Since May, 2020, Ty Pereira and Nicki Swartz have woken up to a specular vista. From their principal bedroom, perched on the loft up a set of stairs from an open-concept kitchen-living area, they look across to a two-storey wall of windows out to Ontario’s Lake Scugog. Framing the view: the beams of a peaked cathedral ceiling.
The sight of evergreens and still water is a major change from where the couple used to live in the Toronto suburb of Ajax. “We were in a cookie-cutter townhouse subdivision with thousands of other people that we didn’t know,” Pereira says. “Even during the summers, we often found ourselves sitting inside watching TV because we had no outdoor space.”
“Now we hardly watch TV because it’s so easy to go for a nice walk,” Swartz says.
Pereira and Swartz are living a dream shared by many other Canadians right now. According to Statistics Canada, between July, 2019, and July, 2020, more than 50,000 people left Toronto and almost 30,000 left Montreal, heading to smaller towns and villages. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, sales in the popular Muskoka region jumped by 73 per cent, with similar increases in other bucolic regions, such as Quebec’s Eastern Townships. An October, 2020, poll from moving company Movesnap found that 10 per cent of Canadian city dwellers are thinking of moving somewhere more remote.
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The motivations for the migration are understandable. Because of the pandemic, people are weary of any confined space where six feet of distance is difficult. Condo elevators, crowded sidewalks, buses and subways. The high real estate costs in many Canadian cities are another factor. But people who have made the move, even happily, like Pereira and Swartz, are quick to point out that while remote homes, with their treed-in acreages, tend to look beautiful in MLS listings, there are often myriad adjustments to be made. Figuring out how a septic tank works. Replacing drafty windows. Making nice with new neighbours weary of so-called “cidiots” (aka city idiots) coming to disrupt their peace. It’s one thing to move to a small town. It’s another to end up going full Schitt’s Creek.
“Older homes tend to be short on receptacles to power the multitude of devices in demand by today’s modern families, including TV, computer, iPad, phone and kitchen appliances,” says Rudy Vandenberg, who has been renovating rural homes for more than 40 years, including many north of Toronto. “Electrical service may also need to be upgraded to meet today’s building codes in order to be insured. And it’s common for existing, ducted heating systems, especially in old brick farmhouses, to have been MacGyvered without much thought.”
“We’re not that rural that we don’t have utilities such as high-speed internet and a natural gas hook-up,” Swartz says. “But we are on a septic tank here. That was an adjustment for me, because I’ve always had sewage.” Septic tanks have to be periodically pumped out lest they cause malodorous backups.
Pereira and Swartz were lucky to have a country property already in the family. But the 700-square-foot family cottage that Pereira originally bought in 2005 with his dad (now passed) needed a total overhaul. “My parents were first-generation Canadians who came from Pakistan,” Pereira says. “When they were working, they preferred spending their vacations down south. After they retired, I pitched them the idea of the cottage as all-inclusive vacation that they got to go to every weekend.”
To make the place suitable for year-round, perpetual use, Pereira and Swartz quadrupled its size. “We didn’t want to waste space with a formal dining room or formal living room, where people would only sit once or twice a year,” says Pereira. “But did want four guest rooms and a large great room where we could have all our friends and family gather around.” Extra storage space was also added: “Everything we have in the country – a paddleboat, snowmobile gear – is just so huge and bulky,” says Pereira.
To build their new place, Pereira and Swartz worked with Joanna Smeeth, a designer-slash-contractor-slash-former Love It or List It project manager (“She helped us find room in our budget for heated floors,” says Swartz. “So warm on the feet,” says Pereira). Smeeth herself is in the process of converting a cottage to a permanent residence on Clear Lake, near Peterborough, Ont.
“My place was an estate-sale summer cottage,” says Smeeth, whose studio is called INDA. “There was no front hall closet when we took over because people only ever came in the summer so didn’t really have coats.”
Smeeth has since added a place for parkas and boots, and is planning other renovations over time. “All the entry points to the house are sliding glass doors,” she says. “A sliding glass door doesn’t work well with kids in the winter.” But she’s not rushing – something she advises her clients as well. “Patience is really good,” she says. “That way you can learn exactly what needs to change to work for your new life.”
Stylist Margot Austin, founder of AustinSmyth Communications, is taking a similar, measured approach to a Victorian home she and her husband, Kevin, bought in Ontario’s Northumberland County. The place’s charms, including patterned brick on the façade, period mouldings within, original hardwood, belie one significant design flaw. “There is no kitchen,” says Austin. “There was a kitchen, once. But at some point the building had been converted into offices.”
She has a layout in mind, and in the meantime, is relying on a plug-in burner and microwave-meets air fryer. “The benefit of going slow,” she says, “is that I get to use the space over time, see exactly what I think will work. It’s also better from a budget perspective. Things don’t have to happen all at once. Life isn’t a TV show.”
A rural move doesn’t always have that TV-perfect ending. Sometimes, things are more complicated. In 2020, Aminah Haghighi decided to leave Toronto for Prince Edward County, two hours east of the city. “Picking a location just for the design of the house – that would be a privilege,” she says. Instead, she opted for a place where she could set up an organic farm. “Prince Edward County has a very entrepreneurial food scene,” she says. Another key factor: “As a person a colour, I did my research, felt like there was a more diverse, welcoming community [in PEC] than maybe some other places.”
While she doesn’t regret moving – her farm, Raining Gold, has scores of subscribers for weekly micro-green deliveries, and she’s looking forward to producing kale, broccoli and other veggies this summer – she’s also felt some push back from the community. “The majority of people have been very welcoming,” she says. “But I’ve definitely heard words like cidiot. And there has been some xenophobia.”
To Haghighi, it doesn’t help that so much interaction is taking place online these days, through social media posts. “I’m hoping things change when people can meet face-to-face again,” she says. “That way we can get to know our neighbours more, create a truer sense of community.”
Toronto architect John O’Connor, who has built his own cottage in Ontario’s Georgian Bay, knows what it’s like to try and pin down a busy, cottage country contractor or tradesperson. He’s waited all day for a no-show, and that was pre-pandemic. With an influx of urban escapees, the best electricians, tilers, plumbers and roofers are now more booked and therefore harder to schedule than ever. Here, advice on how to land and keep the best builders.
To start, O’Connor recommends reaching out to at least seven contractors if not more. “Cast a wide net,” he says. “That way, you should get two to three comparable prices and ultimately one good contractor.”
In a rush? Slow down. O’Connor recommends planning any work well in advance, with plenty of leeway in your dates. “That way you have a back-up plan if someone doesn’t come through,” he says. “Some trades working in cottage country areas can seem like they are working in another time zone or country and may not meet your expectations for a timely response and projecting start dates.”
Bundling a bunch of jobs together, as opposed to doing lots of piecemeal tasks, is another sound strategy. “Packaging your projects in a larger scope of work will attract contractors from towns further afield and will result in more competitive prices,” says O’Connor.
References from good friends and trusted neighbours can also be key to finding the right people. “Good people know good people,” says O’Connor. Joanna Smeeth, founder of INDA Interiors in Ontario’s Kawarthas region, agrees. “Finding a contractor is like finding a partner – it’s all about fit,” she says. “Recommendations really help to build trust.”
To keep a contractor happy, Smeeth recommends getting involved in helpful, not overbearing ways. “The job of a contractor is a lot tougher than we think,” she says. “Bring them a coffee, sweep up the job site when you visit, and be fair with scheduling and budgeting.”