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Ontario’s popular tourist towns are becoming permanent, year-round homes to many more people. 

According to census figures released this week from Statistics Canada (StatsCan), a handful of Ontario’s tourist towns have dramatically increased in population. Naturally, they’re also sky-rocketing in price on the real estate front (but what else is new in Ontario?), as supply remains extremely tight.

Four out of Canada’s 10 fastest growing census agglomerations (CAs) between 2016 and 2021 were in Ontario, reveals StatsCan: Wasaga Beach (+20.3% to 24,862), Tillsonburg (+17.3% to 18,615), Collingwood (+13.8% to 24,811), and Woodstock (+13.6% to 46,705). 

To put this into perspective, the average population growth across the entire province during the same timeframe was 5.8%.

Notably, Wasaga Beach and Collingwood were among the fastest growing CAs in the country. According to StatsCan, both regions attracted migrants from other areas in Ontario — a factor that explains nearly all of the population growth. 

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Blue Mountain, Collingwood, ON/Shutterstock

Perhaps this population growth in Ontario’s amenity-packed tourist towns reflects a newfound collective desire for a better work/life balance inspired by the pandemic, coupled with the changing nature of the workforce. Or perhaps COVID-19 simply served as a catalyst for an inevitable move, inspiring the cottage country house hunt a few years earlier than planned.

Either way, they’ve arrived.

“With the pandemic, we’re seeing a reboot of people’s attitudes in terms of how they want to live, where they want to live, and what they want to do next,” says Max Hahne, Broker of Record at Engel & Völkers Collingwood Muskoka. And what they want are apparently the red-hot Simcoe and Grey County regions.

Seeking More Affordable Pastures

Their outdoor facilities and optimal location may have attracted people to Collingwood and Wasaga from larger metropolitan areas, such as young retirees or those able to work remotely. Both are within close proximity to nature and house outdoor facilities like large parks, ski stations, beaches, and navigable bodies of water. But, for a dose of the big city, Toronto is never too far of a drive away from Collingwood or Wasaga Beach. 

Hahne confirms that — especially since the onset of the pandemic — new residents of Wasaga Beach and Collingwood vary widely in demographics, including everyone from the young entrepreneurs starting new local businesses to Baby Boomers looking to make the most of their golden years.

“The wave of Boomers is finally upon us and they’ve been given the green light with the pandemic to relocate outside of the city,” says Hahne. He says he predicted this would happen in Ontario’s cottage country due to the attractive offerings of clean air, clean water, and culture.

“They tell me they feel 20 years younger living out here, as opposed to their friends who live in more remote areas and are bored out of their minds,” says Hahne of the region’s Boomers. “They want to be where the action is; not in some sleepy town — whether they still ski or not.”

To this point, Hahne highlights the fact that Collingwood and Wasaga Beach both offer a slew of activities year-round and are always bustling and open for business (at least, in non-lockdown times) — something that’s a major draw to active retirees.

Hahne also notices many young families who swamped Toronto’s concrete for larger and more affordable pastures in Simcoe and Grey County. “They sell their little postage stamp house and lot in Toronto for $2.5M and buy a place up here for between $1M and $10M that has a 10-acre lot and a bigger house and put their kids into one of our good public schools or even private schools,” says Hahne. 

cottage country
Engel & Völkers

Hahne also points to a recent wave of immigration for contributing to the swelling of the populations in Simcoe and Grey County. “There’s a wave of international populations in Toronto that are contributing to population and price growth that forces people up into Simcoe and Grey County,” says Hahne. “But there are a lot of new immigrants arriving in both regions too.”

Like many parts of Ontario, the influx of new residents has resulted in an impossible-to-ignore housing shortage in many parts of Simcoe and Grey County. The local infrastructure simply isn’t positioned to support this population growth. 

“We have a moratorium in Collingwood and Stayner; no building permits are allowed because we have a shortage of water,” says Hahne. “We have so many sub divisions being built and the town didn’t plan for such explosive population growth. Nobody planned for potable water expansion. So, they are not allowing building permits until we expand our water treatment plant in the next few years.”

As a result of this new found appeal of living in these regions year-round and the limited supply, their real estate values — not unlike most of Ontario — have skyrocketed, especially in Collingwood. 

Muskoka Sees Double-Digit Population Boom

In January, the Lakelands Association of Realtors, which includes The Blue Mountains to Midland to Muskoka and Parry Sound, reported a 25% increase in pricing for non-waterfront properties and nearly a 20% increase for waterfront properties throughout the coverage area in the month of December.

Notably, the median price for residential non-waterfront property sales in December 2021 was a record $704,500 — gain of 25.7% from December 2020.

cottage insurance
Muskoka (Shutterstock)

Ontario’s famous and postcard-worthy Muskoka Lakes region also experienced double digit population growth.

Like Hahne, cottage country realtor Ross Halloran of Halloran & Associates of Sotheby’s International Realty Canada — who specializes in the pristine and pricey Muskoka region — points to a mixed demographic of new cottage country residents. 

“While much has been said about the impact of Covid 19 driving the recent boom in ‘Remote Workforce’ and prompting the ‘Great Resignations’ of 2020/2021, recent sales trends in northern communities and cottage country have now revealed a third phenomenon my Halloran & Associates Colleague Lynn O’Grady has deemed ‘The Great Relocation,’” says Halloran. “Millennials through empty nesters like her now divest of their urban and GTA suburb homes to relocate year-round to lake country and northern communities homes.”

Halloran points to advances in wireless infrastructure and increased modern amenities formally available mostly in congested larger cities or densely populated suburban developments as contributing factors to the cottage country real estate boom of the past five years. 

“Currently Bracebridge, Huntsville, and North Bay are growing leaps and bounds, as urban expatriates now prefer retiring or continuing to work from their year-round lake house and/or country home, far removed from city congestion and urban sprawl,” says Halloran. 

1651 Brackenrig Road, Muskoka, ON

While the demographic of newcomers to cottage country may be varied now, Halloran says this wasn’t always the case. 

“Five years ago in cottage country and rural Ontario, it was mostly the empty nester 55+ market that was driving migration to cottage country and small northern communities,” says Halloran. “Since early 2020 and beyond however, we have seen a steady increase in the 25+ millennial to GenX -54 market leaving their urban condos, city, and suburban homes in favour of more remote year-round homes situated on or near lakes and rural areas.”

For most of the Ontario Central and Northern lakes and rural regions, Halloran says he’s seeing a steady migration of residents from the GTA, and other expatriates returning from out of province back to Ontario. 

Halloran advises those looking to follow suit to find a licensed agent that trades extensively in the region of interest and to work closely with your buyer agent to conduct thorough advance due diligence on your short-listed properties in advance of submitting an offer. 

“Try to keep your emotions in check and be disciplined in pursuit of your dream recreational home or lake house,” says Halloran. “It may work to swing for the fences in the competitive urban real estate market by waiving conditions and home inspections during the offer process, but applying this ‘shoot from the hip’ approach in acquiring a rural or lake property without proper offer safeguards and property inspections could result in a costly negative long term outcome if you are not careful.”

And before you think about packing your bags for good, you better also pack your patience before embarking on the cottage country house hunt. From the looks of things, Ontario’s tourist town real estate will remain red-hot as we move through 2022.

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