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Joe Dookie outside his home in Bradford, Ont., on May 30, 2021. He and his wife are moving to North Bay to escape the high real estate prices in the city.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Other than a few camping trips Sam O’Connor had only been to North Bay, Ont., on two house-hunting excursions before buying a two-bedroom home on almost an acre of land with his partner, Marina D’Apice.

“They think we’re crazy,” said Mr. O’Connor, reached on the phone in-between unpacking the new house. “They” are family and friends from Oshawa and Whitby, where Mr. O’Connor, 25, grew up and was renting with Montreal-born Ms. D’Apice, 29, for the last few years. “When we say North Bay, people from Durham region say ‘Whoah … it’s cold up there.’ But it was the closest thing we could afford to Oshawa and the Durham region,” Mr. O’Connor said.

The couple’s max budget was $400,000, which might have been achievable in Durham even three or four years ago, but is near impossible when the national average home price is now $696,000 according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.

“We went to see a few other houses in the Peterborough area. … They were just awful, mold and disgusting houses. And we couldn’t even afford those,” Ms. D’Apice said. “When we were looking down south, our only option was to buy something with one of our parents or buy a condo.”

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A for sale sign outside Joe and Jankie Dookie's Bradford home on May 30, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

In April, the 154-member North Bay Real Estate Board (NBREB) released data showing the first four months of 2021 have broken every record in North Bay real estate history: the number of transactions, at 519, is 55 per cent above the 10-year average. The 216 sales registered in March were valued at $105-million, double the total from 2020 and the largest monthly dollar figure in the board’s history. April saw a few less homes sell, but the average home price set a new record hitting $383,852 up 45 per cent from April, 2020.

“It’s a crazy market that I felt I would never see in my lifetime in our city,” said Steve Kotan, sales representative for Royal LePage North Bay Real Estate Services and a former NBREB president who was born and raised in North Bay and worked as a realtor for the past 30 years. “We’ve always had a steady growth year over year, maybe a couple dips here and there as the economy dips, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

North Bay’s real estate market is split between the urban and suburban neighbourhoods and the rural and recreational properties on myriad lakes and riverfronts in communities between Lake Nipissing in the west and Mattawa more than 45 minutes east. According to Sue Symons, current NBREB president, the higher value waterfront properties are the main driver pushing overall prices up so quickly.

“It’s been a more affordable area, compared to Muskoka [and the Kawarthas]. … We started seeing prices rise three or four years ago, mainly from out of town buyers,” she said. “I’m very careful; it can also change in a week. Buyers are here today, but what’s going to happen two weeks from now? It’s going to depend on the product that’s being offered.”

For the past three years Joe Dookie, 56, has been looking for a waterfront property in the north that could serve as a home for his eventual transition into retirement.

“We couldn’t find the right house or the right fit, and it became out of reach in the last two years,” said Mr. Dookie, who hoped to be able to cash in his four-bedroom house in Bradford, Ont. for a mortgage-free property. “The market just got crazy. … We couldn’t sell this for $700,000 and go buy for $700,000 somewhere else.”

Instead, working with Mr. Kotan, he found a 3,000-square-foot home on a country lot that’s just over eight acres in Powassan, a rural community about 25 minutes south of North Bay. Bordered by forest and with a pond on site (not quite the waterfront he was looking for) and a football field worth of grass, the house ticked all the boxes except one: there will be a small mortgage on the property after it took a bidding war to win it. “Things got stupid; those people I was competing with were all from Southern Ontario,” Mr. Dookie said. The good news is they sold their house in Bradford this past weekend, and will be ready to move north in August.

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Mr. Dookie speaks to a realtor who arrived early to a showing at his home on May 30, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Multiple offers on a house, let alone one selling over asking, was uncommon in North Bay real estate until 2020, according to Mr. Kotan. “I recall selling a property around September where there were 14 offers; it sold 26 per cent over list price. At that point, that was the record for non-waterfront single detached home,” he said. “That’s been left in the dust. This year, I’ve seen things go 46 per cent over list price.”

And it’s not just first-time buyers or recreational property shoppers sniffing around North Bay. According to Ryan Humble, a sales representative with Century 21 Blue Sky Region Realty Inc. Brokerage and president-elect of the NBREB, there’s been a brisk trade in vacant land, an uptick in new developments and even investors looking for multi-family or single-family rental properties that can be purchased much cheaper than rental properties in the Toronto region.

“North Bay has kind of been an unknown secret for a while,” he said. “Now, we are seeing a lot of realtors from other areas coming into town, driving from Muskoka, Ottawa, Toronto. There’s a misconception that North Bay is further away from the GTA than it is. … People are realizing now the distance is not as taxing as they thought it would be.”

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Mr. Dookie speaks to a realtor on the phone prior to a day full of showings on May 30, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

This increased interest in his community is music to the ears of North Bay Mayor Al McDonald, who’s been in office for 11 years and has been promoting a population-growth agenda. Remarkably, North Bay’s population is the same as it was 40 years ago when it reached 51,000 residents, having peaked at 55,000 in 1990 and having declined to just over 50,000 in the 2016 census.

“If you own a house in Toronto, you can sell it and get twice the house here for half the price. Obviously the pace [of price growth] will slow down; you can only raise house prices so much. But the opportunity for us is, Toronto’s always going to be too expensive,” Mr. McDonald said. “I go to Toronto and it costs a fortune to have breakfast or lunch… here you can have lunch for $10; you’re living like a king,” he said.

For new residents looking for a $10 lunch, the mayor suggests trying out the local coffee shop franchise Twigg’s Coffee Roasters. In addition to home prices well below the national average, the mayor says North Bay has ski hills, beaches, breweries and all the comforts you’d expect in a mid-size Canadian city.

“When we were in Oshawa we couldn’t afford anything, our only option was to keep renting,” Ms. D’Apice said. “Moving up here gives us the chance to get started with things.”

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