Tell me about your experiences owning a lake house
August 26, 2019 9:35 AM   Subscribe

We have an opportunity to buy a small house near the beach in southwest Michigan, about a 2 hour drive from our home. In theory that's awesome: a family getaway that could be shared with the kids now and into their adult lives. But we have no experience in what it takes to maintain/keep up a place from afar and I am afraid that there are 100 things I'm not realizing that are "unknown unknowns" about owning a second house that's often empty. People with a lake house: what has been your experience?

Specifically, I wonder about:

* If you bought it thinking "we'll go here ALL THE TIME," did that turn out to be true? How do you use it (especially if you are a family with kids in school/activities)?
* Was it a joy or a stress to share it with friends and family?
* What were some of the unexpected maintenance/upkeep surprises?
* What costs or extra work did you not anticipate?
* Did you have to hire somebody to check in on the place (especially in the winter)?

Anecdotes, advice, encouragement, and warnings are equally welcome.
posted by AgentRocket to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am a part owner of a beach house. It was built 90 years ago by my great-grandfather as a place to go to escape polio in the summers, in the city. Because it is a beach rather than a lake, the experiences will be different. But let me tell you about it.

This house was built of old growth cypress and heart pine, because those materials were available then. It was built stoutly, and this is a key reason it still stands today. The weakness over time has been water, rot, and roof damage. After a hurricane in 2005 we had to raise the house by 4 feet in order to receive FEMA grants.

This house is located on a bay, rather than on the ocean, so the elements are not quite so fierce. However, lots of decay is caused by proximity to salt water. Only the best materials will stand against rust and corrosion, and the fierce sunshine.

I share the ownership with siblings and cousins, and have established an ownership agreement to keep things straight. We rent out the house in order to generate income to pay for the substantial upkeep and repairs. Insurance is steep for property on the water. We have someone next door who looks after the house and handles the renters.

This is my favorite place in the world. There is a broad cypress porch which wraps around the house. Breezes come in off of the bay, the sunshine and waves are soothing, and boats are available to paddle around in. There are creeks to explore. Dolphins and osprey hunt close to the beach. Food tastes better when I am there. I lie in the hammock and read a book, but soon fall asleep due to the ambient lazyness. And yet we only spend two weeks a year there because it is 500 miles from our home. However, when we go our extended family comes down and friends make the trip, too. The dining table, which was built in place, seats 14. Children who grew up with these annual trips are now bringing their children to the house.

You will need to know how to winterize your home, otherwise bad things will happen when the deep freeze comes. Things get dirty when the place is vacant for a long time. Know about the risk of vandalism. Consider the need to rent out the house vs. the hassle.

By the way, this house in Alabama is available for rent. Send me a note if you want details.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:01 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


I grew up with a family lake house, which was about two hours away from our home.

We used it about every weekend when I was very young, but when I hit high school it became a bit of a drag for us kids to be there. My little brother was way into using it with friends though, especially once he got to college age and was trusted for things to go well. He still goes to the lake house with his kids. I wasn't so into it, because the lake was manmade and had issues with algae. One problem I experienced as a kid was that I was left out of a lot of friend stuff that occurs on weekends because we were at the cabin. On the other hand, I got way into hiking and woodsy stuff and water sports because that's all there was to do. Also my uncle's sci fi paperback collection was there, so I read a ton of stuff I wouldn't have otherwise. On rare occasions we would share the place with close relatives. That was fine.

Maintenance/work: the chimney attracted birds who died in the house, bats who died in the house, and the septic once got filled with dead squirrels. That was hella gross. Also the place was more used by wolf spiders than us, and they got into the linens. One time I pulled back the blankets to find a whole nest of them. SHUDDER . It sucks to have to mow two lawns. (I recommend minimizing your lawn at the lake place. Go wild if possible.) Water weeds and keeping the lake from eroding our property were a perennial problem, and the lakefront was sometimes expensive to maintain. Local teenagers *love* to break into cabins that are empty during the off-season, but it didn't happen to us.

No we didn't hire anyone, and we went there a lot in the winter too, for skiing and winter sports.

After growing up with that, I wouldn't own one now. Two places was too much. However, I live in Northern MN so I am surrounded by nice lakes that are easy to get to. So I might feel differently if I still lived in the suburbs. Honestly, as a kid it had a lot that was good and a lot I didn't like about it. Missing weekends at home was a drag, but I enjoyed myself while there.

I think it would have been better if it was an extended family place, where everyone shares the burden of maintenance and occupies it on the regular as some folks kids get to the age where they maybe don't want to go all the time.
posted by RedEmma at 10:03 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


A two-hour drive isn't bad; you can get there and back in a day without wanting to kill yourself.

...and you probably will have to get there and back in a single day, probably without advance notice, because something has gone wrong.

Things to consider:
1) will you be winterizing the place, or will you keep minimal heat turned on (to avoid having to winterize)? Winterizing a place that isn't designed for that kinda sucks, and keeping the place at 50F might be worth it, particularly if you will ever contemplate going there in winter anyway.

2) if the latter, you can buy relatively inexpensive alarms that attach to a phone line which will automatically call you if the temperature drops below your setpoint. Make sure you keep this alarm away from the windows!! (ask me how I know ... sigh ...) The advantage of these old-style alarms (vs. a modern internet thermostat) is that phone lines go down less frequently than rural internet service, in my experience.

