Buying a home in Banff takes more than money

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

''There is a lot of secrecy about real estate in Banff,'' says one young, upwardly mobile executive. Another complains about what he labels a ''senseless regulation called 'need to reside' and complains of what he feels is a hostile attitude whenever the subject of real estate comes up with the residents here.

''You just have to know the right people in order to buy a home here,'' someone else responds.

Nearly 7 million visitors trek to the Banff National Park area each year, yet only a few ever succeed in planting their roots.

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The notions that this town doesn't take to outsiders and that there is a battle for Banff going on is not without foundation. But Dan Mullaly, townsite manager, and Stuart Curran, co-owner of Banff-Canmore Realty Ltd., clarify the conditions and rationale for acquiring property.

Banff, a 2,564-square-mile park, is run from Ottawa through the federal Department of the Environment. It is one of 28 national parks administered by Parks Canada. Technically, it is not a town; it is a park. A cordial voice in Ottawa will tell you it's a ''visitor's service center.''

In effect, Banff has no self-government, but park administrators consult with a local seven-member advisory council and an eight-member body dubbed the joint committee.

This unusual system influences procedures for buying real property. For one thing, to acquire property in Banff (the land is leased and the improvement is sold outright), the buyer must secure a ''consent to assignment'' from Parks Canada, which may issue a land lease if certain conditions are met.

Mr. Mullaly explains the history of land leases in the area as follows: In 1909 the government offered automatically renewable 42-year land leases, with rent review every 21 years. In 1966 the courts ruled that the crown did not have the right to issue perpetually renewable leases because the process was tantamount to freehold ownership.

In 1969, when rent amounts were still proportionately about the same as in 1909, the government ruled that it was entitled to a 10 percent return on the value of its land, and rents were raised. In 1980 the tax bases were redefined, and land rents were raised again.

Today, rents per leasehold, regardless of lot size, run $250 or less a year for homes and $100 a year for condominiums. By most standards in the United States, this still constitutes a bargain.

Rents now are reviewed and may be raised every 10 years; land leases have a nonrenewable term of 42 years.

''Home buyers are concerned with security of tenure,'' Mr. Mullaly said, ''but we maintain a hands-off attitude. As long as people pay their rents, we don't bother them.'' He said Parks Canada is not obligated to renew all leases, but in practice it does renew most leases.

''We are particularly accommodating to a business or resident who is performing a service or playing a role in the park,'' he added. ''Some lease renewals are denied for properties in remote areas because of wilderness factors , or if there are violations of the laws.''

Perpetual leases from the old days are valid, and they can be reassigned, providing there have been no substantive changes affecting the land itself.is no difference attributed to land value. Naturally, to come upon an old lease sweetens a transaction by adding an extra measure of security.

Mr. Mullaly spelled out some of the elements of the complex 1980 legislation that strengthened the already existing ''need to reside'' provision, enforcement of which seriously got under way last July.

''Simply,'' he said, ''the people in Banff don't want anyone to buy homes and leave them vacant when there is an acute housing shortage and the young people who staff the service industry can't find a place to live. To live here, you must work here.

''We are neutral about investment purchases, but we insist that the homes and condominiums be rented, or offered for rent. Rents are high, and this may not always be possible because many of the workers can't afford high rents. Thus, we are caught in a 'Catch-22.' ''

''Real estate in Banff is in a most shocking condition,'' said Dorothy Gow, a legendary person in the area, ''because they have been tearing down old homes to build condominiums, and (these) sit vacant because the young people can't afford them.''

When asked about residency rules for retirees, her natural animation disappeared, and she fell silent.

As the rules go, retirees must work in Banff five years before retiring to qualify to lease land, a stipulation that has created confusion among senior citizens who may have had ties and lived here in past years but now might not qualify technically for residency.

''Home prices range from $150,000 to $300,000,'' said Mr. Curran. ''Two-bedroom condominiums, with about 1,000 square feet, range from $95,000 to

Mr. Curran acknowledged that many condominiums are unsold. But he was philosophical about the severe slump in the Canadian economy, which is adversely affecting the real estate market.

''It is healthy that the economy hurts in the short term, but (this) will have a positive effect in the long term,'' he said. ''Prices needed to come back to earth.''

Conventional financing is available on 75 percent of the selling price at a 19 to 20 percent interest rate for a one- to five-year term, but payments are amortized over 25 years. Seller carry-back financing, with 25 percent down, is usually offered for a two-year term, 15 percent interest, with interest-only payments , Mr. Curran added.

The real estate agent explained the ''need to reside'' regulation in much the same manner as did the townsite manager, emphasizing preservation of the quality of life in the area. He said that investment buyers must sign an affidavit that they have no need to reside and agree to rent.

As expected, enforcing residency requirements poses a problem, but there are plenty of small-town watchdogs on the lookout.

A Calgary oil company was ''caught'' not renting and dealt with accordingly. As the rules go, it is unacceptable for corporations to have property standing empty for the benefit of their vacationing executives. Also, rumor has it that unnamed powers are threatening to have a Parks Canada warden knock on doors to police the occupancy status of buildings.

It is apparent that, while the town does much to take care of itself, it also depends upon the paternalism of Ottawa.

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