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Torontonians are fleeing the city for cheaper homes, more green space and a balanced life

Before COVID-19, Ana Stephenson seldom took a break during the work day. Now, she steps away from her computer for a swim and picnic lunch on a boat with her husband and daughter. Stephenson was already working from her 2,200-sq.-ft. Oakville home 70 per cent of the time before her tech company employer closed its offices.  But with daughter Addison, 9, missing her activities and playmates and husband, Rob, now also free of the office, the family moved to the Haliburton cottage they bought last September. Now Rob is looking for a job in the area and, if there’s no school in the fall, they expect to winterize their cottage plumbing and downsize to the 550-sq.-ft. lakefront home permanently. “It’s not that I’m up here looking for a way to not work. Even if I won the lottery I would want to work. That’s how much I love my job,” said Stephenson. “It’s having that balance. I’m still able to enjoy this part of my life and have this downtime.” The Stephensons are part of a perceived wave of urbanites heading out of the city. Freed from the constraints and commutes of office working, worn down by the close confines and high prices of Toronto, they are fleeing to points further afield. While there are no statistics to measure the outflux, real-estate agents in and outside of Toronto say the trend is real.  Toronto agent April Williams of Sage Real Estate said at least five of her clients have booked listing appointments in the last two months because they want to move out of the city.  “Some have always dreamt of working from home and they’ve only stayed in the city because of their jobs. Now they have an opportunity to work from home they have decided to look outside the city. They’re just ready for a quieter lifestyle,” she said.  The first wave of COVID-19 has been particularly stressful for families with small children in the downtown area, said Williams. “They don’t necessarily want a bigger home but they realize how important the outdoor space is — just having the freedom to let their kids run around outside and not have to worry about a lot of things has made that more a priority,” she said. Realosophy president John Pasalis says his clients are also talking about moving to Collingwood or Innisfil. In many cases, one partner had the flexibility to work from home before the pandemic. Now the second income earner can do it too, and they want more green space. “Maybe part of this is a reaction to people being cooped up in their homes for a couple of months,” he said, adding that although he thinks lifestyle is a bigger factor, finances can play a role. “Even if you shave $100,000 off your mortgage, that’s $500 a month you’re saving. That’s not insignificant. You can do a lot with that,” he said. Although her cottage is a quarter of the size of their home, Stephenson said her family doesn’t feel cramped. If things go according to plan, they hope to sell the Oakville house and use the equity to renovate — enlarge the cottage’s three bedrooms and convert one to an office. Speaking from the cottage, she said, “We have been spending so much time outside, I find being here it’s so much easier for me to shut off at the end of the day, to say, ‘It’s 5:30, I’m going to shut off the computer and go outside.’” She adds that even though they have a back yard in Oakville, they don’t spend much time in it. When Stephenson moved to Oakville from Toronto six years ago, she hoped that they would find a closer community. She was disappointed. In Haliburton, she feels that connection. Even while practising physically distancing, she said they wave to people walking dogs on the lane or passing their dock. “A lot of our neighbours come by asking if we need anything — people really look out for each other. That is really important to me,” said Stephenson. Prince Edward County realtor Treat Hull said most clients of his Picton-based brokerage are on a similar quest for a gentler, more connected lifestyle: “One client said they’d had three months to reflect. They realized that they want to get out of the squirrel cage and have a more meaningful life.” The county is attractive because it provides some urban amenities, including good internet service and coffee shops, Hull said. “House prices are half what they are in Toronto and it’s still within easy distance (of the big city). If you have family there or have to go for a meeting there’s train service from Belleville.” Royal LePage CEO Phil Soper says the pandemic has “supercharged” a pattern that was previously apparent and made possible by technology — young families taking advantage of working remotely to relocate to “exurban” locations such as Barrie and Waterloo. “It was already a trend and now that trend is accelerating,” he said. Guelph and District Association of Realtors president Matt Bennett-Monty says that the gentle stream of retired professionals moving to his area for the last 15 years turned into a river when GTA prices started skyrocketing.  “Since COVID we haven’t skipped a beat,” he said. Buyers have the perception they will be safer in a smaller centre than a more congested city and Guelph’s charming heritage district and university culture make it an attractive mix of rural and urban. Home prices average just over $600,000, compared to about $900,000 to the Toronto region. But the area isn’t immune to big-city real-estate challenges, said Bennett-Monty. A trend implies rival house hunters, so he tells buyers that “if there is something out there that is priced reasonably, prepare yourself to be in a competition situation.” “People say, ‘I’ve made my money in the city. I’m going to come a smaller centre and I can afford to pay a bit more.’ Unfortunately, in some circumstances that has skewed the market,” he said. Home buyers aren’t alone in using the COVID-19 lull to reconsider their living arrangements. The lockdown was enough to prompt Toronto renter Kyle Ashley, a social-media manager and cycling advocate, to move to Cambridge last weekend.  When he began working from home full time in Toronto, he said, “It became untenable living in a 300-to-400-sq.-ft. space where effectively, my kitchen and living room and my hangout area became my work space and then I had my bedroom,” he said.  “It was this perpetual, never-ending cycle like ‘Groundhog Day’ — wake up, go to work, which is the living room, and then go in the kitchen to make myself something to eat — and then go to bed. It felt like I was never leaving work.” Ashley was paying $2,100 a month for a 10th-floor apartment near King and River streets. It had a great view of the CN Tower. But his new place, the ground floor of an old stone house on the Grand River, is $600 less. “I’m terribly excited to be able to leave my house and be on the ground floor and not wait for elevators,” he said.  Ashley blames Toronto’s development and housing policies with making the city unaffordable, as well as a culture of “elitism” that he says pushes out people like him. Meantime, he said, the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area is exploding. “It’s got very progressive politics and transit policies and the tech talent out there,” said Ashley. “So it seems like a much smaller community that’s got its priorities straight for city building.” But don’t expect the GTA to empty out, said Royal LePage’s Soper. Most young people still want to live in the city just because it’s more fun. Also, smaller cities have limited infrastructure to accommodate a deluge of urbanites fleeing city crowds and prices. “The capacity of a town like Belleville is severely limited,” he said. “It’s way easier to add 1,000 units to Toronto than to add 100 units to Belleville. So prices will spike, availability will be limited, people will get frustrated and that will be a natural cap on the march out of town to growing your own vegetables.” Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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