The Way Home is a series looking at the issues and challenges for people who are in the market for a home.
Vancouver was showing its best self on a sunny afternoon earlier this summer, even on the bus.
The No. 9 was making its way along Broadway through pricey Kitsilano, a neighbourhood of $1.5-million and $2-million-plus homes (make that, -plus -plus). Everyone looked contented on the bus, with that Vancouver vibe, but overhead there was an ad bidding everyone to move up to equally contented and far cheaper Prince George.
The Move Up Prince George ad campaign is aimed at those wanting to relocate and escape the hyper home prices not only of Vancouver, but also other parts of the greater Lower Mainland, and even cities far afield such as Toronto. It squarely targets young families and home buyers, those likely too young to have been in the market when big city real-estate soared.
In Prince George, though – traditionally a lumber and resource town in B.C.'s Northern Interior, with an increasingly diversifying economy and home to the University of Northern British Columbia – the average house price was $284,611 in 2015. A large, new family home is easily within the $400,000s, and rents for a two-bedroom apartment are commonly around $800 a month.
The smiling Prince George residents on the ads only emphasize how laughably low these prices are compared with Vancouver. The smiles and video testimonials on the Move Up Prince George website could almost be mocking if they weren't so earnest.
"A lot of times, people coming from larger cities like Toronto or Vancouver, they initially assume that they're looking for an apartment or a condo," but they soon realize they can afford far bigger, said Melissa Barcellos, manager of economic development for the City of Prince George.
Parents of college students in Prince George are even known to buy homes for their kids, instead of paying for a dorm room or rented apartment, said Martin Doucette, owner of Doucette Realty in Prince George. Once rental income from additional roommates or from renting out a home's basement apartment is factored in, a house for a college student starts looking unusually affordable.
Many cities hint at relocating as part of their tourism pitch ("Once you visit, you'll never want to leave" – that kind of thing). But Prince George's campaign is unusual in how directly and elaborately it targets specific locations (from Vancouver to Toronto and London, Ont., and increasingly Alberta) as well as specific types of workers (from engineers to specialist physicians and university professors).
And Mr. Doucette indicated that it's helping raise demand and housing construction. As well, Prince George is still competitive compared to other Interior cities such as Kamloops and Kelowna.
There's a strong market for homes around $250,000 to $320,000. If well kept, they're typically on the market for less than a week. At least half of those have competing offers when up for sale.
Houses from $400,000 to $1-million, including houses bought and held as investment properties, have much quieter demand, at least for now. It suggests that higher-end real estate in Prince George and likely other smaller cities isn't seeing the same kind of rampant investment buying as in the bigger cities they are trying to draw from. Or at least, the demand can ebb at times. "It's a sleepy price point right now," Mr. Doucette said.
A lot has to do with smaller cities not just selling the message of more affordability. They have to sell themselves as a community and lifestyle.
Saint John, with a population in the greater area of more than 100,000, similarly portrays itself as easily manageable, with all the amenities, surrounded by beautiful nature and the high tides of the Bay of Fundy.
Yet, as Victoria Clarke, executive director of Discover Saint John, noted, the tourism office knows its largest audience and will commonly target leisure travellers from New England and business travellers more from Southern Ontario. And once those people arrive, the focus in on jobs and the benefits of relocating.
"Would I like to put a laser focus on Saint John? Of course. But I think business wise, we should be putting a focus on the region, saying, it's good to do business in the Maritimes, and if I had to make you pick, I'd ask you to pick Saint John," Ms. Clarke said.
So, while the overall message is affordability and lifestyle, the availability of jobs is what really drives relocation campaigns. The Move Up Prince George campaign was primarily introduced by the need for more skilled workers.
"In 2014, our office was doing a lot of work to support businesses in attracting employees," said Ms. Barcellos in Prince George. "Because our unemployment rate was so low, there were so many jobs [available], and we were having a hard time attracting enough skilled workers, people with specific training.
"And that's what spurred the research we did to identify the top 10 most difficult positions to fill in Prince George, as well as the top locations from which to attract people – because we knew we didn't have those people in Prince George," she added.
Yet, it's the cheaper price points that the campaign is using to grab attention. "When people phone me – because people do call us when they see the ads – a lot of times they ask about the cost of a house and what you can get for that," Ms. Barcellos said. "They're really surprised. For $500,000, you can get a brand new house in a gorgeous neighbourhood, in a brand new development. In Vancouver, it would be $2-million."