So You Want To Buy A Lake Cottage

Three summers ago, my husband and I decided, absolutely for sure, that we were not going to buy a lake cottage.
And then we bought one the following week.
It wasn’t, however, an impulse buy. Quite the opposite.
We’d spent the previous three years researching every iteration of “lakefront dream” you can imagine — waterfront lots, near-waterfront lots, tiny cottages, permanent homes. We considered small ponds, larger lakes, even Lake Michigan.
We desperately wanted this, for ourselves and for our kids.
But we searched for three years — three years — and had come up empty. Weekend after weekend, we’d drive around the state, visiting properties, touring open homes, walking around undeveloped property, calculating the cost of clearing the land and building a house.
We gave up because, after all that, we couldn’t find the right place. Until we did…
Lakefront property is a peculiar beast: It requires specific considerations and it doesn’t necessarily conform to all of the standard rules of property-buying.
Also, our budget was extremely limited, so we knew we’d have to compromise somewhere.
Finding the right compromise was a huge part of the search. (“Can we fit all the kids in one bedroom?” “Where would we put guests?” “Are the neighbors too close?” “Are we willing to drive this far to get to our vacation home?”).
Here is what we learned through years of searching for our slice of lakefront heaven.
If you have a lakefront dream of your own, hopefully this information will aid your search.
lake cottage
Our Lake Wisconsin waterfront

START LOOKING NOW

Does this seem like a weird time to shop for lakefront property? It’s actually perfect. First, if you’re ready to buy and get a bit lucky, you might find an end-of-season deal. Besides that, however, starting your search now means you’ll get to see what the lakes are like when they’re still in full use — critical information you’ll need when analyzing the deluge of lake homes that’ll arrive on the market in spring. Is the lake busy, quiet, mucky, clean? That can change significantly from May to August. You’ll want to know before buying.

THE BIG QUESTION

Consider this, even before you start looking — Nope, not “How much money do I have to spend?”
Ask yourself, “How am I going to use my lakefront property?”
Not all lake experiences are the same. Specifying what you want will help you filter through your options.
Are you seeking a secluded fishing hole? Family home? Quaint cottage you can use as headquarters while you spend most of your time jetting about on the water?
Those are all different experiences.
Why is “What’s your budget?” not tops on the list?
Waterfront property is odd in that the “good neighborhood versus bad neighborhood” dynamic doesn’t really exist, at least not as much…
We bought our cottage for $225,000. Our neighbors spent $1.3 million.
There’s a home on Lake Geneva on the market at $14.5 million … and a condo nearby for $95,000.
Decide what you want your lake experience to be and find a lake or three that fit your dream. Then you can determine what compromises you’ll need to make in order for the finances to work.

HOW FAR WILL YOU TRAVEL?

Assuming your lakefront property isn’t going to be your permanent home, consider how far you are willing to drive to get there and back.
We set a two-hour radius around our home and, after driving to a few places at the edge of that zone, realized that was too far.
We wanted a place we could easily get to for a quick weekend getaway, someplace we could regularly visit.
Location was also important for rental potential.
We mainly use our cottage for ourselves, but we’ve considered occasionally renting it out.
Buy a place too far away, and we’d probably need to pay a property manager to oversee the rentals. That seemed like throwing away money.
Our cottage is a half-hour away from our house.
It felt a bit silly at first to buy a cottage so close, but not anymore.
We can use our cottage even when the kids have weekend activities or school the next day.
We take impromptu trips there when it looks like a wonderful night for a boat ride. And it’s the perfect getaway when my husband or I simply crave a solitary, quiet evening.

EAST OR WEST, WHICH IS BEST?

Hat-tip to my sister for telling us this one.
My sister’s family cottage up north faces east and is built on a steep hill. As a result, they lose the sunshine on their property at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
That was a factor in our choice of a west-facing cottage that gets the sun for as long as the sun is out.
Is one better than the other? Nope. My sister watches some gorgeous sunrises from the comfort of her front deck. And in the late afternoon, they’re out on the water anyway, where sunshine is plentiful.
It may not matter to you, but it’s something to consider.

IN, ON OR NEAR THE WATER?

