Is Kawartha Lakes becoming Muskokaized?

The spirit of the family cottage is alive and well

By Geoff Coleman

When Bob and Ann-Marie Carruth bought their Sturgeon Lake building lot in 1997, some friends thought they were insane. Now they see it as the smartest investment move ever. Carruth felt that the Kawartha region was poised to become the next Muskoka, pointing out that while not as scenic to some eyes, “This region was still affordable, there was vacant land available, and it was a lot closer to the Greater Toronto Area,” said Bob.

Not to mention that an aging population was soon going to leave a lot of money to middle-aged children who might enjoy retiring on the lake. In the ensuing 20 years, his predictions have been borne out, with demand for local cottages steadily increasing — even before the pandemic — and prices rising in lockstep.

Lindsay real estate broker Tracy Hennekam says at that time, there was no interest in farms, and only a bit more in waterfront properties. The year 2010, however, saw an increase in activity, which then took a big jump in the last three to four years. Now? Real estate in Kawartha Lakes is enjoying a never-before-seen, pandemic-fuelled spike.

“I have a client right now with a budget of $1.3 – $1.5 million and I can show him lots of places asking that, but they go for well over the asking price…$1.8, 1.9 (million dollars).”

Hennekam is seeing some cottages go on the market right now strictly to make a good buck, but she has other clients looking to sell who gave rural life a try and just don’t care for it. Some others have younger children and want to give them access to the wider variety of activities urban areas offer. And still others have reached the point where they don’t want to deal with the maintenance of a second property and no one from the family is able to buy it.

Brian Armstrong of Armstrong Construction in Fenelon Falls agrees that a shift occurred about 10 years ago. He says that previously it was rare that he would build a waterfront house. By 2010 he could count on one house per year.

“Now it’s up to three,” he says.

One trend he has noted is the conversion of three-season cottages for year-round use. He says people are paying so much for a recreational property, they want to get more than four months’ use out of it. Since many cottages were built in the 1940s and 1950s, they were due for significant upgrades, and current interest rates make it very inviting to do so.

While it’s certainly the case that our lakes are seeing people from the GTA moving here and building big houses, it’s not always the case. The family cottage is alive and well; it just doesn’t always look like it once did. Sort of like your father’s Oldsmobile.

Some families are still resisting selling or building big.

The Pritchard family.

Carolyn Pritchard’s parents began coming to the Raby’s Shore area of Sturgeon Lake in the late 1930s, driving from Toronto to visit friends who had cottages there. When her father heard about a lot for sale, he pulled together the $500 asking price, and with the help of neighbours, put up their cottage. At 480 square feet, it wasn’t the Taj Mahal, but it did have a new design feature called a picture window. Neighbours would actually come to visit, just so they could look through it, taking in the relatively big view of the lake.

Pritchard and her husband Eugene James still live in Toronto, and she is happy to keep many features of the original cottage, although they have replaced windows, doors and furniture. The active retirees split their time between the Big Smoke and the campfire smoke at their Kawartha Lakes home-away-from-home.

“We like what Toronto has to offer, and what the cottage has to offer. They are obviously very different, but each is great in its own way,” says Pritchard. While neighbours around her have raised cottages to create second floors, she and James continue to make do with a five-gallon hot water heater.

Pritchard notes that many of the same families that cottaged there when she was a child are still around. The road is peppered with grown-up versions of the kids she used to hang out with at Johnny’s Hideaway, (cabin rentals and tuck shop), and of the girlfriends she would ferry up the lake to Wychwood Resort where they would play ping pong and flirt with the summer maintenance boys.

Her own two children and their families use the cottage when time allows, and after 70 years, no one is in any hurry to change the way things are.

The Pritchard family cottage when it first went up.

Similarly, Jack and Diane Richel have deep roots in their cottage area on Echo Bay Road on Sturgeon Lake. The one they now live in belonged to Jack’s family, who bought it in 1954; Diane’s cottage was just two doors away. And, yes, they did meet by saying hello across the docks.

They made an effort to maintain the feel that their cottages had when they were young, so when the decision was made to sell their home in Brampton and retire here, an addition was planned that preserved the rustic feel of the place while still providing things considered standard in a modern house. An extra 480 square feet provided a bigger kitchen, laundry facilities, another bathroom, a third bedroom and a larger entryway without tearing down any of the original cottage.

The Richels’ grandchildren visit regularly and take part in the same things their parents did with Jack and Diane:trips to Kawartha Dairy (not the TasteeFreeze), learning to waterski, tobogganing in the winter. They represent the fifth generation of Richels on the property.

Not to be outdone, Cameron Lake has its share of cottages that have been in the family for years. Andy Bean and his two brothers all got places on the lake after spending their childhood summers at the family getaway. His parents also started visiting the area in the 1930s, and they held onto their cabin until seven years ago when they passed it along to the oldest son. By then the younger brothers had both bought their own spots in proximity to each other. Interestingly, another family with three brothers own adjacent properties just down the shore.

Andy is recently retired, but his wife Tracy is still an executive at BM. Several families around them have torn down or added on to existing structures to create year-round homes, and that may be in Bean’s future as well. Working from home, Tracy has not physically been in her Ottawa office since March 2020. “Most companies are going through this —  finding new ways to work virtually. It took a pandemic to accelerate the model.”

Her team members are in Montreal, Halifax and Ottawa, and since she can’t ever see returning to a regular office, she has to decide where to create her home office.

That decision is not simple, as they debate options like maintaining the status quo, spending part of the year on a Caribbean island, and spending money on a cottage renovation. As Andy puts it, “We bought long ago, so we don’t have a lot of money into it and are content to keep it a simpler cottage, only used for three seasons. I don’t mind turning the key at Thanksgiving weekend.”

It’s easy to spot the largest waterfront homes in the Kawartha Lakes area.

With the promise of better rural high-speed internet, telecommuting is not going away, so more big home construction can be expected on these lakes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some amenities we enjoy in cottage country like nicely paved back roads, craft breweries and an outstanding variety of restaurants exist in part thanks to the influx of cash and property taxes that comes with affluent home or cottage owners. Spinoff businesses in the area selling everything from furnaces to furniture benefit from each renovation or new build.

It’s easy to spot new, large, Muskoka-sized places as they go up around the lakes and perhaps get the impression that the unique feeling of the small family getaway is disappearing. But it doesn’t mean the spirit of the family cottage has died.

Many simple cabins and elaborate homes around Kawartha Lakes remain in the same family, creating memories as they have for 70 or 80 years. Meanwhile, new owners now have the chance to start doing the same and to join the larger Kawartha Lakes family.

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