Is now the time to retire (or move) to the lake?

older retired couple waving goodbye from a dock in front of a cottage on a lake Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

What would it take to live full time at the cottage? I’m not talking about packing a bathing suit and a case of tequila for the weekend, but to make the cottage a place where you will nest year round, and to move all your stuff there. 

If it were me, I’d need insulation in the floor and the walls. Definitely fewer holes so the mice (and snow) can’t get in. Toilets that flush in the winter. Some way to get to the island and back when the bay is a sheet of ice. A heat source. And a major attitude adjustment. 

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? The cottage changes us urban beings. Peace, serenity, privacy, QUIET—we yearn for the holy grail that lures us from the city to the lake. The cottage is where we decompress and hide out from whatever demons we need to escape in the city. 

The question is, can you make a forever escape to the cottage and leave those demons behind? Or is it inevitable that you will bring the city—physically and psychologically—with you? If the cottage changes us in the best way when we visit for limited amounts of time, do we change the cottage when we decide to spend all our time there? 

Joan and Ben Phillips fell in love with their property when they purchased an old ’60s stick-frame cottage on Baptiste Lake, near Bancroft, Ont., in 2003. It had 255 feet of shoreline and a high, magnificent view over the lake. “I don’t think we had the notion at the beginning that we would want to retire up there, because of the geography,” says Joan. “But we never said, well, we shouldn’t buy that piece of property because we can’t retire there.”

For nearly 15 years, they spent every Christmas at the lake, and every summer they enrolled their kids in nearby camps. Now in their late fifties, they plan to make the love affair a full-time commitment when they retire in the next five-or-so years. Thus, with the needs of their aging selves in mind, in 2017 they demolished the cottage and built a new one. 

“We loved it here so much, and spent so much time here, but we pushed it to a four-season, and it wasn’t as comfortable as it could be,” Joan says. Winter access wasn’t a problem; they were already at the end of a snowplow route on a serviced road. But the 20-by-30-foot structure was sitting on blocks rather than a concrete slab, which turned anyone sleeping in the three tiny bedrooms into Popsicles overnight. Plus, the original 2×4 framing wasn’t at all cost efficient with electric heat. 

“To keep the existing cottage we would have had to raise it, put a slab underneath, remove all exterior siding, fur out all the wall structures to 2x6s, re-insulate to get better R-value, replace all the old electrical, add new efficient heating methods, etc.,” Joan explains. “The cottage also was not large enough to suit our family and lifestyle into the future. We loved it…and it served us quite well for years, but to live there full time, especially during the winter months, and to also consider future accessibility requirements, was not manageable with the old cottage.”

The new place is primarily a large, open main floor with high ceilings. A smaller second floor overlooks the main living space, “so you have great sightlines to the lake from all areas of the cottage,” Joan says. In-floor hot-water radiant heat on the main floor is designed to keep the heat at lower levels—comfortable but also energy efficient. Large ceiling fans throughout the great room help to circulate the air. The second floor is ducted and has a high-efficiency propane furnace for heating and cooling. “We added air conditioning as we are west facing,” says Joan. “With the amount of windows, we wanted to ensure, again, great sightlines, but also comfort, especially as we will be living here throughout the year.” 

Included in the design is a bedroom on the main floor for when they can no longer manage the stairs. Even the stairs have been designed in a straight line to make it easier to install a stair lift, should that become necessary. During the build, Joan watched as her mom moved around the cottage with her walker to see how wide areas should be for their future selves. She liked the look and convenience of open kitchen shelves, but created a separate pantry with space for a walker to roll right in and turn around. Even the decks have been designed with aging in mind. For example, the main deck is all on one level and accessed through double-width doors so that you can still go out on the deck with a wheelchair and enjoy the magnificent view. 

Realistic about having to take care of the place as they get older, they installed a low-maintenance steel roof and composite siding. “It did cost more up front,” Joan says, “but it was worth it. As you get older, you just can’t do that kind of maintenance work.”

Other practicalities include a generator, for when the power goes out—a cottage-country reality, as we know. They had already buried the overhead power lines and built a three-car garage for their snow machines and ATV. (Spread out the financial hit of major projects, and do things in stages, Joan advises.) Of course, when you have a beautiful place on a lake, all your friends and family want to come visit, so the garage has a bunkie on top. 

