Location is top factor for job hunters faced with steep housing costs

Sky-high real estate prices are making location-based career decisions increasingly common.

Being able to pay a mortgage on one salary helps draw a Toronto couple to Victoria

Cyndi Whaley, husband Vince Piette and their son Theo enjoy the beach in their new city, Victoria. Whaley, an environmental scientist with a PhD in atmospheric physics, took a job in B.C.'s capital in part because its housing is more affordable than Toronto's. (Submitted by Cyndi Whaley)

Cyndi Whaley and her family left Toronto two and a half months ago for Victoria.

Toronto has more job prospects in her field of environmental science. But the Victoria position that drew the family west came with something else — a ticket out of a red-hot housing market.

Although Victoria real estate is not cheap, the family's prospects for buying a house seem much better there.

During their time in Toronto, Whaley says, she and husband Vince Piette wanted to buy a house with a yard for their six-year-old son, Theo.

"We were looking for about a year in our neighbourhood. We tried two offers on different places and we got outbid on both," says Whaley, who has a PhD in atmospheric physics. "And they were near our max budget anyway."

Although the couple is renting in Victoria while they look for the right home, Whaley said houses comparable to the ones they looked at in Toronto are about $300,000 cheaper there. Plus, it's become feasible that they could carry a mortgage on just her salary while her husband completes a master's degree at the University of Victoria.

Location-based career decisions like Whaley's are becoming increasingly common. A recent survey of 1,500 people in Canada and the United States who had either been hired or had turned down a job in the last year found that location has emerged as the most influential factor when considering job offers.

Conducted by Hanover Research on behalf of human resources software company Ceridian, the survey found 68 per cent of respondents said they were influenced by a job's location. That's slightly higher than said those who said salary factors into their decisions (66 per cent), as well as work-life balance (also 66 per cent) and growth opportunities (57 per cent).

Job recruiters face challenges

Lisa Sterling, Ceridian's chief people and culture officer, says real estate market costs "absolutely" have an impact on job decisions, and that poses challenges for companies who want to recruit and keep top talent in a tight labour market.

That's definitely an issue in the competition for tech staff in the company's Greater Toronto Area offices, where Ceridian employs 500 developers. 

"The war for talent is becoming more profound in technology as more and more companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Pinterest are opening up offices and kind of creating the Silicon Valley of Canada right in Toronto. That obviously has implications on us because we're trying to recruit and select the same people," she says.

The company's cohort of younger staffers — more recent university graduates — live in downtown Toronto and commute on the subway. "But we're starting to see that transition now. As they're aging a little bit and starting to move on in their personal lives, a lot of them are wanting to move out to the suburbs. We even have people who have moved up to Waterloo because it's significantly less expensive to purchase a home or build a home there."

Remote work and telecommuting

That's prompting companies like hers to get better equipped for both full remote workers and part-time telecommuters, even in job categories where face-to-face collaboration with colleagues was considered essential until recently.

"We've empowered them to get their work done in a way that works for them and in a way that suits their family life."

If employees with competitive tech salaries and scientists with PhDs like Whaley are struggling to get into real estate markets in Canada's biggest cities, the problem is even more acute for those in service industries.

One Vancouver bagel shop famously closed for several weeks due to staffing shortages, and a study from the Business Development Bank of Canada found that 45 per cent of B.C. businesses reported difficulty finding workers.

Googling "Why I'm leaving Vancouver" will bring up dozens of videos and blog posts by people with a range of occupations explaining why they can't afford to live there anymore, with the recurring theme of out-of-reach real estate.

Sara Lanthier and her nine-year-old son Will hold the 'Sold' sign the evening they sold their Toronto home Nov. 1, 2017. (Michelle Declair)

Sara Lanthier wasn't looking for a toehold in the real estate market when she left Toronto for London, Ont., late last year. The marketing account manager had bought in years before becoming a single mom to nine-year-old Will. But the cost of living in one of Canada's most expensive cities contributed significantly to the stress of day-to-day life.

Lanthier says she loved her Toronto home and neighbourhood, but "couldn't do anything else." They couldn't afford any extras like travel or ski lessons for Will.

A stressful period at work and a well-timed real estate brochure in the mail that told her what she could get for her house prompted Lanthier to weigh other options.

"I just started to think about it and it became clear really quickly that I needed to make a change."

Mortgage-free in a cheaper city

Lanthier sold her Toronto home and bought a bigger one, mortgage-free, in the city her sister also calls home.

Initially she quit her job and, after taking some time off to regroup, including an epic European vacation with her son last summer, she planned to find a new job in London.

But her former employer offered her some freelance work she could do off-site and then a job, complete with benefits, that she's able to do at her preferred 30 hours per week — all from home. 

Her son used to be in daycare before and after school, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but now she's able to greet him everyday after school at 3:30. "It's life-changing."

"That whole financial pressure which also added to my stress is just gone." 

About the Author

Brandie Weikle

CBC News

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in parenting and health. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.