Questions to Ask When Buying Waterfront Property in Alabama | Great Days Outdoors

Most everyone dreams of owning a piece of waterfront property where he or she can go out his or her front door, surf fish, swim in the water and pick up treasures on walks. Or, perhaps we imagine having a place at a lake or a river where we can build a house, spend hours fishing and watching the boat traffic passing in front of our yard and home and invite our families and friends to fish, fellowship, swim, hike and lay out on the deck. There are many options when it comes to waterfront property in Alabama, however, there are questions one needs to consider before buying.

When you consider buying near the water, there may be hidden costs you’re not aware of until after the papers are signed, the mortgage is set-up, and you’re ready to move. Buying waterfront real estate isn’t the same as buying a plot in a subdivision well away from water. You must consider numerous issues that may impact your land.

To help our readers be better informed of the issues facing buyers, we’ve talked with two knowledgeable resources about buying or building your dream house on or near the water. These are their suggestions on questions to ask when buying waterfront property in Alabama.




Waterfront Specialist Angelo DePaola

Angelo DePaola is a realtor in Orange Beach, Alabama.He is known as the “Coastal Connection” and is brokered by eXp Realty. DePaola focuses on buying and selling boating and waterfront properties along the Gulf Coast in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala., and Perdido Key in Florida.

When we asked DePaola to name the number-one item a person should be aware of before investing in a lot on waterfront property, he answered, “A buyer must determine what the cost may be to get that waterfront property in a condition to build on, probably something you haven’t considered. All waterfront property isn’t created equal.”

DePaola Lists Some Questions to Ask When Buying Waterfront Property in Alabama

According to DePaola, “You need to know:

*“what the setbacks are in that community;


* “whether or not wetlands are on that land, and what amount of wetlands you’ll be allowed to delineate on that property. Delineating wetlands means you’ll have to invest in a wetlands bank, buying wetlands from someone who owns wetlands, like the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Those wetlands you purchase from them never can be used for anything but will give you the permission to destroy the wetlands on your waterfront property.

“You only can delineate the amount of acreage that’s absolutely necessary to put in a driveway and a house. For instance, if 75% of that land is designated as wetlands, you only may be able to delineate 25% of that property to build a house and a driveway. You may not be able to use the rest of your parcel, since it may have to remain in wetlands. That’s generally very expensive and will add to the cost of the land you want to buy where you want to build.  

* “how much dirt you may have to bring onto the parcel you’re hoping to buy to have a buildable foundation;

* “what shape the seawall and the dock pilings are in, if you’re buying a plot that already has a house, a pier and/or a seawall on it. Remember that just because there’s a seawall, it still may need restoring. That seawall may be 20 years old, constructed of wood and have a lot of worm rot. You may have to spend an average of about $50 per square foot to put in a new seawall. The dock pilings also may be eaten up with worms and have to be replaced. You need to pay attention to all the structures on the waterfront property you’re hoping to purchase. Some or many of those structures may need to be overhauled immediately after you buy the parcel;


waterfront property

Be sure to thoroughly inspect all the structures on the waterfront property you’re hoping to purchase.


* “how deep and wide is the place where you can put your boat on your property. If you have or are planning to buy a big boat, perhaps a 70 foot sport-fishing boat, certain places in some coastal communities may not offer the water depth you’ll need in front of the lot or the home to dock your boat. Perhaps the pier already on the land doesn’t have enough beam (the width of the boat) to put your boat in, and some waterfront properties may have a current so strong that docking your boat there may be difficult. An unforeseen cost may be having to dredge out a portion of the bottom, so that that area is deep enough for you to park your boat;

* “what to do with the dredge material pulled up from the bottom. Generally you’ll have to put that dredge material on your lot and pay someone to haul it off and dump it;  

* “how long your pier must be to reach deep water where you can float the boat. You may have to lengthen your dock to park your boat next to deep water;

