How to Choose a Waterfront Property

Evaluate your lifestyle and needs to find that perfect place by the water.

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With any home purchase, it’s important to figure out exactly what you want and need in a home to make smart decisions. But a waterfront home is not just any home. Special considerations need to be taken to ensure that your property will suit your lifestyle and let you enjoy the activities you love. Use this primer to help you get on the right track to buying your dream waterfront home.

Step 1: Determining Your Needs

“This is probably the most critical part of looking for waterfront property,” says Ramara Garrett, owner of Waverly Property Group in Daytona Beach, Fla.

When potential waterfront homebuyers come to Garrett, the first step she takes is finding out how they want to use the property. “The most important thing is determining what their passions are, what they care about, and what their priorities are when it comes to waterfront living,” Garrett says. “From there, we can figure out what area they need to be in and focus in on specific properties.”

Start by asking yourself some questions to get a feel for your expectations of a waterfront property:

What types of activities do you enjoy?

This is a huge factor in choosing a waterfront property because you’ll want to choose a property that makes it easy for you to enjoy your favorite pastimes.

  • Boating. For avid boaters, the size of the boat becomes a crucial part of finding a waterfront property. “There are a lot of properties that you can’t put a large boat behind, or accessing that property is not feasible because of the river depth, oyster beds or tides,” Garrett says.
  • Fishing. Fishermen will want to stick to properties with easy access to the water. For a wider variety of fish, buyers should also look for deep bodies of water that support cold water fisheries.
  • Kayaking or canoeing. While large, active bodies of water are a good fit for many boaters, some buyers may be looking for a more intimate waterfront experience. “If they want to go kayaking and canoeing and commune with nature, they would hate being on a big, busy lake with jet skis and all that stuff,” says Tom Ferent, broker of Mr. Lakefront, which specializes in lakefront properties in Maine.

How often do you plan to be there?

Some properties aren’t meant for year-round use. In rural Maine, for instance, seasonal homes called “camps” are great from mid-spring to mid-fall, but often lack proper insulation, central heat or a year-round water source, making them unsuitable for winter use.

In Florida, Garrett finds that most buyers looking for a seasonal home prefer oceanfront homes over intercoastal homes. “It’s something they can bring their family to and enjoy as a family getaway,” Garrett says.

What other lifestyle needs do you have?

Besides allowing you to enjoy the activities you love, your waterfront property should meet any other needs you have as well. If you have medical needs, be sure your property is convenient to a hospital. If you travel often on business, limit your search to properties within an hour of an airport. This is a good way for families to find compromise: if one person loves the lake and another loves the ocean, buying a lakefront property near the ocean will make everyone happy.

Step 2: Scoping Out Properties

As with any other real estate purchase, the old adage holds true: location, location, location. After determining your needs in a waterfront home, it’s important to visit different areas and see what feels right to you.

“As much as owning a waterfront home is great, you’re still in a community, and you have to love the community as well,” Garrett says.

Once you focus on an area and start looking at specific properties, the most important thing to remember is to put your emphasis on the property rather than the house.

“If you’re buying a normal house, the real value is in the house, not the land,” Garrett says. “With waterfront properties, almost your entire value is in the land.”

Not all waterfront properties are equal; certain attributes make some waterfront properties more valuable than others. When helping clients shop for lakefront homes in Maine, Ferent ranks properties on a 50-point scale, giving a maximum 10-point value to each of five attributes he considers most important in lakefront homes:

  1. Sandy beach. A sandy beach equals a more pleasant lakefront experience for the whole family. “If they have young kids in the family, they want the toddlers playing in the sand,” Ferent says. “If they have seniors in the family, it’s easier to enter the water.” This is a rare quality of lakefront properties in Maine, making it especially valuable.
  2. View. This attribute lets you enjoy your waterfront property as you get older and become less active in the water. “It’s sure nice to be able to sit back in an Adirondack chair with a beer and look at the setting sun over the mountains,” Ferent says.
  3. Level lot. The flatter the lot the better; it makes access to the water easier. “Some lakefront lots are steep, and as we get older, it gets difficult to get up and down to the lake," Ferent says, "All of a sudden they don’t want to go to the lake anymore because it’s difficult for them to get down to the water.”
  4. Proximity to water. Since 1990, all waterfront properties in Maine must be built at least 100 feet from the water, but homes that are closer to the water allow you to be closer to wildlife and to keep an eye on your kids from your home.
  5. Privacy. This often corresponds to the amount of lake frontage the property has. Some lakefront properties have as little as 50 feet of frontage, which offer very little privacy. “One hundred feet starts to give you some privacy, while 150-200 feet gives you wonderful privacy from your neighbors,” Ferent says.

Very few properties earn a perfect score on the scale, Ferent says, but homebuyers should seriously consider properties that rank high in these five attributes.

Depending on the area and the type of waterfront property you buy, other issues will present themselves in your search. In rural areas, for instance, you’ll have to make sure you have access to utilities, roads and an adequate septic system. Don’t just assume these things will be available. For oceanfront properties, it’s often best to buy a property that already has a seawall and a dock, as obtaining permission to build these structures can be difficult.

With all of the considerations that go into buying a waterfront home, having a real estate agent who specializes in waterfront properties in your area is crucial. Your agent can help you sort through the complex issues and get you on the right track to finding the right waterfront home.

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