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How to Buy a House on the Toronto Islands

Want to pack it all in and move to the islands? Someone’s written about that already. Want to pack it all in and move to the Toronto Islands? We can write about that. All you need is luck, patience, and money.
Thanks to a 1993 provincial statute that ended a bitter and lengthy land dispute, strict rules overseen by the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust govern transfers of the 262 residential properties on Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island in the eastern end of the archipelago.
When a property becomes available, it can’t be put on the free market. Rather, it’s offered for a fixed price to the first hundred people on a five-hundred-person waiting list. The list is ranked, so if there are multiple interested buyers, the property goes to the person closest to the top of the list. If none of the first hundred people are interested, the property is offered to people further down on the list, but this is rare. Forty-seven properties have been sold since the system began in 1994.
(Technical aside: you can’t buy land on the Islands. Rather, you assume a long-term lease to a plot of land and buy the building sitting on it. For our purposes, though, we’ll stick with the non-technical shorthand of “buying” and “selling” property.)

Your first task is to join the list. As the list is capped at five hundred, you have to wait for existing people to drop off. About three people get properties each year, and about fifteen to twenty leave for other reasons. After a critical mass of vacancies accumulates, a call for applications is announced, and vacancies are filled by a lottery run by the Trust’s auditors.
The last call occurred in November 2007, with 375 applicants for forty-seven spots. The next call, for thirty spots, occurs in November 2009. Keep an eye on the website, apply at the appropriate time, and cross your fingers.
If you get on the list, you’ll have to wait. And wait. For how long? As the Trust declines to make predictions, Torontoist will engage in a bout of speculation.
You’ll start at the back of the queue (#471 to #500). Under a best-case scenario in which twenty people ahead of you drop out each and every year, you’re looking at around twenty years before cracking the top 100 and up to five more years before getting to the front of the list.
However, not every single vacancy will arise ahead of you. The Trust hasn’t yet compiled data about the ranks of the people who drop out, but it seems reasonable to assume that, as the years go by, a growing percentage of vacancies will arise behind you. And these vacancies don’t help: if you’re #300, you don’t move up if #400 drops out. Plus, the further you advance, the more hardcore the people on the list become, such that—other than actually getting a house—death or infirmity might be the only reasons for them to drop off.
Let’s assume a deceleration of your pace over time:

  • In the first decade, nearly all of the vacancies are ahead of you (eighteen to twenty per year);
  • In the second decade, about two-thirds of the vacancies are ahead of you (twelve to fourteen per year);
  • In the third decade, about half of the vacancies are ahead of you (nine to eleven per year).

After thirty years, you may climb about 420 spots, meaning a rank of #51 to #80. Possibly good enough, but only if a property comes up that no one ahead of you wants. If you wait five more years, you may be looking at a number in the #20s or #30s, which should be good for something if you aren’t too fussy. Wait another five years, and you may crack the top ten.
Torontoist’s best guess of an average wait for people joining the list in 2009 to buy on the Islands? Thirty-five years. Hey, it could be worse—you could be waiting for a Stanley Cup.

As for money, it costs $110 to apply to join the list, though you get $100 back if you don’t get a spot. Once on the list, you pay an annual fee of $35 to keep your place. The properties themselves range anywhere from $75,000 to $450,000.
If this all seems too much, there are unconventional ways to move to the Islands. As sales to spouses or children are exempt from the above rules, consider honing your gold-digging skills or wide-eyed orphan look (or both). Proposals have been made to increase the number of properties—the Toronto Island Housing Initiative is pushing for co-operative housing, and one author has mused about converting the airport lands into housing—so you can support them or start your own effort. There are also rumblings of a land claim by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, which could theoretically lead to an entirely new property regime.
If you’re not looking at a permanent move, there are other options for long stays. You can rent from an existing owner (tenancies are legal for up to three years), sublet a place like this studio for the winter, help the Shaw House project to increase the availability of seniors’ housing, befriend the right people and land a housesitting gig, or become an artist or writer and get chosen to stay at Artscape Lodge. Good luck!
Hat tip to reader Lee Chapman, who got us thinking about this issue.

CORRECTION: AUGUST 6, 2009 A photo originally mistakenly used in this article was of a house in Cabbagetown, rather than one on the Islands—a result of our misreading the photo’s description and tags.


  • http://undefined Svend

    It would be interesting to see what the true market value is for a house that so many people are lining up for.
    Since that won’t and shouldn’t happen, how about making the selection of who lives there more fair? We could limit the length of stay to 5 years and choose the tenants by a lottery.
    There isn’t a shortage of land, perhaps several more homes could be built to accommodate the interest.

  • mccool

    Sooo… I sign up now, and retire to the island when I’m old. Sounds alright to me.

  • jaaaaaaat

    build more homes on the island?
    if the island residents cant stand anything that occurs in Toronto (sound, development, business, recreation, fun, sex, love, art)
    how would they react to development on their precious islands?

  • http://undefined Paul D

    Ok, now how do I get on the list for Leafs’ season tickets?

  • Toronto Condo Dude

    Great article! I’m signing up my first born right now. I’ll live in his basement.

  • http://undefined rek

    Cover it in condos.

