The Great (New) Migration
Real Estate moves from city to country
Work from home, early or forced retirement, budgets compressed, big-city life all but grinding to a halt – the pandemic fallout is prompting many Canadians to make life decisions at an accelerated speed. As Jason Kirby reports, a major population shift has been put into play
Even before COVID-19 touched off a global rethink of life in the big city, Raheema Brettingham’s husband, Larry, often mused about selling their home in Toronto’s west endandmovingtoVancouverIsland. As the lockdown measures tightened and the couple saw their world reduced to strolls around the neighbourhood, he began to press the idea more intently. Even so, the 59-yearold self-described “city girl” felt she wasn’t ready to leave Toronto. “I used to love hopping on the subway to go downtown and meet friends,” she says. “So, every time he talked to me about it, I said, ‘No, no, no.’”
Then in June, Larry, 67, sat down to pen an email to his wife detailing his case for ditching Hogtown. It wasn’t just that pandemic restrictions had robbed them of the urban lifestyle they both enjoyed, he wrote. COVID-19 offered a unique financial reset for the couple. In 2019, both were suddenly laid off within a month of each other – Larry from his job as a software engineer and Raheema from her position at a financial advisory firm – and the pandemic brought their job searches to a halt. While they could get by staying in Toronto, it might entail working for another decade or more. But if they sold and moved to Comox, B.C., where his sister lived, they could easily erase their $400,000 mortgage and have enough to retire right away and, once the pandemic ends, travel the world.
Shortly after reading Larry’s email, Raheema decided to take the leap and, within a month, their detached house was on the market. Purchased for $845,000 in 2011, it quickly sold for a little more than $1.8 million. Meanwhile they were able to snap up a more spacious house just minutes from the ocean for $785,000 in the town of Comox, population 15,000. “I was apprehensive at first, but we’re already settled, and I love this house,” says Raheema, who joined a local newcomers group that is full of other eastern city expats. “I never thought I could enjoy nature the way I do here, and the city is not shut down like Toronto. We made the perfect decision at the perfect time.”
It’s a choice many others are making or at least considering. With so many people suddenly stuck at home, COVID-19 has put a new premium on space. At the same time, companies have embraced technologies like the Zoom video conference service that allow employees to work remotely – according to Statistics Canada, 2.5 million Canadians who don’t usually work from home were still doing so as of November. With surveys showing the majority of workers want to maintain some level of remote work after the pandemic ends, those able to shift to remote work or a hybrid model that mixes in-office and athome work are freed from the daily commute. That’s allowed many to look to the suburbs, exurbs beyond the suburbs and communities even farther afield for their next home.
The evidence is in the real estate figures. While property prices in major cities have boomed during the pandemic – thanks in large part to the Bank of Canada’s moves to slash interest rates to 0.25 per cent and its massive bond-buying program that aimed to push down mortgage rates – prices have soared even higher in what have been described by some as “Zoom towns.” For instance, in southwestern Ontario, areas like Hamilton, Simcoe, Dufferin, Brantford, Kitchener and even Windsor have all outpaced Toronto in house price gains as new buyers flooded their markets. It’s a similar situation around Greater Montreal and Greater Vancouver, realtors say.
In its year-end outlook for the Canadian housing market in 2021, Re/Max stopped short of describing the population shift from cities to smaller communities as an exodus but found the trend is real. “We’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence since the summer that households are considering significant lifestyle changes by relocating to less dense cities and neighbourhoods,” noted Christopher Alexander, regional director for Re/Max in