Even when it seems to me that there are lots of cars here, there aren’t really lots of cars. They meander past heading to one direction or from the other, minding their lanes and watching their speed. The men of the morning pull into the gas station to fill up their trucks and their gas tanks, to power their days of digging or plowing or cutting and clearing. They do this every morning while I sit here and watch it unfold. It’s always the same. The seasons change, the white I see now will be greenish and brown by next week, but who knows what the week after that brings. It might be snow or it might be rain, or it might be double nickel and sunny, there’s no way to know. The sky today is soft and blue, the air still. There’s a storm of sorts brewing on some plain somewhere, but it isn’t here today, so the men fill their gas tanks and I sit and type. Every day.
It might be that the world sees this as boring. That my life, here at this keyboard and there in the seat of that car, and later in front of a fire, that this is somehow boring and unexciting. They see this place, this Wisconsin and Midwest, and they wonder what it is that we do here, and why we choose to do it. There is so much more out there, they say, mountains and oceans and different people and different cultures. There is more out there, more than there could ever be here. This is why kids grow up in Williams Bay and then, in large numbers, kids move from Williams Bay. They move to small cities and to large cities, they move to other countries or to other counties, they move places where they can see different things and learn about different ways. They spend time here in this incubator and then, when ready, they catch the first flight to somewhere else. Only later do they wish that their somewhere else would be a little more like this place.
It’s not hard for me to be thankful. It’s hard to act in a way that proves it, but it isn’t hard to think it and to understand it. This life is a privileged life. I do not toil in salt mines, though some days I think it would be better to do so, because at the end of a day I’d have a nice, large pile of salt and someone would come by and commend me for my incredibly large, magnificent mound. I do not travel across the country weekly, missing my family and selling something to someone, sleeping on hotel mattresses and eating continental breakfasts of Fruit Loops and microwaved eggs. I live four miles from this desk, and in the morning I wake and drive with my kids to the East, two miles. I drop them at their small school, they walk down the sidewalk the same way every day, though some days my daughter dresses like an Indian and my son carries the weight of a basketball game loss on his still young shoulders. I drop them and drive out of the lot, passing people I know, heading still to the East, another two miles to my office where this long desk and small keyboard await. If I drove another sixth of a mile to the East, I’d find myself in the lake. My entire life plays out along one four mile stretch of road, and for that, I’m thankful.
The kids who moved far from here a long time ago will be back in town tonight. They’ll drive the routes they know, marvel at what has changed and remark that nothing has. They’ll tell their kids about their old school, about their old hangouts, about the old baseball fields and basketball courts. They’ll tell stories of school operettas and foursquare lunch breaks. They’ll spend some time here and then they’ll leave, and on Monday I’ll drive four miles to this office, which is one half mile from where I grew up, and I’ll be thankful that nothing has changed.
I blame HGTV for most of the design abnormalities that I see on a day to day basis. On television, under the direction of some handsome psuedo-contractor, purple walls and gold faucets might look somewhat acceptable. They might even look nice. But in the real world, in this life we live, purple and gold should be reserved for Minnesota Vikings fans.
If you’re building a new house, or remodeling an old one, and you love purple and gold, this is your right. It is, after all, still a quasi-sort-of-free country. If you wish to live in purple and gold, live that way. But, when you live that way, please don’t wish to sell your house. For the rest of us, those of us who move with some frequency and have concern as to the value of our homes, there are some nice rules to live by. A car dealer once told me there are only three colors of car to buy. White, Black, Red. With that in mind, there are certain things to do to a house that will always work to increase your value.
There’s a caveat to this post, and that is that the homes I’m talking about now are entry level lakefront homes and off water lake access homes. In other words, if a home is $1.5MM or so, do these things and make money. If the home is $4.5MM, you’re going to want to ignore most of this post. As an aside, if you’re building a big fancy home and you’d like my opinion as to whether or not you’re making a catastrophic mistake, I am happy to look at plans and selections and offer up my opinion.
But if you’re not building a palace, and you’re remodeling a lake access house that’s worth $500k or so, there are very simple rules to live by. Those rules will help you make money on your purchase, and any remodel that adheres to this formula will be a success. I’ve sold a lot of houses in my life, but I’ve also remodeled and/or built a lot of homes, and I’ve never sold one that didn’t make me money. With that in mind, this:
Flooring. This should always, every time, be wood. Oak, to be exact. Standard width, regular white or red oak. Stain it dark and it’s done. Random width gets expensive. Other woods get expensive. Go oak, stain dark, be done. Do not, however, install pre-finished wood floors. No laminates, no matter how fancy they are or how long the warranty is. Put down a real wood floor, have it finished like a real wood floor, and you’ll be happy. A real wood floor laid this way makes a home feel substantial, and it strengthens iffy floor joists that are prevelent in old cottages here. No more laminate, no more pre-finished, no more engineered wood. Just don’t do it. When you put down the floor, put it everywhere. Upstairs, main level, everywhere. Small houses need consistent flooring, so put wood on all the floors and you’ll instantly upgrade the way your house looks, feels, lives.
Cabinets. Don’t do expensive cabinets. Woodmode is necessary in expensive lakefront houses, but in regular houses Kraftmaid is just as good. Save money on cabinets, because in the sub $1.5MM price range buyers expect real wood, (no thermofoil) and smooth, self closing doors, but that’s it. Save money here, because $50k in kitchen cabinets in a $500k lake access home spells you losing money, every single time.
Appliances. Go bold here. A Viking stove might be $5k. Someotherbrand Stainless stove might be $2500. Spend the extra money and you’ll be rewarded. My secret to remodeling homes for profit is to give a buyer something they don’t expect. A $500k lake access home buyer doesn’t expect a Viking range, so give them one.
Counters. When it doubt, marble. Yes, they wear horribly. Yes, the ones in my house are stained a bit. Yes, I yell at guests when they set anything on the counters. But, marble looks good, it looks right, and it’s at home in lake houses. Use it, love it, yell at guests when they set a pop can on them.
Tile in bathrooms. Marble, again. But in this there is tact. Marble from a fancy store can be prohibitively expensive. Don’t use that marble. Marble from Home Depot or similar might be five bucks a square foot. A marble shower is a beautiful thing, but in this price range no one cares about your herring bone pattern, or your fancy ceiling pattern. That’s why you put the marble in, lay it straight and simple, and when you’re done it’ll look beautiful, expensive. But it won’t be expensive, because you bought it at a big box store and a guy with a rusty truck installed it.
Trim. Walnut trim is expensive. In a lakefront house, I’d like the office that no one will ever use to be walnut paneled. In your lake access house? White painted everything. Think simple but big. Like an offensive lineman. Large trim with a complicated profile is expensive. Large trim with a simple profile is cheap. Use this. Caulk everything, then spray it white. You don’t be disapointed with the look, assuming you’re trying to actually make money on this remodel.
Fireplaces. If you’re building new, add fireplaces. Multiple fireplaces. Everyone expects a fireplace in the living room, so put one there. But a dining room fireplace, or a master bedroom fireplace, or a den fireplace? Pure luxury. Masonry fireplaces can run $30k each, and if you’re building a giant lakefront house, you better give me many of these masonry units. But sub $1.5MM houses can use radiant units that might run $5k each, so use a few of these. If you’re remodeling a lake house that doesn’t have a fireplace, add one or two and thank me later.
Light fixtures. These can’t be cheap but they can’t be expensive. If you’re buying a $3000 chandelier for a home in this price range, you’d do better to light a pile of $20s on fire in your driveway, because at least then you can roast marshmallows. Light fixtures from Restoration Hardware are always good enough, so use them.
That’s enough detail to form a nice baseline for any build or remodel here. One mistake to avoid is to remodel some things and not the others. There was a lakefront sale recently that featured an old house with three sparkly new bathrooms. The kitchen was old. The flooring was carpet. Had the owner of that home remodeled the kitchen and installed hardwood throughout, it might have sold more quickly and for more money. If you’re remodeling an old condo and you put in new floors and you paint but you leave the cheap hollow core doors and the formica kitchen counters, don’t expect any buyers to care about the floors. Be consistent, be smart, and if you have any particular questions about a remodel you’re thinking about, then ask me.
Now that I’ve predictably sabotaged our lovely fall weather by writing about how much I love it, and how much longer it will last, let’s get up to speed on the market conditions at the lake. It’s the time of year where two distinct things happen. Well, three, if you count our impending snow. First things first, the market wraps up fall closings. Deals that were struck in September, while summer was still hanging on, and those deals that were bridged in October, when the colors were bright, those deals close now. The second thing that happens is nonchalant buyers take some time off from their search, which is why most nonchalant lookers make huge mistakes by sitting out the prime time.
The closings on the lakefront have been pretty consistent this fall. 2015 is going to end up being one of the best years (of all time) for lakefront sales. I fear this may skew the impression of the market as felt by sellers, but it’s a good thing no matter how you slice it. There have been ample deals in all segments, though the entry level market is still trapped in a bit of a funk. The good news for the broad market is that the activity has been comprised of both new inventory that has sold quickly, and aged inventory that finally fell to a suitable price and was absorbed.
Along the lines of new inventory, the large lakefront parcel at pier 514 came to market this summer and sold this week for $3.95MM. It was originally listed in the mid $4s, which is a price that made sense. The parcel was 186′ along the water and 3.7 acres deep, and it was deserving of the attention the market paid it. I should have sold it, as I had several parties interested, but alas, I wasn’t involved in the transaction. At $3.95MM that’s a reasonable sale price, and we can now expect that the home will be torn down in the coming years and replaced with some new ode to importance.
