On the outskirts of the small Ontario town of Shelburne, about an hour and a half drive northwest of Toronto, there is a subdivision filled with brand new homes. There's not much space between them, no grass planted in the front yards, and it's still a construction zone — but Berta Dias is a big fan of where she lives.
She moved in a year ago with her husband and three kids. "We love it here," she said while walking down the sidewalk, her young son biking alongside her. "It's so peaceful."
Dias said she likes how quiet and friendly the small town is, but there's another reason the family ended up in Shelburne: "I could never afford a house in Toronto, or even Mississauga."
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Dias's husband works in the Toronto area, so living in Shelburne means his alarm clock goes off way earlier than it did when the family lived in Brampton, more than 60 kilometres to the south.
He's not alone. Dias said the couple has several friends who get up before the crack of dawn to commute to Toronto.
"They do it every day, they leave around 4:30, 5 o'clock," said Dias. For his job with Rogers, her husband is some days driving as far as Niagara Falls, and then back to Shelburne. "He doesn't mind," she said. "It's worth the commute."
Market is 'absurd'
A small community at the crossroads of two highways, Shelburne is perhaps best known for a heritage music festival held every summer. It's just one of the smaller communities north of the GTA experiencing the consequences of Toronto's skyrocketing home prices.
Some who work in the real estate industry in communities stretching as far as Barrie, describe what's happening in the region north of Toronto as "absurd," "insane," and unprecedented.
Properties that used to sit on the market for months are selling within days, getting multiple offers, and selling for way, way over the asking price.
"I've never seen anything like this in my 26 years," said Sharon Grant, a real estate agent with Royal LePage in Shelburne. "We follow Toronto. Whatever is happening there is happening here, too."
And in Toronto, prices keep rising and bidding wars are becoming routine.
In March, the Toronto Real Estate Board said the average price of a detached home in the GTA was $1.2 million, a more than 33 per cent increase from the previous year. In the city of Toronto, the average price of a detached home was even higher: $1.56 million.
That has prompted some Torontonians who can't afford to buy in their own city to look farther and farther afield for a home.
Then there are the homeowners, perhaps closer to retirement than first-time buyers, who are selling in Toronto to cash in while the market is hot. They are pocketing their profits and seeking cheaper homes outside the city. Some real estate agents say they've also noticed more foreign buyers looking for small town properties.
Now demand for homes in Shelburne, Orangeville and their surroundings, is spiking, and so are prices. Shelburne's population is swelling (more than 8,000 now, up from about 5,846 in 2011) and there are more new subdivisions, and a big box store complex on the way.
Like the Dias family, Scott and Kim Cunningham and their three kids are among Shelburne's newest residents, living in one of the recently-built homes. For Scott Cunningham, it was a homecoming to the town he grew up in — but not one he was seeking.
"Shelburne was the last place we wanted to live," his wife said in a phone interview.
They lived in Orangeville, about 25 km south of Shelburne, and wanted to stay. But when they set out last year to find a bigger home it proved impossible within their budget. They kept getting outbid, despite taking measures to beat their competition, including forgoing inspections.
'If you aren't aggressive, you aren't going to get a house.' - Kim Cunningham
When they got priced out in Orangeville, they turned to Shelburne and jumped on the subdivision property when it came up, paying $482,000.
Cunningham said for buyers like her family, the days of taking your time before making a decision are gone.
"If you aren't aggressive, you aren't going to get a house."
They moved in November and she likes Shelburne, but admits to feeling frustrated that they couldn't buy in Orangeville. That's where her husband works and she commutes an hour south to Brampton.
She didn't explicitly blame the "city folks" for their housing fate but admitted to thinking, "Why can't you just stay in the city?"
Grant, the Royal LePage agent, was the one who convinced the Cunninghams to look in Shelburne. She and other agents in the area say local buyers are getting squeezed out.
"Local people are having difficulty buying houses within their own town, they can't afford them anymore," she said.
The outsiders have brought more traffic with them, say locals, but Grant said a more positive change is the increasing cultural diversity in what used to be a mostly white town. "
"I think it's great," she said, noting the No Frills grocery store carries new products for a more ethnically diverse population.
'I'm caught in between'
Outside the Royal LePage office on Shelburne's Main Street, Sharon Hibberd stared at listings in the window, mystified by what she saw. The average price for a freehold home in Shelburne is now $473,743, up 23 per cent from this time last year.
"I'm shaking my head," said Hibberd. "I'm a senior citizen and I feel sorry for the younger families trying to make a life for themselves. It's crazy out there," the 74-year-old said.
She has concerns about people her own age, too. Hibberd lives on a roughly 50-hectare farm in Mulmur, a few kilometres away, and like many others her age, she wants to downsize. But prices are rising so high she's worried about what she can afford once she sells.
"I'm not ready for a nursing home yet. I'm caught in between. I'm not quite sure what to do," said Hibberd, who was wearing a white baseball cap with "Happy" stitched on the front. She was on the way to the hairdresser.
The hat didn't reflect her nostalgic mood, however, as she talked about how life in small town Ontario is changing.
"It used to be a little town. It's getting pretty busy now. I can't get over the traffic," she said. "For me, I liked it the way it used to be, but maybe that's a generation thing."
'This area used to be beautiful, and now all you see is homes.' - Meryl Bailie
Over at the Tim Hortons, Meryl Bailie was feeling equally nostalgic and said places like Shelburne and Orangeville, where she lives, are losing their small-town charm.
"This area used to be beautiful, and now all you see is homes," Bailie, 85, said while sitting in a booth with her daughter Wendy. They meet every Tuesday for coffee, usually in Orangeville about 20 minutes away, but this past week drove up the highway to Shelburne for a change.
Bailie said she used to know everyone in her town, but not anymore. "It's all strangers," she said. "It makes me feel like I don't belong here anymore."