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What to Know Before Buying a Waterfront Property


Photograph of a boat dock on a lack with pine trees in the background

Waterfront properties are often considered the pinnacle of real estate ambitions, offering breathtaking views, direct access to water bodies, and a unique lifestyle that many dream about. However, purchasing a waterfront property comes with its own set of considerations that are different from buying a typical residential home or a piece of land.


Prospective buyers should be aware of aspects such as the property's flood risk, which could affect insurance costs and resale value. It's also important to understand the rights and responsibilities that come with waterfront ownership, including maintenance of the shoreline and access rights for public waters. Additionally, assessing the structural integrity of a property facing constant exposure to moisture and potentially harsh weather conditions is crucial. Due diligence, including a thorough inspection and understanding local zoning laws, can help ensure that your waterfront property remains a serene retreat rather than a source of unexpected complications.



Understand Shoreline Permits

Next, make sure to know the difference between a waterfront property and a property with water views or water access or having water privilege. A property with just water views will not be on water like a waterfront property would be. Having water access means that you will just be able to go to the water either from your property or a community-owned property. If the property has water privileges this means that the property is not waterfront, nor does it have views but you can go to the water from a community-owned property or an easement. Therefore, even if you cannot see the water or the home is not on the water you can still have access to a beach or dock through water access or privilege.  


Docks, boathouses, and similar waterfront enhancements often fall under a complex web of regulations. Neglecting to research these specific rules can lead to costly or regrettable outcomes. Homeowners looking to construct, renovate, or mend shoreline structures extending into the water typically require a permit. In highly regulated zones, obtaining this permit necessitates navigating through a series of approval layers, including local city guidelines, county waterfront plans, state regulations, and even the mandates of the Army Corps of Engineers at the federal level.


  • If there are existing structures on the property, make sure that those structures are permitted correctly. Never assume that they're legally constructed or that you'll automatically be allowed to use them.

  • Check that any existing structures can be repaired, as there are typically many rules and regulations surrounding how you can repair waterfront features.

  • Constructing new structures, such as docks or boathouses, usually have strict permitting guidelines. Before purchasing a waterfront property that you'd like to build on, be sure to evaluate whether or not this is allowed.


Bulkheads and Seawalls

In regards to safety, is is important to examine the seawall or bulkhead on the property. Most waterfront properties that are on the ocean have either a seawall or a bulkhead to protect structures and homes from any damage. These can be large stones, logs, concrete slabs, or a combination of different materials. Inspecting these structures with a specialist before making a purchase is crucial. It is also important to note that the possibility of constructing or repairing a bulkhead according to your preferences might be limited by the regulatory bodies involved.


Similarly, for features that project into the water, understanding your options for maintaining and enhancing your shoreline defenses is crucial before making a purchase.It is important to check whether or not the shoreline has been receding in recent years. Sometimes, natural beaches need to be supplemented with new materials due to natural erosion. Enhancing natural shorelines also comes with a host of rules and regulations that you should be aware of. Neighbors can provide input, but you can also research local geological surveys to determine if this is necessary.


Water and Sewer

Some waterfront property owners irrigate their properties directly from a lake. Others are restricted from it. Some waterfront homes are connected to a city sewer system. Others have on-site sewage systems, and some properties don't have sewage systems at all.


If you own waterfront property with an on-site septic system, understanding its condition is crucial. Equally important is understanding the regulations surrounding its repair and upgrade. Depending on local laws, enhancing a septic system can be a significant financial undertaking due to the requirements for newer materials. Given the potential environmental impact of a sewage system on waterfront locales, there are unique regulatory considerations. Moreover, the positioning and size of your septic drain field might necessitate relocation based on its current placement on your property.


Condition and Weathering of Structures

The durability of materials used in waterfront homes greatly depends on their location. Saltwater locations experience accelerated degradation due to the saltwater exposure. This harsh environment causes siding, roofs, and fences to deteriorate much quicker than those in inland areas.


Properties near freshwater sources are not spared from the elements. The action of wind, waves, and storms on homes situated by lakes or rivers necessitates frequent maintenance and replacement of materials. In contrast to homes well away from the water's edge, those on the waterfront demand more vigilant care to withstand the relentless wear and tear from their natural surroundings.


Flood Risk and Flood Insurance

Is your waterfront property in a flood zone? Do you have flood insurance in case of a flood? Flood damage is not typically covered by a homeowners insurance policy. Flood insurance is available through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance program, and you can find out what your flood risk is by going to the One-Step Flood Risk Profile


Waterfront properties have great susceptibility to weather-related issues from high tides, tsunamis, and swells that can cause floods and damage homes, neighborhoods, and sometimes even entire cities. Similarly, rivers can swell and swamp lowland areas. It’s important to be fully aware of the potential of negative flood-related issues that can arise on waterfront property and assess your need for flood insurance.


You can assess your property's environmental risk for various events by getting a free property report on LandGate's map:



Water Access

Owning a waterfront property doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be able to use the water or lease the property for recreational activities. It’s important to do a water analysis test to ensure that it is safe for swimming and any other water activities. Depending on your plans for the waterfront property, it is important to evaluate if/ where fishing is allowed, if boats are restricted, if there are restricted hours for watercraft use, and if the waterfront is shared with other property owners. You can find many of these answers in the local community by utilizing local websites, news, community centers, or simply talking to the neighbors.


How to Buy a Waterfront Property

When purchasing any type of property, it is recommended to consult with a local real estate agent that is experienced in waterfront properties. Purchasing waterfront properties comes with many unique considerations and stipulations that a real estate agent can help you manage to ensure that you are investing in a property that fits your wants and needs.


Interested in purchasing a waterfront property? LandGate's open marketplace hosts waterfront properties for sale across the country. Viewing listings is free, and each listing is enhanced with LandGate's proprietary property data to help you conduct due diligence and start your search in the most effective way possible.



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