Case Study: Buying a Small, No-Maintenance Cottage

By Johanna Crisholm • Last Updated July 12 2022

When it gradually became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would not be a short-run thing, ushering in a new acceptance of the fluidity of the term ‘workplace’, Daria Kourilina had the same thought that many others had: maybe I don’t have to be in the city all the time and it would be damn nice to have somewhere on the water to get away to. 

Kourilina, a tech worker in her early-30s in Ottawa with a passion for property, interiors and making spaces her own, began looking for that escape. 

The priorities were, understandably, very different from her first home, a labour-of-love (and largely DIY) full renovation of an early 20th century house in downtown Ottawa. The checklist for the cottage called for much less intervention: touching up, rather than tearing down. Location was a top priority as was easy water access. Easy everything, in fact, became the order of the day. 

With many friends having already escaped the city for more remote or sprawling cottages, Kourilina was fine with something more compact, high on escapism and low on maintenance at a low price. She was keen on keeping the commute manageable too, something within a 60-minute radius of Ottawa was key. 

With a little help from her partner and friends but mostly a lot of dogged solo monitoring of the supply in that catchment area, Kourilina chased the chalet that would tick as many of the boxes as possible. There were a lot of Goldilocks options out there: just too far, just too pricey, just needing too many updates. In spite of the cottage rush in other parts of the country, it was still somewhat of a buyers market in the region and Kourilina was content to wait for what she wanted. 

In 2020 she spotted a potential gem where others may have skipped over it. A compact two-bedroom 600-square foot cottage on a small plot north of Ripon, Quebec, less than 90km from her Ottawa home, almost halfway between the capital and Mt. Tremblant. Sure, the living space was on the tighter side but the water access made up for those small sacrifices: a sandy walk-right-in beach just 10 metres from the front door. The yard and beach were sneakily secluded despite the lots being close together. On the face of it there was a lot to like. 

Kourilina acted quickly and arranged a viewing within four hours of the property being posted. She visited with her partner and friends and, having already gone through one house purchase and reno, felt very confident in knowing what warning signs to look for. There were almost none. After so much research and waiting she was confident this was a relative bargain teal and put in an offer immediately. Within hours, the cottage was hers. 

It needed some work but not much and almost all of it cosmetic. Kourilina has put in new, wider and deeper windows to maximise the east-facing sunrise view to the living room and has upgraded the bathroom and bedrooms a little too, bringing in some modern, digital amenities and touches to a space that had been a little too analogue. 

Almost two years later, it has more than lived up to Kourilina’s hopes and expectations. Lake life is never more than an hour away and friends and family in Ottawa and Montreal have been able to savour sunny summer days and cosy winter getaways there too.

How we did it

  • I monitored Centris, Facebook marketplace and any classified portal like a hawk and once I found the place, I sprung into action. 
  • Water was a priority so it needed to be treated like one: I researched how to run water quality tests for lakes and looked at water depth to ensure swimmable water. I even looked through Google Earth photos to see if I could spot any algae. For riverfront properties don’t forget to research floodplains zones too. 
  • Here’s one that I found to be very useful: I had friends come with me to the viewing for an additional opinion and perspective and as an extra set of eyes that might spot something that was missed. I also had a thorough list of questions for the agent prepared in advance. I ensured that big-ticket items were either well maintained or that I had enough room in the budget to fix them: roof, well, foundation, sewage. 
  • I talked to the neighbors who were around and looked at houses sold nearby. Once I was sure it was the right place for me, I didn’t waver and made my move. If you’re likely to be more hesitant or want reassurance to cope with a situation where there’s a chance of multiple offers, do a pre inspection ahead of time.

One thing you really wish you knew going in:

One? How about a dozen? Here are what Daria considers the most pertinent. 

  • Check the laws: “If you’re ever planning to rebuild on the property, find out from the city what is and isn’t allowed. In my case, the sewer tank is behind the house (higher than the house) and in new regulations it should be lower than the house, but in this case that would be too close to water. So my square footage is unfortunately locked in as I cannot move the sewage tank. I guess I could build a skyscraper instead!”
  • Do a dry run on amenities: “We lucked out and have groceries and restaurants within 10 min, but we have friends who aren’t so lucky. Areas with schools nearby will have much higher taxes, but will also have convenient things like garbage removal. Otherwise you may end up driving your own garbage to a dump everytime. What’s the internet situation like ? Is starlink or fast speed internet an option?”
  • Think through the seasons: “Snow removal is important. Who pays and how much? Who owns the road and pays for clearing it — is it the city, group of people or your problem? What about boats - if motored boats are allowed expect a much busier lake in the summer! Plan for these additional costs: grass maintenance in summer, trimming trees/large bushes etc, winter snow removal, someone to help remove/add deck in the summer/winter.”
  • Try for the local insight: “Pick a place with good neighbours. If the neighbours suck, spending time relaxing next to a bunch of morons or an asshole…it will be difficult.”

Top tips for those setting out:

Get a few local agents to send you listings. If you ever need an agent you’ll have a few to choose from. Note that their email with listings usually hits your inbox a few hours ahead of Centris or so you get a head start on getting a viewing and inspection in.

In Ontario sale prices from up to 15 years ago are now visible online. Alternatively you can ask an agent for a sale price of a property in Quebec. There’s a public registry in Quebec that will give you the owner’s name, the price they bought it for and year purchased for $1 per inquiry, online.

Decide on whether you want a 3-season or 4-season cottage. And be clear on what matters most — location, water quality, space etc.

Some far-away looking places were actually under a 1h distance from Ottawa. I’d recommend selecting the area of interest based on Google Map driving distance and not only KM traveled.