Vancouver: Are You Worth The Price?

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After four years away from the lovely Vancouver, I wondered, would we love it just as much as we had before we left?

Vancouver is a beautiful city. It’s surrounded by mountains and water and it is consistently rated as one of the most liveable cities in the world. People famously say you could ski in the morning and golf in the afternoon here. The downtown peninsula boasts a beautiful seawall that stretches around beaches, high rise condominiums, world class eateries and the majestic Stanley Park. Vancouver has density with fresh air. For families with young children, the downtown has parks, a great library and community centres just outside everyone’s doorstep.

People flock here to live and work. It’s considered a great vacation destination. In our four years living in Europe we met dozens of people that had visited Vancouver and the overall sentiment was, wow, you are so lucky to live there.

I’m just as smitten by Vancouver’s liveable-ness as I was when we left. Maybe even more so. Walkability and a mild climate are tops on my list of lifestyle wants. Check, check, Vancouver. A diverse community, easily accessibly green space? Check and check again.

But, Vancouver, in my time away you have failed in a few big departments.

One: the school situation in the Vancouver District appears to be worse than when we left. More catchments full, longer wait lists. There is still no walkable public school option for our family and we live in the one of the densest areas of the city. While schools are bursting in some catchments others are below capacity and threatened with closure. The schools haven’t responded to the change in area demographics.

This is not a new problem. The school just a few blocks from our home has had a long wait list since before my oldest son was born six years ago. There is a new school being built but it’s two years away and it’s likely to have a Kindergarten wait list as soon as it opens. There are wonderful daycares in the city but they also have incredibly long wait lists. This city is simply not meeting the needs of families for accessible education and childcare.

Two: Vancouver, you may be liveable but that’s only for people that can afford it. The real estate market here is insane. I do not use that term lightly. This is no New York or London with an economy and jobs to back up the housing prices. If anything, when I look at jobs the salaries seem to be the same as they were when I left. And those salaries hadn’t moved in a few years either. Stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing, services and goods prices could be one of the reasons Vancouverites are the unhappiest of all Canadians.  If you didn’t get into this housing market 10+ years ago you are out of luck.

If we didn’t have a lot of family here I would strongly consider moving away from Vancouver.

How does minimalism fit into this rant? Well, living in smaller homes and having less stuff and living frugally is a necessity for many in Vancouver and will become a necessity for more people as the cost of living continues to increase.

I didn’t have dreams of owning a house in Vancouver but now that a house is $1 million +, it’s out of reach. It’s out of reach for most people with the median household income in Vancouver sitting at $70,000 a year. A million dollars for a house in ‘tear down’ shape on $70,000 a year just doesn’t add up.

That’s what I keep thinking about as I shop for groceries and startle at a ticket for the movies being $15. The numbers don’t make sense. How is anyone able to afford this city? The minimum wage is $10.25/hr. The liveable wage in Vancouver is calculated at $20.68/hr.

There is no creative math equation that works. Are people supposed to work 80 hours a week? I’m all for living small but is a rented studio the new four person family size home?

As for my family, we’re one of the lucky ones. We’re getting by in this city. We own property (it was the right choice to rent it out while we were away) and I’m comfortable living in a two bedroom apartment as a family of five for now. Three boys in one room will be a challenge but I know we can make it work.

Over a decade ago my then boyfriend, now husband, and I visited my cousin in London. She had three boys sharing a room not out of necessity but by choice (there was another bedroom available but they didn’t want to split up). It used to be a choice for us to live in a smaller home but with the way Vancouver has changed and continues to change, it’s become a necessity.

Has anyone lived in or is currently living an unaffordable city? How do you get by and do you feel it’s worth it?

P.S. Dusting off my frugal chops in an expensive city with so much temptation – the coffee at Small Victory is the best I have ever tasted – and working on a ‘room for three’ kid’s bedroom. More to come on the blog now that school is back in. Hurrah!

