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Maureen Taylor outside her new home near Minden, Ont. Ms. Taylor says local year-round inhabitants of Ontario's cottage country are at a disadvantage when pitted against Toronto buyers looking for a recreational property.Courtesy Maureen Taylor

Finding the perfect home is a challenge that many Torontonians know all too well. But as lack of affordability and scarcity of properties drive buyers out of city bounds, those native to cottage country are feeling the effects.

Maureen Taylor owned a three-acre property in Irondale, in south Haliburton County, for 12 years. After getting in a car accident with her mother, they both decided to move closer to the city centre in Minden for ease of mobility. When it came to selling Ms. Taylor’s property, six weeks was all it took. Finding another home in the area, however, took four times as long.

“You know those days when you go see a house and then go home and mull over it? … This doesn’t happen now,” Ms. Taylor said. “You do that, you’ve just possibly lost getting that home.”

Real estate agents say properties in Haliburton County, and other cottage country areas with proximity to Toronto, have become increasingly scarce in recent years. Paul Crammond, a real estate agent in Muskoka, said his sales are down about 30 per cent from this time last year. “There’s just not much out there,” Mr. Crammond said.

For Andrew Hodgson, a realtor from Haliburton County, the trend is very much the same. He estimates that prices of homes and cottages have gone up 20 per cent since last year because of an increasing demand and a lower supply.

The big push in what is now becoming a challenging real estate market in cottage country is not only the product of families looking for vacation properties, but families looking to relocate there permanently. Those planning for retirement have taken up purchasing a cottage property in which to spend the rest of their years, Mr. Hodgson said. Other buyers include millennials who were driven out of the real estate market in Toronto, but are still looking to own a property they can afford.

”[It’s] more affordable; people are liking the lifestyle,” said Kim Butt, a realtor based in Haliburton County.

Mr. Hodgson added that buyers are not just coming from the Greater Toronto Area, but Ottawa, London and other surrounding cities as well. This leaves locals such as Ms. Taylor, who want to relocate within the area they have called home for more than a decade, in limbo. Ms. Taylor said she struggled to put a solid offer on several properties, and often found herself on the verge of bidding wars. “By the time we booked [a viewing], there was already an offer on it,” she said.

Bidding wars have become increasingly common in Haliburton County since last year, Mr. Hodgson said. Ms. Taylor said she came close to a bidding war around eight times during her house hunt, in a county with a population of fewer than 20,000 people.

Another challenge Ms. Taylor faced is properties falling off the radar for local buyers owing to an increasing interest from people in Toronto and surrounding areas. Realtors from out of town take over some properties in Haliburton County, and a few only advertise them to their out-of-town clients, namely in Toronto and Ottawa. By the time local realtors and buyers get wind of the property, it is often too late.

This dilemma, although rare, can be a challenge for local realtors. Ms. Butt said clients will occasionally call to ask about a property they came across, only to find out that their local realtors do not have access to it. Ms. Butt said local realtors usually have the largest list of clients, meaning many buyers end up missing out on a potential home as a result. Those properties do end up on, a database of real estate listings across Canada, but Ms. Butt warned that properties can still be listed on the website as available even if they are conditionally sold.

The increase in demand has also prompted some property owners to sell their cottages or homes on the market independently, without seeking the help of a local realtor. “It’s the seller’s choice, but it just means it’s hard for our buyers, local and not local, to actually have the opportunity to see that property,” Ms. Butt said. In Muskoka, Mr. Crammond said property owners will often sell to their neighbours. “Those cottages never make it to the market,” he said.

The overall increase in demand and dwindling supply in cottage country has made it more difficult for buyers, either looking for a home or summer cottage, to find that perfect property. Realtors say this trend won’t be dying down soon. “I don’t see this dramatically changing over the next five years,” Mr. Crammond said.

For those on the market, realtors and buyers have one piece of advice: Know what you are looking for.

“Be more open to looking at properties that maybe are not your first choice,” Mr. Crammond said. Since choices are fewer now, “you have to sacrifice,” he said.

Mr. Hodgson said a good way to narrow down your search is to think long term about the property you want to purchase. In any case, he said he believes buying a property in cottage country is a “good investment” for the future. “This isn’t throwing money out of the window,” Mr. Hodgson said.

For Ms. Taylor, the key to securing the perfect home in Minden was finding a local realtor, as they know “the ins and outs of the town.” She also advised buyers to be firm with their price range as bidding wars are likely.

After a six-month search, Ms. Taylor found a four-bedroom home in central Minden for around $300,000 – a feat that she said was a “relief.”

“We were very lucky to get in here,” Ms. Taylor said.

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