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The Lake Where You Live: The family cabin

January 31, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

There’s a major transition going on here in the lake country. It consists of the transfer of families’ lake cabins to new owners — not necessarily other family members.

The information I have gleaned comes from Minnesota, but it’s hard to imagine things would be much different here. Every few years the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates (MLR) organization conducts a cabin ownership study. The most recent was in 2016.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue has estimated the state has 124,000 seasonal home land parcels, a major share of them with lake cabins. 

“In the coming decades,” reports the online publication MinnPost, “baby boomers in the United States are expected to transfer an estimated $30 trillion in assets to subsequent generations. For many families in Minnesota, that’ll include the family cabin.”

But to whom exactly will those cabins be transferred? The MLR survey found that lake home and cabin owners in the state are on average 68 years old. That average age was 62 in 2005 and 58 in 1999. The trend line is pretty obvious, and that means a major change in those properties’ ownership is pretty well inevitable and not terribly far in the future.

The survey also found that 98% of seasonal properties include a home, a cabin or a trailer. Just over one-fourth of these are not winterized and are vacant during the winter months. The average time a given person or family owns a seasonal property is 34 years (the longest ownership was 104 years). 

The survey report calls such places “heirlooms, not assets.” Only 11% of those surveyed said they were considering selling because they were aging and could no longer keep up the property; just 6% planned to sell their property in the next three years because they could no longer afford to keep it. 

But what happens when the critical decision time comes for more people, as it eventually must?

Some will sell their cabins to pay medical bills or other expenses or to add cash for retirement. Others would like the kids or grandkids to buy inherit the place on the lake, but the question is whether those new generations will want it.

Younger people often carry large debts for college studies and may or may not be able to afford to buy their parents out. Furthermore, with the advent of short-term rental services like Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owner, younger people with limited vacation might prefer taking a lake cabin for a week or two per year instead of taking on a mortgage, property taxes and upkeep for a place of their own.

Meanwhile, modest one- or two-bedroom rustic cabins are increasingly rare in Minnesota, according to MinnPost. The same is likely true in Wisconsin. A trend is for such cabins to be sold and then torn down to make room for much larger and higher-priced year-round houses.

Are traditional lake cottages fading from the scene? And if they are, what does that portend for the Northwoods culture and the character and health of the lakes? It’s a puzzling and possibly disturbing question for those who grew up enjoying “cabin country.”

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected].

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