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6 questions you should ask before building a cottage

If you’re considering building your dream cottage, you may find that your bold vision of summers at the lake is grounded when a project starts hitting snags. Some setbacks are inevitable, especially with lingering supply-chain issues, but to keep the process on the rails, your best bet is to work with professionals who understand the ins and outs of building in cottage country.

“The best thing you can do before you start planning is to make an appointment with your Beaver Homes & Cottages Design Consultant,” says Kyle Duguay, Beaver Homes & Cottages’ Package Sales Marketing Manager. “Not just to ask whatever questions you already have, but to figure out what questions you need to ask. Because if this is the first time you’ve done this, you probably don’t know everything you need to ask.”

So whether you’re still looking for a qualified builder or you just want to get the most value out of someone you’ve hired, here’s what to ask before shovel hits dirt.

How soon should you start planning?

If there’s one key piece of advice that takes precedence when you’re planning a cottage, it’s that the sooner you start planning, the better your project will go. “If people are thinking about building next spring or summer, they really need to start planning now if they haven’t done so already,” Duguay says.

Obviously, a big part of that is because of the supply issues left over from the pandemic. “Things are normalizing, but they’re still taking some time. Different products have different lead times, and you never know what’s going to get pushed out for whatever reason,” he explains. “Just going through the building-application process, finding and vetting contractors, who are very likely booking into 2023 and may already be booked up, can be time-consuming, so you want to start getting those plans in place and start having those conversations.”

Should you buy an existing cottage or build a new one?

Of course, if you’re eager to spend summers at the lake without having to plan a new build, buying an existing cottage or lake home may sometimes be the best option. “It’s definitely more convenient, so long as you can find the right building on the right piece of property. And if it’s the right fit for you, then why put yourself through the stress of building from scratch?” Duguay says.

But if you’re looking for an existing cottage, you’re going to be dealing with obvious limitations based on what’s in the market in your chosen area. “The reason people choose to build is that, especially in recreational areas, there isn’t a lot of inventory. So in many cases, your best bet is to first find the right location, and then build the right house or cottage on it.”

How can you find the right contractor to build your cottage?

Once you’ve decided to build and you’ve got your plan in place—a crucial step that your Beaver Homes & Cottages Design Consultant will guide you through—you’ll need to book the right contractor to get the project underway. But finding the best builder for your project isn’t so simple, especially if you’re not familiar with the area where you’re building. “A lot of times, people are building in areas where they don’t live, so they don’t know the contractors in the area,” Duguay explains. “There are lots of ways to find them. You can search online for contractors. You can check with local lumber yards and building centres for contractors they deal with. And if you’re dealing with a Beaver Homes & Cottages Design Consultant, they can definitely refer you to some reputable builders.”

But it doesn’t end with a list of names from a credible source. Duguay stresses three steps in your assessment: you need to make sure they’re good at what they do, they need to be available within your timeframe, and they need to be a good fit, personality-wise. “You can have the best contractor in the world, but if it’s not a good fit for you, you’re going to be butting heads all throughout the project, and it’s going to be a miserable experience for everybody,” he explains.

References are another key piece of the selection process. “Don’t just ask for the references; you also need to check those references,” he insists. “You want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly from the customers they’ve dealt with. Even if it was a positive experience, you can still gain insights about whether they’ll be the right fit for you.”

How can you find the right lot to build on?

Once you’ve decided to build, you’ll need to find the right property to build your dream cottage. But don’t assume that every plot of land can accommodate your vision. “If you see a piece of property that comes up for sale every twelve months, there could be an issue with buildability,” Duguay says. “So you need to do your due diligence to make sure you can actually build what you’re hoping to build.”

That means you’ll need to work with a real-estate agent who understands the difference between buying an existing house or cottage and buying a lot for building your own. It also means that, before you make an offer, you’ll need to sort out any setbacks you might be dealing with. “Ask what kind of easements or right-of-ways are on the property,” he advises. “You could have all sorts of restrictions that narrow your building envelope, limiting what you can build or where you can build. Maybe there’s a nice river running through the property, and you want to look out the kitchen window right onto that river. But with unexpected setbacks, you might need to build in a spot where you can’t even see it from the second-story window.”

What are the hidden costs of building a cottage?

Depending on the property you purchase, you might also be facing a number of hidden costs that you didn’t anticipate when budgeting for the build. One of the big ones, Kyle advises, is the cost of excavating if you’re building on bedrock. “Excavation and blasting can easily be five figures. I’ve heard of people spending $50,000 just to blast out the rock to put in the footings.”

Other hidden costs can spring up where you least expect them. “You need to think about the services you need to run into your property,” he says. “Most cottage properties aren’t on municipal services, so you need to know how much it’ll cost to run the electricity in. Do you need to run additional poles? Do you have to drill a well? And how much will the septic system cost? These are all things beyond the house proper that you’ll have to invest in.”

And of course, every would-be builder has to consider the cost of securing local permits. “Permits are something most people are aware of, but they might not be aware of how much they cost. It can vary, and you might need multiple permits depending on where you’re building,” he cautions. “And beyond permits, a lot of places are now instituting development fees. So the permit might be $2500, but then there’s a $10,000 development fee on top of that.”

Finally, too many people forget to budget taxes into the cost of their overall build. “If you forget the taxes in Ontario, you’re automatically thirteen per cent over budget,” he says. “So you need to take your total budget and then work backwards, taking all of the soft costs—the permits, development fees, and other things—and then factor in the taxes, so the actual amount of money you have to play with is probably less than you think. And one of the main jobs of a Beaver Homes & Cottages Design Consultant is to help you stay within the budget that you set.”

What should you prioritize in your cottage design?

Once the contractor’s been secured, the land has been approved, and the hidden costs have been accounted for, the real fun can begin, as you start working with your consultant to bring your vision to life. But you’ll need to ask some crucial design questions to make sure you get the most value out of your budget. In particular, figure out which parts of the design are worth investing in up front. “You want to prioritize what’s important to you and your family in terms of how you plan to use the cottage,” Duguay says. “Is it just for your immediate family? Are you planning to rent it out? Do you want a bungalow if you’re trying to avoid stairs as you get older? Do you need a main-floor master bedroom or a garage? What about a separate garage for cottage toys?”

Most importantly, you should focus your money on the things that you can’t easily change later on. “Invest your money in the structure and the bones of the house, maybe at the expense of having really nice flooring,” Duguay says. “Because the finishes and fixtures are all things that can be upgraded down the road. Whereas if you don’t have the bones right, you might be looking at putting an addition on, which is a lot more expensive than doing it right in the first place.” You’ll also want to strongly consider low-maintenance products and finishes so that you can spend your time at the cottage relaxing instead of coping with constant upkeep.

As you begin the process of building your dream cottage, you’ll encounter plenty of other questions along the way. And your Beaver Homes & Cottages Design Consultant will be there to help you answer them. The key is to start sooner rather than later. “It all comes down to asking the right questions early so you can get all your ducks in a row,” Duguay says. “If you do that, it makes your life easier.”


Ready to bring your vision to life? Reach out to your local Beaver Homes & Cottages Consultant and start the conversation today at beaverhomesandcottages.ca.