Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Q: I'd like to know what I can do with recreational property.

That's what the real estate agents call it when it's not buildable. Couldn't I just build a little rustic cabin? How about a storage building for my boat?

A: After doing some research and conferring with King County personnel I think the easiest answer is that you can't do anything with recreational property except maybe picnic there. That's why these parcels are usually so inexpensive. If this is a waterfront parcel, the King County Critical Area Ordinance as well as several state laws, including the Shorelines Management Act and the Aquatic Reserve Area restrictions don't allow buildings of any kind within a substantial set back from the water. Even if it's not waterfront, you can't have a living space without an approved water source and septic system and most recreational properties don't have enough space to accommodate both. In addition, many don't "perk" for a septic system.

As for a small building for a boat, keep in mind that an accessory building must be just that, accessory to a house. If no legal house exists on the property you will not be allowed to build anything. Sometimes people drive a self-contained RV to their lot and stay there for short periods of time. That's probably alright as long as they take the rig to a dump station regularly.

Some recreational lots are not waterfront but may have steep slopes that limit building. Some are inland properties and have no critical areas but are not large enough to accommodate a septic drainfield or are too wet for a septic system. We have many of those located in areas with a very high water table.

We have many parcels of land that are not buildable on Vashon. They often sell over and over again as one dreamer after another thinks they can accomplish what others have not been able to do. The best choice for these properties is to sell them to a neighbor who might want a little more land.

Q: I've been looking to buy on Vashon for some time now and I'm really disappointed in the quality of the homes available.

I realize that I'm not in a high price range but most of the places I see have really cheap finish work. Even most of the remodeled house are done cheaply. Any suggestions?

A: Except for the most expensive homes built in the last 10 years or so, the majority of Vashon Island's homes were built by people of modest means. The Island was settled by fishermen, farmers, and merchants. Most of our houses are simple, with no "bells and whistles". To find homes with expensive trim work and finishes, you will have to look at the higher-end new homes or more expensive remodels.

I believe in following the old "form follows function" rule. You can always change trim work. Buying a house based on the finish work is like buying a car based only on its color, the quality of the upholstery, or how you will be perceived by others driving that car. Now I realize some people do make decisions that way (witness Hummers and sports cars) but I think the vast majority of us decide on a car based on its reliability, safety, fuel economy, and comfort.

To carry that metaphor a step further, how reliable is a sports car? (I can say that they are not very reliable, having owned a few in my younger years.) How economical is it to drive a Hummer? How safe are the tiny retro 1930's looking cars? If you buy one of these it's because you really want it and must overlook their limitations.

I recommend that you look for a house that has good, basic construction, functions well for your family, is well located for your needs, and is comfortable for you. Add the bells and whistles later. If you've always dreamed of a fancy bathroom, go for it. But realize that advertisers and home improvement writers have convinced you that you must have granite countertops, but they don't function any better than Formica.