As the proud owner of waterfront property, make no mistake: you’re the envy of Americans everywhere. If population trends are any indication, counties directly on the shoreline account for less than 10% of total U.S. land area, but 39% of the total population, according to the National Ocean Service. Talk about packed like sardines, if only for those gorgeous beach sunsets!
Whether your house gazes over a sparkling lake, rushing river, or the deep blue sea, perks like an amazing view and easy access to exclusive activities (boating, fishing, and swimming) will make your property an attractive catch. Yet you know better than anyone that your waterfront location is both a blessing and a curse.
With every advantage comes an extra hassle or worry, whether it’s giant bugs, a decaying dock, flooding, or soil erosion. There’s so much to think about, so to steer your ship toward a successful closing, follow these 15 tips for selling a waterfront property. Find out how to highlight your property’s unique qualities, different pricing strategies that take your lovely setting into account, and why getting a pre-listing inspection can save you in the long run.
1. Work with an agent who understands waterfront property sales
First and foremost, choose the right agent to represent you. Not all listing agents will have experience selling waterfront properties, and this lack of experience sets you back from the start.
Often a waterfront property falls into the luxury home sale camp, and you need an agent who has competed in this market before. Working with a top local agent who specializes in these types of sales (some will even note that they are “waterfront property specialists” in their online profile) can help you navigate pricing, disclosures, and finding the right buyer.
“When I list a property on the water, buyers will reach out to me because they know that I work on the water, by networking my listings, I get a lot of buyers aware of what’s out there,” says Steven Chicoine a top agent who has sold close to 300 waterfront properties in Portland, Maine. It’s access to these specific buyers that make the right agent such an asset in your waterfront home sale journey. In addition, an agent that knows the waterfront in the region they work in will understand the specifics of that waterway, like which activities are allowed and which types of docks you can build there.
2. Price based on your body of water, view, and water proximity
Waterfront properties are usually worth more than other homes in the same area, according to a 2018 analysis of multiple waterfront property value studies by Dr. Michael Sklarz and Dr. Norman Miller, featured on Collateral Analytics.
One study from researchers estimated waterfront views to be worth a 25.6% price boost on average, ranging from 8.2% for a “poor partial ocean view,” to 18.1% for a lake view, to 58.9% for an “unobstructed ocean view.” But several factors can raise or lower your waterfront property’s value.
Notably, you can place a higher premium on ocean fronts than you can lake or river views. Same goes for large lakes vs. smaller lakes (large lakefront properties are worth more). And you lose value quickly the further you get from the water — premiums decline fast after 60 to 100 meters out, Sklarz and Miller note in their analysis.
Another complicating factor? There might not be recent comparable sales that you can use as a benchmark. This is another reason why it’s critical to work with a good agent. You don’t want to leave money on the table by pricing too low. On the other hand, pricing too high is a real danger with waterfront property. If a home sits on the market too long, potential buyers begin to think there is a problem with it. And in this case, the problem that comes to mind is moisture and flooding.
3. Know your waterfront property rights and how they’ll transfer to your buyers
Owning a waterfront home comes with a certain set of rights dictating important details like water access, where your property ownership starts and stops, and which types of changes you can make to the property (and within what boundaries).
These rights will depend on a number of variables, including federal, state, and local laws; your proximity to the water; and the type of water you live on. When you set out to sell your waterfront property, buyers will need to know which rights pertain to the property so they can figure out, for example, whether their hope to plant a front yard garden will be acceptable or if they’ll have a place to put their boat.
According to Dalton & Tomich, a Detroit law firm with a team of attorneys specializing in land use, zoning, and business legal matters, sellers of waterfront properties should be aware of the following:
- Are you in a local or state government Waterfront Buffer Zone that may place limits on your landscaping and building plans?
- What are the Littoral Rights (applicable to properties bordering bays, large lakes, the ocean, or sea) or Riparian Rights (applicable to properties abutting rivers and streams) governing your property?
- What’s the depth of the water? How large of boats will the water depth support?
- What are the permitting requirements for docks and piers?
- Are there any easements on the property that prohibit or limit water access? (A preliminary title search can be a great option for sellers looking to get ahead of any easement issues).
For help answering any of these specific legal questions about your waterfront property, consult a skilled attorney.
4. Disclose your home’s history of flooding and flood zone
Waterfront properties have a higher risk of flooding and wind damage, which makes them more expensive to insure, according to a report from the New York Times.
If you’ve ever received federal disaster assistance on your home, you will be required to obtain flood insurance at that address, and when you sell that home, federal law requires that the new owners be informed that they’ll need to continue insurance coverage on the property, according to FEMA.
However, there is currently no blanket national flood disclosure law requiring sellers to reveal their property’s history of flood events.
On the state level, there are 29 states with flood disclosure mandates of varying degrees, and 21 states with no flood disclosure requirements at all, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) reports. Check out the NRDC’s Flood Disclosure Map to see the regulations relevant for your state.
Regardless of your individual state’s laws, the general rule real estate experts go by is this: you should never hide material facts that could impact your home’s value or safety, including its history of flooding, flood zone status, or insurance requirements. Doing so is ethically questionable, and could leave the door open to a potential lawsuit down the line.
So in that vein, be upfront about any history of water damage or flooding that you know about. If applicable, share the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) flood zone tier for the property. If you don’t know this information already, you can locate it on FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center. Here’s a quick flood zone rundown:
- You’re in a high-risk flood zone, or Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), if your flood zone on FEMA’s map has a code starting with A or V. (This also is referred to as the “base flood” or “100-year flood.”)
- You’re at moderate flood risk (having a 0.2 percent annual chance of flooding) in Zone B or shaded Zone X.
