Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

Waterworld

Inside Scarborough’s hidden community of floating homes

By Jonathan Forani| Photography by Derek Shapton
| June 27, 2018

Docked among the sailboats of Bluffer’s Park Marina, on the Scarborough lakeshore, there’s a row of 24 floating homes. These aren’t souped-up yachts or houseboats. Their owners call them “float homes.”

The odd, aquatic structures were built by a company called Ichor Marine between 1999 and 2001. Like regular houses, the float homes are stationary, with nine-foot ceilings, drywall, furnaces, air conditioning and gas fireplaces. Unlike regular houses, they float on concrete barges. They also sit on rented property: the marina is on city land, with a lease that expires in 2022. As a result, float homes aren’t the same kind of ironclad asset as a detached home or even a condo. And they can be tricky to finance, because many banks are reluctant to make loans on properties that are technically watercraft.

Even so, float homes don’t come cheap. The last few sales ranged between $650,000 and $1 million. There are also monthly moorage fees of around $700; plus, owners pay a portion of the marina’s property tax—about $1,000 annually. And, unless owners want to empty their own septic tanks every month or two, there are $40 fees for that, too. Despite all the quirks and complications, the neighbourhood has attracted residents who cherish the cottage-like lifestyle the homes provide. “As long as there’s a marina there, the float homes will be there,” says Paul Peic, an ex–float home owner who now runs a website about the community and acts as a de facto real estate agent for owners. “I’ve been around the world and it’s one of the best places that I’ve ever lived.”

Here are some of the people who live on the water’s edge.

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes
George Aitken, 50, and Glen DeFreitas, 51

Finance workers

In 2014, George and Glen decided to invest in a cottage. But the thought of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way to Muskoka didn’t appeal to them. When they came across a listing for a float home, they biked down from their Cabbage­town row house for a look. The first one they saw seemed a bit too small. Two years later they tapped their home equity line of credit and bought a different one.

The structure bobs on the water in windy weather, but, once they got their sea legs and figured out how to adjust their ropes with the changing seasons, they never looked back. They’ve learned to stock up on supplies so they don’t have to make frequent grocery trips. (The marina has a snack bar, a sports bar and a restaurant. That’s it for nearby amenities.) They still spend most weekdays at their Cabbagetown house, but they plan to start staying entire summers at the float home once they both retire.

A Mason jar is filled with corn so they always have something to feed the ducks and swans that float by:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

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They host friends and family so frequently that the Murphy bed is rarely tucked away:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

The two wooden paddles function as float-home decor when George and Glen aren’t using them to cruise along the Bluffs in their red canoe:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Here’s the living area:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

And the view from the water:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

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Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes
John Whyte, 69, and Ingrid Whyte, 64

Retired lawyer; retired corporate fundraiser

Ingrid and John were retiring in 2015 when they bought their float home. Their plan was to use it like a cottage in the city for the first year, living in their family home in Scarborough, and only staying at the Bluffs on weekends and for holidays. But they were so entranced by the lifestyle that they ended up selling their home and moving into the float home full-time just a few months later.

It didn’t take them long to figure out that space is at a premium. “Everything that you bring into the house, you have to think about,” Ingrid says. They have managed to keep a collection of nearly 1,000 books by adding additional ballast tanks underneath the house, which ­prevent it from sinking under the weight of all that paper.

This year marks their third summer in the float home, which they’ve dubbed Swan’s Way, a reference both to Marcel Proust and to the trumpeter swans they enjoy watching from their deck. “They’ll probably have to carry us out,” Ingrid says. “We’re really happy down here.”

These white and blue poles remind them of the colourful gondola mooring poles in Venice:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Ingrid used to work in publishing, and John is a passionate book collector. They originally had about 5,000 volumes, but they got rid of most of them before moving in:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

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The previous owner installed artificial turf on the home’s roof. “Now instead of cutting grass I just have to vacuum it,” Ingrid says. In high winds, they make sure to secure all the outdoor furniture with bungee cords and rope:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Here’s the master bedroom:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

And the view from the dock:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 


 

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes
Linda Sockett, 62

Homemaker

In 2011, when Linda and her husband, Jim, were looking to downsize from their large family home in the Beaches, they assumed a condo was in their future. But their plans changed when they came across the Bluffer’s Park community. They used the proceeds from the sale of their house to make the purchase.