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  • I live in San Francisco, where housing is truly insane. We, a family of 4 with 2 small boys, live in a 2bed/2bath apartment that we will likely get kicked out of by the end of the year. So we’re debating what to do next. We have loved living here, but as the boys get older and the drought gets more intense, we aren’t as in love as we once were. I thought I was committed to raising city kids, but now I’m not so sure. Moving out of the city doesn’t get us much because it’s just as expensive and hot everywhere else in the Bay Area. My husband’s job that he loves is here, so leaving all together isn’t really a possibility.

    • :( Start over as homesteaders? I sometimes think we should do something like that. The surrounding area in Vancouver isn’t that affordable and transit isn’t very good so we wouldn’t save much moving farther out and we would lose a lot of time.
      Interesting to hear about the drought. We had water restrictions this summer and it was a bit of a shock – the outdoor water parks I’ve been waiting to take the kids too were all closed. I can imagine that if it gets more serious here it would greatly the enjoyment of living here.
      Good luck, Lauren.

  • I left Vancouver eleven years ago to move to Los Angeles to start my career: I work in digital media buying (the Internet version of Harry Crane on Mad Men) and it was either Toronto and their winters or the US. I chose the USA, and moved from LA to NYC seven years later with the husband and son I acquired in SoCal. Still, I have been homesick for British Columbia every single day since I left. Sometimes it’s just because I miss the Northwest in summer, and the Hudson River is no substitute for Georgia Strait. Sometimes, it’s because I see the glass towers of Manhattan and they remind me so much of downtown Vancouver.

    Now, I live in Brooklyn – where I’ve been less homesick since moving to three years ago. Brooklyn has many of the things that made Vancouver so livable for me: bike lanes, hippie food co-ops, beaches, and a lot of diversity. But what really makes the difference, and the reason I have happily accepted NYC as my new home, is because I also make easily twice what I would have ever made in Vancouver. My $700,000 800 square foot co-op is a Vancouver price, but with a Manhattan salary that makes it affordable to me and my husband. Food here is more expensive than Vancouver, even with the infamous Park Slope Food Co-Op, but gas and insurance and taxes are cheaper, so it balances well enough.

    Still, the reason I’ve stayed in Brooklyn is the same reason I loved Kitsilano: my family can walk or bike all over and see neighbors, friends and Kids My Son Knows at every turn. Park on a weekend morning? Guaranteed playdate! We are constantly experiencing the social benefits of walkability, of never driving anywhere, in that we constantly see and engage with people we know. Being in a non-car-based city makes a huge difference for us in happiness. THAT is why I paid the same amount for a co-op I could have paid for a full size house in he suburbs, so I could stay in Brooklyn, and teach my son the value of living fully engaged in a community, rather than hiding from the world in a car like we would have in L.A.

    • Jillian – yes! Your last description is another reason we want to stay down here. I’ve been meeting up with a friend to run and it’s so easy. She lives across the street so even though we both have young kids and not a lot of time, we can meet up on the fly for a quick 5k. In the short time we’ve been back I already have some new acquaintances that I am getting to know because we see each other around the neighborhood a few times a week. And my son will be in class with children that live within a 15 minute walk of our home (sadly the school is on the other side of town until our new school is built).

      It is sadly comforting to hear that you also agree wages in Vancouver have not risen with the real estate prices. I was looking through the median household incomes in Canada and Vancouver is really lagging – Ottawa and Calgary are at the top.

      Enjoy Brooklyn! My husband and I love NYC.

  • We have lived in a neighborhood for 23 years, after spending three years renting a farm house when we first got married. It didn’t take long to imagine how difficult it would be when our future children wanted to: ride a bike, go for a walk, meet friends, go to the park, play at friends houses etc. That was our driving factor to buy a house in a neighborhood and did it ever pay off! I also love being able to walk to the library or grocery store, and ride the bike trail right from my house. While we can see the local school from our house, because there is not a continuous sidewalk to get there, the school bus picks up everyone – another great way to meet all the kids in your neighborhood. Being in a walkable neighborhood is high on my list if we ever move.

