The story of how one young family found their dream cottage for $59,000

New cottagers

This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

It’s obviously a fixer-upper, but at $59,000, how could they go wrong? Turns out, there is a lot to learn.

“Cottages aren’t for us,” I remember saying to my husband, Julian. “I totally agree,” he replied. We were up at our friend’s cottage for the weekend and getting ready for bed after a lovely day.

As much as we were enjoying being out of the city, we didn’t quite understand all the fuss. Julian grew up in London, England; I grew up in Seoul, South Korea. Translation: we have absolutely no idea about cottages. We’ve never looked at cottage real estate. We haven’t even been to that many cottages. The concept just didn’t appeal: dealing with neighbours, the constant upkeep, and the nightmare traffic—no thanks. Not to mention that we couldn’t afford it. We had a giant mortgage from gutting and renovating our city home, Julian was starting a business, and I had just left a full-time job to spend more time with our two kids.

Plus, my ideal cottage was a friend’s island getaway on Georgian Bay, which I figured must cost upwards of $300,000 (I found out it was more like a million-plus, which shows you how clueless I was about cottage real estate). And, we told ourselves, scratching our multitude of bug bites, we had parks nearby in the city. “Yup,” I resolutely repeated, “cottages are not for us.” Then we went to bed.

Julian woke me up the next morning, all breathless and excited. He’d been up most of the night because the cottage’s tight quarters meant he had to share a bed with our seven-year-old son, Oliver, who kicks in his sleep. So Julian did what he does when he can’t sleep. He read the news on his phone, checked social media, and then, with nothing else to do in the middle of the night at a friend’s cottage, opened his GPS-enabled real estate app.

Photo by Raina + Wilson

“Check out this listing,” he said, passing me his phone. Before I had a chance to read it, he was describing the place in detail. It was a 3 1⁄2-acre water-access lot on the Moira River, not far from where we were, with a small hunting cabin, generator, propane fridge, and stove. The astounding part? It was listed for $69K! “Let’s go see it,” Julian said, “just for fun.” Our friends spurred us on, even offering to come along. We threw a canoe on top of the car, and seven of us (four adults, three kids) headed out to meet the agent at the boat launch.

The launch was literally a muddy bank. The agent grabbed the rickety tin boat resting on a grassy knoll nearby that came with the cottage. It had a huge dent in the bottom; I made sure the kids were wearing lifejackets, and we piled on, while our friends got in their canoe. The agent had brought a trolling motor, also included with the cottage, and we were soon cruising at a brisk two km/h. Our friends breezed past us, shouting that they’d wait for us up ahead.

We finally turned around a marshy bend to find the river opening up. It was peaceful and pretty. After about 10 minutes, we arrived at our destination. Our friends were there waiting. We pulled up to the dock and tied up. I volunteered to stay down by the water with the kids, who quickly busied themselves catching frogs, while the others made their way up a steep rocky pathway to check out the property. At this point I didn’t care if I saw the place or not. I was just happy to go along for the boat ride and let my husband scratch his real estate itch. It wasn’t like we were seriously considering it. After all, we had just decided the night before that cottages weren’t for us.

Five minutes later, Julian called me to come and have a look. Why not, I thought, just for fun. Our friends came down to the dock to relieve me from minding the kids, and I made my way up the steep bedrock. As the cottage came into view, I couldn’t believe what I saw. “Wow,” I whispered. It felt like I was at that ideal Georgian Bay island cottage. A quintessential little wooden cabin was sitting right on the face of the Canadian Shield, flanked by tall white pines and overlooking the glistening waters of the river below. And not a neighbour in sight. It was exactly the kind of place I had in mind when people talked about getting away to the cottage—a perfect rural escape, but at a bargain basement price.

Photo by Raina + Wilson

I wanted it. I looked at Julian. He was grinning back at me. I knew what that meant. It was the same grin that led us to buying a plot in Tulum, Mexico, and the very one that had us putting in a private offer on our current city home, a neglected Victorian beauty known in the neighbourhood as the “crack house.”

Sure enough, a few hours later, back at our friends’ place, we found ourselves putting in a bid for $55,000. The offer came back to us at $62,000. We offered back at $59,000, and the deal was done. We were proud owners of a riverside recreational property, an impulse purchase courtesy of our line of credit. Never could we have imagined that a cottage weekend getaway would result in a cottage of our very own. “You guys are so badass,” our friends told us. Once we knew the cottage was ours, I felt a rush of adrenalin—“Did we just do what I think we did?” mixed with “We can’t believe our good luck!”