3) consider the proximity of neighbors and whether any of them are full-time residents. If there's nobody around you'll want to get some form of armored shutters, fairly serious doors, and the like to protect from casual breakins. I've used some reasonably expensive security doors that swing out (rather than in) so that they physically cannot be kicked in, they have weird hinges where you cannot pop the pins, and if you pull on the handle hard enough (eg: by tying it to an ATV) it'll tear off leaving the door still locked. Sure, yes, a locksport afficionado could get in, but I'm not worried about that.

4) Any outbuildings should be quite solidly locked (see above), or you may find a meth lab in there (ask me how I know ...sigh...).

5) people may try to break in just because they're drunk, or want to have sex, or are bored. Thinking that "there's nothing worth stealing" will not deter everyone, it would only deter serious thieves (casual thieves might still try for it, because why not?)

6) if you do have nearby full-time neighbors, be friendly with them, and establish some kind of casual "hey, AgentRocket is home" signal -- a common one is a flag. If you or "your people" are at the place, then the flag is up. Always, with no exceptions. Ideally the flag should be stored in a closet inside the house, so the neighbors can see at a glance that whoever is at the house is supposed to be there and won't call the cops when they see someone rummaging through an outbuilding.

7) seal the ever-loving shit out of the place. Wire screens, caulk, wire-screens plus concrete, whatever you have to do. Leave no location where beasties can get in. They'll still get in, perhaps, but it won't be as bad.

But yeah, go for it IMHO.
posted by aramaic at 10:08 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


When my father died we wound up with a "sort of near the beach" house that we decided to keep rather than sell, in coastal Massachusetts. The first summer we owned it (2012?), I broke my ankle and came to this house instead of my own which is up 28 stairs and I've been doing that every summer since. Me and my sister maintain it. I live four hours away, she lives 90 minutes away. The house has some money for taking care of it that we share. I have many many feelings about all this, mostly positive. Here are some. And I'll address your questions.

1. I go every summer, we spend holidays together here. it's closer to my LDR so it's a win for me. My sister is in love with the place but realistically is only here maybe two or three weeks a year, usually when I am here. This has created some inequalities in both our knowledge of and our responsibility to this place. I do a lot of the "Call the generator guy" "Get that broken thing fixed" work. She mostly just hangs out here.

2. It is a joy to get a sort of "clubhouse" to be with my sister and my partner (together and separately) that is not any of our houses. There is, as I mentioned, the slight inequality in the amount of time/effort we put into it. We've been working more lately on trying to sort some of that out (i.e. she makes more phone calls which I can't stand doing) and I feel better about that. She is a money spender. I am a frugal tightwad. We've had to balance some of that when deciding on stuff like "Do we get a new couch because this one smells like the dogs that haven't lived here in ten years?" One of my big concerns is that she will wind up with a boyfriend I do not like or who wants this place to run a different way (she and I are very good at planning things for this place and getting work done etc) like her last boyfriend who was... suboptimal. My partner has no designs on the place which is great. From what I hear, it's unusual to have siblings who are SO of a similar mind about these sorts of things, so worth thinking about that.

3 & 4. My dad did not leave a manual so there were a lot of things I didn't know needed doing or wasn't sure how to do.
- various wooden things needed oil/stain regularly
- outdoor landscaping maintenance (like "spring clean up" and "Oh shit a tree fell, we need it gone")
- generator/furnace/alarm system maintenance
- just keeping the spiders down to a dull roar
- MILDEW MANAGEMENT (my god, the humidity!)

other things people do
- exterminators or other insect/vermin treatment (we mostly don't have mice now but we sure did before)
- working out moving the mail around all summer, paying for TV/internet you don't use, etc
- a lot of things just GROW and you have to actively weed and manage things or else it gets weird and meadow-y and your neighbors look at you funny
- moving food around, low key stuff but you hafve to have a system for how it all works. If you're leaving on a Wednesday but trash day is Friday, what happens to all your chicken bones?

Also stuff like how the smoke detectors go off every year when the heat first comes on. So annoying! We know it now and deal with it but it was a few years of being like "Why is the house always threatening to be on fire in October?" Some of the stuff we do here is more "keeping up with the Joneses" stuff than I would do if we weren't in a slightly tony retirement community. I treat this place like a destination resort and hang out here and at the beach (a short drive) but don't get too involved with the community except for eating out, attending events, etc. I do miss that community involvement (I'm very involved in my hometown community) over summers.

5. Yes, we have a guy who walks through once a week who has all the keys and we have low-temp alarms. He is very good and not cheap. This did NOT help when we blew a valve in a hot water baseboard heater (not freezing related) which dripped into the basement for a few days before anyone caught it. That said, he was there to manage it so we didn't have to zip down here.

At some level if my father hadn't died and left this place to me, I would not have chosen this situation. I am keenly aware that spending money on this means less money for my retirement but in some ways it allows me an early retirement and the future is sort of uncertain. It's given me and my sister a project to do together which I'd say delights me 85% of the time, but also gives me nerves about "What if something happens?" that I don't have in my small, contained situation in my hometown.
posted by jessamyn at 10:23 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


We had a lake house growing up, in Maine. It was just under 3 hours drive, but most of it was straight highway driving, with the last bit being a 2-lane road for about 30 minutes.

We went many weekends, and when we got to be teenagers, sometimes Mom & Dad would go there by themselves, leaving us at home. Once in a while, my older brothers would have an illicit house party.

- Heating. Our heating was radiator heat, fueled by oil. One year, Dad drained the system, to save on heating costs in the winter. He returned later to find a broken pipe in the basement, which required repair. He thought he'd wrapped them all very well, but missed a spot. After that, he just kept the heat on during the winter and set the thermostat to about 50-55 F.

- Mice and pests: one time, we went up to the house, turned on the oven, and pretty soon, the kitchen reeked. A mouse had crawled into the oven and died. The bathroom was frequently full of big black spiders, in the sink and tub. One time, a pheasant flew into a large front porch window, breaking the glass. It then died, inside the porch, so that was fun to clean up.

- Trespassers: we had people who would drag their ice house down our front field (the house was above the lake, across the shore road, with a few acres of field, then the lake front beach, approx. 100 feet of shoreline). This was obviously a residential road, and we were on the far side of the lake from the town and public beach. We had an old grassy trail next to the house, that went back up into the woods. It had been a road once, but was closed in the 1920's. The man driving up onto our lawn and into the woods claimed the road was still open. My Dad had to get an attorney to research the road issue and send a cease and desist letter to the other man's attorney, who apologized for his client and dropped the case. But it's amazing how people think they can just cut through your property, especially if they notice no one is there all the time.

- Friends of family. My brother would often go up there and take his girlfriend, and/or friends of his. They would leave messes, like dirty dishes in the sink, and help themselves to things they wanted. Such as one of my cookbooks, I mean, I would never steal a cookbook from a house where I was staying as a guest, but other people see no problems. An old paperback book, I could see, but that was strange. In general, they did not treat the property as my parents would have done if they were staying there.

- Upkeep. Someone had to be paid to mow the lawn in the summer, when no one was there, and also to plow the driveway in winter, for the oil delivery, etc.

- It was a lovely old Cape Cod, one master bedroom downstairs, 2 dormer bedrooms upstairs, exposed beams and a Franklin stove in the front room, plus a dining room, and another sitting room, both with fire places. We had a pot belly stove in the kitchen, as well as the gas/propane stove. 6 acres of woods out back, with said walking trail (formerly a road). The field in front had very few trees, except along the shoreline, so we had a fantastic view of the lake. I used to take a blow-up raft, and go down and drift for hours, looking down into the crystal clear water.

- We also had a spring house, which we could use to tap into a clear spring brook that ran along one side of the property. We had a well, so rarely used this option, but it was a lovely feature to have on the property.

- We had a septic tank, which have to be maintained and inspected every few years.

I currently live on a lake. I notice the landlords, who use the cabin next door, and rent us this smaller one, spend a lot of time on yard and beach maintenance. Raking weeds out of the water near the shoreline, gas for the boats, maintenance and repairs on the boats, etc. The grown son just told me that they haven't been able to get up here as often as they'd wanted to, this summer. Kids are getting bigger, and they have more activities to attend, sports, dance, etc., and now school is starting again soon, so this is their last week here. My landlord, who has a pontoon boat, has gone out on it about 3 times this year. He comes down once or twice a week to visit with his son and grandkids.

In Spring, we deal with flooding. The other cabin, which sits close to the lake, above the retaining wall, had tons of water underneath it this past Spring. The water was very high, higher than normal. If things aren't tied down, they will float away, causing hazards for boaters, and usually needing recovery. There was a foot ramp and railings that got broken up, a piece of decking also floated away (as the water had never been that high, it was set onto cinder blocks). Due to the high water, the house and beach were unusable for quite some time after the Spring thaw. We had a cold Spring, so that didn't help (that house doesn't have heat or a wood stove, ours has a furnace).

I was really sad when my parents sold that house. I loved it. But they'd moved far away, and Dad got sick of my brother going up there and using it as a party pad with his buddies. So they sold it, emptied it out, and that was that. Perhaps why I now seek out lake houses. This is the second one we've lived on in this area, and despite the dampness and humidity at times, and the very cold wind blowing off the water in winter, I love looking out and seeing the water every day. It's amazing.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:32 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


My experience very much mirrors that of Red Emma, above.

I grew up in Minnesota in the 1980s. For most of my childhood we went up to the lake every damn weekend all summer, and many of the spring & fall weekends, too. We weren't a hard-core sports family, so no one was really missing games or practices. Later, as the older kids grew up, it dwindled to me & Mom & Dad & the dog. I got a job, and they went up less often. Now in their 70s they still go up all the time again, but...society has changed a little. We four kids and my parents have chatted about how the grandkids just have so many more things to do, and there's so much more pressure on attendance, that it's hard to get there very often.

My parents always dreamed of having a place on one specific lake, so every few years they would sell and we would get a new place, farther north. So when I was super young it was just over an hour's drive, and now it's four hours if you stop for gas & drive-through food. But they finally have their dream place on Lake Vermilion, and I genuinely believe it's one of the prettiest places in America, so. :7)

My own kids dearly love visiting from where we live in New England, but we're only there once a year. It was a huge and treasured part of my childhood, but my wife & I have our hands full raising four kids and I really haven't wanted to own a whole damn other house. I would be very happy now to have an acre of trees with an outhouse for tent-camping, or maybe with a tiny cabin like the Minesota state parks' "camper cabins," but not a full-blown lake cabin.

And it makes me sad enough in a "better to have loved and lost" way to realize that Going To The Lake is awesome, and you should definitely do this!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:00 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


The younger you are, the more I encourage you to go for it and try to maintain stuff yourself -- you know, like you do with your first house.

On the other hand, my parents are close to retirement age, though, and they Have A Guy in the area who drains the pipes, shuts down the furnace, and generally winterizes the place each fall; they also have a company who stop by with a barge on a crane to stack the dock sections on shore and winch the steel deck frame up out of the water.

They just want to enjoy the place when they are there (and yes, sometimes they drive up in the dead of winter and slog through a quarter-mile of thigh-deep snow to check on things). And enjoy it they do: there's enough bunk beds and futons and air mattresses that a huge crowd can cram in for a July weekend (or tent in the yard), and it's so damn much fun.

Time at the lake is time without obligations: you eat and drink, and the kids swim and play -- then later they fish, then later than that they learn to take the boat out themselves. There are slightly musty paperbacks if someone needs downtime, and a hammock, and a LOT of life jackets; rainy days mean playing with cards that are soft from age or reading a ten year-old magazine. It's really the best.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:06 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Pulls up an Adirondack chair and sits down...

We have a lake house that's 4-1/2 hours away from our primary residence. My husband is a teacher, so he has the summers off and I've worked at my job for over 20-mumble years, so I have a LOT of vacation time. My husband grew up occasionally "going to the lake", whereas my family never vacationed "at the lake", so we only partly knew what we were getting into. That being said, we absolutely love it. In fact, we tore down the trailer that we initially bought and built a real house on the property and intend to retire there. We don't have kids.

We both like working on houses and my husband has the summers off, so the maintenance hasn't been too onerous (for us). My Dad visits regularly and likes to putter, so we keep a small list of chores for him to do. As RedEmma says, minimize your lawn. My husband jokes that it takes him 45 minutes to mow both our lawns, it's just that there's a 4.5 hour commute between them. But there is usually something that needs to be done each trip up.

I was terrified that we had a septic system to maintain, but (thankfully) it hasn't been a problem, especially since it requires inspection every few years. The old place was not well-sealed at all (trailer), so we had LOTS of mice and chipmunks travelling through the ductwork. In colder climates, you'll need to winterize. The trailer had pipes prone to freezing, so we would open up and blow out the pipes each visit in the fall and winter. We now have a much better insulated house along with a smart thermostat that will send me an alert if the temperature drops and I can turn up the heat on drive up. We do pay to have the driveway plowed, even when we aren't there, so the snow doesn't pile up too high to make plowing more difficult and we pay to have the boat lift and dock installed and taken out of the lake now that all of us are older and more decrepit. We do spend Columbus Day Weekend raking leaves, or the leaves kill our small patch of grass.

We were fortunate to have a neighbor that lived there year-round, right next door and he kept an eye on things for us. This is only good, if you don't mind having a nosy neighbor. Unfortunately, he has since passed away, but we do have some friends nearby that we can call if something needs checking on. We don't have anyone come in regularly to walk through, though we usually manage to get up there once a month. We did make a pact with ourselves that we weren't going to stress out over whether we were using it enough, as we also consider it an investment.

We do share it with friends and family A LOT. I like to entertain, so I take that in stride. I do try to assign each family unit a breakfast and/or a dinner to cook, otherwise, I end up doing all of the cooking and getting rather cranky. Aside from that, it's been great to hang out with everyone. We do have to block out time when no guests come up, so that we can be there just by ourselves. We do only have a trusted few family members that can be there by themselves (they've been there so often, they know how all of the systems work.)

Pay attention to the lake before you buy. My husband wanted a lake that he could swim in with his eyes open underwater and see. We are in an area away from agricultural land, so we don't have algae and seaweed growing in our lake, but we had to travel farther to get that. Also, our lake is small, so we don't have a lot of ski boats and jetskis. If those sorts of things will bother you, better to know beforehand. On the flip side, if you are a boater, will you get bored on a small lake?

My two practical tips for part-time lakelife are 1) Keep a rubbermaid tote somewhere in your house that you can just put "stuff to take to the lake" into and 2) try to have onsite laundry at the lake - I'm sooo much happier to return home without a carload of dirty towels and bedding.
posted by sarajane at 11:11 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]


My parents have one that they got when I was in the 3rd grade. It's more like
'lake adjacent' so we can't exactly swim whenever we want, don't have a lakeview etc. This means that the lake is only useful with a boat, which drive what kind of car you have to purchase....

It was a 2 hour drive away - we went there often as kids as mom was a teacher and had summers off.

