For many, Thanksgiving signifies the end of cottage season because their cabins weren’t built to withstand the rigours of a harsh winter. ‘Tis the season for fall maintenance to prevent major problems from becoming a reality, thus avoiding a cottage insurance claim that could drive up your premiums.
With that in mind, we put together a checklist for closing your summer house for the winter and some additional tips to help you winterize it in the future. Of course, each cottage has its own unique features (e.g. septic vs. sewer, year-round vs. 3-season), so not everything will apply specifically to you. However, there is a lot of detail about the vital components of winterizing any cottage.
Cottage water supply and drain systems
The most critical issue is water. Flooding can have disastrous effects on any property, and many people don’t have the proper insurance in place to help them repair or rebuild when tragedy strikes.
A quick note: With cottage insurance, you’re only covered for flooding from a burst pipe in the cold season. You can add other coverages like sewer backup or overland water/rising lakes coverage to ensure maximum coverage.
❏ Check your septic tank.
It’s best to have your septic tank pumped out every three years to help extend its life. If you notice slow drainage from your sink or washing machine or a weak flush from your toilet, it’s a sign to have your septic tank pumped. Bad smells, pooling water, or lush green grass above the tank are all signs the septic tank is full. Of course, the worst sign is when it backs up into the cottage. Again, without sewer backup coverage, you’ll be paying out of pocket to clean up that mess.
❏ Empty your water supply pipes.
Water damage is one of the leading causes of home insurance claims. Preventing flooding from interior sources is a simple, albeit multi-step process.
- Shut off the main water supply for your entire cottage. It’s typically located in the basement or near your water meter. Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey as the saying goes. If you have a lever, turn it, so it’s perpendicular to the supply line to close it.
- Turn on the interior taps. Start in the basement first, then head upstairs. Leave the faucets open for the season.
- Flush the toilets starting at the top of the house and into the basement. Take off the tank cover and hold the flush down until even the water in the tank is gone.
- Use recreational vehicle antifreeze. Even after a thorough flushing, some water can remain, especially in P-traps located below sinks, tubs, and toilets. A cup of antifreeze into each drain will prevent any remaining water from freezing. Recreational vehicle antifreeze is less toxic and rated for potable water.
- Drain appliances. Ideally, each appliance has a shut-off, and you can simply disconnect it from the supply. However, If you have a fridge that makes ice or can pour a cup of water, consider emptying it. Follow manufacturer recommendations.
To further winterize your cottage, use pipe wrap around any exposed water supply lines to prevent the cold from getting at them directly. Remove your water intake line from the lake if you won’t be using it and empty the filters from under your sink or in your mechanical room.
❏ Sump pumps and weeping tiles
If your cottage uses a sump pump, make sure it’s in good working order. A sump pump pit gathers water from around your cottage or home’s foundation through weeping tile and “pumps” it away to prevent flooding. Here’s how to protect your sump pump.
- Detach your drainage hose until the warm weather returns. A frozen hose can hold ice within it and cause backup problems when snow begins to thaw.
- Have a backup drainage hose in case your primary one cracks, breaks or backs up. Store it inside your cottage.
- Clear your sump pit of any debris or build-up of gunk, which could lead to failure due to blockage in the system. If it’s too much, call a professional to inspect it.
- Do not unplug your sump pump. The cold weather may give you a false sense of security, but a warm front can happen at any time, and you’ll want your system in good working order.
- Test your pump by simply pouring water into the pit. If the pump doesn’t turn on and extract water, it may be time for a new one.
- Keep the heat on in your basement. Set a thermostat to 10 degrees celsius to circulate warm air around the pit, the pump, and your water pipes.
- Install a battery backup or generator in case of power failure.
- Consider installing window well covers to prevent excess rain from getting in. Make sure they slope away from the property.
❏ Clean your eavestroughs and downspouts
If you’re constantly raking falling leaves, your gutters are probably full too. If you’re able, climb up a ladder with gloves and a bucket, and discard the accumulated leaves and gunk into yard waste bags. Eavestrough cleaning is an essential part of any fall home maintenance checklist. Consider adding gutter guards, or at least a downspout leaf catcher.
❏ Inspect your roof
Snow build-up can lead to ice damming and flooding into your cottage. Ice damming is when melting snow freezes on your roof, and any new water sits and potentially leaks into your cottage. Climbing onto a roof can be safe so long as proper precautions are taken, but if you’re unsure, it’s best to hire a professional. Here’s what they should check.
Exterior roof inspection: Look for everything from visible structural damage, cracks in the chimney, standing water (sagging areas), and loose shingles.
Interior roof inspection: Any drywall cracks, especially where the ceiling meets the wall, could indicate a problem. If there are any visible signs of water stains or mould on the walls, there is a problem. If there is sagging between the ceiling joists, seek professional inspection.
Most home insurance policies cover roof damage and the resulting leaks from hail or snowmelt. However, many cottage policies aren’t “comprehensive” in nature and only cover specific risks or perils. Wear and tear, defects, and breakdowns are generally not covered.
