Buying a waterfront property can be much more complicated than buying traditional real estate. Whether it’s a waterfront lot, house, or condo with a boat slip, the topics necessary to fully understand a waterfront home are broad.
Waterfront living is a dream for many. So the willingness to put in serious consideration about the property before purchasing is necessary to ensure an enjoyable transition to the waterfront lifestyle.
Whether it’s in the Seattle area or elsewhere in the country, there are some basic waterfront features to analyze and warnings to heed. There are also local idiosyncrasies for properties in the Puget Sound region: waterfront homes on the Sound, Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish, and other rivers, lakes, and bays.
What you need to know about buying a waterfront home:
1. Permits on the shoreline
Let’s start with the most unique features of a waterfront property: those that extend into water. These are the most likely areas to find issues and concerns that home buyers might be unfamiliar with.
Docks, boathouses, and other property improvements which extend into the water are the source of many regulations. Lack of research into these areas can cause some expensive or regrettable consequences.
To build, rebuild, or repair a structure that extends across the shoreline into the water, homeowners will usually need some kind of a permit. In the most regulated areas, that permitting process must be cleared through the city’s local guidelines, the county’s waterfront plan, the state’s regulations, and even the Army Corps of Engineers’ rules at the federal level.
That takes time. Do your research on three factors:
Are the structures currently in place permitted correctly? Don’t assume they’re legally constructed or that you will be allowed to use them.
Can you repair them? There are often many rules as to how you can repair waterfront features. These sometimes involve expensive materials upgrades. It’s also possible the features have to be left as-is.
Can you expand or build more waterfront features? New or additional docks, boat covers, etc. will usually have the most stringent permitting guidelines. Know beforehand whether or not you can build the dream dock/boathouse you’re picturing on the waterfront.
2. Bulkheads and Shorelines
Along the waterfront’s edge are your shoreline improvements. Natural beaches are preferred by many communities, as they create an improved habitat for the wildlife in and out of the water. They sometimes need to be supplemented with new materials due to natural erosion. Find out what kinds of regulations are in place if you plan on enhancing a natural shoreline.
Have shorelines been receding in recent years? Neighbors will be able to give you some input. You can also do some research on local geological surveys.
Many properties have a bulkhead or seawall at the shoreline. These can be large stones, logs, concrete slabs, or a combination of different materials. Some homeowners prefer bulkheads to create a clean finish to their yard, and they can also create a “jumping off point” in areas where the water level rises significantly up the height of the bulkhead.
Depending on the regulatory agencies involved, you may not be able to build or repair a new bulkhead in the way you’d prefer. Just like the features that extend into the water, it’s important to find out before purchasing what your options are for maintaining and improving your shoreline reinforcements.
3. Water and Sewer
Some waterfront homeowners irrigate their properties directly from a lake. Others are restricted from it. Some waterfront homes are connected to a city sewer system. Others have on-site sewage systems.
If your waterfront property has a septic system on-site, it’s important to understand its current condition. It’s also critical to know what the policies are for repairing and upgrading the system.
Depending on your jurisdiction, upgrading a septic system may require serious financial investment due to new material requirements. The potential impact of a sewage system on the waterfront environment creates its own special set of regulations. The location of your septic drain field may have to move depending on its location and size on the lot.
Some waterfront homes don’t have a sewage system. It may sound crazy, but there are cabins with no sewer or septic. Caveat emptor.
4. Bluffs and Cliffs
Are there special environmental regulations for waterfront properties that sit on a bluff overlooking the water? There may be restrictions to building improvements near the bluff’s edge.
Wildlife, natural erosion, beach conditions below, septic systems underground, irrigation systems—these are all things to investigate if you’re thinking about purchasing a hillside/cliffside/bluff-top property on the waterfront.
The sellers should know the property’s history. The neighbors will know plenty as well. Get feedback from both the locals and the regulatory agencies. There may be changes in the works.
Is erosion of your bluff a potential hazard to fixed items on your property? It may be worth contacting a geotechnical engineer to put your mind at ease.
5. Weathering of materials
Depending on your waterfront location, the life expectancy of your waterfront home’s materials can vary widely. Saltwater locations bring heavy wear and tear on waterfront features and a home’s exterior. Siding, roofs, fences—anything exposed to the elements near the ocean or a saltwater body like Puget Sound will wear down significantly faster than the same materials inland.
Freshwater properties also require extra care. Wind, waves, and storms can still whip up extraordinary wear on a home near the water on a lake or river. Without physical obstructions to protect the home from the elements, expect to replace materials on a waterfront property more often than you would with a landlocked home.
6. Flood insurance
Is your waterfront property in a flood zone? Do you have insurance in case of a flood? Flood insurance is available through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance program.
You can find out what your flood risk is by going to the One-Step Flood Risk Profile. Some properties have controlled water levels on bodies of water like Seattle’s Lake Washington (the Chittenden locks hold/release water into Puget Sound). Other lakes, like Lake Sammamish, can rise quickly and submerge docks in heavy rain seasons.