Other sales this month include my listing on Bonnie Brae- $2.65MM for 2.75 acres of Snake Road woods, and 100′ of dead level frontage. The parcel on Oakland sold, that of an unremarkable ranch with 100′ of elevated frontage, closed for $1.7MM. The entry level house in the Highlands that I wrote about earlier closed for $1.305MM, and three off water properties in Cedar Point (2) and Academy Estates (1) sold between $615k and $1.2MM. All good sales that make sense, excepting maybe one of the Cedar Point houses because I don’t love houses in the $600s that lack good views, slips, or anything unique. The small ranch in Cedar Point that feels like lakefront but isn’t is now under contract in the low $1s. I sold my Eastbank listing this week for $1.195MM, a fully furnished, highly polished gem with slip, view, and short walk to downtown.
Activity remains strong, as sellers entice buyers with slight price reductions to make sure they know the market is still open for business. One such maneuver occurred on Lackey Lane. A pretty Pickell house hit the market this summer for north of $5MM. The market, even in its sometimes irrational state, didn’t bite. $5MM+ is still rare air here, no matter if a few homes that had no business selling north of $5 did just that. The Lackey house dropped a few times, settling last week in the mid $4s. I brought in the buyer last weekend and that property is now pending sale. I sold it because the seller wanted to sell and a buyer knew that it didn’t matter what time of year it was, a good house is a good house and a good price is a good price. Thanksgiving season or not.
For the remainder of 2015 expect very little by way of new inventory, though that doesn’t mean there won’t be any. Expect buyer activity to slow, bearing in mind that motivated buyers will be active and will, most likely, secure a reward for being active while others sit out the season. If you could plan a time of year to be a successful buyer here, it wouldn’t be June. It wouldn’t be February. It would be right now.
I fear this job of real estate is a no-win proposition. There is very little left to do here, little left to prove, little that can be done to change the outcome. The profession is a miserable one. It is miserable because it must be, because any profession that so easily takes the blame cannot ever be a noble profession. If I were a plumber, this would be noble. I could hang out a sign, Dave’s Plumbing. What a sign it would be. I would have a truck, a big four door truck with leather seats so that when I was done with work on Friday I could clean the seats and take my family to Chili’s. Then, on Monday, the phone would ring and I’d need to go fix a leaking sink. The lady who would call would be frantic. I’d rush over, fix the leak, be a hero. And I’d charge $129 for the visit, which would be paid quickly and happily by the leaky sink owner. My effectiveness would be tangible. When I showed up the faucet leaked, then I fixed it. I fixed it. Without me, the sink would still be leaking. I’d do that five days a week, this hero work, and then I’d clean my truck and I’d go to Chili’s. That would be rewarding work.
This real estate business is not rewarding. If you hear of a Realtor who says their reward is in the smiling faces of their clients, they must not have very many clients. It’s very easy to be happy in the business when you get to sell a few houses a year, and each one is a splendid surprise. It’s different when you must sell many, constantly and without pause. There are no victories in this business, only temporary breaks from the battle. The breaks last hours, if that. That’s because the industry has never, ever, created an environment of respect. There is no respect for the Realtor. This is not a grievance, nor a litany of self pity, this is only an accurate observation. There is nothing noble about this profession, about this work. There is no level at which the job of Realtor could be elevated to be something meaningful. It is a position filled by those who either have little else they are capable of, or by those like me, who felt they could excel at the post and perhaps, just perhaps, change a few perceptions along the way. I was right about the excel part, wrong about the shift in perception.
No level of proficiency can shift the perception. No level of effectiveness, of success, of individual service. I closed a transaction recently that was a win for all parties. The buyer found the rare bit that fit their needs. The seller sold quickly, easily, efficiently and at a market rate. There were no losers in this sale, only different sorts of winners. The job of Realtor was administered by this guy, and the job was done with proficiency. Everyone succeeded in this sale, yet, for the success, there is a bad guy. Lest you not understand the business, the bad guy is always, without fail, the Realtor. That’s not because Realtors are, by nature, bad, it’s because the Realtor is the link that holds these individual transactions together, and it’s the Realtor that bears the brunt of the unrealistic expectations that the different parties bring with them through a transaction. Realtors might make lots of money on television, and they might wear super pointy shoes and drive sportscars, but the business, even at that outrageous level, requires a serious dedication. Dedication to the deal? Sure. But really it’s dedication to being treated poorly, as an overpaid, unnecessary cog in the transaction. The irony here is that most times the transaction would not exist without that cog.
Most of the trouble in a real estate transaction involves perception. Buyers and sellers, perceiving what they will, understanding the business and the process as they will. Their understanding is not universally accurate. The customer is always right, except when the customer is usually wrong. But it’s about the perception and the way different parties enter into an agreement to sell a home. There are showings, which are good and tedious at once. There are offers, some bad, others good, most requiring work to bridge. The game of real estate is, up until the point of accepted contract, just that, a game. It is a game to find the properties, to list the properties. It is a game to negotiate a deal. Negotiations are games with serious outcomes, but they are most obviously a game. This is the game that some clients love to play, and this is a game that I’ve become quiet capable of winning. But the process ceases to be a game at the point of contract. What comes next is the work of actually selling a property. The point of contract is not the end of the process, but it is the end of the game playing.
When a party to a transaction adopts the juvenile approach that sees the entire process as a game, the transaction will, without fail, turn ugly. Will the buyer see the seller turn ugly? Will the seller see the buyer turn ugly? Well, that depends on the Realtor. If the process is being handled correctly, the ugliness that is pettiness will be masked by the go between, by that unnecessary cog. This morning I am not intending on whining, though I can hear the whine coming through the keyboard with each new letter. This morning is intended to serve as a reminder to the parties of a transaction. There is a goal in this game of real estate, and that’s to sell or buy whatever real estate is in focus. Play the game, negotiate, win. But once the dust of a contract has settled, recognize the task at hand. Complete the transaction. Be flexible to understand the situations, be attentive to a buyer’s request. When selling real estate, do so with a grain of salt, knowing the goal is not to win each individual battle but to win the war. When buying, think of the process in the same way. But just know that if you’re unreasonable or otherwise inflexible, it will, at the end of this day and every day, be the fault of that unnecessary cog that made the entire thing happen.
A recent article told of the plans that developers have for the old HIllmoor Golf Course parcel in Lake Geneva. On this topic there has been much debate. What should come of this run down property that guards the Eastern entrance to our city with so many weeds? Should we develop or shouldn’t we, should it be commercial or shouldn’t it? Thankfully, the developers made a pitch to the city that concluded with, “No lake, no deal”. Good thing, because now we can so no lake, which will force their hand to say no deal.
But it isn’t really a lake they want, it’s a pond. A gross, little, green pond. They think this will matter to the vacation home owners that they seek to someday sell to, but it won’t. That’s because developing Hillmoor is a bad idea, and it won’t work. There’s another development underway just to the East and South of that Hillmoor property, and it’s another large residential development. Guess what? That won’t work, either. There are still rumblings of Hummel’s land and rumblings of rezoning for the Geneva Inn. None of it really matters because none of it will work. They are all different developments, all seeking different zoning classifications, all looking for approvals and handshakes and back room winks. But the common theme that runs through all of these developments is that they’ll all, in one way or another, fail.
Someone posed an interesting question over the weekend, after the horrible atrocity committed in Paris. The question wondered what good could come of allowing Syrian refugees into these United States. The answer was met with mostly crickets, but some shouts of inclusion! Kindness! Peace!, etc and etc. The point of the question was that the possible downside eliminates and renders meaningless that small chance at an upside. I feel the same way about these developments. What good comes of allowing them?
While Madonna attempts to love terrorism away, I have no interest in loving developments away. I just wish they’d leave us alone. That’s because the last rush of development is still unfinished. There are developments in Williams Bay, Prairie View and Baily Estates, both born of the last housing cycle, both still offering unsold lots, or resold lots, both littered with vacant parcels. Why, if there’s a great demand for new development, would the old developments sit unsold? Shouldn’t there be buyers clamoring at these cheaply erected gates? Shouldn’t prices be soaring if we’re already looking to replace something that hasn’t yet been consumed? If I go to a buffet at an all-inclusive resort and load up my plate with food, this is shamefully acceptable. But if I load up my plate, return to my table, eat one piece of fish, then return to the buffet and load up my plate, this is frowned upon, even in the anything-goes world of low priced all-inclusives.
But, but, the Hillmoor property might have a lake! So what? Who cares? No one. Not potential buyers, that’s for sure. That’s because potential buyers seeking to reside on a small green pond can go to Geneva National, where they have ponds aplenty. Or they can go to Lakewood Estates where we have a 75 acre lake- no pond at all. Or they can go to any one of the other small lakes in the area and get their fill of pond life. A Hillmoor development won’t work, pond or not, and it has nothing to do with my feelings about development, it has to do with very simple theories of supply and demand.
We still have ample supply, and it isn’t endangered. If you want to build a vinyl house, you have loads of options here. If you wish to work in town, send your kids to school in town, then we’d love to have you. We have myriad housing options for you, ranging from the basic to the splendid, ranging from vinyl ranches on hills to palatial lakefront estates. We have every segment filled. Yes, to be fair, we are missing the segment of basic house backing up to the highway facing a green pond, but I’m betting that segment is awful small, and also, awful.
All of that begs the answer to the original question: What good do these developments bring? What is the point of adding more full-time residents? Is there some great economic benefit, aside from the municipality’s lust for additional tax dollars? Is there some benefit to forcing population expansion of small resort towns? Of course there isn’t. Lake Geneva is an exclusive sort of market. It isn’t for everyone. It is for full time people who want small town living. It is for vacation loving people who want to boat over clean water and walk a deciduous shoreline. It’s for people who want to experience a small town that’s big on personality. That personality changes when mass development comes knocking.