* “how much difficulty you’ll have getting building materials to that lot. If you buy a lot on Ono Island, let’s say, there’s a limited amount of weight that a truck can carry to go over that bridge to the island to move truckloads of dirt and/or building materials. Instead of hauling one truckload of materials to your building site or to remove dirt from your building site, you may have to hire two or three trucks, due to the bridge’s weight restrictions;

* “whether there are problems with wildlife that’s protected. On the Alabama/Florida Gulf Coast and especially in Alabama’s Baldwin and Escambia counties, the habitat of the beach mouse is protected. If the waterfront property in Alabama you’re considering purchasing doesn’t already have a beach-mouse take permit in place, then you may buy it and learn you can’t build on that land for three years after your purchase;

* “what the insurance costs will be with property at the beach or inland on fresh water. You need to explore the costs to insure the house and the land before purchasing them;

* “what materials have been used to build any house on the land. On waterfront property in Alabama, building materials weather much-more rapidly than building materials not near the water. Is the house built out of concrete board or wood that’s been painted? Those two building materials weather at different rates;

* “what the riparian rights (a system for allocating water among those who possess land along its path) are. If your land is in a bend of a river, a creek, a bayou or a lake, and you draw straight lines from your neighbors’ lands on either side of your plot out into the water, their property lines may restrict the size of the dock or the boathouse you can build on your land;

* “what if any restrictions an HOA has placed on the size of a house and the size and height of a boathouse. On Ono Island, you only can build a certain size of boat dock. In Terry Cove where I live, no one can have a covered boathouse or a covered dock;

* “what you can do with the water in front of the lot you hope to purchase. Is that land in a no-wake zone? Or, can boats go past your land running 50 mph? You may want to know too if you can swim off your dock, especially if you’re not in a no-wake zone;

* “what type of fill material you can use. In Orange Beach, you only can use white, washed sand for fill material if you’re building on the water. That type of sand is considerably more expensive than bringing in red clay. If you want to bring in 50-60 truckloads of white, washed sand to build up your lot high enough to make your house equal to the height of your neighbor’s house and avoid water run-off, you’ll incur quite a bit of expense getting the lot prepped with the correct material before you build your house; and

* “what’s the history of the shoreline on the parcel you want to purchase. You may buy a house right on the water and then due to the beach moving, several years later, your house may be 1/2-mile from the water. Or, if that area experiences beach erosion, your house may be in the water in only a few years.

“All these items factor into the value of the waterfront property and its costs.”

You Need an Informed Local Realtor

Armed with questions to ask when buying waterfront property in Alabama, you now need some expertise and that is why you need to use a realtor from the region where you’re looking to buy in order to point out some of the expenses that may be involved and that may add more expenses to your dream lot or dream house.

“A knowledgeable waterfront realtor will know the answers to these questions and others besides understanding restrictions before he or she even looks at the property you want to buy,” DePaola reports. “For example, a friend of mine bought a lot on Alabama’s Gulf Coast on Ono Island for what he considered a fantastic price. However, 75% of that lot was in wetlands. Before he even could use the lot, he had to pay $18,000 for delineation.

“Often someone may purchase a waterfront lot and then learn that the cost to get it permitted or mitigated may be higher than the cost of the land. Once you find your dream waterfront house, you need to evaluate whether the cost of rehabbing that house is more than you want to spend. You may be better off to tear the house down and rebuild to specifications on that lot.

“I had a client who bought a $1.4 million lot and house last year. After talking to contractors, my client decided that tearing the house down and rebuilding a new house there was less expensive than trying to rehab that original house. The price to tear down this house was $50,000, and the price to rebuild was $100,000.

“If you buy a lot without a dock, but you want a dock, you must go through a permitting process. I use a company, Wetland Sciences, in Pensacola, Florida, that does work all over the Southeast. This company determines whether you can put in a dock on specific land and tells you what permits you’ll need, and what amount of property is in wetlands, before you purchase it.