  • Toronto seems all the more expensive when wages have not kept up with inflation. If “time is money”, what is the cost of a lengthy commute into the city for work? So if “time is money”, then “time is space” too. How much time do you trade for additional square footage in the suburbs vs. the city? Square footage, transportation, commute, a yard, location – it’s a trade off of your priorities and those of the family. To weigh the pros and cons.

    On the news last week – a small home sold for $1 million in Toronto. That’s not unheard of in this city, in fact $1 million can be considered a bargain for a “fixer-upper” home here, but this home made the news as it was unliveable.

    http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/09/01/unlivable-beach-house-sells-for-1-million.html

    Location, a yard, but how much will this building cost to make it liveable?

    Actually, I’m probably just jealous as I cannot enter this crazy housing market. :)

    I’ll stay in the city for the convenience and be grateful that, for the moment, I do not have to choose the outer ‘burbs over the city.

    • The entire city of Vancouver has only 40 houses for sale under $1M, and all of them are on the east side (the cheapest on the west side is $1.2M.

      Most houses in the $1M range are ‘tear-downs’ here.

      It’s a sad state of affairs.

  • Have you checked out 5kids1condo.com? He lives in Vancouver with 5 kids. Very cool blog & nice guy when I emailed him. Good luck!

    • I have – I think I’ve even seen them around town. Pretty sure they live near us. Very cool and I’m interested to hear how it goes as the kids get bigger. A triple bunk is in our future too! :)

      • When I was a freshman in college (way back in 1968), my room in a newly built dorm housed three of us. Three tiny closets, three narrow chests of drawers, three desks with bookshelves above, plus a triple bunk. (Don’t remember how high the ceiling was.)

  • I live in an incredibly affordable city. Median wages in my county are a bit higher than Vancouver’s but I bought my house for 100k. We have no mountains or beaches, but great art scene, fine dining, and fantastic family amenities. That is why we haven’t left Kansas City yet!

    We’ve talked about moving to the Rockies, but Denver has become very expensive and other cities haven’t had good matches for employment. So we’re on the hunt for a cool city with good jobs in a better location that isn’t too expensive. Might be reaching for the stars?

    • The US has a lot of affordable cities with great amenities and of a good size. Sadly, I can’t say the same for Canada right now (unless you can endure extreme weather). I’m sure you’ll find something great!

  • We have the exact same situation here in Anchorage, Alaska right now. The median income can’t keep up with the skyrocketing home prices. And the average hourly income vs the hourly income required to ‘make it’ in this town are too far apart. Our city is growing fast, and recently we have gotten a lot of hype for being a top city to live in/ healthiest city in America, but I feel like there is a lot lacking. We are a family of 6 in a 1000 sqft condo. My husband has a great job and we are happy with our small living situation. We chose to buy much smaller than what the bank approved us for because we just couldn’t justify buying anything bigger than what we needed. Everything here is ridiculously expensive; groceries, utilities, housing… We have a horrible public transportation system and so many neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks . One thing they have gotten right is the extensive system of bike trails, which are used a lot. We’d like to stay in Anchorage but the negatives are quickly outweighing the positives.

  • Great post – and I totally feel your pain! We are life-long Oregonians, but recently relocated to inner Portland with our family of five. We are living the urban life, my three kids (6, 3, 18 mo.) share a room in our 960 sq ft. apartment. We moved close into the city so my husband could walk to work and we could be in district for the best schools. However, I am slowly realizing we will never be able to afford to buy in this area. It’s a daunting thought, that’s left me scratching my head for the future. We get by by limiting how much we eat out, driving out to the inexpensive grocery store (which still has organic!), and budgeting each month in advance.

  • I live just outside of Portland, OR, which is quickly following Vancouver and Seattle into the land of unaffordability. There’s a lot I love about this city but I honestly don’t know that my wife and I will ever be able to afford to buy even in the outlying areas, so right now we’re staying in our cheap rental and hoping the landlord doesn’t raise the rent too much before the giant development that’s going in in the next four or five years is up and running.

