Ontario: Youth movement in Barrie

Benefiting from its location and infrastructure, Barrie has become a prime destination in Ontario for young families and their real estate dollars. And unlike some other hotspots, this city has remained affordable as well.

Residents have access to the jobs, recreation and culture they seek without a big city price tag.

Located about 90 minutes by car from Toronto's downtown, Barrie alternatively offers residents a more relaxing commute on the Go Train, which opened about two years ago and takes about a similar amount of time as driving. Commuting to the outskirts of Toronto takes less than an hour and drivers have good highway access to the rest of Ontario as well.

The city also has swimmable beaches, nearby ski opportunities and trails for Rollerblading, walking and biking. Cultural highlights include the Gryphon Theatre, the Barrie Molson Centre and the MacLaren Art Centre.

There's a solid demand in rentals too, backed by the Royal Victoria Hospital, a regional health-care facility, and Georgian College, which offers university programs and has more than 8,000 students. Both are set for expansion.

"What drives the market is the affordability compared to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)," says Peter Clarke, owner of Elite Access Realty Inc. "And the train makes it feasible for couples with young children to afford a home and continue to work in downtown Toronto."

Statistics Canada has ranked Barrie as the youngest CMA in Canada in 2006, with 21.3 per cent of the population below the age of 15. It also ranked it the fasted growing CMA at that time, above even Calgary and Edmonton.

Retirees have also taken to Barrie lately, especially drawn to its waterfront condos. Barrie's population is expected to swell from 136,000 to 210,000 by 2020.

Clarke says new residents weigh the financial gains over any commuting hassle. He says a mid-aged condo owner in Toronto could sell their property for about $400,000 and get a much larger house in Barrie. "You get a lot more housing for your dollar," says Clarke. "Plus it's safer and younger. You see a lot of moms walking their kids to school. Out here, you often have one parent working and the other staying at home."

The most typical house in Barrie would be a three-or-four-bedroom with two-baths, a double garage and a price tag of about $260,000 to $270,000, says Clarke. This home would usually be about 2,000 square feet or less. For investors, a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half-baths would rent from $1,200 to $1,400 per month, he says. A two-bedroom townhouse would rent for about $900 to $1,100.

Most of the growth in the city has been in South Barrie in the last few years, where most properties are aged less than 10 years. These areas offer a mix of properties, though, not just detached homes. Those southern borders are likely set for more growth soon. As of October 2009, Parliament has passed a second reading of the Barrie-Innisfil Boundary Adjustment Act, which would transfer nearly 2,300 hectares of land south of the city to Barrie by Jan. 1, 2010.

The rental market has stalled somewhat in Barrie, based on the numbers. The vacancy rate, once below one per cent about eight years ago, has risen again to 3.5 per cent in 2008, according to the Canadian Housing Observer.

Clarke attributes much of that to a need for better planning, as he feels there's still rental demand. It's just in different price sectors than what's being offered.

"What drives the rental market is the Georgian College and the expansion of the Royal Victoria Hospital," he says. "The problem is the city needs to work on some of the zoning to allow for some more affordable rentals. There's often not enough."

Investors can also take heart in an improved unemployment rate, which peaked at 11.9 per cent in April and May in 2009, but dropped back down to 7.9 per cent by September 2009, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). CMHC also says average home price also rose for the first month since May 2009, to $265,755 in September 2009, from $263,271 in August 2009.

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