Cottage Industry: Muskoka, “the old faithful”

Surging prices, bidding wars, blind offers—the search for seasonal real estate has become a battlefield. Tales from 10 of Canada’s hottest vacation towns.

Andrea Yu
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“There’s not a lot of space for hesitation when you’re trying
to buy ‘the one'” (Photos by Grady Mitchell)

In the July issue of Maclean’s, and each week here online, recent buyers divulge what they had to do to acquire the cottages of their dreams: pool family money, send relatives for viewings, hop on the first flight to Atlantic Canada post-bubble, or buy sight unseen, sometimes from thousands of kilometres away.

Muskoka, Ontario

Average recreational property price (2021): $842,000

The Market: Known to some as the “Hamptons of the north,” Muskoka has been a go-to for affluent vacationers—including the Weston and Rogers families—for decades. (A new twice-weekly flight service from Toronto allows jet-setters to skip the Friday rush-hour crush.) But Muskoka’s exclusivity isn’t all hype: even before the pandemic, the area’s inventory of rustic cabins, post-and-beam models and glass-and-steel getaways was slim, making the recent demand for cottages all the more frenzied. Case in point: prices for landlocked properties jumped 49 per cent from 2020 to 2021, while the average waterfront spot can fetch just over a million bucks.

The Buyers: Andrew Ratchford, a 39-year-old tech sales executive, and his wife, Emily, a 37-year-old retail buyer.

Andrew: I grew up in Oshawa, Ontario. The family next door spent summers at their cottage on Lake of Bays, and they would sometimes invite me to come along. I remember being so eager to get up there and enjoy the water. When I got older, I continued to visit the Lake of Bays Sailing Club. During university, I got a summer job at the golf course on nearby Bigwin Island. I promised myself I’d have my own cottage on that lake someday. 

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By 2019, Emily and I had three kids under nine and a home in Mississauga. We were finally in a position to afford a cottage. We imagined a waterfront property with two or three bedrooms for under $1 million—on Lake of Bays, of course. We saw 10 properties during the summer of 2020, but the uncertainty of the pandemic stopped us from making any offers. We went into 2021 with our down payment ready to go. The market was crazy, and it didn’t seem like it would get any better.

In March of 2021, we saw a teardown property on Seabreeze Road, along the east side of Lake of Bays, listed for $950,000. We offered $1,050,000, but we lost to a bid of $1,200,000. Our real estate agent—the same next-door neighbour whose cottage I summered at—convinced me to expand our search. A week later, we saw a place on nearby Dickie Lake, but we lost that one, too. The sellers received 30 offers. 

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In a twist of fate, our agent got word of a cottage listed at $975,000, just 10 houses down from the first place we saw. Emily visited while I was working, and she said it was “the one”: four bedrooms and a bathroom, cottagey wood walls, a firepit and a screened-in porch overlooking the lake. The listing agent was holding back offers for a week, but we registered an offer of $1,255,000 as soon as we could, hoping to scare off our competition. It worked—we won. 

We took possession in June of 2021. On weekends, we boated, barbecued and sat by the campfire at night. It was exactly what I had envisioned when I dreamed of buying on Lake of Bays as a kid. We even sporadically rented out the property through word of mouth for $4,500 a week to help offset the cost of our mortgage. (Our family stayed in the bunkie.) We’re planning on doing the same this year, but we’re upgrading the appliances first. 

Our experience taught me that when the market’s heated, you have to be ready to buy at a moment’s notice. In Muskoka, there’s not a lot of space for hesitation when you’re trying to buy “the one.” 

This article appears in print in the July 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy the issue online here