One of the most surprising effects of the pandemic on the city is the way it ignited the real estate scene, which continues to sizzle with quick sales on unconditional offers above asking price. While the numbers are certainly eyebrow-raising, in this series, which originally appeared in our 2021 Real Estate issue, we go beyond the dollar signs to show the human impact of this housing surge.
One year in, a few other key trends can be seen. Rural living is on the rise, with new and rustic abodes alike attracting everyone from young families to retirees. More people are moving in from Toronto, and trendy neighbourhoods near downtown continue to attract those committed to an urban lifestyle. Perhaps most surprising is the suburban townhome’s new position as a hot listing. With new buyers grasping to get into the market, empty nesters working from home, and everyone looking for more space, basic townhouses in Kanata and Barrhaven are selling for what we would expect from a detached house downtown — at least, according to the old way of thinking in the city’s real estate market.
Here, we explore the trends through the lived experiences of those who moved amidst the pandemic. We hear from three couples who moved to rural parts, as well as two families who moved to the region from Toronto. And for the love of Wellie West, we talk to a family who downsized out of the ‘hood after 20 great years, and meet the young family looking to build new memories in that same red-brick house.
MOONEY’S BAY TO ROCKLAND • REBECCA AND MATTHEW CRAGG
When Rebecca and Matthew Cragg sold their 3,000-square-foot Mooney’s Bay home — complete with cathedral ceilings, tatami rooms, and Japanese- inspired gardens — in fall 2020, they did it in the most mindful way imaginable.
Rebecca, 52, has run tea ceremonies and other Japanese-inspired events in their home for decades. Matt, 46, is a personal coach. Pandemic restrictions made it difficult for Rebecca and Matt to generate income at home. As well as hosting events and clients in the four-level 1960s house designed by Robert Campeau, the couple had used it as an event space, an art gallery, and an Airbnb rental, collectively known as Camellia House. It was also a beloved community hub. With COVID-19, all those activities became impossible.
Even these mindful professionals found the move very stressful — for a number of reasons. Since so many other homeowners were already renovating, the Craggs couldn’t find contractors to help with the repairs they wanted to make before listing the house. (In fact, in early 2021 the Ottawa Construction Association reported an overall increase in material prices, supply shortages, and an insufficient number of skilled labourers in the city.) These challenges forced them to enlist friends and do the work themselves. Another source of stress was Rebecca’s day job as a schoolteacher. It was summer when the Craggs decided to sell, and the fall return to in-class instruction was looming. “The timeline was really accelerated by the return to school and trying to teach in a pandemic while listing our house and doing all the renovations ourselves. It was crushing. It was exhausting,” Rebecca says.
When listing the property in September, they let potential buyers know they’d be happy to read letters of intent. Five of the eventual six bidders submitted such letters, introducing themselves and outlining why they thought the place was perfect for them. In the end, two bids were within $500 of each other. Rebecca and Matt carefully reviewed the letters, taking into account not only the bidders but also the existing fabric of their close-knit street, where they’d lived for 14 years.
“We grew to love the people that lived around us. Our neighbours were amazing. We told them, ‘We’re not selling to just anybody. We’re not going to sell to a developer. They’re not going to tear down this home and build another one. We’re really going to do the best we can for you guys,’ ” Matt recalls. But they didn’t have much time. “Not only do buyers have to move fast, but sellers also have to move fast because the offers are only active for four to six hours,” says Rebecca.
Once they listed the house, it sold within days. That left them with another immediate hurdle to overcome: finding a new home. For several months, they’d been searching for a house that met a few criteria: a well-maintained waterfront property, a vibrant community, and not too far from Ottawa. However, despite the fact that they watched the listings daily, almost every likely candidate had been conditionally sold by the time they spotted the notice.
Fatefully, they made a spur-of-the-moment decision while driving through a rural area east of Ottawa. They tweaked the search parameters on their real estate mobile app and were alerted to a three-season cottage on the Ottawa River between Rockland and Wendover. It wasn’t an area they knew, but they decided to check it out and immediately realized they’d found their new home.
