Laura Byrne Paquet

Cottage Real Estate

Published in Ottawa Magazine

           "What a difference four years make.
            Back in 2002, I wrote an article on the cottage real estate market for what was then Ottawa City Magazine. At that point, it was still possible to find a decent cottage for under $100,000. Sure, it might have been a fixer-upper, and it probably wouldn’t have been a four-season home, but it would have had lakefront.
            When I contacted cottage country realtors this year to get their take on how the market has changed, they laughed at the prices I’d quoted just 48 months ago.
            “The 2002 prices, they’re unbelievable now,” says Cathy Pitts, an associate broker with Re/Max Country Classics Ltd. in Combermere, who says that prices have jumped by about $20,000 annually in the intervening years in her area.
            Similar inflation has hit the Rideau Lakes area south of Ottawa. “Four years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of selling a cottage for $500,000. Now, we sell 10 to 15 of them a year,” says Ken Burns, co-owner of Rideau Realty Limited in Portland.
           So what’s driving prices so high? Supply and demand. There’s only so much waterfront to go around, and most of it is built up or closed to further development.
           In tandem with this, both baby boomers and their kids are vying for the stock of summer places. And in the boomers’ case at least, many are looking for more than a rustic summer place with a creaky septic system. “A lot of people are planning on moving up to the area [permanently] one day,” explains Tim Fulford, an associate broker with Bowes and Cocks Ltd. in Bancroft.
            These retirees want their waterfront property to have all the bells and whistles of their house in town: a laundry room, central heating, double-glazed windows, a custom kitchen. So more and more owners—particularly in areas close to big cities—are tearing down small, basic cottages and replacing them swankier retreats.
            All of this is great news if you have a plump bank account and don’t mind shelling out big bucks for a “cottage” with granite kitchen counters and cathedral ceilings. But for the rest of us, all hope is not lost.
            Most agents say that it’s vital to give up dreams of the perfect cottage: a pretty, south-facing place in pristine condition. If you’re willing to settle for less, you can often find a cottage in your dream area and then renovate it—or learn to live with its quirks. “You might as well start to enjoy the area,” says Pitts philosophically. And once you’re part of the local grapevine, you may even hear of a cottage for sale that is more to your taste.
            And if you still find cottage prices untenable, there’s always the rental market. “I’ve seen a lot of people buy a $300,000 cottage when they really can’t afford to carry it completely, and they’ll rent it out for a month to cover the mortgage,” says Fulford, whose wife runs a cottage rental business.
            “A $400,000 cottage will rent for approximately $2,000 a week,” he adds. “So you get a premium cottage for a couple of weeks for $4,000.”
            Whether you plan to rent, own or just dream of the perfect summer home, here’s a taste of what Ottawa’s cottage country has to offer.

Near West

                                                        There are two types of waterfront in this area that appeal to two different types of cottagers, says Donna Nych, an agent with Coldwell Banker Valley Wide Real Estate in Arnprior. Boaters are drawn to properties along the Ottawa River, where lots typically sell for $150,000 to $250,000. Buyers more focused on fishing and swimming gravitate to popular lakes such as Norway and White, where lots (when they’re available) start around $100,000.
           Remember, that’s just for the lot. Add a cottage and you’re starting to talk serious money. “For the price of a cottage today, you can buy a house in Arnprior,” Nych points out. Most of these cottages are less than 20 years old; in the areas closest to Ottawa, many modest 1940s and 1950s cottages have been torn down to make way for more elaborate retreats. “Truly, last year, I don’t even remember selling an older cottage,” says Nych, who has been selling real estate in the Arnprior area for 20 years.
            Since affordable waterfront cottages can be hard to find, Nych says some developers in this area are building “waterfront access” properties—cottages on the other side of the road from the water, with access to the lake or river via a lot shared with other cottagers.
            Nych mentions another popular option: trailers, mobile homes or RVs in waterfront trailer parks, such as Cedar Cove Resort and Glenalee Campground, both on White Lake. The park owners often handle basic maintenance, such as grass cutting, making the properties appealing to seniors and snowbirds. And trailers are cheaper than cottages; recent listings at Cedar Cove ranged from $10,700 to $27,995 (yearly site fees are extra). However, trailers can be trickier to finance than cottages, says Nych.         


