Ontario, Canada
Photo Courtesy of Daryan Shamkhali, Unsplash

Hong Kong investors feel closest to the west coast of Canada, but the more eastern reaches of the country have their advantages.

Born and raised in the Hung Hom area, Winnie is among the hundreds, some say thousands, of Hongkongers who’ve been considering pulling up stakes and heading overseas over the last year or so. “It’s getting harder and harder for me to justify living here, especially now that I have a two-year-old,” explains Winnie (who wished to remain anonymous). “I figure if my partner and I start looking around now we could be at least Canadian residents by the time my daughter has to start school. I want her to go get an overseas education anyway, and we’re starting to figure ‘Why don’t we all just go.’ And we’re thinking of trying someplace that might need us, so to speak.”

Winnie is an early childhood teacher and her partner is in financial services, so though they don’t have the funds to apply for investment visas, they’re thinking of simply finding new jobs in Canada, specifically moving to more affordable parts of the country that are short on human resources.

For most Hongkongers, “eastern” Canada refers to Ontario and Quebec, with Toronto and Montreal leading the way for investors and emigrants alike. A “Booming property market and the presence of an extensive Asian population locally have attracted people there. For Montreal in particular, the rapid economic development in the city and low property entry prices have been attractive,” theorises Samson Cheung, partner at RE/MAX All Stars in Hong Kong. For people like Winnie — who will hopefully have HK$8 million (CA$1.4 million) to access when she sells her flat here — any location with affordable housing and cost of living while her family transitions will get more attention. “Canada has a lot of immigration programmes, but Ontario’s [incentive programme] is mostly limited to some western Ontario cities that are quite far away from Toronto. Quebec still has a handful of immigration options for interested parties at a reasonable cost,” adds Cheung. While rental revenue in both Toronto and Montreal is strong (and rising) for investors, it could be argued prospects for both home and work are better event farther east.

The country’s 2017 Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program (AIPP) was designed especially “to fill the needs of local employers and communities,” in smaller Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island, who were — and are — having trouble filling job vacancies. The AIPP was in addition to each province’s own nominee programme. Unsurprisingly the prime candidates will come from skilled workers who’ve been offered jobs, but the region is one of the country’s most underserved with regard to staffing. Admittedly the Atlantic Provinces are a long way out — an additional three to six hours from Toronto depending on flight connections and destination — and that’s been a disincentive for incoming residents.

Montreal, Canada
Photo Courtesy of Marc-Olivier Jodoin, Unsplash

Nonetheless the East has a lot to offer. In addition to the same standard of living and benefits found in other parts of the country, the Atlantic coast features some of the most stunning nature in the world, and a relatively small population makes the “small” spaces seem enormous. Small is relative, of course, when the smallest province (PEI) is ten times the size of Phuket. It also has its share of elite schools (Dalhousie, founded in 1818, Mount Allison and Acadia universities), cultural outlets, and is home to some of Canada’s oldest history, including 1,000-year old Viking settlements.

On top of that, property is the most affordable in Canada. A, 850-square-foot, two-bedroom, central Halifax (Nova Scotia) condominium can be found for CA$259,9000 (HK$1.5 million), and a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house for CA$699,000 (HK$4 million). In more remote St. John’s (Newfoundland), comparable properties can be picked up for and CA$175,000 (HK$995,000) and CA$559,000 (HK$3.2 million) respectively. In Toronto the apartment could run CA$598,000 and CA$715,000 in Vancouver — or much more.

Halifax (population just 403,000) is far and away the biggest city in the region (tiny Charlottetown in PEI and its 42,000 residents is, hands down, the prettiest), and its high watermark property market is an indicator of how the surrounding capitals perform — the other two being St. John’s and Fredericton, New Brunswick. According to brokerage Royal LePage Atlantic (RLA), prices in Halifax remained steady through the end of 2019, posting modest 0.6% gains over the year before. “Momentum and consumer confidence is building in Halifax,” broker and owner Matt Honsberger said in the firm’s January market report. “Rental inventory is tight, and inventory among homes listed for sale is a little over half what it would have been last year. That’s a formula for price growth in the spring when demand escalates.”

Of course demand didn’t escalate in the spring, as COVID-19 swept across the globe. However, Canada’s east coast weathered the storm better than other parts of Canada, and all parts of the US. On a fundamental level, Halifax posted record job creation numbers in 2018, and immigration is underpinning the city’s growth. In St. John’s, the oil-dependent economy there is seeing its prospects improve for the first time in years, as large exploration firms are making long-term commitments in the city. As RLA sees it, the spring thaw is likely a blip on the radar.

“Right now there are more buyers wanting to buy than there are homes listed for sale. Home prices are still trending up due to lack of supply. We believe that we will see an overall economic slowdown as a result of COVID-19 which will put downward pressure on the number of sales that happen during our spring market, but we expect this to simply be a delay in returning to the strong conditions that we have seen leading up to this ‘Pause’.”