Related: Exploring “new ruralism” in Chelsea and Kemptville
“Almost miraculously, impossibly, we found and bought our next house within six days of the sale of our first house,” says Matt. There were no competing bidders, and the couple took possession in December 2020. The property was radically different from Camellia House. Just 1,000 square feet, it was in excellent condition but not yet winterized. It wouldn’t have running water in the wintertime, since the Craggs couldn’t find a contractor to install a heated water-line cable before the ice set in. So they put Rebecca’s collection of Japanese tea kettles to use melting snow for their camping shower and scooped water from a bucket to flush the toilet.
Rebecca says it wasn’t that bad. “Humans are so adaptable.”
Matt agrees. “I don’t love not having a regular shower, but we know that there is going to be an end and this all was done for a much more important reason.”
The Craggs did get a bit of a shock when they discovered the cost of electricity. Even though the house had brand new insulation, the half-dozen baseboard heaters contributed to a Hydro One bill that regularly topped $300 a month. Their solution came by way of a $5,000 propane fireplace.
On the bright side, the move did have one immediate economic advantage. “Almost every piece of financial stress has been evacuated because we’re mortgage-free,” says Rebecca. She and Matt also remark on the community vibe, which they say is similar to that of their old neighbourhood.
Their new home is too small for all the activities they once ran from Camellia House, but that was part of the plan.
Says Matt: “It’s a change in lifestyle, as we had thousands of amazing people through our home during our time there. And while we’ll miss that, we’re also taking some time to slow down the pace.”
NEW EDINBURGH TO CHELSEA • SALLY AND KENNY DOUGLAS
This is a story of community, COVID-19, and a pair of new lungs. Close to five years ago, New Edinburgh resident Kenny Douglas had a double lung transplant. When his wife, Sally, drove him back into the neighbourhood after a three-month hospital stay in Toronto, kids were spilling out into the street waving “Welcome Home” signs. Friends gathered, cheering in droves as the street party erupted.
Community support for the Douglas family — Sally, Kenny, and their two sons — was strong. “New Edinburgh taught me the value of community,” says Sally. “The neighbourhood looked after us.”
When the idea of moving out of the city came up for discussion, Sally, who is a co-founder of communications company GSD & Co., was heartbroken. The couple moved 19 times in 23 years thanks in large part to Kenny’s service in the army. New Edinburgh had been their home for 15 years. Their children went to Rockcliffe Park Public School and grew up in the ’hood. Sally’s closest friends lived nearby, including Jill Stubbe, who had initially lured her to the neighbourhood. But when COVID-19 hit in March, Kenny’s compromised immune system and the worry and uncertainty of a disease that affects the lungs pushed them all apart. Kenny moved out of the city up to Chelsea, where he lived in an Airbnb in isolation for two months. Upon his return to the city, Sally and the boys moved out. They didn’t move back in together until late summer and, by that time, had made the decision to move.
“COVID accelerated our decision,” explains Sally. “We were coming to the end of a chapter anyway. The boys are grown up, and we were living in the city for me, really, as I had wanted to be near my children while working. The only thing keeping me was my neighbours.” But with children leaving the nest and a husband who really cannot take the risk of contracting COVID-19, the moment had arrived.
They listed their 100-year-old Crichton Street house, complete with a garden that backs directly onto Stanley Park, in September with local agent Paul Jackson. He posted a “Coming Soon” sign outside and, on the day it went on sale, had 30 viewings lined up. The first person through the door made an unconditional offer.
In November, Sally and Kenny moved to a contemporary house in Chelsea on a two-acre lot with views to the Gatineau River. “I really wanted to be on or near the water. We looked at Perth and Montebello, which we decided was too far, before this place on the near side of Wakefield came up. When we arrived at the house, we knew it was the one almost before we went through the front door.” There are walking trails through the wood- land all around them, it’s quiet, and there’s plenty of space. “Everyone’s happier,” reports Sally.
“I’ve realized that community isn’t about where you live — it’s about the people, and I still have those relationships. I just have to drive 18 minutes to Ottawa. I also know that we’ll build great relationships here once we get through COVID,” says Sally of her new neighbours, who have been incredibly welcoming. “Every move has its own story. This one worked out better than I could have hoped.”
