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5 Essential Tips for Buying and Selling Waterfront Properties

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1221 Hillview Dr, Sarasota, FL 34239 | $7,500,000

Waterfront property is a staple of the Southwest Florida region. In fact, it is the entity on which Michael Saunders & Company was founded in 1976. We’d venture so far to say had Aristotle been around today and found his vacation home on our beloved Gulf Coast, “the good life” would have most certainly entailed waking up to a bay, marina or gulf view before heading out for a day on the water. With state and local tax reform in many colder markets drawing more residents and businesses to Florida each year, we’ve compiled a few considerations to take and questions to ask when embarking on the waterfront dream. For with great beauty comes great responsibility.

These insights come from a recent panel we held at the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee County South location and are a wonderful starting point for conversations with your real estate agent. The exceptional professionals that spoke at this event have years of experience and a honed passion for looking behind the curtain of a picturesque view.

Waterfront Property – Top Tips for Buyers and Sellers

1. Find the Right Realtor with Extensive Local Waterfront Knowledge

You wouldn’t see a dentist for back pain or consult a landscaper for electrical work, right? The same can be said for the varying expertise of Realtors throughout your market area. Waterfront property comes with a very unique skill set and a directory of professional contacts that can make a huge difference in how you market your home or what home you buy. By contacting a professional that has extensive waterfront knowledge from the start, you will position yourself for success, get connected to the right people and avoid costly oversights.

We can help connect you to the right Realtor by calling 888.552.5228.

9850 Nw Gasparilla Pass Blvd, Boca Grande, FL 33921 | $ 2,975,000

2. Understand the Players and Resources Available

Beyond your real estate agent, other resources are available to you to help understand the full spectrum of opportunity when buying or owning a waterfront property. The first of which to mention are the Federal Emergency Management Association and private flood insurance providers. FEMA started the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 to help make flood insurance more affordable in flood-prone areas by partnering with communities to offer federally subsidized flood insurance provided the community adopts standards requiring future developments to be constructed to resist flood damage.

“When buyers or sellers face vexing questions about specific features of a property, it is essential that they seek first-hand answers from the most reliable source.  Depending on the topic, that source might be a surveyor, an engineer, an architect, an attorney, a realtor or a building official.”

Dan Bailey, Esq. (panelist)  

What does this mean for current or prospective owners? If your property resides in flood zones A or V, whether you opt for a form of private insurance or not, you are still required to maintain those standards set by the NFIP.

How Do I Find My Flood Zone? Search the address of the home/parcel using tools on the FEMA site. A Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) like the one below will indicate both your flood zone and base flood elevation (BFE), the regulatory requirement for the elevation or floodproofing of structures (more on that in our next tip!)

Talk to your realtor about these and other policies.

3. Approach Renovations with Realistic Expectations, Budgets and Timelines

Applicable to buyers and sellers, the intent to renovate while owning a waterfront home or while looking at potential waterfront homes requires a level of managed expectation until, at the very least, data about the flood zone, base flood elevation (BFE) and potentially non-conforming spaces are brought to light.

 Non-Conforming Spaces and the 50% Rule

Improvements made to a home that sit below the BFE are considered “non-conforming” if they appear to be used for anything but parking vehicles, storage or building access. However, since these regulations and building codes were adopted in the mid-70s to address FEMA regulations, spaces may be legally non-conforming if it can be proven that the modifications were made before that time. This impacts those wanting to renovate due to the 50% rule, which states that for properties within a special flood hazard zone, the cost of substantial improvements or the cost to repair damage to a structure cannot exceed 50% of the market value of the building. If the cost will be more than 50% of the market value, then the entire building must be brought up to the current FEMA building requirements. For the purposes of determining market value, only the structure and not the land it sits on is considered. These two regulations alone can affect everything from a roof replacement to the vertical addition you see in the diagram below.

