Real Estate

Buy the Way: This couple renovated a cabin to set themselves up for retirement

photo of don and yvonne dreise's cottage after the renovations Photo by Don and Yvonne Dreise

The search: In 1985, Chatham, Ont., couple Don and Yvonne Dreise started buying fixer-uppers to renovate and live in. “We enjoyed doing a project from start to finish,” says Don. “Every couple of years, we’d sell and move to a home that needed more ambitious renovations.”

During summers, Don, a project manager at a multi-trade contractor, and Yvonne, a now-retired BMO customer service representative, would take their three children camping in a pop-up trailer. The family travelled to parks throughout southern Ontario, from Pinery and Sauble Falls to Bon Echo and Algonquin. “We were never interested in getting a cottage because we didn’t want to be tied down to the same place,” says Yvonne. “We wanted to experience something new every year.”

The compromise: In January 2021, the Dreises took a drive to visit Yvonne’s brother in Shrewsbury, Ont., a little community on Lake Erie, 25 minutes south of Chatham. On the way, they came across a beautiful tree-lined street with cottages on the water. One of the cottages, a 640-sq. ft. two-bedroom, caught their eye. The cottage was in terrible condition—it had rotted hardwood floors and a sagging roof with holes in it. To make matters worse, the buildup of frost every winter had dangerously shifted its foundation. “But looking past the necessary repairs, we also saw lots of potential in its location,” says Don.

The cottage was close to Rondeau Provincial Park, and there was a golf course and a zoo nearby—attractive amenities for prospective renters. On the other side of Rondeau Bay, a brewery and several restaurants were a short drive away. Eager for a new project, Don and Yvonne purchased the dilapidated cottage for less than $200,000 in a private sale and began renovations that March. Over four months, they gutted the interior, replaced the roof and stabilized the foundation. Don handled much of the work himself, adding interior panelling and insulation, as well as a 200-sq. ft. deck.

By June 2021, the hard work and about $75,000 in renovations had paid off. In between stays, the couple rented out the cottage: “Our guests became enamoured with it, and so did we,” says Yvonne. “That’s when we started talking about Rondeau Bay being the place where we might retire.”

The silver lining: Last September, the Dreises hosted a group at the cottage to celebrate Yvonne’s 60th birthday. “We had a great time, but we realized the cottage was too small,” says Yvonne.

Don and Yvonne began searching for bigger cottages or empty lots to build on. That fall, they snapped up a vacant lot two blocks away. They recently sold the first cottage to people who had been renting it since October, and they’re using the profits to build a larger cottage on their new lot this summer. But they’re also keeping their options open. “We’re always looking,” says Yvonne. “We just went for a drive one day and ended up falling in love with Rondeau Bay. So who knows what we’ll discover on our next drive?”

Realtor advice: Consider buying a property that doesn’t check all your boxes

Even if a cottage is small or lacks the access you desire, it still has value as an investment, says Doug Peterson, a real estate agent in Belleville, Ont. “You can always sell your property or build equity with it to afford something else.” Peterson adds that buyers should assess what’s most important on their checklist and what might be superfluous. For example, many buyers are simply looking for a place to escape the city and go for a swim or a hike. “You don’t need all the bells and whistles for that,” he says. But most importantly, Peterson recommends purchasing sooner rather than later—with the caveat that buyers shouldn’t overextend themselves to do it. “I’ve seen a lot of buyers get priced out of the market recently,” he says, noting that prices should keep trending upwards for the rest of 2022.

Have you recently purchased a cottage in a unique way? Tell us about it:

Interested in buying, selling, renting, or dreaming about cottage real estate? Subscribe to our new enewsletter, The Key.

Featured Video