Cabins in Lake Tahoe: Forest Service VS Residential

front from dock echo lake cabin
Cabin on Lower Echo Lake

We receive phone calls and emails often from Lake Tahoe home buyers looking to purchase a cabin in the mountains. The word “cabin” means different things to different people, from small ones made of logs and in the middle of nowhere, to a large modern chalet next to the ski resorts. Some buyers are intrigued when looking at Lake Tahoe real estate when they see US Forest Service cabins for sale, and their low price is very enticing. But how do they compare to non-USFS cabins and what are the special restrictions that come with them?

Owning a Forest Service Cabin

Lake Tahoe Forest Service cabins provide owners with unique opportunities.  You enjoy undeveloped areas with rustic and natural surroundings and they fit the true meaning of “Getting away from it all.” As you search Lake Tahoe homes for sale, perhaps you’d like to know more about USFS cabin opportunities. Often asked questions and answers:

1)  Do you own the land when you purchase a US Forest Service Cabin?

You do not own the land.  It sells with a Bill of Sale like personal property. You then lease the property from the Forest Service and you have a special use permit to use the cabin.

2)  Can I get a loan to purchase one of these cabins?

Conventional financing is not available to purchase them.  Some home buyers will refinance their primary or other properties they own or use a line of credit. It is common for cabin owners to provide seller financing for a new buyer.

3)  How does the IRS recognize a Forest Service cabin?

They are a Capital Asset much like a car or boat.

4)  How much are property taxes?

Owners pay the county 1.25% of the purchase price.

5)  What does the Forest Service get?

They receive the lease income. Depending on the area there may be Homeowner’s Association dues as well.

6)  Do I need to have Property Insurance?

Yes. You need to have insurance for the structure, personal property, and personal liability.

7)  Can I use my cabin in winter?

Yes, you can, prepare for the elements.  It can be an adventure with you snowshoeing or skiing to the cabin!  Water is disconnected most of the time to prevent freezing in the winter, and normally the roads are not plowed.  Find a safe place to park your vehicle away from Cal Trans plowing areas or your car could be towed, ticketed or even buried!

8)  What dates do I have access to the cabin?

The typical season is Mother’s Day in May to Halloween in October. Times are subject to change due to weather and temperatures. Cabins under 4,000 feet elevation may have a longer season, but these aren’t in Lake Tahoe since our lowest elevation is over 6,000 feet.

9)  How long does my lease last?

Currently, the Highway 50 corridor cabins have 20-year leases and everyone is on the same schedule. Some cabins have conditional permits until they meet certain criteria. When the 20-year lease is expired, the vast majority are auto-renewed by the US Forest Service. The main reasons for a permit NOT being renewed are if the property has major safety or structural issues that have not been addressed by the permit holder after repeated notices, or for severely delinquent permit fees.

10) How much does a lease cost?

Annual fees range from $400 to $3,500 or more based on the appraised value. The value appraises about every ten years. For most of the cabins, this annual fee will be LESS than what you would pay in property taxes if you owned the land under the cabin.

11) How much are the Escrow fees to transfer ownership?

Fees are about $400 for each the Buyer and the Seller plus an additional $50 for each UCC Name Search through the Secretary of State.

12) How can you get more information?

We are always available at 530-541-2465 and the US Forest Service Ranger office at 530-647-5354. We recommend you read the Recreation Residence Program info sheet, the USFS Guide to Maintaining your Cabin, and other info at USFS El Dorado Forest Recreational Residence page.

Where to Find Forest Service Cabins in Lake Tahoe

perched on a rock echo lake cabin
Lake-front Cabin

There are a total of 975 cabins in the El Dorado National Forest with over 15,000 in the whole country. There are currently a couple for sale in South Lake Tahoe and others located west of the lake off Hwy 50 in the Strawberry area.

Many of the South Lake Tahoe area cabins are found in Christmas Valley along the historic Hawley Grade as well as around Echo Summit and Echo Lake.

You have plenty of options available to choose from.  Some cabins in Lake Tahoe are privately owned and don’t have the same restrictions and rules as US Forest Service cabins.

How to Know If a USFS Cabin is the Right Choice?

living dining 2 echo lake cabin
Interior of Cabin at Echo Lake

If you are looking for an inexpensive way to have a vacation property your family and friends can use, then a USFS Cabin may be the right choice. Some people love the feeling of being in an old cabin in the forest, and also enjoy hiking through the snow in the winter to access their cabin. Many USFS Cabins are passed down within the family. We know of some that have been in the same family for almost 100 years.

The cabins at Echo Lakes are almost always passed down within a family or only sold to other cabin owners. Located surrounding the shoreline of Lower and Upper Echo Lakes, the cabins range from older “historical” interiors to completely modern and updated. Access is by boat from the local marina or on the hiking trail, which gives the cabins a lot of privacy and security. These rarely come on the open market for sale. So when one does come up you will want to act quickly. CLICK HERE to view an Echo Lake cabin along with a drone video of the area.

But if you don’t really think hiking through a couple feet of snow sounds like fun, and you want to use your Tahoe property during the winter months, maybe a USFS Cabin isn’t the right choice. Or if you want to be able to rent out the property when you aren’t using it, you should steer away from USFS Cabins and take a look at the other available cabins not on USFS land. You will usually pay a little more than you would for a USFS Cabin, but would have access year-round.

The main reason most people purchase a regular Residential Cabin and not a USFS Cabin is due to the fact that you can’t get a mortgage on a USFS Cabin. So unless you have the cash for the purchase, or can get a private loan, you may not be able to purchase a USFS Cabin.

Ready to Buy a Cabin in Lake Tahoe?

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