How to Buy a Lake House as a Vacation Home

My wife and I purchased a vacation home for our 25th wedding anniversary.  We were blessed with the resources to fulfill a dream of owning a home on the water.  To be honest, I never imagined that I would be able to do something like own a lake house while I was still young enough to enjoy it. 

Our History with Waterfront Experiences

When I was younger and earlier in my marriage, we used to take family trips to the beach, usually in the Outer Banks.  Oftentimes, this was a large family gathering.  We enjoyed them so much that during one visit many years ago (before Mrs. GoTo and I had children), my four siblings and I actually entered into a contract to purchase a small lot in the Outer Banks.  Our plan was to hold on to the lot until we could afford to build a house on it.  We would then use that house for separate and joint vacations.  The lot was not on the water but it was close enough that we could see the ocean.

Not long after we signed the contract and returned to our separate homes, I began to reconsider what we had done.  For one thing, the drive to the Outer Banks for all of us was a chore – at least 8-9 hours.  This made it unlikely that any of us would use a vacation home on that lot more than once or twice per year.  Also, we were all so young that it was unlikely that all of us would be able to consistently make payments on the land contract or contribute to the construction of the house.  To make a long story short, I ended up telling my bothers and sisters that the land purchase deal did not make a lot of sense and that we needed to exercise our right to back out of the deal.  That’s what we did and there was no more serious talk of vacation home purchases for many years.

After we had children, we often visited my father who lived on a small lake in a rustic but gated retirement community. We went sailing, canoeing, and swimming.  We also fished.  The kids (ours and the other grandchildren) had glorious times at my father’s lake house.  Sadly, my Dad sold that house a few years ago so that he could live full-time in Florida.  The grandchildren were devastated.

It was about this same time that we began to explore the possibility of owning a lake house of our own, to be used as a vacation house, a family gathering spot, and then as at least a part-time residence in retirement.

We did not really consider a beach house for several very important reasons. First, the nearest beach is 8 hours away.  We wanted this to be a vacation home that we could use frequently enough to be considered a second home.  Thus, it had to be easy to reach by car for regular visits.  Second, we wanted to be directly on the water.  Ocean front beach property is much more expensive than lake front property.  We simply could not afford to live on the ocean.  Third, we did not want to worry about hurricane damage.  Fourth, we had seen for ourselves the damage caused by normal beach erosion processes and wanted no part of that.  Finally, we had friends that had at one time owned a condo on the gulf.  They told us that the maintenance costs arising from constant exposure to the salt air were horrendous.

Our Search for a Lake House

Exploring lake front property became part of our weekend plans as a couple. There are six large lakes within a two hour drive from our “regular” home.  All are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, meaning that shoreline development is tightly regulated.

Two of the lakes we eliminated immediately because they were actually too close to our first home.  We wanted our vacation home to be far enough away so that when we were there, we actually felt “away.”  A third lake we crossed off the list because the Corps did not permit homes to be built directly on the water.  A fourth lake – about a 1:45 drive away –  was quite beautiful and accessible but more expensive than we could really afford.  The reason was that this particular lake was subject to rather large changes in lake levels – 24 feet – between summer pool and winter pool.  In other words, lots of homes that were lake front in the summer were “mud” front in the winter.  That made the homes that had year-round water very desirable and therefore expensive.

The last lake we explored was about 90 minutes north of us, Lake Barkley in Kentucky.  We discovered that there was still lots of undeveloped lake front property on this lake, meaning that lots and homes were quite affordable. Also, we learned that the difference between summer and winter pool was only 5 feet (this is controlled by the Corps) so it was easier to find property with year round water.  We briefly considered buying a lot and building but after having done that with our first home, we decided we did not want to go through the hassle of long-distance construction.

The first time we explored the lake, we did it on our own.  We observed that there was a quite a wide variety in lake front housing, from mobile homes to mansions.  But, we thought we could find something that met our desires and budget.  So we decided to engage a Realtor who had intimate knowledge of the area.

Our Criteria for Selecting a Lake House

After much study, discussion and exploring, these are the criteria and objectives we established for our ideal lake house vacation home:

1.  The house had to be within a two hour drive. This particular lake was over 90 miles long.  Parts of it were close to an Interstate.  Other parts required a time consuming meander through country roads.  We opted to restrict ourselves to those areas that were easiest to reach by car.