  • I think you may be giving Vancouver too much credit. It sounds like the things you value; community, walk ability and green spaces can be found in many smaller communities. Is having everything at your finger tips really such a necessity? The rareness of something increases its value. Maybe going to the big city for a trip a couple of times a year from your affordable life somewhere else would give you even more pleasure. With all the extra space you could afford maybe you could roast your own coffee and learn to make a perfect cup at home. I would certainly come over for some. ☕️🌳🚶🏼😉

  • We started our family in Chicago and intended to stay. We could easily justify the high housing costs in our neighborhood with a walkable lifestyle and our willingness to stay in a small condo indefinitely. When a series of events brought my father-in-law into our family home, a small condo was no longer feasible. We looked at town homes, houses & 2-flats (duplexes) in Chicago but we were priced out of the neighborhoods with good schools and walkable amenities. We explored Chicago Suburbs but couldn’t picture our family thriving in a car-centric lifestyle. Those burbs that met our walkable/great schools criteria were nearly as pricey as the city, with higher taxes.
    So, we expanded our search. A few months ago we moved north to Milwaukee. It is a much smaller city but still has an urban vibe – including the walkable lifestyle we wanted. We’re in a sweet, little neighborhood with great schools, beaches, parks, shops, restaurants, etc and easily found a duplex well under budget.
    While I’m admittedly homesick for Chicago and the life I imagined for our little family of 3, it’s easy to see this was the right choice for all of us. Housing costs 1/4th what it did in Chicago and everything is a little easier in a smaller city with less traffic, fewer crowds, etc.
    As it turns out, a little less city offered our family more of what we needed.
    I think that our journey through minimalism helped us identify our priorities and find a home with a “just right” fit. Like much of this journey, there is some pain in the transition but I trust that it’s still the right choice.

  • Every “livable city” is dealing with that. It was San Francisco, and Seattle, and up north in BC, and here in Portland it’s happening as well. Our minimum wage is $9.25 and my husband makes not much more than that at the natural foods grocer plus we pay a couple hundred bucks a month for health insurance through his employer (without it it’d be $700+/mo). Crackerjack box homes in my “up and coming” neighborhood one block off the highway are going for $600K+.

    Be grateful in Canada you have universal healthcare – here in the States that’s a pipe dream. Fortunately we are no longer discriminated against for having preexisting conditions (used to be you had to wait an extra year for coverage if you had one), but the Republicans have demonized our President just for pushing this through. My husband is from Australia and didn’t realize how good he had it in Melbourne (whose cost of living makes San Francisco look like Kentucky) with universal healthcare, paid family leave, and way better vacation time.

    We love where we live, even with the increasing cost of living. No car, 2 bikes, and (if all goes as planned) 2 kids on the way. We live simply. We grow and preserve, and share with friends. We don’t worry about $15 movie tickets because in a month we can watch it online for $5. Most of our grocery store items are bought in the bulk aisle. We follow the Radical Homemaker philosophy :)

    I guess I just see that we choose to live where we live – we all know there are cheaper places, but we pay the price to have whatever it is that’s important. We don’t want to live in the suburbs or the country because there’s a reliance on cars to survive. I bought my home 9 years ago because it was on the bus line and in walking/biking distance to a grocery store, and had a yard for growing food. I don’t care about how the local school performs because i know that schools are only complementary to what parents teach their children, and because I volunteer there and know that the teachers are doing the best they can with the little they’re given.

    There’s a bit about how we do it :)

  • Here in Dublin, houseprices are insane compared to salaries. Most people we know took a mortgage as high as 90% of the value of their home and paying it back over 35 years.
    Our house is just over 1000sq ft, we have a tiny garden. For the four of us, it is an OK size of a house, but as the kids are getting older I see how living in a bigger house would be more comfortable. BUT. We love the area we live in, we are close to a beautiful park, shops, the city centre, hospitals, the airport, the sea, we can walk to work, to school. Living in this area is more of our priority than living in a large house. In fact, travelling and sending our children to a good (but expensive) school nearby is more of a priority too. So we just have to remind ourselves of our priorities when we feel our house might be too small.

