The Life Aquatic

Tired of the soul-crushing search for an affordable property in the city, these Torontonians gave up on the local market and bought a cottage instead

Beachfront Bliss

Who: Amanda Morrison, 28, photographer, and Izzy Ehrlich, 40, commercial video editor
What: A three-bedroom, one-bathroom cottage
Where: Tiny Township on Georgian Bay
How much: $405,000

Amanda: We started looking to buy a house in the west end a few years ago but quickly stopped. A teardown was listed for $1.3 million! Even with our combined incomes, it didn’t make sense.

Izzy: It made us angry. We had rented for a long time and wanted something that was ours—to change the floorboards or paint the walls without having to ask a landlord. But we weren’t ready to leave the city, so buying a cottage and renting it out seemed like a good solution. We knew that Tiny Township, a small community on Georgian Bay, was growing in popularity, so we felt comfortable that a purchase there would be a safe investment.

Amanda: We saw 15 cottages in one day. It was overwhelming. But once we walked into ours, we knew it was the one.

Izzy: It was fully furnished. The only thing we needed to do was winterize it, which we did last summer.

Amanda: We love that the property is surrounded by sand, because both of us hate doing yard work.

Izzy: We weren’t sure how popular it would be on Airbnb, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Demand is so high that we’ve been able to be very selective about who we rent to.

Amanda: It’s occupied most weekends through the year and most of the summer—roughly 170 to 180 days a year—for as much as $350 a night during the summer. That’s enough to cover our mortgage payments and maintenance costs. I’ll admit that it took us a bit of time to get past the fact that strangers are here when we aren’t. Our white armchair is a little dirtier every time we come up, but we’ve learned to live with it.

Izzy: The vibe is so chill. The sunsets are incredible. Our neighbours are there year-round and they’ve been so kind. They take care of the hot tub chemicals for us. Another neighbour plows everybody’s driveway in the winter. People always want to hang out. One woman often brings a bottle of wine to share and won’t take no for an answer.

Amanda: I think they love that this funky lesbian couple has moved in. Everyone’s trying to be friends with us. I would move here for good right now if I could.

Izzy: Not me. I still love the city and my job. But the cottage is just under two hours away door to door—as long as it’s not rush hour—and when I get back to the city, I feel like I’ve had a two-week vacation. It’s that relaxing.


The Hometown Hideaway

Who: Ben Vanstone, 27, human resources professional
What: A two-bedroom, one-bathroom cottage plus a bunkie
Where: Lake Huron near Goderich
How much: $400,000

Ben: It was 2017 when I started looking for a place to own. I was sharing a four-bedroom house in Cabbagetown with two friends and paying $900 a month. I was optimistic. I knew exactly what I wanted: a downtown condo, at least 800 square feet, with two bedrooms. I made $85,000 a year and had $40,000 in savings. My upper limit was $450,000, but I soon learned that anything I was interested in cost way more. Pricy pre-development condos I looked at required 20 per cent down. On top of that, some of them even had a three-year waiting period before the new home would be ready.

My family back home in Goderich couldn’t believe it. I could buy a 1,500-square-foot place there for $220,000, so I looked at listings and came across some cottages. That’s when it clicked. I could keep renting in the city, buy a cottage on Lake Huron and rent it out on Airbnb to cover the mortgage.

Having grown up in Goderich, I knew the area well. I restricted my search to waterfront properties. I toured a bunch, but the second place I saw was the one. It had private stairs to the lake and had been recently renovated and expanded and was move-in ready.

Since it’s a short-term rental, insurance is $3,000 a year—roughly triple what it would have been—but the mortgage payments are manageable at $1,800 per month. I use it for three weeks a year and that’s enough. The rest of the time, May through October, it’s rented. I charge between $350 and $800 a night, depending on the duration, with a discount for long stays. The property brings in more than $50,000 a year, which easily covers expenses. And I’ve moved into my partner’s King West condo, where I pay $1,000 per month. I book remotely and hired help to cut the grass and clean the place between guests. I’ve put in about $8,000 for landscaping and other touch-ups.

My neighbours were not keen on me renting the place. I promised them that I’d have no more than eight guests at a time, music would be turned down by midnight and no one would camp in the yard. Still, they occasionally text to complain that there are 10 guests or a dog barked. I message the guests through the Airbnb app and text the neighbours to let them know that I’ve dealt with the issue.

I plan to keep the place as an investment property. I might buy in Toronto one day, but this is kind of like my new career.


Water World

Who: Mara Berzins, 33, kindergarten teacher, and Nicola Daykin, 41, special-education teacher
What: A two-bedroom, one-bathroom cottage plus a bunkie
Where: Longs Lake near Huntsville,
How much: $420,000

Mara: When we first started thinking about buying, we set our budget at $400,000. We took a look online and quickly realized we wouldn’t be happy with anything we could afford in Toronto.

Nicola: We would have been looking at a condo, and one that was probably really far east or really far west.

Mara: We work at the same school, and right now it only takes us three minutes to walk there. A longer commute wouldn’t improve our finances or our quality of life. Plus, I grew up in the country, so I have a hard time with the idea of taking an elevator to my home.

Nicola: A cottage seemed like the most realistic option.

Mara: Our realtor sent us a listing last April. We headed up north after work, and by the time we got there, we only had half an hour of light left. But it was enough. We put in an offer that night and we took possession the next month.

Nicola: The previous owners left everything behind, including all the furniture and a canoe. The only thing we did was turn the shed into a bunkie.

