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After renting downtown for 10 years, I bought my first home — in a rural town

This First Person column is written by Katherine Wong Too Yen who became a first-time homeowner during the pandemic. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

They say the older you get, the harder it is to make friends. As it turned out, that might be the case in a big city but the warmth and community support in a small town is something to be envied.

After graduating from university in 2012, I moved from Kingston, Ont., to Toronto, which meant I arrived in the city with other classmates who also made the move. 

As new grads, we quickly learned the unspoken rules from downtown dwellers. On escalators, stand on the right or walk on the left. When checking out, have your wallet ready so the cashier can quickly ring you through. Most importantly, walk briskly, avoid accidental eye contact and stare wordlessly ahead when passing strangers on a crowded sidewalk. No wonder some newcomers to Toronto often describe the city’s sense of aloofness or polite distancing as strange. In a community like this, it can be hard to make friends.

Over time, I got better at navigating the often overcrowded public transit system. To avoid being “disturbed,” I’d plug in my headphones or scroll through social media. Was this anti-social? Perhaps. Although I liked to imagine a shared sense of camaraderie among all of us on our morning commutes.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, I was among the privileged who was suddenly able to work from home in my rent-controlled, 500-sq.-ft. apartment that I shared with my partner. 

Feeling cooped up, I made the decision that so many of us dream about: escaping from the urban jungle of lockdowns to a remote cottage. 

Newly untethered from my downtown office, I chose to look outside the Greater Toronto Area for something I could more comfortably afford. “Drive until you qualify” is a popular expression for those who work in real estate like myself when it comes to securing a mortgage. Tapping into the Bank of Mom and Dad was not an option. 

This is how I ended up in Magnetawan, Ont., a beautiful place I had never heard of and could barely pronounce.

It’s been a steep learning curve in many ways. I escaped the city and became a first-time homeowner — despite little experience living in a rural community or owning a home. Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking!

after renting downtown for 10 years i bought my first home in a rural town
Katherine Wong Too Yen and a friend gaze at the starlit sky from Wong Too Yen’s lakeside cottage dock. (Javin Lau)

As a downtown renter for 10 years, I now view living in a condo like homeownership on easy mode. Sure, there are monthly bills to pay or maybe a parking issue to deal with. But I’ve never had to test for water potability, or deal with three power outages in a week while making sure my pipes don’t freeze. 

I’ve had to figure out how to stop woodpeckers from ripping insulation from the cottage’s exterior. Or the time I had to scoop out hundreds of pine cones from my garage and ultimately, destroyed hours of some poor squirrel’s work. 

However, owning a cottage has also allowed me to rediscover nature. From stargazing with zero light pollution to watching hummingbirds flit around the patio, I feel very fortunate to be able to have these experiences. 

It’s also made me greatly appreciative of good neighbours who have taken the time to teach me about the right type of wood for a woodstove or to share cucumbers from their summer harvest. 

after renting downtown for 10 years i bought my first home in a rural town 1
Katherine Wong Too Yen’s friends swim in the lake at her cottage. (Javin Lau)

As someone who is a visible minority, I wasn’t sure if I would be welcomed into this small community where few people look like me. I wondered if the locals might mistrust an outsider. I quickly learned how welcoming the people of Magnetawan truly were. 

People at the hardware shop offered tips on how to safely secure a dock or trim back a tree. Others volunteered to lend their garden tools, and gave trusted recommendations of a local plumber or electrician.

I went from avoiding eye contact to waving at people as they drove past my front yard. Waiting to cash out at the grocery store is no longer the “speed challenge” I was used to back in the city. 

After a few rural power outages, I now recognize the importance of checking in on those around you. In contrast, having lived in an apartment for years, I couldn’t tell you my neighbour’s name or what they even looked like.

I’m unlearning my “downtown habits” because of my new home.

I’m grateful I could learn these life lessons. As someone who has remained gainfully employed in an industry largely unaffected by lockdowns, and is also able-bodied and without dependents, I know my experience of the pandemic has been different from so many others. 

When I go back to the city, I hope to carry my renewed perspective on community forward by taking the time to acknowledge all of us, as humans, just living our lives. I was reminded by the people of Magnetawan of how important it is to stop and connect, to look out for others, and know that we’re all just doing our best to get through.

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