Buyers/Sellers: What to Discuss with Your Realtor (at minimum)

  • Verify the year of the home
  • Verify the current flood zone and BFE with a new elevation certificate (Why? FIRM maps are updated and a seller’s certificate may be outdated – even if from 1-2 years ago)
  • Permits for ground-level improvements

Buyers: How to Spot Non-Conforming Spaces

  • Bathrooms, appliances, furniture, floor coverings (outside of outdoor tile)
  • Signs of utilities (electrical outlets, washer/dryer, AC units, water heater

Sellers: What This Could Mean For You

7140 La Lenaire Dr, Longboat Key, FL 34228 | $1,395,000

4. Verse Yourself in the Local Eco-System and Waterways

Two other factors to take into consideration while contemplating your waterfront move revolve around the waterways themselves and their surrounding eco-systems. Gulf Coast residents take immense pride in preserving the natural beauty of the area and helping maintain it for future viewing. After all, what is waterfront living without the serenity of nature around you?


Mangroves are an iconic and vital flora of the region. They are home to many local species of bird, protect shorelines, prevent erosion and help maintain water quality and clarity by filtering out pollutants originating from land. As such, should they enrich your current or future property (or even your neighbor’s) there some things to keep in mind. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has a wonderful homeowner’s guide available for download specific to this subject matter, but it’s always a good idea to check with your local government and realtor to confirm the species and specifics of plant and wildlife that could also call your property home.

Adjacent Waters – Who Owns the Land?

“How you intend to use your waterfront property will shape the issues you face leading up to closing. Access to the water, the ability to build a dock, and how close to the water you’ll be able to build or remodel your home will vary depending on the body of water adjacent to the property.  You’ll want to understand the limitations if you have certain uses in mind.”

– Erin Christy Esq. (panelist)

1011 Casey Key Rd, Nokomis, FL 34275 | $11,950,000

One of the more complex and abstract aspects of waterfront ownership is determining the types of “Water Rights” afforded to the homeowner and the type of activity and building it allows. Depending on the body of water and whether there are tides, currents or steady flow will ultimately dictate the permissions. While you should always clarify with your realtor and county as to the nuances that dictate your water usage, some general things to know specifically as a homebuyer (since sellers are likely familiar with their property) are:

  • Waterfront property owners generally own the land and have access to the water.
  • Other people share the ability to use the water.
  • In cases of waterfront property where there is a beach, ownership can extend to the Mean High Water Line or the median measurement as observed for several years of where high tide has hit.
  • In cases of bayfront properties, owners may own the land under the water for the purpose of building docks and seawalls, setting down anchors and fishing. The challenge here is that submerged land may be owned by another private entity or the state, affecting the aforementioned structures/activities.

5. The Moor Your Know About Your Boat and Preferred Water Activities, the Better

580 Putting Green Ln, Longboat Key, FL 34228 | $2,997,000

A lot goes into whether you’re able to build a dock/pier as seen from our last tip, but once built, additional things to consider are the water depths needed to legally accommodate the vessels you’re hoping to launch and moor. Buyers should take inventory of the types of watersports they and their family are hoping to enjoy. It may ultimately rule out otherwise incredible homes. It will also help your realtor zero in only on ones that allow you to live your preferred lifestyle. After all, we can’t think of many people that would want to spend a portion of their day looking at their dream home only to have them find they would need to sacrifice their favorite hobby. Sellers should have permits of dock construction/repair and confirm the ability to moor or launch vessels (motorized or not) before the marketing a home with these capabilities.

Your realtor will do the legwork of getting a bathymetric survey if needed to verify the depths of the surrounding waters and draft/clearance regulations associated with local sea life, as seen in the example below. They’ll also be able to obtain the setback requirement, the distance by which a building or part of a building is set back from the property line, for added pools or fences if needed.

“Just because you see a structure that looks like a dock doesn’t mean that you can moor your boat there. A bathymetric survey done by a licensed surveyor will tell you the water depths surrounding the dock and allow you to make plans for the specifications of the boat you plan to moor there.”

– Erin Christy, Esq. (panelist)

Waterfront Property is among the Gulf Coast’s many gifts to its residents, and with this privilege comes a responsibility of everyone (be them homeowners or beachgoers) to preserve the beauty and health of our paradise. There’s no denying we live within a playground of natural amenity and owning a piece of that is worth any risk, permitting or process. If you would like to be put in touch with one of our waterfront real estate specialists, call 888.552.5228.

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5 Essential Tips for Buying and Selling Waterfront Properties was last modified: July 3rd, 2019 by Michael Saunders