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the way home

Suburban families often require two cars if one or more of the family members work downtown.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Drive 'til you qualify.

For years, that was the mantra of many would-be homeowners looking to buy near one of Canada's biggest cities. The farther you travelled into the sprawling suburbs, the closer you got to a dream home you could afford. And with housing prices in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto on fire, it still might seem like a smart move to get more house for your money in the 'burbs.

But at what point does commuting by car from a suburban home become more expensive than paying a higher house price to live within walking or transit distance from work?

According to transportation planner George Poulos of Toronto's BA Group, your commute may be costing you more than you think. Mr. Poulos co-created the Cost of Commute Calculator, an interactive tool to help Vancouver residents figure out the true cost of getting to and from work each day.

"A lot of people only consider the cost of housing when they make the determination [to live outside the city]," says Mr. Poulos. "People make the mistake of not planning for their transportation, it's almost like an afterthought. Little do they know, that's a very significant household expenditure right there, even on par with a yearly average mortgage."

Mr. Poulos points to the 2015 Metro Vancouver Housing and Transportation Cost Burden Study, which found that if you factor in transportation costs, neighbourhoods that are considered more affordable can actually cost homeowners more in the long run.

According to the study, households in pricey B.C. municipalities such as Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby and New Westminster paid an average of about $35,000 a year in housing and transportation costs. Meanwhile, more far-flung areas that are generally thought to be more affordable, including Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge, Delta and Langley, resulted in annual housing and transportation costs of $38,000-$40,000. The price difference was attributed to higher transportation costs – commuting downtown from the more distant neighbourhoods usually requires a car (or two for a household with two working adults). Houses in those areas may be cheaper, but once you add car payments, insurance, gas, maintenance, toll bridges and parking to the mix, the savings vanish.

A 2012 study by Royal Bank of Canada and the Pembina Institute came to similar conclusions about Toronto. The study, which compared three-bedroom homes in different parts of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) found that "car ownership has a significant impact on monthly costs – for each vehicle removed from a household budget, approximately $200,000 more can be carried on a 25-year mortgage." The study found that for a working couple with jobs in downtown Toronto, it is more affordable to live downtown and walk or bike to work than it is to live in a car-dependent suburban community.

Although Mr. Poulos acknowledges that a move to the suburbs can be about more than just finances – people may want a bigger yard or a quieter environment – if your primary motivation is finding the most inexpensive place to buy a home, he suggests you might want to crunch the numbers first.

"You could surprise yourself at how much more you could afford if you could find a home that can accomplish your transportation needs without having a two-car household, by having one car, or no car, for your daily transportation needs," he says.

John Pasalis, a Toronto real estate broker and president of Realosophy, says the downtown vs. suburbs debate rages on in the Toronto market. On one hand, many people are still choosing to live in the suburbs to stretch their home-buying dollar and gain a larger home.

"A million dollars in Toronto on the subway line doesn't really get very much," says Mr. Pasalis. "You can get a nice three-bedroom semi in good condition. But in the 905, you're getting a very big four-bedroom, fully detached, on a 50-foot lot."

On the other hand, the time and monetary costs of car commuting has meant a surge of people opting for smaller homes in "up-and-coming" neighbourhoods downtown, he says.

"What's happening here in Toronto is basically happening North America-wide, the trend where people are moving into inner-city neighbourhoods because they don't want to commute and are sacrificing space in order to be 15 minutes to downtown," says Mr. Pasalis. "That's driving all the interest in what used to be dumpy, old neighbourhoods, turning them into new, popular ones like Leslieville and Bloorcourt [in Toronto]. Nobody wanted to buy a house around Lansdowne 20 years ago, and now Bloor and Lansdowne is a very popular area."

Some homebuyers are thinking outside the box in order to avoid the stress of traffic and the cost of long car commutes. Kevin Perra, a real estate agent based in Vancouver, says that he's seeing an uptick in interest in Bowen Island, which is a 15-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver's Horseshoe Bay.

"It's got a big village, it's very self-sufficient, it's the only island in Southern B.C. that is its own municipality," he says. "The home prices are about the same as Langley, but the drive from Langley during rush hour is probably an hour fifteen or an hour and a half. From Bowen Island, it's 50 minutes, and that's taking the ferry and an express bus that takes you right into downtown.

"That little island has really grown over the last two years because people are trying to find other options," says Mr. Perra.

But for people who want the suburban lifestyle and the lower-priced home that goes along with it, is there a way you can win in the GTA without getting dinged by heavy car commuting costs?

Absolutely, says Cindy (C.J.) Smith, if you're willing to give public transit a chance.

The 41-year-old graphic designer lives in Courtice, Ont., a bedroom community about 65 kilometres east of Toronto, with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. Ms. Smith works in the financial district in downtown Toronto, commuting each day by GO train-bus service. She says she gave up her car four years ago and never looked back.

"I'll admit, I never thought in a million years I could [get rid of my car], but I keep a spreadsheet, so any time I feel inclined to go car-shopping, I look at my spreadsheet and the fact that we've saved $46,000 in four years by not leasing a second vehicle," she says.

Between the bus that takes her to the Oshawa GO station and the GO train ride, Ms. Smith says her commute is 1 hour 20 minutes, each way. Despite the hefty time commitment, she says she has grown to love it, even documenting her transit adventures on her blog

"I don't know if I could give it up, I really do like the 'me' time," she says.

Besides, the price was right. The Smiths paid $347,000 for their three-bedroom, four-bathroom, detached home in 2014. She says her advice to potential homebuyers is to do their research and map out the transit possibilities before making a purchase.

"Maybe you don't need two cars. Really understand your options," she says. "Home ownership is a wonderful thing but it shouldn't make you broke."

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