Far West


            Even though parts of this region are just two hours from Ottawa, many Ottawans balk at driving more than an hour to reach their weekend place. As a result, this vast sweep of Canadian Shield, dotted with hundreds of lakes, is largely undiscovered by Ottawa cottage buyers.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            And that’s a shame, because the area has a lot to offer. For boaters, there’s 90 kilometres of boating along the Madawaska system of rivers and lakes. Seekers of peace and quiet can find lakes where up to 80 percent of the waterfront is Crown land. And true wilderness types can buy in the Whitney area to be within easy reach of Algonquin Park. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            As a bonus, prices here are lower than they are closer to the city—although they’re rising fast, particularly in areas within striking distance of Toronto. “It’s getting very hard to find much under the $200,000 mark,” says Tim Fulford of Bowes and Cocks Ltd. in Bancroft. Popular lakes in his area include Steenburg, Hay and Baptiste.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Vacant lots, unfortunately, are few and far between. Few are being severed anywhere in the area, leading to a dearth of lakefront land. “I can’t sell you a good waterfront lot right now,” says Fulford.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            On the eastern side of this region, closer to Ottawa, the situation is similar. “The cottage lots are almost extinct on the larger [Madawaska] system,” says Cathy Pitts, an associate broker with Re/Max Country Classics Ltd. in Combermere.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Popular lakes in her region include Round, Golden, Aylen, Kamaniskeg and Paugh. Generally, the larger the lake, the higher the price, Pitts explains. On a small lake, expect to pay from $60,000 for a lot, $150,000 for a cottage and $200,000 for a four-season house. On a larger lake, prices start at $100,000 for a lot, $190,000 for a cottage and $250,000 for a four-season house.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 


Rideau Valley                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          


            “We’re turning into the Muskokas of Ottawa down here,” says Ken Burns, co-owner of Rideau Realty Limited in Portland, with a hint of amazement. His wonderment is understandable: just four years ago, it was still possible to pick up a two-bedroom cottage on Graham Lake for $70,000. Even a six-bedroom, air-conditioned property in North Crosby, complete with Jacuzzi and wet bar, was a comparative steal at $399,000.
           These days, Burns says, that hefty price tag is almost the entry-level fee for a cottage anywhere on the most popular lakes of Rideau Canal system. “You can’t find a cottage now for under $350,000, a simple cottage.” As an example, he points to Big Rideau Lake, where he estimates the average cottage goes for a cool half million. A large estate lot on the lake sold in late 2005 for $250,000.
           Still, there are options if you don’t have extremely deep pockets. Check out the smaller lakes, particularly those not part of the Rideau Canal system, where Burns says cottages typically go for much less.
           Another emerging choice is fractional ownership, where multiple owners share a property. A company called Canadian Water Vacations is selling “shares” of a luxury cottage on Big Rideau Lake. For $123,555, each owner gets five weeks’ access a year to the massive cottage, where amenities include a 60-inch TV, a pool table, a hot tub, 3000 square feet of deck and 370 feet of waterfront, along with landscaping and maid services.
           So what are the great attractions of this area that justify the soaring prices? Proximity to Ottawa (some lakes are less than an hour from downtown), boating on the Rideau Canal, a variety of cute cottage towns replete with pubs and antiques shops, and flat, placid landscapes (unless you’re close to Kingston, you’re not likely to get dramatic shorelines).


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The Outaouais has long attracted cottagers who like to scoot up to the lake on a weeknight and drive into the city for work the next day. Areas such as Chelsea and Wakefield are particularly popular with families with teenagers. “I don’t think kids want to be too far out from town,” says Mark Braglewicz, an agent with Re/Max Outaouais Centre Inc. in Wakefield. “That seems to be very important.”
           Popular lakes in his area include a number of lakes in the LaPeche area, where prices average around $150,000 to $175,000 for properties ranging from handyman specials on nice lots to winterized waterfront homes. Lac McGregor and Lac Grand, big lakes close to Ottawa, command average prices of around $200,000 for cottages that are often more like four-season homes.
           Many of his clients, particularly baby boomers, are seeking lakes without a lot of boat traffic. “Along with the high degree of privacy desired by buyers, they’re also looking for quiet,” says Braglewicz.
           He says it’s crucial to work with a knowledgeable agent who will be forthright about possible environmental issues. While many spring-fed Outaouais lakes have good water quality, some smaller lakes closer to town have been loved almost to death, with algae and swimmer’s itch becoming increasing problems. “I think the buyer should be aware of that,” he says.
           Traditionally, prices in the Outaouais have been lower than prices for similar cottages on the Ontario side. “You get more for your dollar here,” Braglewicz says, but “perhaps there’s a little less of a gap than there used to be.”
           Even though cottage prices have risen, he says buyers who are willing to be patient and diligent—and to move quickly when they spot a cottage they love—can still find a place on the water to call their own.
           “Definitely, everybody still has that cottage dream in mind,” says Braglewicz. “It’s more expensive to attain than it used to be, but they’re still out there. I think waterfront is an excellent investment.”