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Buying a cottage comes with a unique set of issues

With summer now in full swing, some may be tempted to join the happy hordes heading to cottage country, says Toronto real estate lawyer Sarita Samaroo-Tsaktsiris.

But buying a cottage comes with unique issues not often seen in urban real estate, says Samaroo-Tsaktsiris, principal of SST Law Professional Corporation.

“It can be a bit different in terms of your regular type of conveyance,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“You have to be concerned with certain items like wood stoves, wells, septic systems, propane tanks, unregistered easements, road allowances, and access issues involving land and water. You wouldn’t normally have to look out for these items when you’re buying property in Toronto.”

Samaroo-Tsaktsiris says the best legal advice she can offer is to do your homework and try to avert future headaches. She suggests doing off-title searches; exploring possible access issues; and when possible, hiring an expert to make sure everything is in safe, working order.

For wood-burning heat sources, she recommends getting a WETT (Wood Energy Technology Transfer) inspection.

 “It’s something we recommend for fireplaces, but even more for wood-burning stoves because of their age,” says Samaroo-Tsaktsiris. “The certificate just states that they were installed safely and in accordance with building and fire code requirements."

 If possible, she recommends hooking up to the power grid and municipal water and sewage services.

 “Unless those services aren't available, I recommend they immediately remove the fuel tank the minute it’s empty,” says Samaroo-Tsaktsiris.

 In addition to combustion concerns, fuel tanks can leak and contaminate the soil. Environmental cleanups for oil spills are costly and complicated.

 Samaroo-Tsaktsiris says it’s a good idea to search the history of a property with the Ministry of the Environment to see if there’s been a previous contamination of any kind.

 “You can go back all years to find out if there have been any environmental issues or any orders against a property.”

 She says it’s also advisable to understand the applicable zoning bylaws or condominium rules and make sure they conform to your planned use of the property.

 “There are condo-hotel properties that only allow you to stay there 120 days of the year and require that owners have an HST number when purchasing the unit, as often these types of properties are zoned for commercial use. That’s very common with cottage condos,” she explains.

 Although that may be ideal for seasonal or weekend use, it’s obviously not going to work for someone looking for a retirement home, says Samaroo-Tsaktsiris.

Easements can also greatly affect a property by allowing others to use or cross over it, she says. 

 “Unregistered easements, such as Hydro One easements, may affect you and can be revealed by a survey, if available at the time of purchase,” she says.

Some cottages come with an obligation to maintain or improve a private road. Samaroo-Tsaktsiris recommends asking whether fees must be paid to a third party for maintenance.

Often, one of the main attractions of a cottage is waterfront. While desirable, waterfront is pricey and comes with its own set of issues.

“Part of waterfront property is Crown land, so while you may have a cottage that is fronting a body of water, not all of that land belongs to you,” Samaroo-Tsaktsiris points out.

“In most cases, the ownership of the bed of a watercourse depends on its navigability as determined by the Beds of Navigable Waters Act, she explains.

“In the absence of a legal document used to transfer land held by the federal or provincial government to the private owner, also called a Crown Patent, the bed of the watercourse will be owned by the provincial Crown. That’s why it’s important to inquire with the Crown Land Registry and the Ministry of Natural Resources about the ownership of the body of water and obtain proper consent for such usage, or for erecting a structure like a dock.”

 Samaroo-Tsaktsiris says cottage properties have a history of informality — everything from informal dumpsites to informal agreements between neighbours about sharing expenses, wells, access routes, drainage and services.  

“ I would caution potential purchasers to understand how all that can affect your enjoyment of the cottage,” she says.

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