By Celeste M. Smucker–
Water draws and fascinates us, and along with mountain views is the natural feature most sought-after by home buyers. Whether we own a lot on one of our local lakes, a home on the James River or a rural property with its own pond, water adds value to our lives.
The water calls us for many reasons from taking the edge off day-to- day stress to providing a sense of tranquility and a relaxing place to be after a hectic day regardless of whether we are working, vacationing or retired. Many people retire on the water after spending vacations there a couple of weeks a year during their working days, often buying a second home for occasional weekends that get longer and longer until, finally, living full time on the water becomes a reality.
Outdoorsy people also love life on the water where they have easy access to recreational activities like boating, fishing, canoeing or kayaking, and jet or water skiing. Spectacular views, access to swimming beaches and public boat ramps (for those who don’t have their own dock) as well as hike and bike trails add to the allure of being full time on the water.
In our area, waterfront living doesn’t have to be something we enjoy only occasionally while on vacation or visiting a friend or relative. One of our many waterfront communities has just what we need to begin experiencing this same vacation lifestyle every day. Ask your REALTOR® for advice. You will be surprised at the variety of properties that are available, affordable and nearby.
A Host of Options
Water living comes in many forms from a pond or a stream on your own property to a rural lot on the James to one of our area’s popular waterfront communities such as Lake Monticello, Lake Louisa, Lake Anna, or Smith Mountain Lake. Each has its own ambiance and advantages for buyers to consider before making a purchase.
The James is our Commonwealth’s largest river. Flowing from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, it “has been an active part of our lives for a long time,” says Paul Kilgore with Montague Miller and Co. who has been active in Amherst County Real Estate for over 30 years.
In Colonial times the river served as an “interstate highway” and the main means for getting goods from west to east. When rail took over as the main means of transportation, the tracks were built along the river, zigzagging back and forth across it and effectively eliminating 50 percent of river frontage, Kilgore said. He described Lynchburg as “a unique river town,” but a place where the railroad makes the water inaccessible.
Our local topography can also be a hindrance to river access, Kilgore continued, explaining that in parts of Amherst County the banks are very steep. In addition, the depth of the water can be a problem for boaters, though there are exceptions. For example, the area above the Reusens Dam has consistently deep (5 to 17 feet) water sufficient for any kind of boat, Kilgore said.
All of these considerations are important for buyers wanting riverfront property, so be sure to use an agent well versed in the area. Kilgore also advises that while lots are available, they are hard to find so tell your agent to be on the lookout. With “stealth and a little luck,” you can find what you want, he continued.
Other popular alternatives are the lakefront communities that come with lots of amenities both tangible and intangible. Vicki Wilson, Principal Broker with Monticello Country REALTORS®, shared that she and her husband used to enjoy visiting her parents at the gated community of Lake Monticello in Fluvanna County after they relocated there from Charlottesville in 1983.
“We would spend every 4th of July here, where there would be fireworks on the lake and tons of family activities. We loved it so much, we built our waterfront home here twenty years ago and never left. We have raised our twins here and they still live at the lake too.”
Lake Monticello, with its 22.5 miles of shoreline, is just 15 miles from Charlottesville, a big part of the attraction. It also offers amenities such as a golf course, marina, clubhouse and pool.
“Buyers are attracted to Lake Monticello because of the quality of life offered by the community and the entire Charlottesville area,” said Patsy Strong, Principal Broker with Strong Team REALTORS®. “Whether people are looking for the fun and relaxing waterfront lifestyle or the world-class experiences in Charlottesville, Lake Monticello offers an opportunity for people to have both,” she added.
For buyers who like a gated community but want a quieter experience, nearby Blue Ridge Shores, the planned community on Lake Louisa, may be just the ticket. A private lake for home owners only, it was first filled in 1960, but had to be refilled after Hurricane Camille destroyed the dam in 1969. Today it has five miles of shoreline, and features fishing, water skiing, tubing and boating. Swimming is also popular there and the community maintains three beaches. However, if you love to jet ski, look elsewhere as that activity is prohibited.
Further to the east is Lake Anna overlapping Louisa and Spotsylvania Counties with a small section extending into Orange. Mitch Shumate, owner of Lake Anna Realty, explained that it is the second largest lake in Virginia, with over 200 miles of shoreline and 13 thousand acres of water surface. Its size allows for multiple communities with many different housing styles to choose from. A public lake, it attracts lots of boat traffic and authorities require strict adherence to state boating laws. Similarly, if you love to fish a current license is required.
