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The allure of a recreational property

We look at your options across North America

Feb 2, 2015

by Lindsay Shapka

The allure of a vacation property – peaceful, luxurious, warm, whatever you’re looking for – can be powerful. If you’re a skier, perhaps you want a mountain chalet. If you’re a hunter, a cabin in the woods or maybe an acreage will be your ideal setup. Or maybe you’re getting up there in years or can no longer face the bone-chill of the Canadian winter. Well then, you’d best look south, waaaaaay south. Whatever your inclination, we hope we touch upon it in this, your guide to recreational properties.

Cabin Country

So you’re looking for a cabin you can retreat to with your closest friends and family? Here’s your shopping list.

Gone are childhood days of running to the cabin after school ends to spend July and August in bliss. We can’t, or won’t, unplug like that as adults, and so buyers of recreational properties are today looking for turnkey locations that they can use year-round – escapes that are a short drive from grocery stores and only a one- to two-hour drive from home, the office and the city. Western Canada offers many such properties, ranging from stunning multimillion-dollar homes to picturesque yet affordable fixer-uppers. But it is important to do your research, lest hidden costs, maintenance and long travel times make your home away from home feel less like a getaway and more like work. Here are some great locations to put on your research list.

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Sidney Island, B.C.
Photograph courtesy of Landquest Realty
Top Spots

Sylvan Lake, AB
PRO: Location
CON: Price
Its accessible location in central Alberta, great amenities and strong community makes Sylvan Lake one of the most desirable waterfront locations in Alberta. But according to Edmonton Realtor Robert McLeod, this hotspot comes with a hefty price tag. “If you look at the 2014 starting price of an average cabin, it is around $750,000, and the most expensive move for more than $2.5 million.”

West of Edmonton, AB
PRO: Price
CON: It’ll likely be a fixer-upper
Lake Isle, Lac Ste. Anne and Wabamun Lake, all incredibly popular spots in the ’60s, are now perfect locations to snap up inexpensive lakefront land. “When you look west of Edmonton, the average selling price is $250,000,” says McLeod. “You can buy a cheap lakefront plot for as low as $180,000, tear down the old cabin and then build new.”

Windermere/Invermere, B.C.
PRO: Price for what you get
CON: Limited year-round accessibility
A scenic three-hour drive from Calgary, buyers are attracted to the year-round activities in the area, as well as the stunning mountain backdrop. McLeod labels the area as “the cheaper alternative to Kelowna.” Entry-level condos are around $100,000, but they run all the way up to $500,000.

Sidney Island, B.C.
PRO: Exotic, beautiful, private
CON: You’ll probably be flying there
Located just off the coast of Vancouver Island, near Victoria, this private island has 111 lots, a private airstrip and its own dock. President of LandQuest Realty Richard Osborne says that while it is a bit off the grid, he has a lot of Alberta buyers as the airport makes it extremely accessible. Lots are available for anywhere from $179,000 to $800,000.

Comox Valley, B.C.
PRO: Relatively affordable
CON: Again with the flying
According to Osborne, the daily direct flights between Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver are what make this location one of the most rapidly growing areas for recreational property in B.C. Located midway along the east coast of Vancouver Island, you can find a wealth of year-round activities and waterfront ­property here for around $300,000.

The Property isn’t Everything
McLeod says there are two things to pay attention to before choosing a specific property. “When you are buying a waterfront cabin, you are buying the quality of the natural elements first. If there are reports of an algae outbreak, or other news that scares people about the lake water quality, that is something to take into consideration. The stigma could make it harder to sell.” The second thing that you are buying is the community. “The quality of the community is important. Is every second house a trailer, a tear-down or a million-dollar home? How well heeled is the community? What are the roads like?” The quality of the surrounding community is important not only for your quality of life while at the cabin, but will play a huge part in resale value.

Forgotten Costs
McLeod says buyers often forget to think beyond the cost of purchasing their property, and are often surprised by property taxes and services like natural gas typically being much higher than they are in Edmonton and Calgary.

