Real Estate

Buy the Way: This couple turned a $33,000 teardown into their dream cabin

A small cottage. Photo courtesy of Catherine Byers

The search

In 2001, Kingston, Ont., couple Catherine Byers and Lynn Richards got a call from Lynn’s father, Gary, who asked if they’d be interested in buying a cottage. The couple loved the idea of owning a cabin, but told Gary they couldn’t afford one any time soon. They had a mortgage and a one-year-old daughter, Kay, after all. But Gary shared with them that he’d just placed an ad in a newspaper seeking a waterfront cottage within an hour of Kingston for less than $50,000, mostly out of curiosity to see if anything would come up. “It was a pipe dream,” says Catherine, with a laugh. “But someone actually replied.” The three-acre property on Miner Lake near Frontenac Provincial Park had a 200-sq. ft. cabin and was completely off-grid. Catherine and Lynn craved that kind of isolation, and they loved the property’s white pines and 320-foot-long waterfront.

Although they were interested, the bargain $33,000 asking price was still too steep for them. That’s when Catherine’s parents, Don and Bev, stepped in. Don had grown up spending summers swimming and canoeing on the Ottawa River and wanted his granddaughter to enjoy the same experiences. So he offered to loan Catherine and Lynn the money. They accepted and made arrangements to pay him back, which would take about eight years.

The compromise

That fall, Lynn and Gary added a 200-sq. ft. extension to the cabin, which was in such poor condition that they’d affectionately nicknamed it “The Shack.” While the cabin remained largely untouched for the next 15 years, it became a frequent summer weekend getaway for Catherine and Lynn, their parents, and Kay. But the austere cabin would lose its novelty if visits lasted more than a few days. “We only had an outhouse, and we boiled rainwater to wash dishes,” says Catherine. “The cabin also got extremely damp in wet weather.”

In 2016, Catherine’s parents came to her with another proposition. They offered Catherine part of her inheritance early so she could build a new and improved cottage on the property. Catherine and Lynn agreed. They’d use $100,000 of Catherine’s early inheritance to build the exterior and decks. To cover the interior, the couple dipped into $40,000 of their own savings that they’d accumulated since paying off the loan to Catherine’s parents. 

The silver lining

A family standing in front of their cottage.
Photo courtesy of Thalia Oxford

Construction on the 1,024-sq. ft., two-bedroom, one-bath cottage started in 2017. While the couple hired contractors to install the exterior and solar power, Catherine and her father took charge of the interior themselves to save money. Relying on YouTube DIY videos and help from friends, they jumped in. “Working with family was a labour of love,” says Catherine. “I’m from a generation where dads don’t do that sort of stuff with their daughters, so it was neat to hang out with him and build the interior together.”

As they did with the old cabin, Catherine and Lynn share the new cottage with their now-adult daughter, Kay, as well as with their parents. And while the place lacks internet and running water, Catherine and Lynn are content keeping it that way. “Others would want more bells and whistles,” says Catherine, “but for us it’s about being with family and enjoying the outdoors.” 

Owner advice: How to save and how to spend

1. Sacrifice size for affordability

Catherine and Lynn drastically cut costs by restricting the cottage to 24 feet wide, allowing their contractor to build the roof trusses and joists himself. “If the cottage was just two feet wider, we would have needed to pay for a crane to install expensive engineered joists,” says Catherine.

2. Spread out construction work

Instead of getting a bank loan after using up all their savings, the couple put a halt on construction work and started saving again in 2018. “Even though our cottage wasn’t done yet, that didn’t stop us from having fun there,” says Catherine.

3. High-quality tools are worth the investment

“Four years ago, Lynn bought me and my dad a $400 compound mitre saw as a Christmas gift,” says Catherine. “It’s been invaluable on all sorts of projects. We used it to build a screened porch and a dock, and this summer, we plan on upgrading our old outhouse.”

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