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Not just a pretty view
What to know before buying waterfront property


September 2016

"Itís one of the most sought after types of property in our market and holds its value better than any other kind because they just donít make it anymore. It is also a big responsibility because ownership means you are effectively an environmental steward as well as a property owner," says Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors.

Ruzicka is referring to waterfront property ó the Cadillac of all properties. Luckily for us, thereís a clear abundance in southeast Wisconsin, spanning from Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River to Lake Country. But be forewarned: Waterfront living isnít simply a pretty view. Hereís what to know before you buy.

Choose a real estate agent with waterfront experience. Like any home purchase, start with the right agent, and in this case, one with waterfront experience. "A real estate agent should understand setbacks, DNR requirements, (and) be familiar with the differences in the types of waterfront properties and know about things like pier restrictions, etc.," says Judy Hearst, senior regional vice president at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.

Do your due diligence, and visit the property at varying times. Hearst recommends that buyers check out the property at different times of day and night to ensure they know what to expect. "And remember, Lake Michigan properties enjoy sunrises, but inland lakes can be either sunrise, sunset or sometimes both," she says. Also, know that your view is never guaranteed or permanent ó that is to say, you are not buying the view. This is a point buyers, especially those with river view condos in rapidly developing areas like the Historic Third and Fifth Wards, need to understand.

Make sure the lake fits your lifestyle. "All the area waterfront properties are different with respect to how the water itself can be used by the homeowner," Hearst continues. "If itís an inland lake, check with the DNR to find out if water-skiing is allowed, if it is a no-wake lake, or if wake is only allowed during certain hours. If you fish, then ask about what kind of fishing it offers. If you are buying on the Milwaukee River and you are interested in boating, then find out if there is a boat slip available, and if there is one, if itís deeded."

Familiarize yourself with local codes, rules and regulations. Each municipality has its own set of rules for property changes, like adding a dock or a seawall. According to Tom Smith, a homeowner on Lake Michigan, there were major differences between what is permitted in Whitefish Bay, Shorewood and Milwaukee. "Shorewood was very accommodating," he says.

Informational resources include the DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which governs the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Be aware of possible maintenance hurdles. Hearst says that when purchasing a waterfront view, buyers should remember that the view can also bring some exciting weather and its corresponding maintenance concerns. "I canít give you a dollar amount of how much more the cost for maintenance would be," she says. "However, buyers should take into consideration how weather and wind affect paint as well as how they affect piers."

Your home insurance premium will be high. Insurance premiums are not typically affected by being on a body of water, but insurance companies will raise premiums if the property is considered a higher than normal risk based on other factors like risk of erosion. "If the risk is too high, the insurance company may not even insure the property," says Mandi LoCoco of American Family Insurance. "If the property is located in a flood plain, the homeownerís mortgage company will require flood insurance to protect the home against flooding. Flooding is not a named peril on a home insurance policy, so any homeowner should add it if they want to protect themselves against flood damage. Lastly, if the homeowner owns a dock, they should consider coverage because it is not automatically covered on most policies." M

ó Consider a complete tear down and rebuild. If you do find the perfect property, one option is to tear down the existing structure and build your own. In this case, Todd Rabidoux, director of Architecture at Lakeside Development Company, says that initial steps need to be taken to identify who has jurisdiction over the shoreline. "It is important to understand your lake access, ability to maintain or increase your views, and ultimately, your property setbacks and what you can do within those setbacks in terms of walks, patios, decks, etc.," he says. "Understanding the water level will serve in setting the homeís foundation above the water table, and identifying the prevailing wind patterns off the water may aid in choosing exterior materials, proper flashing details and insulation types. From a design standpoint, the goal is always to design the floor plan in a way that allows all of the interior spaces to enjoy the view."



This story ran in the September  2016 issue of: