What to know about buying waterfront property

Alex and Wendy Haig enjoy their front lawn's view, which faces the Chesapeake Bay.
Alex and Wendy Haig enjoy their front lawn's view, which faces the Chesapeake Bay. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)
With the promise of sweet bay breezes and lazy afternoon boat rides, the lure of owning a piece of Maryland waterfront can be strong.
But making waterfront dreams a reality can be a complicated process. Smart decisions about waterfront purchases require specialized knowledge of the legal and logistical landscape — and a lot of patience.
The first step of the process should be a thoughtful evaluation of why you want to buy waterfront, says Jean Andrews of Champion Realty Inc. in Severna Park. “Is it a big view and the therapeutic advantages of the water? Maybe then you don’t need waterfront and the baggage that goes with it. But if it’s recreation — if you want a pier and a boat lift — you need to pay attention to other things.”
Those considerations include where the water is located — in a protected area, such as a river or creek, versus open water on the bay or ocean — as well as the depth of the water and whether a pier exists or can be built.
Buyers looking at property without piers should not assume they can build one, warns Cathy Purple Cherry, owner of Annapolis-based Purple Cherry Architects, who says that setbacks related to existing piers on neighboring properties may limit building opportunities.
Waterfront building and maintenance is influenced by federal, state and county laws, not to mention additional community regulations.
“The critical area law, which is a Maryland law, governs the amount of development, the lot coverage and the proximity of structures to the water’s edge,” explains Cherry. “From the waterline out, it’s the state’s regulations. From the water in, it’s the county’s.”
Cherry also notes that FEMA regulates property that exists in flood zones, which will include low-lying lands on the water.
“With a lot of older communities, you don’t own the waterfront,” adds Andrews. She suggests that buyers specifically ask whether a piece of property has “water rights.”
These layers of laws can make building or renovating a complicated process, even if the project involves an existing structure. “A lot of cottages built 50 or 60 years ago have a first finished floor below the flood plain,” says Cherry. “It really restricts what you can do.” Major renovations are sometimes only approved if the homeowner agrees to lift the entire house.
If you plan to build, do a feasibility study before finalizing the property purchase, suggests Andrews. Debbie Houck, broker/owner of Grasonville-based Exit Gold Realty, also adds that because many waterfront properties are on septic systems, “pick and shovel” tests, which evaluate the system’s performance, should be conducted.
Prospective buyers should also know that waterfront property maintenance can include numerous costs not associated with regular property, including erosion control, pier maintenance, increased storm cleanup and flood insurance.
But ultimately, when the breeze rolls in off the bay as you prep your boat for an evening sail, the challenges of the purchase process might all seem worth it.

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