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Simcoe County becoming final destination for much of Toronto's exodus

As more people work from home due to COVID, 'we are the No. 1 area for people that are moving out of Toronto,' says Sarah Stevens

When Katrina Foster and her husband decided it was time to move out of their Etobicoke basement apartment and into their own digs, they knew they would be heading out of town.

“We wanted a full-on house and we knew Toronto wasn’t an option,” said the human resources specialist.

Personal connections drew them to Bradford and the GO Train service meant she could still commute to her job in downtown Toronto.

It was also a great spot for her husband, a self-employed electrician with a shop in Aurora who works in locations all over, mostly out of the Toronto area.

When the pandemic hit just before the house closed there was some initial panic, but things went well. Then Foster landed a decent job nearby in Newmarket a week after moving, but another offer beckoned her back to Toronto.

By that time, the pandemic-induced work-from-home routine was in full gear, so she set up office in her new house in Bradford and drove in once per week. 

Since the arrival of the pandemic’s second wave, she’s been working from her home office full-time.

Foster is among the many now installed in offices in their homes who also realize they no longer need to be so geographically tied to their workplace, resulting in a recognized movement of people out of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). 

While real estate sales continue to be brisk there, the number of condominium units hitting the market was double this October compared to October 2019, according to the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board. There have also been reports that rental vacancies have opened up in Toronto and lower rental demand is driving down rental prices.

And as the pandemic persists and work-from-home opportunities flourish, Simcoe County has become the destination of choice for Toronto’s pandemic exodus, says a local housing market expert.

“We are the No. 1 area for people that are moving out of Toronto,” said Sarah Stevens, who teaches economics at Georgian College and is also a professional speaker, real estate coach and realtor.

She points to a higher increase in home sales in Simcoe County than all surrounding areas: Dufferin County, Durham, Halton, York, and Peel regions.

“People are moving to Simcoe County first," Stevens said. 

Housing markets across the country are defying expectations amid the COVID-induced recession, with 23 of the 27 largest cities reporting increased sales and values, according to Statistics Canada.

Barrie has long been considered a destination for residential real estate investors, often in tandem with Orillia, as an attractive place to invest in real estate, frequently landing on the Real Estate Investment Network’s top-10 list in the past.

The prospect of cheaper real estate outside of the GTA combined with a more relaxed lifestyle with ready access to the outdoors has historically put Barrie on the radar as does its vicinity to the GTA, right along a major highway, ready access to services and on the doorstep of cottage country.

Those are once again considered factors as Toronto-area residents pivoting to work-from-home situations during the pandemic find it no longer necessary to live in the Big Smoke. 

Earlier this year, researchers with Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research predicted that movement and the current surge in Toronto condo availability. In a March report, Diana Petramala and Hannah Chan Smyth wrote that Toronto is the largest net loser of people to out-migration and they identified Simcoe County — along with Halton and Durham regions — as among the largest beneficiaries.

To American urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who is a professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, that all makes sense.

“With remote work, people are no longer tied to the conventional suburbs. Farther-out places with wonderful waterfronts and amenities, like Barrie, are now very much in the mix,” said Florida, who has penned several books on his concept of the creative class and its implications for urban regeneration.

“We don’t have to worry about commuting and all of a sudden the rock is turned over on the hidden gem and people are moving to Barrie and Orillia,” added Stevens. “We have the lifestyle that almost everyone has been wanting.”

And that sales trend stretches right into Muskoka, which is reporting its strongest year on record as well.

But it’s all a bit of a head-scratcher, even for those who work in the industry.

The pandemic has put the economy in a slump. Stevens points to the key economic indicators: the gross domestic product was down 11.5 per cent during the second quarter of 2020; inflation was at 0.5 per cent and unemployment at 8.9 per cent.

The third quarter is expected to show some recovery.

During the early part of the pandemic, the stock market nearly took a nose dive and the real estate market slumped.

“What we’re seeing right now is we have this wealth effect that is carrying on and the stock market is still strong,” said Stevens.

She suspects that as people have been largely confined to their homes during the pandemic, where they also began to start working, they found some shortcomings.

So they started surfing real estate ads, in addition to cars — which also saw an increase in sales. And home sales started climbing.

“All of the people moving out of the Toronto market… people want space for a home office now, which maybe they didn’t plan for before, or they want some extra space in the home overall,” said Stevens. 

She points to the dramatic shift in local house values. The average price of a Simcoe County home in March was $569,000. As of October, that value was $707,743.

In September, there were 1,041 active listings in Simcoe County with 810 sales. In October, there were 692 new listings and 757 sales, picking up some of the homes listed the previous month.

From September to October, month-over-month values increased 2.73 per cent in Simcoe County, according to the Barrie and District Association of Realtors (BDAR).

During that month, Barrie homes rose by 5.38 per cent; Collingwood by 1.48 per cent; Innisfil by 13.46 per cent; Midland recorded a drop of 9.84 per cent, although Penetanguishene went up 25.57 per cent; Orillia also saw a drop of 6.42 per cent. 

Bradford West Gwillimbury, with year-to-date average values of $773,864, recorded no sales in October.

“I’m happy we bought in January,” Foster says now from her detached home on a nice court within walking distance of Bradford’s downtown and no longer needing to commute from home.

At least for now.