Buying property with a water view... How can I confirm that the nice view will remain unobstructed over the years?
June 3, 2009 11:54 AM   Subscribe

We are house-hunting in the Seattle area. Looking at property with water views. Willing to pay the higher price that comes with a view. But I'm reading some horror stories about how a neighbor will build a tower in front of your view, or neighbors who refuse to trim their tall shrubs. And then your view is obscured and your property value drops. How do I research this? How can I know if the viewshed is protected or not? What sort of monitoring would I need to do over the years? I will ask my realtor to research it, but I'd like to hear from people with experience with this issue.
posted by valannc to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You don't want to talk to a realtor, you want to talk to a lawyer. Get in touch with a licensed attorney in Seattle who does property and nuisance law.

In general, though diminution of value generally isn't actionable, interference with view, sunlight, water, etc. can create a cause of action for nuisance or a related theory. Absent specifics, and absent being licensed in Washington, it's impossible to give more detail than that.
posted by valkyryn at 12:01 PM on June 3, 2009

And if by some stroke of fortune, you should find yourself considering water-front property, you should be aware of the laws regarding tideland ownership in Washington state. It can be quite complicated and arcane to identify who owns what beyond the high-tide line or the oroginal shoreline survey line.

I know of folks (on Shaw island, among other places) who have bought waterfront only to find a shellfish farm moving into the tidelands in front of their (presumably) expensive house. I think it would be cool, but many folks would not.
posted by csw at 12:10 PM on June 3, 2009

There is not a reliable way to prevent this from happening, should you have a neighbor who is that kind of person. It happens, more often lately in this area, unfortunately, and it does indeed suck. (Personal experience)

To avoid development which blocks your view, make sure you check the zoning for the area. If the property in question (between you & your view) is zoned for anything other than residential, chances are good there may be a tall view-blocking townhouse in the future.

To avoid the shrubbery or tall tree issue, you just have to be on good terms. There are no legal remedies that I am aware of, as long as the person installing the view-blocker is not violating any codes.

Before buying, you may want to introduce yourself to any residents in between your potential location and your view to make a personal judgement on what kind of neighbor they might turn out to be.
posted by Aquaman at 1:33 PM on June 3, 2009

Best answer: Check your zoning laws/city ordinances. You may also want to contact Seattle tree service companies.

My parents house has a view of Lake Washington- when they wanted to remove some dead trees, the tree company was very helpful in explaining the laws.
posted by wongcorgi at 1:44 PM on June 3, 2009

Best answer: I've worked for architecture firms for a number of years in La Jolla, a ritzy enclave of San Diego where a mountain meets the ocean, meaning that lots with ocean views can end up being located quite a ways from the shoreline. Generally, people that live there have quite a bit of money and, quite understandably, view their ocean views as an investment and will fight like mad to protect them. I've even worked on "projects" where my whole job was to shoot down a project by another architect so that our client's views wouldn't be blocked.

Anyway, I'm sure San Diego is quite different from Seattle, but there are a number of avenues to ensure that your views do not get blocked. I'll try to explain how I'd go about investigating or ensuring your view protection by listing the following:

1) The Ironclad Guarantee: When you buy your view lot, you also buy the lot adjacent to it that could potentially block your view. Then, with the assistance of a land-use or real estate lawyer, you put whatever deed restrictions are needed to define the buildable envelope on the adjacent lot to whatever parameters you want. There's no way to get around this that I know of - anything that they try to build *legally* on the adjacent lot will require the deed to be submitted along with the plans, meaning that the building department won't allow anything that doesn't meet the restrctions placed on the lot by you. Tons of people in La Jolla have done this, but people in La Jolla typically have that kind of money.

2) The government: I don't know if Washington has something similar, but California formed a government body to specifically protect the coast and access to it (physically and visually) called the California Coastal Commission. Most of its activities are adjudicated at the local level by the planning departments of coastal communities, including enforcing height regulations. In San Diego, this means we have a coastal height limit that's lower in areas where the ocean is visible than in other parts of town. If your property is high enough up a hillside from your neighbor in the coastal zone, you wouldn't have anything to worry about becaue they won't be able to build tall enough to block your view. For significant developments, there's also a Coastal Permit Process, which is largely discretionary, meaning that the City has a lot more say in what you're building and can deny approval just because they don't really like something. In this process, neighbors are notified of the pending development and can log protests against the project if they have standing, and even appeal an approval to a higher authority (I was about to take one project before the planning commission once, but the other architect agreed to lower their building 18 inches before we presented).

For government enforcement, just check what zone your potential lot (and adjacent lots, which may be different) is in, and check what the restricitons are for that zone, including setbacks, lot coverage (typically a percentage - describes the building footprint as a percentage of the lot area), Floor Area Ratio (AKA F.A.R., typically shown as a number that would be a percentage if the decimal point was moved two places to the right - it's the ratio of the total inhabitable floor area to the size of the lot. A typical single family house would be in the .3 range; the Empire state building would be in the hundreds), and height restrictions. Based on that data, you can sort of mentally imagine the possible maximum envelope of a building erected by your neighbors.

3) The local level: Some areas will have Covenants, Codes and Restrictions (CC&Rs) which will limit development further than the city zoning code. The CC&Rs will typically be administered by some sort of Homeowner's Association, of which the legal enforcement power may vary. Your realtor should know about these since they'll be stipulated within the deed and title report, but I would think their knowledge on government issues would be pretty iffy. I've worked with areas where the CC&Rs limited tree height and building height to one story.
posted by LionIndex at 9:09 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just a word of caution regarding zoning - it is usually a function of the current municipal government, and is not immutable. Zoning can change on you, which can throw a huge monkeywrench into things...
posted by birdsquared at 9:43 PM on June 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to all for all the good info. There is lots of research to be done before buying view property.
The place we are considering is not on the waterfront. It's on a slope with a more distant view of the water. Not sure yet how we will proceed. If we decide to pay the premium for a great view, you all have given great suggestions on what to research.
posted by valannc at 1:17 PM on June 10, 2009

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