8 ways to save time scouting cottage real estate
The secrets to checking out a property before making the long trip to see it in person, and avoiding viewing the duds
In the age of the Internet, digital photos, and wireless communication, cottage buyers have access to infinitely more information on potential properties. Every self-respecting realtor has a website where each listings comes with pictures, floor plans, virtual tours, write-ups—everything but the smell of the campfire. Many also send out e-mail advisories to their clients.
But as most buyers eventually learn, even the most extensive virtual photo album may not tell the whole story. When Mark and Susan Kocaurek were looking for a cottage last year, they found an MLS listing with images showing a place that looked like it needed a bit of work. “But when we got there, it was on a brutal piece of property,” Mark says. The cottage was situated in a saddle, between two elevated homes and built on footings that had been rotted away by draining water. “You could only suss that out by standing there.”
Yet viewing sale properties in person can be extremely time-consuming. Instead of stumping around to dozens of disappointing showings, use these strategies to shorten your list so you’ll only visit cottages that are in serious contention.
1. Know what you want
As with all large purchases, prospective buyers should carefully determine what they’re after long before commencing a search: price range, region, distance from the city, winter potential, state of the building, ambiance.
Lis and Chris Smith, who in 2005 acquired a property on Otter Lake, near Parry Sound, after cottaging for years in Muskoka, employed several such filters: a two-and-a-half-hour commute from their home; not on Georgian Bay; no lakes with zebra mussels. They drove around Haliburton to get a feel for the area, but found it too far. “We drew circles on a map,” says Lis.
2. Ask the right questions
It’s possible to weed out unwanted properties by posing some searching queries to your broker. What’s in the direct vicinity of the property—hydro fields, quarries, industrial farms, resorts, wetlands, wind farms? When Cottage Life’s art director, Kim Zagar, was looking for a rural property, also quizzed brokers and agents about the general condition of properties—not just the ambience, but also the state of the septic system, wiring, water supply, and so on.
Lastly, be firm about getting frank and specific answers. Realtors, notes Zagar, “sometimes make it sound better than it is. I like to get all the facts so I don’t have to drive up there for nothing.”
3. Limit your options
With all things Internet, the problem often isn’t too little information but too much. Realtors has every listing that’s registered with a broker and prospective buyers can waste a lot of time surfing. Some realtors have electronic tools to help buyers find their focus.
No matter what website you’re browsing, use an advanced search tool (if available) to filter out properties that exceed your budget, are too far away, or lack the amenities you want.
4. Don’t believe everything you see
Photos are helpful, but they invariably show a sale property in its best light. Al Boucher, of HomeLife Al Boucher Real Estate in Parry Sound, knows all about such images, and he admits that an “ugly” picture on a realtor’s website can actually blunt interest in a listing. If a cottage has no redeeming features—it is essentially a tear-down—Boucher won’t put up interior photos; in other words, a lack of images, or a very thin selection, should ¬be read as a warning signal.
Zagar adds that it’s worthwhile asking your broker or the listing agent to e-mail more photos—for example, shots of what’s on either side of the property, as well as pictures taken off-season, when the leaves are down, that expose any eyesores. “They have gone back and taken more photos and when I saw them I said, ‘Thank God, I’m glad I didn’t drive up there.’”
5. Research potential areas
Last year, Bill and Lidka Washington purchased a cottage on Eugenia Lake, which is nestled in the Beaver Valley near Markdale, Ont. They had visited the area’s ski resorts, and heard about the little-known lake on one such excursion. As part of his research, Bill found the lake on Google Maps, and it confirmed his hunch: Eugenia is easily accessible from Toronto by a network of secondary roads. Indeed, such Internet mapping tools offer a wealth of data that will give context to the photos in the listing. Google Earth, in particular, provides high resolution, relatively recent, satellite images that will reveal potential topographic problems, such as nearby gravel pits or development sites. “If you use Google Maps and the listings, you can get a pretty good idea about the property,” he says.
6. Ask the source
Establish relationships with experienced brokers who not only understand their clients’ needs but are prepared to offer candid assessments and ferret out extra information from the listing agent. “We filtered a lot of listings by talking to the agent,” says Kocaurek, who ultimately bought on Horseshoe Lake.
Another source of potentially objective advice is the lake’s cottage association, if one exists (a list is supplied by the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations). The association reps will likely know where the party palaces are located and what the water quality is like, but they’ll also be able to supply quality-of-life information: whether there are regattas, annual barbecues, or other events that link cottagers to one another.
7. Get a second opinion
Even before putting in an offer conditional on the results of a cottage inspection, it’s advisable to ask a contractor to have a quick look—a bit of due diligence that can be done by remote control. Kim Zagar took this approach when she was considering an unfinished property near Bancroft. The listing agent recommended hiring a local builder to ballpark what it would cost to fix up the place. The outlay was worth it: She discovered it needed enough work to break their budget. “We spent a small amount of money to save us from having to spend a lot of time and money.”
8. Optimize your travel time
While realtors know that there are always a few rash purchasers who will buy a cottage sight unseen, most buyers want to view sale properties in person to see if they pass the smell test. Lis Smith says that during their search, she’d ask realtors to line up a day with visits to three to four cottages in relatively close proximity. These would often take place in the winter so “we knew what was there in the bush,” says Smith. Such off-season journeys can also be time-consuming for all the obvious reasons. “It takes time to look at each property, and you want to stop before you get too discouraged.”
The reality is that when the right listing comes up, buyers often have to be prepared to head out on short notice. “I hate to say it,” says realtor Leonard, “but the first person who gets up here usually gets the cottage.”
This article was originally published on September 10, 2010