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Dirt Cheap: Buy Your Remote Piece of Canada

Globe & Mail, May 4, 1996

For years, Sandra and Ken Prentice dreamed of homesteading in Northern Ontario. Last May, their dream came true when they moved on to 80 acres of land near Cochrane, Ont., that cost them just $19,900

"We always wanted a back-to-basics lifestyle where we could do some farming and raise a few animals," Ms. Prentice says. "Now we have our place in the sun- and it didn't cost us an arm and a leg."

When Ron Rolls' Stroud, Ont., family concrete business went belly up in 1992, he hauled his family and $6,000 in debts to British Columbia in search of a property where he could set up house and leave his misfortunes behind.

Two years later, the family bought 37 acres of heavily wooded land near Nelson in southeastern BC for just $38,800. They're living in a motorhome there and hope to build a house.

Canadians like the Rollses and the Prentices have realized their property dreams thanks to companies like H.M. Dignam Corp. Ltd. of Barrie, Ont. and Niho Land & Cattle Co. Ltd., of New Westminster, BC.

Both buy cheap land and resell it at a profit. But even with markups averaging 20 percent for Dignam and 20 to 50 percent for Niho, the land is still inexpensive enough to give buyers who only have a few dollars in the bank the chance to own their own piece of Canada.

"We're for the guy who can't afford to go to the bank for a loan," says Tom Willcock, general manager and majority owner of Dignam Corp., which was founded in 1916 and has land available nationwide. "We can help the person who gets the old thump in the chest and wants to say 'It's my land.'"

Dignam, for instance, currently has 10.7 acres near Bancroft, Ont., listed for $19,900. Pay cash for it within 30 days and you'll get a 10-percent discount. Or finance the purchase through Dignam with a down payment of $1,990 and 50 payments of $360 a month plus 1.25 percent monthly interest.

For a more remote setting, the company has 40 acres about 64 kilometers east of Prince George, BC, listed $16,660. You can get it for $14,940 cash or $1,960 down and 50 monthly payments of $294 plus interest.

Niho, which deals only in British Columbia, meanwhile, has a listing right now for a 45-by-129-ft lot near Hazelton, BC , 1,200 kilometers north of Vancouver, for only $2,900. It can be bought for a 5 percent cash discount or just $290 down and $62.09 a month over 60 months. For those with deeper pockets and a more pioneering spirit, 28 acres on the Alaska highway near Fort St John, BC, are available for $19,500= $4,875 down and $207.39 monthly for 120 months.

For the Prentices, such low pricing was the key to acquiring their chunk of Ontario. While shopping for land near their former home near Alliston, north of Toronto, they found that properties one-seventh of the size of their Cochrane acreage cost double what they paid, Ms. Prentice says.

The flexible financing offered by both companies also helps put land in reach of their clients. Deep in debt from the failure of his business, Mr. Rolls, for instance, couldn't raise the 25 percent down that banks demand for purchase of vacant land.

So Dignam lent him the money. Unlike financial institutions, the company only requires a 10 percent down payment. It also agreed to reduce the monthly payments the Rollses would have had to make to $540 from $720 by lengthening the term to 60 months.

Also unlike traditional lenders, Dignam ignores client's job histories and credit ratings when granting a loan. It can do that, Mr. Willcock says, because it holds title to the land until the last payment has been made, so that the company has some protection if a buyer defaults.

Dignam is able to sell properties ranging in size from less than an acre to 180 acres and in price from just $4,000 to $30,000 through an inexpensive mail-order catalogue circulated worldwide every month. Though the company has recently begun selling more desirable oceanfront property in the Maritimes, many of its 130 listings in its catalog are bush lots, some with no roads, usually far from major cities and often rugged or swampy.

The 40 acre parcel near Prince George, BC, for instance, is described in the catalogue as "crossed by the infrequently used Canadian National railway line" and have 20 acres, somewhat marshy, on the west side.

"Our land is not beachfront, it's bush. It's unspoiled, affordable acreage. You won't see words like beautiful, glorious and exotic in our catalogue. Some of it is low-level land and we say so," Mr. Willcock says.

Because so many purchasers buy sight unseen, Dignam offers a two-year exchange privilege: Those who don't like what they see when they do visit their land, or want to upgrade for other reasons, can exchange their property for another parcel of equal or greater value by paying $395.

Niho, which sells from a twice yearly catalogue, and also helps with financing, keeps a lid on prices because most of the land it's pitching was bought in the late '80s- about four years before BC recreational land prices skyrocketed.

The company also uses a sophisticated data base containing descriptions of more than 500,000 pieces of rural property to keep a close watch on prices and move in fast when an attractive property goes up for sale, says president Rudy Nielsen.

Niho's properties range in size from a third of an acre to 3,000 acres and in price from $2,900 to $500,000. The company offers a one-year exchange privilege with no extra fee, but buyers must cover any legal bills.

Not all buyers live on their land. They just like the idea of owning a piece of Canada and occasionally visiting to hike, camp, or gaze at their holding. For some, there have been major windfalls.

Retired real estate agent James Connors of Sebastian, Fla., has made big profits on several of the 15 Ontario and Nova Scotia properties he has bought from Dignam since the mid-1960's. The company, wanting to replenish its inventory, bought back five 100 acre parcels in Northern Ontario for $2,500 each- five times what Mr. Connors paid for them.

He sold another 440 acre plot in Northern Ontario that he purchased in the mid-1970's to a mining company for $100,000. The mining rights on another 292 acre parcel near Timmins, Ont., recently fetched $100,000; he paid just $12,000 for the property.

Mr. Rolls has made out well, too. He recently sold about $30,000 worth of timber from his land to local sawmills; the property itself has jumped to an assessment value of $100,000.

Big gains such as these are rare on properties in remote regions, but Niho and Dignam are both now selling land in more desirable areas where the chance of making a sizable return on an investment is higher. In the Maritimes, Dignam is now selling serviced waterfront properties from less than an acre to 13 acres for $7,800 to $149,000, through its affiliation with two East Coast land developers. Mr. Willcock feels prices will double in the next five years as properties are developed.