“The problems I’ve mentioned so far aren’t unique to coastal waterfront property. You’ll find many of the same problems associated with waterfront land on rivers and lakes. Permitting always will be an issue on any kind of waterfront property. You’re far better off to know what those issues may be before you purchase the property rather than after buying the land.”

Problems Underneath Your Waterfront House

Mike Hayes of MDH Construction Inc. in Daphne, Ala., deals in problems associated with waterfront houses and he also has advice on questions to ask when buying waterfront property. Mike says, “You may not notice when you’re looking at waterfront property what’s happening under the house you’ve bought like: shifting soil; cracked foundation; doors and windows that don’t open and close; unstable ground where the house may have been built; the need for support and lift devices to help the house be level; crawl space mediation under the house where there’s a high concentration of moisture; floor supports needed for sagging floors; and encapsulation systems to solve moisture problems underneath houses. Most houses built near the water have problems with humidity underneath them. The crawl spaces and houses on pilings are drawing in hot, humid air during the summers and cold air during the winter months.

“With foundation issues, our company will inspect the house for free and tell the potential buyer what problem(s) they may have to deal with if they purchase this waterfront or near-waterfront property. Our company makes this type of inspection after a home inspector has completed his/her inspection and has spotted some type of problem that may be an issue for a potential buyer. Then our company gives advice and our opinion on what the problems are, and how they can be rectified.”

Hayes mentions that one of the worst problems his company ever dealt with was a house built on a piece of waterfront property that had such a moisture problem underneath the house that it had caused the floor joists to sag two inches. On that house, MDH had to do an encapsulation and then some supplemental piering foundation work.

“The moisture was so bad that in-between the original piers, we had to install new piers,” Hayes explains. “In the old days, when boats were  built of wood, to get the wood to bend, people had to use water and pressure to make the wood pliable enough to get the wood in the shape to build the boat. When a house is built on or near water, moisture gets into the wood and often bends and reshapes the floors and the pilings or piers on which the floor is built.”

Hayes reports that this problem is especially prevalent on beach front houses due to the tremendous amount of moisture they pull into them called the stack effect. When you run an air conditioner, you share 40% to 60% of the air inside the house with the air from the crawl space. This very-humid air is sucked up under the house and introduces moisture throughout the house.


wrapped crawlspace

Left: Moisture damage. Right: Completely wrapped and protected crawl space.


Hayes says, “If our company is dealing with a house that has a crawl space under it, we first seal-off all the places that allow air to get into the crawl space under the house. We place a 20 Mil fabric on the ground, bring it up the walls and put in a drainage system to take care of ground water from rains and storms. Then we install a dehumidifier to condition the air, making that crawl space under the house almost like a room underneath the house. This procedure can cost as little as $3-$4 per square foot up to $8 per square foot.

“Many of the crawl spaces on the coast and along waterways are so tight (small) that our company has to charge more for our labor to get into those places and do the work, whereas in crawl spaces in a place like Birmingham, Ala., you just about can walk in the crawl spaces in that section of the state, making encapsulating much easier.”

So, not only do you need to know the questions to ask when buying waterfront property in Alabama, you must also use a knowledgeable company that understands the impact of moisture in these types of regions on foundations and especially wooden houses. These problems are ones that most people who buy waterfront property never see or consider, until they encounter major problems.

For new construction on waterfront or near waterfront property in Alabama, MDH Construction recommends building on a slab and having plenty of drainage away from the house. But often on the beach or in flood zones, houses generally have been built on some type of piers.

“So, make sure you use a good engineer who understands water problems that can occur under houses that may not be seen or felt for several years,” Hayes emphasizes. “Also you must conduct a soil test before you build. People generally don’t spend the money to have the soil tested before building to know what problems they’ll have to deal with later after the house begins to settle.”

To learn more about how to prevent moisture problems, floor sags, difficulties with windows and doors opening, checkout MDH Construction’s website, visit their Facebook page, or you can call 251-333-9355.

To learn more about finding the right waterfront property for you, email Angelo DePaola at, call 850-287-3440, or visit his Facebook page.

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