Jocelyn Karr found her dream escape inside a fortune cookie.
It was 1995 and the then-City of Toronto worker was at a crossroads when it came to where, exactly, she was going to call “home.”
She was sharing a high-rise apartment with her sister Nanette and that had been a fine arrangement. But in a year she would turn 30. She was single and had some money saved for a down payment, but was terrified of becoming “house poor” and no longer able to afford the holiday travel that had become a passion.
“If I got a house,” she said, “I knew I’d have to give that up.”
She had no idea then that she was about to become a pioneer – an early practitioner of what can today fairly be called a trend: working in the city, but living in the country. “Home” hundreds of kilometres and hours away from “work.”
“Absolutely, it’s a trend,” said Chris Grant, a realtor with Re/Max Country Classics in Bancroft, Ont., a small town of fewer than 4,000 people that is about 250 kilometres northeast of Toronto. “We hear it and see it every day.”
Polls would appear to confirm such a trend, as a recent Angus Reid Institute survey found that more than half – 58 per cent – of renters in the Greater Toronto Area would give serious thought to moving out of the region because they believe the cost of home ownership has moved beyond their reach.
Mr. Grant says there are a small number of residents who commute daily to such centres as Peterborough, Oshawa and even Toronto, some who spend a couple of days each week in the city and, more recently, some who don’t have to commute, as high-speed internet increasingly makes remote work feasible.
Back in the summer of 1992, friends had invited Ms. Karr up to their cottage getaway at Albion Lake, a small and picturesque body of water just outside Bancroft. She had liked it so much she even looked into purchasing a property high on a bluff overlooking the lake, but at the last minute the owner changed her mind about selling.
Ms. Karr was then thinking vacation property, not year-round “home.”
Three years later, she was out with a colleague for Chinese food. She broke open her fortune cookie and read, “Soon you will be on top of the world.”
That faintly typed slip of paper is today pasted on the first page of a large photo album that shows the building of the country home she calls Top of the World. Inspired by the cookie message, she tracked down the owner of the hilltop lot who had previously balked at selling. This time, the owner was willing to sell. They agreed over the phone that Ms. Karr would put $1,000 down and they’d “work out the rest.” She paid $13,000 for the property. She then tracked down the builder of a cottage prefab featured in a then-current Labatt’s beer commercial, purchased plans and significantly abridged them with the help of a local builder. She personally got involved in the construction and, eventually, she had a brand-new home in the country for under $100,000.
“It became my getaway,” she said. “For the first 11 years here, I didn’t even have a phone. If the office wanted to get in touch with me, they had to wait until I came back to work.”
Her plan worked fine. She had weekends and sometimes longer at the lake. And she had money to continue travelling during winter vacations.
“It totally made sense,” she said. “It certainly made sense to me as a single.”
She did not, however, remain single long. She eventually met in person the tall guy who for years had parked in the spot next to her in the high-rise. Bruce Karr, then working for Federal Express, had also grown up in Toronto, but was soon as entranced by the little lake as she was. He proposed on a February night, the two of them walking on the ice in 20-below temperatures, their only light the impossibly bright stars above.
“Winter is my favourite time up here,” he said.
They bought a house in the GTA, but the place they came to think of as “home” remained the lake, a three-hour haul away. “For some people,” Ms. Karr said, “the Friday night commute may not be that bothersome as they know they are on their way to their happy place.”
Mr. Karr took retirement two years ago. Shortly after, on a day when the two of them were floating about the lake in their kayaks, he said to her, “You know, if you retire, we can do this any time we like.” She joined him in retirement, although they have kept their home in the city where they spend a few days each week, 62-year-old Bruce volunteering with various causes and 52-year-old Jocelyn teaching yoga classes.
The Karrs are far from the only locals who have chosen to buy in the country while working in the city. They know of at least five other couples on their little lake who have chosen a similar lifestyle.
Jessica Gozdzierski and Ashley Douglas came here in 2014. Ms. Gozdzierski, a 32-year-old interior designer, and Ms. Douglas, a 34-year-old horticulturist, both work in Toronto but knew they could never afford to own in the heart of the city. They had an apartment – “at a good rate,” said Ms. Gozdzierski – and they knew it made more sense to stay put rather than become frustrated with what would be an “impossible” search for a place they could afford.
Housing in Toronto, as in Vancouver, is slipping out of reach for all but the well-off. A 2018 poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that, when asked what the top issue facing the GTA was, 54 per cent of respondents pointed to housing affordability, up from 36 per cent in 2015.
“It was never our goal to invest in some place in Toronto,” Ms. Gozdzierski said. “We knew we wanted a cottage … somewhere. But we had to be able to afford both the apartment and the cottage.”
Muskoka, two hours north, is prime cottage country but, for most, prohibitively expensive. According to a 2018 Re/Max survey on recreational property, Muskoka lags only Tofino, B.C., when it comes to the median price for waterfront properties – Muskoka at $1.027-million, Tofino at $1.4-million. That said, there are much cheaper properties, especially if they do not include waterfront, and Muskoka realtors say the trend to year-round residency is also noticeable in their area.
Haliburton and the Bancroft area are also considered cottage country, but an affordable alternative to Muskoka.
It was less expensive again to purchase a “back lot” property at Albion Lake. It meant they would be on the wrong side of the gravel road that wraps around the lake but they would have deeded access to the water where they keep a diving raft and where they can launch their paddle boards and kayaks.
“We wanted sometime architecturally interesting,” Ms. Gozdzierski said. “Not a little bungalow-like cottage, but something different.” They scoured the Multiple Listings Service for the area and found a unique two-storey building with a sharply slanted roof and lots of windows. “It wasn’t like anything we had ever seen before,” she said. They purchased it for $110,000.
That price, says Mr. Grant, the local realtor, is rare these days, with most recreational listings $200,000 and up. Prices, he believes, are going up and will continue to rise. According to Royal LePage, Ontario cottage prices increased more than 10 per cent in the past year alone.
Indeed, the cost of property on little Albion Lake is already rising. Last fall, Claire Phillipson and Kyle Boulden paid considerably more than $200,000 for a property with shoreline. Ms Phillipson, 28, works in a mental-health clinic in the city while her husband, 34, is a provincial government employee. Each Friday evening, they load their 110-pound German Shepherd mix, Frankie, into the back seat and set out from their rental apartment to their “home.”
The cottage they purchased was the first they saw. Ms Phillipson says her reaction was, “Oh my God, this is the place for us!” They still consider the $319,000 they paid a bargain.
“We are one of the last untapped spots in Southern Ontario,” Mr. Grant said. “Once the Bancroft area comes up to where other cottage areas are, you’re going to be looking North Bay and north for a place.”
That might be too far for the likes of Ms. Gozdzierski and Ms. Douglas. The three-hour weekly commute to their Toronto apartment can be trying, but they consider it well worth it. On Fridays, when work is over, Albion Lake calls.
“You kind of want to kill yourself when you’re on [Highway] 401,” Ms. Gozdzierski said. “But once we turn off Highway 7 and onto Highway 28 it’s single lanes and the scenery changes … and you know you’re on the way to somewhere beautiful.”