Room to grow in Brandon

For the immigrants filing into Manitoba's city bounds, it may seem easier lately to find a job than it is to find an apartment. The second largest city and service centre in Manitoba after Winnipeg, Brandon has maintained steady employment for years, even during the more challenging recent economy.

While Canada's unemployment rate was at 8.5 per cent at the close of the year, it was at 5.7 per cent in Manitoba for December 2009, according to Statistics Canada.

Meanwhile, the vacancy rate has remained near zero in Brandon, at 0.2 per cent in October last year, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Commission, compared to three per cent nationally. That has sent rents rising.

"It's been like that for three or four years," James McCrae, president of Brandon's Real Estate Board, says of the lack of available rental properties. "Unless we keep building, we're going to have serious issues because we have quite a large immigrant population moving in."

Brandon has a diverse economy, but the focus is heavily on fertilizer and hog processing plants. Many of the immigrants have been brought in to work in these areas. For example, Maple Leaf Foods, which processes nearly 90,000 hogs a week, has had trouble recruiting local workers. They have found immigrants willing to move in and take the jobs, however.

McCrae says the immigrants have come from all over, but mainly China, El Salvador and Mexico. "It's enriching our city in terms of our demographic makeup," he says of the newcomers. "Our city is changing, but we haven't changed in the sense that Brandonites have always been welcoming and now we just have more to welcome."

The rental market has also felt the impact of two local schools: Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College. City and government officials have been keen to find ways to add to the housing stock, but for now the rents have remained high. "At this point, we're barely keeping up," says McCrae. He says there's a lot more employment available than only processing plants, though.

"We have economic growth going on that's attracting people from various income levels, including professional people," McCrae says. "There are a lot of education facilities here, as well as some high-tech industries, which attract higher paying jobs."

All of these things have come together to create a lot of optimism. Little has changed from five years ago when experts predicted that Brandon would see strong economic growth for at least 15 years.

"I'm saying for the next 10 years at least, we should see this positive accelerated growth going on," says McCrae. Investors can get in on this market with about $200,000.

McCrae says a two-bedroom condominium with garage can sell for about $180,000, and the rent, depending on location, might be $1,000 per month or more. Cash flow can be good with some of those figures in mind. A 20 per cent down payment on a $180,000 apartment property, with an interest rate at four per cent and 35-year amortization would allow for a monthly mortgage payment of about $635 per month, leaving plenty of room for cash f low gains if rents are near $1,000.

For houses, there's been some significant construction of new properties on the west side of the city, as well as the south, says McCrae. Last year, the average house price was around $170,000, he says, but new homes can be found for a list price as high as $500,000 or more as well. Custom-built homes, especially, will cost $350,000 or more.

"To find a 1,200 sq. ft. bungalow for less than $300,000 is really getting hard to do in Brandon," says McCrae. "So then you go to the existing market and hope you can find something you like in the $250,000 range."

While older houses are rarer on the Brandon market, they are available. Last year, a four-bedroom two-storey one was sold by McCrae for $280,000. There's also been an effort lately to improve the downtown core area, which should see those improvements continue in the coming years.

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