With the impact of Covid-19 starting to subside toward the end of 2021 and the new ‘new normal’ of work being upon us, many people that once had to live in big cities to meet their career goals are considering relocating to smaller cities and working remotely. This has made the Canadian housing crisis even worse, with prices jumping by ridiculous amounts, 25% year over year.
Many people are able to keep their ‘big city’ salary and relocate to more affordable areas, either to rent or buy a home instead of dropping $500,000 on a poorly build condo. This group of people are a minority, but they are large enough to swing local markets. A lot of towns in Ontario are feeling the squeeze and Toronto downtown workers are spreading out like skinny jean wearing locusts, devouring all properties in their path.
If getting a more affordable lifestyle is your goal, and you have geographical flexibility in your work, it’s time to say goodbye to the GVMA and GTA and see the rest of what Canada has to offer. Leveraging your work life has never been easier and you just might end up in your forever home sooner than you think.
There is life outside of Toronto and Vancouver
Roughly a quarter of Canada’s population lives within the areas of Greater Toronto and Vancouver. This concentration of people means a lot of the top jobs and lifestyle amenities are concentrated in a very small geographic area. Most new immigrants are drawn to these areas and house prices have been exploding for many years. Toronto and Vancouver are at the point where the ‘laws’ of supply & demand have gotten so warped that it does not make any sense to settle there unless you are relatively wealthy.
While a real estate bubble is great for real estate investors, it is not great for people looking to just own or rent a home. Thankfully though, Canada is home to many cities that offer enough of the lifestyle perks and jobs to make them a contender for your remote working plan.
Don’t kid yourself though, you will be trading ease of access to jobs and amenities for a lower cost of living and better quality of life. If you are a household earning under $150,000 a year though, you aren’t going to be able to afford a life in the two big cities anyway so let’s plan our exit strategy.
Depending on what your current and future lifestyle plans are there are many places you can have a wonderful life in that aren’t costing you 70% of your income to rent/mortgage. The flexibility of remote work will enable you to consider you core wants and find a workable, affordable solution.
For the benefit of this article we will be assuming that you are a single person earning $60,000 a year working remotely.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax is the largest city in Nova Scotia, with a population of just under 500,000 people and nestled right at the far eastern edge of Canada. If you’re looking for Atlantic living this is one of the core spots. Many people Spring/Summer if this area as it is breathtakingly beautiful offering both coastal and forest experiences.
At 500k in population it is also big enough for you to feel connected in terms of culture and transportation. While it might be at the lower end in terms of breath of job opportunities and general economic development you are more than compensated with the housing/environment package.
The Unique Selling Point (USP) for Halifax is that it is halfway between small town and big city living, a perfect middle ground for putting down roots.
Halifax has one of the milder climates this side of Vancouver Island. Summers are beautiful and in the high 20s with winters being a lot milder than in the interior. Negative 40 it is not.
You will get your sea air and your ‘wet cold’ winters but overall the climate will be easily managed by most Canadians.
Rent for an apartment is going to be relatively steep compared to other places on this list. You are likely looking at around 1300 for your standard well-located one bed apartment. Houses can be tough to find in the rental market and the small size of the area means less choice. Renting in Halifax won’t be easy in the national perspective, but it is better than YYZ or YVR.
There is some good news however. Housing prices in the general area of Halifax are pretty decent. $450,000 will still get you a lot of house in Halifax. These figures are night and day when compared to the big city and you can realistically move to Nova Scotia with a view to buying in the next couple of years.
Lifestyle costs are somewhat inflated compared to other areas but there is an ebb and flow to it with some items being cheaper and some having a premium.
Overall costs in Halifax are definitely lower and serious value if you’re thinking of buying in the next little while.
The job market in Halifax is not as tragic as people would have you believe but it is still tough to find high paying work and work in many advanced sectors. Remote working is likely going to have to be your primary plan.
You will be able to find something if you get remote redundancy but it is likely to be lower paying and harder to find. Be prepared to wait it out and you should be fine.
Nature is your main activity in Halifax. Without a large amount of the same cultural activities and no major sporting/venue facilities, city slickers need not apply. Getting out to the the beach or the forest (both within 15-20 mins) is the main attraction for this option.
Who Should Move There?
People who want a city that feels homey, love nature, don’t care about NHL,NBA, or Drake Concerts.
