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Barry Burko and Karen McKibbin sold their Whistler, B.C., home and bought an RV park in the north Okanagan.

Llisa Bastard Photography

Lower Mainland residents in their peak earning years are deciding to pack it up instead.

Barry Burko and Karen McKibbin, both in their mid 50s, sold off their Whistler home a year ago, after that market saw major price hikes. They had already sold their property management business, and then they sold the house for a price that enabled them to completely cash out.

They bought an RV trailer and travelled in Mexico for six months, until they got bored. Ms. McKibbin, a real estate enthusiast, did some research and discovered that RV parks are a good investment. Over the phone from Mexico, site unseen, they purchased an RV park in the north Okanagan and moved there. They are now living in a 400 sq. ft. trailer.

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"The financial adviser said, 'you could retire, and you'll end up with no inheritance for the kids, but you could survive,'" Ms. McKibbin says. "We don't have an RRSP. Our RRSP was our house. We made money on real estate and our business, and that's our comfort level."

The RV park idea made sense because it gave them autonomy as well as land.

"We were buying land, which was very comforting to us," Mr. Burko says. "The worst case scenario was if it doesn't make money, we have a place to live and we can get jobs in the winter."

As it turned out, the RV park was a moneymaker, drawing upon a large base of return customers, as well as a boost from new marketing. In three months, they earned enough net income that they won't have to get winter jobs. They are building a cabin on their 11-acre property to live in during the summer, and plan on hiring more staff. The couple will live at the campground this winter then purchase a house for the off-season, possibly in Revelstoke. They could also travel in the winter months.

"It turns out campgrounds run about 12 per cent return in three months on your investment, so if you annualize that, it's a hell of a return," Mr. Burko says.

The couple sees other people in their age group also giving up the Lower Mainland in search of more space, and less work.

"This is our retirement plan, that's what this is," Ms. McKibbin says. "We're not working full time. There are a lot of different ways this could have played out."

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While a lot of fuss has been made about millennials leaving the Lower Mainland, the bigger exodus may be the group that is either nearing middle age or well into it. Generation Xers, or people from 35 to 55, could start bailing at a rate that could turn into a crisis, says Chris Fair, president of Resonance Consultancy, a research and branding firm. Mr. Fair, who also has an office in New York, commissioned Insights West to do a survey. The result was the Future of B.C. Housing report, and he was startled by the response that people with lots of working years ahead of them were planning to leave. Of people between 35 and 55 in Greater Vancouver, 47 per cent agreed that they would be selling their home for a cheaper market in the next five years. For those people, the need for affordable housing and more space was the draw. Kelowna and Victoria are top alternatives.

Through home ownership they've earned enough wealth to go somewhere with greater affordability, where they can own land and bigger homes. They can retire or semi-retire at a young age, or trade their career for part-time jobs, but they can do so because their equity goes further in a less expensive community.

"For all the talk about young people leaving Vancouver, the people with the highest propensity to leave Greater Vancouver is the Gen X homeowner," says Mr. Fair, who presented his data findings earlier this year.

"This is a real crisis for the city. It's not young people or boomers leaving, but it's the management class of the city leaving, people who are in their peak earning years, mid-career. If they leave, what does that do to the economy of Vancouver, and the prosperity of a company trying to find senior level talent?"

Mr. Fair's own company has seen glimpses of a trend. One of his senior employees, in his late 30s, sold his house to relocate to Victoria. His business partner sold her home in North Vancouver to relocate to Brooklyn.

"This is our small company of 20 people, and these are the changes and pressures we are feeling. I can't imagine the challenges other [bigger] companies are facing in recruiting and keeping talent, which is key to growth in the long term.

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"We don't have a problem attracting talent from different parts of the world. It's easy to get them under 30 but hard to keep them."

Andy Yan, adjunct professor in urban studies at Simon Fraser University, says the issue isn't whether people are coming to Vancouver, but whether they will want to stay. He analyzed census data from 2006 to 2016 and found a 13 per cent drop in 40 to 44 year olds in Vancouver. When he broadened his analysis to 35 to 44 year olds, he found a total 9-per-cent drop in the city proper.

"We talk about the missing middle in housing, but we're actually missing the middle-aged demographic, particularly in the city of Vancouver," Mr. Yan says. "We're not losing the young millennials, but we are losing those who are their mentors and supervisors. The question is, how do you build and nurture an innovation economy if you don't have that demographic?"

He attributes part of the decline to high rents and home prices, low paying or precarious employment, and housing that is unfriendly to families.

"The city of Vancouver is in danger of becoming a place where some reach a certain age and age out – a kind of Pleasure Island in the Pinocchio story," he says.

Michael Heeney, the new president and chief executive officer of Surrey City Development Corp., agrees that high-paying jobs are often missing from the conversation. When he was a principal at Bing Thom Architects, he did a study that found that Vancouver had an average of only 60 employees per head office. Companies here have a tough time growing, compared with cities such as Toronto and Seattle. He saw that play out at Bing Thom Architects, where he worked for 28 years. People who invested 15 years with the firm would move on when they reached a phase in life where housing a family became a priority.

"That's when they decide to have families, in their late 30s, early 40s. All of a sudden they have kids and housing becomes much more important to them. That's where we run into trouble. And they are incredibly valuable to a company. They know how to do their job. That's how a business makes money, off the backs of people they've invested 15 years in training.

"Our problem with affordability is not just the cost of housing, but really low incomes. If we could have big offices with larger upper level employees with higher salaries that would help grow our incomes, and that in a way will make our housing more affordable," Mr. Heeney says.

Mr. Fair believes that the combination of low paying jobs and high priced housing has put Vancouver at a unique disadvantage compared to other cities.

"I think it is difficult to grow in Vancouver. We have an income and economic development problem - jobs don't pay as much in Vancouver, and the spread and the gap between a person with a degree is less than in 10 other Canadian cities. And we have the highest housing costs. That's not sustainable.

"The ship may have sailed for Gen-X in the next five years. There's not much we can do," Mr. Fair says. "But millennials will get married and have kids, and face the same situation, and it will be likely to be even worse. And will they leave earlier? Or just never buy a home in Vancouver and have to leave altogether?"

As for Ms. McKibbin and Mr. Burko, they say they're pleased with early semi-retirement. And they think they're paving the way for people in their demographic to cash out and follow.

"Talk about affordability," Ms. McKibbin says. "A lot of people are coming out and living in RV parks, and people are selling sites [to them], rather than just renting them out as a campsite. I think this will be another market."

A three-level mansion in a desirable area of Vancouver is on the market for a record $63-million. The home has five bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and a range of other luxury amenities.
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