Buying land with water - a guide

Key facts
  • The demand for waterfront properties is high with people wanting to go on holidays as well as set up a home in a tranquil and desirable area
  • Developing on waterfront land comes with responsibilities to protect the environment and any endangered species that are inhabiting the land
  • An Environmental Search should show any issues with drainage as well as the history of the plot and whether the land is potentially toxic
  • Water rights and water ownership are different. A person can have the right to use the water but will be unable to control anyone else's rights to it

Buying Waterfront Land as an Investment 

The demand for waterfront properties is high. However, ordinances often prevent or limit housing on such land and freshwater areas are becoming more scarce. These factors drive the prices up and they remain that way. It is this factor that makes buying a waterfront piece of land for developing an investment. 

Owning land by waterfronts with the potential to build can yield you a fantastic return on investment. With demand being high you will likely have no trouble when it comes to selling the plots in the future. 

Waterfronts have long been a desirable location to both live and holiday. Lakes, ports, quays, marinas, breakwaters, beaches and rivers all offer unique and beautiful views. But, the views and beauty is just one part of the water's draw. Research has shown that being near water boosts creativity and enhances happiness. The waterside also offers a whole host of activities. 

Watersports, swimming, diving, boating, kayaking - to mention a few - are all hobbies you can easily access when living within meters of water. Naturally, this makes it a desirable spot for holidaymakers. If you are someone looking for vacant land to build holiday homes, holiday parks or rentals, then you would certainly benefit from investing in waterfront land. 

However, it isn’t only holidaymakers who look for a waterfront property purchase. Those looking for a tranquil and unique setting, with a close-up view of nature will be keen to purchase a property built on the land by water.   

Development of waterfront land

As a developer, buying acres of land by the water will give you the chance to offer something unique to the housing market. While properties in such locations come with a higher price tag, in the right market they are very attractive to buyers with the money to spend.

When it comes to development, a desirable factor when investing in waterfront land is the possibility of eco-friendly hydropower to make electricity. Using a renewable energy source offers another value add to potential property buyers in the future too.

Providing you have water rights access, you have the added benefit of being able to install a network of pipes to supply the building, houses or facilities with running water. You will not need to pay a company to set up a mains water connection.

It is important to note that while buying vacant land on the water is an investment and there are savings to be made in the build, some factors can cost more. For one, the land price may be higher. Another cost to factor in is any results from the Environmental Agency on endangered species that may add to development costs. More on that later.

If you plan on building on the land then you need to consider the price of specific materials that can withstand the landscape. Properties by water may be more prone to salt damage, rust, mould and rot. Working with an experienced team who understand the landscape and its challenges will help you to get the most from your land by water investment.

What to consider when buying and developing waterfront land

Buying and developing waterfront land isn’t always as straightforward as buying land that isn’t situated waterside. There are specific rights to check, laws to follow and building materials to consider.

There is something called Riparian rights. These are the rights that the landowner has if their land adjoins a flowing watercourse, or if the land has a watercourse running through it. You need to be aware of your rights and responsibilities if you have any such watercourse on or through your land.  

Riparian rights will mean they have the right to access the water when in its natural state. Subject to licenses, consent and planning the landowner will be allowed to build on the waterbed, fish and moor within boundaries.

With Riparian rights come responsibilities. When it comes to building, a waterfront landowner will not be able to disrupt the flow of the water source in a way that may affect other landowners rights to the watercourse. Not only does this relate to building on the watercourse, but also means that if there was a fallen tree in the water on the landowner's boundary then the owner would be expected to remove it, at their own cost. 

As a waterfront landowner, you will have environmental responsibilities. When building or developing on waterfront land the landowner must report any incidents of pollution or contamination of the watercourse to the Environment Agency.

Furthermore, the landowner must take steps to preserve wildlife and scenery. You may run into issues if your land is in the boundaries of an Area of Outstanding National Beauty, National Park or National Nature Reserve. You can use the Addland Professional map layers to check where these areas are by adding the relevant data layers. If the land you are interested in falls in one such area then expect a few additional checks as well as possible delays and rejections.

It will be the Environment Agency who will formally check the specific locations that have plans to build and will assess whether there will be an impact on endangered species and protected areas. If there are, the wildlife will need to be safely migrated at your cost, before building work can start.

Protected species found at a waterfront include water vole, wild birds, white-clawed crayfish, freshwater pearl mussels, various reptiles, natterjack toads, protected plants, great crested newts and more.

If any plans to build on a waterfront location do impact a protected area or protected species then you can get advice from Natural England or the Environmental Agency for a fee.

When developing waterfront land for buildings, such as houses, you have the bonus of a private water supply, which can be attractive to buyers. A private water supply means that home buyers will not have to factor in the costs of water company bills or be impacted by hosepipe bans.

If you have water rights and intend on supplying buildings, then the water will need to be tested for safety. You would need to invite the local authority to carry out a risk assessment, test the quality of the water and suggest improvement works. The filtration system will also need to be compliant with Private Water Supplies (PWS) regulations and be approved as drinking water.

