Say the word "cottage" to Canadians hungering for spring and ears perk up, smiles appear and anecdotes abound.

Canadians may call it the "cottage," "cabin," "camp" or a family pet name. It may be anything from a one-room log cabin without electricity and with a magnificent feeling of adventure to a luxurious, all-season, waterfront vacation home. By my definition, a cottage is a second home located where you want to be, near what you like to do.

Over the coming decades, rural real estate is going to come into its own. No longer the poor cousin furnished with cast-offs from home, cottages will be popular headquarters for techno-workers, Internet-based students, e-business owners and, of course, those enjoying their decades-long retirement.

If you are shopping for a cottage or wondering if your current vacation home is the best you can do, here are a few things to investigate while waiting for the last snow and ice to melt:

  • What are the consequences of shoreline erosion? If you expect to own a cottage for twenty or more years, consider how the area may change physically over that time. Lakes, rivers and oceans are dynamic, continually changing systems. What shoreline regulation programs are in place? How successful have they been? What limitations on shoreline use and modification are there?
  • Docks are not a right The need for a dock does not entitle a cottage owner to build one.

    Provincial and federal regulations increasingly restrict the expansion or building of docks or moorages. An existing dock may not be a permissible one. Check all this out before hand or make an offer to purchase that is conditional on having the status of the dock and future docking facilities verified with the appropriate government offices.

    Never take water rights for granted.

  • Year-round use is not a right It isn't the amount of insulation that determines whether you can live in the cottage year round. Local municipalities regulate which properties may be occupied seasonally and which may be lived in year round. In some areas, there is little opposition to over-wintering. Other municipalities limit winterizing or construction of year-round cottages.
  • Limitations of local medical facilities: As healthcare systems shift and shudder under current governments, people may decide to buy cottages according to the quality and variety of healthcare services available. If you or your partner currently have a specific medical condition or if there is a family history of a medical problem, you may want to consider locations where local hospitals are well equipped to handle these problems.
  • Transportation is essential: Being able to drive a car, and perhaps a boat, is usually essential to cottage living. If you or your partner could no longer drive, even for a short while, would you still be able to enjoy the cottage? If you don't want to be forced to a move should driving become an issue, investigate rural communities that are planning for significant growth in the near future. Check with local officials to find out where public transit exists or is planned.
  • Land claim and ownership issues: First nation land claims, government expropriations and issues over crown land management have left some cottagers without the land to keep their cottage on. When you are shopping for a cottage, find out what land issues are being debated in the courts or will soon be headed there.
  • Don't take the environment for granted: Water quality is failing in most parts of Canada. Some problems can be reversed or compensated for, others require expensive compromises and alternatives. Ask around to find out how drinking water and recreational water quality has changed over the years. What government initiatives are underway to improve and preserve water quality? What septic system and sewage treatment restrictions exist in the area? What limitations are there on developments and renovations?

Listen to the voice of experience and check with cottagers' association in the locations you are considering or contact a provincial cottagers' federation, such as the Federation of British Columbia Cottage Owners and Associations or the Federation of Ontario Cottagers' Associations Inc., to learn about some of the concerns and challenges associated with cottage living.

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