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Crystal Beach in Ridgeway, just outside Fort ErieSheryl Nadler for The Globe and Mail

As far as cottage-buying experiences go, Vicky Campbell and Jordan Williams had it pretty easy. Mr. Williams had long shared his father's cottage in the Land O' Lakes region so, when the Whitby-based couple decided to buy a vacation home of their own, they knew that's where they wanted to look. And it only took them a couple of offers to land their two-bedroom property on Big Gull Lake, about 60 kilometres north of Napanee, Ont.

"We really liked the solitude. It's well-treed, there are no close neighbours, and it's on a sheltered bay, so you don't get a lot of boat traffic," says Mr. Williams of their quick, perfect find.

Their agent, Royal LePage broker Chris Winney, admits they were lucky. "Buyers are usually in contact with us for at least a year." And it's not unusual to spend twice as long - or more - in the hunt for a cottage. Ready to begin?

First off, the good news: According to agents across the province, this summer has been a buyers' market, with properties available in a broad range of prices on lakes in all the desirable locations.

The bad news: The starting price in those desirable locations is more than $300,000. Then you have to factor in all the expenses, such as having a second mortgage (likely at a higher interest rate than the one you have on your home), the high property taxes that those high property values entail, and a second set of utility bills, among others. And we haven't even gotten to the commute yet …

Still interested? If so, then start by figuring out where you want to end up. Ontario offers a wide range of cottaging options, from rows of off-beach summer homes along the Lake Huron shore, through the hustle-and-bustle (and celebrity spotting) of Muskoka's "Big Three" lakes, to quieter, more rustic places in areas such as Haliburton.

If you don't already have your heart set on one location, consider touring the province to check out the various flavours of cottaging on offer (see map). One great way to get to intimately know a region is by renting in the area. You'll get a sense of commute times, local attractions, and what sort of terrain, wildlife, and bug life you can expect.

Now, about that commute. In short, it sucks. East-enders can skirt it somewhat by zigzagging their way up to the Kawarthas and beyond. And Lake Huron and Bruce Peninsula cottagers have been known to boast about their uncongested drive (assuming, of course, they're leaving from the city's west end). But for that quintessential cabin on the Shield experience, most of us are willing to suck it up and navigate the Highway 400 hordes by heading north. And the further up you go, the lower the prices come down. While current listings in the Muskokas start at $300,000 and top out around $5-million, head up to Parry Sound and beyond and the list prices start at under $100,000.

Once you've settled on a region, it's time to narrow down the search. Steven Curry, with Forest Hill Real Estate's Port Sandfield office, suggests would-be buyers make a checklist of their requirements: Do you want to use the place year-round? Could you handle boating to an island, or do you need a road right to the door? Would you prefer a place where everyone water-skis or a quiet lake that bans motorboats? Does the place need to be kid - or seniors - friendly? And so on. Once you've focused on the type of place you want, he says the cottage itself is almost irrelevant. "You can always change the building, but you can't change the land, so make sure the property works for you and your family."

How do you find the right property? "The number one thing is to use a local agent," says Bill Kingshott, a Royal LePage broker in Parry Sound. While this may seem self-serving, he makes a valid point. Unless your agent in the city is a seasoned cottager, they likely won't have had much experience with septic systems, drawing drinking water from wells, and various other quirks of cottage country, and certainly won't be up to speed on the municipal zoning laws and other local issues.

In addition to a local agent's knowledge base, Ms. Winney suggests reading back issues of the community newspaper to learn about potential deal-breakers, which can range from apocalyptic swarms of blackflies, to the possibility of a uranium mine swallowing up your town (as is the case near Gooderham, Ont). You should also find out if the lake you're keen on has a cottagers' association and investigate what issues are of concern to them.

While spring is typically the busy period for sales, savvy buyers will hold off for fall, since owners would rather take a little less money than have the maintenance and carrying costs of holding it until the next year.

Before you put an offer on what you think is the cottage of your dreams, visit the place a few times, at different times of day (and different times of year, if possible), so you have a clear sense of sun exposure, privacy levels in the foliage-free seasons, amount of boat and snowmobile traffic, and other factors that can make it less than idyllic.

As part of the negotiations, arrange for an onsite orientation session - or at least a detailed set of written instructions - explaining how all the building's systems (septic, water pump, heating, and electricity) work.

Finally, a cottage is definitely a purchase you want to get an inspection done on, and you should be there while it's under way to ask at least some of the million questions that will arise after you take possession.

Ms. Campbell's and Mr. Williams's advice for buyers? "Ask for extras, like boats and other stuff that you're going to have to buy anyway," says Ms. Campbell. Since the seller of their Big Gull Lake retreat was getting out of the cottage market, the couple managed to negotiate to get a motorboat, paddleboat, four-wheel ATV, and some tools as part of the deal. You're not going to get those kind of toys thrown in on a deal in the city.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: There is a potential uranium mine near Gooderham, Ont., not Goderich, Ont., as incorrectly stated in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article. This online version has been corrected.