Are there cons to winterizing the cottage?

A pair of feet in wool socks in front of a mountain view By AlexMaster/Shutterstock

Q: “Last year I winterized my cottage—which was a big job but seemed sensible at the time. Then winter rolled around, and I only went up for one weekend. I feel like I’ve just wasted a whole bunch of money on something I won’t use. Was I wrong to winterize? Everyone said it was the best way to go.”

A: I know it’s hard for many people to imagine, but there once was a period in history when having a year-round cottage with all the mod cons of home was the exception, not the rule. Back then, cottages were mostly for warm weather use, and in the fall—usually on Thanksgiving weekend—the pump got drained, and shutters were hung for another long winter. That, of course, was ancient history. Today, it seems like seasonal cottagers are pretty much a minority. 

Usually, when cottagers take the year-round leap, it’s because they are true winter lovers who want to get as much enjoyment out of the place as humanly possible. You know, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing through the ice. Wineskins and raclette. That sort of thing. These folks come up every weekend and even do family holidays at the lake. For others, their primary motivation is to one day move to the lake and live there year round, a transition that many retirees attempt with varied levels of success. In both scenarios there is a degree of passion and careful planning involved, neither of which I’m seeing in your situation. Even considering factors like bad weather, hockey tournaments, dance classes, and doctor’s appointments, if you only managed to visit your newly upgraded cottage-home for just one weekend all winter then it might be time to admit that year-round cottaging is just not your bag.

From the sound of it, you have been railroaded into this expensive action by an outside influence. Did a real estate agent offer you some advice about “resale,” perchance? They often use the word like a whip. That’s why so many people have multiple unused guest bedrooms, tempered glass deck railings, and sprawling acreages of “one-floor living.” Or were you perhaps swayed by a close friend or relative who loves to spend time at your cottage? You know, the lump who is there every weekend but doesn’t contribute a single red cent toward upkeep, maintenance, or an expensive renovation? Alternatively, God forbid, have you been talking to your lake neighbours? This can be dangerous. You might get solid advice about February living. Or you might be seen as a source of companionship for the retired marketing executive next door who has gone batty from the romantic solitude of full-time winter at the cottage. Misery loves company. 

Special considerations for insuring winterized cottages

I don’t want to play Debbie Downer here, but while you may have just flushed away a large bowl of money doing your renovation, there is another loud sucking sound that has yet to come your way. Because you’ll want to keep the heat on so the pipes don’t freeze. You’ll also need to hire a friendly plow truck lady to keep your lane clear for the fire department. The more it snows, the more you pay. And be prepared: your taxes may go up. So while you sit at home not using your cottage, it is gorging itself on vast amounts of your money like a beautiful, fully insulated deer tick. 

What’s more, Murphy’s Law dictates that because you made a specific effort to fortify your cottage against winter perils, something bad and expensive will surely happen in the first few years. Like a ruffed grouse going kamikaze through the picture window in the great room. Or a family of flying squirrels occupying the guest bedroom. Maybe the backup generator won’t run. Or maybe the backup generator won’t stop, gobbling up all the propane so the furnace can’t fire and the pipes freeze solid. Which means indoor flooding come spring. Thinking about this stuff can cause worry and stress, stress that you didn’t know that you’d feel until you winterized. Did you remember to close the window in the upstairs bathroom after your last visit? Sure, lots of people with year-round access use their cottages as regularly as possible in the winter. But there are a whole bunch more I only see once or twice, who are just coming up “to check on the place” to ease their nerves.

4 ways a cottager keeps the spirit alive after closing up

But there is hope for you yet, and the solution is simple. Go to your cottage and start using it—not just in the winter, but also in the most inhospitable bits of time in spring and fall. The place is all set up for you to enjoy, after all. The only way you can know if year-rounding is right for you is to work at it a bit. And apart from actually getting better value for your cottage dollar, you might learn how great it feels to be up on the lake when conditions are less than perfect. (Or, flip side, you might discover how much you hate it.) I love the off-seasons because there are fewer other cottagers around. Which is great if you enjoy silence and solitude, but not so good if you need constant company and stimulation. Will you feel isolated? I can’t really say, but you could always hang out with your neighbour, the lonely executive, and play some two-handed euchre. Just give it a try.

Winter activities for your whole family

But let’s say your winterized experiment is an abject failure because of some small detail. Like the fact that you hate cold weather. Fear not. Because if those realtors are right, hordes of buyers will fight for a chance to buy your cozy and convenient cottage, open for business 365 days a year. Which would be a perfect opportunity for you to become an old-school cottager with a strictly seasonal hacienda. When autumn comes around, you can drain the plumbing and board the place up. Remember to flip the main breaker and suspend your phone service till next year. Come winter, rather than worry, you can have happy dreams about the place. Home to summer fun and only one big turkey dinner.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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