- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

Some say it's a foolish man who builds his house upon the sand. While that parable depicts a simple truth about daily living, its wisdom does not extend to some people's need to have a home by the water.

The trick is to know what you are getting and to ensure that your home and family's safety match the stellar view when the rain comes down and the floods move up.

But what exactly constitutes a "waterfront" property?

Simply enough, Realtors say waterfront property is any type of land that adjoins moving water.

"A nice-sized creek can be a 'waterfront' property if it connects to a tributary of a lake, river or ocean," waterfront developer Randy Bender of Alexandria says. "Now, a 10-foot irrigation ditch? That's not waterfront."

Mr. Bender, who has more than 20 years of experience in waterfront property development and sales, believes people interested in buying waterfront land need to do a little research.

Demand is high for prime waterfront property along the Potomac River and its tributaries. Buyers need to understand what they are getting into before making a large investment, he says.

"To find any piece of property with a waterfront view isn't going to come with less than a $1 million price tag," Mr. Bender says, "and when a person is making that kind of investment, it's best to be well informed."

Mr. Bender says while a waterfront home does not have any disadvantages, the owner needs to know the laws that govern the property and its surroundings before entering into a deal.

"As with any home a person's buying, the potential owner needs to read up on all homeowner's association documents," he says. "Their rules are, most of the time, more strict and difficult than those federal, state and county laws that govern waterfront property."

For instance, homeowner associations might have stipulations on how you must maintain the waterfront side of your home. They might also have guidelines and rules on boating, swimming or fishing.

"You might want to remove the dunes that impede your waterfront view," he says, "but your association may not let you do that. Read up on all the documents the association supplies you with. It's important to know what they mandate."

Along the Potomac, it's also important to know the "lay of the land," so to speak. For instance, the main river itself is governed by Maryland. The entire main waterway falls under Maryland law even the main waterway that borders Virginia and the District. But as recently as this spring, rules pertaining to Maryland's authority to grant Virginia permission to take water from the river have been challenged in federal court. Tributaries on the Virginia side fall under Virginia law.

For specific details, it is important to read up and have consultation on the specific piece of land in question.

Mr. Bender recommends asking plenty of questions of the Realtor, as well as putting in calls to the Army Corps of Engineers the agency that governs navigable waterways under federal jurisdiction.

"They can give specific information on all pieces of land and how it works," he says, "and their sole function is to understand waterways and how they work. They're an invaluable resource."

Setback rules are different for tidal and nontidal property. In addition, setback rules can be different according to the state that has jurisdiction over the property. State, local and federal rules also can restrict boat access and piers from the property, as well as the kind of riprap or sea wall that can be constructed on the shoreline.

States also regulate environmental matters on waterfront property.

For instance, in Maryland, property within 1,000 feet of tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay is regulated by so-called Critical Areas laws that prohibit topping trees to enhance the water view from the house without specific permission and documented remediation plans. These rules can vary from county or town jurisdiction and area to area.

Violations can lead to fines and civil action to force a homeowner to replant the area that was cleared or even pruned without permission. Buyers need to remember that the bay view they see in winter might be obscured by deciduous trees come spring.

Virginia rules, naturally, are different.

"What some people don't know, because it seems to be a well-guarded secret," Mr. Bender says, "is that in Virginia, if you choose to leave your waterfront side untouched if you don't disturb habitats or trees you can file and apply to not pay taxes on your property for the first 10 years of ownership."

Mr. Bender says it's a good idea to ask your Realtor even if you are unsure that you would like to participate in the program.

"It's a matter of personal preference, though," he says. "People specifically buy waterfront for the view, and some aren't willing to leave their waterfront side in its natural state."

Waterfront homes also require a little added special care.

"While maintaining and owning a waterfront home really isn't any different than that of a regular home, erosion is always a serious factor when looking at a home on waterfront property," Mr. Bender says.

Erosion is less common on homes built around a river or lake, but, nevertheless, it is something to look at when buying a house.

"In our area, most waterfront homes are so old the properties are literally being sold for the land," he says. "The home is then torn down and a new home is built. It's not really that the old homes don't comply with law, it's just that if people are spending a million dollars on a piece of property, they want their dream home to sit on it."

Some homeowner associations have community docks that can be used by all. Other properties, if the depth of water is appropriate, allow owners to build their own boat docks.

"Homes with boating docks [or] rights always fetch a higher price than those without," he says, "and a lot of people don't see the Potomac River as being swimmable, but there are areas that are quite nice for swimming.

"These both are hot-ticket items for people wanting waterfront homes swimming and boating rights add a lot to property value and the resale value of a home," he says.

Mr. Bender says that this is when hard-line research comes in.

Armed with a well-informed broker, Mr. Bender suggests having home inspectors, expert developers and engineers look at the piece of property to decide what can sit on the piece of land.

Some area residents wouldn't consider living on the water every day, but instead dream of owning a vacation place at the beach, just a few hours drive from the District.

Oceanfront homes bring up a different set of concerns. Added erosion and wear and tear on a home because of salt air does give a homeowner some additional maintenance issues.

Grace Donovan of Grace Donovan Realty in Ocean City says potential homeowners really need to take a close look at the condition of the roof and wood on an existing beach home before buying it.

"It's important to really examine the conditions of all decks and paneling," she says. "Wood seems to rot a lot quicker in the ocean environment."

Mrs. Donovan, who deals with beach realty on the bay side and ocean side of Ocean City, says soil erosion around the home is also something that should be looked at carefully.

"A good Realtor will really dig in and help you examine whether or not the ocean property you're looking at is a good investment," she says. "That's why it's very important to make sure you're being represented by a Realtor not just dealing with the selling agent."

A buyer agent can really give valuable information on the condition of the property, as well as ask questions that you, as the buyer, might not think of asking, Mrs. Donovan says, such as when the wood deck was last treated and how old the roof is.

"These are pretty typical home questions but when the home is in a harsher environment, such as the salt air, it's good to really be thorough and almost intrusive about home repair questions," she says.

Mrs. Donovan also reminds potential buyers to remember to ask about drainage in case of a hurricane or flood.

In the event the home is destroyed by weather, it's important to know the community's policy on rebuilding especially if the home predates current restrictions.

Mrs. Donovan also encourages potential homeowners to really dig into the homeowner association documents before committing to a home just to make sure the association regulations are agreeable and reasonable to the buyer.

"Some restrictions on oceanfront or bayside property could really turn a person off from a home," she says. "When we look at a home, we walk inside and dream dream about what we could do with it or how we would fix the yard.

"It's really difficult to make these big plans, purchase a house, buy your landscaping supplies, then realize the homeowners' association doesn't allow for what you wanted to do. It's better to know from the get-go."


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