That’s why I don’t really care what the development is, I just care how big it is. If Hillmoor wants to sell off 20 lots, all large and ample, I’m all for it. Commercial properties along the road, residential in back. Perfect. If any one of these other developments, both proposed and approved, wish to provide high caliber housing options that number few, let’s rejoice. But if these developments wish to flood our market with inventory and introduce new, boring, properties to the market, I say no. We don’t need any more boring housing because we haven’t even finished our last round of boring housing and everyone at this table is feeling pretty full.
The flowers are blooming in that big patch of flowers that looks just like a garden of weeds. Most of the flowers are dead now, having long since given their blooms to the bees and their scent to the air and withered. The grass that was so tall, so green, so bushy and strong, now bends brown in the wind, offering little resistance, just waiving in whatever direction it’s told. There’s no strength left to fight. But those flowers are blooming anyway. Not many, but some, the few that don’t give up so easily. The few that see sun and feel warmth and ask, why not?
And so they bloom. You have to walk for a while before you will notice them, but they’re there. Blooming. Surrounded by browns and grays of all shades. There is some green still, the just cut lawn still showing off its stripes that I so intently mowed into it all summer and fall. The trees have long since bailed on the notion of a showy fall display. They turned colors, vibrant reds and oranges and so many yellows. But now they’re mostly just bare, the oaks hanging to some brown leaves, the maples still hanging to a few yellows, the other trees, whatever they all are, stripped of anything they had left by the November winds. Everything is failing now. Not dying, but withering nonetheless, and if you had never known this particular change of season you’d fear that this was indeed the end. That death was coming, nearly complete.
But we know better, because this isn’t our first time. We know the greens are replaced by oranges and reds, and those are replaced by brown and gray. The cycle of this season is nearing its completion, and stores are telling us that it’ll be Christmas soon. It’s always like that. There are strange build ups to Halloween, which is a Holiday in the same sense that I am a skilled and delicate ballerina. Thanksgiving is near, we all know that, because it’s getting brown outside and the mornings are crisp, and that wind is blowing. Thanksgiving is coming, Christmas follows right behind, and everything outside is dying, everyone who fears the cold leaving.
Except those few flowers that are blooming in my garden. They don’t really care that snow will cover them after some many more weeks. And when I walk now, the grass is still green and the lake is still blue and the trees are still standing tall and strong. I don’t mind that the brightness of early fall is now past, I relish the browns of November. In fact, this might be my favorite month of the year. Yes, I said it, November with its sometimes rain and oft wind, with its brown trees and browning grass, with its sparse out of place flowers and its bendy grass. This is a month that I would miss. This is a month here that’s unique and rare. This is the only month where we can celebrate sepia tones and still find an unexpected flower blooming in the midst of it all.
This weekend the smoke will hang low in the November air. It’s been hanging low like that often, except for this week when the wind came and blew it away. The wind is settling now, the temperatures rising, the smoke settling low in these small valleys. The leaves are being rakes, blown, burned. The summer things are being put away, fogged and wrapped tight in covers of plastic and canvas. The winter things are being prepared, but we have no use for them now. This is fall, this is the season of harvest and thanks, because November is so much more fall than October could ever hope to be. Enjoy it while it lasts. Walk the paths. Stroll the sidewalks. Sip strong coffee and take it all in. Soon, it will be winter, and these glorious washed out browns and greens will be blanketed in white.
The signs made it known in July that the men would come to work on the road in August. There was a sign taped to the door of this office, and one taped to the door of the office next door. The town new this was going to happen, because of the signs. Weeks before the men would arrive with their trucks and their diggers and their flags, but a week or two after the signs were taped to so many doors, the orange and white barrier markers were shipped in. They came from the last town where the men put down the asphalt, back in that town somewhere else where they put the signs up that told everyone they’d be coming, long before they did. The orange barriers are wide and tall, substantial, portly. They have the look of something you don’t want to hit with your car, though no fewer than two times I saw one hit by a car and very little happened to the car. The barriers aren’t that heavy, but they’re heavy enough to withstand the wind and the rain. They did their job in the last town and now they came to do their job in this town. The signs made us ready.
The barriers were to mark off a section of road, to tell those who didn’t read the signs that this thing was indeed happening. There were barriers dropped, each pushed off the back of a long trailer, every 30 feet or so. The men drove up one side of the road for most of the morning, spacing out the orange and white barrels. Then, after lunch, they drove down the other side of the road, back to where they started, dropping the barriers in the same pattern. The men who they trust with the plastic barrier pillars are not the same men that they trust with the earth movers. How could they be? There’s no way someone would move a barrier on a Tuesday and scrape up the road on a Wednesday. These are different men, different unions. They went to different training schools, in different parts of the country.
Once the markers were set, it was a scene. No signage could have prepared us for this. So many barriers, so much distraction. In the afternoon when the sun sets low on the western horizon, it’s a trick to drive in that direction on this road. The road bends, but not enough. It just points towards the sun in a slightly uphill trajectory, making late afternoon driving a blinding event. How many barriers were hit into these late afternoons I cannot know. The crossing guard probably knows, no one else could. The barrels were moved, as needed, from the margins of the road and into the road, to make two lanes one, every driver obeying the women with the flags and the portable stop signs, especially the leathery one with the tattoos. Often, cars with plates from other states would disobey the signs and the flag waiving and they’d whip right around the barriers. The flag ladies would flap and waive, but those rogue drivers had already made the decision to ignore the signs and the barriers, no matter how many barriers there were.
The barriers were moved from the road and to the margins, then to the road from the margins. Back and forth as one lane was dug up, then the other. Then one lane was replaced with fresh asphalt, and the barrels were moved. When the project was done, the road was smooth. So smooth and so likable, except for the areas where the old manhole covers were too low for the new high grade. There are bumps there, but after some time we learned where they were and how to avoid them. We didn’t even need the barriers, though the barriers stayed. Once the torn up margins of the road were filled with new soil and fresh sod was laid on top, the barriers stayed. The barriers stayed right on top of the new sod, and when the truck came to spray water on the new sod, the barriers didn’t move. The road crew packed their diggers and their asphalt, they collected their signs and their portable flags. They had to get to the next town, because the signs had been circulated weeks ago, and the next town was wondering why everything was taking so long to begin. The last man on the last truck out of town grabbed the few remaining rolls of sod, and with that, they were gone.
The road was nice. Smooth and wide, striped and pretty. Bike lanes were labeled. The sod grew, the sidewalks were walked on. Everyone was in a pretty good mood about this new road. Visitors who hadn’t been to town for some time drove over the new road and commented, what a fine road this is. The school children walked down the new sidewalks, past the new sod, paying little attention to the stationary decorations of orange and white, with those large rubber bases. The barriers were still there, and for those first few weeks it was obvious to everyone that the road crew would be back, soon, to get their belongings. But the fall came and the fall grew old. Halloween was over. The barriers remained. Old men in town walked down the roads, shaking their heads. Stopping, thinking, wondering who would leave such a large amount of barriers behind. Drivers driving up the road in the late afternoon squinted beneath their low-pulled ball caps to see if they could tell the different between the stationary barrels and a child running towards the street. Traffic crawled. Tempers flared. I’m not one to get too angry over barrels, but I took offense to the ones in front of my view and I dragged them down the road a ways. No one noticed.
Yesterday, the men came back. They drove a truck, with a trailer, and they drove West up the road in the morning, picking up each barrel and stacking it neatly. After lunch, they drove back East, picking up the remainder. By evening, they were all gone. This morning, not a single barrier could be found, and I can barely contain my excitement. The road is finally finished, and what a road it is.
As I recall, there is a tiki hut bar at the Angler’s Cove Condominiums in Marco Island, Florida. I don’t know as though I ever went there for any purpose, but I do recall the tiki hut. There’s another tiki hut, this one on Geneva Lake, this one not open to the public. It’s a very nice tiki hut, as far as tiki huts go. It’s large and it’s by the water, and it belongs to the property that I just sold last week. $2.65MM for 2.75 acres of wooded Bonnie Brae property, with 100+ feet of level frontage. This was a nice sale, as the house, pool, and storage barn were all included with the tiki hut purchase. It’s a nice sale for the market, as it removes a piece of aged inventory from the MLS, and prints it at a price that both a buyer and a seller can be pleased with.
There were other sales last week as well. One on Birch Walnut, that of a parkway home in Cedar Point Park. Those parkway homes are interesting creations, and not all are created equal. Some are very near the water, others very near the road. Some are large and new, others small and old. There’s very little consistency on the parkway, except the luxury that is a giant swath of grass that leads from your lakeside door all the way to the water. This uninterrupted parkway is rare in our market, and buyers have, time and time again, rewarded sellers who own these interesting properties. This sale was at $850k, and while the property had a very slight lake view and no boatslip, it’s a nice sale because of that parkway.
A small lakefront home in the Highlands sold for $1.305MM last week. That home tells a good market story, one that sellers and buyers alike should pay attention to. That property last sold in May of 2008 for $1.764MM. That would have represented the peak time for the last cycle, and that shows us that entry level lakefront is still, for the most part, 20-30% off the prior highs. Contrast that with the $3MM+ market, which is currently, by my eye, operating at prices that might be within 10% of the peak, and in some cases, already higher than peak valuations. The entry level lakefront market cannot catch a break, and while this sale at $1.305MM is a nice sale for a small property with limited frontage and a hillside location, it likely doesn’t feel so good for the owner who just lost $500k (after fees, assume) on the experience. Pier 511 sold last week as well, this one priced in the mid $4s, though the transfer price reflected a $4.1MM print, likely on account of personal property being excluded from the real estate transfer.
