Choosing a Location For Your Cottage

By Johanna Crisholm • Last Updated July 12 2022

You’ve probably heard the old adage that location is king in real estate. If so, you’ll likely understand why that aphorism becomes the all-important factor when deciding on where to buy or build your getaway cottage.

When you’re hunting for your second home, location actually covers many more dimensions than its geographical long and lat. Particularly with recreational waterfront properties, location expands to encompass a whole host of other priorities. Priorities that would, if it was your first property, probably not even make the credits in the movie of that landmark purchase.

Because location and budget are going to be the main deciding factors for your second property, we’re going to simplify the location side of things by asking you to evaluate four separate categories. We’ll expand more on each of these later on, but for now, know that these are the four pillars that should be top of mind when you begin narrowing down where you'd like to vacation.

There is no one ‘right’ answer to each of these queries.

Depending on what your priorities are, and what stage of your life you’re in, your answer to each of these prompts could look very different than your best friend’s or neighbour’s. Just remember to keep circling back to these questions and answering honestly.

1. Distance from your primary residence

What you need to know:

Laura Stevens, Muskoka Realtor

This one is perhaps the biggest priority when people begin mapping out where they’d like to spend their long summer nights.

Laura Stevens, a real estate broker in Muskoka, Ontario, points out that being too tight on your commute time can, in some cases, be a bit shortsighted. “When you draw a radius of what two hours from the city will get you in the GTA, there’s not a whole lot of options with water,” she explains.

Plus, trying to gauge what two hours is like in ideal conditions (aka no accidents on the 400) versus what it’s like in lived conditions (12pm on the Monday after Labor Day weekend) is just not going to be accurate.

The Takeaway:

No matter where you’re looking in the country, don’t get discouraged if there’s a dream getaway that’s 15-30 minutes further than your “ideal commute”. The marketplace for secondary properties is already quite tight, so if you can expand your search radius by even 30 minutes on either end, you’ll open yourself up to a whole host of new listings.

What you (maybe) haven’t thought about:

Age and stage of life will play a huge role in your commute time. For instance, families with young children who are enrolled in school will likely be doing the weekend haul back and forth more frequently. In those cases, you’ll want to prioritize a shorter commute time. 

Older buyers, however, will have a whole other set of priorities. Where most retirees will have more flexibility with how long they’d like to reside at their cottage - in some cases, maybe even shifting to it being their primary residence - they might also require being a closer drive to essential services (e.g. hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.).

Questions to keep asking:

  • How will you be using the cottage? e.g. are you a teacher who will have summers off or are you planning to make the trek weekly?
  • Do you have a young/older family member that can sit in a car for 2+ hours?
  • Does your job offer flexibility? What if you want to cut away early on a Friday afternoon?
  • Map out essential services and the time it takes door-to-door from your ideal cottage location. Is it manageable?

2. Geography

Once you start spending four or more hours outside your four walls, you’ll really start to appreciate how large a role geography plays in your overall cottage happiness.

This is perhaps another one of the bigger shifts you’ll make when you go from hunting for primary to secondary properties. Unlike at home, you’ll be spending a greater share of your waking hours outdoors since you’ll likely be using the space from spring to fall.

Whether it’s a waterfront or wooded property, you’re likely choosing this space for some well-deserved reconnection to the great outdoors.

What you need to know:

For a first step, take out a map and don’t just look at a bird’s eye view of the cottage regions you’d like to reside in. Zoom in on Google Maps. Check to see what’s two doors down from the property you’re looking at, and what the overall shape of the lake and land is. Of course, nothing will be better than visiting the actual property and checking it out at the times of day (and season) when you’ll likely be using it the most. Midday, for when the sun is highest in the sky, you’ll want to see if your land is blocked by a sheer cliff across the lake (unchangeable factor), or if there’s trees that could be trimmed by the shore to give your dock or backyard longer hours of sunlight (changeable). 

Safety will also be a concern, for younger and old buyers alike. For instance, some lakes in southern Ontario and other parts of Canadian cottage country will have sheer drops from the property line to the shore line. If you’re at retirement age, you’ll want to think if you can actually climb the 100 steps from shore to door or if you can afford to put some kind of lift in eventually, and more importantly, how much that would cost. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum and you’ve got toddlers or pets that you’re concerned about not yielding to a cliff, then adding some kind of fencing to the property should be calculated into your overall budget. Or if you know that you’d like a short distance from building to beachfront, then shifting your cottage hunt to ones that satisfy that itch will again be a priority.

What you (maybe) haven’t thought about:

Depending on your lifestyle preferences and what stage of life you’re in, different landscape features will hold more appeal to you and those using your cottage. Some people want their property to blend in with nature and value idyllic sunset views over direct sunlight throughout the day. It’ll then be important to consider the orientation of your property. It’s worth remembering that no matter how much money you have in your arsenal, you can’t change what direction your property faces. This will be of particular importance for buyers who plan on spending their long summer days weeding the garden. A south-facing property, be it on the front of your lot or the back, will be a priority, but you’ll also want to assess whether there’s any natural barriers - think nearby hills/cliffs, trees - that could impede your plants from soaking up an unobstructed day’s worth of sun.

Privacy will also be impacted by your cottage’s geography. Think about what your lifestyle at the cottage will be like. For instance, some people may value the jovial atmosphere of having neighbours’ shorelines pressed up against yours, others will find this intrusive and too similar to the sardining city life they’re trying to escape.

Quick Tips

  • Maps: they’re going to be your best friend. Check out local real estate offices for up-to-date property lines, use Google Maps to get a feel for your surroundings, and check Crown Land boundaries online.
  • Check the orientation of your land and your property. Remember: you can, if you really want to, change the orientation of your physical cottage, but your shoreline’s orientation is fixed. 
  • Find out what’s below the soil beforehand. If as soon as your shovel goes below six inches you hit solid bedrock, your overall expense for building is going to add up quickly. 
  • Gardener’s tip: water reflects the sunlight, so even if your property’s garden isn’t perfectly south-facing, but is positioned near the shore, your vines and roots should be able to benefit from enough photosynthesis to keep your summer salads well stocked. 
  • Ask neighbours and local construction companies about what kind of land lies where, and to get accurate estimates about how much it’ll add to your overall building budget. 
  • Privacy is dictated by geography, but that doesn’t necessarily mean buying bigger. Some properties with 200ft. of frontage can still sit comfortably between two other cottages who can easily seem like they can just “reach out and touch you.” Whereas a frontage of just 50 or 75ft. that’s smartly positioned on a point with other cottages set behind you can provide that feeling that you’re enjoying the lake all to yourself.

3. Water

What you need to know:

If you’re buying a recreational waterfront property, then the water itself is going to play a huge role in further limiting what kinds of cottages you’re looking at. Both the kind of lake and size will dictate your options, and so you’ll have to assess what you as a cottage owner would like to use the waterfront for. If you’re keen on taking friends and family fishing in a small electric boat, or slicing a calm placid lake with your paddle each morning before the kids wake, then you’ll want to know the depth and size of your lake. Certain lakes are known for fishing and recreational activities, while others have a reputation for having long, narrow paths that make for great water skiing. Some lakes can accommodate for both, but you may not want your cottage situated right in front of one of the straight-throughs that will make reading a book on your dock more similar to a white water rafting experience. Bigger lakes, too, will get more wake when the winds pick up. This can be a pro or a con, depending on what your planned activities are. 

Water will play a big role in limiting what kinds of cottages you’re looking at.

Water depth will also play a significant role in the overall temperature of your swimming post. If, for instance, you’re situated in a lake like Georgian Bay, you’ll be wading in waters that are probably more similar to the Atlantic Ocean in August than shallower lakes in the same region. And even if the overall depth of your lake is quite shallow, there can always be deeper parts. If you’re craving a wadable shoreline that you don’t have to worry about pets and small children falling in, then you’ll want to test out the docks at each property you’re checking out.

