Come from away

Lakeside living encourages people to scale back and explore the New Rural Lifestyle.

by Lisa Harrison

The urge to get outta Dodge (substitute your city of choice) and head for the hills has grown rapidly in recent years, boosted by the ability to telecommute and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. For these reasons, Ontario’s Cottage Country is growing faster than expected.

With over 2,500 lakes and rivers, thousands of hectares of pristine lands and properties priced well below those in the Greater Toronto Horseshoe Area, Muskoka, Kawartha Lakes and the Haliburton Highlands, along with the Town of Bancroft, is unofficially known as Ontario’s Cottage Country.

The benefits of living in Ontario’s “near north” have made these destinations highly desirable for seasonal living since the late 1800s. Additional attractions such as infrastructure upgrades, along with the pressure of the pandemic, are making them even more desirable as full-time, permanent homes.

Lakeside living is drawing people to scale back and explore the New Urban Lifestyle. (Photography by Spencer Wynn)

Setting the serene scene

District Municipality of Muskoka: The Muskoka district of communities features more than 650 lakes that are over eight hectares in size, along with untouched forests and stunning rockscapes. It lies directly north of Toronto within a 150-km drive and stretches from Port Severn on Georgian Bay east past Dorset, and from Gravenhurst north past Huntsville.

City of Kawartha Lakes: Kawartha Lakes is a multi-community rural city that includes more than 250 lakes and rivers surrounded by prime agricultural lands. Just over an hour-long drive from Toronto, the region extends from Sebright east to Bobcaygeon and from Pontypool north to an approximate parallel with Gravenhurst in Muskoka.

County of Haliburton: Better known as the Haliburton Highlands, the county is known for its beauty and boasts more than 500 lakes. It is two hours north of the GTA and extends from Moore Falls east to Cardiff and Silent Lake Provincial Park north into the lower part of Algonquin Park.

Guess Who’s Coming to Stay?

The influx from the cities covers a wide range of demographics from new retirees to young families returning to their roots, according to realtors and municipal administrators closest to the action.

Michael Stevenson moved to Milford Bay, near Bracebridge, from Oakville with his wife Sarah in September 2019, well before the pandemic was announced.

“We always talked about potentially relocating ‘someday’ but when a job opportunity became available for both of us, we decided to take the leap instead of continuing our roots in the city,” says Stevenson.

Many new residents are moving permanently to their seasonal cottages, making those numbers difficult to track. But it is a large number; for example, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census, as many as 59.2 per cent of all dwellings in Haliburton’s Dysart et al township are now occupied by new permanent residents moving into already owned homes.

Carly Kennedy, 26, moved to the family’s Bracebridge cottage from Markham during the pandemic, along with her parents.

“It was a no-brainer to get out of the city and live in our ‘happy place’ where the lake and beautiful outdoors were at our fingertips,” says Kennedy.

The pandemic is not always responsible for the change, and the young family migration is lower than local rumour would have it.

“(While) we hear from time to time of a family that may be enrolling in one of our schools from the GTA, this is typically anecdotal and … not a significant number,” says Catherine Shedden, District Manager of Corporate Communications for Trillium Lakelands District School Board. The board oversees public education in the three regions.

A couple enjoy an outdoor patio in Lindsay. (Photo courtesy the City of Kawartha Lakes)

Affording the good life

Cottage country brings a beautiful lifestyle well within range of city dwellers’ budgets, even in the current unreal state of real estate.

Local prices have been rising for a few years as baby boomer retirement numbers and city property values increase. The pandemic also sparked sudden high demand from city buyers, producing an historic sellers’ market.

“Inventory is at the lowest level in the last decade,” says Eugene McDonald, president of the Kawartha Lakes Real Estate Association. Nevertheless, Kawartha Lakes sales of 109 units in February were 43.4 per cent higher than February sales in 2020.

“In the last few years, we had seen a rise in demand from older couples and retirees, but this year we saw younger families making the move as well. Prices have risen locally but are still very competitive compared to the GTA. We are seeing 40 to 50 per cent of monthly sales being to ‘urban transplants’ in the last few years.”

In addition, existing seasonal residents who move to their second homes will save by paying taxes on only one property.

Upgrades up the ante

Infrastructure upgrades in areas such as utility services, telecommunications/ telecommuting and transportation are playing a large role in the rural draw.

Kawartha Lakes upgraded the waste trunk system in northwest Lindsay a few years ago, and has been offering incentives to developers and marketing the region to the Toronto area, according to Richard Holy, the city’s acting director of development services.

As a result, hundreds of homes, condos and rental units are currently in development and selling across the region, in large part due to city buyers.

“We hear from the developers that their sales are very strong,” says Holy. “I would say in the last six months, we’ve really seen a fairly sharp increase in interest in our community.”