Cottage foundation problems 101

By Kimberly Boyles/Shutterstock

For years, Laurie Barber and her husband, Joe Favero, worried about rot under their cottage in their foundation. Bought by Laurie’s grandfather in the 1940s on a sloping lot, the cottage was sinking into 80 years’ worth of wet silt accumulated from runoff. But when Joe’s foot went through the floorboards of a back bedroom, they grabbed a camera and finally got a look below. It was worse than they expected. There was extensive rot in the sill plates and joists in the rear underside of the cottage. 

Whether it was built in 1940 or 2010, your cottage may also be suffering from a feeble foundation. Before you start digging, it pays to understand what’s going on underneath your cottage and what your options are for fixing it.

What leads to foundation problems?
The three main culprits causing foundations to fail in Canada are climate, soil, and water. Annual freezing and thawing cycles create the twin menaces of frost heave (when water-saturated soil expands upon freezing and pushes anything in its way) and thaw weakening (which happens when temperatures rise, ice melts and contracts, and water drains). Whether your cottage is built on sandy soil, which drains well, or heavy clay, which holds water, this freeze-thaw cycle is to thank for any moving and shaking. Lastly, water, in the form of runoff and flooding, can dislodge foundations of boathouses, docks, decks, and cottages, as seen in the 2019 spring flooding in many rural communities in Eastern Canada. Even regular seasonal water run-off on a sloping lot like Laurie and Joe’s can create an accumulation of silt that, when in contact with wood and given enough time, will cause enough rot to compromise the integrity of a structure. 

If foundations are installed below the frost line (at least four feet down in most regions of Canada), frost heave shouldn’t be a problem, which brings us to a fourth culprit: human error. Even foundations built into our reliable Canadian Shield will move if they weren’t installed meticulously—that is, on clean, bare rock—according to Mark Brinkman of Brinkman Construction in Apsley, Ont.

“Folks often dig until they hit Shield and pour concrete,” says Brinkman, “but if they didn’t do it properly—say, less than four feet deep—ice and frost can get between the footing and rock so you now have frost heave lifting your foundation (and cottage) off the bedrock.”

Won’t a foundation fix be expensive?
Yes. Work on your foundation can be costly, requiring permits, and professionals, not to mention patience. The price tag will depend on many factors, including type of existing footings or foundation; terrain and remoteness; and the scale of the job, says Brinkman, referring to that last point as “the world’s greatest unknown.” For instance, he explains, “if you’re adding a concrete or block foundation to an existing cottage—requiring cribs, shoring material, movers to lift the cottage, get it out of the way, and then reposition it—it generally adds $20,000 to $25,000. Blasting rock can add $30,000.”

At the other end of the spectrum, repairing post and pad supports can be done by a pro for less than $10,000, according to Dave Allwright of Absolute Leveling near Winnipeg, who also warns it’s not a job for a DIYer. “This is very heavy, labour intensive, and dangerous work and should not be done by inexperienced workers,” says Allwright. “I used to be a firefighter and I have recovered a man who was crushed lifting a cottage that fell over.”

Because repair options are numerous and variable, potential solutions and pricing estimates are wide-ranging. Just be sure the cause of your foundation damage is being addressed and to be safe, pad your budget for surprises, which always arise and are rarely cheap. 

Clues to a shaky foundation
Foundation problems start out causing the little things cottagers attribute to “character.” Maybe it’s the window that only closes with a special upward hitch or the side door that sticks until you step on a sweet spot. Less charming are cracks that appear on walls and spread.

If you have a hunch your foundation needs attention—say, your cottage has one or more of the symptoms shown at right—it may be time to get an inspection by a structural engineer. “If the issue turns out to be nothing, you spent a few hundred dollars for peace of mind,” says Jason Irving, a building consultant and director of Cedarfalls Building Consultants in Scarborough, Ont., adding that, “it may be a hard pill to swallow if structural repairs are prescribed, but it could very well save further repairs down the road, or even save a life.”

Laurie and Joe’s concerns were validated when they saw the extensive rot in the sill plates and joists in the rear underside of the cottage. “Over the years this area has sunken down even more and the excess water has caused the rot.” Contractors consistently offered them two solutions: lift or tear down. 

Laurie couldn’t see tearing down what was clearly an otherwise structurally sound cottage—the kind people refer to as “over-built.” Joe Crowley of Connaught Homes, in Ennismore, Ont.—who Laurie had met at the Cottage Life Show—shared her opinion. “It was a good structure,” says Crowley, “and she told me about her family and I could tell she had no intention of tearing it down.”

Crowley directed her to a designer and committed to working with Laurie to protect her family property. Laurie and Joe eventually decided to lift the cottage, expand the footprint, and add a full-sized, four-season basement. Laurie admits that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “I was scared about how it was going to turn out; being sentimental—would it still be the same cottage?” And yet, with a summer and autumn of heavy rains, water diversion continued to be a challenge, resulting in ramped-up sump pump solutions, revised landscaping plans, and the loss of some of Laurie’s most beloved mature trees. Ultimately though, Laurie says she has no regrets. “I’m glad we did it the way we did,” she said, adding, “it’s an individual choice.”

Despite a year of construction and renovation done mostly through the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, Laurie was able to get on-site once or twice to ask questions, be reassured and to see her beloved cottage suspended high overhead. She describes it “as a surreal moment.” 

It’s been over a year since they broke ground on the new cottage foundation, and Laurie is happy with the result of the work. “The bones are still there. The views of the lake are the same, and when I stand in the middle of the place and look around, it still gives me the feeling of being in the old place.”

This article was originally published as as part of  “Dear Cottage, Why so down in the dumps?” in the May 2021 issue of Cottage Life.

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