After many fall closings, the market is beginning its late fall slow down. There are only a handful of properties pending sale around the lake, including a new contract on a parkway home in Cedar Point pending with a $1.15MM ask. The vacant lot in the 700 Club is pending sale. The large lakefront in Fontana listed at $4.3MM is pending as well, and we’ll expect that will close in the coming week or so. I’m expecting a sale price just under $4, so we’ll see if that hunch is correct. I’ve heard a rumor of an off-market sale of a marquee Snake Road property in the upper stratosphere of our value ranges, so we’ll be sure to watch that to see if the rumor is true. I see some exciting new inventory coming to market, but it’ll be at the upper ends of the market here. Large lakefront properties have never had such a good year as this one, and the activity in the market should bolster some sellers of $5MM+ homes that think it might be the right time to attempt a sale.
Lakefront inventory is slow now, with barely 30 true lakefront homes on the open market. Expect this number to stay low through the new year, though plenty of lakefront listings will be available via pocket-listings, assuming you know the right agent (ahem). Now is the time to try to work on aged inventory, picking off value that the market has overlooked. Sellers generally find a last puff of motivation this time of year, and savvy buyers would be wise to get active right now. It doesn’t feel like the right time to pursue a summer home purchase, but it is.
I’ve seen things no one should ever have to see. I live like you, just wishing to make it through my day without conflict and strife, to make it from this day to the next in perfect peace. Yet I, unlike you, drive around all day to make my living, and in this driving I see things that I wish I didn’t. Just two days ago I saw a semi-truck with a fully loaded trailer. On that trailer there were no fewer than five brand new pontoon boats, each wrapped in pontoon plastic, each heading to a new owner. It was as terrifying and troubling as you’d guess, and the image is one that even now, some two days later, I cannot shake.
This time of year, when I drive around this lake, I see interesting things. I see puzzling things and frightening things. As the leaves fall, homeowners do their best to rid their lawns of the leaves. Some wait for all of the leaves to drop, then they have companies come and sweep them into giant piles where they will be sucked up by giant truck based vacuum cleaners. Others rake and rake, but the rake is a futile tool on a large enough lawn where so many Maples loom overhead. But the rake is preferred compared to the other thing I see: The Electric Blower.
Thankfully, most of the things I see can be fixed through some good advice and some preparedness. Pontoons can be sold to people who live far from here, where they will be delivered to lakes where they are not relegated to the shadows. Electric blowers can be destroyed and thrown in the garbage. Perhaps the electric blower phenomenon is not something spawned of preference; perhaps it’s just that people don’t know any different. That’s why I feel it my duty to provide you with this short list. It’s a list of things any lake house needs. With the Holiday season rapidly approaching, and without further ado, that list of must-haves:
GAS POWERED BLOWER. This has to do with the electric blower problem. Electric blowers are horrible. As a child in the mid 1980s, all of my “remote-control” toys were corded. We still called them remote control cars or trucks, but they were just toys with a wire attached to a controller. If you wandered down some street today and saw a child playing with a cord-controlled toy, you’d immediately stop and pause. You’d take up donations from neighbors and rush to the store to buy this neglected child a proper remote controlled car. Electric blowers are like this. We don’t walk around house talking on our corded phone anymore, so why should we walk around the yard with a corded blower? We shouldn’t. It’s a ridiculous concept and those who use a blower like this should be ashamed. A proper Echo gas blower is only $149, so go buy one. The backpack version is superior, but that’s more involved and if you’re currently using an electric blower at your lake house you should choose the $149 model first, so you can ease into this modern world of internal combustion engines.
AN AXE. We can spell this either way, ax or axe, so I’ll alternate now to show flexibility. A proper ax is different from any old axe. We need one of these at a lake house for many reasons. What if Nanna gets locked in a room and there’s no time to wait for the locksmith? Axe. What if there’s a small rodent running around the house and there’s no time to wait for the exterminator? Ax. What if you want to chop some wood because you’re incredible? Axe. Very little beats chopping wood during the late fall and winter, as there’s something remarkably therapeutic about chopping wood, carrying that chopped wood into the house, then burning that wood to keep warm. Best Made Co has great axes, but any wood handled axe with some heft will do. Just make sure it’s a full sized ax and not some silly hatchet.
CELL PHONE DRYING BAG. Last week, my wife lost her cell phone. She lost it after walking to the end of our driveway to retrieve the mail. She looked everywhere. Everywhere! The phone was not found. Days passed, the phone was not found. I joined the hunt, and the phone was not found. It had to be somewhere, but it was nowhere. On Sunday I mowed my lawn, and narrowly avoided hitting something shiny. It was her phone, and it spent four days on that lawn. It rained all day one of those days, and the phone was likely destroyed. Thinking quickly, I removed the case and the battery and stashed it in a container of rice. The phone, a day later, worked just fine. Don’t use rice, use a proper kit because it’s cool and shows you’re prepared for the likelihood of a cell phone ending up in the lake. EVAP bags are cool, and you should have a handful of them at your lake house at all times. Your guests will thank you.
Of course this isn’t the most thorough list, but it is a list that will help your lake house be a better place. It’ll help you be a better person. It’ll help your lawn look better in the fall, your stack of firewood look taller in the winter, and your phone dry faster in the summer.
We all engage in it. A very common mistake. It’s not a mistake like it would be to pay someone to tattoo barbed wire around our biceps, but it’s a mistake nonetheless. I write to you from this desk every other day, and I write to you as if I know the entire lake. As if I know every nook and cranny and every point and bay and every gravel road and paved street. I write like I know, as it comes to Geneva, it all. You listen, you read, and you, too, explore. You think about the lake and you think about what it is and how it looks and you think that you know it all too, and if not all of it, well then certainly most of it. The truth today is that none of us know the lake as well as we think. It’s a big lake. Our minds are small.
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And this is why November is so important. In December, we can get to know the lake. The lake is still then, the activity gone excepting a few brave fishermen that drag lures slowly through the depths, the piers out and the lake a glassy reflection of everything we think it should be. We can explore then. We can hike the shore path and legally trespass through front lawns and peek behind houses and see things that we didn’t know were there. We could do these things in December, but December has but one fatal flaw. It can be very cold in December. Like freezing cold. Like Manitoba cold. If you’ve never been there, trust me on this one, it’s a cold you don’t ever want. December is to exploring what bicycles are to fishing, carbon fiber frame or not.
November on the other hand, November is a month where even a soft guy like me can do some exploring. November isn’t like October and it’s nothing like December, but it’s so much better than August if you’re looking to actually accomplish something. August is a show. It’s busy here then, the lake is busy and pretty and between pretty boats and pretty girls and pretty big fish it’s nearly impossible to focus on the lake. November is free from distraction. There’s nothing going on, and no fisherman in a Lund could ever distract someone from their goal if their goal is to discover what they cannot see during summer.
A goal of mine here, on this site, and in my every day work is to educate. Any agent can be reactionary and make fancy fonted proclamations, but is that some sort of valuable advice? I don’t think it is. I think it’s lame. So while I educate here and educate if you’ll take a ride in my car with me around the lake, there is an education that I cannot give you. That education is one of personal preference. If you’re going to buy a car, it’s nice to know what Dan Neil thinks of that particular car. The gas mileage is sort of important. The size of the engine matters some. But what really matters is how the color looks under the sun and how it takes a corner. Personal preference is what matters far beyond the nuts and bolts, and even though I’d love to shape your preferences for you this is something I cannot do. In order to understand this market and this lake, you must explore.
Vacationing here during August for a week is not the time to explore. That’s a time to be captivated. There isn’t must subjectivity to a summer day at the lake. It’s impossible to resist it. And with this, people give in and they buy a house on a Saturday that they first learned about on a Tuesday. To be a buyer in August is to act quickly and sometimes irrationally, but to be a November leaf kicker and a December buyer? Well that’s pure genius.
So for now it’s November. It’s time to explore. It’s time to learn about little bays and small points that you never knew existed because in August they were masked with piers and shiny objects. On a gray day in November, with some boots and gloves on, you can learn more about the lake in a three hour walk than you every could during a 7 day summer vacation. If you’re here doing this work it’s obvious you already like the lake. The goal here, on this blog and on that shore path, is to find what you love. Whether that’s an association home or a stretch of the lake that fits your eye, now is precisely the time to find that spot.Nove
I don’t think I ever had cause to enter Abbey Springs before I was 18, maybe 19. As a kid, I surely knew Abbey Springs was there, over on that south shore that we didn’t dare take the Boston Whaler to, for fear that it was too far, too rough, to unknown. I didn’t have any friends who lived in Abbey Springs, so I would have never been to a birthday party or a sleepover inside those gates. I didn’t mow any lawns in Abbey Springs, mostly because the lawns there are primarily wood chips and an unkempt mix of poison ivy and buckthorn. And so it must have been, an entire childhood spent outside of Abbey Springs. Only when I started to play tennis was I attracted to this place, and I learned to play under my own tutelage inside that giant winter-time bubble they’d inflate over the courts. It was a treat to play, some phenomenon to know you were playing indoors in the winter, with just that thin bubble wall protecting you from the elements. What a thrill it was to shout out the score and have your opponent rarely hear it, the giant fan blowing and roaring to keep the tent warmish.
But that has nothing to do with this. Abbey Springs looks, from my eye, to be ready to yield value next month. The inventory is high, with forty available homes and condominiums, though far more of the latter. In fact, there are just eight single family homes available today. The market for single family homes in Abbey Springs was pretty slow over the spring and summer months, but late summer and fall proved active, and several homes, lead by my $746k sale on Saint Andrews, sold. Another listing on Saint Andrews was listed as pending, then listed as active, now showing as price reduced, so we’ll assume that either the listing office is dazzling us with their technology or the deal fell through and the home is now looking for a new buyer. Either way, the single family market is vibrant, and any buyer looking to steal a home in Abbey Springs will likely find themselves out of luck. Small condo buyers on the other hand have a distinct buying opportunity forming.
