Sprinkled among modern homes next to the many waterfronts in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington, 60- to 80-year-old lake cabins remain true to their rustic roots: summer family retreats passed down through multiple generations.
Ask those families today, and they’ll share decades of memories — fishing, boating and bonding near water’s edge — but hanging on isn’t easy. With high and rising property taxes, and dynamics among a growing number of family members, keeping the “lake place” has its unusual challenges.
For the Ewing family, heirlooms trace adventures among relatives for more than 80 years in closely tucked cabins on Newman Lake, a few miles east of Spokane. Jim Ewing, 75, said four original small cabins were built around the mid-1930s by his grandparents and other distant relatives.
“My mom was probably a teenager when these four cabins were built,” said Ewing, showing the property with wife Patty Ewing, 69. “When I was a kid, we were here every day during the summer.”
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Ewing has a 1934 legal document showing a $275 sale of the original lot to four couples, with one being Ewing’s grandparents, James and Florence Wilbert, the parents of his mother, Wanda.
The cabins don’t have insulated walls and still aren’t livable quarters during winter, said Patty Ewing, a point she’s had to argue to county officials when the properties were accidentally valued as year-round residences, not the seasonal places they are.
“We’re trying to keep the taxes down so the kids can afford it,” she said. “We do very little changes, just enough to maintain. It’s been paid for for years.”
In the 1940s, two other small cabins nearby came into the family, so today all six are shared among parents, siblings, an aunt, and distant cousins.
“They’re my lake family,” said Eric Ewing, 47, Jim and Patty’s son. “We’re really close with them Memorial Day through Labor Day, then we rarely see them the rest of the year.”
He frequently brings out his four kids, ages 12 to 17, the fifth Wilbert-Ewing generation. He shares use of one of the cabins with his sister.
Over in Idaho, next to Lake Coeur d’Alene, a simple cinder-block summer house sits near Rockford Bay, not far from the mansions at the Black Rock development.
Anne Stedman, 49, describes the “Frank Lloyd Wright-ish” cottage as her happy place. Built in 1951 by grandparents Ronald and Gigi Robertson, the cabin drew family together for Stedman’s childhood summers spent with her mother Marcia Bragg and aunt Janice Schock, three siblings and four cousins.
“We’d hang out there for two months when we were out of school, looking for snipe in the field, playing kick-the-can, spitting watermelon seeds at each other,” Stedman said.
“We went water-skiing, swam, fished, pretty much everything. We had a canoe, paddleboats. Back in the day, we had a little runabout fishing boat.”
When she was growing up, the boys slept in a teepee near the shore. “There were always adventures of skunks or porcupine coming in. My kids still sleep in the teepee.”
Today, a total of three cabins owned by family members sit on the property, one a summer home built about 1964 that her aunt and uncle bought and another cabin her parents acquired around 1994. All family members try to stay at the lake for at least a week each summer, Stedman said.
Stedman has brought her children now ages 15, 17, and 19 for vacations in the original cottage, trading off its use with siblings and cousins. She said six of the Robertson grandchildren, including herself, now jointly own the original home under a limited-liability partnership.
“Everyone was given an option in terms of if the property were ever to sell, you basically have paid in and created shares toward ownership if you stay involved. If you don’t, then your participation and whatever proceeds come from a sale would be less.”
But she thinks memories and emotional ties will keep it in the family.
Modern challenges are figuring out any improvements agreed upon by all parties, arrangements for spring and winter preparations, and how far-flung family can keep coming. Then there are property taxes.
“It’s not cheap,” Stedman said. “We live right next to Black Rock development. I think property taxes are about $10,000 to $12,000; that’s just for one home and it is a seasonal cabin.”
Hundreds of families with longtime cabins at Priest Lake have faced another challenge: Trying to acquire properties that generations have leased for decades through the state of Idaho, said Denny Christenson, 74. He’s a longtime lake house owner.
Beginning in 2010, the Idaho Department of Lands decided to auction large batches of those lakefront lots previously leased to families who had built cabins on them. Many lessees so far have chosen to enter bids.
“There were 354 leased lots at Priest Lake,” although only about 160 have gone through the process, said Christenson, who also served on a lessee association when the process began.