  • Lovely to see a post from you – I was wondering how the move had gone.
    We moved house so that my 2 could have separate rooms – and yet every night they sleep over in each others rooms anyway!

    (ps was at Drayton Manor/Thomasland on Monday – the kids mentioned you!)

  • Thanks for sharing about your city and housing situation. That perspective makes me very grateful for what we have here in Kentucky.

  • I’m also in Vancouver and unfortunately not one of the single family home owners who have essentially won the lottery over the past 10 years with soaring property values here.

    We’ve just had our second child and the cost to own what would be comfortable for us to live in within the city has become out of reach, so we remain renters for now. I have to admit that I feel frustration that despite having a good income, living below our means and paying off debt etc., I continuously feel behind in this city. We’re just well behind the timing curve. It gets to me sometimes, especially as we are some of the only renters on our block of homes all now worth well over 1.5 million.

    We’ve also just been through an eviction situation, with the landlord occupying the home, but he also made some unreasonable comments about the fact that we had children after we moved in and that he was not happy to be renting to a family. The whole experience has been very unsettling and made me feel very insecure about renting. I’m now very aware that we may again need to move at any moment with just 2 months notice and that it’s hard to find rentals for a family with little kids. Overall, it doesn’t make me feel very rooted in this city.

    Despite this, we are attached to the city and plan to stay -for now anyway. I’m hopeful that things will correct in the future, at least so that a 3 bedroom condo or townhouse will not cost upwards of $900K as it stands now. If it doesn’t I really don’t know what our future will be here as our two little boys turn into big boys needing more space!

    ‘Something’s gotta give!’ is my motto these days. It’s just absolutely not sustainable.

    • Something does have to give, Susie. I couldn’t agree more. We have a good income and try to live below our means, still, I too feel behind in this city.
      What is this city going to look like in ten years time? What will these neighbourhoods look like if they are completely unaffordable for most people? How how can the rents and the home prices go?
      I’m so sorry you were evicted. That sounds very stressful!

  • There is also a big issue in New Zealand at the moment with house prices in Auckland, our biggest city. It’s brilliant place to live with the beaches nearby, temperate climate, cafe society and also the main point for travelling overseas. However house prices have gone through the roof over the last few years to the extent that the average price is now $650,000 and our average wage is similar to yours, around $70,000. So a lot of New Zealand families are being priced out of living in Auckland. It’s very sad state of affairs when NZ was known as a country where you could own your own house.

    Many surmise that the reason for the house price inflation is the unregulated allowance of chinese and asian investors to buy up houses for investment, with no intention of moving here but purely as an investment is driving up house prices. Unfortunately the current government chooses not to put any regulation in place and NZers are being priced out of their own city. Anecdotal evidence of who is bidding at the house auctions leads to these conclusions. I just wonder if you have the same situation in Canada. I can sympathise with your predicament.

    • The government doesn’t keep records of non-resident investors/house buyers here. But there is a lot of speculation here that overseas investors is a big reason for our housing crisis. I would have to agree that that is a big part of the issue just from anecdotal reports of friends and family buying and selling. It’s hard to compete with a buyer that bids over asking, can pay cash and buys with no subjects/no inspection :(

      • “It’s hard to compete with a buyer that bids over asking, can pay cash and buys with no subjects/no inspection.”
        Yes!
        I believe they were local investors but this is exactly what we found ourselves up against in Chicago as well! At first glance, there were suitable homes in our price range. But, when we actually started trying to buy, we found that anything “affordable” was snatched up by a cash offer ready to close in a week with no contingencies.
        So, so disheartening.

  • Sounds like most of Australia! People are too busy working to pay off enormous mortgages or rent to enjoy the blessings this country has to offer. And to live where it is affordable, you sacrifice facilities, services and good schooling. Tough merry-go-round to navigate. I sympathise with you.

