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New: Free Diamonds!

Posted on Jun 23, 2008

Have you got a dream? I mean a gnaw-at-your-brain, tried-to-forget-it, leave-me-alone kind of wishful fantasy that fires your imagination some days, and tantalizes you with its out-of-reach nature on others.

Many of us here in the Northwest, in spite of having seen our share of liquid sunshine, are still drawn to the many lakes, streams, rivers, and salt water frontages that abound in our glorious corner of the world. There is something primal about the urge to live near water- it’s truly a gut level need for many.

I count myself among those who dream of waking to the sight of a sailboat bobbing at anchor outside my own front door, or stepping off the deck of my small fishing cabin, fly rod in hand, for a day on the stream. I alternate between these twin romances and honestly couldn’t choose between them if my life depended on it.

A former client of mine had a term for the dancing flickers of light refracted off water that define the essence of the waterfront experience: He called those flashes and sparkles “free diamonds”. I love the evocative image of that phrase, as it encapsulates for me the dream of finding a “hidden treasure” property, and the deep sense of satisfaction found in a day on the water.

In the quest to fill my own order for waterfront property, I’ve explored from the San Juan Islands to Western and Central Montana, and even looked into fishing properties in Idaho. Thus far, I’ve seen many that got my heart racing, but none that also fit the budget. Which of course is the challenge!

The best part of this adventure for me is the dream of what I might find. So, in the interest of showing some of the options, I’ve taken the liberty of developing a few lists.

As the old saw goes: “Location, Location, Location”, and nowhere in Real Estate is that more clearly illustrated than waterfront properties. A home on Lake Washington – say Hunt’s Point– could easily command a location premium for the dirt alone that would place total value well over $5,000,000. Similarly, Mercer Island waterfront homes are renowned for their stratospheric prices, and exuberant architecture. Parsing the area further, a North Mercer home is prized for it’s access to freeways and the greater Seattle area, vs. the longer commute times but greater privacy of mid- to south island locales.

Travel 2 hours North of Seattle on I-5, and a 40 minute ferry ride puts you in the San Juan Islands. My personal favorite is Orcas, with it’s laid back artist-colony sensibility, as well as offering the highest point in the islands (Mt. Constitution), where you can climb the observatory tower for a view that stretches to BC, and Bellingham. On a clear day, there’s no freer feeling than squinting across the glint of sunshine on whitecaps, and savoring the tang of salt air. Maybe that’s just my Alaska fisherman background talking, but I truly savor every moment spent at the water’s edge. Informal polls I’ve conducted lead me to believe I’m not alone in this.

Getting more down-to-earth, it is possible to find waterfront, or water proximity properties that are well within reach of ‘the rest of us’. Revisiting the old Location idiom again, there is a different cost: one of convenience. However, if you want privacy along with your slice of heaven, it’s a cost many of us are willing to pay. Frequently, the ‘hidden gems’ are on smaller lakes, tucked into out-of-the-way corners, or for the wanderers, the South West Coast of our fair state also offers some stunning saltwater frontage.

In the course of your search, you’re bound to trip over river frontage lots, as well. One caution to keep at the forefront with riverside land is the issue of flooding. While rivers make for great visual and audio, they sometimes don’t make the best neighbors. Remember, we live in the Northwest, and the past several years have seen some record precipitation – both in the lowlands and in the mountains. Even if the snow isn’t falling in your yard, it may end up there by spring! So, check with the floodplain maps, which will include a 100 year flood rating, which can be a pretty good indicator of your risk. Seemingly minor variations in terrain can make a significant difference in how a property is affected by flooding, so do your homework.

While I’m on the topic, it’s worth noting that every piece of property has an accompanying risk: being at sea level may put you in the way of a tsunami, rivers flood, lake drainages can become backed up, and also flood, and/or taint the groundwater. However, this shouldn’t be considered a reason to avoid water properties. With proper due diligence, you can mitigate the risk, and rest easy with your purchase.

As I’ve polished the waterfront dream, (with the growing realization that I’m not alone), I’ve wondered if the investment value justifies the pursuit. After all, it’s one thing to chase a dream, but if the long term value doesn’t hold up, it’s just an expensive wish. And I like the idea of a self-financing dream; I have enough hobbies to suck up my time and resources, but for once I’d love to have one pencil out in the black (at least in the long term). So, I’ve done a little research, and turned up some interesting anecdotal evidence that, at least so far as the tax assessor is concerned, waterfront property is its own reward.

But there’s more: it seems there’s an interest on the part of academics, to help our friends in the ‘Other Washington’ recognize the impact of water quality issues on property values. As you’d expect, regional factors can play a dramatic role in pushing property values up or down. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that waterfront is probably more sensitive to ‘micro-economic climates’ than landlocked properties; due to a generally cleaner and longer line of sight, it’s easier to see blemishes in a waterfront property. And as the above link indicates, even water clarity can have a significant impact on perceived value.

But what about actual value? With all the talk about declining housing markets, longer sale times, and financing woes, I’ve got to wonder just what all that pricing pressure is doing to my dream. If the prophets of doom are right, I should be in line to realize my hopes much sooner than expected. The logic being that all real estate follows the same trend line. With a few caveats, that’s generally true. The softer market is making it easier to negotiate on waterfront properties too, but there’s no fire sale. As they say, “They’re not making anymore waterfront” (except in Dubaii 🙂 ). The scarce nature of waterfront property keeps a premium in place that seems nearly bulletproof, due to the fact that buyers who are able to take advantage of the softened market typically are generally better financially insulated from the daily economic news. And while they may be able to negotiate a price down somewhat, percentage-wise waterfront property is it’s own best hedge.

So, who’s buying up the waterfront? According to a report done last year on Canadian recreational properties, the aging baby boomer population represents the largest single demographic that will be snapping it up over the next 5- 10 years. While it may be too soon to say definitively if this trend is playing out similarly on our side of the border, or if it’s being affected by the current lending challenges, and market anomalies, I would be willing to bet that a similar statistic could be applied. After all, they’ve lived long enough to know a good thing!

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