One thing Joan and Ben might have done differently? Create more private living spaces inside. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, they’ve been working from the cottage, but its open concept means one of them has to retire to a bedroom to reduce the noise if they’re both on the phone at the same time. 

All the while, the pair worked to keep the things they loved about the old cottage, like that view. “You want the best of both worlds. You don’t want to compromise on design. And you don’t want to give up on your vision and inspiration, which is to enjoy the property.”

older couple sitting under a tree on a rock at the cottage, retire
Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

As Barb Williams tells me about the reno she and her husband, Roger Trollope, recently completed, I’m reminded of the pile of shutters stowed under my own cottage in summer.

Last fall, a construction crew lifted up the 20-by-40-foot ranch-style bungalow Barb bought in Haliburton in 2010, and set it aside in the forest—where it looked like a forgotten toy, she says. Then they dug a framing foundation, added a new ground floor, and hoisted the original cottage back on top. The result was twice the space, including two new bedrooms, a full bathroom, a half bathroom, a laundry room, and a recreation room under the old structure. Three weeks after their permanent move to the new place this spring, Barb recognized a small misstep. “We had thought about storage,” she says, “but we didn’t think it through completely.” 

As with many old cottages, there were no closets in the old (now upstairs) space. And though they added a closet in the new master bedroom downstairs, there isn’t a basement, and there’s no longer any under-cottage winter storage, where they used to stow canoes, kayaks, an SUP, and other gear. Next year, the couple plans to build a two-car garage for storage. For now, they have two sheds full of unpacked boxes from the house they left in the city. “It’s not like we moved into an empty cottage,” Barb says. “The cottage was full already.” 

But a bigger problem is the lack of internet and good phone service. When I call, Barb asks me if I can hear her okay. She explains that she has walked to a part of the property where she can get better reception, “under a certain tree, while standing on one leg.” I laugh. I’ve been there. At our cottage, I once offered someone a job while huddled in our Boston Whaler as rain poured down my back. It’s one of the perils of living full time at (and working from) the cottage. 

Mostly though, Barb welcomes the lifestyle change. “I’d had enough of being a corporate creative director,” she says. “It was time for a second stage to work for ourselves and have a better life.” Cue the year-round water system—no more frosty sprints to the bum-chilling outhouse—and a propane furnace. Upstairs, the steel roof structure, insulation, and windows of the old cottage are all intact. They pay a contractor to plow out the private road, but kept the baseboard heaters and their wood-burning stove in case the propane truck can’t get in. 

Of course they could have built a new cottage, and, in hindsight, Barb says that might have been easier and cheaper. “But it depends what you want to do. Do you want to keep the nostalgia of the place where the kids grew up, or do you want it brand spanking new?”

With some fondness, Barb recalls their winter-warrior days. “You get up here on a Friday night in January or February, and one person races in and starts the wood fire, while the other unpacks the car. Then you stay in your coats and mitts and hats till the cottage warms up. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. 

“The challenge is the charm,” she adds, “and we’ve lost a bit of the challenge and so with it the charm.” But she stills finds balance. “The winter is long, dark, and really cold, but it’s beautiful and exciting, and it’s an adventure, and it’s different from the city.” 

Throughout history, pioneers have strived to tame nature. Cottagers are no different, even as we embrace the romantic notion of disappearing into the wilderness. We move to cottage country, and we try to control the experience of that better life. 

Be prepared, though, for the changes you can’t control. On the good side, you no longer have to pack up at the end of a beautiful weekend. On Sunday evenings in September, you head down to the dock and enjoy the sunset while your pals battle traffic back to the city. But how about, say, a Tuesday night in January? Will you still enjoy that solitude? You better hope that you like spending time with your spouse. Or that you make new friends.

Theresa Smith likes her husband, Dave, just fine. In fact, that’s the main reason, in 2008, they bought their cottage on the Mississippi River in Eastern Ontario. She was a nurse, living in Orangeville; he had a job in Montreal. They wanted a place in the middle where they could meet on weekends. “We never thought it would be a retirement home,” Theresa says, “but since it was four-season, and it already had a furnace and a fireplace, our brains started ticking away.” 

