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rob carrick

So much for the suburban answer to high house prices in the city.

Costly homes in Toronto have driven so many buyers to the suburbs that bidding wars are becoming common and prices are soaring. But that's only part of the affordability challenge of moving outside the urban centre. Commuting, whether by car or public transportation, is also an issue.

In dollar terms, a daily commute to Toronto from Hamilton could add about $3,500 annually to a household budget, per person. If time is money in your life, that's also a factor. You often see cities like Hamilton or Aurora described as an hour's drive from Toronto. Sure, at 3 a.m. In rush hour, double that. If there's an accident or snowstorm, add more time.

A thought for young home buyers driven to the suburbs by high urban house prices: Check out the cost of commuting, and the lifestyle. Research how much a monthly pass for public transportation costs, or see how much it will cost to use your own vehicle. Then, try making the drive one morning or afternoon. See how long that one-hour drive actually takes.

To get you started, let's figure on a 120-kilometre round trip every day. That covers the commute from Hamilton, Milton, Aurora and other communities outside Toronto where buyers are bidding against each other for homes these days, just as they do in the city. If you're driving an SUV or minivan, the cost of gas might be around $300 a month. You'll be in rush hour traffic, so fuel consumption won't be optimum.

We'll add another $250 a month for parking near your office, and another $75 a month to represent the average maintenance and insurance costs of using your vehicle for daily long-distance commutes. That's probably low for older vehicles, but never mind. Total commuting costs are $625 a month in this example, or $7,500 a year. Again, that's per person.

Rapid transit is the cheaper option, although you lose flexibility in deciding when to leave for work in the morning and go home at day's end. The cities outside Toronto are served by the GO Train, which has a fare calculator on its website. Forty one-way trips between Hamilton and Toronto in a month would run you $383.55 if you used a payment system called Presto, where you load money on a card and use that to cover your fares instead of cash. You may have to drive to the GO Train station, but parking is free on a first-come, first-served basis. Figure on another $20 a month to cover the gas for these trips. This brings the cost of public transportation to $403.55 a month, or $4,842.60 annually.

We can't dump all this cost on living in the suburbs. You would probably still need a monthly bus pass if you lived in the city – in Toronto that costs $141.50. You may also make a shorter commute to work using your car. On a net basis, the cost of your suburban commuting might be in the areas of $3,500 a year. That's still significant – two-thirds of the way to using up the $5,500 yearly contribution limit on tax-free savings accounts, for example.

Consider not just the hard costs of commuting, but also the tougher-to-quantify aspects such as the time spent in the car or on public transportation. One of the big factors that determines how happy we are is the amount of control we have over our lives. Commuting puts you at the mercy of traffic flows and the inevitable interruptions of bus and train schedules.

Commuting has always been part of the deal when you lived in the suburbs, but it's a bigger deal today in the suburbs outside Toronto. More buyers in the 'burbs means busier highways, trains and buses. Year by year, expect more crowding.

The rush to the suburbs is also putting upward pressure on house prices. Sales of detached homes in the communities around Toronto jumped 23 per cent last month, compared to 11.8 per cent in the city. Prices in the suburbs are still one-third less than the city on average for detached homes, but they're rising fast. Add commuting costs and you have to question whether the suburbs are still the answer to home buyers who can't afford the city.