In a year where real estate prices have never been higher and millions of Canadians are struggling to afford a home, being able to say you live in Canada's most affordable real estate market may draw some envious looks.
And according to the latest RE/MAX housing affordability report, that honour belongs to the residents of Red Deer, Alberta.
Located almost exactly halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, the third largest city in Alberta runs along both the north and south sides of the Red Deer River and boasts hundreds of acres of park land, quiet communities, and a downtown core that's set to undergo a major revitalization. But perhaps most importantly, the city also boasts an average home price of $356,799.
Although it's technically not the lowest-priced market that Canada has seen this year -- Brandon, Manitoba and Regina, Saskatchewan both have lower average home prices -- Red Deer residents tend to have higher household incomes, averaging $77,700 after taxes. This means a smaller percentage of the just over 100,000 residents' income is spent on housing, thus making it a more affordable place to live than its Manitoba competitors.
Red Deer City Hall (The City of Red Deer/Twitter)
One Red Deer resident, Candy Collins, moved to the Alberta city in April of this year along with her husband and daughter. Having come from Saint John, New Brunswick where more than half of their income was going towards rent, Collins says it feels like they "hit the jackpot" with Red Deer. For their pet-friendly two-bedroom, her family now pays $1,000 per month -- $100 less than they were paying in Saint John -- and her husband was able to find work earning two times the salary he was pulling in New Brunswick.
"The rent is cheaper, the gas is cheaper, groceries are the same or cheaper, and income has doubled," Collins said. "It's the best move we ever made."
As with any city, Red Deer has its ups and downs. The area offers access to seemingly endless hiking trails and outdoor activities -- Collins noted that her family was recently able to go camping together for the first time -- and the friendly community feel is another big draw for those who move to, or chose to remain in, Red Deer. Many residents, however, lament the city's crime rate, with some saying they avoid going downtown altogether. In a 2019 Maclean's ranking of Canada's most dangerous places, Red Deer ranked 10th for its Crime Severity Index -- a measure of the severity level of police-report crime -- and 37th for its overall level of crime.
Many Red Deer bus stops feature a solar-powered, button-activated light as an added safety feature. (The City of Red Deer/Twitter)
But still, for many, the pros far outweigh the cons, especially when compared to the increasingly unaffordable markets that dominate much of Canada. Interior designer Kym Cole Wowk left one of those markets in Kelowna, British Columbia for Red Deer in June of this year. Wowk is currently looking to buy a home in the city but is renting in the meantime -- and paying less than half of what her Kelowna landlord was charging.
"When we looked here in Red Deer we found a significant amount of properties that fit our criteria, but were nervous initially because we had heard that Red Deer had a crime issue and to stay away from certain areas," Wowk said. "In talking to some people that lived here and following some groups on Facebook, we learned that Red Deer as a whole, described as bad crime, was nothing compared to what we had seen or experienced in Kelowna."
A Price You Can't Beat
It comes as no surprise that buyers coming from British Columbia or Ontario would find Red Deer's home prices otherworldly. In Red Deer, it's not uncommon to see detached houses -- the most common type of housing there -- listed for less than $300,000.
BC-native and now-Red-Deer-homeowner Raygan Solotki had been living in Inuvik, Northwest Territories before making the move to Alberta. She says that discovering she could buy a home somewhere more central was a pleasant surprise.
"I was looking for a place with a large backyard that was fenced for my dogs, at least three bedrooms as I work from home, and something under $300,000," Solotki said. "Being from BC originally, I had sort of resigned myself to the fact I would be living up north forever, as house prices seem to be skyrocketing everywhere, so I didn't think I could afford to buy in a city."
A four-bedroom Red Deer home recently listed for sale for $249,900. (Royal LePage Network Realty Corp)
Unlike pricier Canadian cities, Red Deer's real estate market has remained more stable in recent months, experiencing much more muted highs and lows. As Dale Russell, broker and owner of RE/MAX Real Estate Central Alberta, explains, Red Deer's market didn't really see the pandemic boom that overtook Ontario and BC markets.
"We didn't have anything like that until probably February or March of this year when we had a little bit," Russell said. "There was some pent up demand as a result of COVID, and then we had people moving back to Alberta from Ontario and BC, selling their houses for big prices down there and coming back here and buying very affordable housing."
But the rise didn't push Red Deer's real estate to new highs, Russell says. It essentially helped it recover from the dip that prices took from 2015 to 2019 when the price of oil dropped. Russell says that even in Red Deer, he still sees instances of buyers borrowing money from family for a down payment, or having their purchasing power shrunk by rising interest rates, but it's nowhere near the levels seen in places like Ontario. And although the rental market is a bit competitive at the moment, finding a house to buy in Red Deer isn't particularly hard.
More Time to Focus on Other Issues
Red Deer's low real estate prices not only mean that it's easier for people to own a home, but it takes a major issue off the City's plate. Unlike municipalities in Ontario or BC, Red Deer's City Council meetings aren't dominated by discussions of how to address an affordable housing crisis.
"We don't suffer from a very hot, almost completely speculative real estate market," said Mayor Ken Johnston. "What we look at, as it relates to housing, is enabling our developers, working with our development community around reduction in red tape, and enabling them to move quicker."
A Red Deer City Council meeting headed by Mayor Ken Johnston. (The City of Red Deer/Twitter)
One of Johnston's major projects is the revitalization of downtown. Residential development is a key part of this, along with addressing crime levels and bolstering local arts and culture communities. Johnston has lived in Red Deer for 26 years and has seen exactly how the downtown core has changed over the decades. A number of businesses have closed their doors and a growing homelessness issue has raised concerns for residents.
"Our [homeless] numbers themselves haven't really risen dramatically, but what's complicated [it is], and this is typical for most of us flyover cities, opioid addiction," Johnston said. "It has really changed the landscape for a lot of cities and is much more difficult to deal with because, you know, people are simply not often clinically in a good place to be housed."
The City operates seasonal shelters but is currently looking for a site to build a permanent one.
Johnston remains incredibly optimistic about the future of Red Deer, excitedly discussing the City's work to create a new Vision 2040 statement that will build on Red Deer's affordability, walkability, and trail network. He even hopes that Red Deer will earn a spot on the proposed Calgary to Edmonton high-speed rail line.
"That will have, I think, quite an impact on our housing market," Johnston said. "We will have to very carefully weigh the benefits of being on a high speed rail versus the housing affordability that we offer people today."