Buying a Cottage: a Primer

If you're thinking about buying a recreational or waterfront home for the first time, you've come to the right place. We have helped hundreds of people to go through the process smoothly, so they can begin enjoying cottage life! Before you begin your search, you should be aware of some important differences between urban homes and cottage country properties. Under the following headings, we've outlined some things to consider:

What Are You Looking For?

Are you looking for a large country house on a big lake system with miles and miles of boating? Or would you prefer a private, peaceful retreat surrounded by nothing but nature? Or perhaps a waterfront lot to build your dream cottage on? The variety of cottage country properties is vast – ranging from basic, rustic cabins in the woods – to elegant, modern, fully-appointed waterfront homes.

Haliburton has approximately 600 lakes, and there is a very wide variety to choose from. Haliburton County straddles the edge of the Canadian Shield; many of the lakes in the eastern and northern parts of Haliburton are rocky, Algonquin-type coldwater trout lakes, with deep shorelines. By contrast, in some parts of the County, there are also smaller, grassy lakes with shallower shorelines, more suited to bass fishing.

Broadly speaking, you can expect properties on bigger lakes to be priced higher than those on smaller lakes. Properties that have relatively level lots tend to be more expensive than steeper ones. Cottages with western or southern exposure carry higher price tags; so do those with slightly shorter drive times to the Greater Toronto Area (particularly those near Highway 35). If you're looking for a bargain, you may want to consider smaller lakes, steeper lots, or properties that are slightly further from the GTA.

The most important things to consider when choosing your new cottage are the lot and lake. Remember that the building itself is of secondary importance. Buildings can be changed, repaired, renovated, and rebuilt – but the location and setting can't be changed. In fact, in many cases, the cottage building is represents a relatively small part of the property's value; most of the value is in the waterfront land.

Finding the perfect cottage will be a highly personal adventure because everyone has different tastes. We can help you to assess your needs and wants, and select appropriate properties for your viewing tour. You'll know the right cottage when you see it!


You should talk to your financial institution in order to determine your financing goals and guidelines before you begin shopping. Getting pre-approval from your bank will make your cottage purchase go much more smoothly, and may give you an edge on other buyers. Be aware that some banks may not be willing to offer a conventional or CMHC mortgage on recreational properties, and as a general rule you may need anywhere from 10% - 25% of the purchase price as a down payment. Some buyers prefer to finance their cottage purchase against equity in their principal residence or other property.

As with any loan, it's a good idea to shop around: talk to several lenders in order to obtain the best terms. As well, we can refer you to mortgage brokers in the area who specialize in obtaining financing on recreational properties.


While there are a few island or water-access-only properties in Haliburton, most cottages in our area have some form of road access. Broadly speaking, road access comes in three flavours: municipal year-round roads are plowed and maintained throughout the winter by the local government, paid for by property taxes; plowing and maintenance of private year-round roads is paid for by the individuals or groups who use them. Finally, there are seasonal roads which are usually passable in the late spring, summer and fall only.

Cottagers who want the ultimate privacy sometimes choose water-access properties for their seclusion and quiet simplicity. These hardy types drive to a nearby boat launch or marina and boat to their getaways in the warmer months – and the truly dedicated will snowshoe or snowmobile across the frozen lake in winter.

Shore road allowances

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.

Waste and Water

If you've never owned a rural home or cottage, you've probably never thought much about where your water comes from – or where it goes! These become important considerations when shopping for a cottage.

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. We can refer you to plumbing specialists who can give you more information on winterizing your water system.

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. If there is any uncertainty about the age or type of septic system, a septic inspection can usually be arranged at the same time as a home inspection. The small extra cost is well worth the peace of mind of knowing what's under the ground.

Completing Your Purchase

You will need the services of a lawyer in order to complete the purchase of your cottage. Your lawyer will search the title to the property to ensure that it is free and clear from encumbrances; verify that there are no outstanding work orders against the property; advise you on issues such as easements, rights of way and title insurance; and register a new mortgage if necessary. It is advisable to use a lawyer who is familiar with the specifics of Haliburton cottage properties. We can provide you with names and contact information for lawyers in the Haliburton area.

In addition to legal fees (which depending upon the complexity of the purchase may range from $1000 to $3000) you should take into account other fees such as Ontario Land Transfer Tax, as well as title insurance and mortgage insurance fees. In addition, there may be minor adjustments on closing, to apportion property taxes and fuel costs. Note that if you are a first-time buyer, you may be eligible for a refund of the Ontario Land Transfer Tax.

It is usually a good idea to include a provision in your purchase agreement to have a final walk-through of the cottage immediately prior to the closing – in order to ensure that the property is in the condition you expected, and that the correct inclusions have been left behind.

Also, be sure to contact the local utility companies to arrange to have service commence in your name on the completion date.

Other Considerations

Good environmental practices are becoming an increasingly important part of cottage life. Some newer cottage developments have "protective covenants" in place to ensure that cottagers do not harm habitats and ecosystems. Even where there are no specific covenants, the Ministry of Natural Resources encourages cottagers to keep their properties natural – no lawns, and no pesticides or fertilizer, please!

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. Membership in these groups is usually optional; however, we encourage you to consider joining and volunteering for your local cottage association.

Final Word

Don't be discouraged by the peculiarities of purchasing a cottage; in fact, they are just a part of the adventure and flavour of life in cottage country! We will be happy to answer any questions you may have, and refer you to the proper local authorities and tradespeople where appropriate.

Happy cottage hunting!

Susanne James, B.A.A., Sales Representative
Andy Mosher, B.A., Broker
Century 21 Granite Realty Group, Inc., Brokerage