While walking the office halls before the July 4th holiday, I overheard some colleagues chatting up their plans to head to the cabin for the weekend.
It got me contemplating the question: should I buy a cabin up north? Then I considered the cost and hassle involved.
Here in Minnesota, it’s not uncommon for families owning a cabin or second home “up north” to head up to the lake for weekend getaways in the summertime.
The idea of buying a cabin getaway has had its appeal, but pesky opportunity costs always seem to get in the way.
The season for enjoying a cabin here in the northern boundaries of the Midwest is pretty narrow: essentially from Memorial weekend to Labor Day weekend. With that in mind, 122,000 Minnesotan cabin owners squeeze in an average of 55 days a year to enjoy a little rustic decompression.
Long gone are the days of the truly rustic cabin with no running water or attached toilet. Nowadays, buyers are demanding $250-$500K year-round new build homes as “cabins.” Hedonic Adaptation Alert!
Why You Don’t Need a Second Home in the Woods
With a narrow season limited to summertime weekends, northbound highways out of the Twin Cities get slammed on Fridays and Sundays. Weather can be unpredictable. Storms, rain, clouds, and high heat and humidity can put a dent in the experience.
Nevertheless, the faithful continue with a tradition that spans generations. Minnesotans hold onto their cabins for a very long time (nearly 25 years on average) relative to their primary residences.
Growing up, we were fortunate to have two sets of grandparents with lake homes to visit. I know firsthand the appeal of getting away to the lake. If some of your favorite memories from childhood are from those settings, it’s only natural to want to recreate those memories into adulthood.
The problem for an aspiring early retiree is how to recreate those memories without blowing up the balance sheet.
What is so magical about the rustic cabin nestled among pines near a quiet lake up north? For a kid, the list might include endless exploration into the woods, water sports, fishing, campfires, playing cards, building sandcastles, and more. All of this is enhanced by being surrounded by parents in their best moods while being away from work. Hard to beat? You bet it is.
As a grown-up, you get to recreate a lot of those activities with your own family. You get the thrill of watching your kids stay up on water skis the first time or catch a keeper off the end of the dock.
You can invite friends and their families to enjoy the experience. Someone inevitably gets sunburned and has to spend a day inside. A raccoon will knock over the trash can and wake everyone up at 3 AM, but it’s all good fodder for future memories about “that time we all went up north over 4th of July 2017.”
If the nostalgia from these experiences growing up, or simply the idea of it has you aching for a place up north of your own, take heart. There are plenty of options for creating an experience that does not involve owning a multi-generational cabin.
Try These Cabin Owning Alternatives Instead:
- Go Tent Camping. Easy enough and low cost. It allows you to explore. You’re not anchored down to the same place. It is less cozy, and camping spots can be hard to come by without advanced reservations.
- Go RV Camping. A big upgrade on the cozy factor, but you lose on the financial side of the equation. Hold off on this option until you’ve reached financial independence.
- Rent a Cabin. With VRBO and Airbnb you’ve got access to countless lakes and home styles. The problem is that the better the location, the pricier the rental. There’s also no guarantee you’ll get what you want if you wait too long to reserve. And often, summertime rentals require a full week when all you might want is a weekend. I’d recommend setting aside some vacation dollars for a week up north while stashing away for your early retirement. Just be sure to book well in advance!
- Make Friends With Cabin Owners This is the golden ticket. If you have friends with a place up north and they want your company, make every effort to show your appreciation and not wear out your welcome. Bring the meats, bring the booze, and for God’s sake, take good care of the place.
- Staycation? If you just can’t get away for whatever reason, seek out nearby public beaches and boat rentals, head to a minor league ball game, or fire up a backyard barbecue. No reason to sulk when half your neighbors are gone to the lake.
- Join a Boat Club. Most of what we love about cabin living revolves around the floating bankroll tied up at the dock, right? So instead of plunking down several thousands of dollars on a fancy hunk of fiberglass, pay for the joy of renting it for a day instead. This is an option our family is looking into this summer. Enjoy 4 to 8 hours on a given day and leave all of the maintenance and hauling hassles behind.
Should I Buy a Cabin If I Want to Retire Early?
Even a modest cabin or condo up north can put a huge dent in any plans to quit your day job. That’s not even including the requisite powerboat and jet skis!
Proceed with caution. Find ways to get up north with family and friends and build memories.
Consider what you’d rather be doing at 55: chomping at the bit to get out of your cube and onto the clogged highway up north on a Friday afternoon, or, at 45 already retired, enjoying the outdoors every day, planning another six-week cross-country road trip.
Our solution to this dilemma was to purchase a second home – a condo – and turn it into a vacation rental. There’s a good deal of work involved to get it set up, but once you’re rolling, this approach becomes an excellent investment.
