It’s called “driving until you qualify” and it’s the trade-off a growing number of Toronto-area residents are making — commuting longer distances in exchange for the lower carrying costs of a suburban home.
But a new study from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) released Tuesday provides fresh evidence of what many have long suspected — that the cost of commuting into Toronto actually eats up the savings homebuyers seek by locating in 905-area communities such as East Gwillimbury, Newmarket, Mississauga, Whitchurch-Stouffville and Caledon.
In the study that is based on 2016 census data and median GTA housing costs, some consumers still came out ahead in relatively low-priced housing markets such as Oshawa and Clarington. In Georgina, for example, the monthly carrying cost of a house was calculated at $2,476, compared to $4,319 in Toronto, and the cost of commuting was $1,079 per month versus $115 in Toronto.
Moving outside the city isn’t always about money, said one of the researchers behind the report, titled GTA Location and Commuting Choices: The Effect of Commutes on Lower Priced Suburban Housing.
“There are other factors like the environment or they have family reasons or they prefer bigger property sizes and the amenities some of the suburbs offer,” said CMHC senior analyst Andrew Scott.
That is likely the case for commuters in places such as Richmond Hill where the report put the cost of housing higher than Toronto — $6,047 a month — in addition to $311 more in commuting costs.
In Burlington, the researchers calculated a small difference in overall costs with combined housing and commuting costs of $4,216 a month — only about $200 more than the $4,424 of Toronto — but with an additional 23 hours a month of commuting time.
Wes Hutchings, 37, who works as a banker, is one such Burlington resident. While waiting in Union Station for his evening train Tuesday, he said he’s not sure if it’s cheaper for him to live outside Toronto.
“I think it is right now, but I’ve never tried to work it out,” he said, noting his trip home takes about an hour.
“There are other factors why I want to live out there: family and friends, my personal life. I don’t know if it’s cheaper. Costs are going up everywhere.”
Scott said it is the first time the national housing agency has looked at the cost of housing in the Toronto area in conjunction with the price of commuting.
When it comes to deciding where to locate, “We wanted people to think about that (commuting) cost, which may not be front and centre when they’re making the home purchase,” Scott said.
Milton commuters such as Chris Redhead spend an average of 23 hours more each month commuting than those in Toronto, the CMHC estimates. The report puts the cost of carrying a house in Milton at $3,389 and the average commute at $567.
Redhead and her husband moved to Mississauga from Sudbury 13 years ago for job offers in Toronto. (He has since become self-employed.)
“When it came time to buy a house, we couldn’t afford Mississauga so we moved to Milton,” she said.
For years, her commute was a life-sapping ordeal to the Don Mills Rd. and Eglinton Ave. area, a two-hour trip one-way by transit.
After a 12-hour day, Redhead said, “You get home, you don’t want to do anything. You don’t have any energy left to even do the most basic things at night.”
A job change a couple of years ago has halved Redhead’s commute. She spends about $400 a month on the GO train between Milton and Union Station and walks to her work near Adelaide and Yonge Sts.
The numbers and her well-being make transit the best choice, she said.
“If you add that to a mortgage payment or you factor it into the cost of a car payment it’s still less expensive in the long run,” Redhead said.
Although they enjoy theatre and dining, she said she can’t imagine trading her commute for city living. Redhead figures her 2,100-square-foot townhouse in Milton is worth about the same $700,000 a friend recently paid for a 700-square-foot condo near Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave.
CMHC confirms that transit costs less than driving. But it takes an additional 15 minutes each way on average.
Scott said every household is different and assigning simple averages to commuting and home ownership was difficult. For example, the study factors in only a single commuter per household but many would have more than one.
“If you look at someone in Oshawa, where even when you add in the commuting costs that we estimated ($702 per month), there is still savings to moving to Oshawa. But if there’s another commuter on top of it, it starts to not look as great,” he said.
Researchers estimated monthly carrying costs of a detached house figuring that was the most likely draw for moving outside the city. In 16 out of 21 GTA communities median home prices ranged from $57,551 to $489,304 less than a similar dwelling inside Toronto’s borders.
The study is based on 2016 Statistics Canada census data and January 2016 median home prices reported by the Toronto Real Estate Board.
Statistics suggest more commuters are travelling further, with the number of people who spend one hour or more one way increasing 16 per cent between 2011 and 2016. The number of people who travelled 45 to 59 minutes climbed about 14 per cent in the same period.
Among the GTA’s 2.6 million commuters, half travel to jobs in the city of Toronto. A full two-thirds of those are Torontonians. But there are significant percentages of commuters in 905-area municipalities who also travel to Toronto — including 53 per cent of Pickering commuters and more than 48 per cent of those from Ajax.
Only about 27 per cent of Mississauga commuters travel to Toronto, probably because that city has its own significant employment base.
Commuting costs were also lower in Toronto because more people use transit — 40 per cent compared to only 21 per cent of 905-area commuters who ride public transit. Sixty-seven per cent of 905-area commuters drove to work.
With files from Peter Howell
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski