Perhaps it might come to surprise that we, at urbaneer.com, would be writing about country living, but even we love to escape the city. In fact, back in the early 1990s, I spent a couple of years selling some stunning country homes in and around the Town of Cobourg, including one of Ontario's finest examples of Greek Revival Architecture dating from 1940s called MacKechnie House!
There's no doubt a lot of city dwellers are charmed at the prospect of owning a country residence. An old brick Victorian farmhouse, a hand-hewn log cabin, a former country schoolhouse, or a converted parish church each conjures romantic notions of a bucolic life. Better still, a country home can provide you refuge and seclusion from the trials and tribulations of everyday urban life for a significantly lower cost than a lakefront cottage, which can easily cost hundreds of thousands dollars more.
With spring on its way, we weren't surprised when we recently received an email about the prospect of country living. So we decided to make it this month's 'Dear Urbaneer' question:
We're considering purchasing a country home just outside of the city to use as a get-away property.
Do you have any advice to help guide us?
Here's our response:
For those with the capacity to pony up some cash, we think a country escape is a marvelous way to bring leisure into your life. After all, what could be better than sipping lemonade on your very own swinging porch each summer? As long as your motivation is to enhance your quality of life by connecting to nature, and not for profit (there are better real estate investment alternatives than a country home) then here's seven tips to guide you on your quest for country living.
1 - Location
First, the value of a country home is dependent on several factors including the size of the parcel of land it sits, the use and zoning of that land (anything from agricultural to bed and breakfast uses impact value), its proximity to centres of commerce and its ease of accessibility. Without question, the shorter the commute to the city, the more expensive it will be; the more isolated and barren the property, the lower the price. Once you've established your budget (and if you need a mortgage be aware of what kinds of properties a lender will finance and how much of a down payment you'll be required to place) you'll need to first evaluate the commute time you're comfortable with and then begin searching for opportunities and options.
Be aware that when you live in the city, a life of instant gratification can become second nature. After all, you won't be getting pizza delivery to your country home! When you find a property you like, make a point to research the proximity to doctors, dentists, and other services you take for granted in the city. For example, how far is the convenience store for mix, the liquor shop for vodka, the grocer for limes, and the gas station to fuel your luxury SUV? Are they open Sundays?
Like any property purchase, it's critical you know the impact of all area transportation networks. The road the property fronts on, or is just over the hill, may be a trucking route that is much noisier than you believed. A rail corridor might have a 4am train, or the dwelling could be located over the local airport's flight path. And don't forget about recreational vehicles like 4x4's or snowmobiles (an extremely popular -and noisy - winter past time). You'd be wise to visit any property at different times and on different days to know how all traffic will impact you. That country home close to the road could be far less tranquil than you hoped.
Perhaps in your fear that the traffic from the road your future country home faces will be noisy, you instead consider a house set down a long winding drive under an alee of trees. It's charming until winter, when you realize you can't actually get to the house after the first winter snow storm. Depending on where the property is located, you may have trouble finding, or affording, someone to plow your road to get to your house. If you're looking to visit your place every season, determine in advance of your purchase who locally might manage your property. Do you need someone to tend your acreage, stock your wood pile, keep the vermin out, and ensure the water lines aren't freezing? Note, many insurers want someone checking your home frequently in winter in order to maintain basic insurance coverage.
Will you personally be mowing the lawn, watering the plants, and cleaning your eaves troughs every autumn? You should determine in advance what services you'll need to help maintain your site. If, in your craving for solitude and isolation you choose a property which is extremely remote, you may find yourself doing most of the property maintenance, repairs and renovations yourself!
Is that the kind of country life you want?
Be aware of the trade-offs your making. In your quest for privacy you may find the isolation you seek, but perhaps being located on a road with neighbours who live there full-time could ultimately serve you better. They'll naturally keep an eye on your place when you're away (and inquisitively be aware of when you're there), and they can connect you with the resources, and manpower, you may need to keep your country life idyllic.
3 - Septic System
Around 25 per cent of Canadian households have their wastewater treated by a septic system (also referred to as an onsite wastewater system). A septic system treats your sewage right in your own yard and releases the treated effluent back into the groundwater. A conventional septic system is composed of a septic tank and a soil filter called a leaching bed. A leaching bed may also be called a drain field, an absorption field or a tile field. The purpose of the septic tank is to separate liquid from solids and to provide some breakdown of organic matter in the wastewater. A septic tank is a buried, watertight container made from concrete, polyethylene or fiberglass. In the past, the tank was sometimes made of steel or wood (if you have a steel tank, it is likely rusted through and needs replacing, and if it's wood it is likely rotting and may need replacing.). The size of the septic tank will depend upon the size of the house (number of bedrooms) and household water use. Older tanks may be smaller than those installed today and tanks may have one or two compartments, depending upon when and where they were installed.