  • I’ve often wondered how “real” people make ends meet in Vancouver. I recall barfing in my mouth after watching “Love it or List it Vancouver”.
    I live in New Brunswick with family that live in both Vancouver and Victoria so I am familiar with both places having visited often.
    The average prices for houses here are between 190k-400k. Yes, there is the snow! But not the grey and endless rain you get there :-) But we have our space!

    People ask us why we aren’t living out there and the answer is: we couldn’t afford this quality of life ! We own a 3,000 sq ft. house built in the 1880s with water front on an acre of land with our 4 kids. Who (when they are older) can bike to school and to their friends and to the store down the street. (Of course we drive to Costco! Lol) However, I’m no city girl and this works for us.
    Love your blog!
    Sarah
    From hill billy New Brunswick

  • Sorry but the Isle of Man has never be nor will be a part of Europe! We are a self governing Isle that is a crown dependency to the United Kingdom and no we are not part of the UK or the European Union we are classed as part of the British Isles.

  • I have a love-hate relationship with Vancouver. I love the water, the mountains, the walkability, the distinct communities. I hate the traffic, the lack of fore site in public transportation planning, the stupid prices we pay for normal pleasures like movies, parking and homes. Stagnant wages, ridiculous daycare costs and the weird obsession with designer brands and luxury vehicles really puts me off too. Even still, I miss East Van. We moved out to North Burnaby 7 years ago and feel so fortunate for what we have now. We usually have to drive to what we need, but the flip side is being able to explore the creeks and trails literally outside our door. We also have an amazing school across from us and the air smells like summer camp! We squish our two kids into a room and use the smallest bedroom as an office for my husband to work from home. I constantly am on alert for things we don’t need to bring in to the home and always look for ways to enjoy time outside the house, that way when the grey rainy days hit, our small home feels cozy not claustrophobic. We rarely venture in to Vancouver these days, but when we do, we try to make them full days- lots of parks, beaches, coffee and walking. Hope to bump into to you along the way. Love your blog- the entries have really resonated with me and I often use them as guideposts in making decisions for intentional living vs. stuff. I still have not come to terms with getting rid of my wedding dress though…. why do I still have this? Argh.

    • Kristin – thank you for commenting here and sharing your Vancouver view. I’m also love-hate with this place. It’s ridiculous and beautiful and awesome all at the same time. If our family didn’t live here…

      North Burnaby sounds pretty good. I really like that corridor off of Hastings in Burnaby.

      Your wedding dress: everyone has their thing. I’ve heard some women get their wedding dress out once a year and have a little party. Maybe something to do with it?

  • Move to Vancouver Island! It is even more beautiful than Vancouver. There are so many beaches, parks, walking trails, hiking and tons of tiny islands to go explore. Tofino is only a car ride away. You are still just a ferry ride away from ‘the Big City’. Nanaimo especially has more affordable housing, great schools with out waitlists and most are within walking distance. Great community with lots of options for kid activities. I know BC as a whole is known for having that relaxed west coast lifestyle, but it is even more so here on the island. We have had many friends move here from big cities like Vancouver, Victoria and Calgary so that they can have a better quality of life with their families. :)

    • Kaitlyn – I have lived in Victoria and yes, everything you say is true :) I do like it as an option should we decide to escape Vancouver. Also, I believe Victoria gets more sunshine than Vancouver so… win!

  • As I’m getting into decluttering and learning more about minimalism, I like to think cost of living will factor less and less into our life because we will be able to live in a smaller home since we have less stuff than the average family here. Our home prices have been somewhat stable, but I find property taxes to the tune of $1k or more a month a little more daunting. I’m perfectly fine living in the suburbs, our parents are nearby, but we’re dreaming of leaving the state. Having less stuff, and a less expensive home to contend with selling if we ever get to exit illinois(like all of my husbands friends, and half of mine) makes me feel like it is a possibility. I go to Chicago once a year, and it’s just to visit friends. We’d probably appreciate it more if we came on vacation. In the summer:).

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