Buzz Talk with Charan Sethi [INTERVIEW]

If you follow real estate and development news in Metro Vancouver you’re probably familiar with Tien Sher, the development company that’s been making waves with their affordable home projects, including the recently announced Balance micro-loft project in Surrey.

Charan Sethi is the founder and president of Tien Sher, a company which he runs with his sons. Tien Sher started with a single-family home project and has since expanded into an award-winning, full-service homebuilder, with multi-million dollar projects throughout the Metro Vancouver region.

Charan chats with us about his commitment to affordable home building and what it’s like to work so closely with his family.

Enjoy!

BuzzBuzzHome: You were born in India, moved to the United Kingdom and eventually to came Canada… why Canada, or more specifically, Metro Vancouver?

Charan Sethi: We first landed in Toronto, but we were only there for a few months. It wasn’t for us. It’s very busy and I didn’t enjoy the weather. When we finally got to Metro Vancouver it just felt so natural. The people here are so friendly, and the climate isn’t much different than it was where I lived in London, England.

BBH: What led you to a career in the development industry?

CS: It was a natural progression from what I have done in the last 20 or so years. I was a realtor with a lot of interest in real estate itself, and I started doing a lot of land assembly and land development work for other developers. Eventually I thought, ‘I’ve done enough legwork, it’s about time I started to develop my own projects.’ I knew which direction I wanted to go, which was toward innovative and affordable housing, and tackling the areas that no one else seemed to want to take a look at.

BBH: What do you love most about it?

CS: It’s the creativity and having the satisfaction of bringing everything together. It’s a lot of hard work from the time you purchase the land, to rezoning, to building the project and then selling it out. But seeing people satisfied with their new home is the best part. I’m very much connected to our purchasers and I love getting to talk to the people who live in our communities. Whether someone has bought their very first home or a second home, seeing those smiling faces when their tour their new home for the first time – that’s where I get the most satisfaction.

BBH: There’s already been plenty of buzz surrounding the Balance micro-loft project in Surrey, what makes it so exciting?

CS: The bottom line is really the pricing. We’re trying to offer a price that no one else is offering in Metro Vancouver. We want to be able to provide homes for someone who makes between $13 and $25 an hour, because most people in that income bracket can’t afford any of the homes that are built in Metro Vancouver.

BBH: Why do you think there is not more micro-housing, and do you think there will be more projects like this in Metro Vancouver’s future?

CS: I think there will be tonnes of them. As soon as Balance is sold out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see micro-suites all over the Lower Mainland. The biggest challenge has been getting people to accept it – other builders, banks and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. CMHC used to have a minimum size requirement, which wouldn’t allow for micro-units. They have finally lifted that restriction, so there’s no longer a minimum size for CMHC approval.

I know the City of Surrey had a bit of a block for a while where they could not see how somebody could live in a 300-square-foot apartment. People are already living in apartments down to 260-square-feet on Vancouver’s Eastside, and there’s already a two-year waiting list for tenants in that building. For us to learn that and turn it around and say, ‘Yes, we could put this entire building up for tenant occupancy…’ but I think it’s much more exciting to give potential homeowners a chance to buy something. And it will make it a much more liveable community.

BBH: Like Balance, Quattro 3 is another one of your developments where the project’s affordability really stands out, why focus on building affordable housing?

CS: We’ve noticed there are a huge number of people that want to be homeowners, but by the time you sit down and talk to them, you realize that so often their income doesn’t allow them to do that. We found there are a lot of people in Metro Vancouver who are interested in buying a home, who want to get their foot in the door and get a piece of the real estate market. And right now, they’re living in a dingy home or an old apartment they’re not happy with. We want to fill that niche market and give those people a chance to own a home. Hopefully we’ll catch a lot of those people rather than investors.

The other thing we do as a company is focus on being peoples’ people. We love to create things that will actually benefit the people living in the community. We take huge pride in customer satisfaction and make sure to provide a first-class home that people are happy with the day they move in with their suitcases. We are very proud of that.

BBH: You have a number of developments in New Westminster and Surrey, perhaps the two fastest growing communities in Metro Vancouver. What draws you to these cities?

CS: It’s a natural thing. Wherever we find that right piece of land we tend to buy it. Right now I’m looking at Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, East Vancouver and North Vancouver as potential spots for different projects. My main focus for the last few years has been Surrey, simply because Surrey is so receptive to working with the developer, rather than putting roadblocks in front of them. Richmond is actually another city I’ve had tremendous response from. That city also really wants to work with you, which is not to say any other city does less, but these are places where I’ve actually had an opportunity to work with planners, city council members and the mayor. That’s why Surrey has been a no-brainer. The city has been going along with us and is helping us rebuild the Whalley area, and I think it’s going to benefit everybody – creating a brand new neighbourhood.

BBH: There’s certainly lots of development opportunities in Metro Vancouver, but do have any plans to expand outside the region?

CS: No, not really. I’m 61-years-old. I have grandchildren that I like to spend time with. I’ve been married for 42 years and I enjoy staying at home with my wife. Travelling too much, taking focus away from Metro Vancouver… it’s not my thing right now. Helping to raise grandchildren who are around you all the time is an amazing experience on its own.

We have been offered opportunities in other areas. I’ve had a few deals come my way from Brampton, Ontario – they want us to build micro-suites – but we just haven’t gone through with it because it just takes so much time out of your life.

BBH: What’s next for Tien Sher?

CS: Number one, we’re very excited about launching the Balance project. Right behind that, we have two other projects that are being planned in Surrey. We’re also planning to launch another project – probably in February of next year – which will be quite a unique development in Richmond. It’s basically a three-level townhouse, but the ground level will be a garden apartment. It will be about a 500-square-foot home underneath a two-level townhouse. There’s definitely a need for ground level apartments for seniors or single people who are looking for a place with their own front yard. This will be in a really great part of Richmond, so it will be a tremendous opportunity for someone to enter into a nice neighbourhood at a reasonable price.

BBH: What’s it like to work so closely with your sons?

CS: It can be challenging sometimes. A son always remains a son. As a parent, you don’t always see your children as grown-up people. But it works out great overall. It’s a good feeling to know there’s always someone there to takeover whenever I decide to slow down a little more.

BBH: When you’re not working, what do you like to do to relax?

CS: I hit the gym a lot. I had a minor stroke about three years ago and it was really an eye-opener. Life is too short and I can’t abuse my body so much. I’m a workaholic. I love what I do and it consumed me. But my health started to deteriorate, which I did not notice because I was working so much. So when the stroke happened it woke me up, and since then I’ve been weight training. I’m actually getting into bodybuilding and hoping to compete in a couple of years.

BBH: Where’s your favourite vacation spot?

CS: Mexico. The people there are so genuine and friendly. The weather is awesome and you can go to an all-inclusive resort and eat and drink as much as you want, and relax as much as you want. My family and I love Mexico.

Thanks for buzzing with us Charan! 

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