This is the first of seven articles about Canadian communities that may appeal to 50-plus people - readers' picks of seven great places for retirement.
At 69, Jim Merrick is finally getting off the Toronto real estate roller coaster, by moving to a community that was once known for a real roller coaster, Crystal Beach, Ont.
"I can't believe the value I'm going to be getting for what I'm paying," says Mr. Merrick, a retired accountant who has worked for the past nine years at a Toronto gardening centre.
"It's a beautiful post-and-beam home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a three-car garage, and it's beautifully landscaped."
Mr. Merrick is not alone in his move to this once-bustling resort area, within the town of Fort Erie in the southern part of the Niagara region. Crystal Beach was once the home of a well-known amusement park, which operated for 101 years until it closed in 1989.
The park was famous for its roller coasters, first the Cyclone and later the Comet, which drew screaming thrill-seekers from the Greater Toronto Area and Western New York. The Comet was moved to New York state, where it still operates, and Crystal Beach's ferris wheel lives on at Centre Island in Toronto.
People like Mr. Merrick are joining a growing number of big-city folk seeking homes in Crystal Beach, population 3,800, and nearby Port Colborne and Welland, attracted by small-town prices and a quieter, outdoor-focused lifestyle.
"There definitely has been a change," says Sally Howard, real estate agent at D.W. Howard Realty in Ridgeway, another growing city-escape community of 2,000 people, 1.6 kilometres away.
"In the last three years there has been a huge transition of people from the Toronto area, especially from Oakville, Mississauga and Burlington."
Sales and price figures suggest that the area's market is healthy, while not out of control from the buyers' perspective. According to Royal LePage's summer review of the Niagara Region housing market, properties grew a bit scarcer year over year in mid-2014 in Fort Erie, which includes both Crystal Beach and Ridgeway, with 1 per cent fewer units on the market. At the same time prices rose there by 7.6 per cent.
The average price for a single-family home in all of Niagara Region in the same period was $250,217, up from $237,151. In nearby Port Colborne, just to the west on Lake Erie, prices went up an average 13.5 per cent over the year to mid-2014, while in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a perennial magnet for retirees, they rose nearly 12 per cent.
While Mr. Merrick declines to say what he paid for his home, which sits on half an acre (0.2 hectares) within walking distance of Lake Erie, he notes that he based his decision to buy in Crystal Beach based on both the area's affordability and its lifestyle.
"Toronto homes were basically out of my price range," he says.
Mr. Merrick started looking for his home in May, after his mother had passed away and he split the proceeds of her Toronto house with his brother.
"I could have bought a nice condominium [in Toronto] but I wanted something more. I also looked at the Windsor area and Prince Edward County, but my friends said I should really consider looking at south Niagara. A lot of people I know are repositioning themselves," he says.
Ms. Howard says that up to 90 per cent of property seekers who contact her are from the Toronto area. While larger homes in Crystal Beach can sell for as much as $2-million, a cottage just away from the lake can still be had for as little as $120,000. While the average price for a single family home right on the water is around $600,000, the average price for a cottage away from the shoreline but with water access is about $150,000, Ms. Howard says.
Buyers tend to be retirees escaping Toronto-area prices and congestion and other GTA residents seeking a vacation property that is easier to get to than Muskoka, she says.
A gated community, the Crystal Beach Tennis & Yacht Club, has gone up on the site of the old amusement park. "Another huge draw is an adults-only community, Ridgeway by the Lake," Ms. Howard says.
Mr. Merrick, who took possession of his new house in mid-October, said that he chose this particular property because it is walking distance to the supervised beach. It's easy for his grown-up son and daughter and their children to come over from Toronto. Though it's a full-time home, "Literally I get a cottage without having to worry about the [grand]children getting into trouble at the lake, because there's a lifeguard," he says.
Water quality can be a persistent problem on Lake Erie, and this past summer there were elevated levels of algae, mostly on the southern U.S. side. "We do have some algae, but 90 per cent of the time the beach is open," Ms. Howard says.
As a gardener, Mr. Merrick says he's also attracted by the longer growing season – at least a full week longer than Toronto's, which makes a difference to what can be grown. He will also travel to a winter property in St. Petersburg, Fla., and says that being closer to the border makes travel there easier, either by air from Buffalo International Airport or by car.
He also likes Ridgeway's "Mayberry feel," as Ms. Howard calls it, and is enthusiastic about its main street arts centre, called the Sanctuary.
"One thing they are lacking is a major hospital," Mr. Merrick says. A new hospital opened in St. Catharines last year, but a $26.2-million planning process, started in January, is still under way for a new facility to serve south Niagara, including Crystal Beach. It would replace smaller, older facilities in Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort Erie, Welland and Port Colborne. Plans for a new hospital are being welcomed across the south part of the region, but there are also concerns in the different communities that the new facility, whose location is not finalized yet, will be too far from some of the villages and towns.
The job scene in Niagara is tough, and while Mr. Merrick sympathizes, as a retiree this doesn't affect him personally, he says. The area also strikes him as an ideal place for people to start small businesses, he adds.
"There's everything here I could want for the last 15 to 20 years of my life," he says.