Cottage Q&A: How to communicate when sharing the cottage

group discussion By Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Do you have suggestions on how to facilitate communications and the sharing of info amongst family members? We have five family members sharing a cottage (they have their own extended families). I think there must be project management software that would be good.—Nicole Leaper, Lake Joseph, Ont.

Perhaps, but Paul Davies, a cottage co-owner—he shares with his five siblings—thinks that most of the features available in project management software would be overkill. As a retired engineer in Calgary, he’s worked with various software packages. “It would work, but you’re only using one per cent of the features available,” he says. “It would be like using Microsoft Word only for making shopping lists.”

That said, most software has the ability to make bar-chart style Gantt charts—great visual tools to show, for example, cottage weekend sharing schedules, or for tracking the status and cost of building a new deck, says Davies.  

We did a poll at Cottage Life HQ—plenty of staffers and friends of staffers share their cottages with multiple siblings. Almost all of us hold a family meeting in the spring to discuss summer projects, maintenance priorities, and budgets. But the rest of the year, every family has a different strategy to ease communication. One family of five co-owners uses a Facebook page; another family of seven relies on a physical book that stays at the cottage; a couple of groups use messaging apps; another counts on an online shared calendar and “a lot of emailing.” One large group, bafflingly, communicates only by snail mail. Nobody uses project management software. Or bar charts of any kind. 

“The question really is: what exactly do you need a program to do for you to help you manage the cottage?” says Davies. “Is it scheduling activities? Tracking financials? Maintenance?” 

If it’s all of those things, and if you’re willing to spend a little money—$49 U.S. per year—SharedKey is an online system designed for co-owners of vacation homes. Cottagers can log in to their property’s account and post info or photos, or book or cancel cottage time; the rest of the owners will get email notifications to keep everyone updated. SharedKey acts as both a communication tool and an online binder for the property, says Chris Thrall, who created the system with his brother Eric to help himself and his siblings share the family cabin in Alberta. It’s a calendar, a photo album, a mapbook, a message board, a guest book, and a place to list cottage rules and contacts; Thrall is adding a feature to track finances.

With cottage sharing, he says, “there are always these constant conversations that have to happen. When did we fix that? Who is our maintenance guy? Is the cottage free over Labour Day weekend? Our system works like the collective memory. It keeps a record.” For Thrall, it’s also helped keep family harmony. “It makes things fair and transparent and neutral. When there’s one ‘gatekeeper,’ that can build resentment.” And if cottage co-ownership turns sour for this reason, “that’s sad,” says Thrall.

Eek! Here are five types of in-laws that you dread sharing a cottage with.

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