Would you buy a cottage on a cliff? Would I?
July 6, 2014 9:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm hoping to get some thoughts from the green about the possibility of getting a cottage located on a cliff. The question is about fears, rational risk assessment, and Ontario Geology.

I've been looking with my partner and another couple at cottages, thinking of buying one, maybe on our own, maybe with the other couple.

One place we looked at was a very beautiful place, around Cape Chin, on the east side of the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. The place has a spectacular view of the water, from atop a 30-foot cliff.

My partner and friends all love it. But for me, the 30-foot cliff is a source of some discomfort. It's a sheer, unprotected drop onto rocks, which is not the most comfortable thing in the world for me. I'm a little afraid of heights. I'm hoping folks on the green can shed some insight onto these fears.

Here are the things I worry about:

- I wonder if a place like that would be a safe and/or comfortable place to bring kids. I am thinking both of kids that friends might bring, and also of our own future kids, if we have any (We are not super-young We might have kids in the next couple years, might not have kids at all). I worry both about the real danger of kids falling, and also just about the idea that it might be very hard for anyone to relax with kids there.

- I wonder whether a place like that is actually physically secure. Right next to the cottage we are looking at, there is an overhang that collapsed, just a couple of years ago. This freaks me out a tiny bit. I mean - our cottage is not on an overhang or anything. But part of me, in my heart, would rather not summer in a place where there's a real, even if small, chance that it might collapse and fall off a cliff during some earthquake or something while I am there. Again - partly I worry about the actual risk of collapse, partly I worry whether it'll be hard for me to relax at a place that feels physically precarious to me.

My hope is to try and bring some reasonable and realistic insight to this, to help sort out my thoughts and feelings.

Some specific questions:

a) Does anyone have a sense: Geologically, is a house on a cliff on the Ontario Bruce Peninsula a pretty secure thing? Is it like "Oh, that'll still be there in 500 years"? Or is it like "There's a pretty good chance there would be a big geological event in the next few decades that would wipe that thing out"? Somewhere in between?

b) Realistically, how dangerous is it to be around a cliff? Do people fall off them? Do kids? Are there, like, any statistics on this? Do kids have some powerful "do not fall off a cliff" instinct that keeps them safe?

c) Are there things people do to be more comfortable/safe in these sorts of situations? We thought about erecting a fence. Our real estate agent seemed to think this was not super-realistic, but maybe there's a way to do it.

d) I welcome any general thoughts, insights, folks might have. Would you get a place like this? Would you be comfortable bringing kids to it? Got any other thoughts/advice?

posted by PersonPerson to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The factual quantity of danger here is basically irrelevant. If you are uncomfortable with this cottage, even if you can rationalize away all of your fears, don't buy it. You will never feel safe there, and gut reaction is a perfectly acceptable reason to not buy a house.

But since you asked, I was uncomfortable having kids when we had a swimming pool in the backyard. No way would I want to have children, my own or as guests, in that location. I can promise you, given my seven-year-old and the trouble she gets into climbing small suburban trees, that kids do not, in fact, have any instincts at all that keep them safe.
posted by Andrhia at 9:12 AM on July 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

How far is the cottage from the cliff? If you are on the Bruce Peninsula then I think you probably have limestone cliffs? Assuming you have a reasonable set back from the cliff, then I personally would not worry about the cliff failing during my lifetime from some geologic catastrophe. But whether or not the slope/cliff is stable depends on many different factors that a geological engineer with expertise in slope stability would need to assess.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:46 AM on July 6, 2014

Being right next to an area that collapsed just a couple of years ago would ring serious warning bells for me.

Can you get hold of older maps, back to 1900 or so? I'd have a look and see whether I could track any historical erosion pattern of the cliffs. If a serious amount of ground has disappeared, then I'd avoid the site.