My parents now go a few times a year to maintain everything - winterizing is a thing, mowing the lawn in the spring and summer, some maintenance, but it's small so less than a normal house. I go about once a year for a weekend, my brothers and sisters less. It it was lake front and we had a dock, I think I'd go more.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:27 AM on August 26


My partner's parents were considering purchasing such a house, and the shopping process was a veritable comedy of narrowly-avoided disasters. A toilet that dumped straight into the lake, rotten beams under the house, buried rusty storage tanks, one place that turned out to not even be owned by the would-be seller, places listed at well over their assessed value, etc. Be sure this specific "opportunity" is actually a good one from a purely business perspective, as well as that you actually want to own such a thing.
posted by teremala at 11:42 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


My parents owned a beach house 3 hours away. Our family with 4 kids went a lot and it was well loved and gave us a life of great memories. But it was the only place we ever went because all money went into it.

Then my siblings and I owned it and we took our kids a lot and it was well loved and gave us more great memories. But it was the only place we ever went because all our money went into it.

So this is a trade off people do not think about. We didn't do the Disney trips, haven't traveled the US or outside of it, haven't seen other beaches, didn't learn to ski down a mountain, etc. If these things are important to you, you may want to rethink this. If they aren't then take all the other advice above into consideration.

For me, I wouldn't trade the experience I had as a kid or as a parent, but we are major beach people and have no regrets. My very young adult kids complain about their lack of travel compared to their friends though. But with age they may have a better appreciation, or not.
posted by maxg94 at 11:42 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]


My parents own a place on a lake in northern Wisconsin. It's been a delight for me, going there as a kid and now bringing my own kids, but it's a hell of a lot of work. My dad is handy and enjoys house projects, and has pretty much run out of them at his primary residence. He recently replaced all the windows, painted the trim, redid a bathroom...it's a lot. If my parents didn't want it any more and offered it to my sister and me, I think we'd turn it down.
posted by look busy at 11:51 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


We (me, spouse, 2 kids now aged 14 and 11) have a cabin on a small inland lake in Northern Wisconsin, about 3.5 hours from our home. We did not buy a fixer-upper, because we knew things would never get done, so we lucked out quite a bit. We have had it for 5 years, and I love it to the point that if the choice were to sell the cabin and stay in our current home, or downsize our home to try to keep the cabin, our current home would be on the market so fast. That said:

* If you bought it thinking "we'll go here ALL THE TIME," did that turn out to be true? How do you use it (especially if you are a family with kids in school/activities)?

We go quite a bit, although our availability has gone way down as the kids are involved in more activities. This means that our weekends are either spent at kids activities or at the cabin. We don't have a lot of "down time" weekends at home, which can be stressful as we both have busy jobs, and things like laundry, cooking, etc can get neglected. Also, our kids probably don't socialize as much as other kids outside of activities, but they both say they're happy with the balance. we are very careful to say "yes" if there is a special thing they want to do that falls on a cabin weekend as much as possible.

* Was it a joy or a stress to share it with friends and family?

We don't share ownership, so that's not an issue. We do try to invite people up when we can, but ours is a small (800 sf, 2 bed/1ba) cabin, so it gets tight! But that can be a feature, not a bug...people who come are those who are okay with winging it, and we never have the situation our friends (who have a HUGE lake house about 20 minutes from ours) have--25 people up for the weekend!

* What were some of the unexpected maintenance/upkeep surprises?

Not too many surprises, as we bought a place that was in pristine shape (traded size/"big water" for move-in condition). But I will say one thing that we learned from friends is that it can be VERY difficult in our area to get workers (maintenance or construction) to do a job in a timely manner up there. Not enough workers, too many projects. Our friends are adding a mudroom, and they are about 2 years behind schedule.

* What costs or extra work did you not anticipate?

Hmmm. Well, there were a lot of trees that were in not so great shape, so we're doing a lot of chainsawing. We do go up in winter, but we are on a "private" road so the county doesn't clear the road--we need to hire someone to do that. We don't have cell service up there, so we need to pay for a landline in case of emergencies. Oh, speaking of emergencies, making sure your health insurance isn't ridiculous for out of network urgent care/ER visits is a good idea.

* Did you have to hire somebody to check in on the place (especially in the winter)?

No, but we spent some money in our first year to convert it from 3 season to year round. We insulated the crawl space, so the pipes wouldn't freeze--this cost about $8K, but we both like winter up there so it was worth it. THAT SAID--we do not have heat in the basement, so we have monitors upstairs and downstairs. We do have electric baseboard heat upstairs. This means that if there is a power outage, we either need to mobilize and go up there right away (my spouse's job makes this not impossible, but it's not easy) or call someone to check. So, if we didn't have that, we'd have to hire someone to be "on-call" for those situations.

Take home for us? It's a big investment, and there are trade-offs, but it's really worth it to our family.
posted by TheFantasticNumberFour at 12:00 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I think one of the huge keys to making a second home work is having disposable income to throw at it, both preventing problems and quickly addressing them. My in-laws have a place on Cape Cod (which my husband and his brother will inherit one day) and luckily they have the means to have a regular gardener/landscape crew, and also to have installed many systems (excellent HVAC, huge generator, etc) that prevent some key issues that can arise. They are also able/willing to pay for very regular upkeep costs, like dealing with painting/siding/roofing repair that can quickly spiral when you are so close to the ocean.

