WE LEFT THE CITY.
It happened. We did it. We moved to a small town from downtown Vancouver, a metropolitan area with a population of almost 2.5 million. Yes this city-loving condo dweller now lives in a house in a neighbourhood that deer frequently roam through.
While some of our friends and family were surprised at the suddenness of our move, my husband and I researched alternatives to living in Vancouver for two years before making the leap. We took short one night getaways to Vancouver Island, Easter weekend jaunts to the Sunshine Coast and day trips to the Fraser Valley, not just as fun travel but as research for where to move to next. These trips really helped us refine what we were looking for as an alternative to living in a big city.
Since sharing our news about leaving Vancouver, I’ve had quite a few people either share their own big move story or tell me they were planning one themselves. I wanted to share our process of scouting cities and why we chose the one we chose to move to. If you could move almost anywhere how do you decide where to go?
Our Wish List
- not more than a day’s drive to Vancouver. We’d like to visit the city a couple of times a year to see family and give the kids some city experiences.
- walkable. Top of the list was being able to walk the kids to school. A grocery store, library, a few parks and a swimming pool/recreation centre that are walkable would be great too.
- medical and health services. Dentist, small hospital, availability of family doctors.
- diversity. We hoped to find a town with some cultural and ethnic diversity.
- affordability. Vancouver single family home prices are well over a million dollars. We wanted a city or small town where you could buy a modest home for a lot less than that.
Initially I felt strongly that we wanted to live in a city with a minimum population of 20,000 people. Don’t laugh/hate on me but I wanted to be in a city that was big enough to have a Starbucks and a Crossfit gym. This seemed like the right barometer for services and amenities. There would be a hospital and a sushi restaurant and maybe even a Mexican restaurant. There would be a good sized library, multiple parks and hopefully bike paths. A multiplex movie theatre would have been nice too and proximity to an airport with flights to Vancouver and Calgary.
Where we looked for a new home:
- Nanaimo. A bigger 90,000 person coastal city on Vancouver Island with a direct ferry to Vancouver.
- Courtney/Comox. Two smaller cities right next to each other in the northern Vancouver Island area.
- Parksville & Qualicum Beach. Smaller seaside towns along the coast of Vancouver Island.
- Gibsons & Sechelt. Small towns on the beautiful Sunshine Coast, just a short ferry ride from Vancouver.
- Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley. An hour to two hour (or more depending on traffic) drive east of Vancouver’s downtown. Fast growing area that used to be mostly rural.
- Kamloops. A 90,000 person city in the southern interior region of British Columbia.
- Vernon. A 40,000 person city outside of Kelowna in the Okanagan region.
- Smaller towns in the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia.
Apparently we’re pretty picky.
As we toured through cities looking for that right mix of walkable and convenient we were continually stumped/disappointed by the familiar pattern of seeing a historic downtown that’s fallen into some disrepair/under use, with beautiful character homes nearby (also usually in disrepair) mixed in with some mid-rise density. What looked like an ideal place to live – convenient, walkable – had lost a good portion of its residents.
Outside the historic city centre subdivisions and big box retailer/mall areas had formed. The ‘new’ area of the city was filled with families, schools and amenities and none of it was walkable. Sure you could live in the historic area of the city but the local elementary school may have closed down and the empty shops downtown meant you’d have to get in your car and drive out to a strip mall for some services. A lack of families in the area meant that the playgrounds were also being underused and not being maintained or updated. We saw this same scenario repeated again and again as we visited small cities and moderately sized cities across British Columbia.
We also visited places that ‘could’ be walkable but that no one walked in. Abbotsford was one of them. We tested out walking from the downtown area to a park and we felt invisible to cars. We had a few instances where drivers pulled into us when we were in crosswalks. Sure, Google maps may tell you it’s a twenty minute walk but it’s twenty minutes on busy streets where you’re the only pedestrian you see for the whole walk.
There were exceptions. We really liked the West End neighbourhood in Kamloops. It was just a few blocks of older houses but it was right next to the downtown and close to the river. There were two schools within walking distance and all of the downtown’s amenities. The other contender was the Easthill neighbourhood in Vernon. Again, it was an older neighbourhood right next to the downtown area. Both of these cities still had vibrant and in use historic downtowns. The kind of downtown that is pedestrian friendly and has mostly local retailers.
Other BC cities we liked were Sechelt and Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast and Parksville and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. Being on the coast was very appealing. But housing costs were still relatively high with the proximity to Vancouver. We also started to come around to the idea that if we were going to uproot ourselves and move somewhere for more time and a lower cost of living, why not make that cost of living a lot lower than Vancouver. And maybe that meant not only moving much farther away but also somewhere with fewer places to spend money.
A Surprising Front Runner
Early in the summer we had a trip lined up to visit family in a small town in the Kootenays, a region in southeastern British Columbia that borders the US. We decided to take the trip as an opportunity to check out Kamloops and Vernon. I wasn’t hopeful about those towns because I have always viewed myself as being a coastal person. But I surprised myself. We liked Kamloops and its riverfront and the charm of Vernon and all the lakes nearby.
And then we visited my brother in his small town and… we really liked it. We were having a big family gathering there and a birthday celebration. We met a lot of locals and asked them about their experience living there. Everyone we talked to loved the lifestyle of living in a small town though most of them had been raised in big cities. The comments just kept coming back that the slower pace and quality of life – lots of outdoor opportunities like affordable golf and skiing, great hiking, cycling, etc – and the affordability made for a great lifestyle. Add in stunning scenery and, oh yes, my brother lives there, and this small town had a lot going for it. We spent an afternoon floating the local river and I think that’s when Chris was sold on the place.
Making the Move
Six weeks after visiting the town for a family gathering we returned and put an offer on a house. A week later we listed our condo and it sold the following week. Three months after visiting this small town for a family gathering we moved here.
This town is small. Under 5000 people. There is no Crossfit. There is no Starbucks. There is no multiplex movie theatre. But it’s very walkable and easy to get around on by bike. It’s beautiful. And, the big one, we have family here. Not only do our kids have cousins just a few blocks away but we have my brother and sister-in-law. We already know some of the challenges of moving to a new city from living overseas. As we thought more about making a move to something quite different from Vancouver the chance to move where we already had family started to make more and more sense. We’d have a social network as soon as we moved there. Other family already visited this town to see my brother and now it would be a two for one deal.
Change is scary. And stressful.
We’ve talked and planned all this through many times over but, you know, life happens. I can’t say for sure this will be our forever home. I can’t predict the future. But I do remind myself often of that parable about the two travellers. The first one asks a farmer/monk about the village he is heading toward and if he will like it. The farmer/monk asks him about the place he has come from and the traveller says it was terrible, rude people, worse food and terrible weather. The farmer/monk tells him he will find the next village much the same. Another traveller comes along and asks the farmer/monk about the village ahead and if he will like it. The farmer/monk asks him about the village he has come from. The second traveller says the village was delightful, the people welcoming, the food excellent and the weather invigorating. The monk/farmer says he will find that the next village is much the same.
Anywhere can be home if you want it to be. I’ll be leaning on that parable about the two travellers and the monk/farmer as we enter into our first snowy winter and face the usual pains of adjusting to a new place.
*This town is so small that for now I’ll just be referring to it as our small town or if I think of something fun, a pseudonym. As my children get older I feel a need to keep some things private.
If you had a choice in where to live, how did you make the decision? Was it solely about where jobs were or lifestyle or family?