Also, check whether your insurance company would cover the cottage. The next-door cliff collapse may make the cottage uninsurable.
posted by Azara at 10:42 AM on July 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Look at it this way -- geography doesn't respect property lines. If the area next to the cottage collapsed, that may be why the adjacent one is for sale. My family has a cottage set back 30 yards from a cliff, and it is difficult to relax when kids are there. Personally, I would not do it.
posted by ravioli at 11:33 AM on July 6, 2014

We used to live "under" the banks of a reservoir and I'd often have irrational* but disturbing dreams about the reservoir banks bursting. I hadn't realised how much it affected me until we moved and the nightmares stopped.

I'd be worried that your subconscious mind would make it uncomfortable to stay there and you'd never be able to really relax. Is there any chance of renting a cottage there this summer to see how you feel?

(* However, Aberfan was a huge part of my childhood.)
posted by humph at 12:05 PM on July 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love that area, very beautiful. I would not bring my kids to a cottage with a 30 foot drop, having had so many adults I know fall of the edge at Rattlesnake Point. Also, yeah, the limestone cliffs do erode and break off but you would need a professional to assess the risk at that specific location. You do have more of an earthquake risk rather than a place on the shield but earthquakes are pretty rare. That section of the Bruce was almost in-accessible much of the winte this past, harsh, winter; if you were planning on a four-season cottage. If this is the cottage I am thinking of, (with the spiral staircase?), I would be concerned about the ability to resell because I think it has been on the market for a while at a pretty reasonable price. Also, being on the east side means you miss out on the sunsets/day ends early (with the tradeoff that usually your cottage is cooler than west-facing cottages).
posted by saucysault at 12:27 PM on July 6, 2014

It sounds like this cottage is not a good fit for you. Cliffs can be dangerous, and if you don't want people to be at risk of falling off a cliff, the best solution would probably be to not be near a cliff! However, if I were trying to assess the geological stability of a coastal property, I would look at things like:

Direct landslide or collapse evidence. This could be as obvious as freshly disrupted earth, cracks in the ground near the cliff edge, or chunks of rock out of place. If you can find one, you can also try looking at LIDAR maps or topographic maps for evidence of historical slide shapes and piles of rubble.

Cliff erosion evidence. A place to start would be to find some older pictures of the cliff face, or similar cliff faces in the area, and compare that to the current view. Look out for pictures of a "raw" looking cliff face, or changes in vegetation. Often you can do this on google earth with the historical imagery slider. Here is an example of a house on the Oregon coast that I would not buy.

Cliff composition. I'm not familiar with the area, but it sounds like there may be both soft shales and sandstones, as well as some stronger dolostone/limestone?

Seismic hazards. In this case I think earthquakes are not going to be your main concern- this looks like an area at low risk of earthquakes- scroll down to the map "Northeastern Ontario Seismic Zone".

Wave energy, if the cliff is at the water's edge, including any winter storm surge (again, I don't know the area, so this may not be an issue?)

And then, more in the "is this property a good long term investment" category:

Projected rates of relative water level rise or decrease (if any)

Environmental regulations (if you needed to, would you be allowed to build a fence, or cliffside stabilization/small slide remediation construction, or is the area protected in a way that wouldn't allow this type of work?)

Try to keep it in perspective, though- you don't care what will happen in the next 500 years. You probably really only care what will happen in maybe the next 20 to 40 years (and since this would be a second residence/vacation cottage, mostly about the ability to resell)
posted by Secretariat at 12:40 PM on July 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

We live about 1/3 of a mile from the edge of a (several hundred foot) cliff. Most of the homes cliff-side have fenced areas, I presume for kids and/or pets.

It's pretty, yes. But no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks would I live much closer to the edge than I do already. See, cliffs have this tendency to fall.

And living here in the PNW, you learn a few things.
1. Despite all their science and studies, they really DON'T know when or where is going to fall next. It's a game of chance.
2. The cliff/hillside falling near your home - especially one you own - is a financial nightmare. Except when it's a survival nightmare.
3. They're pretty/interesting/etc, but just not worth the risk.

Your mileage, of course, may vary - but I wouldn't trust a risk assessment, because most of those that DO end up in those nightmares have had assessments that tell them they're perfectly ok and that it probably won't fall.

