Move from big city to small town means a step up in work-life balance

Aminah Haghighi’s family of four hightailed it out of Toronto last year, joining the pandemic-driven exodus of urbanites in search of a better life.

Smart move? Oh yeah.

With her partner working remotely, Haghighi is realizing her dream of starting a farm on their 1.2-hectare (three-acre) property in Hillier, a tiny hamlet in Prince Edward County, less than two hours east of Toronto. For a mortgage payment of just under $ 2,000 a month, the couple and their daughters, aged one and two-and-a-half, live in a spacious four-bedroom country home.

“We couldn’t justify the cost of living anymore, paying for a lifestyle we no longer had access to,” she says of COVID’s impact and their $ 3,800-a-month rent. Following a friend’s real estate purchase in Hillier and an introduction to the joys of rural life, they decided to move.

A record 50,375 Torontonians transplanted themselves in the 12 months preceding last August, according to a Statistics Canada report. Drawn by work-from-home options and personal well-being in smaller communities, they were simultaneously driven out by job shortages and ever-rising housing costs. With the average price of a Toronto home topping $ 1 million, you can still buy a place in many out-of-town locations for half that, RATESDOTCA’s recent “Livability Report” reveals.

Chris Morello, who unexpectedly bought a century home after fleeing the city last year, has already started planting young trees on his riverside property in the small town of Dorchester, Ont.

The comparison site for mortgage and insurance rates ranked 166 Canadian cities and towns based on several criteria, including average home price. A few Ontario examples as of last December: Niagara-on-the-Lake, $ 515,000; Peterborough, $ 501,100; Owen Sound, $ 384,800; Stratford, $ 419,400; Goderich, $ 419,400.

While uprooting the family was a tough decision, Haghighi, 30, says the lure of home ownership — impossible in Toronto — was irresistible.

“For what we were paying for rent, we now own a house and car,” she says, detailing payments on their $ 440,000 home, $ 75,000 renovation and vehicle purchase.

Their heated garage is alive with trays of microgreens, the product of a new business venture called Raining Gold Family Growers. With plans to plant crops outside this spring and make weekly deliveries to Toronto, the new farmer raised most of her $ 10,000 start-up costs by selling shares in the CSA (community-supported agriculture) operation.

While the community has been supportive of a BIPOC woman in the “white male-dominated world of farming,” the only downside of their new home turf is the lack of diversity, Haghighi observes.

That’s one of the factors Audra Williams included on her website for would-be movers called “Ninety minutes from Toronto.” On pre-pandemic road trips, Williams and her partner, Haritha Gnanaratna, “didn’t see a lot of people of colour.” So last July, with city folks in full flight, she compiled data on everything from culture to Pride celebrations for about 60 towns and cities in southern Ontario.

“It definitely resonates with people,” says Williams, who happily rents an apartment in Parkdale with Gnanaratna. “My dream is that people will find a place they want to move to and get excited about.”

People, for example, like Dr. Rupinder Dhaliwal, who opened Fenelon Dental with his wife in Fenelon Falls last December in pursuit of a better work-life balance and to help meet the demand for dental services outside the GTA.

The 30-something Dhaliwal can leave his Fenelon Falls practice at 5 p.m., and, in less than an hour, be back at his home in Whitby, unwinding, while his Toronto colleagues don’t get home before 8 p.m. He also finds his patients more easygoing and appreciative.

“In Toronto, patients would come 20 or 30 minutes late; here they come 10 minutes early,” says Dhaliwal, noting he and his wife, Dr. Kiran Gosal, talk to their neighbours “more than we ever did in the big city.”

While Gosal still has a practice in Scarborough, Dhaliwal works full time in Fenelon Falls, where his patients include 115 members of one family. The couple plan to buy a second home or cottage in Kawartha Lakes, 90 minutes northeast of Toronto.

New farmer Aminah Haghighi is growing microgreens in the heated garage of her home in Prince Edward County where her family of four moved last year to escape the high cost of city living and embrace rural life.

Dhaliwal and Gosal initially bought an existing practice in Fenelon Falls, then purchased an old grocery store nearby, tripling their office space in a six-month, $ 1-million project in 2020. They also rent out four apartments above the 3,000-square-foot office.

“We’re here for the long haul,” says Dhaliwal, observing that relocating was “100 per cent” the right move for him, his business and the community.

And there was an unexpected bonus: The local bakery makes $ 10 sandwiches that are big enough for two meals, says Dhaliwal, who estimates his personal expenses are now 25 per cent lower.

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For Christopher Morello, escaping the locked-down city to his aunt and uncle’s basement in Dorchester, two hours away, led to an unplanned house purchase.

When the 26-year-old digital manager for a travel company stumbled across the century home in the town of 4,000 near London, Ont., “I just knew right away, omigosh, this is it…it’s now or never.”

Feeling a “deep connection” to the 2,500-square-foot house that backs onto a river and conservation land, he decided to “plant roots and be a steward to this riverside oasis, similar to how my grandma lived and how I know I wanted to live.”

Morello, who was paying $ 1,300 a month for his share of a rented downtown condo, declines to give the purchase price, though the house is proving costly to fix up. But it’s become the focus of a nature-based project called Le Host in which he rents out co-living and co-working space.

Every dollar spent contributes to “a sense of security I didn’t have before,” says Morello, adding that his financial planning strategy included “trusting I’d know what to do when the moment was right.”

CV

Carola Vyhnak is a Cobourg-based writer covering personal finance, home and real-estate stories. She is a contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: cvyhnak@gmail.com

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