How to afford a vacation home

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Ah, vacation. Is there anything better than setting your out-of-office reminder and taking off for a week or two? Whether you’re jetting to a sunny destination or booking a staycation in your own province, there’s something about getting out of town that allows the relaxation to really kick-in.

But have you ever wondered if that vacation could last a little longer? Maybe you’ve even daydreamed about owning your own place. It might seem out of reach for most of us, but we spoke to four Atlantic Canadians with four very different vacation homes. It turns out that if there’s a will, there’s a way, and vacation homes can come in all shapes and sizes—and for just about every budget.

Vacation Home #1: A Getaway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

When Carol discovered the charming, sleepy town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico 25 years ago, she was surprised to find that it reminded her of the south of France—only much cheaper. Since purchasing her vacation home, she now spends four months of the year there.

“Going to the same vacation home year after year allows us to live in a new culture and environment. We cook our meals, attend movies and lectures, participate in our hobbies, and have very close friends. It’s a different experience than being on vacation.”

In order to make it work financially, Carol and her husband rent out the home when they’re not staying in it.

“We use a management company that advertises the home and takes payment from the renters. We also use rental websites like VRBO and HomeAway where we manage the renters and their payments directly. We are constantly looking for ways to minimize expenses in the house when we’re not residing in it. For example, in our primary home back in Atlantic Canada, the telephone and internet can be discontinued for three months with no penalty once a year. Also, if our vacation home is not rented, we reduce the frequency of our cleaning services.”

Vacation Home #2: The Motorhome Lifestyle

For Allison and Andrew, the purchase of a motorhome allowed them to travel full-time, while continuing to work—and it meant that they could bring their beloved pets along with them.

“We decided we wanted to try full-time motorhome life in 2014 while living in Belgium. We knew we wanted to travel, but we had two cats that we didn’t want to leave behind. We considered a variety of different options but, in the end, an RV seemed like the perfect choice. Our cats would have one ‘house’ and we would have the flexibility to go where we wanted. Like houses, motorhomes come in a vast range of prices and styles. You can pay a few thousand dollars for a small, old RV, to millions for a dream coach. We bought ours second-hand and it’s 29 feet, which is more than enough space for us to be comfortable full-time.”

With some upgrades to their motorhome, Allison and Andrew were even able to run their business from the road. It’s meant that they can balance work with travel and adventure, without breaking the bank.

“We own a media company called RockFort Media. We work with solopreneurs to medium-sized businesses to craft their online presence. We help with everything from building their websites and creating written and visual content to managing their social media. This means we need to be online and connected while we travel and we work just about every day. We spend more than the average RV owner on internet and mobile coverage, but it means we can make ourselves available to clients.”

Beyond the initial price of purchasing a motorhome and the expenses that come with running an online business, there are other costs to stay on top of.

“We have everyday expenses you would incur anywhere, like groceries and fuel. We need propane to run our stove, fridge, and water heater. We also have campground expenses; however, we tend to ‘boondock’ as often as we can. This means we camp in public spaces, using our own water and power. We invested in installing solar panels and batteries last year so we can be ‘off-grid’ for long periods of time. Owning an older RV means we have maintenance costs, just as you would with a house. However, our house is also our vehicle, which means we need to pay for things like MVIs and tires, as well.” 

At the end of the day, it’s all worth it for the flexibility that comes with being full time RV-ers. After spending several months traveling around Europe, Allison and Andrew elected to continue motorhome life in Canada to be closer to family.

“Last spring, we began the Canadian phase of our travels. From May to August we explored the maritime regions of Quebec, including the Gaspé Peninsula, Saguenay, and Côté Nord. We returned to New Brunswick for a few weeks to do some travelling along the Acadian Coast and then headed to Nova Scotia to enjoy the fall colours in Cape Breton. This summer we plan to drive through Quebec and up the Labrador Highway to spend the summer exploring Newfoundland and Labrador. After that, who knows!”

Vacation Home #3: The Home Exchange

When Krista started a new job at a community college, she wanted to take advantage of her summers off. While more vacation time felt exciting, she knew it could also be expensive. She decided to get creative to find a vacation home that worked with her family’s budget. After a bit of research, she discovered the solution: a home exchange.

“The movie The Holiday is what gave me the idea. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet swap homes and I wondered if it was an option for me in the real world. I did some research online and met with people in my region who had done house swaps before. I joined a reputable online community called—and from there, I booked our first home exchange with a family from Scotland. They stayed in our coastal home here in Atlantic Canada and we got to enjoy their place in beautiful Scotland!”

Preparing for a home exchange requires a bit of work—it’s expected that you clean your house and car as well as create a book for your guests about how to operate your home before you take off. But Krista explains that it’s worth it for the experience and the savings.

“It’s a much more affordable way to travel. Your plane tickets are your only major expense. Beyond that, you pay for your own gas and groceries and any sightseeing. By doing a home exchange instead of a traditional holiday, my family saves the $300–400 per night we might have spent on hotels or a vacation rental. We also get to enjoy the experience of really living in another country and culture. You get to know the community you’re in and meet your neighbours. So far, we’ve had the opportunity to visit Scotland, Australia, Belgium, Germany, and Fernie, BC.”

Vacation Home #4: A Family Cottage

Jennifer considers her oceanfront cottage to be her family’s “happy place”. It’s where they unplug and unwind and spend most weekends in the summer. She and her husband were fortunate to inherit it from family and have made it a place that feels like a home away from home.

“A cottage can be pricey, even if you’ve inherited it. For us, it’s where we like to vacation, so it means we save on our holidays because we don’t pay for travel and hotels. But there are some basic expenses you have to think about—things like property taxes, insurance, utilities, seasonal repairs, and septic maintenance. When we inherited our cottage, we also made the space our own with a few upgrades, including new flooring and window coverings, new paint, and a new deck .”

Upkeep and upgrades can get expensive, but Jennifer explains that understanding the costs and having a plan for your vacation home can help make things manageable.

“Budgeting is important and it helps to remember that you don’t have to do everything at once. For me, part of the fun of owning a cottage is upcycling. Rather than buying a lot of new stuff, I go thrift shopping and visit garage sales. A coat of paint can give something old a new personality.”

Jennifer’s advice for anyone that’s looking to purchase a vacation home? Make time for research. Finding the right place that suits your lifestyle can make all of the difference.

“If you are used to living in a city or town, cottage country can be very different. Get to know the area you are considering—are you ocean or lake people? Do you want a place for the summertime only or something winterized? Renting a cottage for a week in the area you’re interested in can help you figure out if it’s the right fit.”