Think c-c-cold if buying a winter getaway

Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

Maybe it was that ski trip in the mountains last year. Or maybe you re-read Thoreau and decided it was time to live in the woods for a while.

Whatever form your call of the wild takes, anyone shopping for a winter getaway should be aware of the hassle factors and practical considerations of buying, owning and renting out their refuge, say real estate experts and longtime owners.

Potential buyers ought to consider several aspects of a home's location and construction before buying, said Mike Riley, Realtor associate at Coldwell Banker Sky Ridge Realty in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

All mountain and lake areas have their own mini-climates, Riley said. Buyers should know that dense forest areas and shadowy sides of a mountain will collect and retain more snow than houses in clearings or sunnier areas, Riley said.

The direction a house faces can be important. "With a north-facing house, the snow will take longer to melt than with a south-facing house," Riley said.

The view can make a big difference. View houses and houses close to skiing command more money from renters.

Sandi Migliazza, who owns a house in Lake Arrowhead, said that being able to see the lake from her house made her want to buy it. In Lake Arrowhead, a three- to four-bedroom house with a view can fetch at least $100 more per weekend in rent than a comparable house without a view.

But Realtor Mike Willett of Tahoe City, Calif., said that buyers need to be wary of "view houses" that are at the top of steep roads because they can be treacherous during snowstorms. Houses that have steep driveways or long staircases can pose the same problem.

Buyers also need to be sure the house has a reliable source of heat and good insulation, said Mark McClean, owner of McClean Team GMAC in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. "It may not have been used as a winter home before, so it may only have a wood-burning stove or baseboard electric heating."

And roofs should be thoroughly inspected to make sure that they are designed to shed the snow quickly.

The cost to maintain a house in a harsh climate, including snow removal, heating and general upkeep, can be considerable. Before buying, it's wise to find out how much removal the town provides and how much homeowners are expected to do, Riley said.

But even if the town provides the plowing, most homeowners with driveways need to contract with local services to make sure they can get out of their garage after a big storm. Local contractors in Mammoth Lakes charge by the season, and fees run from about $250 to $300. Homeowners also need to know where the water shut-off valves are placed and must be vigilant about turning off the water and draining the pipes if they plan to shut off the heat while they're gone, Riley said.

Local caretakers can be hired to turn off the water and check the house while the owner is gone. Costs start at about $50 a month but can vary widely depending on the services.

Owners who rent out homes through management companies may have those services provided for them, but a company typically takes a 20 percent to 40 percent commission.

Mountain and lake homes generally require more upkeep than homes in areas where the weather is less severe. Prolonged snowy periods and windy climates cause paint to peel and wood to crack.

Migliazza said that she and her husband paint the decks every year, a project that would cost at least $400 per deck if they hired someone. She also had to replace two 10-year-old decks and a staircase last year at a cost of $12,000.

Snow piling up on decks can also cause low-quality doors to rot, as Betsy Thumann, a Mammoth Lakes homeowner, found out. She replaced the French doors on her four decks after 11 years and now hires workers to shovel the decks at $25 per person per hour.

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