Safety First

As a compromise to a deeper shoreline, you can put up fencing or a gate beside the dock and implement rules that life jackets must always be worn children are close to the water. Of course, you'll have to go with what makes sense for your family and friends.

What you (maybe) haven’t thought about:

Much like the cityscape you’re likely trying to escape, cottage country can become slammed with buoy-to-buoy traffic. Some lakes have more of a reputation for being “boating lakes”, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to see dozens of trailers lined up at launch points every sunny Saturday in the summer to get their tube on. Finding out where launch points are, and if your section of a lake is known for tubing, skiing and the like, will be important pre-cottage research. On the flipside, if you are looking for a cottage where you can imbibe in roaring a big boat engine, then you’ll also want to map out where the nearest launch pads are and if there’s areas of the lake where you can get your boat up to faster speeds. 

Some smaller lakes have rules against electric boats entirely, but this is rare and would be well advertised before purchase.

There are pros and cons to both small and large lakes, and boat traffic is one that can sometimes be overlooked but it will impact the quality of your cottage stay if you truly are looking for a quiet getaway and every 10 to 15 minutes a boat goes roaring by your shoreline. 

Another sometimes overlooked trait when considering different lakes is the actual quality of the water. For some, this may be a non-issue. But others might get the heebie-jeebies when they put a leg in the water and can’t see anything past their knees. Murky waters can be found across Canada, and you’ll find a lot of them in southern Ontario where lakes are positioned near peat mosses or swamps. To be clear, no pun intended, a “tea-stained” lake doesn’t mean the water is dirty - in fact, it might be cleaner. But it will appear darker and for those who get a little squeamish about not being able to see the bottom, this could be a deal breaker. Lakes can also be weedy, or the bottoms might have sharp rocks. These are concerns that can usually be cleared up by testing the waters, quite literally, before buying. And again relying on the wisdom of your realtor and cottaging neighbours.

Quick Tips

  • Visit and rent cottages at potential lakes you’d like to one day buy at. You can get a better sense about boat traffic, wind and seasonal temperatures through a lived experience. 
  • Check for local water warnings in the areas you’re looking at. Have there been algae bloom warnings in recent years? Floodings?
  • Visit the water at different times of year: what’s it like in May? July? September?
  • Find out if there’s stagnant bodies of water nearby (marshes, bogs, etc.) these can impact the colour of the water, and the local insect population.

Mobility Issues and Water-Access

Waterfront properties that are water-access or seasonal-road only will also be a bigger factor if mobility issues are a concern. If getting in and out of a boat every time you need to grab a loaf of bread or fill up the propane tank is a time add-on you can’t get your head around, then you’ll want to ensure your property has road access year-round.

What you (maybe) haven’t thought about:

When we discussed commute time, we didn’t cover an all-important factor that will impact your accessibility to essential services. That is the actual road that will get you there. While you may be sitting there mapping out what two hours looks like from your house, there will be different kinds of routes to get you there depending on where it’s situated. For instance, If you’re a family that wants to be within two and a half hours, and you’re using a familiar route for southern Ontarians, such as the multilane Highway 400, then you’re going to have good access throughout the year. However, if we’re drawing on another southern Ontario example, the same distance mapped from your home but going in the other direction, like a lot further east towards Prince Edward County, you’ll primarily be using a two lane highway. This means accidents will play a much larger role in getting to and from your cottage. Instead of major arteries you’ll be relying on secondary roads the whole way. If, however, you revel in the opportunity to drive through winding farmers’ fields, and you find spending hours on a four-lane highway stressful, then this won’t be viewed as a discouragement but perhaps an added perk to making the weekly trek out to the cottage. It is, of course, something to keep in mind. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How often will I be visiting the cottage?
  • Who are the primary users of this cottage and what stage of life are they?
  • How long am I willing to drive to get there door-to-door?
  • How far away are the essential services?
  • What landscape features do I value most?
  • What’s the property’s and land’s orientation?
  • Are there any safety concerns?
  • Do I know what the lake and/or water is like
  • Have I visited the area before?
  • What kinds of activities do I plan on doing there?