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Real estate sales continue to be slow in wake of Lac-Megantic railway disaster

The downtown of Lac-Megantic, Que. is seen on July 7, 2013, the day after a train derailed causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Suzanne Desroches sums up the Lac-Megantic real estate market when she tells how her own house sale is going.

“No calls, no visits, nothing,” the newly retired 58-year-old says of her dwelling in the town which made international headlines almost a year ago when a runaway train laden with volatile fuel oil jumped the tracks and exploded.

Forty-seven people were killed and most of Lac-Megantic’s downtown was destroyed in the July 6, 2013, disaster.

One year later, efforts are underway to rebuild yet there’s still a lot of work needed to repair streets and decontaminate soil.

Desroches has a little bit of time on her side before she turns into a “snowbird” and heads off to spend her winters in either Texas or California but Lise Letourneau doesn’t have the same luxury.

Her house, which was almost completely renovated, has been on the market for nearly two years.

She and her family have already moved to St-Georges-de-Beauce and she’s looking forward to winding things up. Maintaining an empty house is expensive.

“We’re still renting in St-Georges because we failed to sell our house. It would be hard to have two mortgages at the same time.”

Letourneau, who was a florist in Lac-Megantic’s downtown before leaving, estimates the family has spent $25,000 to $30,000 since leaving their former home.

There’s plenty of competition for potential buyers and locals say “For Sale” signs have sprung up all over the town in recent months.

“I’ve never seen so many houses for sale in Lac-Megantic,” Desroches said.

Nicholas Bouffard, a real estate broker at Sutton Quebec, said the overall gloom of the provincial real estate market coupled with the effects of the train derailment are pointing to a disastrous year for the home sales market.

“I have five condos and a building on the market,” Bouffard said in an interview. “Nothing is moving.

“When the events with the train happened, longtime owners put their properties up for sale super quick. The average home price in Lac-Megantic is about $150,000. I watched the first sales (since the derailment) and they all sold for $15,000 to $20,000 below market price. It’s about 10 per cent less.”

James Martel, a broker for Royal LePage, made similar observations.

“Since the events in Lac-Megantic, there is no appeal. It’s really, really dead.”

Jocelyn Fortin, a real estate broker at Re/Max, sees the situation in a less dramatic light.

According to data provided to The Canadian Press, 18 properties were sold between Jan. 1 and June 16 this year, compared to 22 in the same period last year. The sold properties include single-family homes, condos and land.

“I don’t sense panic on the part of sellers,” said Fortin. “But the inventory is much higher than last year and the market is slow as it is everywhere else so there is an accumulation.”

Bouffard insisted the derailment is having its effect on the market.

“Are you going to buy a condo for $300,000 in a city where there is not even a bridge to cross and go to the store?” he said. “Come, on. They’re going to go somewhere else.”

He said the market is only going to rebound when the city is rebuilt.

The Quebec Environment Department has estimated that decontamination in the devastated area should be complete “no later than Dec. 12, 2014.”

Repairs to one of the town’s main streets should be completed by mid-July, said Louis Longchamps, a spokesman for Mayor Collette Roy Laroche.

Rita Lapointe put her bungalow up for sale in mid-March so she could move closer to her children, who live in the Montreal area.

The 83-year-old isn’t expecting a quick turnaround.

“The timing is wrong to sell, that’s for sure,” she said. “There are big trucks filled with soil, gravel, anything you want, coming one after another. It’s far from ideal.”

She said she hopes the community isn’t stigmatized by the railway tragedy as well as the destruction of its core.

“It shouldn’t influence people or discourage them from coming to settle here,” she said. “There have always been trains here. This is the first time that a disaster like this has happened.”