Tips for Choosing a Waterfront Home in Wilmington NC

Written by Posted On Thursday, 16 January 2020 11:40
Aerial shot of Wilmington NC Waterfront Home Aerial shot of Wilmington NC Waterfront Home Copright 2018 The Cameron Team

Wilmington, NC, is a popular area for home buyers looking to purchase a waterfront home for sale. It’s located between the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway that runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. Barrier islands, like Figure 8 Island and Harbour Island (part of Wrightsville Beach), sit between Wilmington and the ocean, and are home to a number of luxury properties. Due to this unique layout, there are a variety of waterfront properties to choose from. If you’re new to buying waterfront, it can be overwhelming but not impossible to narrow your home search. Here are some tips to make sure you’re choosing the best property for your desired lifestyle.

Select the Best Body of Water

Before starting your home search, it’s important you think hard about what you hope to get out of your new waterfront property. Are you hoping to breathe in the salty sea air and fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves? No one will argue against the healing powers of “Vitamin Sea”. You’ll not only want to search for oceanfront but also some Intracoastal Waterway (ICWW) homes because of how close they can be to the Atlantic. Just keep in mind that most of the beach areas around Wilmington are public (an exception would be Figure 8, a private island only accessible by boat and a guarded bridge). Strangers will be walking past your home every day, so you’ll basically be sharing your back yard.  

Is your main goal to have your boat steps from your back door? Do you want to canoe, kayak, swim, fish, or paddleboard? Start a search for creek front, ICWW front, sound front, or marina front homes. Depending on the property search, you can also include a dock or boat slip in the search parameters. You’ll need to further research each property to know if the water is suitable for swimming, fishing, etc. If you like deep-sea fishing, you’ll also want to consider the travel time by boat from the home to the ocean.

If you want to boat and aren’t set on navigating the ICWW, the Cape Fear River is another option. With a home on the river, you can watch large ships pass by or boat up to Historic Downtown Wilmington or River Bluffs for excellent dining options. While the Cape Fear River looks like a calm body of water, it is not recommended that you swim in it. Due to its connection to the Atlantic Ocean, the currents are deceivingly strong and the riverbank can be very steep. The river claims more lives than any other in North Carolina. Nevertheless, it provides some wonderful views for boaters.

Water views are relaxing and good for your health, so if that’s all you really want from a waterfront property, consider marsh front, lake front, and pond front homes. The good news for you is that these types of waterfront homes are usually much more affordable than those with docks and direct beach access. There are also more pond front homes spread throughout Wilmington because developers often add ponds to their neighborhoods for runoff control. While these aren’t good for swimming in, they do give the opportunity to observe local wildlife.

Get a Survey and Analyze the Waterline

Once you’ve chosen a property to pursue, you’ll want to spend additional time analyzing the waterline. Most importantly, get a survey of the property. This will reveal if the property is indeed waterfront. This may sound silly, but some homeowners’ associations (HOA), developers, and towns retain the rights to the land that’s directly on the water. A good example of this would be an HOA that retains control of a 5-foot border around a pond for maintenance purposes. While you’ll still be able to enjoy the benefits of the waterfront, it will affect what changes or additions you can make (learn more below under Research Restrictions and Regulations).

If you plan on docking a boat at the property, there are a few additional things you need to take into consideration. First, you need to verify if the water is deep enough to accommodate the size of your boat. Most sellers will be able to share this information, but we recommend you double-check the water depth and observe how it changes from tide to tide. Also, verify that the waterway is clear of obstructions, like oyster beds. You may be able to dock a boat of a certain size, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able drive it out to the ICWW.  

Climate change has been a concern among homeowners of waterfront properties. Not only can it affect the ability to dock a boat or access the water, but it can threaten the safety of structures on a property and lower the value of the real estate. If you’re worried that it may affect your new home, check with the current owner and neighbors to see how the waterline has changed overtime. Ask questions like:

    • Has there been an increase or decrease in depth over the years?
    • Is there a cycle to the water level? Does it go up and down every certain number of years?
    • How low can the water go before the channel is no longer navigable?
    • Has the waterway ever been dredged?

For pond front and lake front homeowners, inquire about how the waterline responds to hurricane and storm runoff. Flooding can be an issue if the home was not built at a proper distance from the water or if the waterline and drainage area hasn’t been maintained.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions now, because litigation after closing is costly. We also recommend doing a practice drive with your boat when applicable to make sure there won’t be any issues.

