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The most common questions about building a new cottage

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Every year at the Spring Cottage Life show, our editors pay close attention to the main stage whenever anyone from Beaver Homes & Cottages is presenting. Not only do we learn valuable advice about new building trends and techniques, but we get a closer sense of our readers’ concerns through the most common questions they ask. 

To help you on your journey if you’re considering buying a cottage in the coming year—and to inspire you to reach out to Beaver Homes & Cottages to ask questions of your own, we sat down with Kyle Duguay, Beaver Homes & Cottages’ Package Sales Marketing Manager, to hear his thoughts on the most common questions he gets when people set out to build their dream cottage.

1) What should I be looking for in a piece of land?

Before you build your dream cottage, you need to find the perfect lot. And the first step to finding the right land is to find an agent who understands that side of the business, because, as Duguay points out, building lots require specialized knowledge. “If you haven’t found the right property yet, you need to make sure the real estate agent you’re dealing with understands vacant lots,” he says, “because it’s a completely different set of skills and knowledge compared to other types of properties on the market.”

Duguay cautions that you’ll also need to check with the municipality to make sure it actually is a building lot. “When you’re shopping for property, you want to make sure you can actually build on it, so you want to be checking with the municipality to see what the setbacks are, if there are any easements or right of ways on the property, or if there are any conservation authorities that might come into play. If it’s part of a wetland, for instance, you shouldn’t be thinking about filling it in or building on it. We’ve heard horror stories of people who’ve filled in wet areas on their property without giving it a second thought, only to have a conservation authority tell them they had to put it back the way it was.”

And finally, he insists that you need to think about all the other elements outside of the cottage. “If you’re looking at a piece of property with a decent building envelope, you have to consider things like where the septic bed will go, how deep the well will need to be, and whether there’s a driveway access permit—or whether you can even get one so that you can actually get on the property. These are all things people don’t think of, but there are some properties where you actually can’t put a driveway where you expected, and you need an easement on a neighbouring property just to access it with your vehicle. You also need to think about what building equipment you’ll need to bring on-site. Can you get a boom lift or crane close enough? And if you have water-only access, that’s a whole extra level of complexity. We’ve dealt with projects where we had to rig up pulley systems to get building materials up the sheer side of a cliff.”

2) Is it better to build from scratch or renovate what’s there?

If you’re tearing down an existing property, that can be a whole other set of challenges to consider. “If you’re buying a piece of land with the intention of tearing down what’s already there and rebuilding—which is happening more and more—you’ll need to investigate the particular rules around it,” he says. “A lot of those properties are grandfathered in with their distance from the water, and if you tear that original building down, you suddenly have to back off from the water farther than you thought.”

More often than not, Duguay suggests that building anew will be the simplest route. “It sounds counterintuitive, but unless there’s huge sentimental value attached to the existing structure, tearing down and rebuilding is almost always going to be more cost-effective than doing a major renovation and addition. You’ll simply face fewer unknowns and fewer headaches. With any renovation, you don’t know what’s in the walls, and when you start going down the rabbit hole of opening up walls, you’ll find problems you didn’t budget for.”

3) What kind of site prep do you need to plan for?

In many parts of cottage country, bedrock can put a big dent in your building budget, says Duguay. “So you’ll need to be thinking about it from day one. “One of the questions that’s especially common in Muskoka is, Are you on bedrock? Will blasting be required? What kind of foundation are you looking for? Do you want a full basement or a walkout, and how much rock are you dealing with? That’s an expense that a lot of people don’t take into consideration off the top, and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars. It gets expensive in a hurry!”

Of course, bedrock doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. “There are all kinds of solutions for bedrock that buyers can take advantage of,” he points out. “A lot of builders will just end up going with a slab or piers to avoid excavation. Or, if you’re building with insulated concrete forms, you can custom-cut them to fit the contours of the rock, so they’re a bit more flexible than a traditional poured concrete or block foundation. That way you can roll with the contour of the property.”

4) How much can you alter the natural surroundings of a piece of land?

If you’ve been spending summers at the lake for as long as you can remember, you already know how important it is to preserve the nature we love—especially the shorelines. But new builders might not always be aware of what should never be altered. “Keeping the interference with nature to a minimum is a huge consideration,” Duguay says. “People are very sensitive to how much cottagers are interfering with and encroaching on the wildlife and natural areas, so minimizing your environmental impact is something that a lot of people are more conscious of these days. It’s worth thinking about how you’ll do that when you’re buying a property.”

