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Most Canadians can't imagine owning a cottage with anyone but family. Whether they are haunted by "guest-from-hell" experiences or battle-scarred by efforts to share a lake, most cottagers want to possess their own piece of Canada's wilderness. That said, co-owning a cottage may be the only way many Canadians get their corner of paradise, either because of rising prices in preferred recreation areas or because they inherit only one share in the family cottage.

Successful cottage co-ownership, whether with family members or unrelated individuals, is a business partnership that includes in the profit column essentials like fond memories, willing cooperation, respect for privacy and stress-free recreation. This business context emphasizes the importance of anticipation and clear communication -- cornerstones of successful enterprise.

"Unrelated" owners may be individuals or couples with families of their own. They may decide to share ownership for financial or property maintenance reasons. For instance, two eastern Ontario couples find it convenient to share an Ottawa-area cottage since one of the two is often absent on overseas government postings.

My informal survey of Canadian cottage associations and cottage-country real estate professionals revealed how prevalent the "keep it in the family" approach to cottage ownership is. This should mean that as family cottages are passed on to the next generation, joint ownership will become more common.

Along with two other relatives, Hannah and her sister inherited their grandfather's isolated, water-access-only cottage, located on a 1.5 acre peninsula in a lake north of Peterborough, Ontario -- I can't tell you where without breaking the cottage owners' code of silence. The cottage held special, and very different, memories for each of them, but they shared concerns about multiple-owner nightmares.

"We all had a strong work ethic," explained Hannah, the elder sister, describing the challenge they faced. "We all have opinions and very strong ones at that. We are all professionals so life is so fast and you react instantly, but that is not the spirit of a cottage. Now, we were all working hard at being calm, which is not our natural state. The key is being considerate and thinking it out before you react."

To ensure their pleasure with the cottage was not disrupted, these strong-willed relatives created an agreement for sharing their cottage that is typical of those used by unrelated owners.

"We researched by talking to others," said Hannah. "My father got a copy of an agreement that was drawn up for friends and we adapted this. One of our strongest points was to limit decision making to direct partners; in-laws would not be allowed a vote. We put in a provision that we would do a basic level of work and then we created a project list -- everything from an electric pump to a humus toilet."

Everyone puts $100 a month into a fund for taxes, maintenance and large projects. The four-part rotation they developed gives them each two weeks of privacy in the summer.

A written agreement is not automatically legally binding, but it is prudent. Joint agreements should be customized to cover dispute resolution, alternatives if the arrangement does not work out and provisions for changes in the owners' lives such as divorce and marriage.

Basic questions should be addressed:

  • If one decides to sell, do the others have first option to buy or will the cottage be put on the open market?
  • Who will decide what maintenance is to be done and to what standards?
  • Who will select and supervise contractors?
  • What if one owner does not pay their share of the expenses on time?

Working out the details before hand will save time and money. Once you have sorted out the things important to your enjoyment, then take your ideas to a lawyer who can draw up the agreement for you and remove any loopholes which could cause problems later.

"Your cottage is not only a huge work project, it is your place of reflection, safety and your place out of the city," said Hannah who recognizes how important harmony is to preserving their refuge...and their sanity.

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