Buyer Information

By Merri Ann Simonson

If you have already chosen us as your real estate agency, you have accomplished the first step in the process of buying property in the San Juans. You may; however, find the rest of the steps of interest.

Select an Agent to Represent You

As you may be aware, all of the brokerage firms on San Juan Island are members of the Northwest Multiple Listing Service; therefore, any of the agents can assist you with any of the properties listed with Coldwell Banker or other brokerage firms. One of the first steps in purchasing real estate on San Juan is to select an agent to represent you. Ideally you should select ONE agent that you feel will provide you with the level of customer service that you require. We believe an agent at Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands to be your best choice.

It is important for you to understand the Law of Real Estate Agency. Years back, Department of Licensing determined that most buyers felt that the agent represented them. However, the law at the time required all agents to be sub agents of the seller, thereby technically representing the seller. It was for this reason that State revised the agency laws to the current ones, which allow for three types of agency representation:

  1. Buyer’s representation is when the agent is representing the buyer and intends to obtain property at the lowest possible sales price.
  2. Seller’s representation is when the agent has a listing with the seller and is attempting to obtain the highest possible sales price.
  3. Dual agency is when the agent shows a buyer one of their own listings and the buyer decides to purchase it. In the case of dual agency, the agent represents the seller as well as the buyer. Download a copy of the Law of Agency Disclosure to become familiar with it.
Determine Your Source of Funds
  • Cash at Closing If you intend to finance your purchase, it is prudent to meet with your lender and determine the maximum loan amount you are qualified for. This amount, coupled with the cash you have allocated, will determine the maximum sales price. We have numerous lenders that are active with financing in the islands if you are interested.
  • Institutional Financing
  • Seller Financing
  • 1031 Tax Exchange

If you intend to finance your purchase, it is prudent to meet with your lender and determine the maximum loan amount you are qualified for. This amount, coupled with the cash you have allocated, will determine the maximum sales price. We have numerous lenders that are active with financing in the islands if you are interested.

Determine the Type of Property You Desire to Purchase

One of the best ways to do this is to develop a list of your desired property features, and a list that details how you intend to use the property. Then prioritize those lists. For example, when we are working with a waterfront purchaser, we obtain the following information:

  • Is beach access required or is high bank OK?
  • Do you have a boat? Do you plan to buy a boat?
  • Bay protection or west side open with current?
  • Bay view or expansive wide open?
  • Do you want to be near crabbing and clamming?
  • Do you want to see the whales, boat traffic and/or sunsets?
  • Amount of trees, direction of sun exposure, and amount of privacy?

The responses received may direct the agent to property in different locations on the island. However, it may be that until a buyer has an opportunity to view the various different types of properties, they may not be able to narrow down or develop their priorities.

Once determined, this information should be communicated to your agent in order for them to focus on the type of property that meets your needs, thus saving you time and confusion.

Educate Yourself on the Market and Inventory

You need to become acquainted with our market and inventory level in the categories that hold your interest. Even if your purchase plans are sometime in the future, it is beneficial to take the time to view property with your agent because it will save you time in the long run. This process allows you to get acquainted, relate your preferences and develop your knowledge of the market. This will also help your agent to customize all future information sent to you. Buying property is a process of elimination. You will view many properties which you will determine are not suitable; then you will buy the one that is.

One way to monitor our market is to ask your agent to email you the Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands Quarterly Real Estate Market Updates. You can also sign up for the service.

Monitor the Inventory

You need to stay in touch with the inventory and market trends until the right time or right property becomes available. If you have viewed property with your agent or communicated your preferences, your Coldwell Banker agent will establish an account for you in our IDX and all new listings that meet your criteria will be emailed to you upon their origination. Purchasing property in the Islands can be a one day or five year process – which is totally subject to your time frame.

Purchase and Sale Transaction

Once you have located the property you desire to purchase, we will structure a written offer to purchase containing the terms and conditions you have specified. The seller will either accept your offer as submitted or submit, through their agent, a counteroffer containing terms that are acceptable to them.

Relocation Services
Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands, Inc. helps individuals and families move to or from the San Juan Islands.  As Coldwell Banker affiliates, we are members of one of the nation’s finest relocation networks.

