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Waterfront Property Rules

The rules for waterfront property can vary depending on the region where the property is located. Federal and state governments may reserve rights to the water or to certain structures built directly on it. Lake or beachfront associations may impose additional restrictions on waterfront property owners. Learn what rights and responsibilities are associated with owning or renting waterfront property.

What is Waterfront Property?

Waterfront property is defined as land that abuts a body of water. The water can be fresh, salty, flowing, natural, or manmade. For example, both a beach house and a cabin in the woods with a nearby lake could be considered waterfront property.

Waterfront Property Boundaries

Owning property along a waterfront doesn’t automatically guarantee full rights to the water. In many states, the federal or state government actually owns everything below the high water mark. In these areas, it is important to secure littoral or riparian water rights.

Littoral Rights

These rights apply to property owners with land that borders on an ocean, bay, or large lake. Owners with littoral rights enjoy unrestricted access to the water, though the federal or state government retains ownership of anything below the high tide mark. The property owner retains rights to anything above that mark.

Riparian Rights

Riparian rights pertain to property that borders freshwater streams or rivers. When the water is navigable by boat traffic, the land owner’s property stops at the high water mark. When the stream or river can’t be traveled by boat, the property line ends at the centerline of the body of water.

Non-riparian waterfront may provide access to the water over community property, but typically structures like docks or piers will belong to the state government rather than one individual.

Watering Rights

Especially in states where water is a scarce resource, states may use a doctrine of prior appropriation to restrict water usage. For example, a rancher who owns property with a stream passing through it may not be allowed to graze or water her cattle along its banks without paying fees or observing certain regulations. The doctrine of prior appropriation rules vary by state.

Owning and Renting Out Waterfront Property

Many owners use waterfront property as a vacation home and only use it a few months each year. The rest of the time, they may rent it out to other vacationers or seasonal residents. Keep these five issues in mind if you’re planning to purchase and rent out a vacation home:

  1. The property is more valuable than the house. You can have a gorgeous lakefront home, but shallow water or unsafe swimming conditions can reduce your property values significantly. View geological surveys and meteorological reports for the past several years to determine historic water levels and weather patterns.
  2. You may be subject to lake or bay area association guidelines. In some areas, littoral or riparian rights aren’t available, and any structures built on the water actually belong to the community. There may be certain standards for property upkeep as well.
  3. You may be responsible for damages or repairs from a natural disaster. Hurricanes or floods can cause water and wind damage. If you have off-season renters, you may be required to repair or replace damaged items or be held liable in a lawsuit if you fail to do so.
  4. You may need additional insurance. While standard homeowner policies typically include wind damage, many policies for waterfront homes do not. Wind damage, flood damage, boat insurance, and increased personal liability are often recommended for waterfront property owners.
  5. The rental market may be saturated. In areas where developers have overbuilt or multiple foreclosures have occurred, investors may turn to rentals to recoup their losses. This increased availability can drive down rental prices, making it difficult for you to recoup your investment. This can especially be true if you are primarily depending on rental income to pay mortgage payments. Before deciding to rent your beach home, do some market research to determine whether becoming a landlord is worth it.
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