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Attention retirees – Sarnia has $100,000 homes to spare

Sarnia has more than 100 kilometres of walking trails and beaches along the shores of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron.

George Rosema

This is the fifth of seven articles about Canadian communities that may appeal to 50-plus people – readers' picks of seven great places for retirement. Do you have a favourite place for retirement? Tell us in the comments section.

Back in 2000, Murray and Ann Jacobs picked up from their Newmarket, Ont., residence and drove highways 400, 401 and the 402 to reach their new home. They were moving to Sarnia, the 72,000-person city in Southwestern Ontario wedged between the shores of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron.

Although Ms. Jacobs was initially reluctant to leave her Greater Toronto Area life behind, her husband was excited. Years before the couple had lived in the centre of Sarnia and he had visions of settling down, after a 33-year career with Canadian National Railway Co., in the Brights Grove area, a block from the lake.

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In the end, they compromised. They would try it for a year and see whether Sarnia was the right place for retirement.

"We've been here ever since," Mr. Jacobs says. "It's a beautiful place. I think it's Ontario's best-kept secret."

Maybe a secret no more. Today the couple has company as Sarnia slowly shakes off its industrial reputation, and house-hunters, both families and retirees, learn about its ultra-low home prices.

This increased interest can, at least partially, be attributed to the efforts of the area's Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership, mandated to draw new residents to the area. In a part of the country hit hard by the recession and changes in the manufacturing sector, it makes sense to entice retirees who aren't looking to enter the labour pool.

The group's advertising campaign, primarily targeted at Torontonians, addresses two of that city's biggest citizen beefs: traffic snarls and skyrocketing real estate prices. The name of the organizations' advertising blitz website, ihatetraffic.ca, says it all.

To a homebuyer from Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver, the price of housing in Sarnia is a jaw-dropper. For instance, in September the average sale price in the City of Toronto was $559,400, while Sarnia's year to date price came in at $220,759. The highest number of residential home sales for the month was in the $150,000 to $199,000 price range, while 40 houses were sold in the $100,000 to $149,000 range. Some homes cost even less.

"I could show you 30 houses right now under a hundred grand," maintains Sean Ryan, a real estate broker and owner of Century 21 Bluewater Realty Ltd., in Sarnia. "It's really cheap to live here."

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Cheap living is definitely a boon for those whose investments tanked during 2008 and 2009 – money they expected to live off of in retirement. Not only would day-to-day cost of living decline, the move could also inject thousands into a portfolio. As the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership website points out, selling a $700,000 home in the GTA for a similar or better home in Sarnia for $300,000 results in a $400,000 profit, which can then be invested. Earn 6-per-cent interest and that's an extra $2,000 in your pocket each month, it says.

"What this can do is put some cash back in the situation and allow somebody to get their retirement plan back on track," explains Ted Zatylny, project leader, new resident attraction, for the organization.

While the organization is just now beginning to collect data on where people are relocating from, Jane Baker, vice-president of the Sarnia-Lambton Real Estate Board, which is a partner for the project, says realtors are offering anecdotal evidence that the advertisement campaign may be working.

"Every price range is selling," she says, noting that the area's real estate sales dollar volume in September was up 39 per cent over the previous year, despite a limping local economy. "A big part of that is we're having an influx of people coming from other places."

Sarnia's longstanding reputation as a Canadian industrial pollution hotspot doesn't seem to be hindering sales either. For instance, when Gerald and Irene Neilson moved to Sarnia a little more than three year ago, the couple hardly gave the area's Chemical Valley, home to dozens of facilities and refineries, much thought.

"You don't really smell Chemical Valley any more. That used to be the case years ago, but now you don't. It's not really an issue," Mr. Neilson says, even though the couple lives a short five-minute drive away from it.

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Even so, according to 2014 World Health Organization data, which monitors outdoor air pollution levels around the world, Sarnia's outdoor air quality remains one of the worst in Canada, followed by Squamish, B.C., and Montreal.

While cheaper living was part of the draw for the Neilsons when they moved to Sarnia a little more than three years ago, they were even more attracted to the community's quiet pace. In short, it's just easier to get around, something the couple, who has lived in places ranging from Ottawa and Mississauga and even Mexico, prized.

"Unlike the Toronto area where it takes you an hour to go anywhere, here, you can get to where you want to go in 10 or 15 minutes," Mr. Neilson says.

Travelling even further afield is just as simple. Sarnia borders the United States with Michigan's Port Huron across the water. Mr. Neilson says they head stateside at least a couple times a month for shopping or to see friends. Meanwhile Chicago is a 3 1/2-hour drive and there are six airports snowbirds can choose from on both sides of the border, including London, Ont., Hamilton, Flint, Mich., and Detroit.

Not that anyone who braves the Sarnia winter has to shovel or drive through much snow, this past winter notwithstanding. Sarnia's average annual snowfall is 112 centimetres, while even temperate Toronto's dump comes in at 121.5 cm.

"When people come from London or Toronto, they note that we get less snow here. For older people, they do factor that into their decision to move here," Ms. Baker says.

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While residents can get care in Sarnia's Bluewater Health, a new 326-bed community hospital, many travel to London an hour away for specialist appointments. Currently, there are eight family doctors taking new patients.

It was the more than 100 kilometres of walking trails and beaches that initially drew the Jacobs to Sarnia years ago and keep them there still. Their nine grandchildren visit each summer and spend hours at the local Lake Huron beach and Mr. Jacobs plays golf at some of the 20 nearby courses. It takes mere minutes door-to-door to be there for tee time.

"It's great here. I don't think I've ever been in a traffic jam in 14 years," Mr. Jacobs says.

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