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Lake cabins stay within families, thanks to emotional ties

Brothers Zach and Drew Ewing fish from their

Brothers Zach and Drew Ewing fish from their family's dock on Newman Lake, in Washington state. Credit: TNS / Kathy Plonka

Sprinkled among modern homes next to Washington state’s many waterfronts, 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 Newman Lake cabins near Hampton Bay. Jim Ewing, 75, said four original small cabins were built around the mid-1930s by his grandparents and other distant relatives.

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.

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 his wife 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 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 went water-skiing, swam, fished, pretty much everything. We had a canoe, paddleboats. Back in the day, we had a little runabout fishing boat,” Stedman said.

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.

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.”

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.”

The Ewings have long-term plans to keep the Newman Lake cabins, while thinking of the kids. Jim Ewing doesn’t think he’d be as close to extended relatives without all their summers at the lake.

“It really brings a closeness,” Ewing said. “If it weren’t for the cabins, a lot of relatives I would probably only see at weddings and funerals.”

Keeping the family lake cabin

Bill Fanning, broker at Century 21 Beutler Waterfront, has seen generational family cabin arrangements fall apart far more often than they’ve worked after decades in real estate.

However, here are some of his tips of what he’s seen that work:

  • 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.
  • 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. Fanning said this should drill down: 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.
  • Outline a clear exit strategy in any partnership agreement.
  • Have a conversation among parents and adult children before taking steps.

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