It starts with a listing. A property online catches your eye. You scroll through flattering pictures of the cottage and waterfront, search how far the drive would be, and indulge in a subtle fist pump when you see the reasonable price. This could be the cottage you’ve been waiting for.
Next step is to view the property in person—it does not disappoint. Once there, you’re stunned by the surrounding greenery and the sound of lapping waves. You’ve never tasted air so fresh. No people shouting or cars honking. Problems melt away while sitting in the dock’s five-o’clock sunlight.
By this point, you’re ready to sign away your savings. But before you do, it may be worth performing some additional research, especially if you plan to make any changes to the property. Jessica Hill, a broker with the Parkhill team of realtors in Peterborough, Ont., has been working with her colleague Rebecca Izzard to educate buyers on some of the less obvious features that can come with owning a waterfront property. Just because it looks perfect doesn’t mean it’s free of headaches. Here’s what Hill suggests you keep in mind when purchasing a waterfront cottage.
Shoreline development restrictions
Just because your name is on the lease doesn’t mean you can start altering your shoreline—this includes building structures and landscaping. Hill points out that many shorelines in Ontario are protected by a local conservation authority. The conservation authority’s job is to ensure that development doesn’t cause erosion or flooding in the area.
Most municipalities also have an environmental protection zone. This is a strip of land—often about 30 metres—that extends from the shoreline onto your property. It prevents you from cutting trees, building structures, or performing other acts that could damage the health of the lake.
If you intend to build onto the water, such as adding a boathouse, be aware that you may have to seek building permission from the provincial or federal governments as well, depending on who has agency over the waterway. “It’s zoning issues,” Hill says. “People don’t suspect that they’ll have to jump through that many hoops.” Building a boathouse could force you into conversations with multiple government bodies.
Protected areas and endangered species
Some buyers see a cottage next to an undeveloped wetland and think, “jackpot!” No cottage neighbours. But make sure you know what type of wetland it is. A provincially significant wetland could help prevent flooding, improve lake health, or provide a home to endangered species. This kind of wetland comes with a protected buffer zone that can extend as far as 120 metres. If the protected zone extends onto your property, it may limit your ability to build.
To receive a building permit, Hill says you’d have to engage with the conservation authority and submit an environmental impact study. The study would show whether your development would affect the protected area.
“The study is going to be commissioned by you, the person that wishes to build, and the entire study could take up to a year,” Hill says. Plus, contracting an environmental consulting company to perform the study typically costs around $5,000.
Lake weeds are a hassle. They’re no fun to swim in and they make your waterfront murky. But removing them isn’t always straightforward. Some areas won’t allow you to remove weeds as it could impact lake health. Others are more lenient. Hill points to the Trent-Severn Waterway as an example, which falls under federal jurisdiction. There, you can apply for a permit to remove weeds using a harvester or a licensed herbicide applicator. However, lake associations may frown on these kinds of activities, impacting your relationship with neighbours.
To avoid out-of-control weeds, look for a property with a natural shoreline. Cottages with pristine, grass lawns often have fertilizer run off leaking into the lake and feeding the weeds. Grass also attracts Canada geese. The birds’ droppings can exacerbate your weed problem.
Resilient plants, foreign fish, or pesky insects, the type of invasive species will differ by area. To ensure you’re prepared for any invasive surprises, Hill stresses that you should do your research. A great place to start is on the lake association’s website or cottager Facebook page. They’ll have the lowdown on what species are causing problems and any remediation steps taken.
“People should do their research before trying to fight a problem that already exists,” Hill says. “Buy on a lake that aligns with your desired experience of what you’re looking for. Then you’re not constantly battling something every year.”
Reservoir lakes and water levels
Looking out at a lake on a summer day, you may not be able to tell what it’ll look like in the fall. Ontario has numerous reservoir lakes, many feeding into the Trent-Severn Waterway. As summer winds down, Parks Canada adjusts water levels in the Trent-Severn Waterway drawing water from these lakes. If you’re unaware and don’t take your boat or dock out in time, both could be sitting on dry land by Thanksgiving.
Before committing to a property, Hill suggests looking for water level resources. The Trent-Severn has a water level page that shows levels in real time. It also lets you look at historic levels. That way, you won’t be caught off guard when your lake starts receding.
Zoning bylaws and building permits
These can be a bit of a gamble when buying a cottage. If your aim is to build a cottage or renovate, you’ll need building permits. But often you won’t know whether your plans adhere to the local municipality’s zoning bylaws until after you’ve purchased the property. Planning departments are inundated with requests, and it can take weeks to get a response—longer than a seller is willing to wait, Hill adds.
“We’ve seen a lot of people taking the risk and just purchasing the property and then asking the questions later,” she says. “Sometimes it works out. Many, many times it does not.”
Some conservation authorities offer programs where you can submit a small fee, and they’ll send you an overview of the parcel’s zoning. Hill says you should also always work with a local realtor who has a grasp of the area’s planning process. And you may want to consult your lawyer to make sure your plans won’t break any bylaws.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, and it’s a lot more than any one person can handle,” Hill says, “especially on a competitive timeline.”