Jie Dan and her husband left the bright lights of Toronto for the right price of London, Ont., 20 years ago.
The small city 200 kilometres southwest of Toronto was not (and still isn’t) the fast-paced big pond the GTA is, she says. And that’s exactly what they like about it.
“We love it,” she says. “We raised three children here.”
The pandemic, combined with the staggering price of housing in Canada’s largest cities, has led many people to wonder whether big city living or the suburbs suit them best.
There are considerations beyond price, says Ms. Dan, now a real estate agent in what is the fastest-growing city in Ontario, with a population that increased to 422,324 from 383,822 over the past five years, according to the latest census.
Yes, real estate in London is much cheaper than in Toronto, she says. And London has become a much more diverse population since she, originally from Shanghai, and her husband, originally from Pakistan, moved there. It has good schools and a small-town feeling, she says.
“You see more in smaller cities the neighbours looking after each other. People know everybody,” she says. “It’s a very welcoming city.”
Toronto, though, is a bustling metropolis on a global scale, she says.
“For people moving out of the bigger city there are things Toronto can offer that London cannot offer – for example, big events, glamour, fashion and also the level of professionalism in each field,” she says.
Home prices in London have been driven up by the surge in demand but have not reached the heights of other Toronto-area suburbs like Brampton and Mississauga, says Tina Kothari, a broker at Shrine Realty Brokerage in London.
The city is still far more affordable than larger metro areas and sales remain brisk, she says.
“That’s the motivation for people to move here, especially those who are working from home in this digital world,” she says. “I do see a lot of buyers that come with the mindset of selling their property in Brampton, Mississauga or surrounding areas, and buying for cash here and having a better lifestyle. If they have to commute to work once a week, two hours, you can’t go wrong.”
Young families or professionals can afford a lot more home in smaller cities like London, she says, but it’s not for everyone.
Larger cities offer a nightlife that younger people might not find in smaller communities, she adds.
“But people with young kids, who want their kids to be part of different activities, to go to good schools … they are actually not moving back [to cities],” she says.
On the other side of the country, British Columbia is home to four of the five fastest-growing cities in Canada: Kelowna (No. 1); Chilliwack (No. 2); followed by a three-way tie among Kamloops, London, Ont. and Nanaimo.
The cost of real estate is the driving factor, says Lyndi Cruickshank, president of the Association of Interior Realtors in B.C.
But buyers considering making a move outside of what they’re familiar with need to keep their eye on what their priorities are, she stresses.
Once people are in their homes, housing prices are not top-of-mind, she adds.
“People often have an idealistic expectation or belief of what they think somewhere else might be,” Ms. Cruickshank says. “If you’ve lived a lot of years in a place where you have lots of access to arts and theatres and you’re moving to a smaller community, is that something that you’re going to miss? Are you moving to a small town because you can afford it or because you believe that that community and that lifestyle is going to be something that’s going to create happiness for your family?”
Home buyers should start with what they want their lives to look like when they move into that new home, she advises.
“Is it about how you spend time outdoors? Is it how you get to work? Is it the schools that your kids are going to?” she asks. “The pieces that are going to enrich the life you’re creating for yourself in whatever community you’re moving to, I think that’s a really great place to start in looking at where you think you’re going to find that best fit.”
Local chambers of commerce can provide information on community resources and services, she says, and looking up local community centres offers a glimpse into the programs and recreational activities on offer.
Home prices are rising quickly in some markets due to the heated real estate market across the country. Ms. Cruickshank suggests the Canadian Real Estate Association, its provincial counterparts, and regional real estate boards like hers, can give potential buyers the most up-to-date information on real estate prices in any region or city.
Most people leaving urban areas are moving to places they have spent time in the past, but they may be thinking of vacation, not full-time living, she adds.
“While that’s an important element, because you’ve experienced those peaceful, happy times, the functionality of how you’re going to live your life is also really important,” she says. “If you don’t like driving long distances, you probably don’t want to live in a remote area and have to drive half an hour on a quiet road to get to your grocery store if you’re used to being able to take public transit to do that.”
Prior to the pandemic, she says the B.C. Interior experienced a migration of people who were retiring or looking for vacation homes. That has continued, however, in the past two years, and especially in 2021, the region has seen an influx of younger families who can work remotely.
“It’s given a lot of younger people the opportunity to make moves into some of these communities and for some of them, it’s allowed them homeownership where they couldn’t have done so previously,” she says.