Winter cottage renovations
Many cottage owners dream of leaving the city for good and living year-round at their summer properties. After all, you already own the cottage and the land it sits on; you’re on a first-name basis with the postmistress and the couple who run the local grocery store. How simple a matter would it be to add a little extra insulation here and there, maybe upgrade the windows, and give up the rat race once and for all?
Not so fast. If your cottage was originally built for warm-weather living only, retrofitting for year-round use is a bigger job than you think. It can also range from pretty expensive to discouragingly high, depending on the age and condition of your cottage, and what features (such as the kitchen or bath) you might want to improve.
Get advice from a local contractor
Before you make a decision, it’s wise to check with a qualified local contractor or builder. They can examine your cottage in detail and give you a realistic idea of what the upgrade would involve. If you’re planning a permanent move, you may be better off to tear down and build a new home. Also, if you are thinking of adding on or doing major renovations to the layout, in some cases starting fresh may be the cheaper and smarter option.
Understand zoning laws
You should check with the town or county building department; some vacation areas are not zoned for year-round, or winter living, or road access may not be maintained during the winter. And unfortunately, your property tax situation will likely be affected by the change from a summer cottage to principal residence (or a twelve-month, as opposed to summer-only, vacation property).
If you do decide to renovate, probably the biggest upgrade will be the insulation. Even if your cottage already has some, chances are it’s inadequate, old or damaged and will have to be replaced. If you insulate from the inside, that usually means opening the walls, adding insulation and a vapour barrier and re-drywalling – a big and messy job. But depending on the configuration of your cottage, your contractor may be able to wrap the insulation around the exterior instead, and then simply add new siding.
Consider your septic system
Determine if your septic system is large enough to handle the extra load that year-round (or winter-weekend) living will put on it. This is especially true if you plan to install a washer-dryer, dishwasher, or extra bathroom. If not, you may have to put up with having it pumped more often, or replace it with a larger system, which may contravene local bylaws.
Heating and cooling considerations
Many cottages do just fine with electric baseboard heating for cool summer nights, but it’s a very inefficient – not to mention expensive – heating method in winter. If you have access to your town’s natural gas supply lines, you might consider adding a gas furnace, or installing a self-contained, high-efficiency oil furnace (modern-day ones are much more efficient than the octopus boilers of yore). In both cases, though, you’ll incur not just the cost of installing the furnace, but ductwork as well. A less drastic option is to install a wood burning stove or a fireplace in the main room (and perhaps another in a bedroom, if you have the room and the budget).
Even if the walls are well insulated, most heat loss and drafts occur around windows and doors. Single-paned windows, or even older-generation double-paned windows, should be replaced, and the frames insulated and sealed tightly. Consider replacing an old wooden door with a newer one with foam-core insulation, and/or beef up the weatherstripping and seals in the doorframe as well.
Lastly, consider hiring a snowplough service to keep the access road clear for you, especially if the cottage is on a private road. If you only plan to go there on weekends, have the snow-removal company keep the walkways and path to the front door clear as well; they can also monitor the snow load on the roof for you, and keep it from accumulating to excessive levels.