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You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.

Rob [00:00:02] Has being in lockdown made your kind of feel like a shoe box? Are you thinking about giving up on downtown, living for more space in the suburbs? You’re not alone. In today’s episode, we’re looking at the surprising trend of young adults leaving the cities they supposedly loved for smaller communities with lower house prices and more space.

Roma [00:00:21] Welcome to Stress Test, a Globe and Mail podcast that looks at how the rules of personal finance have changed in the pandemic for Gen Z and millennials.

Rob [00:00:30] I’m Rob Carrick, the personal finance columnist at The Globe and Mail.

Roma [00:00:34] And I’m Roma Luciw, the personal finance editor at The Globe. Rob, we’re all spending a lot of time in our houses. Now, shortly before the pandemic started. You sold your home and moved into a condo. What’s that been like?

Rob [00:00:50] Well, it was about a year ago we did that. And we are really happy with the decision. Now, we are at the point in time when you really want to downsize. Our two adult sons have moved out. They’re working. They’re living on their own. We had a four bedroom house. We did not need all that space. My wife and I are not yard people in any sense. So the gardening and the it was no attraction for owning a house, and neither was cutting the grass and raking the leaves and shoveling the driveway. So we moved into a condo. And of course, six months in, we were pretty much locked into the condo. And yeah, it would be nice to have an extra room, a little more space. The location is much more urban. We went urban in our move and we love it. It was a home run for our lifestyle and that’s why I’m looking a little skeptically at all the people were thinking, oh, I’m going to give up that urban experience and move out to the burbs. I’m coming off like 20 plus years in the burbs and I’m loving the urban experience.

Roma [00:01:44] It seems to me that one of the things the pandemic’s done is opened up people’s minds to living in places they wouldn’t have lived before. You know, my husband and I never worked at home together before the pandemic when the pandemic struck, we were spending a lot of time together. Working in spaces that were not designed for that. And, you know, before the pandemic hit, we had always sort of mulled putting in a proper working space, getting a desk. And I don’t know, there always seemed like a million more interesting things to do with our money. Take a trip, go somewhere than to spend that money on a desk. And here we are, many months in facing a winter where we’re still going to be working at home. Potentially, the kids could be locked out of school for weeks or months at a time. Hopefully not. But, you know what? We’re spending that money there now. And remember that a lot of young people and older people as well. We’re living in very, very small spaces. And I think that that proximity has caused people to rethink their living decisions. You know, one of the things that you had mentioned in a column that you wrote that I thought was really interesting was at the beginning of this, we had thought that maybe with so much uncertainty, people would hunker down and avoid making big decisions. We’ve seen the opposite. Tell me a little bit about that.

Rob [00:03:08] I think what’s happening here is that we’re seeing a divide in the population and how they were financially affected by the pandemic. A segment of the population has been slammed. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve lost income. They’ve had hours rolled back and they’re hurting. But there’s a big group of people whose jobs have continued on normally and they’re spending less in a lot of areas. They’re not traveling or going to clubs and restaurants and bars and concerts. And so they’re saving money. And I think this is part of the fuel that has helped people fund these decisive lifestyle choices they’re making in housing. I am going to move to a bigger house in the burbs. I’m going to move to a smaller city. I’m going to renovate. Let’s not forget, renovations have taken off and that’s another way people are changing their living experience. You know, they say that the pandemic has intensified and sped up a lot of the social trends that were happening before. I think maybe that’s happening in housing too. People who had long term plans. Maybe we need a bigger house. Maybe I’d like to have a deck or do a renovation. All of a sudden they snap their fingers. They say, we have the money, let’s do it now. We’re going to be locked into our houses. Let’s be comfortable. And I think that’s basically the story of how we have so much change in the housing market at a time when we might have thought everybody would be sitting on their money and not making any big financial commitments.

Roma [00:04:20] I think that people that were probably, you know, already mulling were kind of ready to buy. We thinking we need more space. Where can we do that? Why don’t we give it a try? Why don’t we move to a community that’s further away? These trends were already in place. People from Toronto have been moving away to places like Hamilton and Prince Edward County. We’ve seen similar outflows from Vancouver. You know, people making bigger moves, moves that they didn’t expect that they would make. Remember, I think a lot of young people really like living in big cities. You’re close to restaurants. You’re close to where you work. You’re close to a really great lifestyle. But at some point you start thinking, how much of a noose do I want to put around my neck in terms of my mortgage payments? Maybe there is a different way to live. Maybe I can get some things that I really wanted and not have a massive financial obligation. Maybe this is the chance and a time to roll the dice here and try it out.