That’s because there’s a glut of condo inventory in Abbey Springs right now. Traditional inventory isn’t nearly this high, and because we’re the smart ones we know that ample inventory in a very specific segment can lead to falling prices. As of this writing, there are 25 condominiums listed in Abbey Springs under $300k. That’s a lot of inventory, and buyers can tactfully pit those owners against each other. Many of those sellers won’t be in a huge rush to sell. They’ll just sit until they sell, because that’s how real estate works. But if we have 25 sellers, we must have 5 of them that really would like to sell before the snow flies. That’s why a smart buyer in search of an entry level lake access condo would do very well to weed through the inventory and find those sellers that truly want to sell.
That’s really all I have to say about Abbey Springs this morning. The bubble bit and the fact that you could come up and steal a small condo with me next month. The other interesting market news of the week is a major price shift at Lakewood Estates Golf Club. This is the development that I wrote about on these pages earlier this year. It’s a small, gated enclave of higher end homes that ring a private lake and share access to a private, member’s only golf club. It’s an extremely unique property, and as with most extremely unique properties in Lake Geneva, it didn’t capture the attention of the market, even after my glowing review. With that market reaction in mind, the seller of these properties just dramatically reduced the asking prices, lopping $200k or so off of every available parcel. A development that was originally priced in the mid $400s and up can now be had from the mid $200s. This matters, and this should make a huge difference to anyone looking for a second home in the country. As with every property I represent, if you’d like more details and a private tour, all you have to do is ask.
The news last night said that Lake Geneva is now past our peak fall colors. I say bunk. That’s not the case at all, it’s just that there are equal amounts of fall colors in the trees as on the ground. Take a drive up to the lake this weekend, crunch some leaves. Walk the path. Enjoy fall because October has been an incredible month but it’s just about over.
I can’t quite read the name of the boat. ENRY is all I can see, the rest blocked by the odd inboard/outboard engine protruding from the stern. Maybe it’s HENRY, but I’ve never heard of a boat named HENRY. Perhaps it’s, no, that must be it. Henry. That’s an odd name for a boat, unless I can’t see the Oh. Then it would make sense, like when he bought the boat and he drove it home to his driveway his wife said, Oh Henry. That would have been all he needed to make the name the same. Oh Henry, it’s a reasonable little name for that reasonable little boat.
It’s blue, but in this light I can’t tell what shade. It has a Tiffany coloration to it, but it’s probably not that blue. There’s cover over it, so I can’t see the inside from here, but I can see the outside and the engine and the down riggers. Henry fishes. He has a smaller engine next to the bigger engine, a “kicker” it’s called in fishing terms. The boat is’t more than 19 feet long, but it’s enough. He fishes lakes and rivers, mostly rivers but also lakes, and he’s pointed north at the gas station. Whether he’s heading north to fish or he’s just gassing up in that north facing lane, I cannot know.
The truck is a Ford. I’m nearly sure of it. It might be blue, but dark, not like the boat. The bumper hangs low, in part because of the boat on that trailer but also because of the large camper that he long ago bolted to the open bed of that pick up. The camper hasn’t been nice for decades, or more. It has a back door, and a back window, but you’d have to duck to get inside the back door, and if you were large around the middle you’d need to both suck in and turn sideways to enter. There are some side windows, a front area that protrudes over the cab of the truck, that’s where he sleeps. There’s a two tone stripe of paint wrapping around the entire thing holding it together.
I can’t make out his license plate, but he’s been in the gas station for a long time now, so he must not be from around here. He’s in there drinking coffee, eating donuts, washing his face in the washroom. Or maybe he’s still in the truck, frantically digging through the seat cushions looking for his wallet. To be this far from home without ones wallet would be a horrible imposition, whether you had a small boat named after you or not. He’s in that gas station and his truck, camper, boat, and trailer are resting under the covered roof of the Mobile station.
There are at least two stickers on the back window, bu there’s no time for that now. He’s walking back to the car. He’s a bit older, maybe 65, maybe 70, maybe 73. He walks quickly, like he spent too much time in the station and he’s ready to hit the road. He’s probably from Illinois, but downstate somewhere. Some place where campers are more in style, where light blue is the preferred boat color, where his buddies see him drive through town with that camper and that boat and they wish they were him. He fired up the truck and with a diesel rumble it came to life. The truck isn’t a Ford at all, but a Dodge. The trailer lights work, which means he’s driving somewhere far from here, and he’s already far from home.
When he gets to where he’s going he’s going to pull into the campground and pick the best spot. It won’t be difficult to do that, because it’s rainy today and it’s dark, and it looks like fall and no one camps when it’s like this. Not on Wednesday’s, anyway. He’ll get to where he’s doing and he’ll uncover the boat. It’s filled with rods and reels, life jackets mostly of orange. There’s an old Coleman cooler, old enough to be old but not old enough to be cool. He has beer in it, venison sausage, cheese and eggs. If I were driving that truck across this state and I reached my destination, I’d be sad to think that I had to then sleep in that horrible little camper. But he is not me, and so when he gets there he’ll unpack and he’ll eat and he’ll sleep. And in the morning, he’ll fish.
He’ll spend the week that way, maybe more. He’ll fish and he’ll camp and he’ll sit in that little musty camper and he’ll read a book. When the nights get cold he’ll turn on the propane heater, but he’ll turn it off when he gets a headache from the exhaust. When he wakes he’ll go fish, and when he catches something he’ll cook it over a dark black skillet that he’s had since, well, since forever. He’ll endure some rain, some cold, some fumes and plenty of solitude.
When he rides back into whatever town he’s from, his friends will see him and they’ll wish they, too, had been on a trip to somewhere far away. They’ll see his boat and trailer and they won’t think that it’s a shame that the boat is so small and such an odd color blue. They won’t think that the engine is old and the down riggers rusty. They won’t see his camper and think of how oddly musty it surely smells, or how his truck must be full of wrappers from the venison sticks and the gas station pastries. They’ll just think that he was lucky to have spent those days someplace else, living in a way that he can’t live in Sometown, Illinois.
It bothers me that I so fondly look back at years that have only recently passed. When the market was scary and difficult, I enjoyed leafing through the local Realtor’s Association materials month to month, watching the brokerage rosters to see which agents were no longer agents. During that difficult time, one older lady Realtor remarked to that she had apparently retired, but no one had told her yet. I heard agents screaming UNCLE often in those years, and how I relished the opportunities that these holes in the market were creating for me. Pardon me while I wipe these nostalgic tears from my eyes.
Today, things are entirely and totally different. The roster pages now bloat each month, with smiling faces of agents who just started yesterday. Signs in lawns are changing, with new companies and bigger companies, signs plastering the names of people that I’ve never heard of. There are new agents and there are revitalized agents, those who think that now it’s time to try hard, now that the market has improved and the test for extreme real estate success involves breathing closely into a pane of glass to see if the candidate can fog it. As a special bonus to the consumer, you’ll be pleased to note that everyone of these new agents are experts in their field.
But how can we know that? How can we be certain that, even in spite of any demonstrable record of proficiency, let alone success, these agents are indeed experts? Well, silly, in real estate as in politics there is no need to back up a claim to prove its worth, you must only find the microphone and make that claim. If our culture has provided that we can now self-identify as whatever it is we feel like being, perhaps it’s only natural that Realtors who fogged the glass yesterday are the experts of today.
But some take further measures to convince you of their worth, and while I just write here and try to maintain a professional level of success to prove my worth, in an effort to differentiate there is an old theme making new appearances: The compilation of data to prove a point.
Real estate is a data intensive business, this everyone knows. But unless we are Case Schiller and we’re only looking to smooth out the rough edges of the largest asset class in these United States, we have very little use for macro numbers. Last week, as I do many weeks, I wrote a market analysis for a lakefront home on the north shore. In preparing this report, I could have used broad MLS generated data to prove a point. I could have used a year’s worth of data that involved every segment of the lakefront market. I could have done these things, but the numbers, while factual, would have been misleading. Geneva is a segment specific market, where a 50′ lakefront home in Lake Geneva Beach Association has absolutely nothing in common with a 100′ lakefront lot in Fontana. To compare the two and present a statistic that says one has anything at all to do with the other is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst.
There is a new angle out, one that aims to convince sellers that the goal of selling is to actually sell. The intent of the effort is correct. The application of the numbers is absurd. That’s because one of the numbers is not at all objective. You cannot contrast the right way against the wrong way, unless you identify the criteria for the differentiation. If I say that my listings are the right way, and your listings are the wrong way, this is fine. But that is subjective opinion, not objective fact gleamed solely from the collection of data.
The lakefront market on Geneva is one that behaves irrationally at times. It is a market that prints sales that should have no business printing. It will reward one seller with a huge gain just as it saddles another seller with a huge loss. It will flood a segment with buyers ($2.5-5MM right now) and skew many of those print prices higher, just as it will vacate a market (entry level lakefront) and cause sellers to sell at prices that are below the 2012 market lows. This market makes very little sense at times, and to attempt to reason with it can lead to futility.
That’s why this market is best approached with highly precise, highly segments comparable statistics. If we’re measuring a 200′ lakefront lot based on its price per foot, then we should be smart enough to ignore 50′ lots. If we’re going to proclaim something a value because it’s our listing, then we should back that up with narrow proof. We should do this, but any explanation of value here should include a highly articulate narrative that defines the nuance that leads to true value. Without the ability to detail these nuances, the collection of data and the blurring of objective and subjective statistics is called marketing, not research.
