When the pandemic upended the lives of Canadians, many city dwellers fled to small, charming towns, while suburbanites traded their backyard swimming pools for lakeside cottages. Real estate became a distraction and an obsession.
This summer, some are taking stock of their lifestyles and surroundings once again.
A large swath of the population is vaccinated, schools are preparing to open their doors to students and some employers are calling workers back to the office. With big changes afoot – and the uncertainties of a potential fourth wave – many people are re-examining their living arrangements.
Riley Boyko, a Toronto-based real estate agent for Cloud Realty, says some of those who fled the city at the start of pandemic lockdowns are beginning to think about returning – for at least part of the work week – while others are still trying to figure out how they will balance life and work in the fall.
Mr. Boyko, who manages executive rentals for one client, recently put four furnished units up for lease and all four were snapped up quickly. In each case, the tenant is relocating for a corporate position, he says, adding that many people moving back to Toronto are looking for short-term accommodation while they sort out their next steps.
Mr. Boyko also helped some of his clients move out of downtown to larger homes not far from Toronto in areas such as Durham Region, Mississauga and Hamilton, in the spring of 2020.
Some prefer the increased space and more laid-back lifestyle they found outside the city, but not everyone has made the transition so easily.
One young client who moved to a house in the suburbs recently found out that his employer will require staff to spend at least part of the week in the office. He’s planning to take the GO Train for now – but he’s contemplating a return to Toronto.
“There’s so much more than work,” Mr. Boyko says, pointing to the many pleasures of urban life people miss when they move away from the city, including nightlife, restaurants, as well as friends and family they may have left behind.
“We were quick to forget why people wanted to live in downtown Toronto.”
Still, the shift to remote work during the pandemic opened up new possibilities for many who previously had to live close to their big-city offices.
Daniel Semenzato is a Bay Street analyst working for one of the big five banks – a job he can do anywhere that has an internet connection. When his 10-year-old son Oliver began online learning during the pandemic, Mr. Semenzato began searching for a house outside of Toronto so that Oliver could experience life in a more rural setting. In late January, Mr. Semenzato topped two rival bidders to buy a detached home backing onto a river in Washago, Ont.
Mr. Semenzato says the move is also a bit of a bet on real estate: He sold his small townhouse in the city during the market frenzy in March for about $860,000. He paid about $1-million for the new house in Washago, which is about twice the size and sits on a 1 1/2-acre lot. “Sometimes we think we’re sitting on a gold mine, and we’re attached to that,” he says of real estate-obsessed Torontonians.
But Mr. Semenzato expects the exodus from the city to continue as technology and changing attitudes allow people to work anywhere. For the past 100 years or more, people have been migrating from the country to the city in many areas around the world. He senses a shift in the other direction.
Mr. Semenzato makes the 90-minute drive to Toronto every week or two – mostly to oversee a College Street restaurant that he co-owns.
At home in Washago, Oliver is spending time this summer fishing off the dock at the back of the house, jumping on the giant trampoline in the yard and improving his canoeing skills. “You’re in the middle of nature, so you want to spend less time on your devices,” Mr. Semenzato says. If he wants to move back to Toronto when his son is a bit older, Mr. Semenzato will use his northern property as a cottage or rent it out on Airbnb.
Other provinces are busy taking advantage of this pandemic shift that has seen more people relocate as they’re no longer tied to urban centres.
Jason Stephen, a real estate agent with Royal LePage Atlantic in Saint John, has been helping a steady stream of people move to New Brunswick in recent months.
Now that provincial border restrictions are easing and the so-called Atlantic bubble is open to visitors, he’s expecting another influx.
“The number of people moving into our community has been overwhelming – in a good way,” he says.
“The pandemic really made people evaluate their life and their lifestyle.”
Most of the transplants are from Ontario, he says, with a handful from the Prairie provinces as well.
Jen Wilson has had no regrets since moving back to Halifax from Toronto one year ago to a house she had only seen via a virtual tour. Ms. Wilson, who grew up in Nova Scotia, spends much of her time these days in her home office, where she leads a team of Twitter Inc. employees in seven countries.
The social media giant was already shifting towards a more flexible work policy when the World Health Organization declared the spread of coronavirus a pandemic in March, 2020.
The pandemic ramped up that plan – Ms. Wilson received the go-ahead to work remotely on a permanent basis, and she and husband, Alex Piitz, began searching for a house in Halifax for themselves and their baby boy. The couple sold their two-bedroom townhouse in Toronto’s Bloordale neighbourhood and purchased a detached four-bedroom house with a backyard in a vibrant Halifax neighbourhood for less.
Ms. Wilson says she enjoys running through Point Pleasant Park, taking weekend excursions around the province, and having family nearby for support.
She’s relieved the house – which her brother showed her over a video call as he did a walk-through – has not revealed any lurking issues since she and her family moved in.
“Luckily, it was exactly what we wanted it to be. It’s still a big expense to spend on something you’ve never seen.”
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