Why Vacation Homes Can Fracture Your Family Tree

Five Questions to Ask Before Buying a Summer Home

My brother’s favorite summer car game was table tennis...Off the back of my head in a minivan with a rubber bouncy ball on a string.

Now, as adults, we all play a different game in summer car rides. It’s called: “Hey, we should all chip in and buy a cabin together.” Done well, this is a generational dream come true. Done poorly, you will actually be daydreaming of feeding a family member into a chipper. Perhaps no summer decision could have more lasting effects than the purchase of a summer home. Let’s make sure those effects keep everyone happy:

1. Can my kids take care of this house? 
Why don’t you buy pets for your loved ones every holiday? Puppies make you melt, admit it. You’d love to drop one off for your sibling, or their kids, every holiday. And then leave before you have to clean anything up. Yes – real estate is an investment. Yes – most people would take it as a gift. But it’s also a costly, time-consuming investment, one that requires monthly attention. If you just drop it off like a stork for your kids, good intentions and all, they have to figure out who will maintain it and when. Then, the soldiers have to figure out what to do without the general (back to that table tennis…) and bedlam ensues. If you are going to give a summer home to your kids, specify one owning party (one child) and the terms of sharing it with the other kids. But, that’s only if you want them to talk to each other when you are gone.

2. Do I like room service?
Don’t forget, for the price you are going to pay for a summer home – tens of thousands of dollars a year – you could enjoy first-class hotels wherever the heck you want them. And massages. And dinners. And Ferrari rental cars. When you own a summer home, you own it. Even if you hire work out on the home, when you are there, someone will put a deflated beach ball in the toilet. Then you will spend a whole weekend with rubber gloves on. If this situation makes you quiver, stick to the hotel, and room service, and put the balance of the money into your house, converting it to a 15-year loan to pay it down faster.

3. Do I want to marry this location?
The great thing about summer vacations is that they are over quickly. Remember that hotel room next to the drunk people throwing up off the balcony? I do. You get to drive away the next morning, with a refund. When you buy a summer home, you are marrying that location (in a way that’s complicated to divorce). Do you want to go there every year? Do you want to see those neighbors every year? Do you want to swim in this same milfoil-infested lake every summer? If so, maybe you should buy it. If not, maybe a perfectly clean rental home, in a different spot every summer, is your cut.

4. Who gets to be the villain?
Well, someone has to do it. Someone has to collect taxes. Someone has to send out the bill for the garbage disposal that your cousin plugged with beer bottle caps (yes, that was an in-law, and yes, I am bitter about it). Someone has to decide it’s time for everyone to throw in $5,000 for a new roof. Will that be you? There has to be a villain, a tax guy, a character in a black robe with a scythe. Some rare Disneyland families somehow beat this trend, and everyone drops money in the basket at donation time. Most are more like mine: the rich guy is cheap, the rich girl gives too much, and the engineer wants to do it himself. Who is going to wrangle these folks up and take their money… for the garbage disposal that none of them broke?

5. Who wants it during Christmas?
In Seattle, no one. Summer homes near Seattle, where I live, are universally dreary in the winter. We just let the serial killers and tree huggers ghost around then. But the Fourth of July? Everyone wants the cabin. Memorial Day? Labor Day? Same thing in both cases; these are the golden cows of vacation times, and, yes, people fight over golden cows. So, what is the protocol for the best weekends? Best to set this up now before you walk in on your uncle and his new girlfriend while the proverbial fireworks are going off. Set up the lottery system for the hot weekends now, or you will feel and see the heat.  

Matt Parker is the author of Real Estate Smart: The New Home Buying Guide and Real Estate Agent Talks. As a real estate professional in Seattle, Wash., he has sold more than $75 million in homes and became a top producer in his market during the real estate collapse in 2008—all before he was 30. Parker works entirely paperless and happily lives in a 560-square-foot home with his wife, as he prioritizes living and not clutter. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.