So you're looking for a lake home for the weekends and holidays?

I frequently get that type of call from clients who want a weekender which is cute, not too far from the essential shops, want deep water for their boat, and not to be left out, a magnificent long range view over the water. 

It reminds me of a lady who called me a little while back looking for an antebellum home in Atlanta on at least 5 acres of land and in the heart of the city. And her budget was $200k. Tongue in cheek, I replied that Gen. Sherman had taken care of all those houses.

So let me be realistic and hopefully give you some idea of what's available and what the pricing would be. For an example, let's use Lake Lanier as our subject matter.

Having lived in a house on the lake since 1994 and having been in the real estate business since 1996, I may just have a few nuggets of information. Lake Lanier has over 692 miles of shoreline at full pool, however, that is not all available for building on. A chunk of the shoreline is government property and other facilities. Because the lake was formed back in the 1950's, (Yes it is man-made), many folks bought  the good lots for weekender homes. The result is that there are many small homes for sale on good water and a whole lot more that can hardly be described as lake homes. Obviously it is now a supply/demand issue. This has resulted in houses with good water selling for very high prices. It is not preposterous that a small three bedroom, one and a half bathroom house, built back in the 70's will sell for between $500k to $700k. if it has permanent deep water. The same house off the lake could probably be purchased for $200k+.

So how do you find something reasonable at a good price? 

Select an agent who knows his/her way around the lake. 
One of the critical issues that goes unnoticed by the buying public, is the water level of the lake at the dock. During full pool, a dock may have 6 ft under it which is fine for most boats. However, the lake level frequently drops as much as 10-15 ft during a dry period and we have had it drop in the past by as much as 20 ft. Imagine where your beach will be? - probably out of sight with your dock and expensive boat lying in the mud. A conscientious agent will warn you of this danger if he/she knows the lake. It goes without saying then that one should be extra cautious about looking for a house when the lake is full - it all looks so pretty but beware, the lake level is guaranteed to drop.

The first fact to keep in mind is that the lake is administered and policed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There is no need for me to elaborate further. My advice is that you don't mess with them....!! Violations are not tolerated in the least.

So let me address some other questions when buying a lake home. 

Not all lake homes have docks. The question is, "Can I apply for a dock permit and then purchase a dock?"
A: Check whether the house is eligible for a permit. If it is , you will need to apply to the Corps and wait until they issue further permits. If the house already has a permit, a transfer fee will be required. An important note is that if the house is on the lake but is not eligible for a permit, be very careful that you don't overpay simply because it's on the lake, and certainly NEVER buy a house on the promise that a dock permit can be acquired, even if the promise is made by a ranger. Get it in writing!!!!

Another issue regards use of the Corps land between your house and the water. Remember that the land belongs to the government and as such everyone is prohibited from certain activities on the land. As an example, if you own a house with some gently sloping land to the water and that is Corps property, it is illegal for you to build a swing set, gazebo, picnic table, shed or leave a boat trailer on it. Also prohibited is the planting of non-native plants. In addition, it is a huge no-no to cut down, prune or in any way disturb foliage on Corps property. The penalties are onerous and range from hefty fines, to having to replace whatever has been cleared or disturbed.

There is some good news however and that is that permits may be obtained (at a cost) for building stairs, supplying electricity to the dock, landscape lights, piped water, telephone line and shore line protection.  Permits and/or licenses are issued for a maximum of five years and are nontransferable. They grant no real estate rights, nor convey any private exclusive use privileges on government property. Lake Lanier’s shoreline is open to use by the general public. This last statement means that the public may use the beach in front of your house but they are not entitled to use your dock as that is private property.

A few things to keep in mind when shopping for a lake house - because water pools in a valley, please remember that the lake home is more than likely to have a steep driveway. If it has a flat driveway and a relatively flat access to the lake, then beware that the dock probably sits in very shallow water. 
Most of the houses are quite old and do not meet code - should you make alterations, you will need to bring some construction up to code.
The two most important attributes that you are paying for are good deep water access, and a good view. 

Good luck and call me should you need expert advice about buying on the lake.