How Can Vancouver Be Only 107th Priciest City for Expats?

With its famously expensive housing, our city has highest cost of living in Canada – but on the world stage it’s a different story
Joannah Connolly
June 26, 2017

The annual Cost of Living Survey by Mercer always makes for juicy news clickbait, and the latest edition, published last week, is no different.

But I think that what is really raising eyebrows, at least locally, is how relatively low Vancouver ranks on the global scale.

The survey measures the cost of living for expats moving to a given city, including rental housing costs, a typical grocery basket, utilities, entertainment and so on – including special costs such as private security in dangerous countries.

Mercer ranks Vancouver the priciest place in Canada to move to from overseas, higher than Toronto by 12 places.

But overall, Vancouver comes in a very modest 107th place out of 209 cities surveyed – more than halfway down the global list. The city shares its 107th place in a three-way tie with the charming, small city of Luxembourg in central Europe, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

And 17 US cities rank higher than that on the list, with New York predictably leading the way at #9. Here’s the overall top 10 (apparently Luanda’s continued #1 ranking is mostly about the private security required):

Mercer 2017 cost of living top 10

Of course, for local residents earning local salaries, living in Vancouver certainly doesn’t feel middle-of-the-pack in terms of affordability. But this survey is about how the cost of living feels for those moving here from abroad – or for the companies paying to expatriate their employees – and it’s a whole different story for those folk.

Indeed, Gordon Frost, career business leader at Mercer Canada, stated, “Although the cost of living in Vancouver or Toronto may be high for locals, both cities remain attractive destinations for expatriates placed by organizations outside the country.”

So why such a huge discrepancy, depending on whether you’re a local or an expat?

The answer is, mostly, in the Canadian dollar. While a low loonie is no help to a local resident earning a local income, expats can get a lot more bang for their buck in Canada. It’s no coincidence that Vancouver was ranked in Mercer’s top 30% at 64th place in 2013’s cost-of-living rankings, but fell to 96 by 2014, as the loonie dropped.

But what’s also interesting is that last year, Vancouver placed even lower on the list, at 142 – just one place above Toronto’s 2016 ranking of 143. So, although both cities are still relatively affordable on the global scale, both are climbing back up the charts as housing costs continue to climb while the loonie seems to have stabilized at its lower level.

For me, as an expat from London (ranked #30), Vancouver seemed quite affordable when I landed in 2010 – indeed, it was one of the reasons I moved here. (Apart from the exorbitant cost of cheese and booze, of course.) I remember visiting the city for the first time and thinking, “Wow, I could actually rent a small place right in the heart of the city, and walk everywhere!” – a virtually impossible dream in London. But these days, as I earn my journalist’s salary in Canadian dollars, life here feels much pricier.

I have found in the past seven years that a lot of local people (warning: sweeping generalization ahead) tend to look at Vancouver from a very local point of view, not realizing or accepting that, globally speaking, this is not as expensive a city as it might feel. And, like it or not, we are now a global city, and a very desirable one to boot.

Of course, that’s small comfort to the local folk who are getting by on typical local incomes. And I think we can expect to keep on rising back up the cost-of-living charts as more and more people, domestic and overseas, are drawn to the incredible benefits our fair city has to offer.

Joannah Connolly
Joannah Connolly is editorial director of Glacier Real Estate, Glacier Media's real estate division. Joannah writes and curates real estate news for Glacier Media's local newspaper websites, including the Vancouver Courier, North Shore News, Burnaby Now, Tri-City News and others. She also oversees editorial content in Real Estate Weekly Homes, West Coast Condo, Western Investor and Glacier's special real estate publications. A dual Canadian-British citizen, Joannah has 22 years of journalism and editing experience in Vancouver and London, with a background in construction, architecture, healthcare and business media. Joannah has appeared on major local TV outlets as a real estate commentator, has moderated and spoken on various industry panels, and spent two years hosting the Real Estate Therapist radio show on Roundhouse Radio.