Buying on the water is a sort of real-estate holy grail—many people long to do it. But as homes on the water have become more expensive in places like St. Michaels, Bethany Beach, and Rehoboth Beach, Washingtonians have started thinking, and looking, outside the traditional shore box.
Area buyers are focusing more on places that achieve three things: a shorter commute to the water, less crowding and traffic, and more affordable homes. These up-and-coming towns may not be your first thought, but they are on the rise for good reason—and don’t require a trip across the Bay Bridge.
Views for All Seasons
Smith Mountain Lake
Blair and Shannon Judd of Round Hill, Virginia, both in their thirties, bought a condo on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. Located 4½ hours southeast of DC and 40 minutes east of Roanoke, Smith Mountain Lake attracted the Judds with its combination of views. Says Blair, a program manager with General Dynamics, “I like the mountains, and Shannon enjoys the water. Smith Mountain Lake had both.”
After much research on both buying and renting in the area, Shannon saw that home values on the lake kept rising. The Judds realized that owning would give them both a vacation home and a smart investment.
Smith Mountain Lake, with 500 miles of shoreline, has events year-round: from wine festivals in the fall to fishing events in the spring. The Judds use their condo a few weekends a year and rent it out easily otherwise. Condos in the Shore Line Marina complex range from $250,000 to $375,000, while single-family houses on the lake can sell from $400,000 to $2 million.
Especially appealing to those approaching retirement are developments like Emerald Bay—set to open this September—that take care of property upkeep. Says real-estate agent Glenda McDaniel, “There are a lot of people retiring here, but they want a place where there is community maintenance of the grounds and the exterior.” The homes in Emerald Bay will range from $700,000 to $1 million.
As more people have become full-time residents, commercial development has grown to include boutiques, restaurants, a sewer system, and a movie theater, completed last year. McDaniel says anyone who hasn’t visited in two years will hardly recognize the area.
Chesapeake and North Beaches
About an hour southeast of Washington in Calvert County are the “twin beaches.” The bay towns of Chesapeake Beach and North Beach barely survived after the Chesapeake rail station closed during the Great Depression. The towns suffered further after Hurricane Isabel in 2003. But since then, the twin beaches have seen a revival. Prices remain reasonable because the area is still emerging, but nicer restaurants and new hotels and spas mean more people are visiting.
Places like the Rod N’ Reel restaurant, still open after 50 years, help maintain Chesapeake Beach’s humble appeal as luxury resorts and waterfront condos arrive. North Beach, with most of the antiques and gift shops, is less developed but is expected to follow in Chesapeake’s path. A development by Van Metre, scheduled to begin this September, will include condos, a restaurant, and a hotel, all on the water.
Both towns have plenty of houses that need work; many older homes and cottages are being updated by Washington residents. Houses on the water start at around $400,000 and go to $900,000.
Gambling on the Future
Colonial Beach, far north on Virginia’s Northern Neck, is beginning its big transition. Also devastated by Isabel, the town is in the process of rebuilding much of its riverfront. The Riverboat on the Potomac, a gambling pier, was damaged by the hurricane but is being rebuilt to include a restaurant, Keno, and off-track betting.
The Riverboat is just on the water in both Virginia and Maryland. Why straddle the line? The popular lottery game Keno is legal in Maryland, and liquor can be sold later in Maryland than in Virginia. Owner Penny Flanagan says, “Everywhere I go, people ask me when we’re opening.”
Builders anticipate a boom from the gambling business. Initial construction of Monroe Point is expected to finish this winter: Three-level townhouses off the water will start at $290,000, those with water views at $360,000. Says real-estate broker Latana Locke, “You can’t walk down the street in Colonial Beach and not see development.” Plans for a golf community with waterfront homes were just approved. The project is expected to bring even more attention to the area, where it’s legal to drive a golf cart in the street.
A Real Waterman’s Village
Leonardtown, at the head of Breton Bay in St. Mary’s County, is the kind of place that still has a soapbox derby every summer. Leonardtown’s challenge is to maintain its small-town character while embracing growth; some residents worry about its appeal if Target and McDonald’s start outnumbering crab shacks and picnic tables.
Town administrator Laschelle Miller says she and other officials have spent years negotiating with a developer over the fate of a 400-acre plot of land, part of it owned by the developer. Already planned for the publicly owned portion is Leonardtown Wharf, which will include a dock, a promenade, and townhouses on the water. A waterfront restaurant and retail aren’t far behind. The townhouses, known as Leonardtown Landings, are partially completed and range from $500,000 to $600,000.
Interest in Leonardtown, a real watermen’s village, started taking off in the last two to three years. From 1997 to 2003, only 12 to 14 single-family homebuilding permits were issued each year. In 2004, the number jumped to 61.
Realtor Lucy Barbour attributes growth all over St. Mary’s County to the area’s diverse appeal. There are many types of homes—from new construction to renovations to tear-downs—on terrific plots of land. There’s deep water and naturally protected water, and you can choose between living on Breton Bay and on the Potomac River.
St. Mary’s City
About 20 minutes east of LeonardÂtown is St. Mary’s City, on the St. Mary’s River. Susan Nash and Richard Holden fell in love with the area when they started vacationing there and kept extending their weekends. A lifelong Washingtonian, Susan found herself surprised by just how much she loved the lifestyle. “I never thought I’d want to leave the city,” she says. “I never felt like I was living a stressed life—until I got down here and saw the difference in how relaxed I felt.”
Nash, 61, and Holden, 63, soon decided they would move from the Palisades for good. Three years ago they bought a fixer-upper and stumbled onto a great investment.
They first renovated the kitchen and two baths and added a master suite. They wanted to expand the house further but soon realized the changes they wanted would make the house too expensive for the neighborhood. After three years and $150,000 in renovations, the couple sold the house, making a profit of $200,000. They put that money toward another home in St. Mary’s, a four-bedroom Cape Cod on six acres of land and 550 feet of waterfront.
There’s a wide range of houses and prices in St. Mary’s City. Susan predicts the area will remain much as it is today: Zoning laws prevent people from building within 100 feet of waters that are part of state-designated Chesapeake Bay “critical areas,” and other laws dictate how big a house can be in relation to a lot.
For Susan, a retired personal trainer, and Richard, a photographer, there’s nothing better than sitting on the porch in the morning with the newspaper and a cup of coffee while the St. Mary’s College sailing team coasts by.
Editorial intern Katie Bindley (email@example.com) owns no waterfront property—yet.