Real Estate

10 questions every first-time cottage buyer should ask

Family of four on a road-trip eating lunch together at the rear of their SUV Photo by Shutterstock

When you’re a first-time cottage buyer, it’s easy to fall in love with an oh-wow view or that incredible wraparound screened porch—and we all know that love can make you reckless. To make sure that your head agrees with your heart, here are some cottage issues to investigate before you buy.

What’s the water source?

There are lots of possible options here. Is it a municipal supply, lake, or well? If it’s a well, is it drilled, bored, or dug? And is it communal or private?

For waterlines from the lake, ask about the treatment system (if you plan to drink the water). Also, check the condition of the pump and intake lines. Replacing a broken pump might set you back a few hundred dollars, but having to drill a brand new well will cost thousands.

How’s the water quality?

Your mortgage provider will likely require a potability test (which checks for bacteria like E. coli), available for free from the local health unit.

Once you decide it’s the cottage for you, get a thorough chemical analysis done (you’ll have to pay to have that done at a private lab) to test for contaminants such as nitrates from farm runoff, metals such as lead, and sulphate. And if it’s drinkable, how do you feel about the water’s smell, taste, and colour?

Are the water levels stable?

Ask how the water levels change from year to year, and seasonally. Will fluctuations affect boating, swimming, and even building (e.g., a new dock)?

Who owns the shoreline?

Every shoreline is different, so find out who owns it (there may be a 66-foot shoreline allowance owned by the municipality), and who has access (check if there are deeded rights of way). Also, can you alter it? If it’s considered fish habitat, you may need to get approval to make any changes.

Will you have to worry about land claims?

Are there any current or possible First Nations land claims issues? Will you own the mineral rights (not just the surface rights) to the land? Who owns the surrounding treed areas? (It could be Crown land or leased to a forestry company.) Get your lawyer to investigate these issues and decide how much potential for disruption you’re willing to live with.

How will you dispose of waste?

Cottage waste-water systems can include outhouses, composting toilets, septic systems, or holding tanks that must be pumped. Is there room to upgrade the system? Check the age (more than 20 years is likely in the danger zone) and condition (e.g., is the lawn over the system wet or unusually lush? Both are bad signs).

Who owns and maintains the roads?

Many cottage roads are owned privately by local road associations. Find out who maintains yours, when, and what the annual cost will be.

What’s the cottage culture like?

Is there a cottage association? And is it active, cranky, or dormant? Is the lake one big booze cruise or so quiet your kids will boycott it? The association (or your realtor) should be able to inform you about the community and whether powerboats, ATVs, PWCs, and snowmobiles are welcome or not.

How available are emergency services?

911 service is widely available, but what’s the response time? Can emergency services even reach your property? What medical facilities are available and how far are they from the cottage?

Will building approvals be a pain?

Planning to build a new deck, dock, boathouse, or even a whole new cottage? You’ll need a permit. Depending on the project and which level of government jurisdiction it falls under, your plans may not be allowed. Also, ask how long approval takes.

No matter which cottage you choose, you’re going to need insurance, and your policy has to take into consideration cottage-specific conditions: woodstoves and fireplaces, boats, waste-water systems, and problems that can come up when you’re not there to fix them. Surex can help you find the right insurance for your situation.