Meet Toronto’s tight-knit, eccentric float-home community, where they live the life aquatic

One row of the float homes at Bluffer's Park, with Lee Romanov's on the far right.

Wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt, Paul Peic is crouching on his dock trying to coax a swan over with a bag of organic cereal. Through glass doors behind him sits his Abyssinian cat, Bark, who yawns, unimpressed, with an expression that says, “Oh, this ol’ shtick.”

Peic is showing off — and why not? Not many people have a resident swan that drops by for a snack. When strangers aren’t around, the swans (they work in shifts) will waddle right up to the door like ambassadors for Girl Guides.

“They knock on the door and we feed them by hand. I can pet them,” Peic says.

Even the wildlife behaves differently here. Here being a clutch of 25 of the cutest float homes tucked in a row in Bluffers Park Marina, near the Scarborough Bluffs, in a scene that feels very San Francisco.

What makes these float homes (torontofloathomes.com), which were built in 2000, extra special is that they’re grandfathered, so no more are being built.

Tyler Anderson / National Post

Tyler Anderson / National PostPaul Peic runs his stand-up paddleboard school from his float home, and feeds swans when they knock at his door.

To get to this secret spot, leave the trendy ’hoods behind — bye, bye Queen West, s’long Beaches — and take Brimley Road South until it ends. Follow the sign to Bluffers Park and a windy road that descends for about a kilometre, until you see a spectacular view of Lake Ontario and the marina.

From there, stroll down the private walkway, complete with a cheerful scene of hanging flower baskets, the tinkling sounds of Zen water fountains, cottagey signage, cats and dogs, barbecues and an excessively relaxed person or two.

Truly waterfront cottages, these colourful, permanently moored structures, where about 80 people live, will “last 100 to 200 years,” says Peic, a float-home representative, “because the barge itself is made of the same [material] as bridge piers.”

Tyler Anderson / National Post

Tyler Anderson / National Post

But don’t call them houseboats — float homes do not have motors. Nor do the interiors feel boat-like, so no shellacked floors or bolted-down tables and chairs.
Peic’s place, in fact, feels like a condo, down to the open ductwork along the ceiling. It also has hardwood floors, a slick kitchen and an open-air upper deck kitted out in clubby contemporary furniture. Parts of the exterior are clad in stylish horizontal wood slats.

“I’ve added about 100 square feet, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but in a float home it is,” Peic says. “A lot of people who buy here end up doing renovations or adding [a second floor].”

Float homes are also similar to conventional houses in that they have drywall and they’re insulated and heated with furnaces or by electric baseboard.

But finding financing to buy one can be tricky. “You can’t get mortgages for them — we’re not a boat, or a house, so you need to buy with cash or you have to be creative,” Peic says. “You can get a private lender.” The monthly maintenance fee to live in the float-home community is $700.

Peic’s purchase here four years ago has been a dream come true. “I’ve always wanted one because I’d seen them before in B.C. and Seattle,” says the self-professed water fanatic (“If it were up to me, I’d be living in the water”) who runs the Stand-Up Paddleboard Addict school from his float home. (The calm inner harbour makes it an ideal condition for the sport.)

He finds such immediate proximity to water instantly relaxing. “The negative ions in the water help to calm you down,” he says. “When you sleep, you feel like someone has knocked you out.”

The therapeutic properties of water have, indeed, been well documented. (Think of the seaside respites people took on doctors’ orders in Victorian England.) “I know you’re more relaxed than when you got here,” he adds. “Coming to the bottom of the hill does that to you.”

Tyler Anderson / National Post

Tyler Anderson / National PostThe 25 float homes are grandfathered in, so that no more can be built on this site.

Peic loosely divides the world into the stress cases on the hilltop “where everything is so congested” and the chiller folks at the water’s edge.

Penny Barr, a cartoonist, is a reformed hilltopper. For the past five years, she has lived year-round in her float home with her husband, Russ. Across from her home is her floating art studio, a Dutch-style riverboat called Drawn Aboard. “It’s a great work space,” she says, standing amidst sheets of paper, where a realistic-looking severed hand has a wrist cavity filled with pens and paintbrushes.

“It’s a unique environment — it’s a very eccentric group of people,” she says. “My favourite thing about living here is the strong sense of community, and it’s visually stunning. The nature, the swans that feed out of your hands.”

(Not to upstage the birds, but the area also sees beaver, mink, muskrat and coyote. Nearby is also the best white-sand beach in Toronto, its waters home to Northern pike, trout and carp.)

Barr, who also has a home that she rents out in Richmond Hill, says she and Russ never intended to live here full-time.

“When we came down here and we were working on the float home, we started to have so much fun and meet so many people. We never wanted to go home,” says Barr, who admits that “winters can be a test. You have to be somewhat resourceful and have deep pockets in case of emergencies.” (Peic says winter can be cozy and pretty because “the trees stay white and the boats are cleared from the lake.”)

Barr laughs when it is suggested the place has a hippie vibe. “Oh, no, it’s too expensive,” she says of the community where no one is a renter.

Tyler Anderson / National Post

Tyler Anderson / National PostLee Romanov’s float home is about 1,200 square feet, with two bedrooms, two spiral staircases and five fireplaces.

The resident mix includes retired business owners, a person who uses it as a cottage, a New York transplant and the author and early internet guru Lee Romanov, who is permanently decamping to California, so she’s selling her float home (for $699,900).

Romanov’s is an end unit, so it’s coveted for two reasons: it’s larger than most of the others, due to side bump-outs, and it does not have a neighbour on one end. There’s also parking for two cars.

“Lee is an original,” Peic says, as we step inside Romanov’s place, where her white bull terrier, Shiner, leaps off a floral French settee. “She’s one of the first people who owned her house here.”

His description of her as an early float-home adopter can also be applied to her home’s style. It’s casually chic, in a Paris-flea-market-via-boho-New-Orleans-pad kind of way; the space is welcoming and whimsical.

A carved maidenhead that once adorned a ship’s prow makes up the tip of the kitchen peninsula. The kitchen cabinets themselves are covered in the pressed tin once found on the ceilings of Victorian kitchens. The fridge is sheathed in faux limestone.

There are also oil paintings in chunky gold frames, an excellent rendition of birds on stain glass in the main bathroom, a reading nook and a sauna.

And at about 1,200 sq. ft., with 10-foot ceilings, the two-bedroom place feels spacious and boasts two winding spiral staircases, five decks and three fireplaces.

All this fun against walls that are blue, lime, tangerine, pink and purple — it sounds outlandish but it’s charming to the max. Ditto her sailboat, sporting the moniker “Absolut Lee,” that’s docked out front.

And all this can be yours — though you might have to share your lunch with a swan now and again.

Source: Iris Benaroia, Special to National Post | June 26, 2015

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