Design & DIY

These two young families totally revamped their ‘mouse hotel’ shared cottage

Living space
1,600 sq. ft.

Why we love it
Idyllic hilltop locale that’s a more affordable alternative to being on the lake; rustic-modern furnishings and accents; a multi-family sharing agreement 

After years of renting cottages all over Ontario, photographer Wilson Barry and his wife, Ngaio Potts, an advertising executive, were itching for a getaway of their own where their daughter, Rhyan, 6, could experience nature. But there was one thing overshadowing their dream. “Cottages are insanely expensive, even two to three hours from Toronto,” he says. “The cost was a real hurdle.” 

Wilson had an idea. What if they could find another couple to go in on a place with them? The natural fit was a friend of 20 years, photographic collaborator and fellow B.C. native, Raina Kirn. Raina and her partner, Jason Gordon, also a photographer, were interested in spending more time outside the city too. After some lengthy discussions about finances and logistics, the real estate site-surfing began in earnest. It was Ngaio who found a place with potential: a gem of a bungalow atop a seven-acre property with views of Eugenia Lake in Ontario’s Beaver Valley.

At first, the couples figured they’d just put a coat of paint on the walls and move in. “Oh, that was before we realized it was a mouse hotel with no insulation, the roof leaked and filled the basement with water, and that snowflakes came inside during winter,” says Wilson, with a rueful laugh. “In fact, the neighbour told me he expected to see smoke and flames some night. He didn’t think anyone should bother re-doing this place.” 

Re-do it they did, adding insulation and new drywall, replacing the bathroom and mudroom, and putting in new floors throughout. The renovation took 13 months. Meanwhile, back in the city at their shared photo studio, Raina and Wilson spent hours poring over Pinterest and dreaming of what the interior could be once it was snug and critter-free. Though Raina spearheaded most of the design decisions, Wilson proposed painting the interior in Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, and the whole gang was on board. “We all craved a clean colour palette with warm accents so that nature could really come into the house,” she says. With a modern, minimal Scandinavian aesthetic in mind, the couples had fun making DIY lighting and furniture, and hunting down vintage treasures at local flea markets. 

Though the families decided early on that their shared cottage would be a part-time rental property to offset ownership costs, it was important to them that they didn’t make design decisions based on what other people might want. “More than anything, it has to be a place that makes us all happy to come home to,” says Raina. “It’s so bright and open here, unlike our city homes, and we all feel we can breathe deeper when we arrive. It’s a giant exhale.”

After four years, the four co-owners wouldn’t change a thing. “From splitting the reno costs and maintenance, to managing the bookings, having two extra people is nothing but a pro,” says Wilson. “My wife and I couldn’t have pulled this off by ourselves.”

How to time-share a cottage with friends

1. Assign roles: Wilson and Jason oversaw the construction, doing much of the work themselves; Raina managed the decorating decisions; and Ngaio handled the financial side of things. “Oh, she had an epic spreadsheet with multiple tabs,” says Raina.

2. Work the calendar: Both couples agreed they’d rent out the bungalow year-round for at least one week per month to offset costs. They divvy up the remaining days with a mix of shared time and solo family time.

3. Get it lawyered: A legal partnership agreement spells out the process in case one of them wants out, lessening the potential for confusion or animosity. “This is a must whether you’re buying with friends or even family,” says Raina. “It’s crucial for peace of mind.”

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