How I love the summer. The distinct scenery that is uniquely this place, the bright blues and deep greens, the white topped waves falling into our white, wooden piers. The sailors hike their sails, the fishermen fish the warm waters for those summer fish, and when the day has had its say and the sun has set, there is little to do but sit in the porch and listen to the midsummer night. What a soundtrack that is, at once alive and loud yet somehow quiet and still, both easily and effortlessly lulling us to that tired summer sleep.
That summer that everyone so loves always fades, whether if, for a few weeks in August, it seems as though it might never leave. In this place, it always does leave. It leaves with sadness, with children wishing for one more swim and men wishing for one more sunset cruise after one more Saturday dinner. It leaves with everyone wishing for it to stay, and anyone who doesn’t feel a tinge of sorrow for a summer recently passed isn’t someone I’ve ever met. The summer slips away and fall replaces it, with merely a September tug that shows some days to be summer and others to be fall. But every time, each year, without fail, fall wins.
The deep green shoreline is now ablaze with reds and oranges and yellows. The dull brown of the changing Oaks lending some baseline to this new, varied scheme. The water is still blue, still constant, and it’s both bright and deep just like it is in mid-July, just like it is in early January. The piers are still there, sturdy and white, but chipped now, faded, slowly succumbing to the pier company’s hoist, each day more of them on lawns and fewer in the water. The boats are leaving, too, and by now, most are gone. Only the steadfast remain, those who know that fall means fewer boats, fewer rentals. The pontoons of summer have all been stashed in those darkened, shameful places where pontoons are stored, and the lake is left now to the owners and their Cobalts, their Lymans, their Chris Crafts and their Streblows. The lake is now as we always wish it would be. Calm and pure.
The nights now are calmer, but they are not yet quiet. The frogs and the crickets and remnant hoppers still make those night sounds, but the rustling of the fallen and falling leaves renders the chorus more faint now, subdued by the coming winter, when the night sounds come only from the rumble or a passing plow or the whine of a snowmobile as it whips through a dark neighboring field.
This is our fall, and this is the season that I now wish to live in, forever. Summer used to suit me better, with the boats and the splashing and so much sun, but now these warm days of fall are more to my liking. The cool evenings and cold nights, the brisk mornings and warm days. The sun and the clouds, the quiet lake and that splattered deciduous shoreline. These are the things I wish for now, the things that are happening around me, the days like this and the nights, too. The colors, yes, but the fade as well. The dull browns and the harvested fields. The quiet of the afternoons the the still of the evenings. The summer rush replaced by the peace of fall.
Some would say that I could find this place, the place where it’s always fall, because it’s in the mountains here or the mountains there. It’s coastal near a great ocean that keeps the temperatures steady. But that supposes that it’s the temperature and the sky that I’m after, that it’s just the feeling of any fall that I want, but that’s not it at all. I don’t want just any fall, I want a Lake Geneva fall. I want the fall that I’m familiar with, the fall that will last only until it doesn’t. This is the place I want to be because this fall isn’t like your fall. It’s better.
I do not believe in putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. Unless tomorrow is pretty open, and today is pretty busy. Then I whole heartedly endorse putting off until tomorrow something that you could, technically, do today. It’s all about pacing yourself, and in the world of real estate where a Realtor could in fact work from 5 am until midnight every single day of their sad lives, this determining of a proper pace is remarkably important. That’s why I went to The American Club.
I, like most successful Realtors, struggle with the concept of rest. What is this rest? Is it sitting at home on a couch scrolling constantly through emails and texts? Is rest found when you sit on a boat and scroll endlessly through emails and texts? Is rest found when you go fishing, and spend equal time fishing and sitting on the bank scrolling through emails and texts? Is this rest? I have struggled with this notion of rest for a long time, and I believe at this point in my life I’ve accepted that there is no such thing. Rest might come easily for those who punch a clock, but for the self employed there is only the visible display of rest- of sitting on a couch or the bow of a boat, of wading through a quiet stream or flying off to a warm winter vacation- but inwardly, there is never any rest.
This is why I took my clogged up brain and my pretty wife to the American Club on Monday. Not because I needed a break, because I had indeed spent Sunday late afternoon superjetting in 60 degree water, and that constituted a nice break for the sole reason that we have not yet figured out how to tether water-proof phones to our ears. As an important aside, I was superjetting without a wetsuit, while my fancy Illinois friends were superjetting and surfing in full wet-suited shame. They said it was because I had extra padding, and that because of this I was able to withstand the icy waters. We all know it was actually because I’m from Wisconsin and they live in Illinois, but the padding joke made them feel better about their silly suits. Still, the getaway.
The American Club is not far from here. It’s just up the road a ways, through Milwaukee but not as far as Green Bay. It’s in the town of Kohler, which is a town unlike any other town that I’ve ever visited. The town is famous for its plumbing fixtures and its generators, for its Whistling Straits golf course- that epic lakeside links course- and for its billionaire family that made it all happen. The town of Kohler would be like the town of David Curry, if I had many billions of dollars and a plan to create a town around my business and my preferred leisure. This isn’t so much a town as it is a personal village, and in that lies both its charm and its oddness.
Because it is odd. If you’ve visited this place and you’ve left without thinking that something was amiss, then I’m not sure what to say except for you may have watched the Truman Show without understanding the plot. This is a fabricated town, and when you enter it already feeling that way, everything seems even more staged. We walked through the aisles of the grocery store on Monday afternoon and I watched several shoppers shop. They all came to the checkout with barely a handful of things. Who shops at a grocery store on a Monday night with the intent of just picking up a few things? Where are the carts overloaded with edibles? Where are the snotty, screaming children stuffed in the cart seat? Why is everyone staring at me?
We walked by the river to see the salmon jumping and spawning and dying. The river was full of them, which was nice, but the fishermen were all positioned up by the dam, and not downstream where most of the fish were. They just stared at the water, dabbing their lines out into the current for a moment, then lifting and dabbing again. They stared at the water except for the times when they stared at us, wondering if were were buying their roles as “fishermen”. We walked away from them and when we returned they were still fishing, still staring, still waiting for us to leave so they could sit down and have a smoke break.
Later, at dinner, we sat in an old fashioned dining room where the waitress first asked us what brought us to town, then asked us what we’d like to drink. A few minutes later someone else sat down at a neighboring table and the same waitress went to them and asked the same exact questions, in the same order. Coincidence? Obviously not. The dining room was old, not shabby but dated. If it were in Elkhorn no one would go there, even if they had a divine relish tray. But here, in Kohler at this American Club, people go and they dine and they are asked the same questions every night.
The boy that brought the water carafe over was named Brian. I asked him if he lives in town. I said, Brian, do you live in town? He said that he didn’t, that he lived in some town named “Sheboygan”. I asked him if he worked here, which was a ridiculous question that was already answered, but what if he said he didn’t? Then I would have caught him in his act, and known that he didn’t actually work there but he was just assigned to that role on that night. Presumably, after we ate our dinner and shared the creme brûlée, he was hastily driven home to this “Sheboygan” and chastised for almost letting slip that this entire thing was a ruse.
When the valet fetched my car yesterday morning, I could see the relief in his eyes. He knew that my stay was over, and that I hadn’t necessarily figured out what was going on. Never mind that the waiter at the Horse and Plow on Monday was the same person who fixed my espresso on Tuesday morning in the Greenhouse. Never mind that the women were shopping without buying anything. Never mind that the fishermen fished where there were no salmon. Never mind that Brian the water boy was or wasn’t from some town that might be ficticuously named Sheboygan. I tipped the valet and said I knew what this was all about. He said, excuse me? And I just nodded and smiled.
I’m really bad at selling homes I don’t like. I show homes I don’t like, and then I think, I don’t like this house. I have to play along as though I think it’s fine, but generally I don’t play along all that well and my personal opinion is obvious. This is also the reason I’m not that good at advertising. I can’t speak to the lowest common denominator by utilizing font sizes and words that are statistically proven to motivate buyers. Words like DATA.
A few weeks ago, I read a real estate description that said something about “this breathtaking house will take your breath away”. It’s uncertain if the house takes your breath, then gives it back before taking it again, but the consuming masses might like that sort of thing. Then last week I read a description that promised the most dazzling house you, or I, have ever seen. In fact, we wouldn’t believe this house if we did see it. The house that generated this superlative narrative? A super crappy farm house on a highway.
My write up would have been, “That highway isn’t really a big deal. It’s not. In fact, I stood out there once and barely a dozen semis drove past, and most were coasting and all were recently washed.” I just can’t fake my way through this real estate game very well, which is a serious flaw in any Realtor’s character and will, ultimately, lead to a complete absence of business and a starting position at the Lake Geneva Starbucks, assuming I can work my way up from coffee bean bag stacker guy.
Last week, another lakefront sale on Geneva. That makes eight lakefronts closed since September 1st, which is rather astounding. That means the summer activity was strong, which we already knew. This sale was on Basswood, that of the large ranchy home with 201′ of frontage. That home originally hit the market at $5.875MM in the summer of 2014, and just sold for $4.835MM. That sale is a nice sale for the market, and it’s a nice sale for the agent who handled both sides of the successful closing (it wasn’t me).
It wasn’t me because that seller wasn’t my client, which is good, because my write up would have struggled to avoid the mention of drywalled arches and so much carpet. The home that sold was on nice dirt. Absolutely nice dirt. But the house was a Baywood Heights ranch on steroids, and so it either found the right buyer who loves the aforementioned features, or it found the right buyer who loves the dirt and figured they could make the drywalled arches go away through some creative trim work.