2.  The house had to be directly on the water with a dock. On this lake, the Army Corps had strict requirements for placing a dock on the water.  You had to apply for and obtain a permit for a dock.  We were boaters and wanted to be sure that we could keep our boats directly on the water at our own dock.  (The photo above shows our dock and water “toys.”)  So we looked for a home that already had an approved dock in place.  We also preferred a southern view from the deck.  Lots of people on our lake built homes that faced west, so that they could see the sun set over the largest part of the lake.  In my opinion, that was a mistake because the afternoon sun is brutal.  None of those people can sit on their deck on a hot summer afternoon or evening, or even keep the window shades up on the windows that face west.  Keep that in mind if you ever go lake house shopping.  Our deck is shaded and stays cool enough for relaxing at almost any time during the summer.

3.  The house should be near a marina and launching ramp. This turned out to be more important than we thought.  If you have boats, you need a place to get them in and out of the water.  You also need a place to get fuel and to obtain repairs when needed.  It really helps if these are close by.  The lake house we selected is only a 4 minute drive by car and 8 minute drive by boat to a marina that has a launch ramp, fuel docks, and a repair facility.   As a bonus, the marina has a variety of cabins and other overnight accommodations.  We have taken advantage of this when we had overflow family crowds at our lake house.

4.  The house should be low maintenance. Neither Mrs. GoTo nor I is a fan of yard work.  We saw lots of homes on the lake that had expansive lawns and gardens.  We wanted nothing to do with cutting grass and other yard chores at our “vacation” home.  So we concentrated on finding a house that was in a more natural wooded setting with no grass to cut.  We found it!  All I need to do is walk around the property a few times per year with a string cutter and we are done.

5.  The house should be suited for year-round living. There are lots of lake homes and cabins around the country that are used as vacation homes, but only in the summer.  This is usually because the cabins are not winterized or because they are difficult to reach in winter weather.  We wanted to use our vacation home year-round.  This means the house had to be fully insulated with a central heating system.  Also, we preferred that the lake house be on a municipal water system instead of well water.  I know people who use well water or even lake water and that is a lot more trouble than we wanted to experience.  Our lake house as a septic sewer system (which is typical) but we are on a municipal water system which makes it easier to have year-round functionality.

6.  The house should be in a low-stress location. One of the drawbacks of the most “popular” beach front and lake front communities is that they are overdeveloped.  The homes and condos are packed together and there are T-shirt shops, restaurants, and other tourist traps galore.  In the peak summer season, these places are crawling with noisy tourists and their automobiles.  That can be fun when you are younger and a tourist with kids in tow.  But as baby boomers and homeowners, we wanted our lake house vacation home to provide a much lower-key environment.  What we found is ideal.  We are a 15 minute drive to the nearest town (and it is a small town!).  On the other hand, our lake house is in a small cluster of homes.  Some of our neighbors are like us and use their homes as second homes.  Others are already retired and live on the lake all year.  This really helps because they generally keep an eye on things for us.  Our lake house neighbors are fantastic.  We actually know them better than our neighbors at our primary home.  Being so far from a grocery store, etc. is actually a blessing because it causes you to focus on doing relaxing things that do not involve “running to the store” to spend more money, etc.  The peace, quiet, and tranquility – just staring at the water – does wonders for my mental health.  Being in a generally rural area also allows you to interact with folks who in many respects are often friendlier and more down to earth as compared to people who have lived in the city all of their lives.  Mrs. GoTo and I appreciate that difference very much.

7.  The house should accommodate family gatherings. Our hope and dream was that our lake house vacation home would evolve into a place that would be welcoming not only to our children but our extended family.  So, we wanted a house that would allow that by having enough places to sleep and relax for a large family gathering.  Our vacation home is not huge – under 2400 square feet – but it makes efficient use of its space.  It has four bedrooms on three levels, a sleeping loft, and three baths.  None of the rooms are very big.  On the other hand, we have a very large, heavily shaded back deck which is where everyone hangs out.  In the basement level is a large playroom.  Thus, we have hosted large week-long gatherings of family (18-23 at at time) at our lake house for five consecutive summers.   Hopefully, we will have many more of these.

After we had owned our vacation home for a couple of years, we were driving around our suburban home with our sons in the car.  As we passed by a row of “McMansions”, one of our sons commented that it made a lot more sense to own two homes than it did to pour a pile of money into one oversized home.  That put a big smile on my face because it made so much sense.

If any of you are considering buying a second home or a vacation home and want to be on the water, consider lake front living as opposed to ocean front.  The steps we went through and criteria we established may be helpful to you.