When I moved to Prince Edward County a few years ago, I really didn’t know anything about it. Worse—I really thought I did.
I’m a professional keener, so when we made up our minds that Prince Edward County was the place for us, I read everything on the topic I could get my hands on—and then I talked it to death with everyone I knew. From my home base in midtown Toronto, ‘everything on the topic’ was basically a hundred versions of “The Top 5 Things To Do in PEC”, some winery talk, and stories about camping at Sandbanks as kids. Good enough, right? We were confident that our Toronto chapter was ending, so we just went ahead and did it.
We found a beautiful spot that had more land than we former Torontonians could even conceive of, including a carriage house for my parents, running room for my little energizer bunny boy, and hundreds of feet of magical waterfront that looked out onto infinity. It was unbelievable, a dream come true. Our various home, septic, and well inspectors gave us the nod and we went for it: We were officially ‘County’.
Totally NOT County
Except that we were absolutely Not County, we were ex-City folk living in a very confusing paradise. What we couldn’t know was absolutely everything, but we found it out soon enough…and not the easy way.
We quickly realized that even Picton people would say we lived “way the hell out”. That when we ran the sprinkler for 10 minutes the well would run dry. That the septic-friendly toilet paper from Costco was our septic system’s arch nemesis. That there would be clouds of midges and pop-up ponds in the spring. That geese would poop all over our garden and that spider-sprayers would be the new window-cleaners. That we’d race against the critters for the bounty in our veggie garden who didn’t quite get “sharing” or that our beloved red squirrels would eat our car’s electrical harness in the fall.
The list of what we didn’t know was as infinite as the views.
The Beautiful Hinterland
But we also didn’t know about the swans that coalesced together on our shore. We hadn’t before seen the forests of lilacs, the miles of hollyhocks lining the roads, the magical lake that changed daily, the sunrises, sunsets. We knew nothing about community or that being neighbourly meant bringing over eggs when the “ladies” were going lay crazy, calling us over for homemade doughnuts and wine testing, or plowing our very long, very snowed-in driveway before we even started wondering how we were going to get out. We loved country life, even when we were standing knee deep in the septic-bed trying to fix a spontaneous plumbing quirk.
We lucked out. We stumbled onto our dream and fumbled through the knowledge gaps
Within a year we found out that the County is an hour or so from end-to-end and consists of loads of different little regions (and that the current weather is entirely different in each of them.) We learned that each one of these ‘hoods have completely unique personalities and a like population. We got lucky—the bucolic views and neighbourly spirit of the Waupoos-Cressy area suited us perfectly. Both the locals and imports are great friends and neighbours—though we think of them as family because we act like we are. On the flip side, we love exploring and visiting all the other great parts of the County to see our other friends. Life is good, but I’m ever aware that it could have all worked out very differently—not every circumstance will suit every heart.
Turning City Slickers Into Country Folks
I get a lot of messages in my inbox every day from both friends and strangers asking how we did it, “How did you move to the country?” they ask, overwhelmed and daunted by the prospect. I think it’s safe to say that the world is changing and that people know that access to UberEats and highrise culture doesn’t always equal a high quality of life. They’re sick of accordion commuting and competing for shoebox living space, they want open skies, simple joys, controllable stresses, time to think, air to breathe—they want more.
But, I tell them, it’s important not to fantasize too hard, too quickly. Country living comes with its own set of challenges and not everyone will be cut out for it. The way I see it, this life is mind-blowingly awesome, but knowing in advance what life really looks like here and then choosing these complexities with intention is the pre-qualification for a good fit. The County isn’t going to change to meet you, so you have to know what you’re getting into and that means you can actually shape your dream because it’s concrete and feasible—you’re making real choices based on true facts.
A few months back at the annual PEC Jazz Festival‘s preview evening, I met a bunch of interesting new people, and one of them was Peter Sage. Peter was super cool and we hit it off right away. He was a keener, like me, and we quickly figured out that we could talk at length about everything and anything, probably forever. The principal at Sage Design & Construction, Peter had been living and working in the County for 40-plus years and he deeply understood all the things that I obviously wanted to learn about my new life from a veteran, but had been forced to find out first hand in the trenches.
Voila: An expert.