We make sure to block the week we want to be there during the summer. So far, just about every day from June through August is booked solid. You can follow our progress on the right nav of this blog to see how viable this little experiment has been for us.
If you’re still on the fence, ask yourself if it’s worth the trade-off of a longer career for those precious few days in the summer. (Dangit, it’s Friday already. The forecast is calling for rain.)
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Mrs. Picky Pincher says
Excellent point! You’d reaaaally have to think about whether the glamor of owning a family cabin is worth the extra years of your life spent working. It’s not worth it in my opinion (unless you want to live full-time in said cabin). Why not just camp in a tent and really experience the outdoors? Actually, when I was a kid, my dad would rent a cabin for $75 for an entire weekend. No long-term commitments, just fun. 🙂
abandoned cubicle says
Thank you, Mrs. Pincher! I certainly wouldn’t miss any “glamor” effect. I simply yearn for a place where you’re away from it all and can have family and friends there to enjoy letting the hair down with you. And hey, $75 for an entire weekend cabin rental? Nice. Anymore, you need a full week’s commitment and a base of $1,000 (goes way up from there)
I have great memories of going to the cabin up in Northern Minnesota for 18+ years when growing up. At the time our family only rented several cabins in a family run resort and the entire family would go up for an entire week. We didn’t own the cabins, but we felt like we did since we were there EVERY year. A short while after I went to college the resort was sold off piecemeal to individual cabin owners, and we weren’t able to return.
When I got married to my wife her parents owned a beautiful home (that they called a cabin) on a lake in Hayward, Wisconsin. That place was great, but the upkeep on the home was torturous, especially when they weren’t able to go there more than 3-4 weeks a year. In the end they sold the cabin – right before we had our son. We missed out on bringing him there to create memories.
So now I find myself longing for that cabin experience with my son, but not currently knowing anyone with a good cabin nearby that we can borrow or rent. We’ve been up north a few times renting condos and cabins, but haven’t found one we’d like to return to. I’ve found myself looking at cheap cabins on the same lake we used to go to when I was a child, trying to figure out if we could make it work.
At this point I think we’re better off just renting as the work associated with a cabin is almost more than it’s worth -but it’s hard when so many wonderful memories were made at the lake growing up. Great post!
abandoned cubicle says
Thanks so much, Peter. It sounds like we’re in the same boat (pardon the weak pun!) I had a similar experience growing up in Michigan with access to family cottages. Good friends here in Minnesota would invite us up to Madeline Island before that property had to be sold. Now with twins at pre-school age, we’d love to find “something” for our summer getaways as well – and likely will end up renting.
K. McGarrett says
I’ve thought of all those things: a place in the sun, a cabin on a lake, a boat to explore the many islands around home, an RV to explore the continent. If only the acquisition costs were all but each of those choices has ongoing expenses in licensing, upkeep, gas, maintenance, insurance. Plus your time and aggravation to arrange all those things. I’ve almost pulled the switch a few times but so far I’ve been persuaded that renting means someone else has all the additional expense and headaches.
abandoned cubicle says
I hear you, K. You know, there’s a very insightful read (or two) on a blog I follow, “Can I Retire Yet?” Check it out – some very good tips on RVs and how to manage/control the costs. Good luck, and thanks for stopping by!
Well, this kinda says it all. I mean demands are nowadays high somehow, but someone who knows how it feels living in here wouldn’t go for an argument on this. peace.
Hey Steve- thanks for your comment. Are you a cabin owner I take it? I’m all for owning a second home but my advice is to make sure you can own it debt free and not at the expense of being strung to the desk until 67. We go for renting at this stage.
You left out the best alternative to owning a cabin a couple hours away, probably because it’s too obvious.
Live where the cabins are!
It can be tough if you’re not able to work where the cabins are, but my wife and I have our primary home in lake country close to my family and a cabin where we used to live, on a lake close to her family.
Hahaha! Thanks for pointing THAT out. You got it figured out. Now if I could just convince my lovely wife of the benefits of being near water … she’s from Nebraska ????
James McSherry says
Nice one, enjoyed that post. I am aiming to build myself a cabin here in Ireland (as economically as I can) and renting out my other ‘real’ properties.
I LOVED the last paragraph of this post. Build memories, get outdoors, and be retired at 45. Yes, please sir! 😉
Hey there, James! Glad you liked that one. I needed to write that up before I got depressed about another weekend stuck in the city on a beautiful summer weekend. Can’t wait to get that Airbnb up and running in Michigan…
James Williams says
I would love to have one. I always thought about having such a place and spend my free times in such a place.
Right on. I think it might come down to an option for us where the up north escape is our full time home after the kids move out. A ways to go for that!