Buying and developing on waterfront land has a few additional factors to consider that may drive costs up. However, when it is done well by an experienced team, it can pay dividends. 

Legal support and spotting problems with water and drainage

Spotting problems with water and drainage will be an important part of your buying decision. Land by the water can look extremely attractive, however, an experienced builder may think otherwise. Issues that arise due to poor drainage, high water tables, soil type and slopes can all drive up costs, impacting your investment.

There are ways to check all of the potential issues which may come up before you get to the buying and building stages. Surveyors and conveyancers, as well as your own tools and research, can discover whether the land is a good option. 

If you develop a waterfront site into housing then water authority searches will be carried out by solicitors as part of conveyancing. This will help buyers and lenders to gain information about water supply, public drains on the land and sewer connections as well as other things. This is so that the buyer of your newly built properties can obtain a mortgage from a lender. The lender will want to ensure that the property for sale is safe from flooding, damp or leaks caused by waterways and drainage.

The environmental search conducted by the solicitor will show whether the plot is near contaminated land, water or an old landfill site. Knowing this is going to help you decide as to whether this is the right land to develop on. Developing on land that was previously used for industrial purposes or has contaminated water could result in toxic substances still being present. Not only may this be dangerous, but the site and buildings may be near impossible to sell in the future.

A Land Registry pre-completion search is another part of the legal searches your solicitor will instruct. This is to check the seller is the legal owner. They check the title register and title plan in the title deeds at the Land Registry to confirm this.

Finding problems early on and before you get to the conveyancing or purchase stage will save you a potential money pit in the future. One way that you can easily do this is to use the Addland Flood Zones map layer when in Addland Professional. Simply locate the area and tick the layer to see flood zones that could cause issues for building and then selling properties on. While conveyancing will also conduct an environmental search which will show the risk of flooding, this wouldn’t be until later down the line after you have paid money for the legal searches.

Planning searches using Addland will also be useful. This tool can flag up any building plans nearby the location you are interested in. You can search both current and historic plans and see if they were accepted or rejected. This can also help you to make an informed and smart buying decision. Not only will you be able to see planning applications on the land you are considering, but also other land in the surrounding areas which may impact your development.

You will also need to also check topography. Topography will have a major impact on building and selling properties. You can do this using Google Earth. Tilt the Earth to see the hills, valleys and mountains in your location. Note also the gradients of hills, streams and any bodies of water nearby. Surveyors are experts in this field and should be able to help you to find the information you need to understand whether the land you are considering is a valuable investment. They will also perform boundary surveys, map the topography of the land and evaluate potential annual flooding sites.

You should also research sewerage and drains to find out if there are already any connected to the land. You can check if your land is connected to the public sewer through a drain survey. Contact the local council and water suppliers and check sewer maps to understand where the drains and sewer systems exist nearby.

When it comes to supplying water for the development site it will be best to contact local water companies to ask if there is a water supply already in place. If not, and you have rights to the water, you can set up a private supply to the development plot, as previously mentioned. Or, you can have the local water company install one at a cost. 

Land with water rights for sale

Buying land with water rights will allow you to use the water on your land. However, water rights and ownership are quite different things and can get complex when you dive deep into them. Put simply, you won’t own the water, but you may have the right to use it and you may own the land underneath it - but not always.

If the body of water is a navigable waterway a person cannot own the water or control anyone else's rights to the water. Water is a resource that should be available to all, for both domestic use and recreation.

There are different types of water rights depending on the body of water you are building near or on. Two of which are Riparian and Littoral. Riparian rights are for landowners with property along flowing bodies of water, such as rivers and streams. Typically, a landowner with such rights will be able to use the water providing that there is no impact on those up or downstream, who also have rights to the water. The landowner will generally own the land beneath the waterway.

Littoral rights are awarded to landowners who have land which borders lakes, seas and oceans. Landowners have access to the waters, however, they only own the land to the median high water mark. Find lakes for sale now on Addland.

While you may not own the water, you can use it. However, firstly environmental searches need to be conducted to check if the water is safe to drink, swim in and so on. An environmental search will show what the site was previously and check that there are no hazardous substances present. You’ll also need a specific license to fish so don’t assume that because you have the right to use the water, that you also have the right to fish. If you are looking to profit from commercial fishing on your land, find fisheries for sale on Addland.

You will need to find out exactly what you do own and whether you own the land below the water. This will be part of the solicitor's legal checks when they contact the Land Registry to see ownership. The solicitor will also conduct other legal checks such as a chancel repair search. This is to check whether you would be liable to pay repairs on the parish church because you are the owner of the land and dwellings. 

Authority searches will also need to go ahead to check planning permission and restrictions if you are buying to develop. You can use Addland's planning map layer to check previous historical permission and planning objections on the land you are interested in and other similar land. This will give you an idea as to whether you would be accepted for the build you are proposing. It may also indicate any specifics that you need to keep in mind in terms of materials, boundaries and building regulations for the area.


Published: 05 October 2021
Last updated: 30 May 2023

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