Home Buying

Are you meant to live in the suburbs?

Big houses with white picket fences and acres of land are what dreams are made of. Or are they? Here is the reality of living in the suburbs and how to tell if it's the right move for you
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Growing up, the common property we would see in television and movies was always the detached home with a white picket fence. The desire to own one of those otherwise illusive homes is still an aspiration for many Canadians. In fact, Environics Analytics found that in larger metropolitan cities, it’s more than a desire — it’s becoming reality to live in the suburbs. Toronto’s suburban population has grown by 7.7%, while inner-city growth was a more modest 4.5%. Vancouver and Montreal followed suit with substantial suburban growth in comparison to inner-city.

However, before making a big financial decision that greatly impacts your livelihood, there are some things to consider, such as the cost of commuting and overall lifestyle change. I’m one of those people who would opt for suburban living not only for cost but for personal reasons, as well. Growing up, I lived in a small city just outside of Calgary, Alberta. I felt a strong connection to my community and was fortunate enough to grow up with the same group of kids throughout all my years of schooling. There’s something special about that traditional suburban lifestyle that I love, although I realize it isn’t for everyone.

How does living in the suburbs affect your lifestyle?

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(Wikimedia Commons)

Depending on your hobbies, passions and the ways you prefer to spend your free time, the suburbs might hinder a lifestyle that is important to your happiness and well-being. After all, most of the suburban neighbourhoods in Canadian cities are isolated from central locations. But that doesn’t mean that all of them are limited as far as shopping, trendy restaurants and community events go. As inner-city markets and downtown metropolitan areas continue to develop, the density increases. This alone forces Canadians to choose a market where there is more space, more amenities, better pricing and better schools — which leads them to live in the suburbs.

Andrew Daniels, a suburban homeowner from Winnipeg, Manitoba, says his decision was easy. “We bought outside the city because the land was more affordable and gave us more space.” Daniels and his wife positioned their decision based on where they’d like to raise their kids, the strong sense of togetherness in a small community and the ability to choose their own builder. “In the city, developments are owned by individual building companies, so you are picking from preset builders if you want a particular lot.” Otherwise, Daniels says, if anything, suburban living has done the opposite of hinder their lifestyle. They have a tight-knit group of friends on their block, and their kids spend more time outdoors than they would if they lived in downtown Winnipeg.

The cost of inner-city vs. suburban living

Top neighbourhoods to find Vancouver condo rentals

Many homeowners choose to buy suburban properties merely for the fact that you get more bang for your buck when living in the suburbs. However, do the savings in the home outweigh the expenses they’ll incur commuting? One way to look at it is based on the future of technology. Barry Allen, Zolo co-founder and West Vancouver agent says, “the future of the suburbs is in mass-transit or self-driving cars.” But that doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t crunch the numbers. Allen noted that buying property in downtown Vancouver can run you an average of $1.6 million, whereas buying in a suburb or on the outskirts of inner-city will come in a more comfortable price range of $1 million. No matter where you choose to live — province or city — affordability is an issue for everyone, but the suburbs tend to be more affordable overall. This means the next thing to look at is how much your family will spend commuting back and forth between work and home.

MoneySense crunched the numbers based on how much the average family would need to earn to afford a detached home in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. The longer the commute to downtown, the less income a family will need to afford a home. For those who buy property that requires a 30-minute commute, you’ll need to earn an average income of $137,156 — with the highest income sitting at $233,813 for Vancouver and the lowest income sitting at $69,977 for Montreal. However, depending on the vehicle you drive and the work schedule you run, the annual cost of living — which includes commuting costs — could run you an average of $56,894 of that $137,156 income.

Most financial experts will tell Canadians to try to spend an average of 20% of their total income on housing. However, these added commuting costs force that 20% expense by more than half, bringing the total to 41% of their annual income spent on housing. “It’s important to crunch the numbers to determine what suburban living would cost you,” said Allen. “Sometimes averages don’t always tell the full story.”

5 questions to ask yourself before you buy a suburban home

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Now that we’ve looked at the lifestyle changes and financial burdens that living in the suburbs might have on a homeowner, it’s time to analyze what’s best for you and if you’re meant to live in the suburbs. What should you consider when you’re looking at the benefits and pitfalls of living in the suburbs?

  1. What is the overall affordability — including, on average, pricing per square foot?
  2. How much space do you need and how important is privacy?
  3. Are the amenities above or on par with inner-city properties?
  4. How is community engagement and how would this affect your current social circle?
  5. Do the costs of commuting affect your decision?

Personally, the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls when it comes to living outside of downtown Calgary, Alberta. As someone who works remotely, commuting would not affect my housing equation and, if anything, it would benefit our overall annual cost of living. As for social isolation, the suburban communities we have researched seem to have a better neighbourhood ranking than those that sit in the inner-city. The characteristics used to calculate those neighbourhoods included access to parks and pathways, crime rates, walking score, access to restaurants, cafés and pubs, and community engagement.

It’s never an easy decision to make when deciding what neighbourhood is best for you and your lifestyle, but by doing the appropriate research and finding the answers to these five questions can help you determine whether living in the suburbs is for you.

Alyssa Davies
Alyssa Davies

Alyssa is a personal finance blogger who focuses on mixing finances with laughter. Through her blog, Mixed Up Money, she helps people relate, learn and become inspired. She recently joined Zolo as the content specialist and brings her passion for property and smart money matters to this growing brand.