Whether you are selling a home in Washington State, relocating to another state or country, or are moving to the San Juan Islands we are here to assist you in any and all of your relocation needs.  Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands, Inc. works with out-of-town buyers and locals alike.

Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands, Inc. is especially proud of its distinction for assuring professional service and integrity in real estate transactions.  Our full-time sales associates and staff are committed to a Declaration of Excellence, agreeing to uphold the highest standards of competence in all areas of real estate activity.

In addition to our standard relocation and referral sources, you, as a home seller, can be assured that 84,000+ Coldwell Banker sales associates in 3,000+ offices world-wide are working to supply more potential buyers for your home.

Coldwell Banker is also part of Cendant Mobility, the largest relocation company in the world, handling numerous corporate and U.S. Military relocations throughout the world.

Important elements that should be included in the Purchase Agreement under the feasibility study provision are listed below.

Corner Stakes

Do you know what you are buying? Corner stakes can be located or re-staked by local surveyors. Full surveys may be required due to lack of original plat stakes. The cost of a full survey will vary, but for a four-corner parcel it is typically in the range of $2,000-$4,000; setting just replacement stakes can be much less. We have several surveying firms available on the island and we recommend: Bob Wilson 360-378-4300 or Bob Anderson 360-378-5072.

Archaeological Sensitive Areas

You want to make sure that the property you are purchasing is not located in an archaeological sensitive area such as Indian Midden or near a cemetery. If the property does contain sensitive areas, you need to know where they are located. To confirm this information you need to contact Annie Matsumoto-Grah at San Juan County at 360-370-7585. She will look up the property on their maps and confirm the results. The maps are not of public record so you may not access the information yourself. If the property is located within an Archaeological Sensitive Area, you will need to obtain a report from an Archaeologist. The Archaeologist will perform a site inspection and delineate the sensitive areas and their setbacks. Should you desire to dig in those designated areas for any reason, such as new construction, a remodel or landscaping, you must hire an Archaeologist to standby and sort through the material while excavation is in process in order to protect any items with historic value. The reports are approximately $1500-$3000 and if excavation is needed in the sensitive areas, the monitoring is on an hourly rate. It can add thousands of dollars to the cost of your project.

Internet and Cell Phone

The majority of the islanders use Century Link or our local firm, Rock Island for our internet connections. The DLS coverage will vary throughout the County. In some areas there isn’t enough strength to stream movies from the Internet but Net Flick delivers. You should confirm that the service to the property you are considering meets your requirements.

The best cell service in the islands is Verizon. Many remote locations in the islands do not have cell service. The County is currently seeking options to expand and enhance our cell and internet services in the future.

Rock Island can be reached at 360-378-5884. I can’t say enough about how great their service and sales departments are, I highly recommend both.

Feasibility Consultant

Some purchasers may want to commission a complete Feasibility Study that will respond to not only the existing conditions of a property, but also address the issues, if any, that may have to be satisfied to allow a proposed use of a property. Feasibility Studies can be one-stop reports; addressing conditions of the structures, septic and water questions. Further, a report on relevant land use codes that may impact the proposed use of the property can also be processed; i.e., a Vacation Rental Permit or Conditional Use Permit. Jack Cory from First Inspect Inc, 360-378-4900 or Cheryl Purnell Albritton 360-378-2066 offer package Feasibility Studies. The reports are in the range of $300-$5,000 subject to complexity.


If you are buying unimproved property then you should confirm the distance from power to the proposed building site. OPALCO will provide you with the distance and you can obtain a bid from a local contractor for the installation. Installing through rock can be costly.

Homeowners Insurance

Be sure to arrange for your standard homeowners insurance policy in the beginning of the process, don’t wait until you are only a few days from closing as the process can take 7-10 days.

Flood Insurance

If you are considering purchasing a waterfront home in San Juan County or even nationally, you most likely will be introduced to the Flood Insurance process. As you may be aware, the majority of our waterfront properties are designated as being in the flood plain as determined by the current Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) maps. What you may not realize is that almost 90% of the homes and other structures in San Juan County, when further analysis is done, do not actually require flood insurance.

