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pessimist_ovrsize.jpg

Poor, stupid Vancouver homeowners: you bought. A Steve Burgess taunt from across Vancouver's real estate chasm.


Back when times were good, Rhonda Byrne made a killing with her uplifting book, The Secret. It’s all about the law of attraction. By wishing and believing, she wrote, you can make your dreams come true.

I’m now anticipating this year’s big publishing success, my as-yet-unreleased Tinkerbell Has Cancer. The new secret is the value of pessimism. It’s the underappreciated virtue that has made me a lifelong renter.

All of Ms. Byrne’s beloved positive energy didn’t help the financial markets very much, unless those wishers and hopers were actually short sellers betting on a crash. Nor has it been a great stretch for people whose hopes involved that most basic of financial desires: real estate. While property values have been dropping all over North America, forecasts for B.C. have been particularly sour. Many new homeowners have found themselves “underwater,” carrying mortgage debts that exceed the value of their homes. Suddenly we renters, formerly a despised class, are feeling rather smug.
I have taken some grief over the years for being a renter. Owning a house – or at the very least a condo – has been seen as a rite of passage from serf-like adolescence to confident, controlling adulthood. Income rises, earning potential is realized and the resulting stability is reflected in the move to home ownership. That’s the accepted path, like those evolutionary ­diagrams that portray humanoid progress from knuckle-­draggers all the way to upright Briefcase Man. Residentially speaking, I never really got my hirsute digits off the ground.

It’s because I’m a pessimist. Renting and pessimism go hand in hand. Renting is the strategy of those who fear the future. To put it another way, I’m a freelance writer. Pessimism and freelance writing are Siamese twins. When there is no telling what your income is going to be from month to month, you tend not to lock yourself into big financial commitments. It’s a necessary strategy for uncertain professions, and one that has suddenly gained wider application. Uncertainty has become fashionable of late.
Before I anoint myself as the new guru of pragmatic financial management, Vancouver’s own Condo Cassandra, I should confess that had I purchased a property when I first moved to the city in the fall of 1988, I would in all likelihood be free and clear today, smirking through the financial storm in a fully paid-up property. Pessimism prevented me from ever making that leap. Perhaps an optimistic Steve would now be a land baron.

The truth is, it wasn’t just financial pessimism that kept me out of home ownership – it was more a global sense of personal incompetence and impending disaster. Even before the leaky condo fiasco, I knew I lacked the analytical tools to understand whether I was buying a palace or a mouldy old lettuce crate. I also understood that, chez Burgess, maintenance problems would be solved with the only tool I can use – the Yellow Pages. I would probably set off some sort of alarm just by walking into a Home Depot. If home ownership required licensing – not a bad idea, actually – I would be unlikely ever to get my learner’s permit. The deed would have to be co-signed by someone with a proven ability to build a shelf.

But now those shortcomings are all secondary. Today, as a renter, I stand tall – no longer marked as an incompetent screw-up but instead a prudent money manager. Even better, I will soon join the ranks of those best-selling sages who are kind enough to share their wise example with others, selling scads of hardcover books in the process. Tinkerbell Has Cancer – the title might need work. But the message is timely.