5 Questions to Ask When Buying Waterfront Property

Questions to Ask Before Buying a Waterfront Home

Buying a waterfront home means that the new owner will have certain rights, responsibilities, and risks that other types of homes do not carry. Investing in waterfront homes for sale requires a lot of due diligence from the potential homebuyer because some aspects of waterfront ownership are a bit murky under Canadian law—and sometimes, asking the right questions before buying waterfront property is important simply to ensure your enjoyment of your new waterfront real estate. These tips for first-time waterfront property buyers can help you save money and find your dream home.

Will I Still Enjoy My Waterfront Property During Winter?

When the surface of a lake can become a solid chunk of ice, this is definitely a question to ask when buying a waterfront property in Canada. Just because a piece of property has water frontage doesn't mean the owner will be able to enjoy the water all year-round. Buying a lake property where the lake freezes over in winter means you won't be able to swim or boat on the property until the spring thaw. Other hobbies like fishing may be possible year-round, but summer fishing and ice fishing can also provide completely different experiences. On the other hand, activities on the frozen lake may be part of the appeal.

Another question homeowners should ask when buying a lake house is whether they want the new home to be a three-season vacation getaway or a year-round residence. This can help determine which lake would be the best fit, as well as what type of property to look for. For example, a homeowner who wants to use the property as a summer getaway may expand their search beyond their expectations of a primary residence, while someone who wants to live on the waterfront year-round may want a more luxurious home. Distance is also a factor; if the lake house is too far away from the primary residence, it may be difficult to get to for frequent trips.

What Are the Boundaries of My Waterfront Ownership?

The answer to this question under Canadian law can depend a lot on where, exactly, the property is. The only thing that is certain under Canadian law is that the foreshore — the land beneath a body of water — belongs to the government. The water levels of rivers and lakes rise and fall with the changing of the seasons.

If the low-water mark determines a waterfront home's boundary, that would mean that the property boundaries contract in spring when the water level rises and expand in summer when the water level goes down. If the high-water mark determines the boundary, it is fixed throughout the year. However, soil erosion next to a body of water that results in a changing high watermark can reduce the size of the homeowner's property over time.

There is no fixed standard in Canadian law for a waterfront boundary, so they vary by province. If a homeowner challenges the boundary lines, the courts are urged to use due diligence and common sense to determine an answer. Deeds and patents from more than a century ago can often contain conflicting answers about where a property line is, so homeowners should be able to provide proof of their claims before challenging waterfront boundaries.

Has the Home Flooded Before?

Flooding in Canada has been the number one disaster on insurance claims every year since the 1980s. Knowing whether a property has flooded before — and how often a waterfront area can potentially flood — can help first-time waterfront homebuyers know how much flood insurance they need to purchase. Knowledge of the potential of flooding in an area can also let property owners know the level of emergency preparedness needed in the event of a flood evacuation.

Both the Canadian government and the private sector have been working on improved flood maps for property owners since 2015. FloodSmart Canada maintains a list of flood maps in all territories and provinces for homeowners to use. Some provinces also have government flood maps for potential homebuyers to access and assess their risks. For example, the provincial government maintains an Ontario flood map with detailed information for property owners.

Flood insurance rates are impacted by the likelihood or risk of an area flooding in the future. This can be important information for someone looking to buy a piece of waterfront property in Canada.

What is the Water Quality Like?

Check the Water Quality Before Buying a Waterfront HomePart of the allure of owning a waterfront property is the ability to access the water for recreational purposes, such as swimming, fishing or boating. This is why potential homebuyers must find out about water quality before purchasing. Chemical and biological pollutants, invasive plant species and other factors can limit the amount of human access allowed in a body of water. These pollutants can even impact the groundwater or well water for property owners.

Government agencies and lake associations typically test water quality at the same time every year to track water quality consistently over time. This is public information that homebuyers can access to determine any issues. For example, lab testing can detect whether a lake has become impacted by harmful bacteria, such as E. coli. This could lead to humans being prohibited from swimming, fishing or even boating on a body of water. Testing can also reveal phosphorous levels, alkalinity, nitrogen, dissolved oxygen, and other harmful factors.

As another example, invasive plant or algae species can absorb too much oxygen from a body of water, presenting harm to fish populations. This could lead to fishing being suspended in that lake until the invasive plant species is resolved.

Can I Build a Dock on the Property?

The province of Ontario passed a new law in 2020 called the Better for People, Smarter for Business Act. The law makes the rules governing the building of docks, single-storey boathouses and other essential purchases for waterfront homes much more lenient for homeowners. These structures are now considered a "free use" of the Crown's foreshore, so no provincial permitting or leasing is required.

However, municipal or federal permitting may still be required for building a dock, boathouse, or other waterfront structure. Homeowners may still have to apply for a provincial work permit to build a structure such as a dock. If a structure like a dock or a boathouse touches less than 15 square metres of the foreshore (lake bottom), no work permit is required. A work permit is required if the structure touches more than 15 metres of the foreshore.

The new law also clarified regulations in Ontario related to structures fixed to a dock. For example, a gazebo or pergola built on the dock for shade is now legally considered part of the dock itself, rather than a separate structure requiring its permits.

Ready to Own a Lakeside Paradise? Know the Right Questions to Ask When Buying Waterfront Property

When shopping for a waterfront home in Canada, homebuyers should go digging for the answers to all their questions. The answers can significantly impact a decision to buy a waterfront home, how much (if any) flood insurance to buy, whether the homeowner is allowed to make improvements to the property, and even whether recreation in or on the water is safe. With the right questions, homebuyers can rest assured that their waterfront home is the perfect purchase.

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