Housing markets surrounding the Greater Toronto Area grew increasingly popular over the past decade as homebuyers found themselves priced out of the region, then took off when the pandemic hit and remote work offered the chance to enjoy a different lifestyle. But as a growing number of employers call workers back to the office, many people are finding themselves dealing with lengthy – and costly – commutes back to Toronto.
Shannon Lee Simmons, founder of Toronto-based financial planning firm New School of Finance, said many of her clients moved during the pandemic with the hopes that they could permanently work remotely, or only occasionally commute to the office.
But Ms. Simmons says company practices around remote work are evolving and some of her clients are now finding themselves regularly commuting to the city from regions as far afield as Muskoka and Prince Edward County, trips which can take hours by car. While she also has clients who continue to work from home, some are worried that their remote or hybrid work situations could suddenly change.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, I feel like people are nervous,” Ms. Simmons said.
Vincent Simbulan moved out of Toronto in 2017 to a more affordable home in Cambridge, Ont., but found the drive took too much of a toll on his personal life. Two months ago, he sold his home and is currently looking to move to the Halton or Peel regions.
Mr. Simbulan was prudent when he made his original decision to move. He made spreadsheets detailing the increased commute costs and was aware of how many hours he’d spend on the road.
Even though he has a job that is flexible with remote work, Mr. Simbulan wanted to be closer to his friends and family in the GTA. But the long commute remains his biggest reason for moving back to the GTA.
“Reality set in after a month,” said 37-year-old Mr. Simbulan, whose journey to work on the 401 would take an hour on an ideal day, but often could take much longer.
“I couldn’t even do my hobbies because I was just so tired,” he said.
His advice to people considering a far move for the sake of home ownership is try commuting to work from your prospective community at 6 a.m. He says it’s the only way to know the kind of impact that a far-away move will have on your life.
The Globe spoke to one woman in her 40s who moved to Belleville, Ont., from where she now commutes to a Toronto-based finance job. The woman did not want to be identified to avoid being recognized by her employer.
At first, she was expected to work in-person one day a week as the pandemic winded down. Now it has ramped up to three days a week and she’s worried it could increase.
When she sold her condo and bought a home in Belleville, she thought she’d be able to rely on VIA Rail’s early-morning commuter service. However, VIA cancelled the service during the pandemic, and the earliest train she can catch gets her to work around 10:30 a.m. (It’s often late, she added).
The effect of the move on her expenses is massive, she says. On a good month she’ll spend $600 to travel to work three times a week, and sometimes it’ll cost more.
New Finance’s Ms. Simmons said even people who are able to rely on the outer stretches of the GO Transit system could pay around $400 a month to commute.
She also said people who begin commuting need to realistically account for the knock-on expenses. Long travel times often mean people don’t have time to make coffee or pack lunch in the morning, and those purchases add up quick. And the last thing someone wants to do after a two-hour commute home is to cook a meal from scratch, meaning people should prepare to spend more on takeout and convenience grocery foods.
“Everyone who has to go back to the office is feeling the expenses, but people who moved out far are feeling them even more,” Ms. Simmons said.
Andrew Dobson, a fee-only financial planner with Objective Financial Partners in Markham, Ont., said anyone considering a move outside an urban centre like Toronto or Vancouver needs to be flexible and have backup plans for a work environment that is very much in flux.
“Before I would make the decision, I would try and assess my personal skillset and match it up with other potential jobs that could materialize if the job I’m in wasn’t flexible,” said Mr. Dobson.
“You’ve got to be sure that you can do something locally or that there’s demand for you remotely.”
In the right circumstances though, moving out of the GTA’s overheated housing market has been highly beneficial for some.
Christian Anderson, 36, moved to St. Catharines from Toronto this summer. Even with a wage above $100,000 with his remote tech job, he and his partner didn’t feel like they’d be able to purchase a home in Toronto.
“I make a good salary, and the conditions we were living in and the amount of money I was making wasn’t matching up,” Mr. Anderson said.
In Toronto, they rented a cramped two-bedroom apartment, but now they own a home. They also find the cost of going out, getting haircuts and other services to be cheaper in their new community.
The key, though, is that he works fully remote and his partner, who is completing an undergraduate degree, chose to study at Brock University in the community.
The move shifted his own perceptions on whether home ownership is still attainable in Canada.
“The one thing I’ve learned is it’s not impossible, it’s possible if you’re willing to adapt a little bit,” Mr. Anderson said.