Leading up to that process, appraised values around 2006 started escalating rapidly, and lease amounts were tied to lot values, he said. “As values went up, leases went up. People were finding that they could no longer either afford or justify leasing, but they could possibly justify purchasing.”
While debates raged about appraised lot values, auctions so far have been mostly successful and more are scheduled through the end of 2018. He and his wife, along with their son and daughter-in-law, have had a Priest Lake cabin for 26 years and successfully bid on and kept their summer place.
About three or four former lease holders so far didn’t have favorable bid outcomes, Christenson said.
“There have been maybe another dozen since 2014 where lessees chose not to lease any longer and turn their cabin and lot back to the state.”
Among families experiencing bid results that didn’t go well, one included a cabin worth about $40,000 that also had one of the most beautiful lake sites, he said. It got pushed to a $1.1 million price with a competitive bidder, and the original lease holder lost out.
“In each of those cases, the people have been out there for generations, so it’s very hurtful for them to lose their family summer getaway that they had for years and years,” he said. “However, to have only three or four that have not gone favorably is pretty remarkable.”
Christenson argues that rising county appraisals of lots continue to be an issue, and he contends that in most cases, the county’s assessed values far exceed fair market values. But he said his family is thankful to remain, and they enjoy the family-oriented atmosphere at the lake.
“My granddaughters were up there seasonally most summers,” he said. “We know our neighbors up there probably better than our neighbors in town.”
On Lake Coeur d’Alene, Stedman recently opened up the cinder-block home for a daughter and her friends after high school graduations. Stedman fondly recalls her summer days as a youth.
Often, 16 family members would stay in the original cottage and teepee. Photos of cousins grouped together at different ages line the walls.
“We used to love going to Thirsty Beach,” said Stedman, also remembering picnic lunches. “We’d go on trips up the St. Joe and go water-skiing and swing off the rope.”
The cottage’s LLC arrangement has worked, she said. Her parents as well as her aunt and uncle are in their 80s and still stay occasionally. Their lake places have passed into different family ownership arrangements as well. The overall property has shared wells, docks and boats.
“As time goes on, joint ownership gets more and more complicated,” Stedman said. “Everyone has to decide whether or not it’s worth it for them. For people who live far away or maybe don’t have the income to support it, it would be hard. You could do a Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) for less money.”
“A lot of the reason that anybody is staying is the emotional impact, because of our history there, and it’s an awesome gathering place for the cousins. Ours is that the majority has to want to sell. Actually, I want to say it’s kind of impossible for the property to be sold unless all but one person agrees.”
Bigger issues can rise from spreading chores equitably, and making improvements decisions that involve six people agreeing on such things as new carpet or couches.
“It’s those logistics, and who wants to spend what time up there,” she said. “It gets complicated for sure.”
But family members have wanted to carry on, she said, while also making it a priority to spend time together at the lake.
“It’s the family gathering place; it’s the intangibles,” Stedman said. “It’s also such a beautiful place, but it comes with a set of challenges.”
Keeping the cabin
▪ Think of it as a business or a timeshare. Get a legal partnership arrangement drawn up by a real estate lawyer.
▪ Determine a funding device. An attorney can help people who are deeding a property to set up a trust account or savings account that pays a majority of costs for care, maintenance and other expenses. It could easily cost $10,000 to $20,000 a year to keep up a lake home.
▪ Consider a timeshare stay scenario as the number of family members grow. This can break down into weeks divided by family members, determined by a draw of straws or however parties want to agree on dates or changes in the calendar.
▪ Agree to strict maintenance and use. Who is allowed to use it? Can you invite guests? Can you rent if you don’t use your weeks? What if someone gets divorced?
▪ Talk to a tax attorney about an option allowed under IRS rules for parents gifting interest in a property by a percentage to next generations as inheritance, perhaps over eight to 10 years. This type of allowance doesn’t trigger capital gains taxes.
▪ Outline a clear exit strategy in any partnership agreement. Make it clear what would happen if one person wants out. Otherwise, matters could end up in court and fray family relationships.
▪ Have a conversation among parents and adult children before taking steps.
Bill Fanning, real estate broker, Spokane