Jim died two years ago, but Linda has found a supportive community in her fellow float-homers. “It’s quite different moving down here. You’re ­literally tied together,” she says of her neighbours. In warm weather, she and her friends often kayak around the lakeshore and host game nights. When rough weather hits, they band together, and in some cases suffer the consequences together. If they don’t make sure their lines are taut and adjusted for the changing winds throughout the year, their homes can bash into one another.

Otherwise, the living is easy. Linda likes to spend her days sipping coffee on her deck, or ­sharing ­cocktails with a neighbour and watching the water. Now, the idea of moving into a condo is unfathomable.

When they bought the home, it was named Shorts, though none of their new neighbours knew why. They decided Lakehouse was a better monicker:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

The small set of three steps helps Linda’s 11-year-old pug, Bella, make it up on the couch easily:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

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The octagonal porthole-style windows are original to the home:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Here’s the dining area:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

And the kitchen:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 


 

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes
Penny Barr, 63, and Russell Low, 64

Retired artist and desgner; retired letter carrier

Penny and Russell bought their float home in 2001, as the community was being built. They had made trips around the world, from Vancouver to Amsterdam, to admire floating dwellings just like these.

“I said, ‘Let’s buy it’ before we even saw it,” Penny says. They’re now the only remaining ­original owners.

To save some money, they bought the place unfinished. At first, there was only drywall, roughed-in plumbing and wiring. They put in laminate flooring, railings and exterior decking, and installed a bathroom with cedar-strip walls.

Learning to live in their new home was a literal balancing act. They had thousands of vinyl records, and they had to get rid of all but about 1,000 of them in order to shed excess weight. All the float-homers are conscious of overwhelming the flotation tanks under their homes with heavy possessions.

Over the years, the couple have expanded their flotilla. Penny spends much of her time in a 33-foot Dutch-style riverboat docked separately nearby, which she has retrofitted into an art studio.

This 1950s cedar-strip boat was no longer water-worthy, so they cut away a third of it and turned it into a kitchen counter. They put a rose quartz stone beneath the bow to make it look as though the boat had foundered on a rock:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

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Many of their neighbours use kayaks and canoes to explore the waterfront, but Penny and Russell opted for a Pelican pedal boat and a stand-up paddleboard:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Penny spent a year carving this Nova Scotia–style lighthouse by hand. The wood is oak from the forest near their cottage in Peterborough County:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

Here’s the dining area:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

And one of the bedrooms:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

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Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes
Linda Elliott, 67, and Tom Elliott, 62

Sales worker; retired union organizer

When Tom and Linda bought their float home in 2012, they knew immediately that it was perfect for them: it needed only minor upgrades, and it was smack in the middle of the row, protected from the sounds of the marina’s restaurant at one end and the boatyard at the other. Their tranquil new abode made their old neighbourhood in the Beaches seem hectic by comparison.

There are drawbacks. “You live 36 inches away from your neighbours,” Tom says. “But the closeness develops a really good sense of community.”

The float home complements their active lifestyle. (Tom is into competitive water sports, and Linda is a tennis player who was once nationally ranked.) When they kitesurf, they don’t need to strap their gear to the roof of a car. They just jump in.

They’ve started spending the colder months in Mexico, where they have another property. When they return to Canada, the float home’s compact size and low-maintenance landscaping make it easy for them to slide back into their Toronto lives.

Here’s their kitchen and living area:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Tom acquired the shark from a former neighbour who didn’t know what to do with it:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes
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The mermaid weathervane was Linda’s decorative touch to counter Tom’s mounted shark:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

 

Here’s the master bedroom:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

All of their water equipment straps to the side of their house, making it simple for them to get into the lake:

Inside Scarborough's hidden community of floating homes

This story originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $24 a year, click here.

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