The Move: A former Toronto renter becomes a first-time homeowner—in St. John’s

Hayley Shaughnessy standing in front of her “very Newfoundland-y” clapboard home St. John’s. (Photography by Johnny C. Y. Lam)

The buyer: Hayley Shaughnessy, a 32-year-old communications consultant

The budget: $325,000

The backstory: In October of 2019, the Toronto-based public relations agency where Shaughnessy was working decided to hold its next company retreat in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The city’s overwhelmingly friendly vibe impressed Shaughnessy right away. During a pub night, Shaughnessy mentioned to a few locals that she was keen to check out nearby Bonavista and Trinity, two popular, affordable weekend getaway spots, when the retreat was over. One patron handed her his number—to connect her with friends in town who could recommend places to eat and hike. There was also the small matter of the ocean. “I went on a hike to Freshwater Bay and picked blueberries off bushes,” Shaughnessy recalls. “You just don’t get that in Toronto.”

Shaughnessy’s living room in her new home is an inviting, cozy space

Her brief visit to St. John’s reminded Shaughnessy of her hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. She missed its tight-knit community. By that point, Shaughnessy had been living in Toronto for six years; she’d moved to the city to study PR at Humber College and planted roots once she landed work. When she got back to her one-plus-den apartment in Hogtown after wrapping the retreat, she started toying with the idea of a more permanent East Coast move. But, she says, “I didn’t feel grown up enough at that point. I was in my late 20s, and I didn’t feel like I could totally handle it.”

In 2022, Shaughnessy switched to a new role within her firm, one that allowed her to work remotely for a few months at a time. Taking advantage of her newfound flexibility, she opted to spend that summer in St. John’s. She texted one of the locals from the pub night, who connected Shaughnessy with a friend who was subletting a two-bedroom apartment. It cost Shaughnessy $1,000 a month and came with a view of the Atlantic.

Shaughnessy uses one of the home’s three bedrooms, which is flooded with natural light, as a home office

Shaughnessy’s summer stay, filled with concerts, hikes and even a volunteer gig at the Newfoundland Folk Festival, only made her feel more attached to the province. She put out feelers to PR firms in the Atlantic region to see if any were hiring. By February of 2023, she’d landed a communications consultant gig with a Halifax-based company that had a satellite office in St. John’s, and decided to ride out her lease in Toronto while looking for places to live. Shaughnessy had amassed a decent amount of savings since university, with the ultimate goal of owning her own place one day. “Some of my friends in Toronto were buying semi-detached homes for nearly a million dollars,” Shaughnessy says. Out in Newfoundland, her prospects were much better.

The hunt: In March, Shaughnessy flew out to St. John’s for five days to attend a work event at her new company. While there, she talked to a real estate agent, who set up a few viewings. Shaughnessy had a detached, move-in-ready home in mind—ideally one with two or three bedrooms that was located on a quiet street within walking distance to downtown. She’d already made friends in town and wanted to make sure she had enough space to host them for dinner.

Shaughnessy holding her cat, Sandstorm

The realtor scheduled two viewings on the day before Shaughnessy’s flight back to Toronto. The first spot was a two-bedroom pad in Rabbittown, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of St. John’s. It was listed for $279,999—a steal—but Shaughnessy says the street was too busy. The home itself was a dud, too. “The basement had dirt floors and was only accessible from the outside,” Shaughnessy says. The second house, a total keeper, was in the city’s west end, just a 10-minute walk to St. John’s downtown strip. The look was, Shaughnessy says, “very Newfoundland-y.” Its clapboard exterior was painted coral and yellow. The interior was well-maintained, covered in intricate wood detailing and flooded with natural light. The main floor had a big, bright living room and an open-concept kitchen; the upstairs had three bedrooms and a full bathroom. The basement, happily, was finished. Signal Hill could be seen from the coral home’s backyard.

READ: The Move: From Toronto’s rental grind to a quaint corner store in Quebec

Two days after the viewing, Shaughnessy submitted an offer of $325,000, the listing price, conditional on a home inspection. Newfoundland’s housing market had been popping off since the pandemic, but Shaughnessy’s realtor said that activity didn’t apply to properties listed above $300,000 (the high end). The home inspection revealed a few flaws, like some worse-for-wear wood siding and a roof that would need to be replaced in a few years’ time. Shaughnessy negotiated the price down to $310,000, which the seller agreed to. After consulting with a financial adviser, Shaughnessy decided on a 30-year mortgage at a fixed interest rate so she could better predict her budget. All things considered, she says the home-buying process wasn’t stressful—especially considering it was her first time. “I was glad to be able to plan for five years from now, knowing I’d be in the same place,” she says. The home was hers in June.

Shaughnessy’s kitchen, which features a gas stovetop and a stainless steel fridge

The month before her move-in date, Shaughnessy gave notice to her Toronto landlord and sublet an apartment in St. John’s to start shopping for new furniture. She scoured second-hand shops and Facebook Marketplace, where she found a sectional sofa, a dining room table and patio furniture. “I bought a plant stand from a woman named Jess, and now we’re friends,” she says. “That’s how easy it is to meet people here.” She also snagged herself a new Nissan Qashqai, an upgrade from her car-sharing days in Toronto.

Shaughnessy describes the first few moments after settling in as “surrealness overload.” At times, she misses her family and friends (and the ramen) back in Toronto, but she’s not at all confused as to why so many Ontarians migrated east post-pandemic—there’s the slower pace, the quality of life and, mostly, the cost differential. Shaughnessy’s new life in St. John’s involves a lot of cultural pursuits: concerts, comedy shows and even a gig on the board of directors at Persistence Theatre, a local feminist theatre group. “I want to be a sponge,” she says.

READ: The Move: This Ontario family found space and affordability in Calgary

The realities of first-time homeownership are ever-present—the weed forest that was her backyard, her uneven front steps, the leaky kitchen window—but Shaughnessy set aside money for repairs like these. With her first Atlantic winter coming up, Shaughnessy is bracing herself for a long, cold season and some very high heating bills. “So many people have warned me that it can get expensive,” Shaughnessy says. She’s decided to rent out her second bedroom to a student or someone who needs short-term accommodations if she ends up needing supplementary income. “I’m hoping that will help take care of any uncertainties,” she says. “I’m looking out for Future Me.”

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