National Post - May11, 2002

New urban sprawl Housing boom heads north, but there are other options to buying

by Brad Mackay

With the Toronto housing market reaching a white-hot intensity, local home buyers could be forgiven for daydreaming about relocating to an affordably priced dream home in the country.

Well, snap out of it. The urban buying spree, which helped set one-day sales records recently, has had a ripple effect on outlying areas, including, of course, hallowed cottage country.

"It's shockingly unprecedented," says Mike Baum, a sales representative for Century 21 Cottage Country Realty Inc. in Huntsville.

"In the living memory of anyone up here, there has never been such a shortage and such a demand. We're talking legions of buyers."

Baum, who has been selling Muskoka and Haliburton cottages for 15 years, says he has been flooded with dozens of inquiries each week, meaning most cottages rarely last longer than a week on the open market.

And with realtors predicting a 25% price increase, even if your mind is wandering northward your chance of securing that traditional slice of cottage life may be slim.

Luckily, there are other options -- outside of suddenly becoming friendly with a cottage-endowed neighbour. One of the thoroughly modern alternatives could be to invest in one of the many condominiums or townhouse developments that have sprung up in the past decade.

Popular with both single-stock brokers and families of four, the angle here is that you can secure prime locations with full amenities and minimum fuss.

The trend has caught on particularly with retirees, who have grown weary of the maintenance a cottage entails. "I see it every day," Baum says. "The upkeep is wearing them down, but you know their heart is so connected to the area that they don't want to leave."

Condo developments such as Mundy's Harbour near Midland offer 30 units with private docks looking out on to Georgian Bay. The condos, which are scheduled for occupancy in late summer, 2003, range in price from $350,000 to $400,000.

Others, such as those at The Muskoka Sands, are built within year-round resorts that offer a 7,200-yard, 18-hole golf course and a 20,000-square-foot spa, for around $550,000.

For those seeking less of a monetary investment with maximum relaxation, the prospect of shared ownership is available. The Muskoka Sands also offers one-fifth and one-quarter shares in their 42 cottage units, starting at $110,000.

The resort offers a variety of services, from grass-cutting to boat maintenance, that lets the cottager enjoy the benefits of the weekend escape without the routine maintenance and other chores that can chew up most of a weekend.

"It's turn-key. It's all done. You just have to bring your food," says Laura Meikle, director of programs and promotions for Muskoka Sands.

That maintenance and upkeep assistance, Meikle says, is a popular feature.

"I think it works for lots of people. My family used to go up [to the cottage] every weekend , but then it got to a point where [we would ask] 'who is going to look after this thing?' This provides an opportunity to get your weekend in."

Muskoka Sands has 42 cottage chalets, priced at $550,000. The chalets range in size from 1,600 to 2,100 square feet, and contained in the two- or three-level structures are either three or four bedrooms, as well as a minimum of three bathrooms. And each has a screened-in 'Muskoka room', which Meikle says is "absolutely essential" to total cottage enjoyment. The chalets are arranged in blocks of five.

The concept of shared ownership in cottages could be getting hot, indeed.

"I think a trend is beginning to smoulder where I can see small or medium-sized resorts being bought up and replaced by time-share developments just to service the overwhelming demand," Baum says.

"Developers realize the demand is there and the only alternative is to actually buy up a property with the right zoning and actually create the units people are looking for. It's a logical alternative."

But keep in mind that not all time-shares offer the best location, either in terms of waterfront access or in the sheer number of neighbours, so it's best to thoroughly investigate before jumping in.

For those looking for a short-term fix, there's always the option of renting. Whether through a personal connection or one of the many cottage-finder companies in the city, renting for a couple of weeks is becoming more attractive to many owners looking to defray ever-increasing property taxes.

But even this route can have its complications. Keep in mind the process can often be a rigorous one, with many owners requiring contracts limiting the number of guests, restricting pets and banning smoking indoors.

"There's a great hesitation among owners, because they're basically renting out their pride and joy," Baum explains. "It's tough to let a stranger into their protected territory."

If a more carefree experience is what you have in mind, then consider straight-up camping. While many camping afficionados are familiar with the bounty of sites at nearby Algonquin Park, the Muskoka area also boasts a wealth of campsites.

Family-friendly stalwarts such as the Gravenhurst KOA offers 178 sites with a heated swimming pool, playgrounds, horseshoes and volleyball. During July and August they also offer mountain biking programs and boats for hire.

Bracebridge's Muskoka Ridge campsite offers less in the way of frills (basic hydro and water hookups) but it's located minutes from the Muskoka River and the Trans Canada Trail. And with rates starting at $28 a night, there's a good chance you'll forget all about the perils of real estate.

 

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