When Richard and Heather Jones and their two children, Hadley, 7, and Dylan, 5, moved away from the city last spring to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., they imagined that finding a nearby cottage in a rural market would be easy. The young family had some leftover cash from the sale of their home in Holland Landing, north of Toronto, after purchasing a permanent residence in Northern Ontario. “If we were still in the GTA, there’s no way we could have a house and a cottage,” Richard says. “But up here, it’s within our means.”
However, after a summer-long search, Richard wonders if they’ll ever find a place. Northern Ontario was once the empty space on the backside of a provincial highways map, where small towns are separated by vast distances and connected by minimal infrastructure. Now, it exemplifies a real estate phenomenon playing out across Canada: the boonies no longer exist.
Of course, parts of Canada have always attracted seasonal residents from far away. In B.C., for example, the Okanagan Valley has always been an Alberta stronghold. Other areas (such as Northern Ontario, including Lake of the Woods, Temagami, and St. Joseph Island) are American hotbeds. But for the most part, well-established cottage areas (and traditionally the most competitive and lucrative real estate markets) are situated close to metropolitan areas.
There’s plenty of evidence to indicate that COVID-19 is spurring people to exit urban centres in droves. (Statistics Canada shows about 90,000 people settled in non-metropolitan areas between 2016 and 2020.) At the same time, the pandemic normalized working from home, and rapidly improving internet access has broadened career options in remote locations—though it remains to be seen how things will readjust as more offices reopen. As with the Joneses, people are relocating to smaller cities with enough cash to buy houses and nearby cottages; others are buying rural waterfront properties to use as year-round homes. Both of these factors have increased the pressure on once-sleepy real estate markets, compounding an irony of rural Canada that’s challenging the resolve of prospective cottage owners: for all the space, there’s not nearly enough cottage property to go around.
Supply and demand
Supply shortages have always dictated a competitive cottage real estate market. “The main difference in the past two years,” says Dallas Glawson, a Century 21 realtor with 20 years of experience around Sault Ste. Marie, “is a massive spike in demand.” Glawson estimates that demand in his area jumped five-fold in the summer of 2020. Interest was higher still in 2021; prospective buyers are now competing in a market with 10 times the demand. Bare-bones places with “no septic, no toilets, more off-grid situations that used to sell for $119,000 or $129,000,” Glawson says, “are now going for $250,000.” That might sound like a steal in other markets, but that well exceeds the median price of a house in Sault Ste. Marie, which, before the pandemic, was a relatively paltry $175,000. The median jumped to nearly $300,000 in September 2021—a trend that parallels real estate prices across Canada in the past two years, where the cost of single-family homes have increased by nearly 40 per cent. The largest increase occurred in Bancroft, Ont., where prices surged by almost 92 per cent.
Glawson says that 80 per cent of his customers are new to the region, coming primarily from Toronto and southwestern Ontario, split equally between those moving permanently and others looking for a seasonal residence. That parallels trends on Manitoulin Island, where prices for waterfront cottages jumped from about $250,000 in 2017 to nearly $500,000 last year. Jordan Chandler, broker of record with Remax The Island Real Estate Brokerage in Little Current, Ont., says he predicted changes were coming—“Muskoka is filling up, and we’re the next place on the map”—but he never imagined it happening so fast. A place like Manitoulin offers great value compared to Muskoka, where the median price for waterfront real estate is more than $1 million. “It’s easy for someone from down south with more equity to come up here and pay 20 per cent more [than the listing price],” says Chandler. “People are discovering what we have up here, and they have the assets to pay for it with no need for a mortgage. That’s driving the market in an upward spiral.”
Chandler’s Manitoulin waterfront buyers always ask the same first question: how’s the internet? “They’re looking to move from the city to a rural area where they can work from home,” he explains. Some go all-in, selling their homes in places like Toronto and buying year-round waterfront property, often coming out with cash leftover; others are looking for a place with fast and reliable internet to conduct their business for significant portions of the year while retaining a home in the city. Toronto
residents Scott Graham and his wife, Meagan Filion, for example, recently purchased a waterfront lot on Lac Saint-Sixte, north of Gatineau, Que., with plans of building a cottage this year. The fact that Meagan, an RBC executive, may have the option of working from the cottage—even after her office reopens—made the six-hour drive seem more reasonable. “We can go up there on a Wednesday, and she can work Thursday and Friday,” says Scott. “Being able to stay longer diminishes the distance.”
These days, it’s hard to find a good deal on cottage property anywhere. For decades, the sprawling hills and gem-like lakes of western Quebec’s Outaouais region, where Scott and Meagan purchased last fall, were overlooked as a cottage destination despite its proximity to Ottawa. “Driving an hour and 15 minutes to the cottage used to be a long drive,” says John Macintyre, a veteran Century 21 realtor based in Chelsea, Que. As a result, it was possible to find a decent cottage for $250,000. But the radius of Macintyre’s sales from the nation’s capital were expanding before the pandemic hit because of a scarcity of listings. And, prices have rapidly increased over the last 24 months by 30 per cent or more “and no one’s blinked,” Macintyre says. Popular spots include the Quebec areas of La Pêche and Val-des-Monts, locations where, as with the Sault Ste. Marie area, competition is stiffened by both seasonal buyers and those looking for year-round waterfront homes. Scott and Meagan paid $450,000 for a four-acre property that sold for well under $300,000 in 2020. “Next thing you know, you’ve got knife fights and bidding wars,” says Macintyre, half-jokingly. “Even places back in the nosebleeds”—seasonal access lakes more than two hours from Ottawa and Gatineau—“are selling in a matter of moments.”
