Living Situation: James Thiessen on investing in ‘wheel estate’

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This is the fourth article in V.I.A’s series looking at how people in the Lower Mainland are dealing with high housing costs. 

James Thiessen worked in residential construction and renovation for years but after the 2008 financial crisis “nobody was really making money in the construction business.”

Thiessen and his wife sold their house in Squamish in 2009 and weighed two options — to stay at home and watch their bank account “bottom out” because there wasn’t much work available or go traveling.

“We decided if we’re going to spend money to live and not have a lot of work we might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re doing it,” he says and they went traveling in a trailer for about eight months.

The couple then decided to rent a house in the Okanagan but at that point a house with nine acres of land was too much space for them so they bought an Airstream trailer.

Thiessen says they gave themselves a tight two month timeline to gut and redo the trailer “to suit our needs” using the property they rented as a workspace. They lived in the trailer for about a year in Victoria then moved back to Whistler for work, selling the Airstream and moving back into a house.

Before long, the pair wanted to buy and refurbish another Airstream and moved to Vancouver to run a trailer restoration business called Gray Ghost Restorations.

Thiessen says the goal is to move away from residential construction and focus primarily on the custom trailer restoration business. “The Airstreams are a very iconic RV and have been around forever. They certainly are not showing any sign of going away soon. Their popularity keeps rising.”

The Airstreams are usually bought in the States and range in price from $1,500 to $4,000.

It takes about two months to complete one custom renovation and trailers are sold for about $60,000. He says the trailer they are working on new retails for between $125,000 to $145,000 if bought new.

Photo James Thiessen

Thiessen grew up in the Okanagan and his wife is from Vancouver but at this point he says they are ” more invested in wheel estate as opposed to real estate” because “as great and wonderful as Vancouver is the affordability is ridiculous.”

“If the lottery hits sure we’ll look at buying something here. It’s not a matter of not being able to, necessarily, but it’s a matter of can you really palate taking on a mortgage the size that you need to really have anything of substance here. It’s certainly not an easy market to get into,” he says.

Most of his customers are using the trailers to go on vacation but he says there are people that are living in them full time as alternative housing.

In terms of future plans Thiessen says they are open to traveling or buying a piece of property somewhere else in B.C. but for now, “we’re just carrying on. We both love what we do and where we are so it’s keeping us anchored here for now.”

Photo James Thiessen

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Melissa is a reporter at Vancouver Is Awesome and has worked primarily in radio and online media. She grew up in Ontario, went to school in Halifax and worked in Northern B.C. before moving to Vancouver. If you've got a story to share email: melissa@vancouverisawesome.com