Acquiring a parcel of waterfront property where you plan to build a dream home is like becoming the caretaker of a beautiful jewel. While enjoying the views and the experience of making your architectural mark on a site, you also assume the role of protector to some of the area’s most precious and valuable land.
“Buying waterfront property for your custom home comes with lots of extra challenges,” says Trey Rider, a real estate agent and vice president of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in Easton. “There are critical rules in place that are environmentally friendly and impact what you can and cannot build on a waterfront lot.” A team of experts knowledgeable about local regulations, including a real estate agent, civil engineer, architect and builder, will be necessary partners in the creation of a home that matches your vision. On the following pages, area experts weigh in on what to consider every step of the way.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
When you buy property on a river, tributary or bay, a plan that maximizes water views is crucial. “Waterfront lots are expensive, so it’s important to work with an architect who can make the most of the land,” notes Marta Hansen, principal of Hansen Architects in Annapolis. “Once we know the land we have to work with, we start the design process by looking for the best view—the one you want from the rooms you use the most, such as the great room, the kitchen and the primary suite.” Hansen also watches the pattern of the sun across a property to prioritize natural light.
At Annapolis-based Hammond Wilson, architect and principal Leo Wilson begins the process by determining the size of the house. “We then talk about how to site it on the land to take advantage of views, sunrise, sunset and even the wind,” he relates. “The waterfront itself drives the layout because people want their primary suite to be private but have a water view. We try to design the informal living spaces and kitchen near the pool but keep the formal living spaces away from it because you don’t want to look at a pool cover during the winter months.”
Restrictions on how close you can build to the shoreline and what percentage of a property can be developed mean that newer homes on the Eastern Shore often are very vertical, with two or more stories to create enough living space—and more rooms with a view. “During one project we brought a manlift to the property to show the owner the perspective from the second floor so he could approve the design,” recalls Dave Carlisle, president and founder of Bayview Builders in Annapolis.
Carlisle advises homeowners to loop in a builder, along with a civil engineer and an architect, early in the process. “A local builder can provide advice on constructability and address budget and timeline constraints,” he explains. “We also know which materials will hold up to the wind, water and sun you get near the water.”
SETBACKS, SEPTIC & MORE
While buildable lots require a 100-foot setback between the water and the house, other rules set by states, counties and towns determine a home’s possible footprint. Complications that impact the size and shape of a custom waterfront home include the location of the septic system and how much of the land can be covered by an impervious surface—meaning paving stones, pathways and structures that cause water to run off rather than absorb into the soil.
“To determine the size of the septic system, soil testing needs to be done during the wet season from late winter to early spring. It will show how water is absorbed,” says Wilson, adding that sometimes forest conservation easements require an architect to design around the trees.
The percentage of the land that may be impervious to water is unique to each property and impacts the allowable footprint of the house and terraces, says Hansen. A driveway on a long, narrow lot could use up much of the allowable impervious surface. And while decks are pervious because water can seep through wood, flagstone terraces and even gravel driveways are considered impervious.
Purchasing a property with an existing house to tear down may ease the home-building process, as it’s likely to already have a septic system, driveway or pier in place. Looser provisions may be grandfathered in as well. “You don’t have to stick to the footprint of that house, and you can design laterally or vertically,” Hansen explains. However, “you can’t go any closer to the water than the previous house did, or to that 100-foot setback.”
NAVIGATING THE SHORELINE
Since waterfront homes often attract boaters, Rider cautions that buyers with plans to keep a boat on their property should check the mean low-water depth to make sure it will accommodate their boat. And determining navigable water depth is key to ensuring a boat can reach the bay or river without hitting a sandbar. For example, homes on the South River have beautiful views, but the river is too shallow for most boats.
Also be aware that waterfront property-owners must maintain their shoreline. “The guidelines call for a ‘living shoreline,’ which slopes into the water and should include native grasses,” Rider observes. “This creates a habitat for wildlife—but it can cost $350 to $450 per linear foot to build a living shoreline with stone hidden under the water” for stability. Repairing an existing riprap stone shoreline or wooden bulkhead can also be costly.
For boaters and non-boaters alike, a carefully designed custom home can bring indoor-outdoor living to a new level. “Outdoor living is even more important by the water,” Wilson notes. “So waterfront homes need a seamless connection between the interior and exterior.”
Purchase contracts for waterfront lots typically include a 30-to-90-day window for a feasibility study, even if the land already includes a structure that will be torn down. According to Wilson, the design process takes between nine and 12 months, during which period permits can be requested. Construction will require an additional 12 to 18 months before owners can settle in and begin to enjoy their new home.