FEMA contracted with the Corps of Engineers to complete the mapping and determine the Base Flood Elevations (BFE) for our County. FEMA then adopted those maps for regulating the insurance. The Base Flood Elevation for most of the County is 12 to 15 feet. The maps are two dimensional and don’t take into consideration individual property elevations, slopes and shoreline. They error on the side of consumer protection and use the “blanket approach”. Bottom line, if you are buying or have waterfront property, it is designated as being in the flood zone by FEMA unless proven otherwise by a Professional Land Surveyor.

Whenever you are using a Federally Insured institution as your lender, a Flood Determination is required. If the FEMA maps indicate that the property is in a flood plain, flood insurance is required and must be obtained prior to loan closing. As of October 2013, a Flood Elevation Certificate is required by the insurance underwriters prior to issuance of a flood insurance policy. Most borrowers don’t question whether the insurance is actually necessary. As a result of the passage of the Biggert-Waters Act in October 2013, flood insurance rates through the National Flood Insurance Program will be increasing. It will be more important than ever to determine whether the property you are buying or your existing property should have flood insurance coverage.

When purchasing a waterfront property, whether you are using a lender or not, the first step in determining whether you need the insurance is to obtain the Flood Determination Certificate. The lender will process one as part of the loan package but if you are a cash buyer, you may utilize one of the numerous services on the web for a nominal fee of $25.00. If this determination indicates the property is in a flood plain, you will want to hire a surveyor to apply to the Corps of Engineers for the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) for your property. The fee charged by the Corps is in the range of $105-$350, subject to previous determinations in the immediate area and it typically takes 3-4 weeks. The insurance underwriters will require a BFE in order to issue coverage and if you are using a lender, they won’t close until you have a policy in effect.

The BFE from the surveyor is also a key part of determining whether insurance is actually necessary. Once the BFE is obtained, the surveyor will then survey the property and determine the elevation of the lowest grade adjacent to the structure(s). This will confirm if the structures on the property should be insured or may be eligible to be removed from the flood zone. If the structures remain in the flood plain and you are using a lender, you must obtain flood insurance.

If you are a cash buyer, it is a personal decision. One might want to review the forecasted Tsunami path for the County to determine if the property could be flooded and verify with your insurance agent that your policy would cover such a disaster. Chances are flood insurance will not cover global warming and sea level rise until, and if, they actually occur, and then the government would need to mandate the coverage.

As in the case of your standard Hazard Homeowners Insurance, only the structures are insured, not the dirt.

If the structures as surveyed are above the flood plain, then the improvements and a portion, or the entire parcel may be eligible for a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA). To obtain a LOMA, you should hire the surveyor again, as they process these on a regular basis and are familiar with the zillion forms required by FEMA. The surveyor will submit the application for a LOMA to FEMA and the process is 4-7 weeks. The total cost is approximately $1850 on average, which includes the BFE fee from the Corps of $105-$350.

I believe this to be money well spent as the $1850 represents a large portion of the annual flood insurance premiums on a typical San Juan County waterfront home. The time frames to complete a BFE and a LOMA are typically not within the standard purchase contract term. I quote a total of 90+ days to my clients so it may be necessary for you to close on your purchase and your loan and then obtain the LOMA after closing.

If you currently own waterfront property and are paying for flood insurance, it may be beneficial for you to move forward with the BFE and possible LOMA so that you can avoid paying future premiums. It will also help expedite the sale of your property in the future as the LOMA runs with the land and can be used by a buyer.

Once you secure the LOMA, you will need to send that into your lender’s loan servicing department which may take a few more weeks. They will issue you a Waiver of Flood Insurance Notice which is your invitation to cancel your flood insurance. As in the case of many government programs, when you cancel, they will not prorate back your premiums for any unused term, so don’t count on a refund.

This article is for informational purposes only. As each property has unique characteristics, buyers and property owners should check with their licensed flood insurance agent to determine their options and the best solution regarding their flood insurance.

We have numerous surveyors in the County that process the applications for Base Flood Elevations and Letter of Maps Amendments, I recommend the following: Bob Anderson at Star Surveying (360) 378-5072 or Bob Wilson at San Juan Surveying (360) 378-2300.

For further reading please download our Flood Insurance Guide.

