Society

I banded together with strangers to buy a group of B.C. cottages

When the home I loved went on the market in 2021, a friend suggested I start a collective to buy it. I said, “Oh come on, that’s ridiculous.” But the idea stuck in my head.
Heidi Woodley
A photo of a woman with a pixie cut, wearing a green hoodie, brown cardigan, black pants, and red sneakers. She's standing in front of a small blue cottage with a red door.

Before I was born, my dad started a commune in a lovely old (long-gone) lodge in Snug Cove on Bowen Island. That’s where my parents connected. They then became part of an underground circuit that sheltered American draft dodgers. So I grew up with tales, both hilarious and cautionary, about trying to create a different way of living. Through their stories, my parents taught me that you should live your dream, and that it’s okay if it doesn’t look like everyone else’s.

In 2020, I was a stay-at-home mom in the North Vancouver suburbs. Our two kids went to school near Horseshoe Bay, and my parents-in-law lived there too, so we were in the area all the time. People in Vancouver just know of Horseshoe Bay as the home of the ferry terminal, but I had noticed this group of eight adorable little cottages that sat on the hillside just a block up from the bay.

The idea of living there seemed kind of nuts. Horseshoe Bay is in Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound—the southernmost fjord in the Northern Hemisphere—and the weather is wilder than in Vancouver. I figured it would be cold and dark and wet all the time. But a mom at the school lived in one of the cottages, and she loved it. As I learned more about them, I heard that lots of people dreamed of living in them. Soon, I became one of them.

A photo of a yellow cottage, a turquoise cottage, and a blue cottage on a hill. Four cars are parked in front of the blue cottage.

When my marriage ended that year, I started looking for a new place to live. Of course, budget was a major factor: I wouldn’t be able to rent a standard-sized house in the area. But I’d heard that there might be a vacancy in the cottages. I liked the idea of going small and living the minimalist dream.

At first, the owner, Jim—who had bought the cottages nearly 30 years earlier—said he had work to do on the house. A former tenant had damaged the appliances and there were holes in the walls. It’d be weeks until anyone could move in. I kept stopping by, though, and it just seemed to make more and more sense: there was a recreation centre nearby, the cottage was on a bus route to schools and downtown, and Horseshoe Bay was a close-knit neighbourhood. I doubled down on bugging Jim about the cottage. After five weeks of that, he finally said he was done and I could rent it. The boys and I moved in during the first COVID winter. We had to meet our new neighbours outside in the freezing rain.

That spring, I fell in love with the place—everything about it. I loved the action in the harbour. I loved the alpenglow on the mountains. I loved the Squamish name for the bay, Ch’axáý, which refers to the sizzling sound the water made when vast schools of herring used to come near the beach to lay their eggs. After the boys would go to sleep, I’d sit in my kitchen window with a cup of tea and watch the ferries sail in and out of the harbour. I could hear them from our new home. Every ferry’s horn sounded different, and every captain had a different way of tooting it.

A photo of a bay at golden hour, with mountains in the background. One ferry is sailing through the bay, leaving a streak in its wake.

My ex and I had recently sold our house, so I had a little bit of money. However, homes in Vancouver had become so expensive, and I thought my only hope to own again was to buy further away—perhaps around Powell River, which is five hours and two ferries up the coast. But my father, who’s a retired building inspector, looked at my little house and said it had really good bones. We dreamed about buying it and building a suite in the basement so a tenant could help with the mortgage. I figured it was worth a shot to ask.

At the beginning of 2021, I talked to Jim about buying my house, but he said he didn’t want to parcel the cottages out. If he sold the property, he’d sell all eight cottages together. They were the last vestige of the rough-and-tumble settlers who worked in logging and fishing 110 years ago, and he wanted to make sure they were preserved as a whole. Jim is from the Maritimes, and the cottages reminded him of the houses back home. That’s why he painted them in bright colours. They’re very simple structures—little square buildings with pitched roofs—but he turned them into a cluster of jewels. All day long, people would come to take pictures. Even tour buses stopped by.

A few months later, Jim put all eight cottages on the market for $3.8 million. Every week for months, tours of potential buyers came by—some of them builders or developers. I was shaken by the thought of having to move. It felt like a forever sort of place. A friend suggested I start some kind of collective to buy it. I said, “Oh, come on, that’s ridiculous.” But the idea stuck in my head.

A photo of a living room, complete with paintings on the wall, hanging lights, a long wooden table and a red bench.
Heidi’s Horseshoe Bay living room is cozy and well-lit by a skylight

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Time went by, and the cottages weren’t selling. I started talking to a couple who lived in one of them about joining forces to buy them. They were into it. Still, three people wouldn’t be enough. I realized I needed to form an alliance with one of the potential buyers touring the place. Maybe one of them was looking for a partner.

One day, I noticed a guy who didn’t look like the usual corporate, flashy type we’d been seeing around. He had tied his ponytail-and-beard look together with flip-flops and shorts. I instantly knew: that’s the guy. I went out to my yard and pretended to garden, waiting for a chance to introduce myself. It turned out he wasn’t a buyer—he was Noam Dolgin, founder of Collaborative Home Ownership BC and a realtor who specializes in co-housing. He usually helped people buy in East Vancouver, where it’s common for two families to purchase a house together. I’d heard of co-housing, but I had no idea that there was a whole set of experts who helped facilitate it. I got Noam’s card, went straight to my neighbours, and said, “Look, this is a thing.”

