TORONTO -- In her 40 years in Halifax real estate, agent Sandra Bryant has never seen as many buyers flocking to town shopping for homes as she did in 2020.

“It was my best year ever,” Bryant told on Tuesday.

The surging demand has sparked bidding wars in a city where low prices and glacial growth were once the norm. Now Bryant says she’s seeing a record-breaking number of sales, particularly among young out-of-towners from Toronto seeking a different pace of life in picturesque Atlantic Canada.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Bryant said. “I always knew it was an incredible place to be.”

Halifax saw its population grow by two per cent last year, making it the second-fastest growing community in Canada, according to a new report from Statistics Canada. Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo in Ontario tied Halifax with two per cent growth. The only city to grow faster was Oshawa, Ont., a suburban community on the outskirts of Toronto that grew by 2.1 per cent.

At the same time, Toronto and Montreal saw a record-breaking loss of people between July 2019 and July 2020. Statistics Canada said this decisive shift away from cities will be “an important trend to monitor.”

“Personal health, the ability to work remotely, and higher housing costs are among the most important factors contributing to the decision of many Canadians to continue (or to no longer continue) living in large urban centres hardest hit by the pandemic,” wrote the report’s authors.

The report offers a snapshot of what real estate agents have been seeing on the ground for months: young couples once priced out of cities now have the freedom to look for properties elsewhere, thanks to the shift to working from home. Low interest rates have made buying a home even easier.

Lauren Haw, CEO of Zoocasa, a real estate agency that offers market analysis, said the desire for more square footage is tempting urbanites to consider smaller communities where their money goes further.

“People who said, ‘I'm gonna buy this $600,000 one-bedroom condo in downtown Toronto,’ are now saying, ‘I can work from home in Barrie, Ancaster, Guelph or London.’ And people in London are doing the same and moving to Strathroy and Woodstock,” Haw said in an earlier interview.

In Oshawa, which leads the country in population growth, agents have seen stunning competition. In one recent case, a townhouse listed for $550,000 received 39 offers, according to broker Paul Baird.

“This time last year, maybe you’d get a couple offers because the market was starting to heat up. Two years ago in 2019, you’d be lucky to get an offer in the first week on the market. It just took a lot longer to sell a house. And then, all of a sudden, the demand just surged,” he said.

The reason for these bidding wars is simple: “There’s just too much demand and not enough supply,” Baird said.

The closest precedent to today’s demand, Baird said, was in 2017 when investors began competing for properties in Oshawa, sometimes buying up multiple properties at once. These days, the typical profile of buyers is much different.

“I think a lot of the people we see now are just trying to buy their first house,” he said.

According to Statistics Canada, the communities with the highest population growth rates are:

  • Oshawa (2.1 per cent)
  • Halifax (2 per cent)
  • Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge (2 per cent)
  • Kelowna (1.9 per cent)
  • Calgary (1.9 per cent)
  • Saskatoon (1.9 per cent)
  • Moncton (1.8 per cent)
  • Edmonton (1.8 per cent)
  • Barrie (1.8 per cent)
  • Belleville (1.6 per cent)
  • Ottawa-Gatineau (1.6 per cent)
  • London (1.6 per cent)
  • Lethbridge (1.5 per cent)
  • Trois-Rivières (1.5 per cent)
  • Guelph (1.5 per cent)
  • Sherbrooke (1.5 per cent)