10 Things to Consider Before Building a Second Home or Cabin

Maybe you've dreamed of owning a vacation home or weekend retreat. Before you build or buy, ask yourself these questions about a second home or cabin.

Maybe it’s a lakeside cabin to escape to on weekends, a modest home on that plot of land in Florida or something cozy and rustic on a pristine mountainside. Building or buying a second home, to use as a vacation getaway or a part-time residence, is a dream for many.

But for many second-home buyers, once the dream becomes reality, the headaches — and builder’s or buyer’s remorse — ensue. Maybe they overestimated how much time they’d spend there, didn’t consider cabin maintenance costs, overlooked the tax implications or overestimated their DIY skills.

To decrease the chance of your dream becoming a nightmare, consider these 10 things before breaking ground on or purchasing a second home or cabin.

Can You Afford It?

It only makes sense to build or buy a second home once you’ve reached a certain level of monetary comfort, so the investment won’t strain your finances. Are you sure you’re there?

If you’re paying cash for a second home, will doing so deplete your savings, your retirement account or your emergency fund? If you’re financing, will the monthly mortgage payment pinch your day-to-day lifestyle? If buying a second home means making a lot of sacrifices, it may quickly start to feel like a burden instead of a bonus.

How Much Will It Cost to Keep and Maintain?

The construction price isn’t the only cost involved with a second home.

If you build or buy in a deed-restricted community, you may have a monthly or annual homeowner’s fee to pay. These vary based on community amenities. Periodically, the management company or HOA (homeowners’ association) will raise the monthly/annual fee. This is in addition to monthly fees for utilities, which you pay whether you’re there or not; homeowner’s insurance; and property taxes.

If you’re buying something more rustic or modest, you’ll still have upkeep costs. You may need to keep the power on at that mountain cabin to keep your pipes from freezing. You’ll also need to repaint, repair or replace things, just like you do at your primary residence. Even the simplest second home comes with maintenance costs.

Who Will Look After It While You’re Away?

What if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to tell you it landed on your roof? If your cabin is closed up for much of the year, do you need to find someone to look in on it from time to time, or check on it after a big storm? And will that person expect to be paid?

Or, if your second home is in a more built-up area, who will mow the grass, trim the hedges, and be on the lookout for any issues in or around the place? A smart home security system that you can monitor remotely is a good option to consider here.

How Far is the Drive/Journey?

Maybe you envision sneaking away to your country retreat every weekend and holiday. But is that a realistic plan if it takes three hours — or longer — to get there?

Those hours spent sitting in the car cut into your weekend quality time. And when the commute back and forth to your vacation getaway starts to feel like a slog, you may be less anxious to hit the road every Friday night after work.

How Much Time Will You Spend There?

Be realistic about how much time you’ll actually spend at this house or cabin. Does having a second home mean you’ll forgo vacations to other places?

Many families find that they’re excited about a second home in the first year or so. Then the novelty starts to fade and the house becomes more of an obligation than a welcomed retreat. Consider a short-term vacation home rental in the area you’re interested in, and give it a few tries before you commit to building or buying.

How Close Are Essential Services?

It’s fun and adventurous to have a second home in a remote, natural spot, miles from the nearest town. It’s not so fun when you’re out of toilet paper, when you’re out of gas or a family member needs to get to the emergency room. What about internet, electricity and running water?

Consider how comfortable you are being far away from essential services. And if you do build a remote second home, scope out these services right away, so in an emergency you’ll know where to go and how long it takes to get there.

Will Your Family Outgrow It?

Your six- and nine-year-old kids loved splashing in the lake and cooking over campfires. They couldn’t wait to jump in the car and head south to Florida for a few weeks.

Now, as tweens or teens, they prefer to spend the weekend hanging out with their friends rather than their parents. And that extended trip to Florida runs afoul of exam schedules, sports practice or prom. Buying or building a second home or cabin is a long-term commitment that your family may outgrow.

What If the Area Changes?

That rural farmhouse you built offers great wildlife viewing. The peace and quiet of your mountain retreat provided a much-needed break from the stresses of day-to-day life. But what happens if someone builds a mega-mansion on the lot next door, or an RV park opens on your mountain?

Do your due diligence before you build or buy, and make sure your idyllic retreat will remain idyllic for the foreseeable future.

Will It Ever Be “Finished?”

Building a home from the ground up, and with your own hands, is a huge source of pride and accomplishment. And it’s fun to work on every weekend, right? Right?

If there’s a long to-do list to finish your second home or cabin, the charm can quickly wear off. Consider whether you want to spend your precious downtime on a project that will inevitably take longer than you planned. A place that always needs work and never seems finished might soon start to feel like a hole into which you’re pouring all your spare cash — and spare time.

What About Zoning or HOA Restrictions?

You’ve got the perfect piece of land in a wooded area, with a handful of neighbors close, but not too close. You’ll build something small at first, then eventually add a second floor, maybe for extra bedrooms for the kids and grandkids.

But wait a minute — what if additions aren’t permitted, due to zoning or HOA restrictions? Before you envision an expansion, a boathouse, a deck or a dock, make sure you’ll be allowed to go forward with your master plan.

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Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, lifestyle and home improvement writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Reader's Digest, TripSavvy and many other publications, and she is the author of several guidebooks. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together, they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, their tween daughter and their dogs. She covers a variety of topics for Family Handyman and is always ready to test out a new pizza oven or fire pit.