Top 5 Issues When Purchasing Waterfront

by Dirk Schwenk – and Mike Piasecki III –

There is nothing that can compare to the peace, tranquility and sense of well-being that accompanies ownership of a piece of waterfront property. That feeling should not be disturbed by legal problems that can be prevented or at least managed. In waterfront property there are a few issues that arise with such regularity that they should be considered prior to any purchase. Mike Piasecki, III, Associate Broker, Prudential Carruthers Realtors in Elkton and Ocean Pines ( and J. Dirk Schwenk, attorney at Baylaw, LLC ( got together to come up with a “top five” list of things that should be thought through. These issues are focused on Maryland waterfront property, but they apply everywhere where piers, views and access to the water are of top concern. Here they are:

1. Community Waterfront versus Private Waterfront.

Many waterfront, waterview and water access properties are located in developments where the original developer subdivided a large tract and reserved the waterfront for the use of all of the houses in the neighborhood. Interior houses may be listed as “water access” properties and have affirmative rights to community beaches, boat ramps and other facilities. In many of these developments, there is also a strip of land that lies along the water and surrounds the entire community and was intended to allow for members of the community to walk and have access to the entire waterfront. The ownership structure of these walks can vary widely, but if they are present, there are special concerns for the homes nearest the water. Those homes may have the right to build and maintain a pier — but the pier may actually be owned by the community and be available for all of the members to use. Or there may be no right to a pier at all. The possible variations are too numerous to list, but an owner purchasing “waterfront” in such a community should be sure to understand exactly what the obligations and benefits are in the particular community.

2. Waterfront versus Waterview.

A true “waterfront” property is one that has riparian rights associated with it. In Maryland and most of the states on the East Coast of the United States, the owner of a property that has riparian rights has the right to apply to construct a pier or other waterfront improvement, has the first right to apply for permits for waterfowl hunting, and has the right to prevent others from impeding access to the water or the view of the water. In contrast, a “waterview” property is generally one that is close to the water, but has land owned by someone else between the land and the shoreline. A waterview may have a limited (or no) right to build a pier and may not have any guarantee that another owner will not build a fence, structure or put in plantings that obstruct the waterview. Careful consideration should be paid to what might be placed between the waterview property and the water — if it is community land on which nothing can be built that is very different than private land on which someone in the future may build a multi-story home.

3. Pier Locations, Boundary Lines and Permits.

Having (or keeping) a pier is a first priority consideration for many waterfront lots. It is not relaxing and fun to have a dispute with a neighbor about whether a pier is on his property, your property, on the line, should be shared, or whether a pier that you were counting on using is even legal in the first place. If you are considering a home where there is currently a pier or where you would like to put in a pier, its continued viability should be examined. First, consult with planning and zoning — was the existing pier built with a permit (or grandfathered?), or if you would like to put in a new pier, can an adequate pier be placed on the site given environmental limitations and the location of neighboring piers? Second, is there any dispute with a neighbor about the location of any of the piers (does a pier encroach the property line extended into the water?) or is there an expectation that a pier will be shared? If you are purchasing a property that is one of several that were previously owned by a single family, it is very common that multiple homes shared a single pier. This sort of agreement should be spelled out — or it can quickly lead to a disagreement.

4. The Obligation and Ability to Maintain the Waterfront.

For any property that faces significant wave action or is on a bluff, there will be erosion concerns. For all waterfront properties, there are significant legal restrictions on the owners’ ability to clear growth and trees, to fill eroded areas, and to construct shoreline protection. The cost and ability to obtain permits for waterfront repairs and maintenance should be considered. For example, in many waterfront communities, there are existing bulkheads or revetments. Depending on the particular community, the cost to maintain these structures may lie with the nearest individual landowner or with the community. In Ocean Pines, Maryland, for example, all properties in the community must pay an annual HOA assessment toward the upkeep of common area facilities, but in the instance of waterfront properties, the assessment may also cover the cost of maintenance to the property’s bulkhead. We say “MAY” because this is true in some sections of Ocean Pines, whereas in other sections, waterfront property owners, although they still pay an annual assessment that is higher than a land locked property, have the cost and burden of bulkhead maintenance placed squarely upon the homeowner. Sounds confusing doesn’t it? This example is exactly why you should consult a waterfront law specialist, and/or waterfront specialist real estate broker before entering into a contract to sell or purchase waterfront property anywhere, but especially in the state of Maryland. Another instance? In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, there have been news reports of criminal charges being filed because a waterfront property owner hired a landscaper to clear trees and bushes along the waterfront. Just like piers, it is wise to consult with knowledgeable professionals and zoning departments before becoming set on plans for improvements.

5. Choose the right professionals.

Purchasing and owning waterfront is meant to improve ones quality of life, and usually it does. There will always be an unfortunate few that end up purchasing a large, unexpected and expensive dispute, and their quality of life is most often not improved. Without question, the best means of avoiding unexpected difficulties is to associate with professionals with experience and interest in waterfront and riparian properties. A good realtor will know the particular area where a property is located, or will know the questions (like the ones above) that must be analyzed in order to know if a property is right for you. A good lawyer will know whether a deed is to transfer all of the rights you expect, (or maybe just some), will be able to spot misunderstandings in pier sharing agreements, and will know how to resolve a dispute that does arise. We hope these pointers help to make your next waterfront property purchase or sale, an enjoyable one!

Dirk Schwenk –
and Mike Piasecki III –