Top considerations when buying a waterfront cottage in Ontario

Top considerations when buying a waterfront cottage in Ontario

Buying a waterfront cottage in Ontario

Buying a waterfront cottage is a dream for many families.

Cottages have long been a big part of Canadians’ lifestyles, taking in all the beauty and nature that Canada has to offer, while making family memories.  Ontario is home to some of the most beautiful lakes and natural scenery in Canada, making it an ideal location for those seeking a peaceful getaway.

However, buying a waterfront cottage is a big decision, and there are many things to consider before making your purchase.  Here are some practical tips and advice to help you navigate the process:

Location of waterfront cottage

When it comes to buying a waterfront cottage, Ontario is home to some of the most beautiful areas for cottages.  The most popular locations within a 2-3 hour drive of Toronto include Muskoka, Haliburton, Kawartha lakes, and Georgian Bay (although there are many others).  When considering the location of your cottage or waterfront property, think about how far you want to travel from your home and how often you plan to use the property.  If you’re planning on using it as a weekend retreat, you may want to choose a location within a few hours’ drive.  Some locations may also be accessible in a variety of roads and highways, making sure there are other commute options on a busy long weekend.

Waterfront properties are generally accessible by a few ways, making it very different than owning a property in the city.  Some are accessed by municipal roads whereas those roads are maintained by the city/municipality.  Many waterfront properties are accessible by private roads where the homeowner or a property association maintains the road and accessibility, usually at a fee that isn’t included in your property taxes.  Other properties have water access only, which means you’ll need a boat to access your property (as well as arrangements to park your vehicle and dock your boat in a local marina for access).  For water access properties, you may also need to consider different solutions for winter time when lakes are usually frozen (ie: snowmobile).

Finally, consider the quality of the lake or waterfront area. Do you want a quiet and peaceful location, or do you prefer a more active and livelier spot?  Not all waterfront cottages are created alike.  Each is unique and has its positives and negatives.  For example, buying a cottage on an island may sound like a fantastic idea, but access and even common services like hydro can quickly become an issue.

Waterfront access

Direct access to the water is one of the most important factors when buying a waterfront property.  If you plan on boating, fishing, or swimming, you’ll want to make sure you have a dock or beach area. If you have a boat, or plan on buying one, make sure the property has the right kind of dock for your boat’s size and type. Consider the type of waterfront you want as well. A rocky shore can be beautiful but may be more challenging to access, while a sandy beach is perfect for swimming and lounging.

Contrary to popular belief, some waterfront properties do not own their waterfront and that is important to identify up front.  Other waterfront properties may have an ‘easement’ or in other words, permission for a 3rd party to access your waterfront in certain situations.  When looking at waterfront properties ask to see a property survey or have your Real Estate Lawyer review the survey to ensure you own the waterfront or have access to it.

If you plan on boating, fishing, or swimming in your waterfront, it is a good idea to research the area and waterfront.  Is the water shallow or deep on entry?  Is it weedy or rocky that may prevent your enjoyment and boat access?  Is the waterfront on a lake, river, or a pond?  In most cases, it is illegal to alter any aspects of your waterfront so what you see is what you get.

When it comes to boat traffic, some waterfronts will be busier than others.  If the property you are considering is in a busy waterway, it may impact your enjoyment.

Cottage Buyer’s Tip:  Once you have an ideal location picked out, use a local Real Estate agent to represent you.  Most local agents have years of experience and have a tremendous amount of local knowledge.

Property size

The size of the property you choose will depend on your needs and preferences. A larger property provides more privacy and space to enjoy the outdoors, while a smaller property is easier to maintain. Keep in mind that a larger property may come with higher property taxes and additional maintenance costs.   Having 20 acres may sound good on a real estate listing, but maintaining those acres may come at a cost.

Some cottage developments are now offering managed cottages or condos, which ease the burden of maintenance and giving would-be buyers easier ways to enjoy waterfront living.

Building condition

When buying a cottage, it’s important to have it inspected to ensure that it’s in good condition.  Cottages and rural properties typically have different systems than you find in a residential home in the city.  They are also a lot more susceptible to the elements, so wear and tear over the years can take its toll.

Look for signs of water damage, such as mold or mildew, and make sure the roof, foundation, and electrical systems are in good shape. Identify how the property gets its water supply and sewage and have those systems inspected.  Also, check for any signs of pests, such as mice or insects.