When we inherit the house we will also inherit the money to sustain its upkeep, otherwise it would be on the market the next day. I would not be interested in renting the house -- even if you have a management company (critical!), renters cut into the flexibility you have to use the house, and I think you'd be surprised by how little use it can actually get. We have essentially free reign to visit the Cape house whenever we'd like for however long we'd like (including inviting friends) and we really only go 4 times per year even though it's a <2 hour drive for us. I imagine when we don't have a very young child we will get out there more often (and my in laws are there very frequently indeed), but just a data point.
posted by Bebo at 12:01 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I am told that it is now A Thing in parts of the Midwest to have a lawyer draw up a trust to own the lake cabin & property. That way it's easier to transfer between generations without a back-breaking cost, but it also means that "going to the lake" now also requires some kind of reservation and possibly a cash payment to cover a fraction of the year's expenses.

This removes much of the romanticism of The Lake, but is a little more honest about the financial impact of a cabin.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:29 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


My parents built their dream home (passive solar!) on some land when I was v. small child, and we spent our summers there, along with at least 2 weekends a month year round. It's about 2.5 hrs away from their home, in the mountains, not directly on a lake, but with nearby lake access. It was built for year round occupation.

Seconding that it does cut into any other travel time you can do-I went on my first beach vacation when I was in my mid 20's for example, and while as an adult I appreciate that it was cheaper to just drag us up to the mountains, I definitely had some FOMO about skipping out on weekends in the city.

As to your actual questions:
* Was it a joy or a stress to share it with friends and family? Some of my fondest memories are of "thanksgiving day leftovers" where we'd invite extended family for the remainder of the long weekend to feast, eat, hang out and play boardgames. We still do this 30+ years on. I had some AMAZING parties up there in my early 20s, but that's fallen off a bit in recent years as my parents get older and really just want it to be their oasis. (which is totally fair)

* What were some of the unexpected maintenance/upkeep surprises? the year it snowed 5ft in 2 days and the electricity was down, and I had to dig my way down a v. long driveway to the house because oh hey, we didn't drain the pipes was a little less exciting. My mom has definitely done the drive there and back in a day just to meet a repair guy, or to check on the house when we haven't been able to make it in a few weeks. Mice can be a concern- you learn very quickly to store all of your dry goods in the fridge, irrespective of if the food needs to be kept cold or not.

* What costs or extra work did you not anticipate? We pay for plowing and grass cutting now that my parents are older and my siblings and I can't make it up every week to mow the lawn. We pay for a hardline, as there's no cell service. Every time you go up you need to clean something, or do some small householdy tasks. it's never just purely show up and chill (unless someone else has already been there a bit). The local waste transfer station has really weird hours, so you end up scheduling weekend stuff around dropping off trash sometimes which is... not how you do things in more urban areas.

* Did you have to hire somebody to check in on the place (especially in the winter)? We go up in winter, but we have a neighbor plow the driveway after major storms and he'll keep an eye on things; he won't fix things, but he'll let us know if we should make plans to get up ASAP.
posted by larthegreat at 12:31 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


My husband's grandparents have a lake house four hours away "up north." They built it when he was in middle school and very much saw it as a legacy project for their children + grandchildren. His grandparents love being up there and basically would spend the whole summer there. When families were younger they got tons of visitors (including me, when I met my husband near the end of my teenaged years). It is big enough for one or more families to stay, on a lake with a dock and a boat. Many of the grandkids went to summer camps in the area, so it was super convenient for everyone to spend time there in various combinations (parents only after camp drop off, then with the kids at the end of the session, July 4th, etc). And with the grandparents there all summer and keeping up the household it was very convenient to drop in for the weekend a few times over the year. Which is exactly what they wanted.

As grandkids got older, visitors dropped off a lot: graduating out of summer camps, moving away for school, desire to spend time traveling to other places (the grandparents basically never did any traveling other than to the cabin). Maintenance on the property was consuming and hard to keep up as the grandparents got older (and they also resisted spending money to pay someone else to do it). This is also the result of design decisions they made, like a beautiful deck that needs to be re-stained yearly, and a grass lawn in the middle of the woods. Use of the cabin has generally been unequal - a couple of kids who really love it the most also are the least well-equipped to contribute to upkeep on it, while the kids who are in the best position to help don't want to spend their time/money there.

A couple of winters ago there was a catastrophic equipment failure that resulted in a major leak/flooding. Repair work is slow and the place is still uninhabitable for the second summer in a row. This is very sad and was hard for the grandparents to deal with and manage.

The plan as I understand it is to leave the cabin in shares to their kids and grandkids, but the reality is there isn't money being left to cover the upkeep. Again, kids/grandkids are unequally distributed between those who would make use of it and want to keep it, and those who can afford to contribute to maintain it.

It's the source of many lovely family memories, but it might not be the multigenerational legacy that was envisioned. I think that's okay, but it might be hard to reflect on for all parties involved. It's probably a place where good communication is key - just like so many things in life!
posted by handful of rain at 12:44 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


My family had use of an inherited cabin when I was a kid.