  • http://undefined atomeyes99

    remember that guy who lived in Wychwood who was on the Toronto Island “board” (or whatever they have) and skirted the rules by having dual primary residences?

  • http://undefined Andrew

    If you actually get a house, does the condescending self-righteousness come with, or do you have to buy that separately?

  • http://undefined Chester Pape

    The guy who things that converting the airport to housing would be a good thing must have access to really good psychedelics. Sure it’s somethings that some raving loons advocate but what they are advocating is not more charming cottages on little tree lined streets, they’re talking about using the land first as a site for some tax sucking circus like a worlds fair or the Pan Am Games then covering it in condos.

  • Vic De Zen

    Really informative article. I’ve always liked to visit the Toronto Islands and although the estimated wait for a property is 35 years, I think I may sign up for the waiting list now and hopefully find a place to retire =).

  • http://undefined Gloria

    Really great article. Fascinating to read.

  • http://undefined Svend

    They’d accept more homes if they fit in well, didn’t they complain when many were torn down a few decades ago?
    Rethinking my idea of people living there for a maximum of five years, this would discourage maintenance of the homes – we can’t count on the city to do this with their crappy track record on homes they currently own.

  • Toronto Condo Dude

    Now you got me thinking…

  • mister j

    Great article! My great-grandfather had a ‘cottage’ on the Islands which he sold and bought another larger one. I’ve got some old pics of my grandfather and great-uncles as boys canoeing. I’ll have to find out what happened to the cottages – I’m guessing it was before this ‘list.’

  • http://undefined Lu Galasso

    A friend of a friend lives on the island and I’ve heard very good things about living there… but I’m not so sure its worth waiting that long to live there. I may as well buy a house on a real island and enjoy it while I’m still young and be able to retire in it when I’m older.
    Lu Galasso

  • http://undefined Moonmoth

    Considering it took me three years to get an allotment garden in High Park, a 35 year wait for a home on the Toronto island seems, conservative. I’m thinking I’ll put my 6 year old sons name on this list maybe he’ll want to live there in 35 years when he 41.

  • http://undefined Skippy the Magical Racegoat

    My thoughts exactly. Give the people layers upon layers of bureaucracy. Don’t forget the green roofs, though.

  • http://undefined scallywagyarrr

    The photo at the very top of the page is in Cabbagetown. I cycle past those cutie booties each time I’m in the area.

  • David Topping

    Embarrassing mistake on my part while helping with looking for photos for this article: that photo is an older one from our pool, and I mistakenly assumed (based on skimming its description and tags a while back) that it was on the Islands, but you’re very right that it’s not. I’ve swapped out the top photo and appended a quick correction at the foot of the post as well.

  • http://undefined montauk

    A Margaret Atwood character in The Robber Bride lived on the island, so I associate that place with impenetrable mist, the desolation of memory, and sexual infidelity…although none of those things, except the mist, has happened to me on the island (or off it, for that matter). Maybe I would live there if it the property were lined with cheery rubber boots, but now you tell me that was Cabbagetown.

  • http://undefined Max

    I have a question…. im 14, and if my parents put their names on the list an they got in could the ownership be transferred to me?

  • Suggy

    Thank you,
    25 Years ago I was interested in living in such a great environment…just out of schooling at the University of Guelph..I thought what a great place to live. I wanted to place my name and the deposit but I was young at that time and did not have the resources or the capital, and thus headed to the West Coast..I have worked in the Film and Television industry within the Set Decorating and the Properties Departments for 18 years and now I am back at the University of Guelph working towards my Masters in Fine Arts and working as a Custodian at the University of Guelph.Library
    I am going to now submit my name and deposit to the The Toronto Island Community Trust and hope that within the next 25 years I may find a home on your Islands.
    Kind regards,
    Gregory Robert Sugg
    Phone number is 519-821-3974
    email is
    p.s….I am happy to rent and commute……have a great day ahead!!

  • Phil

    How is transportation possible in the winter, between the Island and City Centre? If the lake becomes icy, boating is not possible. Transport by car is not possible either, because there is no bridge. What are the options?

    • John Holland

      Hi Phil, the Ward Island ferry operates 365 days a year. During the winter, it operates from 6:30 am to 11:30 pm crossing the harbour twice an hour, which is usually sufficient to keep the ferry channel clear of ice. You don’t need to keep the whole inner harbour ice-free; you only need a narrow channel of open water between the ferry terminal and the Ward Island dock. If weather forecasts predict a deep freeze, the city puts the fireboat to work overnight to clear the ice from the channel.

      The docks themselves use de-icing agitators (basically large submerged water pumps) running continuously to keep the docks clear of ice.

      AFAIK, only once — back in the 1930s — did it get cold enough for long enough to freeze the inner harbour solid and shut down the ferry service. In that case, people merely walked (or skated) across the harbour; the ice was two feet thick.

  • Scott

    Quick update on prices they range as high as $817,00 now…

  • mm

    you mentioned that the land is leased. what is the cost of leasing? I assume it is on top of the cost of a home.

  • Alec Kinnear

    Great article exposing the nitty gritty of Toronto Islands home ownership. It is a precious privilege. It appears only very old people will be enjoying it in the future.

    Could you please remove Cynthia’s link spam?