BARRHAVEN TO KEMPTVILLE • PETER AND CHELSEY WYLIE
Before COVID-19 hit, Peter and Chelsey Wylie were very happy in their Barrhaven townhome. But once lockdown began last spring, they started to take the occasional drive out of Ottawa on weekends, poking around the small towns that surround this city. With a young son and a baby on the way, they had plans to move out to a more rural community in three years or so. Unsure whether to buy land and build or to look for an existing house, as they drove they mused on the future.
Then COVID-19 changed everything. After months of confinement in their townhome, with restricted outdoor space and a two-year-old, the couple decided to take the plunge. However, by that time, Chelsey was down to the final weeks of her pregnancy.
The couple found a Kemptville house online that they liked, but it sold immediately. However, Sotheby’s Realty agent Suzanne Lang had another listing close by in Kettle Creek, and the couple was among the first to visit. They bought the house, to close on July 8, but with the condition that they sell their Barrhaven home.
“It was the strangest thing,” recalls Chelsey. “Due to COVID, when we bought our new house, we’d never actually been inside it together until the day we moved in.”
Once the couple knew where they were going, they listed their home in Barrhaven. On July 4, just one day after the listing went up, there were 40 showings. They received 10 offers, every single one of them over asking. Some people even included letters and photographs to set themselves apart. “People included personal details,” says Chelsey. “I really wasn’t expecting that.” In the end, they sold their townhome for nearly $80,000 over the asking price.
Chelsea gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Olivia, just six days after closing, on July 14.
“It was a very stressful thing,” remembers Chelsey. “I was asking myself if this was the right thing to be doing, as it was scary.”
“It wasn’t really a plan, just an idea,” says Peter. “But we hit all milestones on time.”
Just six weeks later, Peter, Chelsey, Sullivan, and Olivia moved to a contemporary bungalow set on 1.2 acres in Kemptville. They soon discovered that they had a family connection with the previous owner of their house and that their new neighbours on either side had also moved from Barrhaven. It seemed like destiny.
“We love it here. It has that small-town feel, with lots of little stores and amenities nice and close. We noticed that everyone waves to you. It’s quiet and there’s lots of young families, parks, good schools. There’s a new generation moving in here,” says Chelsey.
TORONTO TO KANATA • ANNIE AND BRANDON*
*First names only at owners’ request
This move included months of searching, cohabitating with relatives, an unconditional offer, and plenty of mouse poop.
When animators Annie, 34, and Brandon, 33,* got engaged and started thinking about moving out of their 700-square-foot condo in Toronto, they realized their chances of finding an affordable house in the GTA — especially one with a yard — were slim. The couple had been in Ottawa many times to visit Annie’s cousin and liked the city’s vibe. Then they started comparing real estate prices, and the capital became even more appealing. “We thought, wow, Ottawa is a really good market, compared to Toronto,” says Annie.
Once Annie and Brandon applied for jobs here, things started falling into place quickly. Annie received two job offers, so they listed their Toronto condo in June. It sold in one day. Then they began the process of finding a place to live in Ottawa. They weren’t terribly picky. For instance, they were open to just about any area of the city. “Being from Toronto, we’re used to driving 45 minutes into work, so being further away from downtown Ottawa wasn’t a big deal for us,” explains Brandon, who landed a job soon after Annie did. Mainly, they wanted a single-family house with a yard in a quiet neighbourhood — ideally with a traditional (rather than open-plan) layout.
They stayed with Annie’s cousin in the city’s west end for a month over the summer to scour the city, sometimes going to as many as five house showings a day. Bid after bid was rejected. “I felt really discouraged,’” Annie recalls. They needed to be out of their Toronto condo in September.
In August, after roughly 70 viewings and eight offers, they found a three-bedroom, 2,600-square- foot, 21⁄2-bathroom house in Kanata’s Bridlewood neighbourhood listed at $475,000. To land the deal, they made a pre-emptive bully offer of $550,000. And despite their reservations, they agreed to waive all conditions.