Rob [00:05:15] I think the pandemic has really focused people’s minds on where do I live and how comfortable is it for me to spend a long amount of time here. Now, I’m wondering if the choices people are making today are going to suit their lives. Twenty four, thirty six months from now. But I guess we’ll deal with that when we come to. It would be really nice to have to evaluate our decisions from a post pandemic point of view. Pandemics over,now what? I can’t wait to get to that point.

Roma [00:05:42] That could definitely be a future episode of Stress Test. But in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about this trend we’re seeing right now and hear from a millennial who works at the Canadian Real Estate Association.

Rob [00:05:53] But first, we’re going to talk to a Torontonian who just went from having 900 square feet to a larger property in southern Ontario’s wine country. We’ll hear from him right after the break.

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Rob [00:06:34] Chris is thirty four years old and has lived in Toronto for 13 years. He and his wife, who is also in her mid 30s, bought their first home in the city five years ago.

Chris [00:06:43] We thought we were crazy, spending over half a million in terms of a mortgage in the stockyards. It was a 100 year old home semi. This past May, we ended up selling that privately. We weren’t intending on selling the house given the current circumstance that we’re in as it relates to covid. We were about to list and then we kind of got a bit scared in March when this covid thing happened. So we kept it exclusive and we ended up receiving an offer two months later. From there, the search game was on. We ended up securing a place in August 3100 square feet in Niagara on the lake, the family home. I would say about two and a half stories.

Rob [00:07:32] It cost them about seven hundred thousand dollars. Now, Chris has a growing family with a son who is almost two years old and another kid on the way. But they had considered moving out of the city even before purchasing their first home.

Chris [00:07:45] Covid really gave us a push. I struggle at making big decisions like this. And I think when we got the knock on our door for someone to buy our house and knowing that it was going to another first time home buyer with a young little one on the way, it kind of felt right. It was probably the push that we needed to kind of start the next chapter of our life, to start our family. In addition to take care of my family. And when I talk about broader family, that’s my parents. I grew up being raised by my parents and being close to my grandparents. And I want the same for my kids.

Rob [00:08:24] But on top of that, he’s realizing that his finances are benefiting, too. He’s spending half the amount on his water and electricity bills and Internet and cable bills are also significantly cheaper. Same goes for food costs.

Chris [00:08:36] It’s funny to see, right? Like we’re looking at some items that we would buy at grocery stores in Toronto, or whether that’s, you know, an organic item or even an everyday product. And we’re seeing about 15 to 30 cents difference. In addition to that, we were surprised just prepping for Halloween. It was our first Halloween in the new neighbourhood and we wanted to have pumpkins outside. And what we were able to secure in terms of the number of pumpkins at a fairly affordable price compared to what we would have spent in Toronto was was a bit interesting from years in the past. You know, we’re starting to see small changes, which is good.

Rob [00:09:17] But Chris says leaving the city is bittersweet.

Chris [00:09:19] We’ll miss certain aspects of it. You know, for instance, I deleted UberEats the other day because we’re not going to get the same offerings as we did in Toronto in terms of really great Thai spot or chicken down the street. But we have memories that will serve us and we can always go back and visit. And whether that’s, you know, rekindling with friendships that we’ve been able to secure in the past 30 years, that we’ve been there or just popping down for work, too, when things get back to normal, Toronto, I think, will be a place where it’ll be exciting to go to now, you know, knowing that we did quite a bit in the 13 years that we were there and we have no regrets. But I would say and we’re excited to start our next chapter,.

Rob [00:10:04] One life style consideration Chris had to take into account was the potential commute time. Right now, he’s working from home, but he foresees that he’ll be able to negotiate how often he goes into the office. And when he does, he plans to either drive or take the go train.

Chris [00:10:18] I think employers will be willing to adapt more so to the current lifestyle that we’re in. And there was no real point for us to be there.

Rob [00:10:27] Chris says that a lot of his friends have made similar decisions and they think the move is worth it.

