The pandemic put life on pause, but in Ontario’s cottage country, the market is now in overdrive as buyers look to escape the city.

The market is about six weeks behind normal, with people now bringing their cottages on to the market, says real estate agent Sandy Waldie of Chestnut Park Real Estate in Port Carling, Ont. “But there’s still pent-up demand and there are less (properties) available.”

Part of the reason is that people who were thinking about selling have changed their minds and are holding on because they figure they may not get to Florida next winter and “may have to escape to the colder north instead,” she says.

Some of the demand for cottage properties is from people who have been working remotely and are deciding they may as well have a nice view and some room to spread out while they’re doing so, says Ross Halloran of Sotheby’s International Realty, also in Port Carling.

The cancellation of children’s camps has also prompted people to look north for a place the family can enjoy for the summer, and possibly beyond.

“If you have four kids in camp for $7,000 each that translates into money for a family vacation rental,” Waldie says, adding demand for rentals is also “skyrocketing in demand and price.”

COVID-19 has accelerated plans for people who were planning to downsize or retire to cottage country in a few years. Instead, they are looking to buy now. Halloran says, “It’s been a feeding frenzy. People are tired of isolating in the city…It’s advancing their timelines to buy.”

What many purchasers have in common is, he says, that they want to buy now and close as soon as possible. Many are even negotiating for properties to come furnished so they can move right in.

It’s quite a different reality than the slowdown Halloran says he feared for the cottage market because of COVID-19. He says he and colleagues figured “we were dead in the water…. We were hunkering down for a bad season.” They also thought it might be a buyers’ market, with purchasers able to pick up properties at a discount due to lack of competition.

But it’s turned out to be the opposite, with buyers wanting to move from urban areas so their families can be safe, they can self isolate and live a more balanced life, says Halloran, adding he has sold 13 properties in the last 10 days. “People are coping with COVID in different ways. They want a piece of heaven for their families.”

However, people haven’t had time to do their homework. There is a steep learning curve when it comes to recreational properties and agents are gathering the information their clients need. If someone buys a property that meets their basic needs, they want to know if they’re allowed to make changes or additions to add the features on their wish list, Halloran says.

That’s why Waldie says it’s important to have a local Realtor to act as an advocate, as well as a local contractor who knows bylaws and can tell you what can be done and how much it will cost.

She also says it’s important to have your financing in order because the market is moving quickly.

Halloran says real estate is an essential service, and with that comes a high level of responsibility.

After viewing marketing materials, such as 3-D tours, aerial drone flyovers, high-resolution photography and floor plans, potential buyers want to see a property in person. Although the province is reopening, there are still rules to keep everyone safe.

For example, Halloran’s company limits tours to two people, plus the listing and buyer’s agents to ensure compliance to public health rules. Everyone must use hand sanitizer, then don gloves and a surgical mask. They are not allowed to touch anything, but everything that is touched, even with gloved hands, is wiped down. No one is allowed to use the bathroom.

Realtors govern themselves and their colleagues, reminding everyone to safely distance and to follow the rules, says Halloran, who wears a custom moose mask his daughter made.

One client told him he didn’t have to wear a mask, but Halloran insisted for the protection of them both. “And if I’m wearing my Sotheby’s cap and anyone sees me not abiding by the rules, it doesn’t look good for the brand.”

Waldie says, “As restrictions are relaxing and the market has kicked in, we have to be diligent and keep Muskoka as COVID-free as possible.”

Waterfront has been a driving force for a number of years but purchases of acreage properties that also give the luxury of space have been heightened by COVID-19, she says.

The spring market has been good and Waldie anticipates more properties being put on the market in August.

Before, people would sneak up to their cottage on Thursday and go home Tuesday morning, Waldie says. “Now the kids are not at school and it’s unknown when they will go back. People realize they can run their businesses from here. They’re realizing investment up here is solid beyond as a vacation place.”

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