Riverfront Buyer’s Guide

Perhaps with no other type of property are there more potential pitfalls or as much enjoyment as with riverfront property. The task of choosing the property that best suits your family’s needs and that will appreciate over time can be daunting. This guide is a breakdown of some important factors that should be taken into account when considering the purchase of riverfront real estate in Michigan.


Let’s get right down to the nitty gritty. Trying to determine the fair market value of riverfront property is definitely more of an art than a science. In many segments of the market, a buyer can just look at the 10 other nearly identical homes in a nearly identical setting and get a pretty good idea of what the subject’s value may be. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with properties that may be unlike anything that has sold in recent years. Having said that, there are a number of factors that directly affect the value of a riverfront property that do not come into play on normal residential property. We’ll list a number of these characteristics below in order of their importance to the property’s value. The more of these qualities the property has, the more it is going to cost. If a buyer has an unlimited budget, they are most likely hoping to find a property that has the best of each one of these attributes. For someone working within a specific budget, there will probably have to be a decision made as to which of the qualities are most important to them. Keep in mind when reading this, however, that “one man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure”. Every buyer has different taste and it is up to the purchaser to decide for themselves which is the best property for them.


Most buyers in our market are looking to get away from the crowds that they deal with in their normal day to day life. A property doesn’t necessarily have to be a large acreage parcel in order to provide privacy, but more often, smaller parcels will be in areas of higher development

Quality of Structure

When we speak of quality of the structure on a property, we are speaking not only of the mechanical structure, but also the aesthetics of the building. The average buyer wants a property that needs little or no work to be able to enjoy. The term “turn-key” often conjures up images of weekends in the waders instead of in the cabin…working. With strict zoning regulations in effect on many of the rivers, the future potential of a property may also affect the value of a given property. A small lot with a cabin that was built long ago, but now sits within current building setbacks may leave no option for an addition to the structure or the construction of a garage or accessory building.


Because rivers meander throughout their course, it is not uncommon to find a parcel of land that appears to have a tremendous amount of frontage, but is relatively small. This is probably due the frontage being calculated as the river meanders rather than the width of the land itself. The other side of that coin is a large parcel that has the river cutting through just one small corner. The most valuable property will be one that is relatively square with frontage across the entire property border.

Useable Land

Most rivers run through lowland areas throughout their course. Because of this, many of the properties you will see have at least a percentage of wetland on them. A buyer may see a listing for 40 acres and a home on the river for a very attractive price only to find that 37 of those acres are so thick and wet to only be home to bear, porcupine, and beaver. A nice, dry 7 acre parcel with nice frontage and a similar home may be worth more.

Water View

This is one of those features that can be very difficult to put a price on. If a buyer sees a property that offers a view of the river that is absolutely breathtaking, they’re more likely to pay top dollar. Most people buy on emotion to some degree and there is nothing quite like moving water to instill that emotion. We hear the comment, “I’ll know it when I see it,” very often and it definitely alludes to the fact that the “feeling” of a property may be at least as enticing as the value on paper.

Fishing Quality

Whether you’re an angler or not, the quality of a particular trout fishery will absolutely affect the value of properties along that river. There is no larger segment of buyers that affect the riverfront market than fly anglers on rivers that are renowned for their trout fisheries. Sections of river that are designated as “flies only” are open to fishing all year long which extends the season well into the fall and early spring, making these sections more desirable to the angler and therefore more valuable in general.


For the average buyer, a property that can be reached by a paved, county maintained road versus miles of seasonal two-track will be more valuable, all other conditions being equal.

Canoe Traffic

It is important to take into account that many of the factors that weigh in a property’s value are based on the perception of a problem and maybe not the reality of that situation. Having said that, most canoe and kayak users are respectful, courteous individuals just out to enjoy the outdoors. There are very few rivers and very limited times of the year when the numbers and behavior of river users can actually be considered a true problem or an effect on the value of a property. The rivers and sections of river that are perceived to be light in canoe traffic, however, do routinely sell for higher dollars than those within areas that are deemed to be “high traffic”.

Zoning Issues

It is extremely important to familiarize yourself with the zoning limitations with any property. Many of the rivers that we service fall under The Michigan Natural Rivers Program which designates specific zoning uses and limitations for those bodies of water. For those that do not, it will be necessary to contact the local zoning administrator for the township or county in order to be guided in the right direction for answers. Because rivers run through wetland areas very frequently, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is another agency that may play a role. Wetland filling of any kind must be permitted through the DEQ prior to the beginning of any work. While there are agencies to be dealt with and a certain course that may need to be taken to achieve an end goal, by ruling out any property that may have some wetland concerns, a buyer is definitely limiting their options.

Conservation Easements

In the interest of protecting their land from further development, many landowners have recorded a document called a Conservation Easement with the county records office outlining the limitations to the property. Most conservation easements limit the amount of times a large tract of land may be divided by future owners, but many other limitations may be placed on a property as well. When you’ve decided to purchase a property, make sure to review all of the documents listed on the Title Insurance Policy in order to review the terms of any conservation easements that may have been put in place by the previous land owner

Deed Restrictions

While a conservation easement is a form of a deed restriction, any landowner may restrict the future use of their property in any legal way they would like. As it pertains to riverfront properties in Michigan, there are a large number of properties on the rivers in the North Central portion of the state that have deed restrictions put in place by Consumers Power before they sold their holdings or transferred them to the state. Again, just be sure to review any deed restrictions that may be listed in the Title Insurance Policy provided by the seller prior to closing.

This list may seem like an overwhelming number of things to consider! However, the process should be, and usually is, a time of great excitement and fun. We consider ourselves very lucky to call a day of looking at beautiful property along some of the country’s finest streams, “work”. We hope that you will call with any additional questions you may have with regard to a river property you are looking to purchase. Good luck in the search and enjoy yourself along the way!