Living on the Lake
SELECTING LAKEFRONT PROPERTY
By Wisconsin Lakes staff
There are many reasons people fall in love with Wisconsin lakes. Spectacular sunrises and sunsets, good fishing, a tour of the water in a favorite boat, a beautiful backdrop to enjoy scenery and explore nature, or a place to reflect or just get away from it all.
Many potential waterfront property buyers have a mental picture of the ideal lake setting and experience they would like. But property owners’ attempts to change the natural features of their lake (shorelines, lakebed) can harm many of the features (good water quality, fishing) and values (privacy, natural setting) that drew them to the water in the first place.
With more than 15,000 lakes in the state, there are many types and sizes all with their own unique character and natural assets. Waterfront property is a big investment. Make sure you find the lake property that best matches your expectations and desired lake experience.
Why do I Want to Live on a Lake? Know your Expectations
Before you invest in a piece of waterfront property, spend some time thinking about your expectations.
- Are you looking for a quiet retreat to get away from it all, or a place that is closer to more urban conveniences?
- What activities do you plan on doing at your new lakefront home (enjoying natural scenery, fishing, water skiing, family gatherings, and recreation)?
- Would owning waterfront property be a dream come true, a wise investment, or perhaps a little bit of both?
If having a sandy beach is very important to you, you may be disappointed with a lake that has a natural muck bottom. A natural shoreline may appeal to those seeking a quiet retreat, scenic beauty, or good fishing spots. If you enjoy power boating or water skiing, you may be looking for a deeper, larger lake that can accommodate the right equipment. It may also be important that you and your neighbors share a common vision (lake culture) of desired lake experience. If everyone on the lake is there for similar purposes, there may be fewer conflicts over how the lake is being used.
Try writing a list of desired features and uses for your lakefront property and then prioritize which are the most important to you. Be specific and don’t settle for less. Honest answers will help you evaluate if your expectations are realistic and help you identify potentially suitable lakes. And be sure to familiarize yourself with Federal, state, and local laws that will affect you as a waterfront property owner before you buy.
A great guide to help you through this process is the pamphlet Choosing the Right Waterfront Property, available from WDNR. Download and read this helpful guide for tips to consider before you start your property search, considerations to help you decide on the right lake or river, and factors to help you choose just the right property.
Selecting the Right Lake for your Desired Waterfront Experience
When researching potential lake properties, you can find information about many Wisconsin lakes on DNR’s website and in “The Lake Book”. The Lake Book, last published by DNR in 2009, contains information on the physical attributes of lakes such as the size, depth, type of public access, availability of lake maps, the relative abundance of fish species, exotic plants and animals and information about fish consumption advisories. Be aware that not all Wisconsin lakes are included in The Lake Book. Lake maps and more information are also available on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website.
When evaluating waterfront property, the size (total acres of water) of a lake matters. Lake size can influence shoreland views, boating and fishing activity, and sense of community. On smaller lakes you may easily see the shoreline of your neighbor across the lake. On larger lakes, the opposite shore might be quite a distance; perhaps your view will be mostly water. If you enjoy motorized watercraft, larger lakes may give you more area to maneuver your boat. Wisconsin law requires slow no wake on lakes that are 100 acres or less, and many lakes have local boating ordinances that may specify slow-no-wake areas, times, or other requirements. Lake size may influence the types of fish found in the lake and where they are found.
Wisconsin’s northern lakes tend to be smaller, while the southern lakes tend to be larger. Breaking down Wisconsin’s more than 15,000 lakes into lake size ranges, approximately:
- 12,000 lakes are 50 acres and less
- 1,300 lake are 50 to 200 acres
- 414 lakes are 200 to 500 acres
- 268 lake are 500 plus acres
Lake depth matters too. Some lakes are deep, others shallow.
Shallow lakes generally have a maximum depth of less than 20 feet and/or an average depth of less than 10 feet. Shallow lakes may be thought of as a lake composed entirely of a shoreland (or littoral) zone—the area where aquatic plants can grow because sunlight can penetrate to the lake bottom.
Often the amount of land draining runoff and other surface waters into a lake (its “watershed”) is very high compared to the area of the lake. This can mean more nutrients and more plant growth in shallow lakes. Shallow lakes may be more likely to experience water level fluctuations, and be more susceptible to negative impacts from motorized watercraft.
Propellers can churn up bottom sediments which can cloud water and release nutrients into the water, erode shorelines, and chop and uproot important aquatic plants.
In deeper lakes, plants are limited where they can grow by how deeply light can penetrate the water. Heat from the sun also penetrates through the water only so far, creating distinct layers with cooler water (more dense) at the bottom and warmer water on top (called stratification). Deeper lakes are subject to seasonal stratification and lake turnover as water warms and cools. Stratification isolates much of the lake bottom from interactions with the water column.
The shoreland zone in deep lakes is a relatively small portion of the overall lake area; there may be more open water and fewer areas where plants can root themselves to the lake bottom. Typically deeper lakes are more responsive to nutrients carried into it by runoff and support fewer fish per unit volume. Motorized boating may have less impact as wave energy has more area to disperse.
Resources to learn more:
Understanding Lake Data
The Lake in Your Community
Wisconsin lakes are into several categories (spring, seepage, drained, drainage, and impoundment) based on the source of the lake’s water supply. The lake type can influence water quality, species of fish present in the lake, seasonal water level fluctuations, and rate of flow of water through a lake.
A lake’s water quality can refer to water clarity–how many particles are suspended in the water and how far light can penetrate down into the water. Not all lakes will naturally have crystal clear water. Water clarity affects the ability of fish to find food, how deep aquatic plants can grow, dissolved oxygen content, and water temperature. Water quality can also be used to describe how well the lake can support plants, fish, and other parts of a healthy lake ecosystem. Nutrients—like phosphorus—can dramatically affect water quality and what species can survive in the lake.
