Living In a Lighthouse - The Dream
Peace and privacy on an island in the middle of nowhere. Waves crashing outside your windows. The cry of seagulls. A tall tower symbolizing hope, strength and safety. What could be more perfect? A lot of people have the dream of living in a lighthouse. Almost as many search for a job as a lighthouse keeper. Can you buy a lighthouse home of your dreams? Well, yes. Is it truly the home of your dreams? Well, maybe not.
It’s very rare you can buy a lighthouse that’s ready to live in. If they go up for sale, it’s already from a private owner, and the cost is more than most of us can hope to afford. Pictured at top left is the former lighthouse on Indian Island, Maine, which is now owned by a family from New York. Looks idyllic, doesn’t it? But it’s not for sale. There are some available in the United Kingdom, but again, we’re talking big money.
So, if you want to live in a lighthouse, what can you do? Check out the ones the United States auctions off through the General Services Administration, right? All you have to do is be the high bidder and you have the home of your dreams.
Buying At Auction Not So Cheap
With the recent high prices paid for the two New York lighthouses from the General Services Administration auction, did the two high bidders get a deal of a lifetime? Or have they bought a hole in the water where money will continually sink as it’s thrown into the building? And the same thing appears to be happening with the Sharp’s Island and Borden Flats Lighthouses, both of which are in bidding wars right now.
If you’re the high bidder on one of these lighthouses, you hand over the cash, sign some papers and you have a home with a 360 degree waterview. So, it needs a little work, right? Well, we can gut it and rebuild the interior to have three bedrooms, two baths and a panoramic living room and kitchen. And if it’s too hard we can just move it inland to a proper building site. Rumors have been floating around the internet, probably started by some misinformed reporter, that Borden Flats can be moved. Not true. In most if not all cases, they are still working lighthouses and the Coast Guard retains ownership of the optic and foghorn. They remain in place, and the Coast Guard can visit any time day or night to maintain their equipment.
The Historical Designation
All the lighthouses being sold are historically protected under the National Register of Historic Places and you are severely limited in what you can do. In fact, you are forbidden to change the historical character of the lighthouse and you also must abide by the respective state’s limitations as well. And even if you know what you’re getting into with the renovation requirements, you might have months, if not years in some cases, acquiring the necessary permits.
Because these lighthouses are old, there are environmental considerations as well. Slap a coat of paint on after scraping the exterior? Well, you had better be prepared to spend megabucks in environmental remediation, since you’re dealing with lead paint, possibly asbestos, and other hazardous materials.
From Mr. Gabriel:
As for the mandates issues. I actually feel that is a hindrance. I like the idea of the lighthouses to be historically correct up to the point of being safe and useable. The Historic Standards by the Department of interior do not bar use of the lighthouses and do not really drive up the costs of the restoration because the owner knows what he can and cannot do before starting. The worst feature of the mandates is the long time it takes to get all approvals which delay the start times between 8 months to a year.
Nonetheless the restoration standards do limit use of the property. In lighthouses which never had keeper’s quarters it is unlikely that permission would be granted to add them if the lighthouse is on the National Register. For that reason, the Great Lakes lighthouses may not sell for much. Only one, the Ashtabula lighthouse might have the potential of adding living quarters and therefore have interest as a second home for a buyer. Without a home feature attached to a light it is not a lighthouse.
The Submerged Bottomlands
One problem, and it’s a major one, is the quit claim deed to the lighthouse does not contain the rights to the submerged lands beneath your lighthouse. Non-profit groups have come up against this problem time and time again. And with an individual buying it, you have to deal with individual state regulations as well. What this means is you might be paying rent, you’ll be paying taxes, if you can even get permission to live in the light, or even visit it.
The problem, according to Nevada attorney Michael L. Gabriel, who’s purchased two lighthouses through government auctions, is who actually owns the bottomlands. One would think it’s the state, since it sits in state waters, but that’s not necessarily the case.
For the current auctions, without a Title Search, it is unclear as to whether the Federal Government or states own the submerged land. As the GSA is saying that occupancy easements must be obtained from New York and Massachusetts it would appear that those states are asserting ownership of the submerged lands. The question is how that happened.
When the lighthouses were first constructed as a condition for doing so, Congress required under a federal law that the states had to cede all jurisdiction for the submerged lands as long as the lighthouse was operational and upon deactivation the submerged lands go back to the states. Under the Lighthouse act, the lighthouse can be sold but not the submerged lands. As long as the lighthouses are operational under Federal law the submerged lands should be owned by the Federal government and could not be transferred without a separate Act of Congress which as far as I know was not done. Federal land cannot be taken by a state for eminent domain.
In at least some of these cases, a Quiet Title Action may have to be brought in Federal Court to establish the ownership of the dream home you’ve purchased. From the Legal dictionary:
quiet title action (n.); a lawsuit to establish a party’s title to real property against anyone and everyone, and thus “quiet” any challenges or claims to the title. Such a suit usually arises when there is some question about clear title, there exists some recorded problem (such as an old lease or failure to clear title after payment of a mortgage), an error in description which casts doubt on the amount of property owned, or an easement used for years without a recorded description. An action for quiet title requires description of the property to be “quieted,” naming as defendants anyone who might have an interest (including descendants—known or unknown—of prior owners), and the factual and legal basis for the claim of title. Notice must be given to all potentially interested parties, including known and unknown, by publication. If the court is convinced title is in the plaintiff (the plaintiff owns the title), a quiet title judgment will be granted which can be recorded and thus provide legal “good title.” Quiet title actions are a common example of “friendly” lawsuits in which often there is no opposition.
The High Cost of Consultation
With the mandate by the purchaser to restore the light to historical standards, one of the first things the new owner has to do is engage the services of an engineer to determine the best way to accomplish this. Particularly in the case of Sharp’s Island Lighthouse, which leans fifteen degrees and is actually sinking, the study and plans will cost in the tens of thousands. And that isn’t taking into consideration the actual shoring up of the light.
Permits and approvals will be needed once this is done, and at the very least, can take some time to acquire. Bureaucracy doesn’t move very fast. And hiring someone to actually do the work, which may have to involve governmental entities such as the Army Corps of Engineers, and you’re talking time and money. Sometimes as long as a year or more, as Mr. Gabriel pointed out.
And let’s not forget weather conditions. As anyone who has built a house (or renovated it) knows, weather can be one of the biggest hindrances to getting work done on time. And with offshore lighthouses, built in the worst possible places, that risk is doubled.
Partly because of all these problems and permits, Mr. Gabriel, who owns Bloody Point Lighthouse and Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse, plans to restore have been moving slowly. After all the engineering work was done for Bloody Point, Fourteen Foot Bank became available, and as it was in better shape, Mr. Gabriel decided to concentrate his efforts on that light instead. Plans were for the work to start in September, but with the latest auctions, that may be delayed.
Coming up next: Getting the materials to the site
- Indian Island Lighthouse © bristolsue. Some rights reserved.
- Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse © dianeham. Some rights reserved.
- Sharps Island Lighthouse © Zoopmon. Some rights reserved.
More About High Cost of Lighthouses
- Lighthouses For Sale - The Hidden Cost
- High Cost Of Auctioned Lighthouses - Part II