Cottage Country Real Estate can be Tricky

The lure of cottage life is mighty powerful for most Ontarians – especially at this time of year. According to recent Royal LePage and RE/MAX recreational property reports, baby boomers and young professionals are fueling unprecedented demand for recreational properties and tight market conditions are expected as current cottage owners plan to stay put.

With multi-million dollar real estate deals up for grabs in many parts of the province’s cottage country it seems everyone wants a piece of the action.

While the temptation may be great for REALTORS® who don’t normally deal in rural real estate to jump in and go it alone when a client wants to buy a cottage, buying and selling rural property is a highly specialized area fraught with dangers and pitfalls for the inexperienced. The number one piece of advice from rural real estate specialists: Do yourself a favour and refer your client to a local professional.

"There’s nothing wrong with doing a referral or co-listing and sharing the commission with a local real estate professional," says Royal LePage broker Dianne Usher, who spent 20 years practicing as a rural-area REALTOR® before moving to Toronto.

Orillia REALTOR® John Waite agrees saying: "There are always going to be local issues regarding zoning, cottager associations and municipal bylaws as well as cottage specific pitfalls like wildlife infestation, water quality, road or water access – local people will have a better knowledge of these topics."

Two of the biggest considerations when buying rural are the property’s well and septic systems. Failing to ensure these two systems are functioning properly can be a very costly mistake.

"Septic (tank systems) are like mini sewage treatment plants and can cost anywhere from $7,000 and up," says Haliburton REALTOR®, Linda Baumgartner. "Ensuring a supply of potable water is also vital. You need to know if it’s a drilled well or a dug well or a bored well and if the water supply needs to be purified." And if the well has been abandoned a well-report needs to be filed with the Ontario environment ministry.

Understanding environmental issues is also important when shopping for vacation property. Depending on where the property is located, there may be any number of restrictions for building and land usage including setbacks from the water or minimum size requirements, shoreline allowances. Clients could be disappointed to find out they aren’t allowed to put a dock in or that their big 200 horse-power cruiser is not welcome on a motor-free lake.

It’s best to seek the advice of not only a local real estate professional, but also local lawyers, home inspectors and contractors. "It’s good to have local people who know their way around the registry office and are familiar with municipal by-laws, health unit requirements and other issues," says Baumgartner.

Dealing in cottage property comes with many more technical and legal aspects than a straightforward residential transaction. But apart from knowing the ins and outs and twists and turns that can occur, helping a client buy a cottage also requires you to determine exactly what they want. According to Waite, you need to find out what cottage means to them.

"Some people picture a cabin with bunk beds, some a million dollar mansion. Find out what their dream is so you know what you are looking for," he says. Start by asking them what they enjoy doing? If they are interested in fishing and canoeing, a river could be a good option. If it’s waterskiing or windsurfing, they’ll want a cottage on a lake. And, if it’s boating they love, you’ll need to scout something on a linked lakes system such as the Trent Severn Waterway. Also, would they consider buying on an island which can sometimes be a better value? And, are they looking for year-round or seasonal use?

Finally, just as with a residential transaction, cottage country experts recommend getting your clients pre-approved for financing. Otherwise people can get caught up in the excitement of owning a second property without being able to afford it.

Decommissioning abandoned wells
Checking out a property’s septic system and well are two of the most important considerations when buying or selling rural property. These systems don’t last forever and in the case of properties with abandoned wells, it’s important to ensure they have been properly "decommissioned" and that a new well has been professionally installed and inspected. Decommissioning abandoned, unused or "dry" wells is done to prevent groundwater contamination.

The Wells Regulation (Regulation 903 under the Ontario Water Resources Act) contains the following provisions for abandoning a well:

  • Wells must be sealed if they are dry, discontinued before completion, or not being properly maintained.
  • Wells that produce unpotable, salty, sulphurous or mineralized water must be abandoned.
  • Wells may also have to be abandoned if it is determined that natural gas poses a potential hazard or if well construction standards have not been followed.
  • Abandoned wells are required to be plugged with concrete or other suitable materials.
  • A licenced well contractor, certified by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, (MOE) should be retained to deal with the details such as selecting the right plugging materials, placing them down the well correctly, removing casings and other considerations which may be beyond most homeowners' abilities.

A homebuyer will want to be sure that if a new property has an abandoned well, it has been properly decommissioned and that the well record has been sent to the MOE.

To learn more about well water maintenance, including decommissioning, visit Some communities offer landowner funding programs; check with your local water quality services department.

You can obtain a copy of Regulation 903 from the e-Laws Web site at or by calling Publications Ontario at 1-800-668-9938.

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