This is part of a series of stories on retirement and second home destinations in North America.
Las Vegas brands itself as a destination for naughty fun, with casinos, nightclubs and other amusements along its world-famous entertainment strip.
But for Canadians in search of a winter getaway home, the appeal of Nevada's "Sin City" lies elsewhere: moderate temperatures, laid-back living, affordable house prices and easy access to one of the world's largest man-made lakes. One more lure is the relative proximity of Las Vegas – less than three hours flying time – from cities in Western Canada.
"We come to relax for a week," says Langley, B.C., resident Peter Saris who, with his wife Grace, purchased a three-bedroom town home in an upscale Las Vegas suburb for $300,000 in 2009. "There are times we go down and never see the strip."
That's a common response from Canadian clients, says Vancouver-born Azim Jessa who moved to Las Vegas in 1999 and became a real estate agent in 2008 amid plummeting house prices.
"Off the strip, we are a very normal city," he says. "My friends ask me, 'Do you gamble?' and I say, 'Not at all.' "
The majority of Canadians buy winter homes in Florida, Arizona and California, but Las Vegas is gaining attention as a small desert city of 600,000 in a region of two million people, with average monthly high temperatures of 13.8 C to 19.4 C in winter. Citing 2013 data from realtor.com, a website that tracks property searches in the United States, the National Association of Realtors names Las Vegas as one of "five markets of greatest interest to Canadians" along with Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Orlando, Detroit and Naples, Fla.
"There has been a nice shift from investment-type purchasers, including Canadians, who were buying investment properties, for cash, to rent out," Mr. Jessa says. "Now we are seeing a lot more second-home and vacation-type buyers."
Typically, buyers choose homes in gated communities, but a few opt for a condominium in a Las Vegas strip hotel. The condo owner has access to hotel amenities and, when away, returns the room to the hotel inventory, with revenues often split 50-50 between the owner and the hotel. In January, a one-bedroom in the 64-storey Trump International Tower was priced at $515,000 (U.S.), with monthly fees of $953 (U.S.)
In 2013, after almost five years of depressed prices, the housing market in southern Nevada (including Las Vegas) picked up steam. The median price of existing homes climbed 24 per cent to $185,000 (U.S.), according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, compared with $118,000 when prices hit rock-bottom in 2012 and the precrash peak of $315,000 in 2006.
With a dwindling supply of foreclosures, the market is returning to a more traditional inventory of homes. Association president Heidi Kasama says there are still buying opportunities for Canadians, even with the Canadian dollar down to 90 cents (U.S.).
"Perhaps the purchasing power [for Canadians] has diminished, but the potential for continued appreciation in our market is certainly there," she says. "But aside from all that, this is a great place for a second home and from that standpoint, this is a market people should not overlook."
For Mr. Saris and his wife, both 60 and still working, Las Vegas has been a regular destination since they first visited as NASCAR stock-car race fans a decade ago. They rejected other warm-weather locations, preferring Las Vegas for its relaxed lifestyle, access to amenities and friendly people.
In 2009, the couple purchased a townhouse in Summerlin, a 9,100 hectare master-plan community built on former desert land purchased by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1950s. Howard Hughes Corp. continues to develop the site that sits adjacent to the dramatic Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Mr. Saris, president of PGS Construction Co., says he and his wife avoided distressed-sale houses because of the complexity, preferring a conventional purchase for which they paid 50 per cent cash and arranged financing with Bank of America.
"We were not necessarily looking for a good deal, we were looking for a place we liked," says Mr. Saris, whose gated-community property includes a pool. Golf courses and shopping is nearby, with the Las Vegas strip 15 minutes away by car. The couple pay a monthly fee of $75 a month to a homeowners' association, typical in such developments, for security and community services.
Mr. Saris advises prospective buyers to "get a good real estate agent" who can match neighbourhoods to one's lifestyle preferences. He also suggests buying for the long-term given market volatility.
On paper, the Saris house dropped in price 50 per cent after the couple made their purchase but has since regained much of its value. "We don't look at that because we are not looking to sell," says Mr. Saris, who tries to head south with his wife for a week every three months.
Taking the long view is also a strategy endorsed by Curtis Jones, the president of a tow-truck company in Calgary. A long-time visitor to Las Vegas, he purchased several properties during the housing crash, later selling several for a profit.
But last fall, he and his wife Sharon bought a property for their own use.
They paid $265,000 for a fully-furnished townhouse in a high-security upscale gated community of Spanish Trail, with golf courses, tennis courts and multimillion-dollar mansions owned by celebrities. Mr. Jones says he pays monthly fees of about $500 to the homeowners' association.
For Mr. Jones, a boating enthusiast, an added bonus to living in a desert city is its proximity to Lake Mead, the 16th-largest man-made lake in the world, only 30 minutes away by car.
On paper, his 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom home could sell for $370,000 today. But the 59-year-old has no plans to sell a long-term family investment that allows for another network of friends south of the border.
"It is like having two lives – one in Canada and one in the U.S.," he says.