't get three quotes," he said.
"It doesn't matter whether it's electricians or plumbers, or handymen, it's an issue."
Mr. MacKay has established a relationship with a builder who'll do the small jobs because he also gets the big jobs. For the average homeowner, however, that "carrot" is not an option.
"If we didn't dangle the carrot, and give them $15,000 or $75,000 jobs, we wouldn't get them to recaulk the tub or do the smaller jobs."
Mr. MacKay said people are renovating because those who were thinking of downsizing no longer see the value in it.
The price gap between the single-family detached house they own and the price of a condo they could move into has narrowed. It means they get less value, so they stay put instead. As well, upgrading to a nicer property means extra taxes, which also means less value. So, they are fixing up their homes until it's worthwhile to sell.
"If you come onto the market with a single-family house that's an inferior product, it will sit there," Mr. MacKay said.
Jake Fry - a builder of laneway housing - is based in Vancouver and Abbotsford, but does most of his work in Vancouver.
He has made a point of hiring people who are local to keep turnover low. He recently lost a key Vancouver employee because he was commuting 15 hours a week by car.
Arriving to work early in the morning is easy enough; however, getting home in rush-hour traffic is exhausting.
Even within the city, traffic is so congested and time consuming, he has had to make efficiency adjustments. To retain staff, Mr. Fry now looks for office staff who are close enough to get to work by bike or transit.
To keep fuel costs down, he has created a system so crews don't have to traverse one end of the city to the other. With projects throughout the city, he has assigned work teams according to neighbourhoods.
But the rising cost of materials is also having an impact, as is the fact tradespeople are in high demand and rates have gone up.
"I think it's more expensive to work in Vancouver and you have to overcome those obstacles, like transportation," he said. "But I just think everything is expensive and part of it is because we don't have a lot of trades here."
Bryan Roberts is a builder who lives in the city and he said he'll avoid jobs that require too much car time.
"I live in the city, but that is rare for trades," he said. "I take the easiest work I can get, and if that means avoiding a crushing two-hour-a-day commute, then I will."
As a homeowner, he tries to do all his maintenance and repair himself because he can't find other trades to do small jobs.
"It has become ridiculously expensive to try to find a guy willing to drive through town to do a two-hour job. If they do come, it's with a premium.
Above: Traffic crosses over the Lions Gate Bridge into Vancouver in 2015. As housing prices in the city increase, more people are moving elsewhere but continue to commute into Vancouver to work. Meanwhile, a flattened market is motivating people to stay put and renovate their homes, including Jennifer Van Evra, left, who is constantly working on her house on Vancouver's east side. She said it's getting more difficult to find tradespeople who will quote on small jobs, which is making it harder to get the standard three quotes to help her determine a fair price.
ABOVE: DARRYL DYCK/ THE CANADIAN PRESS