5) What alternative-energy options should you invest in for a cottage build?

No summer at the cottage could be complete without at least one power outage, which means a new build isn’t complete without an emergency or alternate power source. “In a lot of cottage areas, the power isn’t 100 per cent consistent, so you’ll almost always need some kind of backup power,” Duguay points out. “You’re going to be looking at least at a backup propane or diesel generator, but you can also look at supplementing with solar or geothermal. They’re still expensive, but they’re becoming more reasonable. And if you’re on water, you can sometimes run the geothermal loop out into the lake to save a bit on the excavation costs.”

For would-be cottagers who worry about the expense of more environmentally friendly power sources, Duguay suggests thinking of the return on investment you’ll get. “A lot of those considerations come down to ROI: how long will the payback period be on the different alternative-energy solutions, and how long are you going to be using the property? If it’s going to be your forever home or a legacy cottage for your family, then you might want to invest a little more up front on some of those technologies that may pay back over a longer period, because they’ll eventually pay for themselves over and over again. But if it’s a property that you’re looking at selling in ten or 15 years, something with a 25-year payback might not worth putting in.”

6) How much should you invest in finishes for a new cottage build?

Duguay’s advice to weigh your return on investment also extends to the finishes you choose for a new build. And it all comes down to how long you plan to own (or pass down) your cottage. “Steel roofing is a classic example,” he says. “It has a long life, and it certainly has advantages in cottage country, where asphalt roofs can take a lot of abuse from surrounding trees, but it’s more of an investment up front. So if it’s going to be one of those ‘forever home’ types of builds, those are things you want to consider.”

Exterior finishes are another factor, and he points out that low- and no-maintenance siding products are becoming increasingly common. “A lot of people don’t want to spend time refinishing their cedar siding every year. They just want to go up to their cottage and enjoy it. They don’t want a project waiting for them every single weekend, so it’s worth designing some of those features into the cottage so they don’t create extra work later on through unnecessary maintenance issues.”

7) How can you “future proof” your cottage design?

There are two especially important decisions that Kyle stresses during the design phase: you have to think about how you plan to use your cottage in both the immediate and long term. For short-term thinking, he points out that a lot of the enjoyment will come down to how you handle your guest list. “Do you have multiple kids? Do they have families of their own? And are there times when everyone shows up together and you need space for everyone? Or do you strategically build a two-bedroom cottage to keep your guest list under control?”

And though it’s not always fun to think about, he urges new builders to think long-term about the future of their property as they age. “Beyond guests, you need to think about whether you want single-level living and barrier-free considerations, as well as how you’re going to access the property when mobility starts to become challenging,” he says. “Main-floor primary suites are becoming more and more popular so that you have everything on one level, and even if there’s a second storey, you don’t need to access it. These are all things to think about design-wise, right out of the gate. Because if it’s a ‘forever home,’ you need to consider where you’re going to be in twenty or twenty-five years—and whom you’re handing it over to after that.”

8) When you’re building, is it better to go with an existing model or to customize a new design?

This might be one of the most common questions a design consultant gets, but the simple reality is that you don’t have to choose between them. “One of the big advantages of Beaver Homes & Cottages is that we have the design team right in house, so we’ve got our standard designs that folks can pick from,” Duguay says. “But any of those designs can be completely customized. We can do mash-ups of multiple models. If you like features from two or three different models, we can amalgamate them, and we can do things straight from scratch. That’s all part and parcel of the overall service if you choose a Beaver Homes & Cottages package. We’ve got BCIN designers who are certified for permits in Ontario, and we take care of any engineering that’s required.”

He also points to the huge advantage in terms of working with the right contractors to bring that design to life. “A lot of people are building where they aren’t currently living, so they aren’t familiar with the contractors in that area. They often don’t know where to start, but the brick-and-mortar stores we have in cottage country have day-to-day relationships with those contractors. They know who they are, and they also know how busy they are, so they can give you an idea of how far out you need to plan in order to book them.”

Ultimately, for Duguay and the rest of the Beaver Homes & Cottages team, it comes down to making the process of building your dream cottage as stress-free as possible. “The breadth of knowledge is a key advantage, but also the fact that it’s a one-stop shop where you can get your plans, building materials, finishes, trade contactors, and the expertise in how to put all those pieces together—all with one point of contact,” he says. “It’s just a smooth and convenient way to complete a project that, otherwise, can become one of the most stressful things a person can take on.”

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