It was in a private lake community, so at te beach you had to always be wearing your badge pin. I remember a lot of cliquey-ness. Lots of that was because many families were able to be there All Summer and the kids were close. My dad was definitely not what you’d call a good fit in this community, he drank a lot and smoked a lot and was an asshole. But the dues were paid so people just sort of dealt with it. Some summers we would go with an aunt or grandmother. The cabin was sold in the early 2000s and the well is shot. A new well needs to be dig if the cabin is going to be functional, but it pops up on a real estate site every now and then amd looks like it’s still in good shape in the interior (I think an addition has been torn off? Someone added baseboard heaters, though it’s logs and I cannot imagine it holds heat well at all. Very much was designed to be a summer place for people who lived about 2 hours away. There was a train station in a nearby town but it’s been shuttered for decades). Because it’s a private community there are dues and also drama. What happens when someone doesn’t pay? Why happens when rules about paint colors or laundry lines are disregarded? On to your questions:


...you bought it thinking "we'll go here ALL THE TIME," did that turn out to be true? How do you use it (especially if you are a family with kids in school/activities)?
I think our whole family got a lot of use out of it. Due to a relocation the family member who owned it was about a 7 hour drive from it. We were about 5 hours away.

* Was it a joy or a stress to share it with friends and family?
I think this caused a lot of stress for the owner. Like I said, my dad was an asshole.
* What were some of the unexpected maintenance/upkeep surprises?
Mice. Raccoons. Wow, raccoons can open nearly anything and they like playing in clouds of flour. I suspect that the septic is why killed the well, though I don’t have anyone to ask. This cabin was built in the early 30s. The tree that the wood is from is now considered extinct so I imagine repairs are a pain.
* What costs or extra work did you not anticipate?
I remember as a bed wetting child that adults were always angry at us about the vast quantities of laundry. The cabin was not warm at night so we piled on loads of ancient quilts. And peed in or sleep. Laundry was in town - at least 15 minutes, maybe half hour drive away.
* Did you have to hire somebody to check in on the place (especially in the winter)?
I think so but I don’t remember.
posted by bilabial at 12:53 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


If I was going to buy a lake house, I'd want one that I could enroll in a VRBO / AirBnB vacation rental program. And then I'd hire a property management company to take care of the cleaning and turnover. I'd block out the dates that we'd want to use it for our family. Interest rates are so low right now, it could be a very good investment.

I have long-term rental property and it's set up with a portal that the property management company and I both share. If something needs to be repaired they send a request through the portal and I click the "yes" button and it gets done. They also handle lawn care. They scan all invoices into the portal and even pay the bills for me as long as I keep the account topped off with enough cash to do so.

I'd also outfit the place with electronic keypad locks that I could access from my phone, as well as a Ring doorbell and cameras so I could monitor it from afar.

Outsourcing management for my long-term rentals equals 10% of the rent ... and it's totally worth it.

I would keep enough accessible cash reserve for a "major" repair such as a furnace ... $5,000 at minimum.
posted by Ostara at 1:03 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


But it was the only place we ever went because all our money went into it.

This has been so true for me as well. This place IS my vacation destination, nearly always. I don't want to be here for the summer and then take vacations from my vacation. This is not the way everyone feels, and it's worth considering.

Also along the taxes line that some people have mentioned, our property tax is higher at this house than it would be if we lived here full-time (fairly typical for vacation homes), and so is our insurance.

We decided not to do any of the apps-run-the-house stuff because our internet/power isn't quite reliable enough that we'd want to rely on it. So getting here in the winter usually involves coming in, turning up the thermostat and then going out to get food/etc and coming back to a house that is barely warm (or calling a guy and paying him to turn the heat up, not something we'd do now but maybe in the future).

It's also worth thinking about having guests. I host a lot of events here (did a MeFi20 party for 50) and I am happy to do it. But I also have friends who know I have a big house who sort of angle for invites in the summer. And I invite people as I can, but some people are "make themselves at home" people. Some people are "So, what are we all going to go out and do tonight?" folks who don't have that same "We just sit around and read and eat and basically do nothing" vibe and maybe expect to be more affirmatively "hosted" (like I would do if it were my year round home, but I do NOT do here).

It's been a challenge for me over time to set expectations properly with people. Having a house that is in a vacation destination, or where people come and stay for a while, may require adjusting how you interact with guests.
posted by jessamyn at 1:33 PM on August 26


My parents bought a small (700 sq ft, 1 br 1 ba) lake cabin when I was 8 or 9. It was about 45 minutes from our house, and we were up there just about every weekend. The proximity meant that even in high school, if I had activities or something one day I could drive over afterwards. I loved it; we went fishing most weekends, and I learned to sail. I've since moved to a state with mountains, and I try to return once a summer with my family.

A few years ago my wife and I started considering the mountain cousin of a lake cabin: the ski condo. My parents have always been fairly conservative when it comes to spending money, so I was surprised when my dad's advice was "Do it. If you can afford it, do it, even if it's a stretch. Our cabin is the best thing we ever spent money on."

So we did.

And he was right. We have gotten years of enjoyment out of our condo, and we've rented it enough when we're not there so that it's almost cost-neutral. It makes every weekend feel like a vacation. Though again, it's close enough so that it's not a huge burden to reach - about 1.5 hours. We're now starting to outgrow it, family-size wise, so now we're putting plans in place to move to the mountains full-time.