Two other lakefront sales that I hadn’t previously mentioned include one on Harvard in Glenwood Springs. It’s an old house up on the hill without private frontage, but at a $1.72MM closing price it’s a fine property. The other was an odd home in Geneva Manor that lacked a garage, a yard, and any outward facing style, but it sold because it had ample space and a young family wished to be in that association. That home, as an aside, was one that I had a shot at listing but I blew it because I didn’t love the house enough. I should have gone on and on about all the Oak, and I should have feigned knee weakness at each baluster and stair tread, but I didn’t, and I said it was nice and fine but that it was worth around $1.6MM. The house was listed at $1.75MM by a more Oak-Enthusiastic Realtor, and then it sold for $1.65MM.
My take aways from these sales have little to do with the market. They have to do with me, and how I’m pretty sure now that if I’m going to continue to be successful, I’m going to have to get better at faking it.
I own many coats. I don’t tell you this by way of bragging. I’m not especially proud that I own so many coats, it’s just that I own many of them. Lot of people own more, sure, but that’s because they’re super concerned about their coat collection and I, a humble Williams Bay kid, only own them so that I might stay warm when inclement weather arrives. I own black jackets and brown jackets. One blue jacket and some tan jackets. I own so many jackets that I can’t even remember what they all look like. That’s a lot of jackets.
In September, the world is abuzz with jackets. Fashionable women wear their jackets in the mornings, when they drop their kids off at school or when they make sure the nanny knows what to do that day. In September, ads appear on television showing children in impoverished countries, showing them without jackets, telling us that it will be winter soon. They need just one jacket, and the woman with the kids and the nanny has so many. I, too, as previously mentioned, have more than enough to spare. September is a month then jacket sales and jacket donation and jacket wearing spikes.
At September soccer games, I have worn jackets. I wear one of my black ones, and it’s thin and it isn’t particularly warm, but it’s still a jacket. If the kids in the commercial had that jacket and their country got as cold as the narrator said it might, then they’d still need another jacket. This jacket isn’t warm, but it’s a jacket, and on those days sitting on those sidelines I wished for a better jacket. One of my heavier ones, maybe the blue one.
But most September days there’s the thought of a jacket in the morning, and a complete disregard for a jacket by mid morning. My children wear jackets to school in September, at least some of the time. They wear jackets out of the house, into the car, into the school. They come home without their jackets. The jackets are in their locker, they say. They know exactly where the jackets are. They didn’t need the jackets this morning, really, but September has us thinking we need to wear them. My wife thinks we need to wear them. Don’t forget your jacket, she says, as the kids run from the house and the temperatures climb into the seventies. No one, not even the kids in that ad, needs a jacket when it’s seventy something.
This is the problem with September. Retailers tell us it’s fall, so we’ll buy their fall wares. We need tweed and leather, wool and plaid. We need the things we didn’t need in August. But September isn’t really fall, just as March isn’t really spring, just as June isn’t really summer. October, these last two weeks of sunny days and crisp nights, this is fall. This is perfection. October requires a jacket, which is good, because I have so many.
When you put on your jacket this morning, do me a favor. Skip work. Just drive to the lake and get this fall weekend started. Colors will peak here not this weekend but next, (October 20-27th will be our peak color in Lake Geneva, write that down), but there are enough reds and yellows in that previously green shoreline to make it all worth while. Saturday morning, wake up, put on your jacket, the one you can’t wear in September because September isn’t fall, and go for a walk. Kick some leaves. October only lasts for another two weeks, and while the world and the retailers love September, everyone knows October is the better month.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve written about foreclosures. You’d think, after the exposure that I’ve had to them, I’d write more often about them. You’d think I’d be a bigger fan. I did, after all, represent the Clear Sky Lodge seller (Bank Of America), and the South Shore Club seller (First Midwest Bank), and the Geneva Oaks Trail seller (A New York hedge fund). This level of lakefront seller side representation is unrivaled in this market. Considering I’m not any sort of REO specialist, and considering that I’m not on any short list of bank representation, there has to be some reason for the ownership of this specific REO segment. What could it be?
Well, silly, it’s simple. It’s because the banks don’t golf with any brokers here. They don’t have lunch with friends who invite their broker friend. They don’t hang at the yacht clubs or the bars. They don’t have influences here. They just look around the market, interview the good agents and then hire the agent that seems most up to the task. I suppose I should take that as a compliment, but maybe the market should view it as more of an endorsement. Either way, the foreclosure update.
The lakefront has been quiet in terms of distressed activity. There has been a property in the Lake Geneva Highlands flirting with foreclosure, and there’s the large property on the north shore that was seized by the IRS last year, but that’s about it. The foreclosure on the lakefront in Loramoor doesn’t seem to be progressing, but I’m not privy to those details so I’m uncertain as to the current status. There’s an active Lis Pendens at the county level, but that’s about all I know.
Off the lake, foreclosures haven’t stopped, but they’ve slowed to a very intermittent drip. There is a pending issue in Knollwood, and another in Country Club Estates. There’s an REO in Cedar Point Park that has a story to tell. A few years back, a seemingly cheap REO property in Cedar Point would have been pounced on immediately by an investor or an opportunistic end user. Value or not, the distressed portion made it look like a deal, and so the market responded. Today, there’s a beat up REO in Cedar Point that’s been sitting for quite some time. In the spirit of full disclosure, I actually made a bid on it last month. I thought maybe I should rekindle my love of the challenging renovation. Then I remembered that I hate renovations and didn’t engage in a negotiation. Besides, Fannie Mae only likes to negotiate with itself, by dropping the price with programmed consistency. They do this, and then when a bid comes they don’t negotiate. It’s a strange thing, until you realize that it’s a governmental agency and awkward inefficiency is what they do best.
Geneva National has shrugged off its ongoing foreclosure issues, and looks primed to have its best year in a very long time. This is a positive, and buyers should be encouraged to buy there so long as they remember the lesson of Foxwood. The once dazzling enclave of new construction has been foreclosed on. Early buyers paid handsomely to be part of this new development within Geneva National. Then, the market dried up and the developers bailed. This is why we don’t buy in unfinished enclaves within large associations. We just don’t do it. We buy inside of existing, all-built out areas, where we know what the market looks like and we can understand our downside. I like developers, I just don’t want to tie my future valuation to their whims.
A long time ago, I decided to write a real estate blog. Along the way, there have been some really bad posts. There have been a scant handful of good ones. There have been irrelevant ones, poignant ones, others. There have been times when I wished for nothing than to stop this writing and there have been other times when I wished for more time, to work harder at this, to effort on a different level. The blog was always intended to be somehow different than a typical real estate blog. For instance, I’ve eschewed the use of multiple exclamation points. I’ve also never pretended that posting a picture of a pretty pier was something that an insightful blog would ever do. I’ve made some people happy, and I’ve hurt some tender feelings. Let’s talk about those.
Every day, all day, stock market pundits talk about stocks. They talk about this company and that company, about this CEO and that CEO. They talk about the things that make a company great, and they talk fearlessly about the things that makes the company bad. They’ll tell you to sell, or to buy, and when enough of them tell the audience to do one of those things in unison, the subject stock may rise. Often, when enough of the talkers tell their audience that a company is heading in the wrong direction, the stock falls. Billions are made and lost on these whims, yet the pundits talk and tell us what they know, hoping that what they know is more than what we already knew. I’d like to be able to do this for real estate.
And I have, to some tempered extent. Increasingly, however, if I say a sale is bad, or a house is bad, or a house is bad and the land is good, I hear the complaints. I hear of angry sellers, or angry buyers, or angry agents and their lemmings. I hear about the tender, easily hurt feelings of people who may have sold a house that I didn’t like. I hear from others who bought a house that the market didn’t like. I’m growing weary of the constant struggle to make everyone happy, and so I think I might stop commenting on the state of the market, on the state of a sale, on the state of this business.
There was a sale last week on the lake, and I liked it. It wasn’t my listing, nor was it my buyer. I’m shamed by my absence from this sale, and from too many others this year, but not every buyer makes the proper representation decision and I must respect their mistake. The sale last week was of a shingle sided house in Cedar Point that first came to market in 2013 for $3.5MM. It may have been for sale before that, but I can’t recall the price or the year. That price was never right, but when the home finally sold last week for $2.185MM, I liked the sale. 103′ for that price in that location? I’m a big fan, and I always will be.
That sale was the 19th MLS lakefront sale of 2015. There have been two other auction sales, both achieving prices greater that my opinion of their actual value. Three of those sales have been in excess of $5MM. The 21 sales represent a huge swell of activity for the lake, and there are at least six more lakefronts pending sale right now. I’m expecting we’ll print those six, as well as three or four more before the end of 2015, making this year a most epic volume year. Last year at this date we had closed 15 lakefront sales, with nothing priced over $4MM.
For value minded buyers, consider this. November and early December offer some world class bargain hunting. Aged inventory generally feels like selling, and cool dreary days of November, the sort where fall slowly loses the fight against winter, those are the days we can make friends with rare value. While the year has been outstanding and lakefront buyers are milling about in record numbers, there is still value to be had if only you’ll look at those things that you’ve already passed over. Let me help you by pointing out the winners.
In 1998 I was just a kid. But I was a kid selling real estate, and as a result I was in a strange place. My friends were all still off at college, learning, presumably, something. I was working, struggling I’m sure, but I was too young to see anything as much of a struggle. The Cubs were good that year, or good enough. I payed attention to the season with youthful optimism. When the Cubs won their play-in game against San Francisco, I watched each game of the following series with eager intent. The Cubs did what they do, and after being swept by the Braves I felt what they made me feel: despair.
I don’t remember how old I was when I went to my first Cub’s game. I do remember watching Andre Dawson throw out a runner at first on what appeared to be a clean single into right field. I remember a home run being hit while my grandpa was in the bathroom. I remember going to that game as if I were leaving one country and traveling to another. I remember thinking what a treat it was. Because I only went to two games as a child (that counts through age 18), I was of the impression that access to Wrigley Field was somehow difficult. That it was only available to the privileged few. That we could only go when my dad got tickets through a generous customer of his who lived up the road from him. Only later did I realize that tickets at the time were like $10 each and we didn’t go to games because of my father’s undying devotion to cheapness, a condition that plagues him, increasingly, to this very day.
