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the next move
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A home for sale on Salisbury Avenue in Toronto's Cabbagetown neighbourhood is photographed on May 21, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The abrupt changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic are prompting many Toronto-area residents to make some urgent decisions about where and how they want to live.

July saw a rush of activity in the housing market in Toronto and surrounding cities as people recalibrate in response to working from home, home-schooling children and craving more space.

Rochelle DeClute, broker at Union Realty Brokerage Inc. in Toronto, is seeing clients who thought they were settled into their homes for the long term suddenly changing their priorities. Ms. DeClute and her team are amazed at how quickly people have pivoted.

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“We can’t believe the number of people wanting to move out of the city. We would hear that a couple of times a year and now we’re hearing it a couple of times a week.”

Ms. DeClute’s office has clients planning to move to various parts of Ontario, including Whitchurch-Stouffville, Haliburton and Prince Edward County.

One family is looking for a bigger spread outside of Belleville, Ont. The father, who works in downtown Toronto, was previously paying $700 a month for parking near the office.

“They say they can take that $700 and put it into way more house outside the city,” Ms. DeClute says. The client plans to work from home more often and take the GO Train to the office on occasion.

Another set of buyers had their wedding plans cancelled this summer. They’ve decided to put the money they would have spent on the celebration into buying a property instead.

“I think it has changed people’s lives in ways we didn’t really think about,” she says.

Shawn Lackie, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker R.M.R. Real Estate, says the areas east and north of Toronto are seeing an influx of new residents.

Buyers are trading their small footprints in Toronto for more space in Whitby, Ajax, Courtice and Bowmanville, among other areas in Durham Region. Homeowners from those areas are moving north to waterfront properties on the Kawartha Lakes or towns such as Lindsay and Peterborough.

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A man walks past a recently sold house in Toronto on June 15, 2020.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

He’s seeing Toronto residents from Leslieville and the St. Lawrence Market area, for example, sell semi-detached houses and condos in exchange for a place with land or shoreline.

“It’s a 180-degree turn,” he says. “They’re sacrificing being able to walk to the farmers’ market to move somewhere with a dock.”

Some of the people migrating are moving forward their retirement plans, while others are parents with young children. They plan to continue working from home and they want more space for the kids.

Some plan to home school their children while others are willing to drive their kids to school or put them on the schoolbus.

“They might choose a place to live with a certain school in mind,” he says, but catchment areas don’t tend to be as rigid in smaller towns and rural areas. “Most parents want the location and they’ll retrofit the school around it.”

In Durham, buyers are competing for houses that sell for around the same price as a small condo unit in the Toronto core. People renting a condo can afford to carry the mortgage on a $600,000 house, he points out.

He took one couple who live in the King West area of Toronto to look at a modest three-bedroom house with an asking price of $599,000 in Courtice. The property received 22 offers and sold for $660,000.

“This is what first-time buyers are up against,” he says. “They can’t get into the game.”

As a result, many are going farther out in order to find more space.

“They say, ‘I can put my newly acquired dog in the backyard.’ ”

In Toronto, Ms. DeClute specializes in the Beaches neighbourhood, where sales have been brisk in July as people catch up from the spring lockdown and rush to make changes before an uncertain fall.

In the Beaches, active listings increased 15 per cent in July compared with July, 2019, Ms. DeClute says, while sales jumped 37 per cent in the same period. The median price of a detached home in the Beaches rose 7.14 per cent last month from the same month last year.

“I think that’s the spring market pushing into July,” she says.

Ms. DeClute says the latest data illustrate how buyers’ priorities are shifting.

In the prepandemic era, house hunters were often adamant that they needed private parking, restaurants and patios within walking distance, and renovated kitchens and bathrooms.

Today they’re much more willing to compromise on those elements if they can have a finished basement, a home office and green space.

“We’re finding people are compromising on different things,” she says.

“People are very much aware of the outdoor space of a home. Much more than they were before,” Ms. DeClute says. “They’ll say ‘I’m willing to park around the corner but I need to have a backyard.‘ ”

Condos in the Beaches, meanwhile, saw prices dip 5 per cent in July from the same month last year.

Ms. DeClute says many condo dwellers now prefer the idea of a more spacious house – especially if two people are both working at home.

That’s a sharp divergence from the trend of the past several years, which saw people giving up their large homes and gardens in favour of a more carefree condo lifestyle, she says.

A few who want to continue condo living are trading their smaller units for two-level suites, she adds.

Looking toward the fall, Ms. DeClute says many clients are concerned about the risks of a second wave of the coronavirus and the stability of their own incomes.

If they have a house to sell, they wonder how a return to lockdown would affect their ability to find a buyer, she says.

Ms. DeClute is not seeing signs that a big surge of listings will arrive in the fall. Many sellers are keen to list in the current environment.

“They say, ‘let’s get on the market now. We know about the market now – the fall is an unknown.’ ”

If sellers do pull back, she says, supply will be even more constrained because buyer demand does not appear to be waning. She’s surprised at the level of confidence in the market.

“I guess at the end of the day, shelter is really important.”

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