You are required by law to report any problem to your local authorities before proceeding with repairs or replacement. A final inspection will need to be carried out and a Use Permit granted before you can legally use a new or altered septic system. Your contractor and/or your local authorities can also help you determine the required size of your septic system. You may find that you need a larger system than you currently have. If you are repairing, replacing or installing a new septic system, you will also have to be aware of the legal limitations imposed on where your septic system can be located with respect to your house and your well, your neighbour’s house and well, and nearby bodies of water. These distances are required to help ensure that wastewater from your septic system cannot reach and contaminate nearby water supplies.
In Ontario, part 8 of the building code sets out 5 different classes of septic systems in a uniform and detailed fashion. The regulations describe those systems and make provision for such matters as: clearances of systems from bodies of water, requirements as to depth and anchorage of septic tanks and holding tanks, and standards for operation and maintenance of septic systems. You must dispose of hazardous materials properly, pump out your septic tank every two years, and plan on replacing your septic system leaching bed every 20-25 years.
What does this mean? Know exactly what the septic system is about on any country home before you buy it.
4- Water Supply
In the country, most properties rely on well water. Prior to the mid-80s, well pits were commonly used to protect water line connections from freezing. Due to age and deterioration, some wells located in pits no longer provide potable water because the pit can fill with surface water and debris. This debris and surface water can be drawn into the water supply, leading to contamination. The better option is a drilled well, which can cost in range of $10,000 (but it could be more!), as the water has less risk of being contaminated.
All property owners are required by regulation to ensure that nothing gets into water wells that could contaminate the water source. Groundwater is a shared resource that crosses property lines and contamination from one well can put other wells at risk. Owners are responsible for getting well water tested regularly – at least three times per year is recommended, to be confident drinking water is free from bacteria and other contaminants.
When you're considering a country property, get a copy of the Water Well Record that was filed after the well on your property was built, or get a Licensed Ministry Of Environment Well Technician to test and evaluate your well. This is critical, as some lenders won't provide a mortgage on a property which does not have a potable water supply.
Never purchase a country home until you have had the well water tested.
5- Wood stove
Chances are that whether your country home has electric or propane heaters, you'll probably be using a wood stove in the colder seasons to provide the majority of warmth to your home. And why not? A wood-burning stove is quintessentially country.
First, note the location of the wood stove(s) and ensure they're going to adequately heat your dwelling. Then inquire whether there's a Wood Energy Transfer Technology (WETT) certificate.
The chimney and stove itself must be CSA certified and installed within the recommended clearances from combustibles for the type of chimney pipe and that model of stove. The tile on the wall doesn't count as "noncombustible" either because they take into account what is behind the tile. Of course, if your tile is installed on cement board that has been spaced off the studs with 1" metal spacers, you're fine. The pipe that goes through the roof must have the right type of thimble to give it the correct clearance and a proper chimney cap. We believe you require a minimum of 24" out from the stove door sill to any combustible flooring as well, but don't take this as a certainty. Get it certified before you make your purchase.
Without certification, many insurers will not provide property insurance.
Part of a life of leisure should include exercise right? So the question is, where will you go? If your country home has 50 or 100 acres then you can walk your own property, but if it's 2 or 3 acres then you'll probably want to take a stroll along your country road. If that's the case, be cognizant of its width and condition. If it's on a school bus route it will always be cleared all year round and kept in good condition. If it's on a road that also services several cottages on a nearby lake, be aware that while the locals may respect the 60km/hr speed limit, there's a good chance the cottage folk won't. If the road isn't wide, a speeding automobile interrupting your leisurely walk is not only dangerous (you may risk getting hit by the vehicle or the gravel it kicks in its wake), but it hardly constitutes a restful or relaxing activity.
If your road isn't walkable, maybe check out where the closest nature trails or water features are. It's one thing to find respite at your country home, but be aware of what recreational amenities are nearby to keep you fit. A country home is not the place to be a couch potato.
Ok, so let's say you've found the perfect country property within your budget, you've sourced the local trades to test the water, scope out the septic system, certify the wood stove, and even maintain all the acreage during your absence so it's a bit more easy care and turnkey. Presumably in your excitement and anticipation you've already sourced and priced all the furnishings destined for said country home from all the local antique shops within a 100 mile radius. And why not? Better to be prepared than suffer the verbal lashings and heckling from your best friends a.k.a. - the purveyors of taste -. But before you sign on the dotted line and celebrate with organic strawberries and champagne, don't under-estimate the amount (and cost) of equipment you and your 'staff' will require to maintain your property - like a tractor to cut the grass, a generator should the power go out, and that vintage Ford F150 pickup truck which will make you appear a little more butch when you're picking up geraniums and cheese bread at the Saturday market.
~ Steven and the urbaneer team"
** At urbaneer.com, we're here to steer you right. Did you read our popular post on the different kinds of properties one might consider as an investment? Click HERE for a past Home Of The Month feature.
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