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Rediscovering rural life

Oliver Douglas thought Green Acres was the place to be, moving from a New York penthouse to a farm in the 1960s TV comedy.

Hilarity ensued as the couple settled into a life in Hooterville.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is no laughing matter, but it appears to have created the desire in at least some urban dwellers to leave the city for small communities, acreages and farms.

Changes in how people live and work have changed their thinking about where they want to live and work.

Working at home can eliminate long commutes to offices. Social, or physical, distancing is much easier when there is more space. And with many forced into those changes, they are re-evaluating their lifestyles.

Media have reported on the phenomenon, particularly from larger centres like Toronto, but it’s happening on the Prairies, too.

Saskatchewan realtor Rory Clark, who leads the province’s top team at Clark Cullen Group, said sales of acreages, farm yards and small town properties have all gone up this year. Listings that had been “hanging around for a year or more” finally sold.

“All of a sudden interest started picking up,” he said.

Buyers run the gamut from people returning to their home areas to people from other provinces. They range from young people with children to those near retirement and looking at the next phase.

“In the last 12 months, we sold 16 acreages, everywhere from Central Butte to Esterhazy,” he said.

Old farmyards present an opportunity for sellers, he said. If they are able to subdivide yards from quarter-sections there could be buyers in the market.

Although the Saskatchewan Realtors Association doesn’t keep statistics on why people move, it seems likely that COVID-19 has played a role.

Chief executive officer Jason Yochim said there are many anecdotal reports of people moving because they need more space for everyone to work from home.

In its October sales report the realty firm Royal LePage noted that lower prices and low interest rates have driven sales.

“Demand has been highest in low-density areas and in lower price ranges,” said Corinne Lyall, broker and owner of Royal LePage Benchmark in Calgary. “We have also seen increased demand for properties outside of the city in our bedroom communities, especially recreational properties.”

It’s a similar situation around Edmonton, where properties within a two-hour drive are in demand.

“Travel plans are on hold and buyers are figuring out how they want to enjoy family holidays,” said Tom Shearer, owner and broker at Royal LePage Noralta Real Estate. “Shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines have buyers looking to the great outdoors to relax and escape the city.”

Ann-Marie Lurie, chief economist at the Alberta Real Estate Association, said sales in Calgary were down four percent to November this year, while in Airdrie on the outskirts of Calgary, they were up 15 percent. More rural locations saw similar results, she said, with Rockyview area up significantly.

There is no way to tell definitively why this is occurring but price is a factor. The average home price in Airdrie, compared to Calgary, is nearly $100,000 less, she said.

Many are looking to improve their lifestyles.

“As a result of social distancing measures and more people working from home, the true value of the home has risen,” said Michael Froese, managing partner of Royal LePage Prime Real Estate. “Winnipeggers are living, working and playing more at home. Whether it’s building a deck or moving to a new neighbourhood for more space, we are looking for ways to improve our lifestyle through our property.”

In its 2021 market outlook, Re/Max said it expects more people to relocate to lower-density cities and neighbourhoods, a good sign for rural revitalization. | File photo

Re/Max expects this to continue. In its 2021 market outlook, the company said people have been looking at lifestyle changes by relocating to lower-density cities and neighbourhoods.

“This has sparked unprecedented sales this year in suburban and rural parts of Canada and we expect this trend to continue,” said Christopher Alexander, executive vice-president and regional director of Ontario-Atlantic Canada.

The company found that the pandemic directly influenced only six percent of Canadians to sell, while 40 percent decided they needed to renovate and 29 percent needed more space.

Re/Max also said that when asked where they’d prefer to live — urban, suburban or rural — each category earned three in 10 votes.

As Clark pointed out, it’s not all roses to move to the country.

Many aren’t aware of the work involved when it comes to pushing snow or checking on a well. Food delivery options may be limited.

The big question mark is quality broadband, Clark said.

“We needed to prove that there was good internet access,” he said of buyer requests. Clients wanted to know they could work while children streamed live TV or classes.

Service is improving in some rural areas but has a ways to go in others.

Clark said many people have a romantic notion of what living in the country will be like, similar, perhaps, to what Oliver Douglas thought in moving to Hooterville. Still, he said it’s nice to see people making the move.

In an online piece published on TheConversation.com, S. Ashleigh Weeden, a PhD candidate in the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, said the shift won’t necessarily be what urbanites think once they discover fewer services and infrastructure.

“Rural communities need adaptive, place-based investments that ensure they are not just attractive to potential new residents, but healthy and supportive communities for the people already living there and future generations still to come,” Weeden wrote. “Shifting our priorities to purposeful investments in supporting vibrant, inclusive, prosperous and uniquely rural communities will make all of our futures brighter, no matter which dot on the map we call home.”

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