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Want to protect your scenic view? You can buy the ‘air rights’ above homes

SEATTLE — Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, and now a popular trend in some of the country’s largest metropolitan areas is becoming more common here in Seattle.

People are buying air above homes to protect views, usually from new construction or neighbors wanting to remodel and build larger homes that will block views.

Imagine a house lower down on a hill and a home above it. The home above has a nice view and suddenly the person down below decides to put on a second story and the view up top gets obstructed. Buying air legally, known as air rights, or view rights, is becoming a growing protection option for residents.

On a day when the sun actually shines, Seattle likes to show off with its scenic cityscape, glistening water; these views are simply stunning.

“It doesn’t matter where you look, it’s beautiful,” said Nina Pedersen, who lives in Magnolia with her husband, Georg. Their home, high above on the Magnolia bluff overlooking Elliott Bay, has panoramic views of the water.

“It’s very quiet, very nice people living here, we’re very happy here,” said Georg Pedersen.

Their picturesque view was almost lost when Georg saw a contractor up on the roof of their next door neighbor’s home when that house went up for sale.

“It didn’t occur to us there was an issue [with the view] until my husband saw the contractor on top of the roof, and we decided we better do something,” said Nina.

The Pedersens have lived in their home on Westmont Way West in Magnolia for 30 years. The house next door, a one-story rambler, means the Pedersens can see over it to views of Mount Rainier, Elliott Bay and the Seattle skyline.

“We realized that is really a view we need to protect,” said Nina.

The home next door went on sale, and that contractor they saw made the reality of a bigger home built in its place likely.

“If there had been a big house next door, it would have turned the sunroom into a shade room,” said Georg.

“You’ve seen the square boxes, that’s what would’ve been there,” remarked Nina.

Not a fan of the box-style trend of new home construction, the Pedersens made a bold, pricey move to protect their pristine views.

“So we bought the house next door, put the air right on it,” said Georg.

The "air right" -- buying the air above a home.

“So we own the space from the roof up to 34 feet,” said Georg.

Call it air rights or view rights, these days people can buy anything and in Seattle’s hot housing market, a slice of the sky can also be bought.

“It’s a separate deed, you just own the air. That’s it,” said Nina.

Real estate agents say residential air rights aren’t as popular in Seattle as they are in places like Los Angeles or New York, but the trend here is growing, and as Seattle’s population continues to grow at a rapid pace, the precious views become more valuable.

“Welcome to Magnolia, Queen Anne, Clyde Hill, Somerset, Blue Ridge, wherever there’s a view there’s somebody who want to keep it, and money is going to be discussed,” said Richard Hagar of American Home Appraisal.

The cost is anywhere from $10,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on location.

“We just did some view rights over in Clyde Hill and we were able to determine the view was worth $600,000 -- not the land, just the right for the guy behind him to look over and have his view,” said Hagar.

Hagar, who has been in real estate in Seattle since the '70s, says they have many methods to quantify the price of the view. Among them, a matched pair analysis.

“We look at a lot, a vacant lot with no view, and we compare it to a lot with a view -- their difference in price would indicate the value of the view,” said Hagar.

The value can get broken down even further, a dollar amount per degree of view visible. A customizable transaction, fitting what the buyer wants and how much they can spend.

“Maybe you say, 'I only want to buy the view or air rights on the left-hand side of your lot. You can keep it on the right,'” said Hagar.

He says discussions between neighbors are often the hardest part.

“Once you’re done with that process of beating on each other, and being nice and serving tea,” joked Hagar, “Then the attorneys can draw that up fairly quickly.”

That’s what the Pedersens did -- had an attorney draw up a deed to the air rights above the home next door. Since they owned the home, they decided to sell it after a few years, but kept the air rights.

“The new owners are happy, they know it has air rights on it, we’re happy, everyone’s happy, so it’s pretty much a win-win situation,” said Nina.

An air rights purchase giving this couple peace of mind. Georg, a retired ship captain for more than 40 years, loves watching the boats from his home office.

“To enjoy your house, you have got to make sure you can protect it, too,” said Georg.

Now time to enjoy retirement, knowing their view won’t be obstructed.

“Absolutely. In fact, if we hadn’t done it, and had the problem, we would really be sorry,” said Nina.

The Pedersens shared that it is an expensive option, but it was worth it for them.

They added that in some cases, when multiple homes benefit from the view, the owners of several homes will come together and go in on an air rights purchase, splitting the cost and benefiting from the purchase.