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Thinking of buying an island or rural retreat?

Blog by Robert Matthews | August 8th, 2019

Summer get-aways often include trips to our wonderful BC Islands. The Gulf Islands, Gabriola, Bowen, and even further north, to Hornby and Quadra. These idyllic islands invariably tempt at least of few of us to ponder the possibilities of our own island retreat. But purchasing may not be quite that simple. Following are some things to consider.* And many of these are applicable to a get-away home anywhere - island, interior, lake-side... (First published on my blog a couple of years ago, updated to include recent issues).  

What type of property are you looking for?

  • Do you want a year-round recreational property, or a seasonal/summer home?

  • Will you be hosting extended family, friends or renters?

  • Do you want Internet connectivity, or are you going offline?

  • Do you seek seclusion, or wish to be part of a community?

  • Do you require electrical and indoor plumbing, or are you “roughing it”?

  • Do you need a boat house and dock?

  • Do you want extra buildings such as a guest house, storage shed or workshops?


There’s much more to owning a recreational property once you pony up for the purchase price. Consider these: 

  • Insurance

  • Property tax (Note: The Gulf Islands, Bowen, Gabriola and other island properties are currently exempt from the BC Speculation and Vacancy Tax.). 

  • Utilities

  • Maintenance

  • Home alarm system 

  • Commuting costs (ferries, fuel)

  • Use and entertainment

  • Required or desired renos and upgrades

Once you have those questions answered, and are ready to go the next step, keep the following in mind as you search: 


  1. How long will it take to get there? How many ferries and how often do they run?

  2. What can you build on the lot? What are (the powerful) Island Trust rules?

  3. What are you looking at? Sun in the morning or afternoon, or none? (West is best.)

  4. Wha are the redevelopment or building limitations, the zoning bylaws, environmental restrictions, etc. 

  5. What are the nighbours like? Talk to neighbours - what kind are they? Will they help watch your property? Any by-laws you ought to know (not told to you by owners) and of course the big questions:


  • How do you access the property? Private road, public road, Crown land, unauthorized access across private or Crown Land? 

  • What is access like in the winter months?

  • Does the property legally include access right to the shoreline? Are docks, boathouses etc. sitting on private or public land?

  • Are there proper permits for any docks included with the property? This is a relatively new issue, in light of new government regulations against illegal docks. Read about the issue here. While the issue has been confined to Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast thus far, other coastal areas may be next. 


  • Water well ... running at 1 or 10 gallons an hour?

  • Is it a shallow well or deep well? Is there a water storage system?

  • Does the well produce water in the dry summer months? Like now?

  • How many wells are in the overall area tapping the same water?

  • Is the well actually on your property, or a neighbour’s? (Check the land survey and title.)

  • What potential ownership/usage issues might there be with any ponds, streams or other bodies of water on the property? See this recent cautionary tale: https://bit.ly/2F0x3Q2


  • Is the house built to code?

  • Are there outbuildings on the property? Any building over 108 sq. ft. may need a building permit. 

  • Does the house have an oil tank?

  • Is it conforming zoning or is it non-conforming? Never assume zoning can be changed by getting dispensation from the zoning authorities. 


Bad septic fields could stop your enjoyment cold ... never mind cost a fortune.

  • Does the septic system work properly (or at all)?

  • Has the tank been pumped, when last?

  • How old is the septic system? Is it a gravity or pump system? How old is the pump?

  • Can you see or smell it? Also see dollar bills floating in the air ...

  • How close is the septic field? Is it uphill or downhill from the well?

  • On rocky surfaces ... is the tank above you or below ... pumps?

  • What about the neighbor's septic field? How close is it?

  • The Sewerage System Regulations have been changed in 2005/2007. Did the owner comply?


In Canada, you do not own the beach. Your property ends at the high water mark.

  • Does the property have sensitive shoreline status?

  • If it's low bank, is the beach leased out to a clam operation?

  • Is it a "let's party" beach during the summer?

  • Is there a water license?

A client of mine searching on Gabriola a few years ago came up against another key consideration: Archeological sites. The property he considered purchasing was adjacent to a beach with potential historical First Nations significance. We obtained expert reviews to confirm that the site was in fact not historically significant. My client now has peace of mind that any future redevelopment or continued beach access won't be hindered by archeological considerations. 

As with all property purchases, it pays to do your homework, and work with a Realtor who has your best interests in mind. 

Island house cropped.jpg

*(courtesy of Jurock's Facts by Email (Aug 2015), with updates and new addditions.)