By Mark Weisleder
Buying a cottage can be complicated. Water potability, septic systems and what happens if the lake level changes are all questions you to need answer. Buying a house in the city or suburbs can be complicated enough, but buying a cottage or vacation property outside of town requires even more due diligence.
In town, you probably wouldn’t ask if the water coming out of the tap is drinkable. Nor would you wonder if the plumbing was hooked up to the sanitary sewer. But these are exactly the sorts of questions you should ask when buying a cottage, plus a few more.
1. Get an inspection: Cottages are usually occasional residences and so may not be as properly maintained as they should be. This is why every purchase should be conditional on a satisfactory professional home inspection. If the cottage has a wood-burning stove or fireplace, then a certificate must be requested from a Wood Energy Technical Transfer specialist, to confirm that the system was installed and is operating correctly.
2. Is the water drinkable? There are two areas of concern when it comes to water — the quantity and quality. .
Ask the sellers for these things:
- A potability certificate from the local health authority, confirming the water is safe to drink;
- Confirmation that the well, the pump and related equipment have performed adequately during the seller’s occupancy;
- Confirmation that there is an adequate rate of flow for normal household use;
- Provision of a well driller’s certificate, if available; and
- The location of the well.
A separate inspection may be needed. If nothing else it gives you an idea of what it would cost to replace the well if it fails.
3. How’s the septic system? Septic systems present their own difficulties because it is usually difficult to tell during an inspection how long the system may last. The replacement cost can be up to $20,000, especially if there are stringent environmental regulations in your area.
You want to know whether:
- The system was installed with all necessary permits;
- The system has been adequately maintained and is working properly;
- The seller will provide copies of any inspection or approval reports;
- The seller agrees to pump out the tank at their expense prior to closing; and
- There are no work orders on file with the Ministry of the Environment or the local municipality.
The buyer should arrange for their own separate inspection of the system itself.
4. What’s the road allowance? Even if your cottage fronts on water, this does not mean you own the land up to the lake. The first 66 feet fronting onto the lake is typically owned by the local municipality and is referred to as the shore road allowance.
Although you have access to the water, you can’t stop others from using it. Nor can you build anything on that 66-foot piece of land. Many cottagers have found out afterwards that either all or part of their cottage was built on land that they do not own.
You may be able to buy the land from the municipality or the province, as the case may be.
5. What about Hydro easements? Check to see if there are any hydro poles or lines on the property. It is possible that Hydro has easements which could affect where your cottage can be built that are not registered on title.
6. Access to the cottage: If you do not have year round access by a city road, then you must ask how you get from the road to your property. If it is a private right of way over a neighbour’s land, you must understand the terms of this agreement to ensure it is year round access and it is clear who is responsible for maintaining the road.
If there is no registered right of way, it can be a nightmare, with owners fighting over who owns it.
In addition, check the local zoning by-laws to make sure the property is not zoned only for “seasonal” use. In these cases, the municipality may not be providing road maintenance, snow removal, garbage pickup or emergency services during the winter.
By being properly prepared before buying a cottage, you will avoid unwelcome surprises after closing.
Mark Weisleder is a lawyer, author and speaker to the real estate industry.