By that point, it was May. My neighbours and I started looking for more people to join us. We posted on our Facebook pages and neighbourhood group pages, and created an email address, website and Instagram page. Noam referred lots of people our way. Our pitch was simple. You could find a condo in a building in Vancouver for $450,000 or buy one of the cottages for about the same. And look what you’d get: your own little house, a half-acre to garden, the ocean and beaches and a beautiful mountain view. Plus, you’d be in this cool little village, with great transportation links to downtown Vancouver.

A photo of Heidi sitting on a wooden outdoor swing looking out at a forested mountain

Over the next weeks, we met so many lovely people. Some stuck around for a while, but it wasn’t coming together. I wondered if the idea was too crazy—and then Matt Fidler joined up with us. He just got it instantly. Matt was extremely enthusiastic, a great talker, and he could explain the idea a lot better than I could. Even though we didn’t have a solid group, we kept trying. In June, even without all the buyers we needed, we made a formal offer and Jim accepted it. I was the first person to pledge money. I even covered the legal fees in the hopes that it would inspire confidence that this was real. Jim agreed to a closing date two months later, and we hoped that would be enough time to pull enough buyers together.

That summer, we started a series of Zoom sessions, 10 people per session. It was exhausting. More people came on board, and we began drawing up documents with our lawyer, who advised incorporating. That way, we’d all be shareholders, and could own and manage the property as a company. We created a shareholders’ agreement, as well as community agreements—the glue that would hold everyday life together when we became neighbours. 

We got a property inspection, which produced a fairly extensive list of issues. A major theme was moisture and probable mould. Some people found the prospect too terrifying and dropped out. Those who stayed hoped that it wouldn’t be that bad, while also realizing we might be in for some surprises. 

The August closing date came and we still didn’t have financing, but Jim gave us an extension until the end of October. We tried to find a bank willing to take a risk on a fledgling company with no financials, but everywhere we approached turned us down instantly. Our only hope was a credit union, so we began going through their financing process. We asked for another extension. To Jim’s credit, he allowed it, moving the target to the end of January 2022—if we increased the $3.8 million purchase price by a measly $10,000.

READ: This Nova Scotia co-housing community is creating connections—and more affordable homes

We hunkered down over the Christmas holidays and continued to wait for a miracle. January dragged on and our deadline loomed. With about a week to go, Matt appeared in my doorway and breathlessly told me that there was a guy who wanted to meet us down at the local café, right now. Horseshoe Bay was experiencing an atmospheric river, where the air is so full of rain that it somehow manages to go up your nose, and we were in such a flap that we forgot umbrellas. We only had to walk two blocks, but we looked like we’d just taken a dip in the ocean.

When we got to the café, there were three people sitting there, all dry and well-dressed. One of them was a developer, Alan Carpenter, who had been working in co-housing his whole career; he lived in a big co-housing development and had even raised his kids there. He said he’d been following our story and wanted us to succeed, so he was interested in investing, lending or helping out however we needed. He was accompanied by a lovely local couple who were interested in coming aboard as investors or lenders as well. Matt and I just sat there, soaked and dripping puddles all over the floor and table, feeling stunned and very unprofessional.

In a daze, we walked them up to the cottages to show them around. After they left, we looked at each other: Did that just happen? We’d been working so long, we were so exhausted, and it just didn’t seem real. But a few days later, we finally closed the deal. At that point, we only had investor-residents for seven cottages, but we went ahead anyway. We found one more co-owner the next winter.

A photo of Heidi speaking to a neighbour. Both of them are standing on outdoor stone steps.
Heidi and Matt having a conversation on the stone steps between two cottages

Now, life here on the hill is sweet. We have a great group. There are a couple of scientists, a meteorologist and a geologist. We have a schoolteacher and a tech person, someone who’s in the business world and someone in new media. There are dogs and cats, too. My eldest, who’s now 14, is cerebral and loves all of the intellectual and business conversation. And my youngest, who is nine, is a monster extrovert, so he loves socializing. I’m so grateful that my kids have the opportunity to get to know so many interesting adults, who so kindly put up with their exuberances.

At first, we considered holding regular potlucks or barbecues, but we decided that wouldn’t work for us. Larger co-housing communities might have enough people each week to make that happen, but we’re a bit small for that. Plus, we see each other all the time already. We all have outside areas attached to our cottages —whether that’s a patio, terrace, or deck—and we have informal gatherings that way when the weather is nice.

Most days, we chat on a WhatsApp channel about any issues that come up. Once we feel like there are enough items on the agenda to have a meeting, we’ll call one. One of the first concerns we tackled was managing moisture on the property. In addition to repairing leaks and diverting run-off away from structures, we’ve also been installing insulation and vapour barriers under floors. There’s still lots to do, but the project won a Heritage Award last year, which boosted morale. We are also still talking a lot about financing. If we can’t reach a consensus in conversation, we have a voting system, but we’ve never needed to use it. We feel it’s best to talk about the issue, whatever it is, until there’s an agreement that takes everyone’s concerns into consideration. 

Looking back on this experience, I’ve realized that you can’t know what the future holds. I still don’t know what’s in store for me, but I learned that if you consistently surrender your limited ideas of what’s possible, amazing things can happen.