Kevin Byles saw something this year that he’s never seen before in cottage country: more than 100 people showing up to a realtor’s open house, and multiple offers coming in by the dozens.
“In one case there were 36 offers for a cottage and in another there were 31 offers,” recalls Mr. Byles, a Royal LePage agent with Glenhome Real Estate in Toronto and a second-generation cottager whose family’s roots in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes district date back to 1960.
“There’s a real hunger for cottages – the [real estate] agents in rural markets have never experienced this.”
The latest market statistics support Mr. Byles’ observation. A Re/Max report released in May pronounced 2021 a sellers’ market for cottages across the country, with low inventory and high demand. In 2020, cottages priced under $500,000 accounted for about 60 per cent of recreational markets, down from almost 90 per cent in 2019.
Prince Edward Island’s Charlottetown is home to the most affordable waterfront properties, according to the report, while the Okanagan, in B.C., had the most expensive. In B.C. and parts of Atlantic Canada, cottage sales have been driven in large part by out-of-province buyers attracted to a recreational lifestyle and the relative safety of the Maritimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Manitoba, the flurry of sales can be attributed mostly to families, millennial couples and investors looking for affordable options beyond urban centres.
“In Ontario, if you thought urban or suburban markets were financially challenging, you’d be shocked to see the trends transpiring in cottage country,” says Mr. Byles.
He points to dramatic year-over-year increases in sales activity and median prices from April, 2020, to April, 2021. In Muskoka, sales rose by more than 240 per cent while the median price increased by 53 per cent to $625,000. In the Kawarthas, sales jumped 273 per cent while the median price went up 50 per cent to $591,200.
The numbers were particularly startling in Parry Sound, which saw a 367-per-cent boost in sales and a 70-per-cent median price increase to $491,000.
Corey Breau, president of the Saint John Real Estate Board in New Brunswick – which has seen average sale prices increase by as much as 132 per cent since 2019 – says high prices have persuaded some cottage owners to cash in on the family vacation home.
While that might seem like a sad loss of family legacy, it’s not always a bad thing, says Mr. Breau.
“We’re seeing areas that weren’t desirable before becoming desirable as new people move in and fix them,” he says. “They’re bringing new life to old cottages that were looking pretty worn.”
So what does this all mean for property hunters who have their hearts set on buying a cottage?
Justin Fraser, a Barrie, Ont.-based senior financial planner and cottage country specialist at Meridian Credit Union, says the heftier price tags have made it harder for some people to qualify for a cottage mortgage.
Those who tell their bank they’re counting on income from renting the place out on Airbnb will likely be disappointed.
“If you’re looking at a long-term rental, most banks are okay with that,” he says. “But if you even mention Airbnb, a lot of banks will just shut down the application.”
To find a cottage within their budget, some buyers are going farther from the city. Mr. Fraser has had clients venture as far as North Bay – a four-hour drive away from Toronto.
He’s also seen multiple families or friends coming in as joint buyers. For these arrangements, Mr. Fraser recommends formal agreements that plan for events such as failure to pay a share of the mortgage, or if one of the owners dies.
Some cottage seekers find affordable buys beyond their home provinces. Barry MacDonald, a Re/Max agent in Saint John, N.B., says cottages in sought-after areas such as Belleisle Bay and Washademoak Lake are still a bargain compared to those in super-hot spots in Ontario or B.C.
“You can get a nice cottage here that’s move-in ready for $250,000,” he says. “So we’ve had a lot of buyers from Ontario, a few from B.C. and Alberta, and also a lot of Americans.”
A number of these buyers aren’t just buying a summer home. With one-third of Canadians now working from home because of the pandemic, the idea of living year-round in a cottage has caught on with many urbanites.
Mr. Byles himself retreated to the cottage with his family, where they’ve lived and worked since March.
With more people coming to his piece of rural heaven, however, roads are busier and there’s greater strain on local resources – including people.
“You’ve got local independent contractors who might do one or two builds a year now taking on more than they can possibly handle because they can’t get the tradespeople they need to support the volume,” says Mr. Byles.
There’s also fierce competition for the toys and trappings of cottage living. Mr. Byles notes that a number of marinas in the Kawarthas have sold out of jet skis – a good-to-have problem that also afflicts retailers of motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.
“Cottage communities were never really designed for this kind of volume, so it’s been an adjustment for retailers and trades,” says Mr. Byles. “But there’s no question that for rural municipalities, it’s good for the economy.”
But there is a finite inventory of traditional cottages, as defined by a standard that requires, first and foremost, a waterfront location. Mr. Byles sees a potential expansion of this definition to include small, developed communities that provide shared lake access, as well as high-end condos and townhomes in cottage-country areas along or near lakes or rivers.
“Some of these options may be considered retirement developments for the boomers, some will be considered options for those that cannot afford or unable to secure single lakefront properties yet wish to be on or near recreational lake environment with decent commute time,” says Mr. Byles.
These cottage-like options may also be attractive to those who want the rural lifestyle but still prefer a house designed for all-season use. That was the case for Teri Morrison, a continuing medical education writer who sold her Toronto condo last year and bought a house about two hours north in Tiny Township.
Ms. Morrison has been cottaging since childhood and considered living in one full-time before the pandemic struck. When Ontario went into lockdown, she decided it was time to leave the city for good but opted for a house over a traditional cottage.
“I looked at cottages that were redone like a house, but they were so small and I thought, ‘How am I going to live in a little cottage all year round, really?’ ” says Ms. Morrison. “So instead, I bought a house with a cottage vibe on a quiet little street in a township with several beaches, including one that’s a 15-minute walk from my house.”
A bonus: Ms. Morrison’s house, which has a home office and a guest room, was cheaper than the small cottages she had viewed.
“I wanted enough space so people can come and visit me,” says Ms. Morrison. “And people definitely want to visit.”