George Webster: Selling high-end island properties

George Webster: Selling high-end island properties


By Dennis McCloskey

George Webster
George Webster

When George Webster was enjoying boyhood summers with his family exploring the clear waters of the 30,000 islands in Georgian Bay, Ont., little did he know that one day he’d be selling some of the familiar – and now multi-million dollar properties – as a successful real estate salesperson.

While he represents a range of clients and properties, Webster specializes in island sales and has sold a $6.8-million property in Sans Souci, and many others for between $3 million and $4 million. Several of his Georgian Bay listings that have recently sold for over $3.5 million are near such places as Pointe Au Baril, Killarney, Snug Harbour and an area known as The Archipelago.

“Great wealth is not a requirement to be an island owner,” he says. “But a commitment to the island lifestyle certainly is.” He adds that a salesperson selling in this niche market must be comfortable dealing with high-net-worth individuals “and one must be able to establish a level of credibility and trust. Above all, as in all successful real estate endeavours, it is passion, enthusiasm and commitment that are the hallmarks of a successful salesperson.”

He notes there is an inventory of cottages in every range in Georgian Bay, from great old family compounds to newer architecturally designed custom builds to simple rustic cabins.

Webster specializes in island sales in Georgian Bay.
Webster specializes in island sales in Georgian Bay.

“The area has opened up considerably since I first started and there certainly are many more luxury cottages and beautifully refurbished and restored cottages now than when I first started selling in the area.”

When he was 16, Webster’s family moved to the U.S. and he attended a New England preparatory school for Georgetown University, where he majored in business administration and minored in European history. Upon returning to Canada, he became involved in construction management when he formed a partnership with a close friend (and distant cousin) who was an architect working on heritage preservation in Toronto’s downtown core. His partner oversaw concept planning and Webster’s job was to attract tenants and investors.

He spent so much time exploring the Georgian Bay islands, its waterways and back bays (often with a fishing rod) that he developed “a familiarity and a passion” for the area. He wanted to spend as much time there as possible. He and his wife owned an island in San Souci since the 1980s and he observed that island properties in the area were somewhat underserved and under represented. Thus, he heard the call, not only of the loon, but of real estate.

Webster entered the business with Moffat Dunlap and while he enjoyed 15 years with that firm, he wanted to develop his own brand and was offered that opportunity by Royal LePage Meadowtowne Realty in Mississauga, where he now works. When asked about his compelling passion for Georgian Bay with its 2,000 km of shoreline, Webster waxes poetic. “It’s hard to isolate a single favourite attribute. I suspect it’s the region’s sheer natural beauty, vast expanses of Precambrian granite, iconic windswept white pines and endless waterways.”

Asked if the 15 per cent foreign buyers tax has resulted in a slowdown of sales, Webster says that foreign buyers are not a major factor in The Bay. “The Greater Toronto Area is the main market where it is within a two-hour drive.”

He takes clients from island to island in his own boat, or boat taxi if it’s a remote location. Sometimes he uses a float plane or helicopter.

Webster says there are two main classifications of Georgian Bay island buyers. “The third or fourth generation Americans whose families originally settled Pointe Au Baril and Sans Souci in the early 1900s but whose children are now dispersed worldwide as a result of globalization, is one identifiable group,” he says. “The other is baby boomers who may have several children, making transfer of ownership of the family island complicated, or after summering on The Bay for 30 years or more, they wish to sell and use the proceeds for other endeavours.”

He describes the buyers, in general, as “professionals, often from the financial sector and always very astute business people who understand every nuance of the market.”

Webster concedes there are challenges in selling and getting cottages built on an island. “Building tends to be more expensive as the materials have to be barged to the island and the workers have to boat in daily or have lodging on the island provided for them,” he says. “As in all construction, inclement weather can slow down the process, remembering that building is only a maximum six-month season.”  Municipalities enforce rigorous official plans and strict building codes, which he regards as a good thing to prevent overbuilding and not exceed the carrying capacity of fragile island ecosystems.

Webster advertises his services in print ads and articles in national newspapers; in feature stories in the Private Island print magazine; online and through his website; and even from exposure on the HGTV Island Hunters series. He says the best advertising is referrals from satisfied customers. “We also promote our listings with individual ‘Property Showcase’ high-resolution photography, aerial and drone shots, 360 video tours and full-colour brochures from four to 12 pages, depending on the property.”

It can take several seasons to sell a luxury property because there are a limited number of buyers and it depends on the economic climate. And, Webster suggests, Georgian Bay is not for everyone because it takes a lot of work and its more challenging to own a boat-access property than a road-access property. Many properties are three-season. “However, many prefer the less timid cottage experience of The Bay to that of highly populated and busy areas such as Muskoka,” he says.

Webster offers some thoughts for real estate professionals who might wish to get into this segment of the market. “It’s a seasonal market (six months at best); it helps to be a part of a cottage community to have a good working familiarity with the area and to enhance your credibility.”

His best advice? “You must have excellent boating and navigational skills to know your way in the waters as you will be responsible for the safety of your clients and their families.”


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