Pandemic spurs cross-country home-buying trek

From nature’s allure to employment concerns, one Canadian couple’s moving story

Kevin Milne and Natalie Kwok, who moved to the Lower Mainland from Ontario, are part of a homebuyers wave driving the B.C. market during the pandemic | Chung Chow

Most people would not be inclined to move across the country in the midst of a pandemic. But for Natalie Kwok and her husband, Kevin Milne, the pandemic was motivation to do something they had always talked about: move from their townhouse in Toronto’s Stouffville suburb to a condo on Burnaby Mountain.

“COVID just made us re-evaluate our lives,” said Kwok “It’s now or never.”

Life in Greater Toronto involves long work commutes, expensive entertainment options and long drives to rural escapes. Kwok and Milne liked the idea of having ready access to Vancouver’s forests, waterways and mountains while enjoying the benefits of city living.

Like many local homebuyers, they had to deal with property viewing restrictions and rely on their real estate agent to teach them about the Lower Mainland’s different neighbourhoods and arrange virtual tours.

Their timing was good. Late 2020 opened a relatively inexpensive window in which to buy a condo in an urban region. The couple bought their condo in November, during the height of the pandemic, when Vancouver condo values had dropped 8% compared with January 2020.

However, the cross-country move wasn’t all West Coast sunsets and cherry blossoms. Kwok and Milne had concerns about making the trek safely and chose to travel more than 4,000 kilometres by car. They also had to make the costly choice of moving their furniture across Canada rather than buying everything new in Vancouver. The slowdown in the secondary online marketplace due to COVID-19 concerns limited the couple’s options to sell their things or buy used furniture when they arrived in B.C. No one wanted to meet a stranger to exchange a wardrobe. But what they lost the most sleep over was being able to find jobs in the area.

“Most people told us we were lucky to have a job [during the pandemic] before we move,” said Kwok, “and that we shouldn’t rock the boat.”

Kwok had previously worked in logistics while Milne worked in construction. The region’s skilled-trades shortage and B.C.’s decision to keep the construction sector open during the pandemic meant that demand for labour was high. Milne had a job before the couple hit the Rockies.

“If you’re in construction, there are jobs everywhere,” said Milne. “You can do anything pretty much out here, that’s one of the things that attracted me to it.”

Milne saw so much demand for skilled labour that he has persuaded several of his colleagues in Ontario to consider making the move. Kwok, on the other hand, had a more difficult time and was concerned about corporate cutbacks and hiring freezes during the pandemic. But she was able find employment after a few months in the Lower Mainland.

Milne doesn’t think that buying a home 4,000 kilometres away would have been much different pre-pandemic because while he and Kwok might have been able to make additional trips to see houses, the distance would have forced them to do a lot of their property searching remotely. •