Wednesday , June 16 2021

As the snowbirds head south, a hidden economy rises



Larissa Novak's vacation plans include watering plants, mailing and unloading toilets.

Not her, remember you. Novak looks after vacant homes and stumbles upon animals while their owners chase the southern sun.

Larissa Novak plays with her 6 year old Black Labrador Retriever Candy during a walk at Spring Garden Park in Etobicoke. Novak takes care of vacant houses and pets left behind, while their bird owners chase after the sun.
Larissa Novak plays with her 6 year old Black Labrador Retriever Candy during a walk at Spring Garden Park in Etobicoke. Novak takes care of vacant houses and pets left behind, while their bird owners chase after the sun. (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

"They have fun, I have work," said Larissa Novak of Kingsway K9 & Kitty in Etobicoke.

It is peak travel time. Last winter, Air Transat flew 1.7 million passengers from Pearson International Airport between November and April, en route to Mexico and the Caribbean. During the same period, WestJet flies about 130,000 Pearson sun tourists each month, while Sunwing had 28,000 tourists in Toronto this past Christmas day.

That adds up to more than one million Canadian retirees who spend at least 31 days in the US each year, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association.

An entire economy of pet sitters and snowshoes has grown to suit short and long term winter travelers.

Novak does more than feed live crickets to iguanas starting at $ 20 per visit.

"I also sweep the snow on the cars parked on sidewalks to make it look more alive. A car full of snow is a sure sign for a thief," said Novak, who in this holiday season for the first time in decades cut his load to five Kingsway mansions with cats.

The owners go to Florida or Mexico, where they have back homes, or to Alberta to visit the grandchildren.

Some insurance policies require home checks every 48 to 72 hours, while homeowners are absent. In 30 years of home visits, Novak found felled trees, unlocked doors, open windows, stove elements left attached, and once a cornered squirrel requiring control of animals.

"You're paying for peace of mind," said Etobicoke landscape designer Murray McConnell, who will look after ten summer homes this winter.

Residences, which "surpass the level of social status," McConnell said, belong to longtime clients.

Some travel between Florida and Ontario for medical appointments or to see grandchildren. Basic services, such as snow removal and mail gathering, cost $ 100 per month. (Snow birds can forward their mail via Canada Post for about $ 30 a month.)

An elderly couple heads south in the first week of November and returns in April. For them, McConnell also checks indoors for water damage and switches on his luxury car to maintain his battery, a package worth $ 200 a month.

Condo residents do not have to worry about snow removal while on the beach. House plants, however, are another story.

"All the people we used to pay killed our plants. Now we use our daughter, which we do not have to pay for, but kill them in the same way, "said Brian Gold of Thornhill.

The annual Caribbean cruise does not matter "because this way we get fresh new plants at least once a year."

Tourists sometimes send their pets on vacation too. The Oakville Cat Castle is a feline hotel with sunny rooms and birdfeeders outside the windows to entertain guests.

Boarding business increases during the Christmas holidays, school summer vacations, and long weekends, with rates ranging from $ 27 to $ 49 a day. Some cats remain for months, such as the current guest Lola, whose bird owners receive a long-term discount. To cover the distance, owners can rent Cat Cams for $ 4 per day.

"That way, they have access to video 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to the kitty, just as they can talk to them," said manager Kylie Brezden.

Once the owners arrive home, it's back to normal for everyone – until summer vacations begin.

Amy Pataki is a Toronto restaurant critic and reporter who covers all things hospitality. Follow her on Twitter: @amypataki


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