Chris [00:10:31] We’ve known a number of people that have departed the city. Burlington Gerwel, Brantford, suburb of Calgary. And I was talking to a friend the other day who has older children. And he was laughing because when he was in Toronto and he was taking these kids to hockey practice, it was probably a two hour day. Like think he was like, I’d leave work at five. By the time I get home at six, I got to quickly figure out what’s for dinner, hopefully being done by six thirty out the door by seven for hockey practice for seven thirty. Like now it takes me 15 minutes to get to the arena. Given the time, obviously now he’s working from home as well. But the number of errands that he’s able to accomplish is amazing. We’ve been able to buy a lot more time overall and I’ve noticed that with friends as well, that they’ve been able to buy a lot more time. Time’s important. And that was another evaluation for us, that just being able to gain some time moving to a smaller town.

Rob [00:11:41] I think what Chris is buying here is balance for his life and his personal finances, and I think it’s hard to put a value on this. And I don’t know if people in the big cities who are mortgaged to the hilt can even appreciate this idea. But back in the day, you used to be able to own a house, save for retirement, take a trip, pay for your children’s activities. And you weren’t really running up a ton of other debt. But mortgage payments have grown far in excess of what incomes have grown. And so we’re left with people who are out of balance. They’re spending too much of their income on mortgages. Moving out to distant communities like Chris has gives you a chance to bring the balance back, to have money for other things and not have to carry a ton of other debt. So I think in that sense, this is a home run for them.

Roma [00:12:24] It sounds like Chris has made a really smart decision for his family. He wanted more space. He got it. He’s closer to family. The big question mark for me when I listen to his story is whether he’s going to be able to handle the commute and how the living and working from home situation is going to play out for him. One thing that I think is going to be a benefit is not having a massive mortgage. You know, being able to afford the home you live in will allow them to do things like take trips, have savings, plan for retirement. It’s really hard to overstate how this financial freedom can fill out your life. Rob, what do you think?

Rob [00:13:00] Yeah, financially healthier, but I don’t know how the lifestyle will play out. You know, you’ve gone from a you know, an urban experience to a quaint town, you know, hours away from the city center. You know, maybe that’ll work out and they’ll love it. Maybe they’ll miss the urban experience.

Roma [00:13:15] Another option is that perhaps the outflow of people into these smaller communities will transform them. It might take two, four or five, 10 years, but these people are going to bring different things to these cities and smaller towns that they’re living in. And so perhaps this is the start of a big change in terms of offering a different kind of lifestyle for people that live in these smaller places.

Rob [00:13:35] You know, one of the one of the fun aspects of being a journalist in the pandemic is documenting what’s happening and trying to project what will happen. You’re right. Maybe small communities will become a little bit more urban and the people who’ve moved into them will be happy there for decades to come. Who knows?

Roma [00:13:50] To get more information about what areas have become hotspots for the housing market and how young Canadians are approaching buying property. We spoke to a real estate expert. That’s coming up right after the break.

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Roma [00:14:40] So here’s our conversation with Pascal Chan, the government relations manager for the Canadian Real Estate Association.

Certainly one of the things that’s happened in the pandemic is that people are in their homes for amounts of time that are extended. Real estate buying is driven in part, I think, with the idea that people would like to get more space and more home for their buck. Talk us through how prices and home sizes in big cities compared to suburbs or some of these outlying rural communities.

Pascal [00:15:15] Yeah, definitely that sort of two parts there. So for one, obviously, given so many Canadians had to work from home as a result of that lockdown, I talked about organizing spaces become a factor for professionals who need to set up home offices while families need to configure their homes to allow their kids to continue their schooling. This will obviously vary from one individual to another, but certain features that may have been important pre covid generally don’t rank as high as they previously did. As for what we’re seeing, as far as kind of trends for, you know, getting more bang for your buck outside of big cities, let’s say, for example, I decide I need more space and want to move into a two-story single-family home here in Ottawa. In my current neighborhood of centertown, that kind of home on a lot, that’s approximately 2500 square feet, which cost me nearly a million dollars. However, if I make a 45-minute drive up to Almog, I could get a similar home on a lot, three times the size for less than four hundred thousand dollars. The trend is similar in other major cities. So if we look at Toronto, a two storey detached home in Trinity Bellwood will cost nearly twice as much on a lot, almost half the size as it would in Bowmanville, while a similar property in Strathcona in Vancouver will cost almost 400,000 dollars more than it would on a lot more than double the size in NW Maple Ridge. So few examples involve quite a bit of driving, and that’s largely down to high prices that still exist even in the suburbs of these major cities, combined with some of the financial constraints that are imposed by the mortgage stress test.