Probably just isn't good enough for me - I'd be stressed every single time we got too much rain or a repeated freeze/thaw/freeze cycle.
posted by stormyteal at 5:40 PM on July 6, 2014

I don't know anything about the area, so am not going to talk about the erosion or anything, but I'm kinda surprised by the number of people who're saying no way because of safety concerns. My grandparents lived on what sounds like a very similar property--relatively large plot of land that included a dramatic (30 ft sounds not unreasonable) drop straight into Lake Erie. If you fell, you fall would be padded by a bunch of large, jagged rocks. There was a large yard, and the house was maybe 150 ft back from the cliff.

My grandparents had eight kids. All up, that side of my family is easily 75+ people--I started to count and lost track. Almost all of us spent huge chunks of our childhood in the house on the cliff, and really, it was pretty great. You establish early on that kids are supposed to stay back from the edge--by the time I was probably six or seven, I knew damn well where the limits were regarding that, and was meant to police my (younger) siblings. And much younger than that, well, most people aren't going to let a toddler go play outside on their own anyhow, so it's not hard to keep them from the edge.

I mean, maybe I'm biased, because I grew up on the lake, and on a part of the shoreline where a lot of people have Big Cliffs in their backyards, but despite that, I've never known or heard of anyone going over a cliff. In terms of things you should worry about, I'd say access to the bay or lake is a much bigger threat--while I've never heard of anyone falling over a cliff, I've heard of (and known) many people who got overconfident while swimming, or boating, or bodyboarding, and ended up stuck in a storm, or caught in a rip current, or whatever, some of whom died.

I'm sure that there are things you could do to be more safe--if you really wanted to put up a fence, it could probably be done, or you could put up something like a low rock wall several feet back from the cliff edge, which would provide both an impediment to small children and a clear visual barrier for everyone. You could plant a line of bushes, and same deal. I suspect that regardless of if you did these things, though, you'd quickly adjust--after a couple of safe, happy weekends there, it becomes a lot easier to see it as a safe, happy place, not one where there's Danger Lurking.

When my grandparents died, we fought and fought to keep their house, but finally had to give up because none of us could realistically afford it. I'm pretty zen about the deaths of my grandparents, but I still have a lot of regret that we lost that house. If I were you, I'd buy the place, and would happily take my kid there, and my friends' kids there, and my relatives' kids, and maybe, someday, my kid's kids. I bet that we'd all be thrilled.
posted by MeghanC at 5:53 PM on July 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

To be clear, I'm leaning towards the "no way" and "use caution" camp mostly because you sound uncomfortable with living near a cliff and like maybe you're looking for a list of cons to balance out all the pros (beautiful, romantic, spectacular, exciting, vacationy). A cliff isn't an automatic no, it's just something that I would want to investigate carefully before dropping some cash on a place.

You know, I just thought of another thing that might be worth looking into, since we're talking about dolostone or limestone- is the area prone to sinkholes? I'm from the Pacific NW so I'm not super familiar with this first hand, but sinkholes or "karst terrain" would be another thing to ask about.
posted by Secretariat at 7:38 PM on July 6, 2014

a) Does anyone have a sense: Geologically, is a house on a cliff on the Ontario Bruce Peninsula a pretty secure thing?

You really need a professional, not the hivemind, for this sort of question.

Civil engineering consultants near Cape Chin, Ontario
posted by Jacqueline at 7:56 PM on July 6, 2014

Ugh, you should buy that cottage and give it to me - Cape Chin is gorgeous!

Realistically, the Niagara Escarpment is pretty stable, so I'd be much more worried about how comfortable friends and family would be near the escarpment than with it collapsing. That said, dolostone and limestone cliffs are inherently unstable in the long term, so a professional assessment would be the safest thing to do.

But realistically, the escarpment is pretty stable, it's just a matter of how comfortable You and Yours are atop it.

PS - if you want a cottage in a really family-friendly place, go to the other side of the peninsula. This is my 43rd summer at a cottage there, and there are no cliffs, only shallow protected bays. And you can still get to the Georgian Bay side in no time at all (ugh why am I in the city working instead of there?).
posted by ldthomps at 9:11 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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