Port Alberni, Vancouver Island
If you’re looking for small city living, then Port Alberni, British Columbia is for you. With a small population of just of 25,000 this ‘city’ sits on the western coast of one of the most pristine and sought after places in Canada, Vancouver Island. The island that has the most ‘un-Canadian’ climate is renowned as a hot spot for hippies and relaxation minded people from the mainland. The ‘Island Lifestyle’ is chilled out in everything from hobbies to business. If the sun comes out be prepared to cancel your business meeting to surf!
Vancouver Island itself is very expensive to live on and Port Alberni is one of few places when you can still actually buy a home without being a millionaire. This is because, if you’re living here, the town and the surrounding wilderness are your entire world. You will be located an hour away from the closest thing resembling a city, Nanaimo. Not ridiculous, but not easy either.
The USP for Port Alberni is that it offers the ‘Island Lifestyle’ without being entirely secluded or prohibitively expensive.
On average, Port Alberni never gets below freezing. Yes, you heard that right, a place to live in Canada that doesn’t get to -30 degrees. The price for this is an incredibly mild climate that lives between about 3 and 18 degrees Celsius. You will also get a healthy dose of rain with less than 20 snowy days.
Surprisingly enough, renting an apartment is not going to break the bank in Port Alberni. You are likely looking at around $1,200 for you standard ‘well-located’ one bed apartment. Though supply is obviously small due to the size of the city, you can find an apartment or house with mountain views and/or river access without a huge amount of trouble.
The real kicker here is the comparatively low cost of purchasing a house in Port Alberni. $450,000 is enough to buy a house here, roughly half of what you’re going to be shelling out elsewhere on the island. Vancouver Island has been priced out for most people but in Port Alberni we seem to have found a little gem.
Lifestyle costs are definitely inflated compared to the mainlined. There is always a premium to pay for island living and let me tell you, $10 cheese is going to become part of your life if you move here.
Overall costs in and around Port Alberni offer enough value that the escape from Vancouver is a realistic goal rather than a pipe dream. It isn’t objectively great, but in this part of Canada, it’s worth consideration.
There is no job market here for anything but forestry, seasonal work, and the service industry. This is not a place where you’ll be able to bounce back from a remote redundancy so tread lightly.
Do you like water and trees? Because that’s what you have to do here, water and trees. While Nanaimo might offer some entertainment, you’re likely to be spending most of you time outdoors here. This might be too little for some people but for avid hikers you are in a great place. Kayaks and crampons are the order of the day.
Who Should Move There?
People who want to live in the middle of nowhere in a great climate with easy access to beautiful nature.
St. Catharines, Ontartio
I hear you, I hear you. You can’t wean yourself off that GTA life, you need to be in Central Ontario to feel truly alive. The trouble is you’re not a millionaire or trust fund baby. We’ve got you. Located immediately across Lake Ontario from the Toronto megaplex is the hidden gem of St. Catherine’s. This city of 400,000 inhabitants is about 90 mins from Toronto in your car and you’ll even have public transport options for slightly longer journey times.
This option is basically your ‘almost Toronto’ choice given that you retain a large part of the access while sacrificing a significant part of the cost. Although it doesn’t really have any specific charm of itself, the city gives you a lot of options including nearby Buffalo and Hamilton.
The USP for St. Catharines is that is allows you to retain access to the big city life with affordable prices.
The climate in St. Catharines is pretty standard for Ontario. It never really gets too cold and never really gets too warm. The is a normal mix of rain and snow without going to far in any one direction. In climate terms, this choice is the vanilla option. With plenty of sunshine too you won’t be unhappy with the weather even if you’re not thrilled.
For Ontario, the rental prices in St. Catharines are very good value. You are likely looking at around $1,400 for a middle tier out of center apartment. There aren’t really any supply issues aside in terms of the general Toronto rush. You are effectively at the end of the line from Toronto to Mississauga, and Hamilton.
In terms of buying, you can find your $450,000 deal if you look hard enough but it is likely that the GTA squeeze will reach here eventually. You’re better off looking around the $600,000 which is obviously out of reach of the average worker, at least in the short term.
If you are getting paid a GTA salary however, you can be a homeowner here without the same level of hassle as you will experience in other similarly sized areas.