Although further from Charlottesville than either Lake Louisa or Lake Monticello, Lake Anna attracts an increasing number of commuters from our area, Shumate explained, along with those from Fredericksburg and Richmond.
Smith Mountain Lake, west of Charlottesville near Lynchburg and Roanoke, is the largest lake contained entirely within the Commonwealth. With over 500 miles of shoreline and multiple communities overlapping two counties, buyers will find everything they need.
Deborah Beran with RE/MAX Lakefront Realty, Inc., a Smith Mountain Lake resident for over 30 years, described it as the “hidden jewel of the Blue Ridge.” The lake was created from a dam and reached full capacity on March 7, 1966, making it over 50 years old.
Leslie Becker is an architect, Broker/Owner of SML Properties International and owner of Premier Vacation Rentals. A long time resident of Smith Mountain Lake she conducted a search for lake communities from Virginia to Pennsylvania before settling there. She cited the return on investment from property ownership as a big reason for her decision along with amenities such as easy access to DC and the Northeast via the bullet train out of Lynchburg, or direct flights to LaGuardia out of Roanoke.
Waterfront Market Is Hot
Shumate described the real estate market as “active, the best market we’ve had in 3-4 years.” The rental market is also hot and the properties they manage—vacation rentals that go by the week— are fully booked.
“This is an unbelievably exciting market,” exclaimed Libby Sandridge with Dockside Realty who specializes in Lake Anna properties.
“Inventory is down,” Becker said stating that they had double the inventory of homes for sale at Smith Mountain Lake a year ago. They are seeing greater growth in the part of the market in Bedford County where owners can rent their homes on a part time basis. In Franklin County, which features full time owners only, the growth is happening but is a little slower.
In addition Becker indicated prices are rising making it more of a sellers’ market than previously. Buyers looking for foreclosures will be disappointed as there aren’t any, she said.
The market is also impressive at Lake Monticello. Last year at this time, Wilson said, there were 117 total sales, while this year sales to date are 136. Eight waterfront homes have sold this year starting at $384,000, while there are 4 under contract ranging in price from $399,500 to $935,000.
While retirees, people anticipating retirement in the near future, and second home buyers are the obvious candidates for waterfront property, this is changing as more and more people telecommute or work a business out of their home.
Sandridge reports that “Lake Anna still remains a second home community, however we are seeing more primary home buyers due to Dominion Power and other local companies not to mention that today many jobs are giving employees the option to work remotely.”
“Most of our waterfront buyers are from Northern Virginia and DC Metro Area, New Jersey and New York,” Wilson said. She added that while some start out wanting a second home where they can relax on weekends, in her experience, many move there permanently, often “sooner than later,” either retiring early or working from home. Of course the availability of high speed internet makes it easy to work from home she said, and “what is better than working from home with a water view and access to the lake?”
Beran said that people buying vacation homes or those investing to rent are common as are “snow birds,” people who summer at Smith Mountain Lake and spend winters somewhere warmer like Florida.
Becker is seeing more and more young families with children relocating to Smith Mountain Lake, often entrepreneurs who work from home. The health care sector is also a draw in that area bringing people who are willing to drive the half hour or so to their jobs.
She estimates that about half of the buyers are people looking for a second home who plan to retire there and half are full time residents. While there are exceptions, most second home buyers come from no more than 3 hours away, minimizing the drive and assuring they won’t be too far from family and friends when they do finally move there for good.
A Knowledgeable REALTOR® Is Essential
“Choose a brokerage that specializes in waterfront properties and homes,” Wilson said, a sentiment echoed by the other agents.
“The Lake Anna real estate market is unique and location counts more than any other single factor,” Sandridge explained, adding that “it is important to be careful and make sure you are receiving advice from a local experienced Lake Anna agent.”
Becker urges buyers to ask their agents about the depth of the water and whether that is controlled. The water depth of Smith Mountain Lake is “controlled within five feet,” she said because it was created by a dam. This means residents can always count on it being deep enough for their boats.
Sellers also need an agent who understands waterfront property in order to help set a reasonable price when they list their home and to offer helpful advice and negotiation expertise when they receive a buyer contract.
If you yearn for the perfect second home, are looking forward to retirement, or just love the idea of living on the water, this is a great time to buy. Contact your agent now for more details.
Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.