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Survival Guide: All You Need to Know About the Cottage’s Seasonal Switch

Here’s how to prepare your second home for winter, whether you’re keeping it open or closing it up

Winding wooded road in autumn

When Dan Moreau, the owner of caretaking company Ontario Cottage Coppers and Ontario Condo Coppers, heard the story this past spring, he cringed. A family of cottage owners near his home in Midland, Ont., had arrived for their first cottage weekend of the year, only to get a terrible surprise. At some point over the previous winter, a tree branch had pierced the cottage’s roof, driven through the living room floor and landed in the basement. All winter long, snow and rain had seeped in, causing significant amounts of property damage.

It’s not always possible to prevent this kind of accident. Fortunately, Moreau says, there are some easy ways to cover your bases when it comes to closing your cottage for the winter—or, for that matter, keeping it open.

If you’re closing your cottage…

A wood cabin is seen nestled in the trees from across the lake during fall 

1. Read your insurance policy

If no one will be entering the cottage for months at a time, your insurance company may consider it vacant—and that means it may not be covered by insurance. Read your policy carefully to find out how often someone needs to check on your cottage. In some cases, a responsible adult needs to physically enter the home as often as every four days. (In fact, this is something to keep in mind when you’re keeping the cottage open, too.)

2. Turn off your water and drain everything

It’s not enough to just turn off your water. You also need to drain all the pipes, including those in the washing machine, dishwasher, water pump and pressure tank. Empty the toilet and all traps, then pour in non-toxic antifreeze to ensure that any water left inside doesn’t freeze. Otherwise, your pipes may burst when the temperature dips.

3. Leave the heat on to avoid frozen pipes

Relatedly, it’s a good idea to keep your heat on, even if it’s very low. Moreau recommends keeping the temperature inside your cottage between 5ºC and 10ºC; that way, your pipes are unlikely to freeze.

4. Keep wildlife out

“Even if it looks secure, you have to double-check,” Moreau says. That means going so far as occasionally crawling under the cottage to make sure nothing is chewing on your floorboards. (Porcupines, for example, will chew anything with salty residue—particularly around septic and toilet pipes—and from there they can move on to floorboards and get into your cottage.)

If you’re keeping it open…

A wood cabin is seen in the glow of a campfire at nighttime, several happy campers sitting around the glowing fire 

1. Set the alarm, even if you’ll visit frequently

Alarms aren’t just to warn you about break-ins when the property is closed up; they’re also useful because many models come with heat sensors. This means you’ll get an alert if the temperature inside your home drops suddenly, a sign that a window may be broken and need immediate attention.

If your cottage has a basement, it’s also worth getting a water sensor for the floor. Even if you’ve turned the water off between visits, heavy rains can cause flooding.

For tips on leak detectors and other tools to monitor your home while you’re away, check out our guide to gadgets that keep watch.

2. Arrange for snow removal

Yes, this means you can enjoy a cottage weekend after a big snowfall without having to shovel, but this isn’t just about convenience. Some insurance policies may not cover your home in case of fire if the local fire department can’t access your property.

Headed to the cottage over the winter?

Here are 10 must-haves to prepare for power outages during seasonal storms.

Looking for ideas for winter cottage activities?

Check out our list of the 10 best places to embrace winter in southern Ontario.