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Robert Harris and Cheryl Vanditelli near one of their five properties in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Dec. 28, 2019.

TARA WALTON/The Globe and Mail

Cheryl Vanditelli and Robert Harris own five houses in Niagara Falls, Ont., the tourist city bordering the United States.

They bought them back in 2015 and 2016, and the market was so good, Mr. Harris quit his job as a tool and die maker to focus on managing and fixing up the properties. "We went all in with everything we had,” said Ms. Vanditelli, 54, who has since retired from her job at a bank.

They live in one of the houses and keep the other four as rental properties. A local appraiser tells them that every property has doubled in value since they bought it.

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Real estate investors are sensing opportunity and snapping up houses in smaller urban centres in Ontario, driven in part by the rise in home prices in Toronto, the country’s second-most expensive market, where the average selling price of a detached house in the city itself and most of the surrounding suburbs is more than $1-million.

Toronto’s affordability problems have homeowners looking to locate in smaller cities far from a major job centre. The result is that real estate prices in places such as Niagara, St. Catharines and Kingston – though still about half the cost of a Toronto-area house – are now moving up quickly.

In the Niagara region – which includes towns and cities such as Fort Erie, Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake – the benchmark price, or the industry representation of a typical home sold, was $431,200 in November. That is an increase of 8 per cent over last year, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA)

In comparison, the benchmark price in the Greater Toronto Area was $823,700 in November, a 6.5-per-cent increase from last year.

The increase is steeper over five years, with the price of a typical home in the Niagara region up by 86 per cent, while the benchmark price in the Toronto area rose by 58 per cent over the same period, according to CREA.

It’s not just investors who are interested in cities such as Niagara and St. Catharines, Ont., where a two-storey house sells for about $450,000. The cheaper real estate prices have made it more desirable for baby boomers, immigrants and young families.

“Baby boomers are cashing out of wherever they are and buying in cash or not having a mortgage,” said Brad Johnstone, a realtor with Royal LePage who has worked in the Niagara region for more than two decades.

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“We are also getting young families coming out of the Greater Toronto Area that can’t buy a house,” he said, adding that with more people working from home, it’s easier to settle outside of a major labour market such as Toronto.

"We have got flexible work schedules. All those factors have led to continuous growth,” he said.

It’s a similar story in other Ontario cities. In London, the benchmark home price was $420,494 in the third quarter. That is 10 per cent higher than the same quarter last year and nearly 20 per cent higher over a two-year period, according to Royal LePage.

In Kingston, the typical home price was $392,209 in the third quarter, a 3-per-cent increase over the previous year and a 17-per-cent increase over a two-year period.

Unlike many suburban homeowners, who either commute or work in major job centres such as Toronto and Mississauga, this crop of buyers spends more time working from home, according to Royal LePage chief executive Phil Soper.

They seek out smaller, cheaper cities “because of the affordability of living, affordability of housing and the fact that work is portable now,” he said.

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Smaller markets have also generated interest from individual property investors such as Ms. Vanditelli and Mr. Harris.

The couple ventured into real estate for another source of income. At the time, Ms. Vanditelli’s employer was laying off her colleagues and the couple feared she would soon lose her job.

The first house they purchased in Niagara Falls was $154,000; the second house was $123,000; the third property, a duplex, was $178,000; the fourth purchase, another duplex, was $203,000; and the fifth property was $145,000.

“We felt that it was a hidden gem that nobody had tapped into at that point,” said Ms. Vanditelli. “I think we got in at the right time,” she said. The couple now own a café in town.

Government efforts to cool the housing market had no impact on places such as Niagara and Kingston, according to local realtors. When the stricter mortgage rules went into effect in 2018, home sales and house prices declined in Toronto and Vancouver, the country’s most expensive real estate market. But Niagara continued to appreciate.

“We were undervalued for years,” Mr. Johnstone said.

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Sarah Larbi, who owns 10 properties in Ontario and runs a real estate investment club, says interest is growing in property investing. The 35-year-old believes St. Catharines is ripe for investment and shuns expensive areas such as Toronto, Mississauga and Oakville. Her real estate club’s monthly sessions attract upwards of 200 people who want to learn more about how and where to invest.

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