Beach House – Know Michigan Water Rights: Riparian, Easement, or Access?

Many dream of owning their own beach house. Visions of the sunrise sparkling off the early morning waves as they roll into shore come to mind. But before you get out your board shorts and sunglasses, there are a few legal concerns to keep in mind.

Purchasing a property with advertised water rights requires a thorough investigation into the type of access you are acquiring. You also must obtain a legal opinion from a real estate attorney. Here are some tips to get your feet wet:

  1. Riparian (or littoral) ownership is where the water touches the boundary line of the property.  On inland lakes, a riparian owner owns the bottomland to the middle of the lake (as if the lake were a pie). On Lake Michigan, riparian ownership is to the high water mark, and the bottomland is owned by the State of Michigan, held in trust for the public.
  2. An easement provides access to the lake by way of a road, walk-way, or across a riparian owner’s property. Property advertised with “deeded access” usually means there is an easement right accompanying the property ownership providing access to the water. The easement language might define the scope of the use. Access through a condominium or homeowner’s association is a type of easement access where all owners within the condominium or subdivision have access to the water because those rights were created within the Master Deed (condominium) or Plat (subdivision). Condominiums and subdivisions create common ownership of an area dedicated to the use of all of the owners.
  3. What about land between a platted lot and the water’s edge? Land between the legally described lot and the water’s edge might be land that has been dedicated to the use of all lot owners. It may also have easement rights to others that can only be ascertained by examining the dedicated plat of the subdivision or by conducting a thorough title search.  Just because someone is using the land, or placed improvements within that area, does not mean the use is legally enforceable.
  4. There may be access to water by way of a private or public roadway that ends at the water’s edge. This is a complicated type of access, and is generally not clearly spelled out in older plats or documents recorded in the chain of title. Typically, access to the water through a private or public roadway is not referenced in a deed or easement, and ownership does not include a formal association.

Make sure your purchase agreement has a contingency to investigate title, water rights, and contact a real estate attorney before you jump in!

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