Costs and upkeep for our condo are a lot more modest than for my parents' cabin. No lawn mowing, no winterizing, no real worry about break-ins.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:38 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


It's definitely worth considering how many of the positives mentioned here could be achieved through renting a place whenever required, and how many of the negatives mentioned would not happen with renting. I think generally we humans like the idea of owning a thing, even when it may not make sense.
posted by smoke at 1:56 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Oh, and as a person with pretty bad dust mite allergies, the cabin was a difficult place to breathe, but I didn't realize it was allergies (in part because I'm also allergic to cats, and I had cats at home. I basically had an ongoing sinus infection until I went away to college). I just thought I was a rude kid who couldn't figure out how to sniffle silently when everyone else around me wasn't honking their noses. Turns out I was just producing prodigious amounts of snot and handling that in a normal way in a place with no kleenex or handkerchiefs for me. YMMV on the allergies, but that is definitely something to consider, because at least in a log cabin, you will never vanquish the dust.
posted by bilabial at 4:47 PM on August 26


I agree with smoke- I just did an analysis of probable Airbnb income for a friend’s second property, and the turnover costs were 65-100% of one night’s stay. After factoring in monthly costs, it worked out better for them to get a roommate for the property.
posted by Monday at 8:10 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


We live in our lake house full time, so I can't answer all your questions, but here are some thoughts.

*Expect all manner of critters. Chipmunks burrowing into the house and running amok , foxes breeding under the deck, bats flying through the house, wasps taking up residence in the attic, rabbits eating garden produce, large raptors that will view your small dog as prey, etc.

*Zoning regulations you might not expect (e.g. construction must be X feet back from the water line; no fencing, which would inhibit the free passage of wildlife, etc.) And if you can't fence your yard, for instance, that means you might not be able to let pets out unsupervised.

*Lake water quality. Look for published reports.

*Who manages the lake? For example, is weed spraying needed and, if so, who arranges and pays for it? Is it the Dept. of Natural Resources or a lake association. Both have their advantages and drawbacks. (Right now, our lake association cannot afford to spray against a couple of invasive species of aquatic weed because so many homeowners aren't paying their membership dues.) If poor management becomes an ongoing thing, it can affect property values. Related, is water level managed via drainage into runoff areas or can the shoreline rise and fall, exacerbating erosion issues? Any invasive animal species, like carp or zebra mussels and, if so, is anything being done about them?

*Re-sale isn't going to be the same as in the city. A sale can take a long time—sometimes a couple of years—due to factors like unrealistic pricing and finding the right buyer (someone who is serious about buying for starters, and not just looking and wishing).

All that said, I don't want to live anywhere else. It's awesome and the headaches are totally worth it :-)
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:33 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


I have a family cottage that my grandfather built. I love the place, but I will be the first to admit it is an expensive pain in the ass. We could rent a place for a hell of a lot cheaper than the cost of maintenance and property taxes. Plus, while the kids have a vacation a lot of my time there is spent on repairs and upkeep. Our place is also on an island, so we have to add mandatory boat and dock upkeep to cottage upkeep. And because we own it it locks down our summer vacation plans. If I didn't already have the place I would never buy one knowing what I know about it.

There is no guarantee that your kids will have any interest in the place. My dad was the only one of his siblings that wanted anything to do with our cottage, and I am the only one of my siblings that goes there.

I always recommend people to rent, not buy, vacation property unless you really are planning on spending a hell of a lot of time there. If you are only going to spend a week or two in the summer and the occasional weekend it is not worth it. Rent a cabin. Buy a camper or RV and go to a different park every year. So many more options than being tied to a piece of property.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:45 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


* What were some of the unexpected maintenance/upkeep surprises?
* What costs or extra work did you not anticipate?

Over 70 years the list gets to be endless. Dock destroyed by winter ice on multiple occasions, trees falling on the place, mouse infestations, ant and wasp infestations, porcupines gnawing holes through the floor (that was fun, walking across the living room and falling through a gnawed-thin spot on the floor), break-ins, vandalism and theft, old appliances failing, boat sinking at the dock and boat motors breaking down (a big problem when you are boat-access only), broken windows, foundation repairs, idiots deciding to use the place as target practice during hunting season, dead trees that need removal, etc. There are fewer break-ins in recent years (probably because there are much fancier places with better loot now), but the damage from break-ins is always a big pain. We have had people go through windows, smash the door to bits, and an even on one occasion cut a hole through the wall to get in.

I am always super nervous to see what I am going to have to deal with when we arrive for the first time in the spring.

* Did you have to hire somebody to check in on the place (especially in the winter)?

Nope. Not really an option though in our location.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:43 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


There's kind of a "cabin up north" culture in Minnesota. Families that have cabins spend most of their summer weekends at the cabin, families that don't... don't. It sounded like the best thing imaginable when I was a kid, but as an adult it sounds like an enormous amount of work and expense. That said, some of my happiest memories are hanging out by a lake in the summer.

One factor to consider is traffic - seems like there's always a enormous traffic jam leaving the Twin Cities and headed north on Friday evenings in the summer, and another heading back into town on Sundays. Is this place *really* 2 hours away from home, or just 2 hours under ideal conditions?
posted by beandip at 12:50 PM on August 30


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