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The Cottage Life: Paradise Lost

Joanne Hatherly, Victoria Times Colonist, June 16, 2005

A lone adirondack chair sits at the end of a dew-flecked wooden dock. An early morning mist wafts over the lake, its feathery fingers vanishing in the evergreen forest on the far shore.

Got the picture?

It's the classic cottage scene, portrayed in art, magazine ads, television commercials and cottage shows with such regularity that it has take on icon status.

There are variations on this North American archetype. Sometimes there are two chairs. The mist might be replaced with bright sunlight that casts the scene in high resolution. The dock might be splashed with lake water instead of dew, and a rumpled towel might lie where it fell atop the boards.

If there is a dog in the photo, it will be a labrador retriever, usually yellow.

You have to leave the continent to realize how richly North American this image is, how entrenched it is in our culture as the ideal summer vacation spot.

Call it the lake, the cottage, the cabin, the camp, the beach -- by any name, it is rapidly slipping out of the reach of average Canadians.

An aging and increasingly affluent population, coupled with low borrowing rates, has heated up the recreational property market across Canada.

B.C. real estate boards do not offer statistics on cottage sales, but a comparison of the numbers in urban Victoria to the Gulf Islands, where many Victorians holiday, suggests that recreation properties are more than holding their own in B.C.'s real estate market.

In 1994, the average price of Gulf Island properties stood at $240,248, just a notch below Victoria's house price average of $256,025. Ten years later, the rural to urban ratio had swapped places. In 2004, the average price of a Gulf Island property came in at $447,249, while Victoria's average home was lower at $386,045.

Statistics on raw land sales for recreational property, calculated by (Rudy) Nielsen's Landcor Data Corporation, reveal that on Vancouver Island, sales increased to 1,722 properties in 2004 from 931 in 2003; the average value increased to $124,941 from $108,717.

Saltspring Island realtor Tom Navratil has kept detailed records on waterfront property sales in his district since 1998. His figures show waterfront property values on Saltspring Island jumped almost 60 per cent from 2003 to 2004, with averages selling prices rising from $706,028 to $1.1 million in that period. Even median values, which are regarded as a more reliable and conservative measure of housing values, shows considerable growth. In 1998, the median value on waterfront came in at $430,500. By 2004, it had reached $775,000.


Port Alberni realtor Gabby Osborne points to a cottage listing on Vancouver Island's Sproat Lake with an asking price of $699,000, and says, "That would have been $399,000 only a few years ago."

The change in market values hits closer to home for Osborne, who owns a land-locked lot at Hornby Island. The lot cost $10,000 in 1983. It was recently assessed at $167,000.

"It's worth as much as our house here," observes Osborne. "It's booming all over -- Parksville, Qualicum. It's just crazy."

The humble cottage is going upscale. Affluent buyers are snapping up desirable properties, bulldozing the existing cottage and replacing it with a luxury home. Navratil is reluctant to call these houses cottages, even though their owners occupy them only through the summer months.

"Some of these places are worth up to five million dollars," says Navratil.

Most buyers are Vancouverites on the verge of retirement, looking for revenue-generating properties that they can rent out for a few years before moving in and making it their primary residence. And while the myth of the well-heeled American buyer persists, Navratil estimates they only represent about 20 per cent of purchasers.

"A lot of them come up here, but then discover that immigrating to Canada is not as easy as they thought, especially in retirement age," says Navratil. "A lot of those properties end up back on the market as a result."

In the past, aspiring cottage-owners sought out affordable properties by looking further afield, following the general rule that the longer the commute from urban centres, the lower the price tag.

Those willing to hoof a three-hour drive plus an hour-long boat-ride can buy a bare strata lot for $47,000. But even at that distance, $47,000 will not buy beachfront.

Don't like a long commute? You can shave it down to 45 minutes from Victoria for $600,000. Those dollars will buy a lakefront property complete with 1,200 square foot cottage.

Price pressures on recreational properties are re-shaping rural communities in ways that don't sit well with the locals. More cottage buyers are looking for cottages with mortgage-helper suites that can be rented out as a bed and breakfast. Others rent out their cottages on a weekly basis, creating turnstile neighbourhoods.

Some communities are pushing back by introducing by-laws that restrict rentals.

Blair Howard, owner of West Coast Vacations, manages rental properties on Saltspring Island. He says rentals for under 30 days are illegal, but a moratorium on enforcement is in place while the Islands Trust, a local governing body, studies the issue.

"That was the last round of huffing and puffing the island did," says Howard. "As a result, things are carrying on just like they have for the last 30 years."

John Gauld, regional planning manager for the Islands Trust, which oversees the southern Gulf Islands, says a new bylaw was passed in January 2005 that restricts use of property so that occupancy must extend through six continuous months each year. It's a ruling that may preserve rural ambience, but threatens to drive the rental market underground, creating the same abundance of illegal suites and rentals that pervades the year-round residential market in cities.