TORONTO — Earlier this year, Meghan Morrison and her fiance made the difficult decision to add two hours of commuting onto their day in order to pursue their dream of owning a house.
The couple could have purchased a condo in the Toronto area, where they both work, but Morrison says they wanted more space to be able to engage in their hobbies and, eventually, start a family.
"We looked at new builds in Toronto and it's just like, oh my gosh, $400,000 for 600 square feet,'' says Morrison, 26.
In January, the couple will be moving into their newly purchased, two-storey brick home in Barrie, Ont., complete with a two-car garage and a large, fenced-in yard for their French bulldog to play in.
"It was a really tough decision,'' Morrison says. "We struggled with it for a long time. But we just couldn't see ourselves living in a condo forever.''
"We looked at new builds in Toronto and it's just like, oh my gosh, $400,000 for 600 square feet."
With home prices in Toronto, Vancouver and their surrounding areas soaring increasingly out of reach, many first-time buyers are being forced to either move out of the city or reconsider their home ownership dreams.
But in oil-producing provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland — where the plummet in the price of crude has hampered economic growth — the picture is starkly different.
Phil Soper, president of Royal LePage, says sales volumes are down about 20 per cent in Alberta from their long-term average.
"The regional disparities are as great as I've ever seen them,'' Soper says.
Phil Soper listens during the Bloomberg Canada Economic Summit in Toronto on May 21, 2013. (Photo: Galit Rodan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
"Depending on your views, it was one of the toughest years in the housing market since the Great Recession, or it's crazy overheated and the government should step in and do something about it.''
CIBC deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal predicts softer markets in Toronto and Vancouver in the year ahead, as government changes — including the 15 per cent tax on foreign buyers in Vancouver and federal mortgage rules changes — are felt.
"The regional disparities are as great as I've ever seen them."
Both the B.C. and Ontario governments have also announced efforts lately to help first-time buyers get into the market.
The B.C. government launched a plan to offer loans to help first-time homebuyers get into the real estate market. The loans are interest-free and payment-free for the first five years.
"Clearly 2016 has been, from a policy perspective, a very important year that will impact the trajectory of the housing market in the coming years,'' Tal said.
Soper says price growth is expected to slow in the Greater Toronto Area, and possibly reverse in Vancouver, but there could be a return to moderate growth in Alberta and other oil-producing regions.
The new mortgage rules introduced by Ottawa in October, which require all insured mortgages to undergo a stress test, will likely cause some would-be buyers to keep renting instead, Tal said.
"I do think that the rental market will be even tighter,'' he said.
That could spell trouble for people like Nicole Silver, a 23-year-old marketing and public relations professional in the Toronto area.
"I do think that the rental market will be even tighter."
After spending years living at home with her family to save money, Silver was ready to put down a $60,000 to $70,000 down payment on a condo this fall.
But she soon discovered that even condo prices had climbed out of her reach.
Nicole Silver is pictured in a Toronto condo development on Saturday. (Photo: Chris Young/Canadian Press)
"If I had done this a little bit earlier, like a couple of months earlier, maybe it would have been better,'' Silver says. "I feel like every month it's getting worse and worse.''
Although she's still keeping an eye on the market, Silver says she's more or less resigned herself to renting.
"I don't want to just be paying rent to live in someone else's home,'' she says. "I'm not very happy with that, but it's just the reality.''
Heather Rollwagen, assistant professor of sociology at Ryerson University, says home ownership is important to many Canadians because it's culturally constructed as economic security.
"I don't want to just be paying rent to live in someone else's home. I'm not very happy with that."
"I think people are kind of told that renting is irresponsible somehow,'' Rollwagen says.
However, buying a property is not necessarily more economically secure, Rollwagen says — particularly for lower income earners who take on large debts and therefore become vulnerable to changes in interest rates.
"I'm eager to see, over the next 10 or 15 years, how millennials' attitudes are going to drive changes in the value of home ownership, because they're the ones that are really starting to opt out,'' she says.