❏ Rodent prevention
In the summer, while it may be cute, don’t feed the squirrels or chipmunks. It encourages their return and excess foraging if they can’t find immediate results. Instead, clean up all food from outside, install motion detectors with lights, and use extra steps to secure your garbage cans (e.g. bungee cords, or heavy objects like a brick or stone on top of the lid).
Take the time to clear your cupboards and fridge of all foods. Rodents will chew through anything if a reward is possible.
Now, when it comes time to winterize your cottage, take a stroll around your property with steel wool and a caulking gun. Mice can enter into your cottage through a hole as big as a pen (about 6-7mm). Look at your cinder blocks for any mortar breaking away and fill it with steel wool and try a product like Quikrete’s mortar repair. Remember to search high and low. Mice can climb walls.
Also, make sure there is a cap on your chimney (if you have one), and close all windows. If you have a gazebo or any exterior structure with screens, consider boarding them up. Otherwise, a rodent can easily chew through the screen to find refuge.
❏ Unplug appliances
Don’t shut off your entire cottage to winterize it because you still want your sump pump, exterior lighting, and alarm system (if you have one) working. However, after emptying your fridge and packing it up to bring home, you can safely unplug it.
TIP: Use chopsticks, or a pen, to keep the doors slightly ajar to allow air to flow and prevent mildew build up.
When heat-generating appliances malfunction or are accidentally left on, they can overheat and catch fire. Unplug your stove, oven, kettle, toaster, or any other appliance that gets hot.
Get rid of any fire hazards to which could accelerate a small spark. That includes books, newspapers, chemicals, or anything else that could catch fire and spread throughout the cottage.
If you have a hot water tank or tankless water heater, unplug it. There is no sense paying the electricity bills to keep hot water, especially when you’re not using it.
While you’re unplugging these appliances, check for burn marks around an outlet or light switch. If sparks fly whenever you plug something in, or you get a small shock, or even if a light fixture flickers after replacing the bulb, it could be signs you need to call an electrician.
❏ To turn the heat off or reduce it.
If you’re going to close the cottage for the winter altogether, you can turn the heat off, but beware of potential hazards. For instance, a hot day can create a sudden thaw, and if your sump pit is frozen, it won’t get rid of all the water it’s taking on from the melting snow around your property.
Reducing the temperature to about 10 degrees celsius can help prevent any freezing but still make it affordable through the winter months. If you are sporadically using the cottage, consider pipe wrap, electrical heat cable if a pipe does freeze, and even leaving cabinets open that contain pipes to help them get some warm air.
❏ Stack canoes and kayaks onto sawhorses and secure them with a lock and chain. Vacant properties can be tempting to burglars.
❏ Clean the bbq and disconnect it from the propane tank. Store it somewhere safe if possible or use a lock with steel braided cable to prevent thieves from taking it.
❏ Move any outdoor furniture like tables and chairs inside to extend their life.
❏ Run the lawnmower, weed whacker, and other garden tools until the fuel runs out. Then give them a thorough clean, sharpen the blades, spray them with lubricant, and store them in a dry and locked up shed.
❏ If possible, disassemble the dock. Even if a trespasser slips and injures themselves, the third-party liability portion of your cottage insurance will come in handy.
❏ Clean out your wood stove, close the damper, and cap the chimney.
Speak with your insurance provider about your cottage insurance
It may have been a while since you last spoke with your insurance broker, and your situation may have changed. Here are some things to consider:
❏ Most cottage insurance policies aren’t comprehensive, but rather “named perils” or a list of specific risks for which you have coverage – what does your policy exclude (e.g. mechanical breakdown, rodent damage, septic or sewer backup)?
❏ Are your boats (motorized or not) or other recreational vehicles insured with your home or cottage insurance policy? What are the limits and exclusions?
❏ What is your contents insurance limit? If you’ve added more “toys,” you may want to up the limit for extra coverage.
❏ Do you have an actual cash value or replacement cost policy? The actual cash value includes depreciation.
❏ What are the implications if you rent out your cottage? If you’re renting, be honest because if you lie, your insurer can deny your claim. Inquire about rental income coverage in case you lose a potential rental due to an insured peril.
❏ If your cottage has become more accessible – a better road or closer fire hydrant – it could mean cheaper insurance rates.
❏ Do I need to visit the cottage to maintain coverage, and if so, at what cadence? Weekly, monthly, or every two months?
❏ Are there any money-saving discounts available? For instance, if you’ve installed an alarm system, remote water shut-offs, or cameras, you may get some deals. How about a claims-free discount?
❏ Do you have coverage for all water-related claims (e.g. sewer backup, overland flooding, wind/ice damage)?
❏ What is your third-party liability coverage? Should you add any more?
The bottom line
Owning a cottage is incredible; thorough maintenance is vital to continue enjoying it. Take a proud owner approach and care for it. Shift your mindset from something you have to do to something you get to do, and you’ll continue to enjoy the cottage for generations. A healthy maintenance plan helps you avoid common and avoidable claims, which can pay off in the long run, especially if you’re aiming for the claims-free discount. Ensuring you have the proper insurance in place will ensure your cottage is protected, no matter the weather.