A month later, we got possession, and reality started to sink in. Our little cabin (“cottage,” we decided, was too lofty for what it was) had no electricity or running water. It had been abandoned for the past three years and was filthy. I don’t think the previous owner, a bachelor in his 60s, cleaned the place once in the 20 years he’d owned it. The cabin was stuffed with knick-knacks, had not one but three TVs, and came with a mice infestation.

Undeterred, we spent the first week at our “new” cabin cleaning non-stop, with frequent trips to the dump. A low- light? Pulling down the Murphy bed to discover three years of mouse excrement covering the mattress. I almost threw up. The filth, the vermin, and the stench made sleeping in the cabin impossible. So the four of us spent the first days of cottage ownership in a tent.

Photo by Raina + Wilson

That’s when my uber-urban spouse really stepped up. He scrubbed the entire cabin from top to bottom, his unabashed enthusiasm for the place never wavering.

And it wasn’t just the dirt that was a challenge. The only breaks we got were panicked runs down to the dock, where our kids spent hours catching frogs, when we heard our four-year-old, Zoe, shrieking—a habit she had recently acquired when she was upset about anything. The quiet would periodically be broken by nails-on-a-chalkboard wails.

My enthusiasm was starting to wane. But just when I would begin to doubt cottage ownership, I’d catch a glimpse of the beautiful heron that lived nearby or see my kids frolicking naked in nature or have a rejuvenating swim in the soothing cool waters. And all would be right again.

During our third week, while we were still too busy cleaning, our kids decided to amuse themselves by jumping onto the roof of the old tool shed from the stairs leading to the back of the property. Zoe let out one of her classic shrieks. We dashed over to find her halfway through the rotting roof. Thank God, she didn’t fall through—it was a good 10-foot drop —but she did make a hole the size of a beach ball. Our generator was stored there, so we needed to fix the roof stat, and after looking at some online videos, Julian set about the task. That meant getting supplies, including two 4×8 sheets of plywood, which we loaded into our old tinnie along with the four of us and rowed over (the trolling motor battery had died the second day we used it). We weren’t sure if the boat could handle the weight, but we had no choice. We didn’t drown. Let’s just say we weren’t using our “nice voices” that week, as our neighbour across the river can probably attest.

But throughout the stress, the workload, and the exhaustion, we never doubted this was one of the best things we’d done as a family. For one, our decidedly urban kids were now communing with nature in ways they could have only dreamed about. We had a lot of frogs by our dock, and the kids would catch them in a net, put them in a bucket, and give them names like Baby, Jumpy, and Lazy. One day, as we were leaving for a canoe ride, a snake that was also a fixture on the property gobbled up Lazy in one swift gulp. The kids were horrified. It was an introduction to Mother Nature that you would never get in the city.

Photo by Raina + Wilson

It was three weeks before we started sleeping inside. Once we had the place under control—we even got rid of the mice—Julian and I could finally relax.

We discovered a soccer-field-sized rock clearing toward the back of our property, flat enough for the kids to throw a baseball and frisbee around. We found wild blueberries and blackberries growing all over. And we saw turtles, otters, deer, and so much more.

Sitting around the outdoor fire pit perfecting our s’mores, seeing Zoe learn to manoeuvre the kayak on her own, or watching Oliver catch his first fish—a smallmouth bass—I knew we were making precious family memories, the kind that Julian and I had missed out on.

Having access to the cabin has opened up a whole swath of country for us to explore as well as provided the perfect escape from the heat and congestion of the city. Yet, after a few days there, we found we appreciated our city life more. It really was the best of both worlds. I was finally starting to get the lure of the lifestyle firsthand.

It’s not all rest and recreation, however. There’s plenty more work to be done. We need to fix the propane fridge, replace the deck, and maybe install a water pump— the novelty of carrying water up from the river is starting to wear thin. But, as we’re learning, this too—the breaking and the fixing and the tinkering—is simply part of cottaging. We realize our cabin isn’t for everyone. Though we also know it’s definitely for us.

Catherine Jheon is a freelance writer and radio producer in Toronto.

For more inspiring ideas, check out the Get-ready guide in our Spring 2017 special issue—on newsstands today!