Retire earlier, with cash to spare, in Canada’s most southerly city
Globe & Mail
This is part of a series of stories on retirement and second-home destinations in North America.
After 32 years of living in Calgary, where they raised three boys and enjoyed a “fantastic” city within driving distance of the Rocky Mountains, Peter and Barb Wiseman weighed moving elsewhere to accelerate their timetable for early retirement.
They rejected the West Coast, where house prices would be as or more expensive than Calgary. The East Coast, with low-cost land and waterfront access, got nixed because of costly flights out of Halifax. Then a Calgary friend recommended his hometown of Windsor, Ont.
Though hit hard in the 2007-09 recession, Canada’s most southerly city has appealing assets for would-be retirees. Among them: bargain-price real estate (relative to big Canadian cities); low property taxes; a long growing season; bodies of water on three sides and, not least, proximity to the United States.
“We would never have looked down here if it was not for my friend,” says Mr. Wiseman, 59, a retired landscape architect. Leaving Calgary, he adds, “was purely a retirement lifestyle decision.”
In 2012, the Wisemans sold their Calgary home and moved to Amherstburg, south of Windsor. They designed and built a 2,700-square-foot, two-storey home on a 500-foot waterfront property looking out on Lake Erie and the Detroit River. The price was less than half the average home price – $1.2-million – in their former Calgary neighbourhood of Parkhill-Stanley Park.
The sell-high, buy-low strategy netted additional funds for retirement savings.
“The rationale was we felt we could retire earlier and just as comfortably,” says Mr. Wiseman, whose wife works part-time as a pharmacist. An unexpected bonus, they say, is proximity to local wineries, Detroit shopping and cultural events and an unimpeded view of passing-by Great Lakes and ocean freighters.
The Wisemans are among a small but growing contingent of 50-plus couples moving to the Windsor region, some lured by a marketing campaign developed in 2008 to counter a recession that wiped out manufacturing jobs.
“We knew we had to do something to change the economy,” says Krista Del Gatto, president of the Windsor-Essex Active Retirement Community Initiative, the recession-fighting campaign funded by the Greater Windsor Home Builders Association, the Windsor-Essex County Real Estate Board and the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The City of Windsor does not bill itself as a retirement destination, preferring a multi-pronged strategy of downtown renewal, investments in parks, recreation and culture and business incentives to get back on its feet. But the city, with the county of Essex, each put up $50,000 a year for the past five years to support the business-backed initiative.
Windsor chief administrative officer Helga Reidel says city council “could see that it was yet another advantage to the area to attract people who brought with them their financial retirement fund and their willingness to spend in the area.”
With an annual $200,000 budget, the retirement initiative targets 50-plus couples, house-rich and close to retirement, in the Greater Toronto Area and Western Canada.
More than 1,000 “active retiree” families (semi- or fully retired or on the cusp) have settled in the area in the past five years, according to Ms. Del Gatto’s organization. “I know the initiative is doing what we want it to,” she says.
The price difference on housing speaks for itself. Last month, the average price of a home in Toronto was $497,000, the Toronto Real Estate Board reported, compared with $184,000 in Windsor in December of 2013, according to the local realtor association.
Moving to a community with less-expensive homes and good quality of life is an enticing proposition for retirees, says Marty Komsa, president of Windsor Family Credit Union, a sponsor of the retirement initiative. “Their money is able to go further and they have more discretionary income,” he says.
In 2013, the initiative introduced a “discovery tour” that attracted 14 out-of-town couples who paid a $300 refundable fee for a three-day tour and a look at homes for sale.
“They were in awe when we showed the Power Point presentation of properties in different areas and the cost,” say Ms. Del Gatto, also chief executive officer of the realtors’ association. This year, she hopes the tour will attract up to 25 couples.
Affordability ranks high for prospective retirees.
After retiring in 2006 as a computer programmer, Paul Normandeau and his wife Laurie left Montreal to buy a retirement home in Vernon, B.C., at the north end of the Okanagan Valley. The idea was to be close to his family.
“Unfortunately, B.C. [home] prices went through the roof,” says Mr. Normandeau, 65. They rented for three years, foiled in their search for an affordable home.
In 2010, after a magazine article included Southwestern Ontario as a retirement destination, the couple visited Windsor for a closer look. In two days, they purchased a 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom townhouse for less than $200,000.
“At this stage in our lives, we couldn’t believe that we could afford the beautiful home we now have,” Ms. Normandeau says. Within walking distance are Lake St. Clair and a community centre with activities for 50-plus residents. The couple knew no one before coming to Windsor, but Ms. Normandeau says they are so busy they have never visited the city’s casino.
The one downside is distance from family, though Windsor has connections to Kelowna, B.C., through Calgary.
After four years, the couple say the scale of the 320,000-person Windsor area still appeals. “Windsor is smaller and everything is close by so you never get stuck in traffic jams,” Mr. Normandeau says.
With only one year in their lakefront home, the Wisemans are also happy with a relocation decision that leaves time for gardening and travel.
“They say there are two things you are always looking for – money and time,” Mr. Wiseman says. “When you retire wisely you should have both.”