There was only one way to proceed: Peter and I would collaborate on a series of articles about “All of the things that everyone needed to know about moving to, building in, adapting to, and generally understanding the County.” We’d pull out all of the tips and tricks we’d discovered, get real stories and advice from our old local and new local County friends, and package it in a neat little series. Just like that, ‘Countified’ was born.
Countified: How To Move To The County
In this first piece, we wanted to dig into the most immediate and pressing and complicated question of all—where to set up your new life. PEC is intensely diverse on any topic of measure you can imagine, so getting insight into the opportunities, challenges, and personalities of the “neighbourhoods” is critical to carving out your little piece of paradise here.
Countifying Your Vision
Clearly defining what you want out of this move is everything. You want to be a homesteader? You want to start a vineyard? You want to run your business from home? You want to live off the grid? You want a short walk to the café?
The thing about the County is that every single rural property is different from its neighbour and that’s true for basically everything, from soil quality to internet reception. Figuring out what you want your new life to look like and then understanding how to ask the right questions to match up those hopes with an actual property site is everything. If you plan to live in town, you’re not home free—you’d better believe Picton and Wellington have their little idiosyncrasies.
The best way to begin is to know where you are.
The County Regions
Everything in Prince Edward County is far. What I mean here is that not only are your neighbours rarely stumbling distance away, but the route you have to travel to get from A to B is even further than the perceived distance because you have to drive around various geographic features or bodies of water. It’s fair to say that the County is about an hour across from East to West and the same from the southernmost point to edge of the North. This means that scheduling day trips and tours have to be carefully coordinated and it can take you more than half an hour to get to the store for Netflix snacks (and another half hour home), depending on where you live.
Lots of people break the County down in different ways, but this seems the most straightforward to us:
East — Waupoos, Cressy, Glenora
South — South Bay, Milford, Black River
Central — Picton, Bloomfield, Hallowell
Central-West — Wellington, Rosehall
South-Central — Sandbanks, East Lake, West Lake, Cherry Valley
North — Sophiasburgh, Demorestville
North-East — Northport, Green Point
North-West — Rednersville, Rossmore
The different neighbourhoods and townships also have different temperaments and personalities, so you need to figure out which one suits you. For example, Bloomfield is artsy and has a burgeoning restaurant scene, Picton and Wellington are buzzing and walkable—but by very different people, Waupoos is bucolic, with an agricultural heart and magical views, Black River has a wild, earthy spirit, Sandbanks is beach-towney and vibrant…the list goes on.
Spend a little time in the County and see what’s a good fit. Talk to the people, sit somewhere, have a coffee or glass of wine (or two), and watch the world go by. Here are some key words to use or think on for this exercise:
- Best known for
- Unique geographic features
- Access + proximity to services
Sage Advice: The Great Questions
The heart of this series is to utilize Peter and his wealth of knowledge and experience, so I asked him to weigh in on everything important to consider before choosing your dream site. The list below reflects the main questions he’s been asked countless times in the field and the wisdom he’s gained in the hands-on answering of them.
- Does this house have access to hydro? Look for hydro poles! If not, remember that solar energy and generators have quirks and limitations of use. For example, you really can’t run your hot tub on a solar battery, so reel in that vision of an off-the-grid party lifestyle.
- What is the availability of services? Is there a well on the property? Has there been a well test? What is the quality/quantity of the water? Do you need to put a cistern in? Will you need to import water? Remember that water is an issue in the County and you need to know these things.
- Is this an environmentally protected area? Can you take trees down? Can you build on all or any of it? Is it swamp or marshland? Are you obligated to preserve or protect it? You don’t want to buy your dream property only to find out you aren’t allowed to build your dream house on it and you’re the proud owner of a family of protected scream-a-pillars.
- This one is serious: The Internet. While the whole County may have a state-of-the-art technological infrastructure in a year or seven, make sure you know what you’re getting into today. If you don’t have access to Bell where you are, you’re probably going to be talking to Xplornet or KOS, both of which use towers that are pretty overloaded. And because the features of your neighbours property can be completely different from yours, the way the tower sees your particular property is anyone’s guess. A lot of extra diligence is due in this department and it will change your experience of rural life.
