Melissa Gilbert and her husband are still unpacking boxes from their relocation to a rural community in the British Columbia Interior in mid-July.
Their move to a five-bedroom house on a one-acre lot near 100 Mile House, B.C., is part of a growing urban exodus in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We really felt being locked down,” says Ms. Gilbert, 35. “My husband’s mother is immune-compromised so we stuck close to home and staying in our house like that really solidified that we needed outdoor space – space we could call our own.”
Although the pandemic lockdown measures were not the reason they decided to move, the timing couldn’t have been better, she says.
Ms. Gilbert and her husband Patrick, 40, lived in an older townhouse they owned in Chilliwack, in the Fraser Valley outside Metro Vancouver, with his seven-year-old son there half-time.
“We were in the townhouse and trying to find a place that had a yard for him and for our dog, and we couldn’t find anything where we would just be comfortable and not only working to pay the mortgage,” she says. “We wanted to have a life, too, and the prices up here in the Cariboo were good.”
Her husband’s ex-wife and her fiancé planned to move to the area as well.
“They were renting and never had the chance to save up and buy a place,” Ms. Gilbert says. “With the prices up here, it gives them a chance to be able to actually buy a house.”
A recent Leger Marketing survey conducted for ReMax found that one-third of Canadians polled in July said they no longer want to live in large urban areas and instead would opt for rural and suburban communities. The survey also says 44 per cent of Canadians want a home with more space for personal amenities, such as a pool, balcony or a large yard. Another survey of Ontario residents conducted by Nanos for the Ontario Real Estate Association found about three out of five who were actively in the market for real estate agreed or somewhat agreed that living in a rural area or suburbs is more appealing to them now than it was prior to the pandemic.
In many smaller jurisdictions, real estate transactions are on target to set records this year, despite a nearly three-month shutdown due to COVID-19.
“I don’t see how we can get any busier. It’s just insane,” says Ron Kelly, an agent and assistant manager of the Royal LePage agency in 100 Mile House.
The office had a great year in 2019 and is on course to exceed those sales this year, he says.
The primary driver of urban migration to the region is economic: A home in Metro Vancouver or the Fraser Valley is far more expensive than a similar or larger home in the Cariboo region. The benchmark price of a detached home in Greater Vancouver in July was $1.48-million, compared with a benchmark price of $1-million in the Fraser Valley, according to the MLS Home Price Index. In the Cariboo region, most three-bedroom, two-bathroom detached homes not on the lakefront are listed in the range of $250,000 to $350,000.
Many retirees harvest the equity in their urban homes, buying in the area 500 kilometres north of Vancouver and banking the rest. There are also a growing number of working families, Mr. Kelly says.
“They don’t have to live close to where they work,” he says, citing the growing work-from-home trend and the proliferation of camp-based jobs in resource industries.
Office closings linked to COVID-19 are expected to inspire more employers to allow remote work from home. A poll conducted by Leger Marketing in late April found that 69 per cent of Canadians working from home because of COVID-19 restrictions wanted to continue doing so after the crisis.
The option of working remotely is also driving sales in smaller communities in Ontario.
“The market is hot,” says Brad Johnstone, an agent at Royal LePage NRC Realty in St. Catharines, whose service area includes more than two dozen communities in and around the Niagara region.
“The GTA [Greater Toronto Area] exodus is increasing demand greatly,” he says.
Most of his colleagues from Collingwood to Owen Sound have sold to urban relocators in recent weeks, some of them making offers on homes sight unseen.
The consensus seems to be that, after an initial slow down, the virus has been a stimulus for the real estate market in areas where there is less traffic, no commute and more wild space.
“I’ve had a few purchasing here from Toronto because they can work from home and only have to go into the city once a week,” says Lisa Ibba, a real estate agent with Royal LePage NRC Realty in the Niagara region.
Ms. Gilbert and her husband sold their older three-bedroom, 2.5-bath townhouse in Chilliwack for $374,500 and bought a five-bedroom near 100 Mile House for $221,000.
Her husband will work in Metro Vancouver when his film company is shooting. She’s a hair stylist and will continue to go to the Fraser Valley a few days a week until she establishes a clientele in her new community.
Ms. Gilbert says the outdoors in her new community have been a welcome respite, although there is some culture shock.
“I lived in a townhouse complex for five years next to people and I didn’t know their names,” she says. “Up here, our next-door neighbour got her son to cut our grass for free. That doesn’t happen in Chilliwack.”