Rob [00:16:52] What are the hottest small markets for real estate right now? And are prices starting to rise there as well.

Pascal [00:16:58] We’re currently seeing greater price appreciation, as I mentioned, in mid-sized markets than we are in major urban centers such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. What appears to be happening is buyers looking for ground level properties rather than condo apartments or townhomes suggesting they may be looking for a backyard and they’re willing to move to get it. At the moment, Ontario markets outside of Toronto are the quote unquote, hottest. There are also other factors unrelated to COVID that affect prices in smaller markets, such as local industry or whether it’s a vacation property destination. There have also been significant price increases for waterfront properties in smaller communities outside of Toronto, along Lake Ontario, Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Price growth in many of these markets is approaching or has surpassed 20 percent on a year over year basis.

Rob [00:17:57] Pascal, you’re the millennial owner of a condo in downtown Ottawa. What’s your personal take on the trend of moving out of condos in urban areas and into houses? Have you been tempted?

Pascal [00:18:06] I have not been tempted. I have not been tempted at all, sort of for the same reasons that I ended up downtown in the first place. When I was a child, I kind of grew up in what was considered the suburbs, but it was really only 10 kilometers away from the center of the city. And in my early 20s, I was working and socializing exclusively downtown. I’d had my fill of waiting for the bus in minus 30 degree weather or paying gas money, plus parking fees for the privilege of sitting in slow moving traffic. So for me, there was no justifiable reason to live anywhere other than downtown. I have been there for some time and even with the covid-19 pandemic, there’s really not been an effect or a push or a temptation for me to move further out of the city. And I think that some of my friends that maybe had gone through the same course of, you know, kind of moving out of their parents basement and then getting an apartment closer to the center of the city and are moving to the suburbs, have all kind of done that already, whereas the ones who do want to stay in the downtown area have decided to do that and move forward with it. And I’m definitely part of that latter group.

Roma [00:19:08] It’s interesting that you mention that back when we bought our house and it wasn’t that long ago, there certainly seemed to be a movement of young adults and families trying to buy smaller properties closer to downtown because people didn’t want to do longer commutes. That seems to have turned around to some extent. At least that’s the narrative. And you did touch on this earlier, is the move, this move that’s happening of more people buying in the suburbs, is it a longstanding trend that’s gained momentum in the pandemic? Has this been happening for some time already?

Pascal [00:19:43] Well, drive until you qualify was absolutely a trend before the pandemic. I kind of just relate a little bit my own experience of how my friends have gone from, you know, living with their parents to their apartments to in the suburbs. Why any individual decides to live in any particular home is up to personal circumstance. And preference for such a long commute really isn’t a deal breaker. But having a backyard is for others like myself. Being close to the action is far more important than extra square footage. You know, as far as the pandemic influence, we do need to acknowledge the Canadians were forced to reconsider their relationship with the concept of home. For many of us, it was where we eat, sleep, relax and keep all of our stuff. Now, home is also the office. It’s the gym, the child care center, the classroom and more. It’s not surprising this would increase the value of space in a home, especially as the concessions on that front made in favor of a shorter commute have become less relevant for the time being.

Rob [00:20:42] Pascal. Let’s dig a little deeper into the factors that are driving people out of urban centers and into more rural areas to the extent that it’s happening. The real person we spoke to, Chris, based his decision to move out of his townhouse on a whole bunch of factors. And you’re talking to people that in your sense of what’s happening in the marketplace, what are what are the real emotional factors that are taking hold or is it to have a bigger backyard? Is it to be closer to family and friends in the suburbs? What is driving people who do want to get out of the downtown?

Pascal [00:21:11] Well, what I’m seeing anyways and what we’re seeing, again, not saying that we’re seeing absolutely a trend that this is exploding for somebody my age who has seen a lot of his friends and anecdotally move out to the suburbs. It’s possibly just the process of getting older and getting married and having kids and looking for a quieter life. And that would kind of push you a little bit further out, needing more space. Obviously, affordability plays into that as well. If you need more space, where can you afford that? Like I said, you know, a 2500 square foot lot in center town probably isn’t in most people’s budget when they go for about a million dollars. So I think that that’s probably it. I think that there has been some of those emotional factors that you do mentioned. We saw the the articles about people that will go and be closer to family on the East Coast with the U-Haul trucks piling up. Whether that actually results in home sales still remains to be seen.