Southern Getaways

While the term “south” may evoke images of sand, sun and fruity cocktails, Edmonton Realtor Robert ­McLeod is seeing fewer Alberta buyers who are looking for warmer climates heading into the U.S. and more staying in southern B.C. “The greatest impact we are having in the ­recreational home market is the falling Canadian dollar that is making the U.S. less competitive than it once was,” he explains. “The American real estate market has also gone up, the deals are long since removed … and the cost of airfare to the States has also gone up.” None of these factors will stop buyers looking for warm-weather retirement properties in Palm Springs, Phoenix or Vegas, but they are putting a stop to buyers who are still tied to jobs and their lives in Canadian cities. Osborne says the market has returned for B.C. properties. “This is the best time to buy that I have seen in years.”

The flipside, of course, is that B.C. does get winter, so it might not be the year-round escape you’d like.

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San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Photograph courtesy of Andrew J. Kurbiko
Top Spots

Shuswap, B.C.
Comprised of seven regions, this area is best known for the huge Shuswap Lake, famous for its warm water and sandy beaches. Sales throughout the area have been depressed since the recession, creating an opportunity for buyers looking to get waterfront ­property relatively cheap – $590,000 in 2014 compared to $900,000 in 2007. There are also condos and low-rise buildings available that are priced in the low $200,000 range

Kelowna, B.C.
Though it doesn’t have the high temperatures of Palm Springs, the mild winters in Kelowna make this southern B.C. destination attractive to young professionals and retirees who are seeking a wide range of year-round activities. “It is a beautiful community with lots of big-city amenities and housing options,” says McLeod. “Affordability is definitely not a reason buyers would be looking here, but there is a prestige to having a home in Kelowna. If you want to spend $250,000, you can. If you want to spend $5.7 million on a recently built lakeside mansion, you can.”

Palm Springs, California
Sure, Canada’s sinking dollar militates somewhat against buying in the U.S., but Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley didn’t get to be so popular among ­Albertans without reason. Great weather, a short flight from Calgary or Edmonton, a trendy vibe and lots of friends and neighbours from back home: what’s not to love? For $900,000 can get you a modern, 1,800-square-foot, one-bedroom home with a small guesthouse and pool.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Far from the madding crowds on the ­beaches, up in the hills, where the temperatures cool in the evenings, is San Miguel de Allende. It’s a hotbed for artists and authentic Mexican culture, and it’s amazingly affordable. Grab a three-bedroom contemporary home for $380,000.

Don’t Share Your Time
We all want to own a piece of paradise, but timeshares are not the financially smart way to go. “They were popular when people didn’t quite realize how terrible of an investment they are,” laughs McLeod. “The exit strategy on a timeshare is basically nothing; it’s basically money lost. You are better off owning and controlling your own property, or just staying at a hotel. Flexibility is critical.”

Rent First
If you are thinking about buying a property south of the border, try renting in the area before you commit. That way you can experience the community, amenities and different types of property before you invest.

The Acreage

When it comes to acreages, the most popular locations tend to be either along waterfront or close to the mountains. While owning a significant plot of land can be rewarding, it’s ­important to remember that it takes more ­maintenance than a smaller cabin close to home. Further, chunks of land often have restrictions that limit the use of recreational toys like snowmobiles and quads. Buyers who tend to make the most of these vacation properties are baby boomers who are close to retirement age and are looking to either retire in the area or for a longer-term vacation home – and people who own or want to own horses.

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In the Purcell Mountains, near Invermere, B.C.
Photograph courtesy of Landquest Realty/Matt Cameron
Top Spots

Alberta’s rolling foothills
You can find fantastic acreages in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains pretty much anywhere from Pincher Creek in the south of the province to Grande Cache in the north. Picking one such location pretty much at random, consider Hinton. You can get a five-bedroom, two-bath house minutes from Jasper National Park for $560,000, or if you’re looking to build your own home, 30 acres of trees, horse trails and wilderness can be had for $575,000.

Kootenay, B.C.
The Kootenay region, sheltered by the Selkirk, Purcell and Monashee mountain ranges, is considered one of the best-kept secrets in B.C. If untouched forests, picturesque lakes and true isolation are what you are looking for, this is your spot. Richard Osborne of LandQuest Realty recommends looking anywhere from Golden to Cranbrook– especially for larger properties. Prices in the area vary by size and proximity to services, but start at $120,000 for a few acres with no structures to $265,000 for a home sitting on one acre to $2 million for 480 acres of untouched wilderness.