The nearest faraway place
I’ve had a front-row seat to a couple who moved north in the nick of time: my sister, Caitlin Mihell, and her partner, Ramin Emad, escaped their townhouse in Toronto and relocated to Sault Ste. Marie shortly after the pandemic was declared. They assumed the move to Caitlin’s hometown would be temporary, and they came with few plans other than renting a house in a quiet and familiar place and waiting things out while their Toronto-based film talent agency was shut down. “I worked from home in Toronto for seven years,” Ramin says. “With the pandemic, it became obvious that I could work from somewhere even more remote, in a place where I could enjoy a great view from my desk.” Plus, he embraced the Soo’s casual atmosphere and closer proximity to Caitlin’s family.
They purchased a waterfront lot on the St. Marys River at Lake Superior’s eastern terminus in May 2020 and started building a four-season home in October. Caitlin has fond memories of growing up swimming, sailing, and canoeing at our grandparents’ cottage barely a kilometre away. For Ramin, who emigrated to Canada from Iran as a teenager, the golden sand beach and crystalline water was a paradise he never imagined. “For 25 years, I didn’t get a proper Canadian experience until I came up here,” he says. “I love the sunsets, the wildlife, and the clean air.”
On the coast
Cottage property is just as hot on the West Coast, says Jason Zroback of Land Quest Realty in New Westminster, B.C. “It’s probably the busiest market we’ve ever had for water-access,” he says, identifying the Sunshine Coast and Powell River, ferry-access regions both located on the mainland north of Vancouver, as hot spots for cottage buyers and full-time buyers alike. “That’s an indication of the shortage of road-accessible recreational properties in the province. People are willing to leave Vancouver, ride two ferries, and take a water taxi to their property.”
Such a complicated commute would cost about $500 per trip. But that’s nothing for Western cottagers, adds Zroback, who cites the not-so-unusual example of people getting to their island cottages by float plane. However, Zroback is shocked at how the boundaries of what’s normal are expanding. “Years ago, it was two hours from the [Lower Mainland],” he says. “That’s pretty darn near impossible now. It’s four hours, six hours, eight hours. People are going anywhere.”
As always, price and access are directly linked. “Whereas $500,000 gets you a waterfront lot in the Southern Gulf,” Zroback notes, “the same will get you a private island with a totally improved [cottage] in Bella Coola” on B.C.’s remote central coast, a long ferry ride north of Vancouver Island. Demand is increasing even in areas that take upwards of 24 hours of driving and ferry time to access because “people don’t have to be at a certain place for a certain amount of time,” says Zroback. “There’s so much more flexibility now, and that’s changed the market, probably forever.”
A new normal?
Failing a recession, patience likely won’t get you a better deal on a cottage these days. Realtors agree that higher waterfront prices are here to stay.
A bigger question for Macintyre in the Outaouais region—and one that could rebalance cottage real estate prices in more remote markets—is the staying power of the new generation of back-to-the-landers. Macintyre chuckles at some of the cottagers he’s seen over the years who have moved to the lake year-round. “They put on a brave face for the first winter,” he says. But after the second, “they realize that it gets dark at 4 p.m., and the winters are long.”
Ramin says a place like Sault Ste. Marie is a happy medium. His new home is located within a five-minute drive from the Sault Ste. Marie Airport and 25 minutes from the services of a mid-sized city. A flight to Toronto costs about $200 and takes less than an hour, making it easy for him to travel for work and to host friends from out of town. Scott and Meagan discovered a similar benefit on Lac Saint-Sixte, which is located about an hour from the Ottawa airport and two hours from the Montreal airport. “It’s actually far closer to metropolitan areas than Muskoka or the Kawarthas,” Scott says. “That’s great if family want to fly in. Yet it feels like we’re far away.”
Meanwhile, after a summer of keeping tabs on real estate, the Joneses found a four-season, three-bedroom cottage on St. Joseph Island, 58 minutes from their home in Sault Ste. Marie. They put in a bid, which was exceeded handily by the eventual buyer’s offer of $475,000—a full $100,000 over the list price. “It’s a deflating feeling,” Richard says. “We lost out on a really great place to someone who could bid more.”
Soon after, the family spent an autumn weekend at the provincial park campground at Agawa Bay on Lake Superior. Besides sampling the region at friends’ cottages, Richard and his family spent lots of time discovering public beaches on Lake Superior, hiking, and tent camping. The stunning fall colours and rugged landscape triggered another revelation Richard says he could’ve never imagined having when he lived in Toronto: with so much access to the outdoors close by, his family might not need a cottage at all.
The Joneses aren’t giving up their search, but perhaps their sense of urgency has diminished. “We always knew it’s a different atmosphere up here,” he says. “Maybe we don’t want to be tied down to a single place. Maybe we’ll buy a boat and a travel trailer and get to experience more places. There’s so much space up here, it’s what drove us north.”
Conor Mihell was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie. He was ahead of the trend moving back in 2009 after stints in southern Ontario and B.C.’s Lower Mainland.