The jobs market in this area is very good. Ease of access to multiple urban centers and the strategic location of the city mean that a lot of opportunity flows through St. Catharines. If you are anxious about the future of remote work, this might be one of the more secure options for you.
Whatever you want. In real terms you will have access to most of the big ticket activities that Torontonians have just with added travel time. One thing you will be missing though is that ease of access to remote outdoors areas. Sure, there is nature nearby but you are effectively in the US/Canadian industrial borderlands. If you can live with that however, the world’s your oyster.
Who Should Move There?
People who want to maintain big city links but have there own smaller home area. People who need Toronto culture.
Absolutely nobody in the Canadian Personal Finance community will be surprised to see ‘Cowtown’ make the list. Calgary is also the only major city here (sorry Edmonton and Quebec) and with good reason. Sitting 100km east of the Rockies and ‘west of the rest’, Calgary is the one place that offers ammenities in the same league of Toronto or Vancouver.
A city of 1.5 million people, Calgary boasts all of the things that you would expect from a large city including sports, transport and entertainment. However, because the Oil & Gas industry is still lagging (and might be forever) the economy remains relatively depressed, meaning comparatively cheap.
While it is experiencing the crazy house price rises of other areas in Canada, the city itself represents a middle ground of affordability and opportunity.
The USP for Calgary is that it is a major city with medium city prices. It is also incredibly sunny (but not warm!)
The weather in Calgary can be temperamental but is generally split into three phases – winter, summer, and transition. Winter and Summer generally last 4 months with a 2 month transition either side. What does time mean? Well it means -30 in March and +30 in August.
The cold winters are offset by two critical factors though: Chinooks and Sunshine. A Chinook or Fohn Wind is basically a huge wall of warm air that zooms of the mountains straight into Southern Alberta, raising temperatures by as much as 20 degrees in a day! This means that during winter you get a couple of weeks of positive temperature. These winters are also very bright as Calgary boasts one of the highest amounts of sunlight annually of any Canadian city.
In a sentence Calgary weather is 25 degrees on Friday with snow on Saturday.
Rent in Calgary is incredibly reasonable. Downtown one bedroom apartments can be secured for as little at $900 with upmarket two beds running at about $1,700. Houses are in okay supply but with the latest explosion in purchases this is unlikely to continue.
With salaries broadly similar to Vancouver and the GTA (probably about 90% or so) this means a lot of bang for you buck. Unfortunately the purchasing market is not such great value. Average prices are hovering around the $550,000 and for something well located you are looking at $750,000 minimum. It’s better than the big boys but still super pricey on an average salary. Condos can be got for relatively cheap but renting is a better option given the condo fees here are pretty rough.
Other prices are generally similar to large cities. Beef is cheaper due to ‘Berta beef originating here but everything else is pretty standard.
The job market in Calgary remains depressed but it is still street ahead of every other place on this list. Still very much in recovery mode, there are jobs to be had but the time needed to find one can be pretty high (3 months+). In addition, anything technical that ex Oil workers can do will be vastly oversubscribed.
You will not have to pray for replacement remote work here if you lose your moving job.
Calgary is the vanilla ice cream of cities, it gets the job done. It has all of the sports, entertainment, and culture that you would need unless your really into something particularly niche. There is great access to nature but it’s not exactly on your doorstep. Overall you can do a little bit of everything with a lot of certain things (nature and hockey).
Who Should Move There?
People who want to live in a big city without pay big city prices. Casual outdoorsy people.
The Future of Work
If you are unsure whether remote working is here for the long term, you’re not alone. Many people can see employers reverting to traditional working styles. This is because companies have a long history of mistrust of employees and outside the box thinking. However, what you really have to ask yourself is this: Are there enough forward thinking companies in my industry to make remote working the standard?
If you work in an industry like ICT or Marketing, you are likely to have future remote employment options as a standard. If you are a teacher however, it might be a bit of a stretch. It is worth remembering though that a company that could remote work but doesn’t is not a company you should stay in for the long term.
Remote work is here to stay and you have a once in a lifetime opportunity to leverage it. If you can get to a low cost of living (LCOL) before the rat race do, you will be living the dream in no time.
If you always imagined a lifestyle that one of these cities can deliver, why not sit down, do a basic plan and take the leap into the Great White North. Just make sure your microphone isn’t muted!