“I was completely against [waiving conditions],” Brandon says. He wanted to make the offer conditional on inspection. “But if we had thrown that in, we wouldn’t have got the house.”
They closed the deal in October, which meant moving to Brampton to live with Annie’s parents for a month until they took possession of their Kanata home.
Many features of their new home appealed to them, such as the vaulted family-room ceiling and separate dining area. After fixing some electrical problems, redoing all three bathrooms, and updating the floors, they decided to drywall the basement. When they removed the existing wainscot- ting, however, they found huge piles of mouse droppings. The rodents — which were no longer in residence — had also left extensive tunnels through the insulation. “Even the pest-control people were like, ‘This is the worst,’ ” says Annie with a rueful laugh. The resulting tab was roughly $10,000. One small consolation: even if they’d had an inspection, the mouse issue wouldn’t have come to light, as inspectors don’t generally open up walls.
Despite all the stress of moving during a pandemic, the couple is glad they did. “We love it here,” says Annie. “It’s like a cleaner version of Toronto.”
TORONTO TO CUMBERLAND • MICHELIN HENRI-DAZÉ, SAMUEL HENRI-DAZÉ, AND GAETAN DAZÉ
Oakville couple Gaetan Dazé and Michelin Henri-Dazé started thinking about moving out of Toronto about three years ago. With a cottage in the Outaouais and a hesitancy to change provinces, they started looking east. Gaetan was born in Embrun, while Michelin is from Plessisville, Quebec, so Ottawa seemed like a good choice. Gaetan retired in 2017, Michelin a few years later, and their 25-year-old son, Sam, would soon be graduating from teachers’ college. They were careful researchers, even reaching out to French school boards in the area to ensure there would be a need for French teachers so that the three francophones could all relocate to the capital.
“We had been in our home for 30 years and invested a lot of time and money in it,” says Gaetan. “We knew our neighbours. There was a lot of nervousness.” Plus, the thought of moving during COVID-19 was overwhelming. The couple came to Ottawa twice — once to visit and again for a serious house-viewing tour.
They worked with Zak Green of Engels & Völkers, who used virtual meetings to guide the house hunt. “I use a wellness wheel to get to know my clients. It’s like a deep dive into what they want,” says Green, whose competence with virtual meetings really impressed the couple. Over a Sunday conference call, the three set out a plan to sell their Mississauga property and buy a bigger place with more room to roam near Ottawa.
“I was very impressed,” says Gaetan, “with Zak’s sincerity, his caring for our needs, and his intelligence about the market. I don’t go overboard in giving credit, but he was good.”
Green referred them to the Engels & Völkers office in Toronto to list their Toronto home for $1.35 million. Gaetan notes that other agents were reluctant to take on the listing. “We were aggressive on price and stubborn. We put a lot of money into that house.” It sold in a day for the full asking price of $1.35 million with no conditions.
Then they were faced with the hunt. They wanted a large lot with a pool, a house that didn’t require renovations, and high-speed internet, of course. Cumberland Heights offered all these things and a view of the Ottawa River. After weeks of combing listings, they got a call from Green about a new listing. When the photos came through, they fell in love. They took possession on October 20.
“He found the perfect home, the house of our dreams,” swoons Michelin. Adds Gaetan, “The only regret I have is that we should have done this years ago.” Since moving in, the couple has learned that many of their neighbours are from Toronto and have found all the conveniences of Toronto within a 10-minute drive. Most of all, they have discovered a new, slower quality of life.
“We’re not in a fishbowl here like we were in Toronto,” says Gaetan. “My favourite time of day is having my morning coffee with the blue jays.”
WELLINGTON WEST TO STITTSVILLE • KERRY LYNN ARMSTRONG AND TOM GROZINGER
It started with a horse — or at least the dream of one. Kerry Lynn Armstrong lived with her husband, Tom Grozinger, for more than 20 years in Wellington West, raising two children and enjoying the village vibe. But as their children grew up, she started thinking about her dream of a retirement that involved horses. That dream took root before the pandemic, when the couple bought a century-old hobby farm in Maberly, just outside Perth.
