4 Questions to Ask When Buying Waterfront Property 
For many potential homebuyers, it would be a dream come true to purchase a waterfront home. A body of water can provide peace, tranquility, and other benefits that an urban or suburban setting does not. However, certain rules, regulations, and laws govern owning a waterfront property, which are important to know before making such a large purchase. Here are some essential questions to ask before buying that dream waterfront house.
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What Are the Boundaries of My Waterfront Ownership?
Property boundaries can depend on what body of water the home is next to. There are two different sets of property rights to know about: Littoral rights and riparian rights.
Littoral rights affect properties that border the ocean, a bay, or a large lake. In these cases, the owner's property boundary extends to the average high water mark. The land below the average high water mark is owned by the state or federal government.
Riparian rights affect properties that are adjacent to rivers or streams. It's important to note that all 50 states have different laws when it comes to riparian rights. Be sure to get state-specific answers on riparian rights from your realtor or an attorney before buying a waterfront property. In general, however, riparian rights are determined based on whether the river is navigable or non-navigable. If it is a navigable river, the owner's property boundary will be at the average high water mark. The state owns the land below the average high water mark and the land underneath the river. If the river is non-navigable, then the property owner's boundary extends to the centerline in the middle of the river.
Has the Home Flooded Before?
Knowing whether a home has flooded before can be a vital factor in deciding to purchase it. Most homeowners insurance policies do not cover flood damage, so the owner of a waterfront property may need to add a flood insurance rider to their policy. But how does one determine the level of flood risk for a home?
One easy way is to utilize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood map for the United States. Search for a specific property address, and the site displays the annual flood risk for that particular property. FEMA also provides a glossary of flood terms to help decipher the map.
Knowing what flood zone a property is in, which is information that a real estate agent should be able to provide, is also essential. Flood zones are determined by the annual risk of a given property flooding and are used to set flood insurance rates. Flood zones are listed alphabetically. For example, Zone A is a high-risk flood zone in a non-coastal area, Zone B is a moderate-risk flood zone, Zone C is a minimal-risk flood zone, and Zone V is a high-risk coastal flood zone.
What is the Water Quality Like?
Part of the appeal of owning waterfront property is enjoying easy access to recreation on or in the water. People who own waterfront homes want to be able to swim, fish, jet-ski, boat, or engage in other water recreation activities. Water quality, especially when it comes to lakefront (and sometimes oceanfront) properties, becomes extremely important in this context. Poor water quality can impact whether or not homeowners can swim or fish in the water.
State agencies, local municipalities, or lake associations typically test bodies of water to determine safety levels, chemical levels, potential hazards, and whether the water is safe to be in or on. Water samples will be drawn at specific times of the year and sent to a state lab for testing. Tests look for alkalinity, nitrates, phosphorous, dissolved oxygen, pollutants, and even bacterial risks, like total coliform levels and the presence of E. coli.
If a homebuyer simply wants to buy a home in a neighborhood with amazing water views and to hear the sound of waves lapping on the shore, water quality may not be an issue. But for homeowners who plan to use the water for recreation, water quality can significantly impact their decision to buy.
Can I Build a Dock on the Property?
The rules, regulations, and laws governing whether a dock can be built on waterfront property vary from state to state. No matter what state the home is in, at least one building permit will generally be required. In some states—and depending on the type of body of water—multiple permits may be required. This could include permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, one or more state agencies, the county, the city, and a homeowners association (six or more permits). As an example of the variation, North Carolina only requires a single permit to build a dock on waterfront property, while neighboring Georgia requires three permits.
The reason for the permit(s) has to do with littoral and riparian rights, as discussed above. In most cases, the land beneath a body of water is owned by the federal or state government. Going through the permitting process involves asking the state government for permission to build a structure on state-owned land. The homeowner may need to obtain a lease or an easement from the government in order to build the dock.
If building a dock on a piece of property is not allowed, that should be weighed by the potential homebuyer when making a purchase decision, as many buyers consider it one of their essential waterfront home purchases.
Waterfront Homes: Added Value & Added Responsibilities
Waterfront homes are such valuable properties because of the views they provide the homeowner and the easy access to recreational activities. But with that added value come additional responsibilities in terms of rules and regulations. Before purchasing a waterfront home, potential homebuyers should seek the answers to these questions and take them into consideration to get the most enjoyment from their new property.