Lakes can be divided into three categories (trophic states) based on a lake’s water clarity and nutrient levels. These trophic states can give you an idea of what features a lake is likely to have (clear waters, supportive of many or few aquatic plants or fish). If you enjoy swimming, are interested in a good fishing lake, or prefer aquatic plants over algae, water clarity may indicate if a given lake is likely to work for you.
Water clarity can be influenced by polluted runoff from across a lake’s watershed and from decisions made on the lake’s shoreline. How lakefront property owners take care of their shorelines can dramatically affect whether a lake will be prone to algae blooms, invasive species, and what types of fish can survive in the lake.
When you look out on the lake from your waterfront property, what type of view would you like to see? With more than 15,000 lakes, there are many unique features and shoreline types that can accommodate a wide variety of tastes. From quiet bays to open water, shoreland views can contribute to natural beauty, peace and quiet, a rural atmosphere, recreational activities, privacy, and other values important to a waterfront property experience.
Natural shorelines can be heavily forested up to the water’s edge, filled with shrubs, populated with native flowers and plants with some species extending into the water at the shoreline. All can be beautiful, but look quite different.
The slope of the shoreline can also be an important factor to consider. Some shorelines are steep, flat, or wet; these traits can affect how a shoreline is managed by property owners.
Some lakes have more developed shorelines with many lawns, piers, structures, open water or boats that may be clearly visible from your new waterfront property.
Other Lake Features and Characteristics to Consider
Lake bottoms can be made of a variety of materials—muck, rocks and boulders, sand or gravel. Different types of lake bottoms support certain fish, plants, and other species. If your toes prefer sinking into sand rather than feeling soft mud squeeze up between them, or navigating over stones, take this into consideration when buying lakefront property. Sand is the least productive (i.e. few plants, fish, and wildlife thrive) type of lake bottom material. Some folks have tried to alter the lake’s natural bottom by dumping sand into the lake to create beaches. Unfortunately this practice can cover and destroy fish spawning grounds, cloud water, and change the balance of the lake. Better to start out with what you like than to attempt to change the lake into something it is not.
Chemical characteristics (such as soft versus hard water) can differ between lakes. Hard water lakes have higher levels of dissolved minerals such as calcium, iron, and magnesium than soft water lakes. Some lakes, especially those near acidic wetlands like bogs, are stained with tannic acid that leaches from surrounding vegetation. The water in these “tannin lakes” may range in color from a dark brown “coffee” color to light brown. Not all lakes will naturally have crystal clear water.
Selecting the Right Lake Culture
Wisconsin lakes all have their own unique character and are used in a variety of ways. When lake neighbors have similar ideas about the kind of lake they like to enjoy and work together to preserve that commonly valued experience, a lake culture is established.
Some lakes are popular with high-speed boaters, have sailing regattas or clubs, or are host to fishing tournaments in the summer and ice fishing shanties in the winter. Quieter pursuits—canoeing, hiking, small family gatherings, fishing—may be valued on other lakes. Connection to lake businesses (marinas etc.) and non-lake activities (restaurants, bars, shopping) varies between lakes.
Some lakes are dotted with small cabins, may have pieces of shoreline in public ownership or preserved by a local land trust or Conservancy, or may have resorts or camps that own pieces of lakefront property and use the lake. Other lakes have condos, single family dwellings, or are more densely developed. Pick a lake that has a lake culture that closely resembles what you value in a lake experience.
Many lakes have lake groups that meet socially, work on projects to improve the lake, or advocate to local governments on lake issues. Lake groups can be informal, or nonprofit groups. Lake Districts are special purpose units of government with taxing authority. Lake groups can be a great asset to a lake and a good way to meet neighbors and become a part of the lake community.
Lakes in unincorporated areas are required to follow statewide shoreland zoning standards. A change in the law in 2015 prevented counties from enforcing standards stronger than those set by the state, a common practice for decades that allowed counties to manage development to their lakes’ unique qualities. Even though the standards are generally the same statewide, some variations may continue from county to county, so you should be sure to check on the regulations within the county of the lake your are considering. And remember, strong shoreland zoning pays good dividends when it comes to maintaining property values, and preserving a lake’s character and culture.
Responsible Shoreline Stewardship to Protect Your Waterfront Property Values
When you buy land on the edge of one of Wisconsin’s lakes or rivers, you are essentially buying property on the edge of a “public park.” Wisconsin’s “Public Trust Doctrine”, a provision within the state constitution, grants all citizens the right to use the waters of the state, and grants waterfront property owners certain additional rights. As a shoreline property owner, you can help protect water quality, open space and natural beauty for yourself, your neighbors, and future generations.
A growing number of studies show that people prefer clean water and will pay more to live on lakes with better water quality. What you and your neighbors do to sustain or improve water quality will improve resale potential. On the other hand, if water quality is degraded, lower property values could result.
Activities such replacing natural vegetation with lawns, clearing brush and trees, importing sand to make artificial beaches, and installing structures such as piers, can cause water quality decline. Natural shorelines prevent polluted runoff from entering lakes, help control flooding and erosion, provide fish and wildlife habitat, may make it harder for aquatic invasive species to establish themselves in a lake, muffle noise from watercraft, and preserve privacy and natural scenic beauty.
There are many attractive ways waterfront property owners can landscape for water quality and natural beauty. The resources below offer many ideas to help keep your piece of Wisconsin lakeshore and the lake healthy.
Protecting your Waterfront Investment: 10 Simple Stewardship Practices
Shoreland Property: a guide to environmentally sound Stewardship
Impervious Surfaces: How they Impact Fish, Wildlife, and Waterfront Property Values