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(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

REAL ESTATE

Cottage market heats up amid low interest rates Add to ...

Somewhere, sometime, just about everyone has The Cottage Talk – and this was Amy Nelson’s time. The 33-year-old account manager from Toronto was driving to a friend’s family cottage this summer when she asked her husband, “Would you ever want a cottage?”

Sure, he did. So did she. And with their seven-month-old daughter napping in her car seat, and hours on the road ahead of them, Ms. Nelson and her husband could spin such pretty pictures of their baggy-bottomed baby taking her first steps in the lake, entertaining family, getting away from the stress of their city jobs and the city smog.

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“It does happen, yeah,” says Sue Morrison, a salesperson and office manager with Re/Max North Country Realty in Muskoka, Ont. “People get the fever, they fall in love with the area, and they think: Now is the time.” That’s when Ms. Morrison’s phone rings, with a hot-to-trot would-be cottager on the other end.

Cottage hunters are so notoriously fickle that Ms. Morrison takes measures to “prequalify” her clients – a diplomatic way of saying that she shakes out the sincerity of their intentions through gentle questioning. Even then, “whether that translates into anything, we’re not sure,” she says.

“There’s a lot of pelts,” is how Glenn Larkin puts it, using the local idiom for “tire-kickers.” A few years ago, getting a commission from a cottage sale was such a long shot, says the Royal LePage broker in St. John’s, that “when somebody’d phone and say they’re looking for a cottage, you’d say, ‘Oh, when you see one you like, call me.’ ”

These day, however, low interest rates have become cottage realtors’ friends. Mr. Larkin and other salespeople say they are seeing most buyers borrow against the equity in their city homes to fund recreational properties, rather than bothering to apply for separate financing. The reason: Mortgages on cottages tend to cost more, because they’re a greater default risk; people have more stake in, and need to live in, their principal residence. By refinancing their lower-cost city-home mortgages, cottage buyers cleverly circumvent lenders’ caution, and make the dream of owning a summer place more attainable, too.

For that reason, Mr. Larkin now takes the long view, indulging a would-be cottage buyer with his time in the hope he or she will become a commission-paying client down the road.

“We do spend months and months and months looking for the right place,” echoes Desmond von Teichman, a broker in Collingwood, Ont. “Clients are very well-educated and they know what they want. A cottage is a discretionary expense, so they can afford to be very, very picky.”

In Vancouver, Deborah Beaulieu and her husband, Peter, have been talking about buying a recreational property for the past eight years. It started with Mr. Beaulieu poring over local real-estate magazines, and the couple making the occasional drive-by of properties that interested them. Eventually, they contacted Joel O’Reilly, the listing agent for a place on the Sunshine Coast; the area, a 40-minute ferry ride from Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay, particularly intrigued them. Three years after that, they pulled the trigger.

“Why did we buy now, after looking all this time? The prices are down. Also we were specifically looking for something we could build on,” says Ms. Beaulieu, who, like her husband, is a renovation contractor. “Most of the properties there already have a house on them, and it would not be financially feasible to tear down and rebuild.”

The place they took possession of July 1 does have a small cottage on it, but the more than half-acre property means there’s still plenty of room to build a custom home for Ms. Beaulieu and her husband to enjoy and eventually retire to; in the meantime, their son and his girlfriend, who manage the couple’s Subway restaurant franchise in nearby Sechelt, can live in the cottage.

In Nova Scotia, Tim Harris’s Tradewinds Realty is having an uncommonly busy August. “I don’t know what the motivation is,” says Mr. Harris, who has been in business for a quarter century. “Usually, spring is our busy season.” One theory: Middle-income professionals from Halifax have been working extra hard and squirrelling away savings since the economy soured in 2008; four years later, they figure they deserve that cottage they’ve always dreamed of. In a market where seven- and even eight-figure vacation estates aren’t uncommon, Mr. Harris says that this year the sale of properties in the $500,000 range “seems to be quite brisk.”

Says Mr. O’Reilly, the Beaulieus’s agent, “A number of people have been watching and watching the market, and they want to have the kids up, and the grandkids.”

Ms. Morrison predicts she will see another uptick in interest from would-be-cottagers this fall, when some believe they’ll get a better deal from sellers who would prefer to unload rather than carry their for-sale property over the winter. (For the record, Ms. Morrison says that isn’t usually the case.)

Others who caught cottage fever after a stay in a rental or at a friend’s place will go home and sleep it off. “Reality sets in when you go home,” Ms. Morrison says, “just like after you go on a tropical vacation.”

For Amy Nelson and her husband, reality set in while they were still on the road to their borrowed getaway. “We talked about whether it would fit into our financial plans,” Ms. Nelson says. Neither she nor her spouse has a pension plan, so saving for retirement is a priority. And with Ms. Nelson still on maternity leave, “as fun as a cottage would be,” she says, the timing just isn’t right.

But they’ll have The Cottage Talk again; Ms. Nelson is sure of it. And brokers are counting on it.

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