Living on Lakefront Property: Legal Rights and Obligations
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Living on Lakefront Property: Legal Rights and Obligations

Riparian and littoral rights determine the use and ownership of waterfront property. You may own the ground under the water and have rights to use the surface but no right to the actual water.

People who live adjacent to water, either on a lake, pond, stream or river have certain rights and restrictions relative to the water and the use of the water that runs adjacent to their property. Water rights are a complex segment of law that is frequently litigated. Federal, state and local law dictate how water can be used and who can use it. Riparian rights refer to streams and rivers while littoral rights refer to lakes, ponds and oceans.

Property Lines

When two or more homes sit on a lake or pond, each homeowner’s property extends to the center of the water. The lake or pond is divided and proportioned and is used in assessing the value of a property for tax purposes. It is generally true that the land under the water is part of the property title, although state and local laws may vary.


When purchasing waterfront property, it is critical to read the and understand all of the rights and obligations that go with the use of the water. It is common that waterfront property includes the right to use the entire surface of the water for recreational use as long as there is no undue disturbance of the other residences or infringement on their shores or land. Property and real estate law, as well as littoral and riparian water rights will govern the use of waterfront property. There is a degree of civility expected when sharing a lake or pond and when that is breached, litigation often ensues.

Who Owns the Water

It is usual to have rights to use the water in a lake or pond but no one landowner has the right to divert the water from a lake or pond, depriving other owners from the use of the water. You will have to check your state laws regarding who actually owns the water. It may actually be owned by your state or local government and be subject to drainage or emergency use by that governmental entity.

Restricting Access

It is likely that a property owner would be subject to litigation if he built a fence or other structure on, in or through a pond or lake that was adjacent to more than one property. Anything that restricts access, enjoyment or use of the entire surface would in most cases be evaluated on a case by case basis. Furthermore a single landowner could be held responsible for polluting the water or damaging or impeding the enjoyment of the water in any way.

Hire an Expert

When considering purchasing waterfront property, work with a real estate agent or real estate attorney who has experience and knowledge in waterfront real estate. Ask questions regarding your rights, obligations and restrictions on the use of the water and your obligations and restrictions to other residents. There may also be homeowner's association rules that govern these issues.


Chicago Title Insurance Company: A Primer on Riparian Rights: Philip M. Rice

The Free Dictionary: Legal Dictionary: Water Rights

Additional resources:

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Comments (6)

Never thought about what the homeowners actually owned!

Very informative article

Where I am many cottage owners are killing the lake, using chemicals to turn their lawns green they have actually cause the lake to turn green too - algae LOVES the chemicals that run off from the lawns, thousands of fish wash up dead in the fall when the algae dies and pollutes the lake. Others broke their septic tanks so they do not have to get them drained - same problem as the waste pollutes the lake. Way to go cottage owners, your quest for a green lawn is killing your property values.

You have done a great service with your well composed information. Factoidz is not sending me emails of my favorite authors so I have been resorting to commenting from my own articles, so please leave a comment and hope a vote too. Thank you.

Thanks for the comments and votes everyone. Water rights are a Huge issue in the US. Water rights are even sold between states. The allocation of the water rights of the Colorado River is a really big deal. Navigable waters have there own section of law too. @Brenda - does Canada have the equivalent of our Environmental Protection Agency? That is really awful that people don't realize what they are doing. I remember when Lake Erie was so polluted that they had to stop commercial fishing there - thankfully that has been restored and there are tons of laws now regarding it. The Cuyahoga River (the watershed from lake erie) was so polluted it caught fire in 1969 spurring a lot of the EPA movement.

Interesting article on the issues that can be raised through living by the water. I am out of votes so will return later.