Roma [00:22:03] As is the case with Chris. People are making decisions about where they’re going to live that are going to have repercussions in a post covid world. So right now, most people are working from home, or at least many people. Is it your sense that to the extent that people are moving into locations that are further away, is it on their radar that they’re going to potentially have to commute for part or some of the week? Is that sort of factoring into the decision making about where they’re buying?

Pascal [00:22:30] I think it absolutely has to, because everybody’s circumstances different and that’ll depend on who their employer is and what they expect once life returns to a certain degree of normality. Using myself as an example, I found that working from home doesn’t prevent me from setting up an impromptu meeting with any of my colleagues or carrying out any of the kind of standard work I do. However, I’m sure no one expects will be wearing masks forever and will never shake hands again. So as a lobbyist, proximity to the parliamentary precinct remains important for in-person meetings and attending events. Once those activities resume, the strength of the greater golden horseshoe also suggests that many buyers would still at least like the option of coming into the city, even if it’s no longer something they do every day. That said, you know, many companies and organizations have invested in infrastructure that supports a complete work from home model. Shopify announced they’d be doing that in May, and many others have rolled out some version of it. So, again, if you work for Shopify, then I suppose you don’t really have to worry about where you live at all. But again, you also have to take into consideration what your job will require you to do when things eventually do get back to whatever the new normal is.

Rob [00:23:42] I’m thinking back to your earlier answer, Pascal, when you talked about how you were quite comfortable and happy with where you are in your downtown condo, if you look ahead a couple of years, how do you see the decisions being made today about real estate playing out? I mean, years from now, will we see a reversal of people wanting to move back into big cities because they realize small town life or suburban life is boring and they can’t handle the long commute?

Pascal [00:24:04] You know, I think, again, that depends, because I’m sure no one predicted two years ago this is what life would look like in 2020 if population growth in mid-sized markets resulted in more businesses opening and therefore more to do. Combined with family settling in at schools and in social circles, they could be inclined to stay. On the other hand, I moved from Ottawa to a small town of 50,000 for a summer job. As a student, I found it quaint and charming. For the first month. It started to feel small by the second and by the third. I want to be back in a place where stores stayed open past five p.m. and didn’t close over the weekend. I could certainly see people who grew up in cities reconsidering a decision to move too far out of a major urban center. I did mention earlier as well that new Canadians usually arrive in those major urban centers. Low inventory and lack of new supplies is going to continue to place upward pressure on home prices. But improved housing affordability could allow them to stay. Young people also tend to prefer cities. So, again, as I talked about earlier, how I’ve seen my friends and people around my age kind of move through the process of getting close to the city and then getting further away. You know, even if we do end up seeing that exodus among millennials, GenZ may well compensate for that outflow.

Roma [00:25:28] Thanks to Pascal. I agree with him, a big part of where you live, in addition to the financial element, has to do with what chapter of your life you’re in. Lifestyle is a huge factor to being able to walk to school or bike to work, pick up groceries on your way home. All these things can be huge determinants of where you choose to live. It’s relevant in his story and it’s relevant in everyone’s.

Rob [00:25:51] Wrapping up, I have some top takeaways for all of you who may be trying to tackle this. One: Start your thinking about moving out of the city on the Realtor Dot CA website. Pick some cities or communities and check out some actual houses listed for sale. Get some real examples of how much further your dollars will go. Two: if you move away from the city. Picture yourself in the post pandemic world. How long would it commute to work take? Will you miss your friends and family in the city? Three: Use a move out of an expensive city as a chance to limit the size of your mortgage. This will free up money for saving travel and expenses.

Roma [00:26:32] Thank you for listening to this episode of Stress Test. I’m Roma Luciw

Rob [00:26:38]And I’m Rob Carrick. This show was produced and edited by Amanda Cupido with mixing it, editing by TK Matunda. Kiran Rana is the executive producer.

Roma [00:26:46] If you like what you’ve heard, make sure to subscribe to the show. Share it with a friend or leave a review on Apple podcasts. Bye for now.

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