Children playing road hockey on a quiet cul-de-sac. A big backyard for hosting a barbecue or building a tree house. A two-car garage on a wide driveway, facilitating a quick car ride to the local strip mall or big-box store. A heftier commute to the job in the big city.
Suburbia has long been the destination of choice for young Canadians starting a family, from the postwar years when the suburbs were created to the 1980s and '90s when baby boomers embraced the sprawl.
But with the dawn of the 21st century, the burbs as a concept seemed to fall out of favour. The millennial generation (or children of the baby boomers) seemed more interested in urban living, especially in walkable, vibrant cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. The new home buyer's dream involved biking to work, sidewalk patio culture and forgoing the big back yard for proximity to urban parks and the local organic grocer.
As Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, puts it: "[Millennials] don't want a car. And they sure don't want a commute. They want to live in communities, density and culture. They want to walk, not drive. Choice to them is like oxygen. And other than the mall, there's not much choice in the suburbs," he says.
"Millennials want to live in the city – whether they can afford it is a different matter."
As record-breaking home prices knock all but the wealthiest home buyers out of the running for housing in Toronto or Vancouver, will millennials echo their parents' choices and head to the suburbs for affordable homes?
Vevette Villahermosa and her husband, Richard Potter, were renting at lively Yonge and Davisville in midtown Toronto for seven years when they started thinking about buying a home. With both working in the downtown core (Ms. Villahermosa is a marketing manager and Mr. Potter is a business analyst), the couple wanted something nearby. But they quickly recognized that Toronto wasn't an option for what they wanted – a detached home with a big yard.
"We knew in order to get a place in Toronto within our budget it would be a condo, and that's not something we were ready to entertain," says Ms. Villahermosa, 35. "We wanted the back yard, the front yard, the extra room. And we definitely knew there was no way we could afford a detached house in Toronto."
In September, 2015, Ms. Villahermosa and Mr. Potter bought a home on a quiet, suburban street in Whitby, Ont., an hour's commute from their jobs. The two-storey, five-bedroom detached home needed a bit of work, but it had good bones, lots of yard space and was priced in the mid-$400,000 range.
"The reason we decided to move to the suburbs was really just because of affordability and knowing that we do want to have a family in the future," says Ms. Villahermosa. "We also wanted to have a place so that when family comes to visit, they would have a place to stay, and when our parents get older, they can come live with us."
Ms. Villahermosa grew up in Toronto close to the downtown, so she said the move required an adjustment in her thinking. "[Before moving to Whitby], I never had to commute more than 30 minutes to work for my entire life." But the trade-off of a longer commute was worth it for the extra space they gained, she says.
Besides, all of their friends are getting married, having children and moving to the suburbs, too, settling all over the Greater Toronto Area, says Ms. Villahermosa.
Scott Hanton, broker for Weir Team, Keller Williams Advantage Realty, sells houses in both the city of Toronto and Durham region to the east. Mr. Hanton says he works with a lot of first-time home buyers in their 20s and 30s who initially thought they wanted to buy in the downtown, but are deciding to buy in the suburbs instead.
"Buyers now have a very tough choice on their hands," says Mr. Hanton. "$750,000 used to be a very generous budget. But quickly that $750,000 has needed to become $900,000 for something decent in the city. So now, buyers will need to decide – should they get more bang for their buck outside of the city or sacrifice on space so they can still keep their downtown lifestyle?"
Once he shows buyers what they can get for $800,000 in the city versus a 45-minute or hour drive away, "many die-hard downtowners suddenly see the benefits of getting more for their money," he says. "Buyers see the value of three or more bedrooms, a finished basement with a high ceiling, large, fenced-in backyards."
On the other hand, he says: "The commute is definitely a sacrifice that will need to be made."
John Pasalis, real estate broker and president of Realosophy Realty Inc. Brokerage, says a lot of younger buyers are getting frustrated in their search for a house in Toronto, or even elsewhere in the GTA. "They're super-frustrated because in the past year, prices have really ballooned," he says. According to the Toronto Real Estate Board, the average sale in the GTA was $916,567 in March, up 33 per cent from a year ago.
Mr. Pasalis says he sees two trends happening with young home buyers. Some are choosing condo living in the city, even with a child or two. Those that do want a single-family home with a backyard are looking further away.
David Corrie is a realtor with Re/Max in Abbotsford, B.C., and he says he is seeing the same trends on the West Coast . Young home buyers are forgoing pricey Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey and choosing instead to settle in places like Abbotsford and Chilliwack (both about a 1- to 1 1/2-hour commute from Vancouver) because the prices are so much more affordable. Three-bedroom townhouses with a two-car garage can be bought in Abbotsford for less than $500,000, he says.
But even the suburbs can experience price increases. In Ontario's Durham region, Mr. Hanton says prices are quickly creeping up. While only a couple of years ago, buyers like Ms. Villahermosa and Mr. Potter were able to take advantage of lower prices in places like Whitby, Pickering and Ajax, in recent months, prices there have become out of reach for some buyers. But for $600,000 to $700,000, home buyers can still find great properties throughout Durham Region, notes Mr. Hanton. "Oshawa is where first-time buyers should be headed [now]," he says.
In an attempt to temper out-of-control real-estate prices, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne just announced that a 15-per-cent "non-resident speculation" tax will be levied on foreign home buyers in some regions of Southern Ontario (modelled on Vancouver's "foreign buyer tax"). But Mr. Hanton says he is skeptical any regulations can make a significant dent in the region's high prices because it is a simple "demand-and-supply" situation.
Ms. Villahermosa says she and her husband feel fortunate to have bought when they did. Some houses in their area have doubled in price, and they are thrilled with the suburban neighbourhood they chose.
And saying good-bye to city living hasn't been so difficult.
"It's definitely a lifestyle change," she says. "But we've lived downtown, we're over our party days. We don't have to be right in the centre of things as much as we wanted to before."