As summer approaches, activity on lakes—large and small—increases. But in my experience as a REALTOR® and certified appraiser, it is apparent that many agents, brokers, and appraisers have not acquired all the knowledge, skills, and perspective needed to accurately evaluate lakefront property. In the hope of filling in some of the gaps, here are some tips on how appraisers can provide a more defensible appraisal on these complex properties as well as some of the nuances that agents who are new to lake properties should consider.
The Why of the Buy
Both appraisers and agents alike need to be aware of the motivations that result in sales. Appraisers need to be in touch with the vagaries of the different submarkets in order to adequately analyze the properties they appraise, and agents need to understand that there is much more to selling lake property than front footage.
What motivates a buyer to purchase a lake property? Is it the tranquility? The beauty of the water? The excitement of a speedboat and waterskiing, or casting a line into the water in hopes of landing a trophy catch? It is all of these things, and none of these things. The motivations are almost as numerous as the buyers looking for a lake house are, and one buyer’s paradise is another’s hell. Different types of lakes attract different buyers, and the buyer looking for tranquility is going to be very unhappy purchasing a house on a lake crowded with jet skis and powerboats. The same would be true for the avid motorist who buys on a small, quiet fishing lake.
Quality Over Quantity
While some depend on how many “front feet” the property has on the water to determine value, that is not necessarily the best course. The amount of frontage usually relates to space between neighbors and how much area is available for docking and beach toys. But consider the house sitting on the edge of a bluff, with 200 feet of frontage and 100 steep steps down to the water. What if the shoreline is also rocky and reedy? Five lots south, the topography has sloped in to a gentle, almost level lot and the frontage itself is a natural sandy beach. This lot has only 50 feet at the lakefront. Which is more valuable?
The value of a lake property could be tied not only to the ease of the access and the quality of the frontage but also to the lake itself. For a clean swimming lake, the narrower 50-foot lot might be much more valuable than the less accessible 200-foot lot. But for a lake that is picturesque but not good for swimming or boating, the 200-foot lot with the elevated views might be the more valuable site. It all depends on the lake and why buyers might be interested in that particular spot.
Present and Future Demand
I live and work in Michigan, a state surrounded by lakes of all kinds. The Great Lakes are a treasure, but not exactly the bastions of privacy and quiet you see on some of the smaller inland lakes. Many of our inland lakes are massive in size, deep, and clean. Some are shallow, reedy, and mucky, making them more of a viewing amenity than anything else. Some lakes allow all the toys and others only a kayak or canoe. Some are merely ponds in buyers’ eyes.
There are many questions that buyers, real estate agents, and appraisers should consider in addition to the present appeal of the lake itself, because these issues contribute to whether the lake remains appealing into the future. Some lakes are manmade in that they are the result of damming a river. Some municipalities are considering removing such dams—in that case, what happens to the manmade lake? Some lakes have been invaded by unwelcome species such as zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, and other nuisances. Lakes with public access sites tend to have more trouble with these invasive species, though they do also travel naturally through waterfowl and other means. Could a lake with an invasive species problem become less desirable than one without? Is there any guarantee that a pristine lake will remain so? What about the life cycle of a lake? Is it a dying lake, or is it likely to stay in similar condition for the foreseeable future? How is the management on the lake? Is there an active association that seeks to ensure the health of the lake? Are septic systems monitored? Does the association have prohibitions against fertilizers?
But just as bodies of water can change, so too can our perspectives on them. Is it possible that we are starting to see a shift, as our population ages, to the desire for quiet lakes that do not allow gas motors? It used to be that these quiet “no-wake” lakes had less appeal, but in many instances, they are now attracting buyers that would not have considered them 10 or 20 years ago. There is something to be said for the quiet of a lake without loud motors and loud reveling at all hours of the day and night. On the other hand, these lakes have limitations of use, and buyers who want to have it all might find the sportier lakes desirable, in particular if there are limited year-round residents. The lack of year-round residents could mean that the owner has quieter weekdays, with increased activity on the weekends and over holidays.
The Tools at Your Disposal
The Department of Natural Resources maintains lake maps in most areas. These maps show the topography and composition of the lake bottom. DNR maps will also show public access points, existing housing, and other features. Appraisers and agents alike should become familiar with these maps. Plat maps are also available in many areas, and these can be used to examine other features, such as ownership issues where a third party may control the frontage in between a property and the lake shore. Another concern that can impact value is keyholing or funneling, where backlot owners have rights to a parcel on the water. Just being aware of some of these issues can help you be a better advocate for your client and know when to direct them toward legal counsel to help determine whether they have water rights.
Not All Sales Are Comparable
If possible, it’s best to find comparables on the same lake, but remember, lakes also have varied topography, both on shore and to the lake bottoms, and just because the potential comparable property is on the same lake might not mean that the properties are actually comparable.
Appraisers need to understand the lake itself and which lakes are reasonable alternates if nothing is available on the lake upon which we are doing our appraisal. Know your market and write about what is important to the target audience. How large is the lake? How deep is it? What types of activities are allowed on the lake? What are the other lakes that the buyer for our property would reasonably consider and why? Fully describe the topography, frontage, and access to the water at the subject site. Write about whether the beach is sandy, mucky, rocky, reedy, and so forth. Document sunrise and sunset views, parking, and docking. Agents don’t have the same communication requirements as appraisers do here, but they should be aware of what appraisers are considering and what they are reporting, because such factors affect the pricing conversation as well.
Determining logical comparable search criteria is incredibly important in lakefront homes because buyers may consider properties on lakes that are 20 or 30 miles apart, something that might scare some of the most experienced underwriters if not properly explained. A smart appraiser will set the stage ahead of time through the narrative in the report, which will help the underwriter and reviewers understand the thought process for the choice of comparables. Once the appraisers have spelled out the reasons that have drawn a buyer to the subject lake, discussion follows about the lakes that are competitive and why they are competitive. This can justify the use of sometimes very distant comparables.
Agents can help by providing appraisers with information about the lakes that the buyer considered and why they considered them as competitive. If your buyer would only consider one lake, explain why. While it might not be possible for the appraiser to stay on that lake due to lack of recent sales data, the buyer’s motivations to that lake over others can still be helpful.
Summer is coming and lake buyers will be out in force again soon. Be prepared to have a lake appraisal take longer and be costlier than a regular subdivision job. Take the extra time necessary for these lake deals to research the lake and the site, in addition to the improvements on the site. Hopefully the extra effort will pay off and you’ll be better able to enjoy your next lakeside sunset or cool dip in the water.