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 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. To find out more about this, go to www.wettinc.ca.
2. Is the water drinkable? There are two areas of potential concern when it comes to water – the quantity and quality. Is there enough to satisfy family needs and is it good enough to pass the local health department requirements.
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 by a well specialist. 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 effect in your area.
Buyers should ask for confirmation that:
- The system was installed with all necessary permits;
- The system has been adequately maintained;
- The seller is not aware of any malfunctions;
- The seller will provide copies of any inspection or approval reports in their possession;
- 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 give you ownership of 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. In addition, if the water at the shore has receded through natural causes, then the owner may have acquired ownership of this extra land.
Conversely, if the water line has advanced, you may have lost land to the Ministry of Natural Resources.
You may be able to buy the land from the municipality or the Province, as the case may be, but it is a process and the cost can be approximately $10,000. If you can get an up to date survey from the seller, this should answer your questions. Also inquire to make sure that any required permits were obtained to build a dock or boathouse, as there is no automatic right to do this.
In all cases, make sure you have title insurance, which should assist with most of these types of issues.
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.
Lawyers typically do searches with the appropriate hydro authority to find out.
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 has the right of way and 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, garage pick up or emergency services during the winter.
For all of these reasons, it is recommended that buyers work with a local real estate agent who should be familiar not only with each of these issues, but more importantly, will be able to recommend the professional inspectors and town officials who can satisfy a buyer’s concerns.
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.
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About Mark Weisleder
Mark is a lawyer, author, instructor, Toronto Star columnist and keynote speaker for the real estate industry.