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Southlake Style

Highs & Lows of the Waterfront

Jul 01, 2015 10:21AM ● By Dia
By Jim Dale

Texas lakes get dry, Texas lakes flood. Occasionally, Texas lakes find something like equilibrium in between. To anyone contemplating buying the perfect weekend getaway, the prevailing sentiment this year is to come on in – the water is fine. But only after taking the time to do some background work, study the lay of the land, seek the advice of a lakefront property expert, and prepare to ride the tide of highs and lows that can come with investing in a utopian slice of Texas heaven.

Lakes throughout central and North Texas are ranked among the prettiest in the country, with picturesque waterscapes that range from Lake Fork’s endless forest of tree stumps to Lake Grapevine’s long, deep abyss (ideal for sailing), to Possum Kingdom’s inspiring limestone cliffs and Lake Texoma’s endless interstate expanse. But the experience of owning the perfect weekend getaway in Texas can be as varied as Texas itself. Each lake can have its unique charms and challenges.

Texas lakes are either constant-level, meaning the water level remains more or less the same regardless of rainfall or seasonal conditions. Or they fluctuate – meaning they can swing wildly from sandbag-the-shoreline overflow to stickyour- boat-oar-in-the-mud drainage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages water levels for most lakes in the region, recently closed Lake Lewisville to boating, fearing that the wakes from power boats could flood houses along the shoreline. And Lake Travis swung from three-fourths empty to nearly full within just a few weeks.

So far, 2015 has seen the most drastic changes in water levels – and the buy-or-sell movement in the lakefront real estate market that go along with it – in recent memory. Thirty-five trillion (that’s 12 zeroes) gallons of water flowed into the region’s lakes during the last two weeks of May, much of it pouring over the spillways of North Texas lakes to top off successive bodies of water situated along the river basins downstream.

“It can be a rocky ride,” says Craig Scantlin, a business owner from Houston who grew up on Texas Hill Country lakes and has bought and sold property on Lake Buchanan, Lake Austin and others. “It can be a very rewarding investment, both financially and in terms of having a great place to get away with the family on weekends and holidays. But you just sort of have to accept that it isn’t like living on a beach where you pretty much just have the tides to deal with.” 

Scantlin adds that it’s up to any potential buyer to do the homework. “I’ve seen people build out on a beautiful peninsula one year and then realize that they’re 400 yards from the water just a couple of years later.”

A Fluid Real Estate Market

Real estate broker and lakefront property specialist Todd Grossman of RealtyAustin says the key to happiness can be working with someone who can help advise on the many issues that go along with ownership. Everything from Corps of Engineers regulations on dock length and boat sheds, which can differ from lake to lake, to the availability of prime properties that may never see real estate listing systems can impact a buyer’s experience, he says.

“Many people who get involved in Texas lakes are those who may have grown up around them or maybe gone to school in Austin and then moved off to Dallas or Houston to work. They’re successful, and then they want to get back to what they remember – a Lake Travis or Canyon Lake.”

Many of those buyers, Grossman says, are familiar with the moods of Texas Lakes, but not all. “They’re pretty astute homeowners for the most part. They understand the water-level issues, but also the nature of each lake – where the stumps are, what the restrictions are – and that’s critical.”

For instance, 22-mile-long Lake Austin, among the most preferred constant-level lakes in Texas, only has fuel availability for boats within a mile or so of its dam. “So people may want to buy a beautiful property and keep a large boat way up at the other end not realizing that it’s a long, long trip down the lake for gas,” Grossman adds. “Twenty-two miles down a lake in a boat isn’t exactly the same as the same distance over roads in a car.”

To Detect and Conserve

The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with, among other things, monitoring and controlling water levels on approximately two-thirds of Texas’ 170 lakes. The Corps’ primary mission is to ensure water conservation and work to manage the floods that have long been a part of Texas history. To do this, the Corps operates an intricate system of drains at lakes under its jurisdiction, releasing water in a controlled upstream-to-downstream process that, under ideal conditions, minimizes high water at vulnerable areas and maximizes water supplies for both Texas’ fast-growing urban areas – Dallas, Austin, Houston – and the state’s vital agricultural and industrial areas along the coast.

Various Texas lakes are also managed by water authorities – Possum Kingdom by the Brazos River Authority and the Highland Lakes of Central Texas by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Some lakes are even managed by municipalities – Lake Ray Hubbard is operated by the City of Dallas and is managed by the city’s utilities department. A near-perfect tug-of-war exists between people who live along the rivers and around the lakes and these authorities, seeking to find a delicate balance among various lake water stakeholders. “It goes on year after year,” says Scantlin. “It isn’t an easy process – prioritizing the needs of the many versus the needs of the few. But hey, that’s Texas and you gotta love it.”

Waterfront Living Goes On – Regardless

Matt Meadows, who owns and operates the only ASA-certified sailing school on Lake Lewisville and maintains a fleet of sleek J24 racing boats for hire, says that recreational life on Texas lakes goes on regardless of lake levels. “People are going to come to the lakes, no matter what. We’re all drawn to water whether it’s for sailing or fishing or recreation, or to hang out at a marina or relax at a weekend home. Of course, plenty of water is generally a good thing for business.”

The more a buyer or existing property owner knows the better, says Grossman. And a wealth of resources exists to keep information flowing. “Some are good and others are not,” he adds. Virtually every lake has one or more websites, and the Corps of Engineers and other agencies maintain updated sites showing current lake levels. Real estate agents who specialize in lakefront property can be a good place to start for information regarding an individual lake.

“It helps if you’re in it for the long haul,” says Scantlin. “For a chance to get away from the city and watch the grandkids grow up over the decades, there’s nothing like it – Texas lakes are awesome. Whether the water is on your back porch or a football field away, people are still going to get wet and the barbecue will still happen.”

Overall, levels in Texas lakes can be as varied as the lakes themselves. From record drought conditions in 2011 to historic rainfall and flooding in 2015, lakefront living can present both exceptional challenges and rewards. But the lakes themselves mirror the general optimism and beauty that comes from living in North Texas. And that’s something that remains perpetually high.

Texas Lakefront Property Sales: A Snapshot

Although not all lakefront property reaches real estate listing systems – many high-end homes are sold before they ever hit the market – pricing and availability of prime properties can swing as wildly as most lake levels.

As of mid-2015, nearly 400 properties are listed for the Highland Lakes (Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, Austin and Lady Bird), with more than 300 sales recorded during 2014.

While listing prices over the last year range from $50,000 to more than 10 times that amount, the average lakefront property sold for nearly $800,000.

The median listing price of half-million dollars doesn’t dip much, with median sales values at $473,000.

With 2015’s record rainfall, many owners see topped-off lakes as a signal to sell for higher value. “That isn’t always the way it works,” says RealtyAustin’s Todd Grossman. “High water may sustain the lakes and keep values up for two to three years, but after that, who knows. Prices tend to find a state of balance just the way the lakes in Texas do over time.”