Cottage Buyer’s Tip:  Hire a seasoned home inspector who specializes in rural properties.  If you have a well or septic system, make sure your inspector has experience with those systems or you may have to hire separate inspector(s) to inspect the well and septic systems.  Issues with water supply and sewage can cost thousands after the fact if they are not in satisfactory working order.  While an inspection is costly, it can save you thousands.

Zoning and bylaws

Make sure you research the zoning and bylaws in the area before making your purchase. You’ll want to know if there are any restrictions on building size, noise levels, or the number of guests you can have. Some municipalities have or are planning to ban or control short-term rentals such as AirBnB, so it is always best to check with the local municipal office to ensure that you’re allowed to use the property for your intended purpose.

Some cottage properties may be located in designated flood zones or on a flood plain.  These properties may seasonally flood or have a high risk of flooding.  While there are ways to mitigate and sometimes even live with occasional flooding, properties in a designated flood zone can be very tough to mortgage and insure due to the risks involved.  Always check the zoning or have your Real Estate agent verify with the municipality.


You’ll need to purchase insurance for your cottage or waterfront property, and it’s essential to find a policy that suits your needs as not every insurance company will insure a waterfront property.

Talk to a few different insurance companies to get a sense of the coverage and costs. Some policies may offer protection against water damage, while others may cover liability and theft. Be sure to understand what’s included in the policy and what’s not.   Another consideration for insurance is if you have a boat, jet ski or any other water toys that you’d like included as part of your coverage.


Maintaining a cottage or waterfront property requires ongoing upkeep and maintenance.  Depending on the age of the property, the amount of upkeep may vary, but keep in mind that your rural property will be susceptible to the elements and if not always occupied, maintaining it can come at a cost.

The general guideline for a residential home is that it costs $1 per square foot annually to maintain a property.  Given that cottages can be more complex and have systems such as water pumps, wells, and septic systems that aren’t found in major cities.  Coupled with a higher cost of professional labour, the cost to maintain a waterfront property can easily come up to $2 per square foot annually.  This means for a 1000 square foot cottage, you’ll need to budget around $2,000 for annual maintenance costs.

Consider the costs associated with landscaping, snow removal, and repairs. Plan to budget for these expenses each year, and make sure you have the resources to cover them.


If you plan to buy a waterfront cottage  and use your cottage in the warmer months only, you’ll need to winterize it to protect it from the harsh Ontario winters. Winterization is a seasonal process that may include draining water pipes, sealing windows and doors, and installing a heating system.

If you are planning to use your property in the winter, make sure it has been designed to be used for all seasons.  You’ll likely need to keep a constant source of heating on to prevent freezing.  Talk to a local contractor or handyman to get advice on the best way to winterize your property.

Water quality / water potability

The quality of the water in the lake or waterfront area is crucial for both drinking and recreation.  Check water quality reports and consider getting the water tested to ensure that it’s safe to swim in and drink. If you are getting a mortgage, having your water tested for potability may be a condition from your lender, as banks typically want to ensure they only lend on marketable properties.  Talk to local residents and other cottage owners to get their thoughts on the water quality in the area and consider having a water potability test done prior to purchasing the property.

Financing and Mortgages

Before making an offer on a cottage or waterfront property, consider your financing options. Talk to a few different banks or mortgage brokers to get a sense of the interest rates and terms available. You may be able to finance the purchase through a mortgage, a line of credit, or by using home equity. Make sure you understand the costs associated with each option, including the down payment, closing costs, and ongoing interest payments.

Hire a local real estate agent

Buying a cottage or waterfront property can be a complex process, especially if you’re not familiar with the area. Consider hiring a local real estate agent who knows the market and can guide you through the process. They can provide you with information on local properties, negotiate with sellers, and help you navigate the legal and financial aspects of the transaction.

The bottom line

Buying a cottage or waterfront property in Ontario can be an exciting and rewarding experience. However, getting educated on the process can avoid stress during the purchase process and thereafter. It’s important to do your research and understand that owning  a cottage or waterfront property can be very different than buying a place in the city.  By considering these practical tips and advice, you can find the perfect property to suit your needs and enjoy all that Ontario’s beautiful lakes and waterfronts have to offer.

Important note: This article is not Legal Advice. No one should act, or refrain from acting, based solely upon the materials provided on this website, any hypertext links or other general information without first seeking appropriate legal or other professional advice.

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