What Makes a Dwelling a Cabin or a Summer Home?

Real Estate Broker/Owner with Madeline Island Realty 50317-90


What Makes a Dwelling a Cabin or a Summer Home?


The distinction between a "cabin" (or "cottage") and a summer home or vacation home is often misunderstood by prospective buyers.  I've even noticed that some real estate agents make the same mistake when describing a dwelling.

In our Madeline Island community, the percentage of year-round dwellings is increasing, particularly as a result of zoning regulations which require that new dwellings conform to the Wisconsin Uniform Building Code.  A new construction home on Madeline Island must meet certain criteria.  Manufactured doors and windows must be used, and the R-value of walls, windows and roofs must meet minimum standards.  A new dwelling must have a central heating plant.  There are published standards for air infiltration and heat loss.  Building permits and inspections are required.

The words "cabin" and "cottage" imply a dwelling that is small and cozy, maybe somewhat rustic.  Log cabins and one or two-room structures come to mind.

Here are the primary differences between cabins and homes:

  • Cabins and cottages are designed for seasonal use, not as year round dwellings.
  • A true "cabin" is usually not adaptible to year round use without significant alterations to the structure (adding a furnance or upgrading doors, windows, improving wall and ceiling insulation) 
  • Most cabins in our part of the country are winterized in late autumn and are shut in for the winter months.

The following are typically found in a true year-round vacation home (at least in the Upper Midwest):

  • The dwelling in question is designed for year round use.
  • The dwelling can be kept heated and habitable twelve months per year.
  • The dwelling may or may not be winterized during winter months.


The above distinctions become a bit blurred when one is looking at a structure that is seventy-five years old or more.  An historic six thousand square foot Victorian-style dwelling may not have a central heating plant, but I have trouble calling it a "cabin" or a "summer cottage".


[Below is an example of a year-round log home that looks like a "cabin", but is actually a three-bedroom, two bath vacation home on Madeline Island.  It has in-floor heat, manufactured doors and windows, modern appliances (glass-top range, microwave, dishwasher) and main floor laundry/pantry area.]







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Leslie G. Rojohn
MoonDancer Realty - Sylva, NC
GRI, ABR ~ MoonDancer Realty

I have never heard of such a definition of cabin.  Here in the mountains of North Carolina a cabin is more often than not a year round dwelling, meeting all your criteria for year round. A typical log cabin is very well insulated and most often has a wood burning stove or propane heat that is more than sufficient for winter heating.  I don't understand why a vacation home would be designed for year round use. Whereas a cabin often is.

Sep 25, 2011 06:06 AM #1
Eric Kodner
Madeline Island Realty - La Pointe, WI
CRS, Madeline Island Realty, LaPointe, WI 54850 -

Leslie - The definition of a cabin may be more a matter of geography than an absolute distinction.  In the upper Midwest, where winters are colder and snowier than in North Carolina, a wood stove would probably not be sufficient to make a home habitable throughout the winter months.  And in cold climates, a different standard of construction is usually required in order to meet state building codes.

I'm not knocking cabins.  I agree with you that a cabin can serve as a year-round dwelling in a warmer climate.  But in our particular sales area, the word "cabin" generally implies something less than the term "home".  I want to help our clients and customers understand the difference as it applies to our unique Upper Midwest market.

Sep 25, 2011 06:35 AM #2
Li Read
Sea to Sky Premier Properties (Salt Spring) - Salt Spring Island, BC
Caring expertise...knowledge for you!

Even though we don't get "real winter", such as you enjoy, your descriptions sum up these important distinctions!

Sep 25, 2011 06:56 AM #3
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Eric Kodner

CRS, Madeline Island Realty, LaPointe, WI 54850 -
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