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The Essential Cottage Buying Checklist

Lake Wahwashkesh, Parry Sound

Every year in Ontario over 3000 waterfront properties are sold which is a staggering number considering the average sale price is just north of $1,000,000. I've been in the business a long time and it never ceases to amaze me how many people will seemingly give less thought to a cottage purchase than buying a car. Even before the covid buying frenzy I would see emotion push reason to the side and people would dive in head first.

With this in mind I have put together what I feel is an essential checklist for buyers to use before putting in an offer. While not an exhaustive list, it serves as a solid starting point, enabling buyers to swiftly discern properties to steer clear of or, at the very least, prompt a reassessment of the value they're willing to invest.

Whitestone Lake, Parry Sound
  1. The Lake - I cannot overemphasize the importance of doing your research on the lake before you buy.  In the area I cover, Muskoka and Parry Sound, we have waterways that fluctuate 3' and some over 10' from low to high water. There's also lakes that have consistent blue-green algae issues that can make the water toxic to people and pets. That quiet lake you saw may have been approved for a major development not yet started. Know exactly what you're buying.
  2. The Septic- The majority of waterfront cottages in Ontario operate on individual septic systems rather than municipal sewers. It is imperative to request and review the associated documentation to verify legal installation and compliance with regulations. Never assume the possibility of installing a new system if approvals cannot be furnished. Meeting current setback requirements for conventional systems can be exceptionally challenging, if not impossible, on properties smaller than 1/2 acre. Additionally, it's crucial to note that the costs associated with septic installations have significantly escalated, with many installations ranging between $25,000 and $40,000.
  3. The Access - If the cottage is not located on a municipally maintained road (assuming it's not water access) it's critical that there is legal deeded access to the property. Just because there's a road does not give you the right to use it. Many waterfront lots are accessed over private land so talk to your lawyer and ensure there is an easement on title before signing an offer.  I like to have the Seller "represent and warrant" legal vehicle access as an extra layer of protection for my buyers.
  4. The Lot - Zoning regulations, frontage specifications, and overall acreage are critical factors, especially when contemplating additions such as a garage or boat house. Consider setbacks from property lines, roads, and water bodies, as well as lot coverage, as they can pose challenges or even render additional construction impractical. Some properties have multiple zoning, including environmentally protected areas, where any construction is strictly prohibited. It's essential to be aware that certain townships enforce restrictions on boathouses or demand substantial frontages, often around 300 feet in a straight line and 1 hectare in size. If boathouses are part of your future plans, meticulous research is crucial. Moreover, specific lakes like Joseph, Rosseau, and Muskoka have provincial prerequisites for boat houses that necessitate thorough understanding and adherence.
  5. The Market - Is it even the right time to buy? The waterfront real estate market has been quite soft of late so if you're not in a rush you could potentially save thousands. If it is the right time for you make sure you have up-to-date market data so you can make an informed decision. The posted information from the real estate boards can be broad so ask your Realtor® for the numbers specific to the area you're considering.

Finally, choose a real estate agent and lawyer who actually knows cottage country. I know absolutely nothing about Toronto condominiums so I don't sell them. A broker specializing in downtown Toronto condos may not know if a waterfront property includes the Shore Road Allowance or even know what it is for that matter. There are many nuances that professionals unfamiliar with waterfront properties might not be aware of and that have the potential for issues down the road. I recently sold an off-grid cottage north of Parry Sound, in the middle of nowhere. The day before closing I received a terse call from the buyers lawyer insisting I send him copies of the utility bills. This after I had told him repeatedly it was completely off grid. Seriously.

I don't want to portray the cottage buying experience as onerous. On the contrary, it can be absolutely incredible. Just know who you are dealing with and ask the right questions.

Cottage on Horn Lake near Burks falls

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