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Realities of Real Estate: For sale, for sail? Homes and water access

In this area, the relationship of a property with water (meaning the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries) has a lot to do with its value. An old shack inland might be worth next to nothing, whereas the same house on the water might morph into a million-dollar estate. In short, there is little in real estate that can have more impact on the price of a house than the ability to access, use or simply look out upon the water. Nevertheless, water features are one of the most confused and abused aspects of local real estate.

So, what constitutes a property that has the added benefit of our beautiful bay? When an agent enters a property into the multiple list system, the initial determination is whether the house is “water oriented.” If you look around Anne Arundel County, you could make a case that nearly all of us are water-oriented. Hook up the boat, pull it out of your garage and you’re probably not much more that 20 minutes from a place where you can dump it in the water. In Eastport, where we live, we’re surrounded by water, many marinas, and we can walk down the street to public parks that access Spa Creek, Back Creek or the Severn River. So, does that mean we live in a water-oriented community? Not necessarily.

For the multiple list system, “water oriented” means that there is water access, a water view or water frontage that is peculiar to a specific community association and available for the exclusive use of its residents. For example, a community might have docks, boat ramps or a waterfront park for the “private” use of its homeowners. That would be different from the ability to generally access “public” water facilities, and such a community would then qualify as water oriented.

So, let’s say you’ve established the property is legitimately in a water-oriented community. The next step to identify how the water relates to a specific property and determine if it falls into one of the following three categories — water access, water view or waterfront.

In certain communities, your house may not be on the water. You might not even be able to see the water, but the community provides access points to the water. This access can come in many forms. There could be a community marina, park or beach. It could be something as simple as a path down to the water, where you can launch your kayak. Water access is the most basic definition of what would be considered a water-oriented community.

The next rung on the ladder would be a house with a water view. This constitutes a big jump in value. And, because it generates such an increase in value, water view is an area where homeowners and real estate agents tend to push the envelope. In our own Eastport home, you can look out the window of our third-floor bedroom, and, on a nice day, you might get a glimpse of the Severn River. But we would never represent our house as being a water view. Nevertheless, you’ll see a lot of properties that latch on to any possible interpretation of what someone could consider water view. In some cases, you might see a qualifier, like “winter” or “seasonal” water views. But until you get there and take a look for yourself, you won’t really know what water view means. It might indicate that, on Christmas Day, you’ll have a beautiful shot of the bay, or it could suggest that from a hard angle on a top-floor room, you can vaguely make out that there’s water down there somewhere. So, when you see the promise of water view, remember it’s buyer beware.

At the top of the ladder, we come to the holy grail of “waterfront.” At this level, we’re getting into the big bucks. But, even here, there’s a vast difference in what constitutes “good” vs. “poor” waterfront. Part of it has to do with the view, but the “usability” of the water also becomes a critical factor. You might have a waterfront house, but if the water depth is only four inches, what you really have is water view. When most buyers look at a waterfront home, they usually expect a place where you can pull up a boat. Plus, it’s important to know what kind of boat. For most sailboats, you’ll probably need at least four feet of water to get the thing in there. With many powerboats, you can get up to the dock with less than half that. So, what makes acceptable waterfront will depend on the buyers and how they plan to use it. If you’re a boater, you know that much of the bay isn’t a lot more than four or five feet deep. As a result, deep water at the dock is always a plus, but that doesn’t mean it needs to fall off into the abyss. Unless you’re that rare ocean water racer or someone with a submarine, four-plus feet of water (at low tide) will accommodate the majority of boats.

There’s an additional caveat to the consideration of waterfront properties. That’s the difference between “riparian” and “non-riparian” waterfront. Riparian means that you own the waterfront and no one has the right to use that space other than you. That being said, it doesn’t mean you can do anything you want. There are many, very specific, governmental restrictions on how a “riparian” homeowner can use or change the waterfront. In the interest of preserving the watershed and health of the bay, you can’t start cutting down trees or even clear the scrub brush. Before you do anything next to the water, be sure to check with the appropriate government officials and get the necessary approvals.

Non-riparian indicates that you might front the water, but you don’t actually own the waterfront. In this case, others in your community may have rights to use this space. It could be permissible for others to walk between your backyard and the bay. This isn’t something you want to find out after the fact. It could clearly cramp that first waterfront hot tub experience if your neighbor and his three kids suddenly come strolling by. The difference between riparian and non-riparian waterfront is an important consideration in your property’s value and how you can use it. When looking to buy a waterfront home, make sure you understand which one you’re getting.

From a real estate perspective, water can be almost more valuable than the land. Remember that there are many issues, and much you might not know in evaluating the promise of waterfront property. Tread carefully and do your research before sticking a toe in the water. But, if it all goes well, there’s nothing like a house that looks out on the treasure of our bay.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is [email protected]