- Did you luck out and find yourself a piece of waterfront? Don’t forget to ask a lot of things before building. How far does your new home need to be set back from the water? Or if there’s an existing home, does it follow protocol or is it a bit renegade? What’s the proximity to shoreline today and what was it last year? Make sure you talk about erosion, instability, and measures to protect your shoreline or prepare to get washed away. If you’re looking at a waterfront or cliffside property, make sure you consider the stability of the land for construction.
- Consider County logistics, the intersections between zoning and being neighbourly. Think about what the current zoning is and whether there’s the possibility of applying for changes (to the official plan). Are you prepared to spend money to do forensic work prior to your purchase? Think about neighbouring land use and zoning of neighbouring properties. Can your neighbour put an auto repair shop next to you? Are there pre-approvals in place for subdivisions to go into that beautiful acreage that makes up your dazzling view? There are small policies in place that you may never have heard of, like building in close proximity to barns. And not yours—your neighbours. There’s the story of a couple who built their home’s foundation too close to a neighbouring barn, but the municipality missed it in the plans. When the neighbour complained, the couple was forced to abandon the site.
- Consider the roads where you are. Are they 4-season accessible? Are they excessively steep in icy conditions or rough to navigate in snow? Are they flooded in the spring or muddy in the fall? Can propane trucks make it to your home if you don’t have hydro? Are you prepared to commit to a certain spend on sanding, plowing, and clearing throughout the year? And note: just because your online navigation apps say something is a road, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If a sign in the County says a road is not maintained (and there are a lot of those): pay attention.
- Different regions house different bugs and wildlife. Just like we like to live in different types of environments, so do they. Some spots get June bugs, some get black flies, some are mosquito havens, others have spiralling tornados of midges. These bugs are critical to the flora and fauna life chains and they’re the sign of a robust and healthy ecosystem. Bird-lovers are in for a treat, but bug spray is a must.
- Home inspections are 100% necessary. Also, well and septic inspections. Ask extra questions like “Was this drive shed used to fix cars” and “What’s the environmental affect of that?” and finally, “Can it be solved or reversed?” Ask for a declaration from the vendor (via the realtor) of any past use that might be of concern.
- Living off the Grid: What methods are available? What are the real costs of this lifestyle? What subsidies might there be available and are they guaranteed and how long for? What can these methods actually deliver and what restrictions are imposed? Is the retro-fitting conventional or inventive? And finally, if you’re not a full-time resident, what back-up systems and monitoring is in place for when you’re not there?
- What about services, security, and safety? Is there an alarm system and what’s it connected to? Is your internet connection robust and reliable or will you have no security if it goes down? Is there emergency access to your home for services—from fire to ambulance? How close are you to your neighbours? What’s your visibility from the road? And what does your insurance think about the location? Rates can fluctuate wildly based on a home’s proximity to the nearest fire station.
- Logistics for daily life are another consideration. What’s the proximity to schools? Can the schoolbus get to your home or do you have to get to and wait at a meeting point in the middle of winter? Which school will your child being going to or will you homeschool? What about access to groceries? How long will it take your to get milk? Do your neighbours sell eggs or have a farmstand? What times of the year will you have access to these things and will you be stocked for the cold season?
- Your transportation options are basically you and a handful of overtaxed taxis with a monopoly on the market. Knowing that transportation options are limited, you can plan ahead or decide to live in a more walkable or accessible area of the County, though it’s notable that some populations have special services that can be retained.
- Finally, B&Bs are a reality of Prince Edward County—whether they’re your dream or someone else’s. If you want to own your own STA, you’ll want to really stay abreast of the municipal licensing restrictions—a hot topic in the County these days. And if your neighbour owns one, you want to consider how they will affect you and your country living dreams.
There you have it. A bunch of our insights to guide you towards building your best life in the County with a hard grasp of the complex minutiae that is an embedded part of country living. “Then again,” Peter tells me, “in construction I often find that it’s the constraints that result in the great magic.”
In the arts, I’ve always found that too. Complexities create the great opportunities to produce a creative solution—producing something unique and special in the right hands.
So, I guess nothing is ever entirely off limits here. Ultimately, if you’re trying to move to or within the County and want to talk about what’s what with this great spot—I totally recommend you connect with my friend and guide, Peter at Sage Design & Construction to help you figure out how to make it all work.