Cottage homes across the province are in scorching hot demand as many look for a reason to remain optimistic for a less restrictive summer.
Many families are already booking getaways in hopes of Ontario loosening up its COVID-19 pandemic restrictions when the weather gets warmer, as it did last year.
Some rental agencies say they are close to reaching capacity for the season, only a month into the new year.
More people are booking cottages for the summer than ever before, said Craig White, the co-owner of CottageLINK Rental management.
This year, the Ontario-based rental agency, with around 140 vacation homes across the province, is nearly 90 per cent booked for the summer, an unusually early start to the season, White said.
"We've never ever seen anything close to this," he said.
"Unfortunately we really are rapidly running out of inventory and that's just never happened at this time."
The agency has properties spanning the province's popular sun spots, from southwestern Ontario, Kawartha Lakes, the Bruce Peninsula and Muskoka.
Ontario is currently under a stay-at-home order, an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. But despite the lack of uncertainty surrounding what the summer will look like, families want something to look forward to, White said.
"People are feeling a bit of cabin fever, they want to get away," he said. "They want to look forward to summer, they want to look forward to a time when they can at least get together with some of their family.
"I don't think anybody's expecting gathering restrictions to be eliminated but hopefully they will be loosened up somewhat," said White.
The rental agency typically sees anywhere between 20 to 30 per cent bookings in late December to January, White said.
Larger properties that can accommodate more than six people and bigger families tend to book up quicker than smaller ones, he said.
'Fear of missing out' driving demand early on
Last year, the cottage rental market was in red-hot demand when restrictions were lifted in June.
One of the factors driving demand this year are families that missed out on booking a place last year and fear doing the same this year.
"I think the people who were looking for cottages last year, certainly wanted to book ahead this year," White said.
There's a particularly strong demand for cottages with good Internet access as many continue to work from home and would like to continue working on their trip.
While a typical year-over-year price increase for these homes would be anywhere between three to five per cent, White says the demand this year has upped the prices of many homes to 20 per cent or higher.
Cheryl McCombe, owner of Cottage Care Rentals and Property Management which represents over 65 cottages primarily in the Haliburton Highlands, said bookings have been "non-stop" since October of last year.
The demand has been "exponential" for the agency and came much earlier than normal, she said.
"The guests that I've spoken to have said, 'Normally we take a Caribbean vacation or we go to Europe,' and they say 'This year we're not doing that so we want to make sure we at least have something secured.'"
McCombe said she has also heard from front-line and essential workers who say they have been mentally drained and overworked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We talked to nurses and doctors who are are desperate to get away and just be able to relax and breathe because they they they haven't had any time off."
Cottages that have already released their availability have already been fully booked, including smaller stays that sleep six and larger homes for three-generation families, said McCombe.
McCombe and White say more cottages will be added with time, but as of now, demand is drastically exceeding supply.
Screening, cleaning protocols in place
There is a thorough screening process to ensure families are being safe during the pandemic and proper cleaning protocols are in place for cottages that are for rent, McCombe said.
"If we're talking to a family who resides in the same household and they've all been working from home online, they are being very safe ... they are all in their core bubble, and they get in their car and come to a private lakefront cottage," she said.
Prices have also spiked due to increased cleaning fees for COVID-19 after each visit, White said.
Both agencies are part of Ontario's Cottage Rental Managers Association, which includes 10 vacation rental companies spanning the province.
White said all OCRMA members reported a close-to-full capacity at a meeting in January.
"At our last meeting, every single member reported the same thing," White said. "It's right across the board."