Seller’s Property Disclosure – Form 17

Pursuant to State statute, all property owners must provide a seller’s disclosure to the buyer. There are some exemptions to the law for Estates or Trustees. The disclosure is not part of the contract and doesn’t provide any representations or warranties. Buyers should share it with the Home Inspector so they may focus on any issues that the seller has disclosed. Ultimately, it is up to the buyer to process their due diligence and confirm if the property is suitable and the condition is acceptable. Buyers should not rely on the seller’s disclosures other than for informational purposes.


Was the home constructed under a permit and does it have a final certificate of occupancy? Was the home built under the “built by Owner” permit application and require a safety inspection prior to closing? You should obtain copies of the permits from the County Permit Center to confirm the permit status.

If the home was build prior to 1976 no permit may exist which was at no fault of the owner. Our Permit Department was not formed until the middle of the 1970s. These homes are considered grandfathered-in and non-conforming.

If you are contemplating new construction or a remodel, the current building codes and comprehensive plan can be accessed through the San Juan County website. You can request a permit package or review the County’s building requirements through their website.

Septic Inspection

Per the Purchase and Sale contracts used on San Juan Island, the seller must comply with San Juan County Codes related to on-site Sewage Disposal systems (OSS). Seller is required to have the system inspected; pumped if needed, and install any required maintenance components required by the code. Typically, all costs for inspection, pump, and installation of maintenance components shall be the responsibility of the seller. Sellers typically pay $200 for the inspection, $600-800 to pump and maintenance components can run $300-$2,000. Generally, systems installed after 2000 are in compliance with maintenance components. We recommend Craig Starr 360-378-8060 or Ted at San Juan Septic 360-378-7255.

Setbacks & Buffers

You should review the Critical Areas Ordinance located on the County website. This ordinance will take effect in March 31, 2014 and will implements numerous setbacks that are actually restrictive “buffer areas” from wetlands, shorelines, and streams.

Septic System

For existing systems, it is prudent to obtain a copy of the “as built” filed with the County. This will indicate the number of bedrooms the system was installed for and its approximate location, which is helpful for future improvements or repairs. If you are purchasing an unimproved parcel, you should obtain a perc test, design and permit approved by the County. The permits have a validity period of four years and the cost is around $1,250. The two most commonly used designers are Jack Cory 360-378-4900 and Rick Petro 360-376-2762. You can read more about septic systems via our Septic PDF.

Structural, Pest and Dry Rot Inspections

It is highly recommended that all buyers obtain an inspection of the home prior to closing. The inspector physically examines all of the major components of the improvements and reports on their condition and recommends any repairs. For additional information regarding inspections and their benefits, you can contact one of our inspectors. The three most commonly used are Jack Cory 360-378-4900, Tim Hance 360-298-1163, or Darrol Scheffer 360-378-4969. The Home inspection fees are in the range $500-$600.

Storm Water Management Plans

As part of the permit process, you must create plan for during construction Storm Water Pollution Prevention which meets County requirements. Further, once the home is built, you must have on-going Storm Water Site Plan to address run off from the hard surfaces and the improvements. This process can be character building.

Tax Assessments

All island property owners receive our tax assessment notices from the County in November. As real estate agents we have been fielding many questions about the statements and new assessments. As you may recall, the State has mandated that our Assessor’s office convert to an annual assessment update cycle versus the cyclical system we were on for years. The current values are for a one year period only and will be adjusted the next year. This process is much more stable and refined and will be a more accurate system than we have had in the past.

As agents, we have seen properties sell above their tax assessments the majority of the last 20 years with the exception of 2008-2012. Most of the variance was due to the lag time that accompanied the previous cyclical schedule our assessor used.

During a few years of the recession, properties were selling at or below the assessor’s values. For example, back in 2006, many of the same type properties sold in an average range of 125%-150% over their tax assessments. During the recession, many properties sold in an average range of 15%-30% below their tax assessed values. These average percentages varied based on the type of property but generally that was the trend. In 2014, due to market recovery, most homes are again selling slightly above their tax assessment. Due to annual re-valuations and the new assessor’s appraisal method, we may not have as extreme variances in the future.

