6 tips to get ready for cottage season

Dreaming of a cottage escape? From safety to scams, we've got tips to keep everyone safe and happy this season.

As the temperature creeps up, our thoughts turn to that oasis of escape: the cottage. Whether you rent or are lucky enough to own, cottages promise hours of good company, great weather and outdoor fun. Before we enjoy some serious rest and relaxation, a little preparation can help make sure the memories we make are good ones.

Here are some tips to keep everyone happy and safe this season.

Give your cottage a good once-over

Is your cottage ready for you and your guests — including youngsters and pets? In addition to your usual open-up routine, experts recommend doing a thorough inspection of your cottage and property to identify any damage or hazards. For example, consider:

- Are there any signs of leaks or water damage? Or rotting or warped wood that needs repair?

- Are railings and porches secure and stable? (Look closely at the stairs: they can be a falling hazard.)

- Are locks in good working order and placed on all doors and windows to protect children?

- Are there any tripping hazards, like dangling cords or throw rugs?

- Is the property around your cottage safe from fallen trees or other hazards? (Experts say that the area around a cottage should be free of brush for at 20 feet all around.)

- Are hazardous substances like cleaners or paint safely stored away?

- Do you have a carbon monoxide detector, and does it have fresh batteries? Experts note that many cottages use alternative fuel sources like wood stoves, so it’s important to have a CO detector even if it’s not required by law. You should test it at the start of each season, and replace any device that’s older than five years.

- Are there enclosed, safe areas for pets to run? Experts warn that pets shouldn’t be allowed to run free because they can get lost, injured or get into fights with other animals. (The City of Guelph has some helpful cottage safety tips for your pet.)

- Do you know whom to call and what to do in an emergency? Experts say to make sure you have local numbers posted at every phone. Now’s a good time to brush up your first aid skills too because it may take longer for emergency response personnel to get to you at the cottage than at home — so experts say you should have the supplies and know-how to help while you wait.

While it may seem silly, experts note that one way you can spot hazards for young children and pets is to get down on your hands and knees and have a look around. What dangers are within reach? How deep is the water?

Plan for fire safety

You may be all set at home, but experts say those safe habits should carry over to the cottage as well. Remember, the same laws apply to cottages as to homes: there must be a smoke alarm on every floor and outside all sleeping areas. Experts recommend that these devices be tested regularly and the batteries replaced each year. Any alarms over 10 years old should be replaced.

Of course, your safety routine doesn’t end there — consider checking all switches, appliances, water heaters, fire extinguishers, wires, outlets and chimneys too.

What about outdoors? Be sure to check with local authorities before having a campfire because there may be a ban. If you’re having a fire, keep plenty of water and sand on hand, never leave it unattended and make sure it is completely out before leaving the area. If you or your guests smoke, take extra precautions — like dousing cigarettes in water.

Do you know what to do if there is a fire? A fire escape plan is a must for cottages as well as homes. Make sure to share this plan with guests and point out the exits.

Think water safety too

We know part of the fun of being at the cottage is the water — but along with summer comes a spike in drowning and near drowning incidents, injuries, boating accidents and other mishaps on our lakes and rivers. However, experts say most of these accidents can be prevented. For example:

- Make sure everyone knows how to swim — and brush up your skills, if possible. Any youngsters should stay within arm’s reach of an adult.

- Know your environment. Are there boating or swimming hazards in the water? Is the water free of E. coli and pollutants? Is the water warm enough for swimming?

- Make sure you have all the appropriate safety equipment. For boating, that means a properly fitting life jacket or personal floatation device for every person, fire extinguisher and oars. (A full list can be found on Transport Canada’s Office of Boating Safety website.) Any water sports gear should be in good condition — now is a good time to check before the season gets under way. (For more details, see Water safety tips everyone should know.)

Update on a budget

Think your cottage needs a little “sprucing up”? You don’t have to blow your vacation budget on furniture and decor. For instance:

- Buy used. Many people are replacing outdoor furniture this time of year or moving so it’s an opportune time to pick up some bargains. Not only is the “aged” look in style this season, many used items can be saved with a good clean-up and coat of paint. For instance, brighten up a Muskoka chair with a wild hue of blue or yellow and don’t be afraid of those worn patinas.

- Pick up a few interesting pieces. Another hot trend this year is a “mix and match” look — that is, a variety of textures, fabrics and furniture pieces. If you’re on a tight budget, you can add to existing furniture without having to worry about everything matching.

- Think fun – and inexpensive – accessories. This year’s it’s all about fun colours like bright blue, red, pink, yellow and orange. Not only do they complement past years’ more neutral decor, you don’t have to shell out big bucks for a pop of colour. Think small — like dishes, patio lights, pillows, potted plants and accessories.

For more ideas, see Decorate your outdoor room for less and Top trends in outdoor décor

Have a plan for guests

Whether you own or you rent, chances are you’ll have some company joining you this season. It’s important to set some boundaries so you can have some private time. For instance, while you’re planning friend and family weekends, book in some downtime for yourself — and stick to it.

You can also make those “full house” times easier by letting your guests know what to expect ahead of time. What facilities are available? What do your guests need to bring? What activities might you be sharing? Will alcohol be served — or do you prefer to avoid heavy drinking? Are there any rules or quirks (like plumbing) they should know about?

You should also give some thought about what you’ll do if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Indoor activities like reading, games and puzzles can help fend off boredom, for example. (And many can be picked up cheaply during garage sale season.)

For more tips on hosting a successful gathering, see Manage cottage guests.

Be smart about rentals

On the hunt for a rental? Make sure to do your homework or you might not get what you paid for. Before you’ll book, you’ll want to know:

- Who owns the cottage, and who can you contact in an emergency?

- What amenities are included in the price, and which are extra? (Like laundry, number of bedrooms, barbeque, boat rental, etc).

- How private is the location? Do you have some space, or are other cottages just meters away?

- What are the rules of the cottage? Are pets allowed?

- Is the rental safe for children and pets? For instance, is the place reasonably child-proof, or can you child-proof it yourself? How deep is the water off the dock? Is there a lot of water traffic in the area?

- Have there been any problems with bugs — particularly bed bugs?

- What is the cancellation policy? Are there any guarantees or recourse if you don’t like the rental?

As always, make sure you get the details in writing and do your due diligence before you commit. Ask for references and look online for independent reviews.

(For more ideas, see Cottage rentals: Don’t get stuck with a dud.)

Also, keep your eyes open for scams — they’re hitting even reputable rental sites. Unfortunately, vacation rental scams of all kinds are a popular criminal tactic so you’ll want to watch out for red flags like those too-good-to-be-true offers and requests to wire cash. (For more tips, see Beware of vacation rental scams.)

We know these tips will take some time and effort, but the last thing anyone wants to face on vacation is a scam, injury or accident. A few precautions can make sure everyone has a safe and relaxing visit.

Additional sources: London Fire Department, Ontario Government Office of the Fire Marshall, News Canada

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Paul Vasarhelyi

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