Homes That Float: Toronto’s Tiny Refuge From Urban Living

Want to escape the bustle of downtown life? For some, nature’s tranquility is right here in the city.

Toronto’s only community of float homes.

Lee Romanov is gently coaxing a family of ducks off one of her paddleboards. They visit her home every day for seeds, and today is no different. The air is thick and intensely silent—traffic from Kingston Road is muted by cascading, gigantic bluffs. “I never thought I’d live in a shipyard,” remarks Romanov. “But I love it.”

Romanov and her small, tight-knit community live on Toronto’s floating homes. Beavers, swans, fish, and minks frequent her front yard and today warm sun shines down onto the glistening, lapping water surrounding the 24 homes at Bluffers Park Marina.

The float-home community is one of a kind in this city. It is a little-known haven for semi-retired artists, online moneymaking gurus, entrepreneurs, UN workers—the gamut. There will never again be communities like these in Toronto. The float homes have been grandfathered by the city, and no more can be built.

Lee Romanov sits on her rooftop patio at Bluffers Park Marina.

Romanov, with her tanned skin, blue eyes and ethereal energy, feels like a character out of a Disney movie. Her home is the same. She has a “Fred Flinstone” (faux limestone) refrigerator in her kitchen next to the sawed-off bow of an old 40-foot ship that she purchased from its demolishers in exchange for a case of beer. On the other end there is a 10,000-lb custom-made winding staircase for which an extra room had to be installed in order to counter-balance the staircase’s weight. When your home is on the water, weight distribution must be exact so as to avoid sinking, or freezing in unevenly. Mussels must be regularly scraped off the side of the float homes for this reason—too many clinging to the underbellies will make for lopsided floors.

Lee Romanov’s custom-built float home is on the corner of a string of 24 float homes at Bluffers Park.

There are great big communities of float homes in places like Vancouver and Seattle, but this small enclave of eccentrics (their word, not ours) is the only one of its kind in Ontario. The float homes were built in 2001 on Cherry Beach and then hauled over to Bluffers Park Marina. For years, the people who owned them did not pay property taxes because the floating homes, for their being on water, were not registered as traditional land property. While owners now pay a portion of the marina’s property tax, it is still difficult—almost impossible, actually—to get a mortgage for a float home in Toronto. “You either have to pay in cash or be creative with your financing,” says Paul Peic, an entrepreneur who lives on one of the float homes and teaches paddleboarding.

The caveat is worth it for some. “We didn’t want to come here and move into another condo,” explains a former UN worker who recently moved to a Toronto float home from New York City.

Paul Peic drives his boat through the marina that houses his float home.

In terms of maintenance, the float homes are similar to any on-land house. They are built on concrete barges that can last up to hundreds of years in the water so moisture is no more of an issue than it would be in any regular dwelling. The septic system is a tank that is drained every two to three months using a hose connected to the city’s sewage line—it happens with the flick of a switch for the homeowner. Heating is brought in through electric furnaces and the float homes have more insulation than on-land houses, so heating bills are not more expensive.

One of the best parts of living on a floating home, according to residents, is the community. There are regular barbecues and firecracker shows at the beach because “for some reason, someone always has firecrackers,” laughs Romanov.

“You have to drive two and a half hours to get to cottage country,” she explains. “But this is pretty much it.”

Teenagers climb the bluffs at a nearby beach.

The people who leave the sanctuary seldom move back to traditional city life. Most people who relocate head to warmer climates—Barbados, Mexico, and now, California: Romanov is moving shortly to Newport Beach to pursue business opportunities and care for her niece. If you don’t mind paying up-front and driving to work (no transit comes near the marina), Romanov’s custom-made cottage-in-the-city could be yours for $699,900, family of ducks included.

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