City or suburbs: Where can you afford to live?

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Each year, home buyers across North America struggle with a familiar choice: They can pay more to live in a smaller urban property, within walking distance to schools, shops and work; or pay less for a larger suburban home with a big backyard and ample parking, but have to hop in a car for just about everything they need. At first blush, it appears urban and suburban residents may simply have fundamentally different values and interests, but that may not be the case. For many Canadians, the decision between city and suburb boils down to how strongly you weight three important factors—your money, your time and your overall lifestyle. No two families prioritize these in exactly the same way. Moreover, even the urban-suburban truths we hold to be self-evident—as in, it’s always cheaper to live in the suburbs—don’t tell the entire tale.
To help readers appreciate this important decision, MoneySense teamed up with real estate analysts Brookfield RPS to explore what it means to own and live in a single-family detached home within or near each of Canada’s four largest cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. Detailed data on commute times, current average sale prices, living space and lot sizes—including a tricky calculation to tell us how much of a home’s value is currently locked into the land itself—were divided into layers spreading out from each downtown centre (we used City Hall to keep things consistent). Each ring represents 10 minutes of non-rush-hour driving. Armed with this data, we can tell you just how much home and property you can expect to find the further you drive from downtown. Moreover, we can tell you how much it actually costs to live in each respective layer, factoring in average annual transit costs and property taxes. In other words, we did what MoneySense does best: We calculated firm figures to guide an important financial decision—in this case, one of the most important and emotional ones a person or family can make