Do you primarily need a place to tie up a boat and somewhere nearby to sleep? Property near, but not on, a lake may suffice. That can save you major money. For example, a 2-acre lot on Wisconsin’s Lake Petenwell is on the market for $100,000. A 3-acre plot across the street with deeded lake access is on for $25,000. (SIDE NOTE: If you’re buying undeveloped property with the idea that you’ll camp there for a while until you can afford to build a house, check local ordinances. Some places have regulations against that.)
Are you a swimmer? Then having a good beach, or at least a pier, and a sandy bottom may be critical.
But if you plan to spend your time on the water, not in it, then a rocky or mucky bottom might not matter. If your feet won’t touch it, who cares?
lake cottage
It took us three years to find the perfect lake cottage. These moments are worth every second of searching.

SAFETY

There’s just so much here, especially if you have children.
Main considerations:
Water quality. Blue-green algae, anyone?  The Department of Natural Resources (at least Wisconsin’s) regularly reports on water quality around the state. But, frankly, their reports aren’t particularly user-friendly. Look at them, certainly. Do your research.
Your best bet, however, is talking to the neighbors. Oftentimes, lake cottages stay in families for generations, so they’ll have a lot of information. Do they spend time in the water? Do people routinely get sick? Who’s dumping what into the lake? These are things you’ll want to know.
Safe play. We rejected a cottage we loved in part because it was on the main channel of the Wisconsin River, and we wouldn’t feel comfortable with our kids playing in the fast-moving current.
Knowing the water depth at and near our lakeshore also was important for us, including whether there were any steep drop-offs. We didn’t want our kids walking three feet away from shore and stepping off a 10-foot drop.
Lake activity. There are rules about how and where boats, jet skis, etc., can operate. It’s good to know whether the lake in front of your property is party central or a no-wake zone, because that’s where you and your kids will be playing.

HOW MUCH WORK DO YOU WANT TO DO?

Keep in mind that you’re not just buying a lakefront property — you’re buying all the work that goes with a lakefront property.
That includes cleaning bathrooms, emptying gutters, mowing the lawn … plus extras like getting the dock in and out each spring and fall and, in many cases, maintaining a well and/or septic system.
If you’re willing to put in some extra work, you can find lovely waterfront with a “cottage” that’s essentially a three-season shack. It may be a tear-down project or at least a major renovation. But that may be a project you’re happy to take on.
Don’t want the hassle? A condo might be right for you.
The compromise there, of course, is shared shoreline and neighbors close by. And that limited privacy may be more than you want to give.

WHAT’S NEARBY?

Look around the neighborhood: What’s it like to be there, for days on end? Is that the life you want?
One of the places we rejected was wonderful in many ways … but it was miles away from restaurants and stores. We wanted a getaway, not outright seclusion.
Being at a middle-of-nowhere cottage with my kids, by myself, while my husband was at work, wasn’t my lake-cottage dream.
For some people, though, total seclusion sounds perfect.
Our cottage is within walking distance of two restaurants and a playground, and five minutes away from a town large enough to have grocery and hardware stores and a couple of pizza places that deliver. That’s our sweet spot.
lake cottage
Our cottage

Eleven years ago, I told my husband that owning a lake cottage was a big dream of mine. The dream, realized, doesn’t disappoint.
Our piece of heaven is a two-bed, stand-alone house that’s part of a condo association. We compromised on size, a partially obstructed lake view and shared lakefront in order to get the location we wanted.
We have no regrets.
Getting here, though, has been a long, exhausting — and exhaustive — process.
Your lakefront dream may look quite different from ours.
But Wisconsin has 15,074 lakes. And for that matter, the continental United States has about 125,000.
Your perfect place is out there, too. Start looking. Be patient. You’ll find it.
Kirsten is a native Wisconsinite who married a Brit, moved to England and happily ended up in Madison in 2010. She and her husband, Adrian, are parents to Sophie, Charlie and Susannah, who fascinate and exhaust their parents pretty much every day. A former newspaper reporter, Kirsten now supports mompreneurs through her website, motherbility.com. She's also a mini-expert on traveling with kids. (Always answer "Should we go to ... " with "yes." Bring toys, snacks and an excess of patience.) She and her family camp every summer, usually in state parks, because they love outdoor living. And s'mores.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Kirsten!

    How did you manage viewings in different counties? We have been looking anywhere within 1.5 to 2 hour radius but it seems unreasonable to have an a vent we talked to Sheboygan drive 2 hours to show us a place.

    Any suggestions on how to find the perfect local Agent?

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