Reviewing the tax assessment as compared to the actual sale price for high-end homes is not reliable as they are very difficult to appraise due to custom features.

Most of the confusion around the issuance of new tax assessments stems from the purpose and process of the tax assessment. The assessor is required to value properties for tax purposes at true and fair market value. The valuation assigned by a REALTOR for the purpose of marketing or the value assigned by an appraiser for the purpose of lending, estate planning or probate purposes, will most likely be a different amount. The process to the valuation is different for each therefore, the results will vary. Generally, the differences in the process are described this way:

Appraisers and Agents

Conduct an interior inspection then identifies at least 3 or more truly comparable sales that are recently closed that they either physically inspect or at minimum view via photographs in the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. Ideally closed sales should be less than 90 days old. They spend much more time on the property determining the desirability based on the features and amenities. They also rely upon a cost approach but a depreciation figure is deducted based on the age of the home and its condition. They will analyze the income approach if applicable and base the value of docks at market.

Due to the size of our market, finding truly comparable property sales in our County has always been the challenge. A real estate agent even differs from an appraiser as we can actually use “Pending” transactions as comparable sales. We also consider the current level of similar inventory and absorption rate in the category to assist in pricing a property for the current market for our clients.

Assessor’s Office

The assessor’s office performs appraisals for purposes of ad valorem taxation. This is part of the process for how we provide funding to all local government services, including schools, libraries, ports, fire districts, the hospital district, emergency medical services, cemeteries, state schools, parks, roads, sheriff and government.

Appraisers that work in the assessor’s office generally use information gathered from site visits without the benefit of an interior inspection. The characteristics of the home and land are considered and compared on a “mass appraisal” basis to all other properties countywide, with statistical analysis of properties grouped by similar market influences and characteristics. The “mass appraisal” method provides more equal distribution of property taxes among property owners within the jurisdiction through standardization and improved consistency in the work of appraisers.

It is impossible with the size of our County, and the size of our assessor’s staff to physically inspect every property on an annual basis. The properties will be valued every year and the assessor’s appraiser will physically inspect one-sixth of the county properties each year. Since the Notices of Value mailed in November were based on a January 1, 2014 assessment date, our assessor’s office utilized sales from 2013 to develop statistical data with which to update the value of all the properties in San Juan County. After reviewing and validating those sales, they use approved appraisal practices to determine the percentage of increase or decrease in value in neighborhoods of similar properties. 2014 sales will be used in the next cycle of the process.

As the assessor’s office performs this process on an annual basis, the historic variances noted in the second paragraph of this article will not be as extreme. If properties are actually selling above or below assessed values, those sales will be the basis for a statistical update the following year.

The assessor’s office is currently revising their method for valuing docks and will be using a more market based approach. This is a major valuation change for docks. The office is also valuing new construction, additions and remodels in a much more timely fashion.

The assessor’s office is required to assess at market value but with the constraints of limited access cited above, the task is quite different as compared to an agent or appraiser. The assessor is not allowed to be a member of the Northwest Multiple Listing Service and use their database but they do use the various brokerage firm’s real estate websites to view details and interior photographs which is allowed by the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practices.

The variance between the tax assessment and the values produced by appraisers and agents is expected as the process defines it.

Appraisers do not rely upon the tax assessed value as an approach to their valuation at all. The uniform reports don’t even request the appraiser to provide the assessment information. The appraisers never compare value conclusions with the assessor’s office therefore they are not influenced by the assessments. Their assignment is to provide market value to the lender or client, not the tax assessed value. It is also important to note that appraisers can and do provide opinions of value as of any given date; the assessor’s office is required to value property as of January 1 of each year so the aging of the assessor’s information will always be an issue, especially in an active market.

Agents are not licensed appraisers and there is no regulation surrounding how they calculate a property’s value; there is no uniform calculation. Some agents use the assessed values as a benchmark only. They recommend a list price to a client by applying a percentage to the property’s current assessment that is derived from the average percentage of sales price to assessment of similar recent sales. Some agents don’t rely on the tax assessed value at all and don’t let it influence their recommendation for pricing because they know the assessor doesn’t necessarily have access to the interior of the improvements. Regardless of what an agent recommends, the ultimate pricing decision is made by the seller.

