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the next move

Two chairs look out over a bay in Ontario's Muskoka region.Paul Bennett Photography

As Ontario moves ahead with cautious plans to reopen the province’s economy and ease restrictions keeping people at home during the coronavirus pandemic, some residents of the Greater Toronto Area are looking north to the pristine lakes and tranquil forests of cottage country for a safe haven.

In Muskoka, Paul Crammond of Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. says he is hearing from city dwellers who want to ride out the summer of 2020 surrounded by shimmering blue water.

“No one’s going to Europe this year. No one’s going to Walt Disney World. All of the kids’ camps are closed,” Mr. Crammond says. “There is definitely an urgency to this activity. Everyone wants a closing by the first of July.”

April was a quiet month, says Mr. Crammond, who received a handful of calls from opportunistic buyers who thought they might snag a deal from cottage owners facing financial hardship.

But that mindset began to change as the lockdown across the province was extended, schools remained closed and people realized they would not have the opportunity to travel outside of Canada any time soon.

Heading into the second week of May, the thinking suddenly became, “let’s get a cottage, and let’s get one now,” Mr. Crammond says.

All price segments sprang to life in the Muskoka area, where entry-level cottages sell above $1-million and family compounds on the “big three” lakes of Joseph, Rosseau and Muskoka can fetch $10-million or more.

One property sold firm for about $5.7-million in May, Mr. Crammond says, and another sold conditionally for more than $11-million.

In some cases, cottage sellers are receiving competing offers.

“People want move-in ready and they’re willing to bid for it.”

The cottage at 1078 Pine Ridge Rd., Lake of Bays, Ont.Paul Bennett Photography

The burst of activity is a surprise to Mr. Crammond, who expected the slump that hit Toronto real estate in March to extend to cottage country. A vacation home is a luxury and a discretionary purchase, he points out.

“With the dramatic slowdown in the Toronto market, it was a natural assumption that Muskoka would slow down as well,” he says.

And just as city buyers think it’s a good time to own a vacation property, cottage owners who might have listed are staying through the summer, Mr. Crammond says.

“A lot of people who were thinking about selling are holding off.”

That shortage of inventory is keeping prices steady with sale prices in 2019, he says.

Meanwhile, agents have to work around restrictions on driving and showings.

Some cottage owners are refusing interior showings the first go-round, Mr. Crammond says. The potential buyer is invited to visit the property and walk around the exterior of the cottage.

If the buyer is serious about moving forward, only then is an interior showing permitted – and only for the actual buyers.

“This is not the time to bring kids and grandparents and interior decorators,” Mr. Crammond says .

He adds that it’s also not the time to do a “Muskoka 101” tour to become acquainted with the area. From March through until mid-May, government leaders from the premier down to local mayors were urging city residents not to drive to cottage country while only essential travel was permitted.

“Logically you could argue that it’s not essential for you to buy a cottage,” Mr. Crammond says.

The cottage at 1035 Sagamo Blvd., in Minett, Ont.Chestnut Park Port Carling

Anita Latner of Anita Latner Realty Inc., says showing cottages during the time of COVID-19 comes with added complications.

“It’s a very delicate dance,” she says. “You don’t want anyone getting sick on your watch.”

She has some snowbird clients who are currently living in their cottages after spending the winter south of the border. She says some of those owners may hold onto their cottages longer than planned because they may not feel ready to travel to Florida and other parts of the United States next winter.

She adds that the tight market has kept prices firm but she believes some sellers are too optimistic.

“I think some of the pricing is way out of whack. Some people think they can ask whatever they want and they’re going to get it – and that’s not necessarily going to happen.”

She expects that lenders will be more conservative about lending money to cottage buyers and allowing homeowners to draw on the equity in their home in the city in order to buy a vacation property.

For her part, when Ms. Latner is representing a seller, she asks for a deposit of at least 10 per cent from a buyer.

“If you can’t come up with 10 per cent for a cottage, you probably shouldn’t even be looking,” she says.

Ms. Latner says inquiries about rentals have also surged in recent weeks but cottages book up months in advance.

“It’s too late in the season – even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic,” she says.

A little to the east in the Haliburton area, the market became “insane” about three weeks ago following two gloomy months, says Jeff Strano, a real estate agent with Re/Max Professionals North.

That region is also seeing scant inventory and an increasing number of buyers. Mr. Strano says some Toronto-area condo dwellers who typically take two or three vacations a year appear to be reassessing their priorities.

Some are looking for a waterfront cottage to provide a weekend escape on some of the area’s most popular lakes, which include Kashagawigamog, Haliburton, Kennisis and Redstone.

The Minett property is an example of a teardown being sold for land value. The rock gardens and shoreline once belonged to the Royal Muskoka Hotel.Chestnut Park Port Carling

Other potential buyers are looking to make a more permanent move to a year-round residence away from the density of cities and suburbs.

Mr. Strano says non-waterfront residential listings in the Haliburton region have fallen 52 per cent for the year-to-date compared with the same period in 2019 while sales for that category have dropped 49 per cent this year compared with the same period in 2019.

Waterfront listings in the area have dropped 39 per cent so far in 2020 compared with the same period last year. Sales have fallen 59 per cent year-to-date compared with the same period in 2019.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strano says, the median sale price for a home that’s not on the water has risen six per cent to $292,500. The median price for a waterfront home has risen four per cent from this time last year to $517,500.

As cottage country heats up, some city dwellers fear being shut out this year.

“It’s very, very hard on buyers,” he says, as they watch their buying power erode when competing buyers bid up prices. “Some of our buyers are losing a little bit of hope. They just can’t afford to play the game.”

Mr. Strano says his office is requiring buyers and sellers to sign declarations and follow protocols designed to keep everyone safe.

“The tire kickers just disappear,” he says of the practice.

The buyers that remain are committed, he adds.

“This could be, oddly enough, one of our best years ever – which back in March and April was hard to imagine.”

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