'Boatable' property prices weather storm

A new twist on vacant land investments

By Inman News Feed
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A new twist on vacant land investments

Steve Bergsman
Inman News

I first heard the term "boatable" from a reader. He sent me an e-mail following up on a column I wrote about investing in vacant land. When I called him back and asked what he did, he said he worked for a company based in Idaho that built "boatable" developments.

Generically, when one sees the word boatable defining a residential property, it means the home or development was built on a section of shoreline that can be accessed by boat, but there are regional differences in the interpretation of the word.

Ocean-facing properties don't use the term, so if you see the word it generally means the development is an inland-type property -- usually on a river or lake.

In some locations, such as the Upper Midwest, the definition is even more specific; the word refers only to a property that can be accessed by a boat with a motor. That's because, even if you have a ditch running beside your house, you could probably get a kayak to float on it and the term is not meant to mislead the public.

As can be expected, boatable properties are usually second homes or in vacationland locations, but they don't have to be. The reader who reached out to me worked for Neighborhood Inc., a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, company that builds boatable developments within medium-sized cities of the Northwest.

Whether referring to a second home or a primary residence, brokers want to apply the adjective boatable to a property listing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it conjures up romantic visions of that bucolic cabin, lawn slipping down to the water's edge, and a weathered dock where a tethered motorboat quietly rocks to the modulated movement of the water.

Secondly, due to the water feature, boatable property prices remain fairly stable. Since development on lakes and rivers is limited, there is not a lot of overbuilding in this particular sector. Prices may get soft in dire times such as this current recession, but unlike the tides, they rarely ebb.

Finally, again because of the constricted development and limited availability of lots on water's edge, these properties are usually highly coveted.

"Boatable properties are worth double or triple" what would be the same residence in a nearby, but not waterfront, location, says Cliff Mort, president of Neighborhood Inc., which has constructed boatable developments in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane, Wash.

Patrick O'Hearn, the manager of Loon Lake Realty in Green Bay, Wis., tells me his firm represents a number of properties on the 118-mile-long Menominee River that separates Wisconsin from the upper peninsula of Michigan, and there is a huge price difference between boatable and similar non-boatable residences.

In terms of real estate language in the Upper Midwest, boatable reflects where the price breaks for different types of properties. You can easily buy a lot on the Menominee River that is of extraordinary beauty where the water looks great, but if the best you can do is access the river by kayak, there is no premium.

"The price can be double or more, depending on other considerations, for a property that is aesthetically pleasing with canoe or kayak access versus one where you can use a small motorboat," O'Hearn adds.

Obviously, before writing this column I checked in with both Mort and O'Hearn to get a sense of the boatable property situation in their geographic areas of business.

Although the Menominee is of considerable length, developable plots along the shoreline, like most other places in most other states, is fairly limited due to government ownership, corporate ownership (by the local power companies) and wetland limitations.

Also, Michigan and Wisconsin maintain setback requirements -- especially in flood plains.

Loon Lake Realty deals only in land and boatable lots, usually of an acre to an acre and a half with 100-plus feet of shoreline. These plots price at $80,000 to $100,000.

The recession hasn't been good for business. Sales had been flat for the past two years, says O'Hearn, but lately things have picked up. "More people from around the country who have a Michigan or Wisconsin connection (either vacationed or visited relations) are buying properties. A lot of buyers are from California and Texas. The rest of the country is finally discovering the inland lakes and woodlands of the Upper Midwest."

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