Mara: The main cottage and the bunkie are seasonal, but we have plans to winterize them. The bunkie is in the forest, and you can see the lake from the bed through the window. It’s really cozy and it has the best bed. We sleep there all the time, whether we have guests over or not.

Nicola: When school’s out, we move up there for the summer. It becomes our home. When we’re up there, all the other little stresses of life melt away. Plus, we saw more friends last year than we saw any other year, because they all came up to visit.

Mara: I love being in the water—I swim a zillion times a day. First thing in the morning, I walk straight down to the lake and dive in. Then I come up for coffee and breakfast.

Nicola: And we’re really happy to not have Wi-Fi at the cottage.

Mara: We even have a phone jar where people can put their phones when they come in. We’re not strict about it, though. As for the cottage as an investment, we can carry it and our rental while still saving a bit. But we were interested in more than just a financial investment. It was a lifestyle change that we wanted. And we just couldn’t be happier about the choice.

Nicola: We have a name for it, too. It’s a combo of our last names and a play on the hotel chain: the Dayzin.


The Riverside Retreat

Who: Jamie Robinson, 39, video editor at Sportsnet, and Lindsay Butler, 34, broadcast master control operator at Sportsnet
What: A two-bedroom-plus-loft, one-bathroom cottage
Where: The south branch of the Muskoka River, near Bracebridge
How much: $260,000

Lindsay: Two of our close friends owned a cottage in Bracebridge, and in the summer of 2015, we were spending a ton of time up there with them. One weekend, we noticed that a cottage down the street was for sale.

Jamie: I had been renting a two-bedroom apartment in Parkdale for seven years—we pay $1,200 a month. We’d been looking at buying a condo or a townhouse, but even with our combined income of $137,000, we couldn’t afford much, which is sort of absurd. So when our friends half-jokingly suggested we buy the cottage, we took it seriously. It probably helped that it was 11 p.m. and we had gotten into the wine. Anyway, we emailed the selling agent, and the next day, we took a tour. That place wasn’t right for us, but Lindsay and I started to realize just how much further our money could go in cottage country than in the city.

Lindsay: For the next two months, we hunted hard. We toured probably 15 cottages. We ended up buying the second one we saw. We loved the gorgeous covered wraparound porch, the wide front yard, which would help in case of flooding, and the fact that it was tree-lined on both sides, so it felt private.

Jamie: The cottage is only two hours from Parkdale. It’s winterized and it’s on a road that’s maintained all year, plus there’s clean drinking water and a proper septic. We’ve decorated it, built a dock and upgraded the fireplace. We spend our time kayaking, fishing, reading and drinking cold beers in the afternoon. We like to entertain our family and friends, too. We think of our apartment as the place where we eat and sleep when we have to be in the city, but the cottage has become our home. We spend all our vacation time and most summer weekends there. We go up about twice a month in the fall and winter, too.

Lindsay: We worried that the spring floods this year might spell trouble, but as we had expected, the front yard bore the brunt and the building itself was bone dry. We’ll be up there all the time this summer.

Jamie: Maybe in two or three years, we’ll look at buying a place in Toronto. But we’ll never give up the cottage, that’s for sure.

Lindsay: We recently got engaged, and we’re going to have our wedding at the cottage in July 2020. We couldn’t think of a better place to do it.


The Northern Getaway

Who: Stephen Hertel, 50, a University of Toronto campus police sergeant, and Daniel Rawlins, 45, a middle school teacher
What: A four-bedroom, two-bathroom four-season cottage
Where: Moore Lake in Haliburton County
How much: $550,000

Stephen: We used to rent cottages regularly for weeks at a time, and it became our go-to way to relax. In 2016, when we looked to buy a place downtown for under $800,000 and kept losing out by as much as $50,000, cottage country became our escape again.

Daniel: Steve came up with the idea that we move the house hunt up north. I was opposed at first. I didn’t think I’d use a cottage very much. When we’d rented in the past, I’d sometimes return to the city early because it was just too much.

Stephen: I suggested that we think of a cottage as our eventual retirement home. Financially, it worked, since we pay affordable rent in the village at the apartment where I’ve lived for 25 years. We gave up on buying in Toronto after a year and looked hard in cottage country.

Daniel: Our bank told us the only way we would get financing was if the place had a furnace, a heated water line from the lake for winter, and a foundation in the ground, not cinder blocks. We took a dozen trips up there over about six months from spring to fall of 2017, touring a handful of cottages each time.

Stephen: In the fall of 2017, we saw a listing for a place on Moore Lake in Haliburton County for $550,000. It was on the water, winterized and move-in ready.

Daniel: There was a two-car garage, and the water was sandy and shallow. The interior of the cottage had been beautifully renovated. It felt like a home.

Stephen: There were four bedrooms across nearly 2,000 square feet, and a full furnace system with HVAC. We knew we wanted it, so we offered asking.

Daniel: We didn’t have enough for 20 per cent down, so we had to get loan insurance through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Stephen: Our property taxes are $1,800 a year, much lower than what some of our friends and co-workers pay elsewhere.

Daniel: Our car insurance has gone down by almost $100 a month since we changed our address. But gas costs have doubled to $400 a month.

Stephen: Everyone is lovely up north. Some neighbours shovel our driveway when we’re away, and recently, when our docks were damaged by ice, another neighbour tied them up before they floated away.

Daniel: I didn’t think I would use the cottage much, but I was wrong. I keep calculating how long it is until retirement because I never want to leave.

This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.