Oceanfront properties have great susceptibility to weather-related issues from high tides, tsunamis, and swells than can flood and damage homes, neighborhoods, and cities. Rivers can swell and swamp lowland areas. It’s important to be fully aware of the potential of negative water-related issues that can occur on waterfront property and assess your need for insurance.
7. Property improvements
It’s not just waterfront features that can be limited by regulation on waterfront properties. Improving your waterfront home may be highly restricted.
Many communities limit the way a home can be remodeled, expanded, or rebuilt. Limits include the type of materials, the size of the footprint, the distance of the home’s setback from the shoreline, and more.
The grounds themselves can also have their own set of rules. The kind of materials used as ground surfaces may have limits to the scope of impervious surfaces on the lot. The percentage of lot coverage by homes, outbuildings, patios, etc. may factor in to what the homeowner can improve.
Sheds, outbuildings, sports courts, even planters can be subject to regulation. Do your homework to ensure that you’re a happy waterfront homeowner.
8. Water activity
So you’re living on the waterfront. Can you use the water?
It depends on your plans. Is the water clear/clean enough to swim in? When/where is fishing allowed? Are boats and electric/gas-powered motors restricted? Are there restricted hours for watercraft use? Is the water at your boat slip deep enough for your watercraft? Are lifts allowed?
You can find many of these answers in the local community. Whether from local websites, news, community centers, or simply talking to the neighbors, you’ll find a plethora of information about the way locals use the waterfront.
Does your property have shared waterfront? This is a more economical way to get into a waterfront property, but it will have restrictions and guidelines. Maybe your condo building has slips for residents at its docks. There are all kinds of ways these spots are allocated, reserved, and wait-listed. Research them well.
You have a lot of research to do as a potential waterfront home buyer. There are areas where experience will outweigh your personal efforts, though. An inspector who has seen many waterfront properties will be invaluable to you.
Waterfront specialists are important in the inspection process. Waterfront structures, especially bulkheads, should be investigated by an experienced inspector. Traditional home inspectors are still very important for the structure and mechanical systems of the home itself.
If you’re unsure about the usage or condition of a system on a waterfront property, call in an experienced person to evaluate it. You real estate agent will be able to find one for you. The neighbors will probably know a few good vendors or inspectors.
A Happy Waterfront Homeowner
Hopefully the potential pitfalls of buying a waterfront home haven’t scared you off. The more research you do upfront, the more confident you’ll feel in your waterfront property purchase. Living on the water is worth the effort.
Purchasing waterfront real estate is more complex than most home purchase transactions. With the right guidance from an experienced agent and an inspector or two, you’ll find out everything you need to make sure your waterfront home purchase is a good financial move. Enjoy the water.
Contact me if you have further questions.
Sam DeBord, Managing Broker - Seattle Homes Group, Coldwell Banker Danforth
206.658.3225 - sam at seattlehome.com
Waterfront Homes in the Seattle Area
All King County Waterfront Homes:
Waterfront Houses - Most Popular Neighborhoods
Lake Washington is the Seattle area's largest lake, as well as its most popular fresh water location for boating, fishing, and water sports. Many of Seattle's most exclusive waterfront neighborhoods reside on Lake Washington, including Medina and Mercer Island. Executives from Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks, Nintendo, Paccar, and Expediters International live on Lake Washington, as well as many professional athletes from the Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Mariners, and former Seattle SuperSonics. There are also some neighborhoods on the lake with less-expensive homes at more moderate prices.
- Madison Park/Washington Park
- Matthews Beach/Cedar Park
- Kirkland (Lakeview)
- Bellevue (Meydenbauer)
- Mercer Island
Puget Sound is the saltwater inlet from the Pacific Ocean which passes Seattle and heads southward to Olympia. West Seattle, the North Seattle shoreline, and many islands have residences along the Sound. This is the closest feel to an ocean beach that you'll find in the Seattle area.
Homes on Lake Sammamish range from moderate to luxurious. This large lake has plenty of space for boating and fishing, and is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. The water is calm, and the lake naturally drains out to Lake Washington, keeping the water level within a reasonable range throughout the year and allowing for docks on many properties. With Marymoor Park on the North end and Lake Sammamish State Park on the South end, Lake Sammamish is a favorite recreation and relaxation spot for Eastside residents.
Lake Union is just North of Downtown Seattle. It is surrounded mostly by commercial enterprises, floating homes, houseboats, and vessel marinas. Houseboats can be simple barges with a cabin on top, while floating homes are often million-plus dollar custom homes built on high-end floats with permanent utility hookups.
Some of Greater Seattle's most popular locations for waterfront condos:
While there are not always waterfront homes available for sale in every neighborhood of Seattle, check back often as new listings will appear on our site daily. If you can't find the waterfront home you're looking for, just contact us and we'll do the searching for you.
Sam DeBord, Managing Broker, Seattle Homes Group
VP of Strategic Growth, Coldwell Banker Danforth
President, Seattle King County Realtors
The #1 Sales Team For Seattle's #1 Full Service Sale Office