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Finding a piece of paradise in Amherst

Allison, David and Dylan Marshall stand in front of their Amherst home with their dog, Bailey
Allison, David and Dylan Marshall stand in front of their Amherst home with their dog, Bailey

David Marshall lay in bed staring into the dark.

It was January and his wife and son were still in Ontario.
The ancient oil furnace in the basement of the century-old sandstone home they’d purchased was drinking itself silly in the basement — $400 a week worth of fuel oil to keep the lead pipes from freezing.
He’d just been told by the tradesmen that there were a few hundred pounds of rotten insulation and bat poop in the attic above him that would have to go.
The knob and tube wiring would have to all be replaced.
Rotten windows, floors in rough shape, a basement to gut . . .
“I’m not going to kid you, there were a few nights that we wondered, ‘What have we done?’” Marshall said Wednesday.
“But when one of us gets down, the other one picks us up.”
What David, Allison and their 10-year-old son did was sell their home in Oakville, Ont., and buy one of the stately mansions from Amherst’s industrial golden age.
On paper it made sense — the house’s listing had gone down from more than $1 million to $350,000.
They could sell their house in Oakville with the massive mortgage, buy the Amherst home and still have $200,000 to put into renovations.
“In the end, it’s looking like it’ll be nearer $350,000 for renovations, but even then it leaves us more financially secure,” said Marshall.
“Our situation isn’t uncommon. In the area around Toronto most people are house poor. They have good-paying jobs, but all their income is tied up.”
Though no one likes to be called one, the Marshalls are a statistic.
According to recent figures from Statistics Canada, the past two years have seen the reversal of a long-running trend of emigration out of Nova Scotia.
A little more than 15,600 people moved to Nova Scotia from other provinces in the year leading up to July. That’s about 600 more than left.
The majority of the people who moved here were from Ontario.
“People are just deciding to just stop paying a million dollars for a house,” said Peter Barrett, who, along with his wife Patricia Dejong, purchased a huge 115-year-old home on Victoria Street in May.
“You can move here, pay a fraction of the price, put a little money into it and walk everywhere. This town is a gem that, once people realize what’s here, they’ll be kicking the doors down.”
The average price for a detached home in Toronto is $1.6 million according to the city’s real estate board. That’s for a used bungalow in a nice neighbourhood.
The Canadian Real Estate Association pegs the average price for a house in northern Nova Scotia at $133,313 — on par with the Yarmouth and Cape Breton regions but well below the rest of the province.
Barrett and Dejong made three trips to Nova Scotia from Victoria, B.C., looking for a house. They wanted something stately that would also be a project for them in their semi-retirment, having spent much of the last decade travelling to work for oil companies in the Middle East. After giving up on Wolfville, Truro and Halifax, they tried Amherst.
“If you could find a house like this around Victoria (B.C.), with this sort of property around it, it would probably be in the Oak Bay area and run $10 million-$12 million,” said Barrett.
Amherst has long been at least partially defined by its towering elms and architecture from the turn of the last century, when structures were made from locally quarried sandstone and people built wood churches, storefronts, factories and homes.
Those elms have fallen victim over recent years to disease. Meanwhile, after children have fled the nest of the former homes of industrial barons on Victoria Street, the retired parents who occupied them have been downsizing to houses with less maintenance.
The movement of couples from outside the province who want to invest in Amherst’s historic architecture and be part of its social fabric has been welcome, said Realtor Cathy LeBlanc.
“Twenty to 30 per cent of my business is people moving back to the area,” said LeBlanc.
“It’s a difference between where in Calgary or Vancouver they might have to work until they are 65, but if they move here they can retire at 55 and have a better quality of life.”
None of the couples The Chronicle Herald spoke to are looking to fully retire just yet.
For Marshall, an IT specialist who works from home and travels, Amherst was also a good fit because it has faster broadband internet than in Oakville.
“For us it was more about lifestyle — just getting out of the rat race,” said Jim Furlong.
In May he and his wife Gloria bought a four-storey Regent Street home built in 1921 by the owners of the Amherst Boot and Shoe Factory. He grew up across the street and his wife is from Springhill.
After a life working as a mining executive around North America, he and his wife wanted a house with room for children and grandchildren to come visit.
“We just wanted to come home,” said Furlong.
(Story by Aaron Beswick, The Chronicle Herald)

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