On a gloriously sunny afternoon last week, cottage-country real estate agent Paul Crammond rolled the top down on his convertible and drove off along the curving roads around Lake Muskoka to meet some clients.
In a typical June, Mr. Crammond would be leading the couple on a tour of properties for sale, but in this case the newcomers were already unpacking their china in a 4,500-square-foot cottage with 300 feet of shoreline. The deal for nearly $4-million had been struck a couple of months before.
"It's been busy since the end of March," says Mr. Crammond, who is based at Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. in Port Carling, Ont. It's the fastest start to the season he has seen in many years.
Exceptionally warm and sunny spring weather brought spirited sales to the Muskoka region, which includes the big three lakes of Muskoka, Joseph and Rosseau, along with a few of the smaller ones.
"Buying a cottage is so psychological and the weather in April and May was fantastic," says Mr. Crammond.
His number-crunching shows that 68 waterfront cottages have changed hands in Muskoka since the beginning of the year, compared with 33 by this time in 2009 and 31 in 2008. Thirteen of the 2010 transactions have been valued at more than $2.5-million.
Besides looking for an outing in the warm weather, Mr. Crammond says, clients seem to be in a more ebullient mood after a couple of years of worrying about the economy. Particularly at the high end, he says, prospective buyers who feared that the recession would harm their job or business are now feeling more confident.
"Buyers were holding off until they knew how the economy would affect them," he says. "We had some pent-up demand for the past few years."
It's a different story a little farther north, in Huntsville and Lake of Bays, where Susan Brown of Chestnut Park says the season is off to a sluggish start as everyone awaits the G8 leaders.
She tallied up the sales so far and found 14 this year on Lake of Bays, which is the same number recorded last year at this time. That's an improvement on 2008, when the number dipped to 11 at mid-June, but a disappointment compared with 2007, when the mark was set at 22.
The impact of the G8 summit taking place in Huntsville, she says, is "huge."
"People who live here are going away. People who cottage here are not coming."
She says visitors are worried about encountering road closures and 9-foot steel fences, so many are opting to wait. Some real estate agents, she says, have recently advised sellers to wait until after this week's summit to list a property for sale.
Still, Ms. Brown says July, August and September could see more sales than usual as a result.
"There is pent-up demand."
Ms. Brown says the properties she has seen sell this year are perceived as good value. If sellers are hanging onto their expectations for 2007 prices, she cautions, they may have trouble attracting a buyer.
Still, sales have recovered from the worst days of the recession.
"If people say 'we're looking for a real bargain,' they're too late."
The longer-term impact of the summit is hard to predict, she says, but the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce has sent out 250 information packages to folks in other countries and that initiative could boost interest in the area, she says.
In Muskoka, Mr. Crammond says listings have increased by about 22 per cent compared with this time last year. If sales continue at such a brisk pace, he says, the area will need more listings to meet demand, though he cautions that the accelerated pace of deal-making in the spring could mean that sales will be softer in later months.
He says buyers are motivated by finding the right piece of landscape, but they also want to feel confident that the price is not going to go down - and might in fact go up.
Many market watchers in Muskoka believe that prices peaked in 2007, dropped in 2008, then crept up slightly in 2009. He says buyers have more negotiating power now - particularly if a property has been sitting on the market since last year.
Purchasers of recreational real estate tend not to be swayed by interest rates to the extent that house buyers are, he adds. In many cases, those buying a vacation property have no mortgage or a very small one.
One shift in cottage country in recent years is the emergence of properties offering fractional ownership.
Blue Water Acres Resort is one such property on Lake of Bays.
Bill Van Gelder, who operated Blue Water Acres as a traditional resort beginning in 1979, made the shift to fractional ownership 3 years ago. Instead of purchasing a unit outright, buyers buy the right to use the cottage for four weeks of the year.
Since 2007, Mr. Van Gelder says, the number of tourists visiting Muskoka and other regions has dropped because of the recession, while those still travelling have more international choices. The relative strength of the Canadian dollar, he adds, has discouraged American travellers from visiting Canada.
Meanwhile, many people still like the idea of owning a cottage and Mr. Van Gelder says the fractional ownership concept appeals to people who find the price tags on conventional Muskoka spreads too rich.
"People started to realize 'I don't need to spend $1-million for two weeks in the summer and a few weekends,' " he says.
He plans to gradually replace all of the quaint older cabins with new four-season cottages containing such luxuries as dishwashers, air conditioning and well-appointed bathrooms.
"The modern consumer is more demanding," he says.
Eventually Blue Water will have 44 new cottages and Mr. Van Gelder says he has sold 150 intervals so far.
"We surprised ourselves during the depths of the recession," he says.
This year he has seen a lot of traffic so far, though he was expecting the market to pause during the lead-up to the G8 summit. "But that's only a one-week interruption," he says.
At the same time, he says, the plan extends the season beyond the yearly peak from May 24th to Thanksgiving because the owners each have the place for one week in each of the four seasons of the year.
Owners who want to swap one of their weeks for time at an affiliated resort can choose from properties in 75 countries.
Mr. Crammond of Chestnut Park sees a cultural shift among cottage owners today who no longer enjoy the time-honoured practice of puttering around doing chores. Some buyers at fractional ownership projects will buy all 52 weeks in a single unit.
That way they have the place to themselves year-round but they never have to do any upkeep.
"Some people always enjoyed the maintenance," he says. "That's a different era."
Mr. Van Gelder agrees that many of the buyers have sold their single-family cottages and bought at Blue Water because they don't want to worry about whether the pump needs repairing or the grass needs cutting.
"There is absolutely nothing to take care of. All they've got to do is bring their food and their clothes."