The Cabin Conundrum

@SmarterTravel posed this question the other day: If you could buy a vacation home in any destination in the world, where would it be?

The ideal vacation home situation is to be good friends with someone who has one. This is true of a lot of luxury possessions: Be friends with someone who has a boat, or a condo downtown with a lake view, or a dog. That way you don’t have to deal with the trouble and expense of actually taking care of these things on a daily basis; you just get to enjoy the good times and duck out the door when anything difficult comes up.

And the difficulties with vacation homes begin right at the beginning. First you’ve got to find and buy a place. Now you’ve got a second mortgage. In addition, you’ve got to furnish the place and pay property taxes, utilities, and possibly a caretaker, depending on the nature of the home. And unlike other vacations, you don’t just pay for these things while you’re actually enjoying them. It’s not like paying for a cabin for a week while you’re staying at the lake. It’s paying for that cabin all year long and only staying in it for a week. As an example, say you buy a little house in Door County for $279,000. According to Trulia, your estimated monthly payments will be $1250. Every. Single. Month. $15,000 every year. Imagine the other kinds of trips you could take for that kind of money.

Which leads to the second problem–the worse of the two, for me. If you’ve got this vacation home and you’re paying a lot of money for it every single day, you feel like you have to go there on every long weekend and holiday week. Which might be convenient and relaxing, but it also means you’re not seeing new parts of the world, walking on new ground, breathing new air, or meeting new people. You’re doing the same thing over and over. Going to the same beach. Hiking on the same trails. Drinking at the same bar.

There’s something to be said for “the same.” Another word for that is “tradition.” My dad grew up spending whole summers with all of his cousins up at the family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin. His stories of those days sound exactly like you might imagine an idyllic everlasting early-60s summer would. I picture all the boys in crew cuts and girls in short dresses, rambling through the woods inventing games that only they know the rules to, singing songs they make up as they go.

The less-than-picturesque pond on my family’s property in Wisconsin. We own this. We have to pay taxes on it and spend money on things like fixing the dock.

It sounds wonderful, but as the family grew and moved and married off and splintered, fewer and fewer people went up there for less and less time. There were years when I would go up for one weekend in the summer with friends, and my grandfather and aunt would go for one week after Christmas, and the other 355 days of the year the place would sit empty and unloved. At this point, I don’t think anyone related to us has set foot on the place in over a year. Now it’s just a heavily wooded financial burden with a murky pond at the center, a burden the family is trying to unload, albeit with reservations. It’s a place full of fond memories, but every day those memories slip further into the past, with no new ones being created.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, but with money as tight as it is these days and people as mobile as they are, it feels like the days of the whole family getting together for weeks at the lake are past. Maybe as I get older and richer and more sedentary, I’ll see more value in the comfortable traditions of the family vacation home. But for now, it seems like sinking too much money into too small of a destination.


One thought on “The Cabin Conundrum

  1. Every so often I get an itch and spend an afternoon looking at rural/vacation property, marvel at how much cheaper it is than a house in Chicago, do some additional math, and realize what a badass vacation I could take on the yearly expense. Plus, as nearly all families these days have two working parents and not a lot of vacation time, your dad’s awesome summers are probably a lost and gone forever part of middle class life.

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