As a cop, Diane Olson once patrolled the gritty streets of Winnipeg, her hometown.
But after marrying an American citizen, she relocated to sunny Phoenix in the late 1990s, where she became a realtor.
It proved to be a prescient move. A decade later, Olson heads one of the busiest residential real estate offices in the desert state, with a staff of 22 people.
By focusing her marketing efforts on prospective Canadian buyers — including a visit to Edmonton on Monday, followed by stops in Red Deer and Calgary later next week — Olson has parlayed the biggest meltdown in U.S. housing market history into a booming business.
Ironically, it wasn’t really planned. It just happened naturally. Although Olson grew up in a real estate family — her father and brother are both developers — her success evolved out of her extensive network of friends and family contacts in Winnipeg.
“When the Phoenix housing market started crashing (in late 2006), my phone began ringing. My friends, my brother’s friends, my dad’s friends, they were all saying: ‘Hey, can you help me get a house in Arizona?’ ” Olson recalls.
“They trusted me, they knew I had a law enforcement background, plus I’d been in real estate and my family was in real estate, so everything just seemed to align perfectly.”
By the time the loonie reached parity with the greenback in 2008, the momentum was unstoppable. Suddenly, the trickle of Canadian home buyers in Arizona — as well as other hard-hit states such as Florida, Nevada and California — had swelled to a raging river.
For many, Olson had become the go-to realtor in Phoenix.
“That’s when I really started to notice it. For all the years before that, Canadians had been coming down and buying places in mobile-home parks in places like Mesa,” she says.
“Finally it got to the point where the Canadian dollar was high enough, and property prices were low enough, that people began to realize what an opportunity this was. They could finally buy an appreciating asset (a home) instead of a depreciating liability like a trailer home.”
The trend hasn’t stopped. If anything Canadians are a bigger factor in the U.S. housing market than ever. For the past three years, Canadians have ranked as the top foreign buyers of residential real estate in the U.S., according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.
During the 12 months ended March 31, Canadians accounted for 23 per cent (or $15.2 billion US) of the $66 billion spent by foreign buyers on condos, townhouses and single-detached homes across the U.S.
Indeed, Canadians’ share of residential real estate purchases south of the border now exceeds the total of the next two biggest buyers — Mexico and the U.K. — combined. The latter two countries account for about 19 per cent of all foreign purchases.
The median price paid by international buyers for a home in the U.S. through March was $219,400, according to the NAR, down 11 per cent from the 2009 median price of $247,100. That’s roughly in line with the $250,000 median price Olson estimates her clients typically fork out for a home in Phoenix.
And what kind of home does $250,000 buy you in Phoenix these days?
“There’s a big difference between buying in the East Valley and the West Valley,” she explains. “In the West, you get a much bigger bang for your buck, because when the market crashed that was the side of the city that was building out, as you go toward L.A. The East was very established.”
For $250,000, Olson says buyers can shop in the West Valley for a 2,500-to-3,000 square-foot single-storey home with four bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms and a three-car garage. In a more upscale area like Scottsdale, she says, homes that sold for $900,000 in 2006 can be bought today for roughly $500,000.
“It’s very difficult to compare Scottsdale to everywhere else because it kind of stands on its own. But some of the condos that were selling for $500,000, and they’re absolutely beautiful, are now selling in the $250,000 range.”
So how do longtime Phoenix residents feel about the influx of Canadians in their midst? Olson says the general reaction has been positive. By spending money, Canadians are propping up the city’s fragile housing market and generating spinoff business for furniture retailers, landscapers and car dealers.
Neighbours are also happy to see vacant homes being occupied and maintained, says Olson, rather than left empty, which can attract vandals or drug dealers.
The single biggest mistake prospective home buyers make in looking for a property? They often fixate on the price alone, says Olson, and ignore all the other factors — location, proximity to good schools, local crime rates — that should go into a purchase decision.
“If you’re buying in the heart of the city and it’s dirt cheap, you should ask yourself why. There’s usually a reason. So looking at price alone can be really dangerous.”