Thinking About Building a Cottage in Muskoka ?

Muskoka Cottage Construction

When people are searching for the perfect cottage they can find it a frustrating process. The lot is beautiful but the structure is a disaster. Great cottage but the neighbors are way to close. Beautiful building, great lot, but the "lake" is more like a large pond.  Even worse, everything looks wonderful until you actually see it in person and its nothing like it looked online. You just drove 3 hours to see a hovel that appears to have been built by inebriated Muppets. Exasperation begins to set in and then the light comes on. Let's build it!. We'll design it ourselves, have it built and get exactly what we want....

The search changes from cottages to finding a waterfront lot that ticks off all the boxes. This has its own set of challenges but with some good research and due diligence it can be done. Costs for the actual construction can range wildly but $500/square foot is a widely quoted guideline.

Here's my list of things you might want to consider before taking the plunge.

Waterfront Building Lots | What to Consider

  1.  Property Size - Look for an area 1/2 acre or larger for a basic cottage build.It's very difficult to meet the current set back requirements on smaller lots. Look up the "maximum lot coverage" and insure the structures you intend to build are under the threshold set by the township. Often the frontage affects the lot coverage percentage as well which can range between 5-10%
  2. Shoreline Frontage - This one can get tricky. Depending on the situation a township may use "straight line" frontage which can be very greatly from the water frontage quoted in most real estate listings. This is particularly important if the property is a point or in a bay. If a boat house is in the plans and is allowed on the lake, 300' shoreline is commonly the minimum required for a permit.
  3. Septic Approval - Generally speaking a newly severed lot requires septic approval prior to completing the severance. Older existing lots may not have had this requirement and as a result some cannot meet 2023 rules. Even if there is paperwork in place always crosscheck them to your plans. Your build may be larger, or have more bathrooms & bedrooms and as a result you will need a larger system than the one approved.
  4. Zoning - A potential minefield and one to be very careful of. Most townships in Muskoka and Parry Sound have recently updated their official plans and zoning within those plans. You could have a large waterfront lot that is in fact, not buildable. For example E/P (environmentally protected), F/P (Flood plain) and H/L ( Hazard Lands) can be all or part of a properties zoning and usually don't allow structures.
  5. High Water Mark - Usually set by the M.N.R. as an elevation above sea level and adopted into township official plans. This is where the tape measure starts for set -back requirements from a waterway. A very important number to know, particularly if the land has minimal elevation.

Site Preperation | Plan Ahead

One of the major construction costs that's often overlooked is site preparation which can be a major expense. There's usually a great deal of work to be done prior to the actual build.

  1. Driveway - If there's no existing entry you will need to apply to the township for an entrance permit well in advance. Keep in mind that even if there's an existing one the previous owners may installed it without a permit or it could be a "field permit" and not applicable for construction. Costs vary greatly but as a rule of thumb a good starting point for driveway installation is $50/ foot.
  2. Septic -  Another overlooked sizable cost, septic systems are much larger now than even 5 years ago. When planning your layout keep in mind things like potential additions to your cottage and access for pump trucks. Complete systems often start around $25,000 for a modest 3 bedroom / 2 bathroom cottage but can rise significantly for larger builds or if pump systems are required.
  3. Water Systems - The lake you choose will have a direct affect on how you get you water. On Lake Muskoka, Rousseau and Joseph for example, most cottages use lake water. The main reason for this is the presence of significant iron in the aquifers. Systems can be put in place to counter this but there is always ongoing maintenance. Areas without the iron challenge tend to go the drilled well route as heat lines and extensive filter systems are usually not required. Drilled wells typically run $25,000-$30,000 and lake water system are about 25% less.
  4. Site Excavation -  This can be much more than just digging a hole for the foundation. The Canadian Shield dominates Muskoka and Parry Sound. That granite outcropping that attracted you to the property is probably lurking just below the surface, exactly where you want to build. Another thing to keep in mind is drainage which now needs to be installed around deck piers as well as the cottage footings. Once again costs for excavation can vary wildly but seldom less than $20,000.

Cottage Contractors | Be Careful

Here's where it can get interesting. The most common route people take is to hire a general contractor. They in turn arrange & oversee the designers, architects & trades people. This can be done several ways; as a set price for the completed project, a "time & materials" contract or sometimes as a percentage over costs. Each of these has its own pros and cons but the far more important than this is your choice of contractor.

It's impossible to over emphasize the importance of taking your time and choosing a known, reputable company. Cottage country is not immuned shady construction companies!  Get several references and ask to tour some of their recent work in the area.

You can also be your own general contractor, hiring individual trades people yourself. This is not for the faint of heart so think long and hard before you go down this route. The anticipated savings can evaporate with only a couple miss steps.

  1. Bigger is not always better. Some of the best building contractors I know have crews of less than 6 people. It can take a bit longer but in my experience there is a much greater attention to detail & far less chance of missed communication.
  2.  If you don't know construction in cottage country don't try and be your own general contractor. This is not one of those "I'll just Google it" situations. The contacts with local trades, area knowledge and collective wisdom can't be replaced with a few keystrokes.
  3. Consider starting the build in the fall instead of the summer. Sub-trades tend to be more available and contractors really appreciate winter work to keep their crews going.  Just make sure the cottage is "buttoned up" by the time the snow flies.

A common range frequently quoted is between $400 - $500 a square foot from a raw lot until you move in.

Hopefully this quick article gives you some good starting points when you start you property search, feel free to call us with any Muskoka Real Estate questions! We cover a large area, from Kahshe Lake to the south to Lake Bernard to the north and across to Parry Sound.


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