Fast-forward to 2019. Theresa retired, and the couple moved to the cottage full time. “I was a little worried at first about loneliness, as my husband began working in Montreal again, coming home only on the weekends, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an amazing community up here.” 

Theresa heard about a group that meets in the local schoolhouse-turned-community centre for coffee on Friday mornings. And so one Friday, she screwed up her courage, walked up the road, and peeked in. “Thirty eyes turned and looked at me,” she says. But after that, she went whenever she could, and she got invited to a potluck dinner and then to other activities, including snowshoeing in the winter. “I never knew, as a seasonal resident, that there was so much going on.”

If you’re still at the stage of hiding out at the cottage to get away from your busy city life, Theresa’s sheer enthusiasm may send your introverted heart into overdrive. And sadly, it doesn’t always work out. “We actually made a ‘false’ start by moving first to a place that was far too isolated, and where we felt completely excluded by ‘locals,’ ” says Barbara Meuleman. Within 10 months, she and her husband had relocated to Hilton Beach, on St. Joseph Island in Ontario’s North Channel, where they found new friends and a happy retirement life. “I really think that the first thing to consider is where you are moving or retiring to in cottage country,” Barbara says. “Do I fit in age-wise? Are there associations and groups to join? How will I fill my time in the long winter months? Can I volunteer? How far is the closest hospital, grocery store, post office? You need to tick all the boxes.” More than one retiree has returned to life in the city when their spouse died and they felt too isolated, or too unsafe, at the cottage on their own.

Most cottagers considering retiring to paradise, however, have at least some sense of their local community, and the people in it. And, like Theresa, they have a powerful desire to make their new life work, to recreate that oasis on a permanent basis. 

older couple swimming a lake just off the edge of a dock, retire
Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

But here’s another idea: if your cottage is already winterized, you could always give it a test run. Now’s a good time. As a result of border restrictions, snowbirds may not be able to—or may not want to—go south this year. And if you are already working remotely and have reliable connectivity, chances are your boss doesn’t much care where you are anyway.

I have yet to meet a cottager who doesn’t feel grateful for the time they get to spend at their cottage retreat. With planning, there’s no reason that feeling can’t continue when your “retreat” becomes “home.” 

“My advice? Don’t wait for retirement,” wrote one full-timer on Instagram. “Find a way to make it happen. Your soul will thank you.”

Penny Caldwell, the former editor of Cottage Life, thanks the many readers who sent her inspiring stories about their retirement plans.

Time-to-retire checklist

Your finances

❏ Cost out the upgrading and moving expenses involved.

❏ Investigate any tax implications.

❏ Prepare a budget for living expenses. (Hints: if you’re retiring, you may have reduced income; some costs are higher in cottage country.)

The cottage and its systems

❏ Is your cottage winterized?

❏ Your future self may have mobility issues. Assess the cottage for upgrades you should make now.

❏ Is there enough room for your belongings, or do you have a plan for downsizing?

❏ Is there enough room for guests (friends, family, grandkids, etc.)?

❏ Do you have year-round access? Are the roads in good shape, and is there regular maintenance?

❏ Is the septic system up to snuff? 

❏ Is there reliable cell service? Cable or satellite? Broadband internet? 

❏ If you use well water, does the well need upgrading?

❏ Power outages are more common in cottage country. Will you need a generator or an alternative energy system (solar or wind)?

You and your health

❏ Cottage country can be quiet in the winter. Are you ready for the isolation?

❏ Do you have any health issues that require access to medical facilities not readily available in cottage country?

❏ Make a plan for health emergencies, and find out what resources are available and accessible around you.

❏ Are you open to making new friends, to integrating yourself into the community (for the mental health benefits)?

❏ Account for your physical capacity (aging cottagers are less able to do the labour needed at a cottage).

Your future home is not your cottage

❏ Living there full time will change the nature of the place you love as a cottage. Think about what that means.

❏ Make a timeline of a hypothetical year in the life.

❏ How will your move affect the lake, the wildlife, and the environment?

—Blair Eveleigh

Featured Video