The 60-acre farm is a work-in-progress and not a fit place for two people who still have desk jobs, but when the pandemic sent everyone into work-from- home mode, they thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to live a bit closer to the farm?
Their three-bedroom, two-storey house, which had been renovated in 2005, was well positioned to sell; they frequently found unsolicited letters of interest in their mailbox, many of which noted the desirability of the quiet street and the proximity to the walking path that runs from Holland Avenue to Churchill Avenue.
“I literally walked that path for 27 years of my life,” recalls Kerry Lynn. “I loved being able to walk the kids everywhere. The walkability makes it seem like a small town.”
When their son Derek moved into a rental place with friends last summer, the couple put the pieces in motion to downsize. “At a certain point, when the kids were gone, it was time to pass the torch to another young family who can benefit from all that accessibility.”
They started watching the market and saw that properties were being sold in less than a week. Stittsville stood out as a top choice. It’s about an hour from their farm, plus their daughter Katrina and her fiance Martin had already bought a townhouse there.
Selling was easy — they listed on October 1, and it was sold before Thanksgiving weekend. The challenge came in the hunt for a new home. “Every townhome we would try and bid, only to be outbid. They would go so much higher,” recalls Kerry Lynn. “We were almost ready to give up and rent.” Finally, on October 19, they were the highest bidder on a townhouse in Stittsville, on a cul-de-sac that offered a shared park for their Maltese-Yorkshire terrier, Oskar. They appreciate the low maintenance lifestyle and the neighbourhood with its mix of young families and older people.
For Tom, keeping the habit of walking to shops was important, so he now walks to the Food Basics mall regularly. For Kerry Lynn, the purging was stressful, but the new townhome offered no basement and little storage. As for their children, Kerry Lynn says they were sad to say goodbye to their childhood home but recognized that their parents were at the next phase of their life. “We convened a last supper — they bought us takeout — a few nights before we vacated,” recalls Kerry Lynn.
In about five years, Kerry Lynn and Tom will retire. For now, their three-bedroom townhouse allows them to bridge the gap between life as working parents and retirement on the farm.
CIVIC HOSPITAL TO WELLINGTON WEST • JESSICA GALLIENNE AND KYLE LAMBERT
Kyle Lambert and Jessica Galienne had been thinking about moving for a while. They were starting to feel cramped in their semi-detached near Carling and Kirkwood, and they had fond memories of their first home as a couple, a two-bedroom in Hintonburg. “The pandemic made it more of a priority,” says Kyle, a lawyer with McMillan LLP. The fact that they have two kids — Stella, 4, and Theo, 7 — who might be spending school days at home had them itching for more space, and soon they were eyeballing listings in Wellington West. Jessica is a policy analyst with Health Canada, so their move also involved her eventual return to the Tunney’s Pasture government campus.
When they began looking seriously last summer, they noticed that listings were moving very quickly, especially in coveted neighbourhoods such as Wellington West. On October 2, they spotted the three-bedroom renovated house on a quiet side street and jumped at a chance to view it. Their real estate agent took them on separate tours while the kids waited outside. They figure Kyle had been in the house a total of six minutes when they decided to put in an offer. By Thanksgiving weekend, the house was theirs.
“We have young kids, so being on a quiet street close to Fisher Park was really attractive,” Kyle says. “This house has a nice balance of old and new, with an addition on the back.”
Next, they had to sell their house. They painted and staged and talked with their agent about their strategy. Knowing it would sell quickly and receive a lot of visits, they minimized risk of exposure to COVID-19 and stress by renting an Airbnb for the weekend. The place was listed by the end of October and sold within 10 days. They couldn’t be happier about the move.
“We like the older character of the house,” says Jessica, noting that the front porch quickly became a favourite spot. The finished basement is a playroom, and there is even a built-in desk that served as a virtual classroom during lockdown.
Though the pandemic has closed many businesses in the area, they still feel lucky to have easy access to the Bagelshop and Herb & Spice. “We love this neighbourhood, and we like to support local businesses, so every Friday night, we order from a neighbourhood restaurant. And we’re very much looking forward to when those restaurants open up.”