Who wouldn’t want to wake up to this view?
Living in Kingston, ON we are lucky to be in such close proximity to so many lakes. A lot of families have fond memories of spending summers at the cottage. I have clients looking to buy their own cottage and start building their own family traditions at the cottage. It’s my job to balance the nostalgia and help them consider the practicalities of owning a cottage on the water. I’ve comprised some things to consider when you buy a cottage. Of course, every property will have its own unique considerations that may not be included below.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Since most cottages are many miles from municipal water mains, they need their own water source. Drilled or dug wells are common, and waterfront property owners also have the option of pumping their water from the lake. In either case, a pump is required to provide water pressure to the house, and water supply pipes need to be enclosed and kept warm in winter, to prevent them from freezing.
Questions to ask:
- Does the cottage pump water from a lake or a well?
- If from the lake, is this same water used for all cottage systems (washing and drinking)?
- If from a well, is it drilled or dug? Is it on higher ground than the sewage system? How many gallons per minute does it pump?
- What type of filtrations systems are in place?
Most cottages have sewage disposal systems that will allow the use of all modern conveniences that you are used to at home. These systems may include: septic tank/tile bed systems; holding tanks which must be pumped out periodically; leaching beds for gray water; and composting toilets. It's important to know what type of sewage disposal system your cottage has, and to check that proper approvals were obtained. Older cottages may have steel septic tanks which will need to be replaced sooner or later. I consider a septic inspection as a mandatory condition of any cottage offer. A professional will pump, inspect the tank, and conduct a flow test to ensure there is no blockage in the tile beds. It is well worth the peace of mind of knowing what's under the ground. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs is a great resource for septic information.
Questions to ask:
- Does the sewage system (usually a septic tank or tile bed) work properly?
- When was the septic last pumped?
- Is it far enough away from trees to protect it from being blocked by roots?
Most cottage properties have a shore road allowance, or SRA. The SRA is a 66-foot wide strip of land, running along the shoreline of almost all lakes throughout cottage country. Historically, this strip was reserved by the Crown to provide for public access to shore along navigable waterways. In most cases, this land still belongs to the Municipality. In many cases, all or part of the old shore allowance may now be underwater.
Some landowners choose to go through the legal process of purchasing their SRA from the local municipality, for a nominal cost, plus legal and surveying fees. When buying a waterfront property, ask whether the shoreline is "closed" (owned) or "open" (not owned). If the cottage sits close to the water, it may be encroaching on the SRA, in which case you may want to look into purchasing the SRA. If you do decide to purchase your shoreline road allowance, your lawyer can advise you on how to proceed.
What are the laws regarding water exclusivity, as well as hunters, cross-country skiers and others crossing your land?
The last thing you want is to cast that rod and have a canoeist pull up moments later to tell you fishing is forbidden. Ask the municipality about fishing, hunting and boating, particularly about motorized crafts.
If the lot is pie shaped, you might end up with a smaller frontage. No right of ways, right of ways deeded to other people on the property, or deeded to you on a neighbour’s property. If you really like the property ensure that the building, any outbuildings, boathouses, driveways etc. are within your property lines.
You should contact the local municipality’s building and planning department. Ask about setback requirements, zoning bylaws, and other factors that will affect what kinds of upgrades and expansions you’re allowed to do to your cottage. You can also check your municipality’s website; info about local building regulations and how to apply for permits for construction and demolition is often posted there.
Questions to ask:
- Is it okay to increase the existing footprint?
- Can you add a second storey?
- Is the current sewage system going to be adequate?
- What percentage of land can be built on - can you build a second structure like a bunkie on the lot?
- Are there any flood plain requirements for your property?
- Is your lake governed by a conservation authority? (And will you need its approval?)
Access: Is the road to your cottage open and maintained year-round? The zoning for some cottages doesn't allow for year-round residency, and for some areas that are zoned ‘rural', people are not supposed to be there outside of hunting season.
Heating systems: How is the property heated, oil, propane, electric, pellet, wood or a combination? How old is the system?
Garbage and recycling: You'll want to find out whether garbage is picked up or if you are to deliver it to a designated dump site.
Association: Many lakes have local groups known as lake or cottage associations. These organizations provide a collective voice to cottagers in the area, as well as leadership on environmental and planning issues. They're also a great way to get to know your neighbours.
Road Maintenance Fees: If your property is not on a municipally maintained road (look into this also) find out the costs of any maintenance fees, many cottage property owners share the costs of maintaining the roads through an association.
Chattels included: You may be able to negotiate for the inclusion of the boat or furniture at the cottage.
Once the cottage has been sold, it is a good idea to arrange a time to do a walk-thru with the current owner. They can give you tips on opening and closing the cottage, instruct how systems work, and give you contact information for other trades that have serviced the cottage systems and have history of working at the with the cottage.
Of course, you may just decide you’ll leave all the maintenance to someone else! I recommend renting a cottage for a portion of the summer to determine if it is really the type of recreational property you would like to buy. It is a big investment and commitment but it can be a magical way to spend your summers and build those family memories!