By GLENN GARNETT |
Things to consider before making your home in the country
You think about it every fall as you close up the cottage for the year. Or maybe you’re a renter whose two weeks of country bliss has gone in the blink of an eye and you’re taking a wistful last look in the rear-view mirror.
Craig White is looking forward to the day he can run this website (www.cottagelink.com) from the comfort of his deckchair at the end of a dock with a laptop at hand. And, as I come in from another morning jog through the streets of downtown Toronto on yet another smog alert day, I think what it would be like to live by the shores of Georgian Bay or at the cottages of my youth on Horseshoe Lake near Minden or Lake Kashagawigamog at Haliburton. There is a reason many of us heed the call of the wild and head to the cottage or to small rural communities across Ontario to holiday. But for a growing number of us, those short respites are not enough.
Eight years ago Karen Richardson was looking for change. Newly divorced and unemployed, and a little nostalgic about her summers at the cottage, she left Toronto for Bancroft. Today she runs Country Newcomer Services and works as a rural dwelling consultant.
“I spent many summers at Lake Simcoe with my grandparents and with friends,” she says. “I thought, it’s now or never.”
“The reasons I settled in Bancroft eight years ago still apply today. It’s a three-hour drive to Toronto, the water and air is cleaner, it’s not crowded or polluted and it’s not gonna be for a long time!” she enthuses.
Price was another attraction, with cottages and homes in some cases about half what they are in the Huntsville area.
“It’s been touted as the next Muskoka,” she says, and with a growing number of city-types seeking rural addresses over the next twenty years, that’s a pretty good bet. But making the switch from urban hustle to rural route proved a little jarring, and she says there were a few “big surprises” awaiting her there.
“Oh boy, were there!” she laughs. “Everybody needs to know about and be prepared for the culture shock when you move to the country, especially in the first year. There’s a slower pace of life, winter is a month longer and there are small town attitudes. One of the things you lose moving to a rural area from the city is your anonymity.
There are prejudices and there’s gossip. “The first thing I noticed was the freedom of speech thing,” she continues. “You have to be careful about your big city attitudes.” Outsiders can be resented, she says, and your neighbour could be the person who pulls the strings in deciding who gets one of the precious and few jobs that come available from time to time - which tend to go to friends first.
If you’re one of the fortunate few to actually achieve Freedom 55, or are retiring on an adequate pension in your 60s, gainful employment may not be an issue in settling at the cottage. But for others looking for at least a part-time job, rural living can present daunting challenges, according to Richardson.
“If you come here looking for a job, good luck,” she says, adding it’s a good idea to have at least six months’ savings to fall back on while you’re hunting for work. “Be prepared for a period of unemployment and when you find a job, be prepared for the fact that incomes are reduced by up to
half,” she advises. “Of course, the cost of living is also less, but people who move to the country can find themselves underemployed at minimum-wage jobs and may have to work at several part-time jobs. What this takes is a pioneer spirit and an entrepreneurial spirit.” Happily for Karen Richardson, she has both in spades.
Earlier this year she set up her consultancy business and with a whole generation of Baby Boomers looking to cash out of the big city and settle in cottage country, she is a pioneer herself. But retiring boomers aren’t the only ones flooding into rural real estate offices. Richardson notes the documented trend of 30-40-somethings looking for homes within commuting distance - albeit longer hauls - of the Big Smoke. With housing prices taking off again in the city, many are finding homes and cottages in the country and commute home on the weekends, she says.
Rural digs are also a very attractive investment compared to big-city properties, and can be rented out to help pay off the mortgage while you rent in the big city and count down the days ‘til your escape. The problem is: where?
Choosing a location compatible with your expectations and lifestyle is tricky, but there are some things you can do to better your odds of finding the right place for you. You may find too much peace and quiet unbearable - or that the exclusive vacation paradise you picked isn’t exclusive enough.
“To find out if a community is right for you, one thing you can do is rent a cottage over a long weekend at its busiest time,” she says. “In Bancroft, for instance, the traffic is only bad on long weekends in the summer.
Another thing you can do rent a motel room one weekend in winter when it’s at its quietest. Some towns can close down up to five months a year.” For a longer-term, four-season picture of the area you’re considering, another interim step before taking the plunge is renting a home for a year before making your final decision.
“I found Bancroft had a lively arts and environmental community and a large retirement and church-going community,” she says. “Pick up a local newspaper and find out what’s going on.” If you’re making the move to the country solo, Richardson says it’s a good idea to try to make at least one friend in town, even if it’s the real estate agent you bought your place from or that friendly bank teller. Your pals back home down the telephone line only go so far - it’s healthy to have someone to talk to face-to-face.
Speaking of phones, believe or not there are still places in Ontario where party lines exist. Richardson says you can wait up to two years for a private line in some rural areas. “That can be critical because without a private line, you can’t have an answering machine or Internet service,” she says. “Without those, it’s hard to run a home-based business. And high-speed Net access just isn’t available in lot of places.”
Another thing to consider is transportation. That exotic Italian sportscar may wow them on Yonge Street but it could stump Gus the mechanic in Bobcaygeon when he’s got it up on the hoist. Richardson points out that foreign-made cars can be a problem, especially if you need parts in a timely fashion. “Get yourself a reliable front-wheel drive car to handle those back country roads,” Richardson advises. “You’ll also want one that can handle stone chipping.”
There are plenty of other issues to consider, and Richardson’s checklist is handy to have before you sign on the dotted line.
Will your house insurance cover a property with wood heat only?
Is there an abandoned mine or toxic waste site nearby (being out in the wild is no guarantee of a pollution-free environment)?
Does the property tax include garbage removal? If not, where’s the local dump (it could be a very long drive)?
Richardson says the best time to move into your rural home is the spring. Not only does it put you in the right frame of mind and give you the opportunity to meet your neighbours when they’re out and about, it also gives you time to prepare for the dark months of winter. “I moved in the middle of November” she recalls. “I was in total shock after six weeks of -30C weather. My old Honda wasn’t getting warm by the time I got to work.” But Richardson points out that winter in the country, for all the cold winds and early evenings, is part of reason and joy of living in the sticks.
“We complain about the things we have to do without, but we wanted to get out here,” Richardson says. “I love a fire in the wood stove. You enjoy the silence.” Being a fish out of water may be a great plot device for books and movies, but it’s a stressful way to live your life. So before making your move to the country, do your homework.
Richardson’s Country Newcomer Services can send you an “e-book” to give you some of the critical information you need. This includes a demographic profile of the Ontario community you’ve got your eye on, a checklist, key Internet links and pages of tips on successful country living and ideas on starting a home-based business, telecommuting and supplementing incomes.
Check out Richardson’s website at http://www.connectuscanada.com/karen/countrynewcomer.htm or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call her at 613-332-2827. This article has been reprinted with kind permission of CottageLINK magazine – www.cottagelink.com