Research Restrictions and Regulations

Waterfront properties are subject to local, state, and federal regulations, the extent of which is determined by its location. These restrictions determine what can be done with the shoreline, including building or improving a dock, pier, boathouse, or bulkhead, as well as planting, removing, or cutting vegetation. Your Wilmington REALTOR® will be able to help you with resources for understanding which regulations you face, especially when these regulations have a tendency to change.

You’ll also want to read the Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) and any HOA documents that are available. While CC&Rs are most often cited as part of the HOA documents, they may still exist without an active HOA. All CC&Rs are filed in public records that can be searched on the New Hanover County Register of Deeds website.

Another thing you should check with the county about is permits. Just because there is a dock or similar structure on the property doesn’t mean it was legally permitted to be built. If the county finds out that an illegal structure exists, you could be forced to removed it, even if it was built years ago.

If there is a bulkhead at the shoreline, verify if it’s the homeowner’s responsibility or the HOA’s to maintain it. Bulkheads can be very costly to repair, so you definitely need to know this. If it’s the homeowner’s responsibility, you’ll want to order an inspection before making a final commitment to purchasing the home.

Finally, if the home is outdated or too small, you may be thinking about remodeling. Be aware there may be restrictions on what you’re able to do to the home, including which materials and colors you can use on the exterior and the amount of square-footage you can add to the floor plan. You may even be restricted from building a pool or fence (or limited to certain materials or a specific height). It’s best to check with the HOA and county offices to see what limitations you face.

Verify Utilities

Before purchasing a waterfront home, verify the available utilities, including internet and cable. It may seem crazy in this day and age that some utilities wouldn’t be available in well-populated areas, but it does happen, and we’ve seen it recently. One of the largest internet and cable providers in the Wilmington area wasn’t available for a single street in Surf City, because the developer wouldn’t give them access to a utility easement. If you work from home, not having high speed internet can be a major issue. Sadly, sellers don’t always disclose situations like this. In this case, the sellers were using a cellular hotspot for their internet needs and didn’t think cable was a required utility.

Check the History of Sales

When you purchase a house, you’re not just buying a home, but you’re also making an investment. If the value of that investment declines, so does the amount of money you can get back when you sell. This may be of little concern to you if you plan on this being your forever home but consider what happens if you fall on hard times. Before you get too far into the Due Diligence Period, look at the history of sales in the community and along the shoreline. If there are a lot of other waterfront homes listed for sale or have sold in the past 2 years, there could be a major issue - like polluted waters, high maintenance costs, rising waters, or an eroded beach. Dig a little deeper, check out local news sources, and consider speaking with the neighbors. It may just be coincidence, but you still want to make an informed decision.

Choose a Waterfront Property with "Rentability"

If your Wilmington waterfront home is going to be a vacation property rented out when you aren’t using it, it’s a good idea to choose a home with high “rentability”. That can mean choosing a home with an established rental history or a location within walking distance of restaurants and popular attractions. If you’re looking for a waterfront condominium, there are some complexes with onsite rental management and amenities, like swimming pools and fitness centers. These usually cost more but may increase your enjoyment of the vacation property.

Choose a REALTOR® with Waterfront Experience

Buying a waterfront home in Wilmington requires more work and dedication than a normal home. It can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before (and even when you have). You should hire a Wilmington REALTOR® who is experienced in buying waterfront properties and understands the regulations and restrictions you may face. Give us a call at (910) 202-2546 or reach out to us via our website. We’re happy to help you with your waterfront purchase. Also, check out our search for waterfront homes for sale in Wilmington, NC.

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Melanie Cameron

Melanie has been a professional, full-time Realtor since 1994 specializing in the marketing and selling of residential homes in Wilmington and surrounding areas. Melanie is a luxury home specialist, Global Luxury Properties Specialist, and Certified Short Sale Specialist. She has been a consistent Top Producer in the Coldwell Banker system and honored in the Coldwell Banker International Presidents Elite Circle for multiple years for her outstanding  production.  Melanie and her Team of professionals on The Cameron Team are ready, willing and able to handle all your real estate needs. 

A North Caroline native, Melanie moved to Wilmington from Chapel Hill where she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1994. Melanie is married to David Cameron and has twins, James and Maggie and 2 dogs, Max and Ruby.

Contact Melanie with any questions you may have about listing your home and owning real estate in the Greater Wilmington Area.



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