The Move: From downtown Toronto to an artist’s escape in rural Newfoundland

(Photography by Johnny C.Y. Lam)

The buyer:

Laura Dawe, 40

The budget:


The backstory:

Laura Dawe moved into her bare-bones two-bedroom apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood in 2011. At the time, she could barely afford the $1,200 monthly rent, so she opted to split the cost with her then-partner and a roommate. As the city’s housing market exploded around her, Dawe watched as her apartment went from nothing special into an affordable hidden gem. “It transformed from a hovel to a castle by sheer inertia,” she says. In 2019, Dawe secured a part-time job teaching drawing and painting, a regular paycheque that allowed her to continue renting the space even after her roomies moved out. She also converted the second bedroom into a studio, where she began teaching still-life classes.

In November of 2021, Dawe headed to Pouch Cove, Newfoundland (population: 2,000) for a month-long artist’s residency. She’d visited the province many times before—her father’s side of the family hails from the west-coast village of Jeffrey’s—but Dawe hadn’t been back since she was a teenager. In Pouch Cove, she heard accents that reminded her of her aunts and uncles. Many Cove dwellers even shared her last name. “When I got there, I was surprised by how much it already felt like home,” she says.

Early into her stay, Dawe attended a dinner party where the conversation turned to the little yellow house for sale next door to the residency. With its antique, carved-wood accents, lace curtains and dated floral wallpaper, the three-bedroom, one-bathroom property was the epitome of a cozy, cottagecore pied-à-terre. When Dawe looked up the list price—$130,000—she was convinced it was a typo. She’d always wanted to own property, but Dawe resigned herself to the fact that her dream might never be realized in Toronto. The little yellow house looked like her only chance. She contacted the realtor and set up a next-day showing for herself and her boyfriend, who came along for the trip.

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When she stepped inside, Dawe was taken aback by how similar the previous owners’ tastes were to her own. Not only did she adore all the furniture—which was included in the sale—she’d recently installed a ruffled white valance in her Toronto living room that was identical to one in the yellow house. “My boyfriend saw it and said, ‘This is insane,’” Dawe says. Still, the home had its share of issues: no shower in the bathroom (only an ancient tub), oppressively low seven-foot ceilings, slanted floors and an alarming amount of DIY wiring. “The owners had cut lamp cords, then taped them to other cords with electrical tape,” she says. Quirks aside, the home was in immaculate condition—not to mention extremely affordable.

Every day afterward, Dawe kept one eye on the house, fantasizing about what she’d do with the yard if it were her property. A week later, she noticed other prospective buyers heading in and out of the house and panicked. “I was like, ‘These people are going to buy my house,’” she says. “The thought that someone else might get it was devastating. That confirmed how much I wanted it.” Dawe immediately inquired about another tour with the realtor, who dropped a bomb: someone had submitted an offer and, if she was serious, she should submit her own by the next day at noon.

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Dawe frantically Googled “how to do a home inspection” and spent one final tour lifting up carpets and pulling back wallpaper to suss out whether she was buying a money pit. She submitted her offer of $115,000 on paper. “It was so Newfoundland,” she says. “The sellers were in their 80s and they didn’t use email.” The owners accepted her offer because, according to them, it contained “less bullshit.” The down payment amounted to $6,000, which left Dawe with enough leftover savings to redo the bathroom.

After the sale, Dawe headed back to Toronto before returning to Pouch Cove the following February. She had been mildly concerned that hanging out in a small town in the dead of winter would send her spiralling into a depression, but Dawe was at peace. She was greeted by a truckload of insulation for the basement—a housewarming gift from James Baird, the coordinator of her fateful artist’s residency. She remained calm even after a windstorm blew the storm door clean off of the house. “I had this feeling that the house was keeping me safe,” she says.

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Before she got started on renos, with the help of a cinematographer friend, Dawe spent a week photographing items left behind by the previous owners, like family photo albums and cuts of meat in the deep freezer. “It felt like we were walking into a museum,” she says. Then, the upgrades began: a handyman installed a shower head and cut a strategic hole in the kitchen wall to accommodate a new washing machine. Dawe’s father helped her install the gifted insulation in the basement, but Dawe ripped up all the old carpet by herself—even in the kitchen. In the primary bedroom, Dawe unearthed original tile work, and consulted her Instagram followers on which colour to paint it. One eagle-eyed friend identified the tiles as old asbestos and cautioned her to leave it alone. Instead, Dawe moved to the kitchen, whose original canvas flooring she covered with a floral rug from Etsy and a plethora of painted dandelions.

These days, Dawe maintains her teaching jobs in Toronto but heads to the rock every chance she gets—usually during summer vacation, or any time she’s able to book off two consecutive weeks. She loves the slower pace of life and, without the social obligations she has in Toronto, she’s able to devote more time to painting. Recently, she painted a mural of Pouch Cove on her bathroom wall and, in one of the bedrooms, she’s building a museum of found objects from the sale—some captured in photo form. She finds a lot of inspiration outdoors, too. “It’s crazy how many different colours of blue the ocean is in one day,” she says.

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