Margaret Wente had no clue that her life was about to change on a crisp autumn afternoon six years ago. The Globe and Mail columnist and her husband, Ian McLeod, had driven to Creemore, Ont., a farm town an hour and a half north of Toronto, to visit friends who lived on a nearby country property. As they sipped martinis on the farmhouse porch and gazed out at the brilliant sunset, Wente and McCloud raved about the beauty of the spectacle in front of them, until their friends asked them the obvious question: why not get their own piece of paradise? “Before we knew it,” says Wente, “we had bought 50 acres of farmland that everyone said was useless for farming but for us was just the most picturesque place we’d ever seen. And our life has been transformed ever since.”
Wente and McLeod, who both work in Toronto, now spend almost every weekend rambling around their faux turn-of-the-century farmhouse, chopping wood, raising bees, bottling honey and birdwatching. “Everything in the country is relaxed,” says Wente. “I do a bit of casual cooking and some light reading while my husband putters around re-queening his bees and taking care of his hives. Last year, he even won fifth prize for his honey at the Canadian Royal Winter Fair. Beekeeper — that’s my husband’s other identity.”
Like Wente and McLeod, many other urban couples are also discovering the joys of having a country estate. They’re turning quiet communities — Creemore and Prince Edward County in Ontario, Lunenburg County, N.S., and Invermere, B.C. — into weekend havens for a surprising number of power brokers.
At least for now, country properties are both accessible and affordable. Even in the most populated regions of Canada, you only have to drive an hour and a half to get to beautiful countryside. And the farms you find there tend to be far cheaper than places by the lake or the ocean. Sprawling acreages with houses go for less than $250,000. “No one’s paying full price for country property these days,” says B.K. Haynes, author of How I Turned $50 into $5 Million in Country Property — Part Time. “On average, country properties are selling for tens of thousands less than their asking price. It’s a great time to be buying.”
An emerging trend in Nova Scotia and PEI is for extended families to buy a country home and share it as a common getaway, says Menno van Driel, a Halifax realtor. “Some people come for three weeks of the year while others come for six months and use their farm as a family retreat. There’s always a parent, grandparent or other family member using it at one time or other.”
Before you buy, a word of caution: owning a farm isn’t the same as owning a cottage. “Farm lovers are self-sufficient people who like their own company and love to putter,” says Paolo Visentin, a realtor in Rosemount, Ont. “I you buy 100 acres and put a house in the middle of it, it’s pretty secluded. And with a small pond and river running through it, it’s totally self-contained.”
To make sure a property is right for you, ask yourself if the commute is reasonable. (Anything more than an hour and a half tends to become an ordeal if you plan to visit the property every weekend.) Also, how much land do you really want? “A lot of people start out wanting an acreage,” says Lydia Ingles, a real estate agent in Newmarket, Ont., “but then they see how big 10 acres really is and realize that half an acre is what they really want.”
Ingles suggests that you research an area before buying. Phone the local municipality and inquire into development plans. Also, ask if there are any restrictions on building because of greenbelt laws. “You want a feel for where the town will grow,” says Ingles. “The local municipality can tell you if your country road is slated to turn into a main road.”
You can view rural properties on the Multiple Listing Service and rural property websites such as LandAndFarm.com. Once you’ve focused on an area, try to find a real estate agent who specializes in selling country property, since rural markets can move slowly and often through word of mouth. “We were slow buyers,” says Susan Chapman, 46, a nurse in Alliston, Ont., who owns a country house on 2.5 acres north of Toronto on the Nottawasaga River. “It took us about four years of tootling around in the car on weekends. Our agent stuck with us and made sure that we found the right place.”
It’s that sense of place that also enchants Wente and her husband. On Saturday nights they like to throw together a casual potluck dinner for friends they’ve run into that day at the Creemore farmers’ market. Kids and grandparents are always included. “It’s all about casual, last-minute socializing, like people used to do in their backyards,” says Wente. “No dressing up, no lipstick and no talk about work. It transforms your life.”
A selection of rural gems across the country:
1. Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia; $269,000; 152 acres
Expansive fields and manicured pastures surround this three-bedroom farmhouse. Deer and bald eagles are daily visitors. The pond behind the home is stocked with speckled trout.
2. Hillier, Ontario; $169,000; 30 acres
This storey-and-a-half brick home comes with four bedrooms, one bath and plenty of room to roam.
3. Hallowell Ward, Ontario; $235,000; 32 acres
This 1,800-sq-ft home comes wtih a pond, three outbuildings and excellent well flow.