Okanagan Valley, B.C.
According to Osborne, “The Okanagan is where people are buying lakefront acreages, due to easy access to amenities.” Sales are in the upswing this year, with small acreages in the North Okanagan (a huge draw for its lakes) running from $1 million to $6 million, and those in the “Wine Country” in the south starting at $900,000. There are small towns, including Osoyoos, Peachland and Naramata, full of local charm throughout the region, making it even more attractive to buyers looking for both extra space and a sense of community.

Gulf Islands, B.C.
“A lot of the oceanfront properties on the Gulf Islands are between one and five acres and feel incredibly private,” Osborne says. The majority of buyers in this area are looking for a spot that will transition nicely from a vacation ­property to a retirement property. Salt Spring Island has become the favourite island for buyers ­attracted to the ­vibrant artist ­community and small-town vibe. Large properties here run from about $800,000 to $1.5 million.

Park it Up!
Any type of renovation or work you put into a property adds to its value, but when it comes to selling an acreage, something as simple as cleaning up the outdoor space can make a huge difference. “Raking it up, getting the lower branches off the trees and generally making it look nice is a huge way to make a property worth more,” Osborne says. “Open up the undergrowth, cut some branches to expose the view, make it look like a park!”

Staying Connected
The further away you get from major cities, the spottier and more costly Wi-Fi access becomes. There is often only one provider in rural areas, so investing in a satellite and connecting that way may be your best bet.

Mountain Retreats
“Whistler’s market took quite a hit in 2010 following the Olympics, and that created an opportunity for people to get in.” – Robert Mcleod, Realtor

Buyers looking for a recreational property in the mountains are usually thinking of one thing: easy access to the slopes. Though these properties can easily be used in summer for hiking, biking and rock climbing, it’s the thought of strapping on skis and hitting the hill piled with fresh snow that’s usually the biggest draw. There are risks to buying in the mountains, however. Unpredictable weather can leave roads closed or flights delayed, and frigid temperatures can often force you to spend your entire vacation huddled inside by the fire. For most buyers, however, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

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Anyone want to go skiing at Lake Louise?
Photographs Courtesy of Banff Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizk
Top Spots

Canmore, AB
Properties in this picturesque mountain town are in high demand. All of the homes in the area are winterized for year-round use, and the close proximity to Calgary makes this a popular spot for buyers seeking a large second home outside of the city. Typical homes are priced at around $800,000, but there are properties available anywhere from $556,000 to $2.3 million. You’re within spitting ­distance of Banff and Kananaskis Country without the added cost of being in a national or provincial park.

Whistler, B.C.
While there are a lot of different types of properties available in this iconic mountain town, the most popular are the condos that give access directly to the ski hill. “Whistler’s market took quite a hit in 2010 following the Olympics, and that created an opportunity for people to get in,” says McLeod. The market is continuing to pick up, with cabins starting at around $650,000 to $800,000 depending on size, proximity to the hill, age and condition.

Whitefish, Montana
While slightly cheaper than similar locations in Canada, Whitefish is not as easily accessible to the buyer ­looking for a quick escape. According to McLeod, this is a location for someone who is looking to spend weeks at a time, year-round, in their second home; otherwise it would be underused. Despite the distance, this has become a popular getaway for Calgarians, and with prices starting at $55,000 for land only, all the way up to $2 million for a 5,861-square-foot home, you can see why!

Don’t Skimp on Security
The isolation that makes your mountain getaway the perfect escape can also leave it vulnerable when you aren’t there. Installing security cameras is an easy and fairly affordable way to deter anyone who may take advantage of the situation. The latest cameras now not only record, but can also stream live to your electronic device and even send alerts right to your phone. The most common cameras for recreational properties are motion-activated, only recording when they are triggered by a human or animal. Costs range widely from around $40 for a basic Wi-Fi camera, to thousands for a high-quality closed-circuit TV system.

Hire Local
Planning to renovate? Local artisans may be a bit more expensive than doing it yourself but will save you the hassle of bringing in materials from out of town and the time it would take. Plus, you will have the added bonus of making a connection in the community, and possibly a friend who will keep an eye on your property when you aren’t around.

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