Purchasing your first cottage can be a significant financial investment and a big lifestyle decision, even if you’ve been a cottage-country renter or visitor for many years. Whether it’s a country retreat for your family or an income-generating rental property, there are many things to consider before you take the plunge.
We talked to Terry Rees, the Executive Director at the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA) to find out which questions you should ask before making an offer on your first cottage.
What does the cottage look like year-round?
Rees recommends seeing the cottage in all seasons to make sure that you know what it will be like year-round so that there are no unpleasant surprises in terms of your expectations. “If you’re buying it in the winter, and you’ve never seen it in the summer, don’t be surprised if there’s no beach, you can’t swim, or there are weeds,” says Rees.
You’ll also want to observe the area and the community in each season, too. “You’ll want to know what the waterfront, the shoreline, and the activity level looks like in the spring, summer, fall and winter,” says Rees. “Watch how the people of the community change over the course of the year, how busy it gets on a weekend, what the traffic looks like around the cottage, what the noise level is like, and what the natural environment is like.”
What kind of upkeep and maintenance will be required?
Beyond regular ongoing upkeep—such as roads, plumbing, roofs, electrical, and painting, for example—Rees notes that seasonal owners can expect to be particularly busy with maintenance in the spring and fall. “You’ll have to make sure the plumbing is working. Make sure that no rodents or animals have been around while you were gone, and close it up properly and securely store things to keep all your property safe from weather and crime.”
Before any purchase, you should get an expert to inspect the property who’s familiar with cottage country construction. “We have many places across cottage country where they’ve been self-built, some properties that are older, and not all may adhere to building codes like in the city,” notes Rees. “Go in eyes-open about what you’re actually getting and what the expectations might be around financial investments in the short, medium, and longer term.” This step is particularly important if you’re hoping for specific changes, such as turning a three-season cottage into a year-round property.
And Rees suggests that you spend some time in the existing property before committing to any major changes or renovations. “Prior to having some preconceived notion about how you might change and upgrade a property, it’s really good to see what natural assets are already there, and what the trees and wildlife look like in different seasons,” says Rees. “Appreciate what’s already there before you try and make it your own.”
Are there additional costs to consider?
You should be prepared for higher electricity rates at the cottage. “Electricity rates in rural Ontario can be dramatically different than in the city; it’s something to consider so you don’t have a shock on your household budget,” says Rees. And depending on the property, you may have to pay to maintain road access. ”Many of the properties in cottage country are accessed either only seasonally, or via private or another kind of non-municipal road,” says Rees. “You need to consider what that looks like, what your obligations are, and what the costs are.”
Finally, you may consider doing due diligence on your purchase. “Anyone buying a rural property [should] find out if there’s anything that’s not listed by the real estate agent that you ought to know about: existing liens on the property, other proposals in the neighbourhood, building permits or environmental safety issues, and any other deficiencies,” says Rees.
Is the location right for you?
Most people end up owning or spending time on a lake because they know someone who lives there or has visited there before, says Rees. “If someone you know and respect has enjoyed an area, then that’s an obvious place to start looking.” But don’t forget to factor in the commute to the property in your planning. “If you’re buying a lovely place but it’s a six-hour drive from where you live, you need to be okay with the fact that you’re not going to be popping up there for an afternoon from the city,” he says.
From there you’ll want to see what the area or community is like. Each one is different, and it’s important to think about what you’re looking for. “If you want a quiet and isolated existence, then you might be looking at a different lake—or a different part of a lake or different community— than if you expect to have a more social experience,” says Rees. “An important way to find out those kinds of things is to reach out to the area’s lake, road, or cottage association, if there is one. Those people often have a good sense of emerging issues on the lake, fun events that are going on, and ways to connect with your neighbours if you’re inclined.”
Don’t forget to think about local water activities too. “If you expect to go out in the middle of a Saturday afternoon and kayak down the middle of a lake, you might be disappointed to find out that you’re in the middle of an area that’s really actively used by powerboats,” says Rees.
What are the neighbours like?
You’ll want to meet your neighbours before you buy, if possible. “Understand what your neighbourhood looks like. Are there neighbours that are there full-time or part-time? Is that a good thing for you, or not?” says Rees. “Some people find it provides a measure of security when their neighbours are there full-time and someone could be looking in and making sure no one’s stealing their stuff.”
What are the amenities in the area?
Depending on your needs, particularly if you’re planning to live at your cottage full-time, you’ll want to research the important amenities nearby. According to Rees, access to retail, services, entertainment, and medical care aren’t equal in all parts of rural Ontario. You may also want to consider how close you need to be to town to access these amenities as well.
Will you be able to rent out the property?
The rules around rentals can range depending on the cottage location. “Your local municipality should be able to tell you what uses are permitted. Depending on the municipality, this may or may not be legal or may be prohibited,” says Rees. He points out that there can be significant liability considerations around adequate parking, noise, and garbage rules in the area.
You’ll also want to consider the neighbourhood’s potential reception to the idea. “To avoid any conflicts, I think it’s important to understand what the context of the neighbourhood is and whether it’s a quiet, sleepy spot and whether having a rental type of use is something that’s going to be a good fit for the community,” says Rees.
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