REALTORs must, however, comply with Article 1- Duties to Clients and Customers of the REALTOR Code of Ethics which obligates REALTORs to provide an honest opinion of market value.

Buyers, of course, are looking for the best price possible and will use the tax assessments when it favors them. As agents, we are able to explain to the buyers the differences in the process and how the value amount may vary.

Websites such as Zillow, Redfin, and Trulia rely upon the various County Assessor’s information and valuations to process their own calculation. Their values may be reliable in Metropolitan areas where subdivisions of very similar homes are bought and sold on a regular basis, but the website’s calculation of value performs poorly in small, low volume, custom construction markets such as San Juan County. Again, as agents, we are able to explain to buyers that the website calculators are not reliable in our County.

Bottom line, we should all be pleased that our assessor’s office appraises as fairly as possible and uses the methods advised by the Department of Revenue and defined by statute. The tax assessment appeal process is straight forward which allows property owners to present their petitions themselves. Further we historically have had the lowest levy rate in the state.

If your value assessment is adjusted downward your tax statement may not have a correlated downward adjustment. Each tax district submits a budget for its expenses as constrained by state law. The total of the amount requested is divided by the total assessed value of each district. This results in a levy rate for each district. Your taxes are a composite of the levy rates for each district in which your property resides multiplied by your current assessed value, divided by 1,000.

If all properties increased or decreased by approximately the same percentage, you would likely see very little change in your tax statement regardless of the increase or decrease in your value. This complies with Washington State laws that were formed for the sole purpose of insuring that local government can rely upon a predictable amount of revenue each year so they could process a balanced budget. If the tax revenue had large fluctuations the result would be chaos for the local government services.

Another factor to keep in mind when considering your tax bill is the number of acres and percentage of total acres in San Juan County that are either exempt or pay a reduced amount due to being in a special use program. The taxes that would have been paid by these properties are shifted to the taxpayers based on public policy decisions by the State and County legislature.

Title Report

Shortly after the seller accepts your offer, you will received a Preliminary Title report. It is imperative that you review that report for accuracy and question anything that is different from what was represented to you. You should review easements and encroachments directly with the Title Officer that examined the title and issued the report. The reports are complex and only the source is reliable.

Transaction Closing Process

Due to the number of remote purchasers and sellers, the majority of our closings are handled through email or the express mail systems. We have local escrow firms and title insurers. We regularly cooperate with off island escrow firms, lenders, and 1031 facilitators.

Water Source – Private Well or a Community System

Private and two party shared wells should be tested for quantity, bacteria and organic. A San Juan Short list is recommended. The cost for a bacteria and organic test will be approximately $300 including the sampling. Edit visibility

Class A and B systems are community systems in which the quality and quantity are monitored on a regular basis as required by the County. These need not be tested, but their current “standing” should be confirmed through the County.

For more information regarding wells and water systems, you can contact one of the two commonly used well service providers: Denny Martel 360-378-2842 or Al Mauldin 360-378-6975. San Juan County Health Department can be reached at 360-378-4474. The County confirms that community wells are in “good standing” via email. In “good standing” is defined as current with satisfactory Bacteria and Nitrate reports and County inspections.

For further reading, please check out our news post About Wells.


You need to determine if the property you are purchasing contains any form of wetlands. Pursuant to the Critical Area Ordinance update, all wetlands have some sort of buffer that must be respected. There is no sure way to confirm the land contains wetlands without a professional wetlands expert.

You can start by viewing the County’s wetland maps and note if the property is located within a designated area, but that is not a formal confirmation and not reliable. If you are suspect, you can request a site inspection from the County or hire a wetland expert. Once you determine that you have wetlands on your property, you need to have the area delineated and the wetlands typed and surveyed so that the required buffers, based on type, can be honored. The fee range for the survey and delineation is $1,000-$10,000 subject to terrain and site difficulty; most site fees run in the range of $2000-$4,000. We recommend Scott Rozenbaum from Rozewood Environmental 360-468-4448 as a wetland expert.


This article is for informational purposes and not meant to encompass the entire process. Hopefully the article doesn’t make the purchase process sound intimidating but no worries as we will guide you through the steps and issues. Please direct any questions or comments to

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