Flip-Flops Are The Great Equalizer – Muskoka Real Estate

Seaplanes and helicopters and 20,000-square-foot homes. Is it still possible for the average person to own a place in Muskoka?

Have you ever taken one of those two- to three-hour Muskoka Steamships cruises, on the RMS Segwun or the Wenonah II, that sail out of Gravenhurst, Ont., during the summer or fall seasons? All lathered up with sunscreen, rose-tinted sunglasses perched on eager faces, passengers on- board the specially themed Millionaire’s Row cruise pay their money to “ooh and aah” as the Segwun steams by 6,000-square-foot, 10,000-square-foot, 20,000-square-foot homes. Some are hidden behind the deep gatekeepers of evergreen trees, while others are partially hidden or superseded by the majesty of the home’s spectacular original statement boathouses.

“Actually, I would have to say that Millionaire’s Row is long gone,” says Jim Williams, who is president and CEO of Williams Telecommunications and a long-time Muskoka homeowner. “The reality is, it is now Billionaire’s Row.” Williams, who bought his cottage 12 years ago on Lake St. Joseph (affectionately referred to as “Lake Joe”), estimates that real estate has gone up 60 per cent since then.

The Muskokas, which have earned many “best” awards, including the No. 1 Best Summer Trip in the World (National Geographic, 2011) and one of Frommer’s Best Family Vacations in Canada, are commonly known for their “Big Three” lakes: Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau and Lake Joe.

These lakes — and the private islands that dot the indigo blue, or gold and red autumn leaves–reflected waters — are havens for the A-listers of Hollywood, with the odd one owned by a Canadian. Martin Short has a cottage here, as does Jim Treliving, Kevin O’Leary, Tom Hanks, Cindy Crawford, Steven Spielberg, Kenny G., Paul Coffey, Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson, Wendel Clark and a host of other well-known hockey players. The renowned and popular hockey defenceman P.K. Subban, who first experienced the Muskokas several years ago, returns yearly and is, in fact, staying at Williams’s cottage for a week this summer. Crawford’s husband, Rande Gerber, has Kid Rock up for visits, and Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe has been known to hang out on one or two Muskoka docks. Justin Bieber rented a property in the Muskokas a couple of years ago that features a 70- foot waterfall and a waterslide that goes right through the property. That only set the young singer back $65,000 for the week.

So, what is it about the Muskokas that draws so many of the rich and famous to its fresh and deliciously warm waters? And is it possible for the average person to buy a cottage here?

Joe Quinn, who lives on Lake Joe and has been a real estate agent in the area for the past 25 years (currently for Chestnut Park Real Estate, Muskoka), says that the biggest percentage of new buyers are young Toronto professionals between 40 and 45 years of age. And while he acknowledges seeing a lot of high-profile celebrities on a daily basis, he is protective of his clients and prefers not to discuss either the resident celebrities or their comings and goings. “I am too close to these people,” he says.

What Quinn does say, though, is that celebrities are treated like regular people in the Muskokas — no fanfare, no paparazzi, no demands for autographs. “Other residents respect that these people are here to relax,” he says.

Is it just the influx of celebrities that has driven the cost of Muskoka real estate up into the double-digit millions or are other factors at play?

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Bob Clarke of Muskoka Realty attributes a few factors to the escalating costs. “There has been a lot of pressure from the eight million people who live in Toronto and want to get out of the city,” he says. “Real estate has become a limited-capacity item. And because people are looking to spend more time up here — making it a three- season getaway — they are buying property, tearing down the old cottages and building new, larger homes that facilitate longer stays.” Clarke cites the escalating cost of building materials and labour; he estimates that it now costs $500 per square foot to build, compared to a cost of $330 to $350 a square foot a few years ago. In 1990, Clarke built his first cottage, which he sold in 1999 for $310,000. That cottage was recently sold for more than a million dollars.

And with some spec cottages being built in the $15-million to $20-million range, Williams says that “it is almost at the point that the average person can’t get into the market up here anymore.”

While it is true that the average person can only dream about owning one of the spectacular cottages on the Big Three, such as the house with a 9,000-square-foot boathouse to accessorize the 20,000-square-foot home, or the cottage with a boathouse/ garage that seats 100 guests for concerts featuring artists such as the Canadian Tenors and Jann Arden — and don’t forget about the seaplanes tied up to docks or the heli-pads for Friday night fly-ins — Clarke says he doesn’t want to scare potential buyers aware from the Muskoka experience. “While new buyers might be priced out of the market on the Big Three, there are some beautiful small lakes around the area that are affordable,” he says. “Our lakes are filled with islands that still offer affordable water access and can be bought for between half a million and a million dollars. In fact,” he says, “I have clients who don’t want to have to keep up with the Joneses; they just want to relax on their dock, barbecue and boat. The cost of real estate in Toronto has changed dramatically, so really, it is not such a crazy stretch up here.”

‘It’s a gathering place for families and friends with minimal distractions − a place where memories are made’

Beaumaris, a small well-known area on Tondern Island, with its three-season, 15,000-square-foot, 75- to 100-year- old cottages and dining rooms that can seat 40 people for dinner, is a standout area in the Muskokas for Clarke. Not to be outdone in the celebrity category, the Lake of Bays Bigwin Inn (now defunct) on Bigwin Island used to host the crème de la crème of celebrities, including Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong and the unflappable Winston Churchill.

What is important for potential Muskoka buyers to note is that the majority of Clarke’s clientele are not, in fact, highfalutin celebrities, but rather, people who have come into money (one of his clients is a $50-million lottery winner). Or, they are people who have come up with an idea and done well. “I love hearing about people who started in low-paying jobs and who embraced opportunities, took over businesses and made it big,” he says.

And while The New York Times refers to the Muskokas as the Malibu of the North, and Williams likens the area to the Hamptons on the water, Quinn’s description is one that resonates with its beautiful imagery. “It’s God’s country,” he says. “It’s a gathering place for families and friends with minimal distractions — a place where memories are made.”

Clarke, who likes to keep things on a more local plane, says, “I would call Muskoka ‘the Rosedale of the North.’”


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Cece M. Scott

Cece M. Scott