- If you live in an area of minimal flooding, you’ll fall in Zone C or unshaded Zone X.
“If you are included in a flood zone but you don’t believe you belong there, you need to have a surveyor do an elevation certificate to submit to FEMA to be removed from that flood zone,” Chicoine says. “FEMA may have included your property in error. You may be right next to the water but on a hill that keeps you away from the risk of flooding.”
If you have any questions about what you’re legally required to disclose, talk to your agent and, if necessary, a skilled real estate attorney.
5. Offer transparency around your flood insurance costs
If you live in a high-risk flood zone, you have at least a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage.
Under federal law, people with homes in high-risk areas with mortgages from federally insured or regulated lenders (this includes most nationally known financial institutions) must have flood insurance. However, lenders can, at their discretion, require flood insurance for mortgages on homes located in low- to moderate risk areas as well. If you have flood insurance, providing two to three years of bills can help ease buyers’ minds about the expense.
If you have a “grandfathered” flood insurance policy, which FEMA describes as a discounted insurance rate “based on a prior flood map that showed a lower flood risk,” you may be able to transfer that policy, along with the grandfathered rate, to your buyers. This can be a huge cost savings to them.
6. Order a pre-listing inspection
Why not put in the extra effort to order an inspection before your waterfront property hits the market? This is a good idea in general, but for waterfront properties, it becomes a real game-changer.
For one, it’s best to be upfront about any issues with potential buyers in the luxury market. You don’t want to move along with the process to have them find out something down the line that brings the deal to a halt, forcing you to start the process all over.
In addition, inspections for waterfront properties can cover more than the general inspection. The inspector will take a look at any extensions of the property, such as the dock and retaining wall. Common findings include soil loss and structural deterioration. These are important things to discover early so you can make any repairs as needed and put buyers’ minds at ease.
7. Spray for bugs throughout the showings process
Living near any kind of water can mean seeing a few bugs in the house now and again. However harmless they are, you don’t want a critter spotting to worry any potential buyers during a house tour. So it’s a smart idea to pay for pest control at least while your house is on the market. However, make sure your first couple of sprays happens well before any showings appointments, as certain pest control products can drive bugs out of hiding.
8. Remove any obstructions to your amazing waterfront view
People who buy waterfront houses are typically doing so because they want to be close to a specific body of water. And many of those people will prioritize the view above all else. If there’s something you can do to improve that view, now’s the time.
“Make sure to check with the regulations in your area, but definitely do what you can to trim or remove trees to create the best view you can,” Chicoine says. If you have an old structure in the way, such as a shed, maybe it’s time to disassemble it and get it out of the way.
9. Clean your windows
When buyers are touring your home they will certainly want to see the view from inside the home to the water. Make sure they have the best view possible by keeping the windows gleaming. For great results, check out this DIY window cleaning guide from A Mess Free Life, with suggestions on which squeegee to use and the right DIY detergent — Dawn or Palmolive dish soap!
10. Make access to the water as easy as possible
Take a stroll outside and see how the walk out to the water’s edge goes. While there may be things you can’t change about your water access (such as those pesky easements mentioned earlier), do all that you can to make it easy for your future residents to get to the water.
It could be as easy as weeding an overgrown path or fixing some steps to improve accessibility. If you want to take it a step farther consider adding a foot path with pebbles and slate to create a clear path to the water, or build a small masonry wall to define the path and keep it clear. It’s a good idea to address this before you list your house.
11. Add a dock if you don’t already have one
According to Chicoine, a dock is a great asset to a waterfront property. And as docks go, “deepwater docks are much more valuable than tidal docks,” he says.
Deepwater docks, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, are “commonly defined as those with at least 6 feet of water at low tide and suitable for a large sailboat,” and are often worth two or three time more than shallow docks! If you can have your boat at the dock 24 hours a day, that also adds a whole lot of value.
Upfront you will need to assess which type of dock you are allowed to add to the property and you will also have to make sure to have the dock permitted with the town and any ordinances that apply. In this case, a local real estate agent can be a great help in connecting you with a contractor to make renovations or do earthwork.
12. Make needed repairs
If you already have an existing dock, how’s it holding up? The average dock will last 20-25 years, but this can vary depending on water levels and the materials you’ve used. Take some time to take a close look at your dock (and your boat lift) and decide whether an upgrade or repair is in order. Some indications that your dock needs repairs are:
- Warped or cracked dock supports
- Wood rot
You can do regular maintenance such as sealing your wood dock and keeping the dock free of plant matter and birds that leave their “mark.”
13. Stage the waterfront
Just like staging any other part of your house, staging the waterfront can add a lot of value to a potential buyer’s experience on your property. Buyers are going to walk around by the water, so if you can establish some vignettes to make it more inviting, you can appeal to them on a more emotional level. The goal is to create a space where the buyer can see themselves relaxing and enjoying life. Add a bench or swing by a river, or a lounge chair and umbrella for a beach setting.
14. Use a drone to capture your location
Flying cameras aka drones can be a powerful tool in highlighting your property’s proximity to the waterfront. Rather than simply telling prospective buyers that your home is “just steps to the water” — show them with an aerial shot.
15. Market the waterfront lifestyle
You are not selling a pile of bricks next to a pond. You are selling a vision for someone’s future, access to exclusive water activities, and an unmatched private view to come home to after a long day of work. A house isn’t just a space to keep your things. It’s a part of the story of our lives; it’s where we come together to create meaningful everyday experiences. Remind potential buyers of the lifestyle perks, especially when you’re asking them to take on the responsibilities of waterfront living.
Header Image Source: (Michael Longmire / Unsplash)