Illustration by Mei Yao

Romance & rent: how housing prices are driving couples to move fast


There comes a time in many young adults’ lives when the appeal of living with a roommate begins to wear off. Bunking down with your best bud and sharing communal kitchens might be fun during college, but by the time you’re into your mid-20s, most people start craving their own space (even if it’s just to try living solo once). 

Trouble is, in a city with a vacancy rate of less than one per cent, and where market rents range from a ridiculous $1,300 for a 300-square-foot “microsuite” to over $1,800 for a “junior one-bedroom” (read: studio) apartment, taking that seminal step toward independence is out of reach for many.

Unless, that is, you move in with your partner.

It may be true that millennials are taking longer to make major life choices — finishing school, choosing careers, and getting married — than any generation before them, but there’s one milestone that comes rather quickly to those living in Vancouver: moving in with your main squeeze. And it’s real estate, not romance, that dictates when many couples cross the cohabitation threshold.

Romance and real estate

As 26-year-old barber Jessie Anderson explains, shacking up with a lover before you’re barely out of the honeymoon phase is just a fact of life for Vancouver couples. “It’s part of the hustle,” he says. At a time when living solo is a pipedream for most people under 30, and often beyond, living with a partner presents a rare opportunity to cut down on expenses and do away with the awkwardness of sharing space with random acquaintances. “You’re moving in with a partner because you need a roommate. That’s life,” Anderson says. “You know who’s not from Craigslist? Your partner.”

Given a different financial reality — or a different city — Anderson says he would have waited longer to move in with his previous partners, a point he usually reaches around the six-month mark. While couples are well aware that quick cohabitations can have disastrous consequences, there are a number of factors unique to Vancouver that make moving in together seem like a logical step.

Beyond the obvious perks of combining their purchasing power, discrepancies in living situations can strain budding relationships in Vancouver. For example, if one half of a couple has his or her own place while the other has a roommate (or many), or one person has a much nicer place, the burden of commuting often falls disproportionately on one person. That’s the position Anderson has historically found himself in, leading him to execute an exhausting process he calls “the crosstown shuffle.”

I’m tired. Let’s move in together?

“What ends up happening usually is I’ll be living in one corner of the city, working in one corner of the city, dating in one corner of the city and then I have my entire life in a backpack and I’m living out of my bag and on transit for an extended period of time. So it’s usually me who suggests the cohabitating because I’m tired.”

And while it’s nice to think love progresses at its own pace, the reality is major relationship moves in Vancouver are, more often than not, bound by the timing of a lease.

That’s what inspired 30-year-old Teija to broach the subject of cohabitation with her boyfriend just six months after they started dating. After ending a previous live-in relationship in her mid-20s, Teija had moved into a place of her own. At $1,100, the rent was “reasonable by Vancouver standards,” but it was financially crippling for a new grad in an entry-level job. So when her lease came due soon after she started a new relationship she had two choices: move in with a roommate or move in with him. “I brought it up,” she recalls, noting her boyfriend was conveniently in the market for a new roommate at the time. While he was resistant at first, Teija says the reality of finding a stranger to occupy his spare room made her boyfriend take the offer more seriously. They opted to give it a go, with Teija hedging her bets by putting most of her belongings in storage. “We didn’t want to feel obligated to stay living together if things didn’t work out,” she says.

A familiar leap of faith

But four-and-a-half years later, the risk appears to have paid off. The couple is still together and Teija gives the financial freedom the move afforded her partial credit for the relationship’s success. “All of a sudden it was like ‘my life works. I have money.’ I could pay off my credit card within a year.”

But sometimes it isn’t just financial freedom young people find when they find themselves moving in with a partner. When Maia, a 32-year-old artist (who asked to be known by a pseudonym), ended a nine-year relationship with her live-in boyfriend about two years ago, she was reluctant to get into another long-term commitment — of any sort. To minimize her housing costs and avoid signing a lease she rented rooms in a number of communal houses, but having many roommates made for a chaotic home life with little structure or downtime. Then in August, she met her current partner, and discovered he lived in a refurbished 1980s van. Although tiny by comparison, spending time with her partner in the vehicle afforded Maia much more mental space than her crowded communal house and just a few months later, she moved in.

She admits she’s felt harshly judged by the move, but living in the vehicle with her lover roommate has brought some much-needed changes to her life. Being rent-free allows her to spend her artist’s wage on self-care rather than rent, she says, and the ability to head out of the city and into nature at any time satisfies her need for personal development and adventure. The living arrangement also provides a freedom she feels is crucial to her ability to engage in her new relationship in a healthy way without feeling tied down. “Either of us can leave at any time,” she says. “We can literally do that because we’re not on a lease together.”

The freedom to leave without being financially ruined would have made a major difference to some of Anderson’s early relationships. Unable to break the lease, he once spent four months sleeping in a walk-in closet after breaking up with a live-in partner.

A room of one’s own

And when his most recent relationship ended suddenly last summer, he was once again scrambling to find affordable housing. Fortunately, a client mentioned there was an opening in a co-op close to Anderson’s barbershop. Having an affordable, stable, solo housing arrangement for the first time in his life will be a game-changer for his dating life, Anderson says, when he’s ready to get back to it. For now, he’s enjoying the luxury of not being in a hurry to move. “Moving forward it’ll be really interesting to see what cohabitating looks like or dating in general,” he says. “It’s going to make such a difference for me knowing that I have a place of my own.”

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