The games in the 80s were on WGN, and I watched Sunday games as often as I could. The era of Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Dawson, Jerome Walton, Shawon Dunston- those were my teams. I was too young in ’84 to remember the hurt. In ’89 I was still too young. By ’98 I was ready to cheer, and I was let down in remarkably efficient fashion. What followed from that ’98 season through the 2008 season was an incredible devotion to a team. There were games of epic importance, seasons of gratuitous winning. Steroids. Home runs. Balls in the stands that Moises Alou couldn’t catch.
Game 7 of 2003 found me in Canada. Canadians, perhaps outside of Toronto and Montreal (at the time), have no interest in baseball. That day, leading up to game time, I was a wreck. At game time, I scanned the television channels, finding nothing but Hockey and Du Mourier cigarette commercials. Frantic, I left the the house in search of the game. I traveled far and wide, finally finding a bar that allowed me to turn on the game. I sat alone and watched as Kerry Wood served up three Florida runs in the top of the first. I sat even more alone as Kerry Wood crushed a two run homer to center in the bottom of the second. I sat in quiet jubilation as the Cubs took the lead in the bottom of the third.
But Kerry Wood couldn’t quiet the Florida bats, and with a 9-5 Florida lead I quietly left the bar. I would catch the last inning back at a relative’s house, but by then I already knew that the outcome was sealed. The outcome was sealed, as would be admitted later by Cub’s players, in the latter innings of game 6. Game 7 didn’t matter, and everyone but me knew it.
I soldiered on, attending perhaps 8-10 games per year during the decade that started with being swept out of the NLDS by the Braves, and ended with being swept out of the NLDS by the Dodgers. I was at game two of that 2008 NLDS, sitting anxiously in the left field bleachers while the Dodgers torched a fidgety Zambrano for five runs in the top of the second. That game was over right then, as was the series. The remaining game didn’t matter, just as game 7 didn’t matter in 2003.
The next season, Tom Rickets bought the team. He promised a rebuilding process, a long and painful tenure of losing that might, someday, result in winning. I was still bleeding from the last decade of disappointment, and he poured salt on the wound. At least the prior years we had pretended to care about winning, and here comes Rickets to promise that winning will not be probable, let alone possible. I decided then and there to bail on this Cubs team, to bail on a lifetime of hurt. To bail on the wish for winning, an expectation of mediocrity, and a guaranteed outcome of failure. I was, as of 2009, a recovering Cubs fan.
I canceled my subscription to the Chicago Tribune. I only subscribed to read about the Cubs, anyway. I didn’t watch Sportscenter during baseball season. Within a year of my bail, Ron Santo died. I understand he was a jerk on the field, and I understand he might have been a jerk off of it. But his call, alongside Pat Hughes, was a magical ointment that soothed my disappointment by making his own frustration so apparent. A year or two later, Bob Brenly left the television booth. During those years, Cubs games left WGN. The radio call was different, the television broadcast was unavailable, and I was too angry to care.
It went this way for all of those years since I sat in the dark and watched the Dodgers win. I didn’t listen to a game. I didn’t watch a game. I didn’t read an article about the Cubs. I avoided them on purpose, aggressively. In January of 2015, a phone call. It was the Cubs. They told me that my name had come up on the season ticket waiting list and that it was my time to pick out my seats. They said it so happily, so unaware of my anger. I obliged the call and thought long and hard about rekindling my relationship. When the day came that I was to enter the virtual waiting room to pick out my seats, I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested.
Then, within a week, the Cubs sign Joe Madden. I hadn’t heard much of him, but I appreciated that he seemed to be a good choice. Shortly after, the first signing in what felt like a lifetime- Jon Lester. Spring training came. Kris Bryant was supposed to be good, but I had heard that many times before. Jerome Walton was supposed to be good, too, but a Rookie Of The Year Award is only awarded for one season. I wanted to cheer for this young team, for the team that looked nothing like the last team I remembered watching, but I wasn’t so sure.
Begrudgingly, I paid attention. For the first time in 7 years, I planned to watch a game. Game 1 of the Cubs/Cardinals 2015 series. It also happened to be the home opener. I watched the game, watched the new kids, watched the $155MM pitcher Jon Lester. I watched the Cubs lose, 3-0. Some things, it seems, never change.
In July, a client invited me to sit in his company box for the Sunday Phillies game. I have never been one to decline a suite invite, and so I took my wife and kids to what would be my first game since 2008. My kids, I decided, were being unfairly blocked from Wrigley Field because of my own complicated fandom. This first game back was fun, sort of. It was nice to see the stadium spiffied up. It was nice to see a replay on the scoreboard. It was nice to see the green grass and the sky line. It wasn’t nice to be greeted with the common refrain. Cubs lose.
That game marked a turning point for this team, and in the months that followed they won far more than they list. Two weeks ago, another generous client invite, to another suite. This game was the Sunday night game against the Pirates, with Jake on the mound. The Cubs won, and I drove home late into the night thinking that perhaps I could forgive a team that looks to unlike the bloated teams with bought talent that I rooted for with such fervor in the prior decade.
Tonight. Cubs and the Cardinals. I despise the Cardinals, because they’re the anti-Cubs, all they do is win. But tonight, like every other night, I’ll remember that I do love the Cubs, even if they’ve never loved me back. Does this make me a fair-weather fan? Does this mean I’m somehow not a die-hard? I would say no. It doesn’t mean I haven’t always been a fan. It just means I don’t enjoy a party as much as I enjoy an effort, and now that a team is finally providing an effort, I once again feel engaged in a common goal. Go Cubs.
PS. Kerry Wood, even though you own a home on Geneva, I do not forgive you for pitching like crap in game 7 of the NLCS.
Yesterday while you were working, the lake did what it does in October. It went quiet. Sure, the lake goes quiet during the days that came from the last ice out until the coming one, but it generally only goes quiet in the morning, for those first up to fish or ski. Or it goes quiet in the evening, when the last cruise boats push through the night, and the water falls flat. In January, the lake is flat rather often. Those freezing nights and those bright sky days, but those days are of no use to the boating faithful. Yesterday, that was a day we could use, but you were at work.
I have had a complicated boating relationship over the past several years. When I first bought my fishing boat in the winter of 2010, I found time to use it often. On stormy evenings when my kids didn’t want to, we fished anyway. And on sunny afternoons when there were emails to send and calls to field, I would do both from the bow of that new toy. But as with most toys, the pleasure faded. It faded because of a smokey two-stroke that would be complimented if called temperamental. The instruments only worked once in a while, and if I trolled with large lures the carburetors would bog down and the boat would cause a smokey scene when I coerced it back to life. Even that wasn’t a guarantee.
But it wasn’t just the boats fault. It was mine. I switch hobbies like some change tires, and every few years or 30,000 miles I feel the need to indulge in another pursuit. This was the boating pursuit, and that the boat was and is actually a Pursuit is, I assure you, pure coincidence. The boating fueled my fishing, and my fishing fueled the transition to fly fishing. While I fly fish in Geneva as often as it seems reasonable, I prefer the small trickle of a valley stream, and so much of my free time has been spent in that pursuit. While I fished the buoyed Pursuit just collected dust, and spiders. And their webs. And yesterday, in the seaweedy fungus that filled the back of the boat where water is allowed to flow in and out through two small drain portholes, a small maple tree.
Yesterday the inland trout season was closed, and the sun was bright and the water still, and so I fired up the old boat and took it for a ride. It didn’t really want to do that, but after some time of trying, the engine teased to life and choked out the smoke from a summer of neglect. I took the boat out and around, cruised some shorelines and sat in the middle of the lake with nothing to do but consider what a shame it was that I left that boat to the spiders and the maple trees.
There was little time to sulk and reminisce, because the water was just too flat and the sun too warm. The forecast called for cool, but the day was anything but. Late into the afternoon I sat there, wondering what could be better, answering the pensive question with an obvious answer: the boat. There were some other boaters out with me, the select few that found their way to their piers and onto their boats on that October afternoon. Fishermen quietly cast their lures and slung their baits. Some remnant Mastercrafts slowly pushed through the calm, throwing their massive breaking waves so the surfer could surf. Sailboats clung to their buoys, wishing for a breeze but finding none. A couple paddled by on their paddle boards, cutting right through the middle of the lake in a way that would signal sure death on a busy August Saturday. The lake was back to the way I prefer it.
While afloat, a text from a friend. He, too, was on his boat. He, too, should have been working. He, too, had some flexibility and he, too, found his way to this lake on that day. But after finding my way to his boat he had more sorrow than joy. His boat would need to be pulled from the lake this week, no later than the tenth of October, so sayeth his association. Then this morning, a call from my dad. He needed help. Had he fallen? No. He needed help pulling his boat from the water, on the most beautiful day of the year, on the stillest moment of the day, at the beginning of the best boat month on the calendar. Now at this computer, I’m distracted by trucks. Trucks towing trailers. Trailers with boats. Boats not heading to the lake but from it. From the lake and to dusty storage barns where they will be tucked in for the winter, on the most beautiful day of the year.
This is the fall rush. It happens because the old people are in charge of the boating world. They run the associations that tell us we must remove our boats. They live in fear of the first frost, of strong northerly winds, of changing seasons. I, on the other hand, live in fear of missing the opportunity to sit on a boat on a day like this one. Which is why I play chicken with winter each and every year, choosing only to remove my neglected boat from the water once I need to break some ice to clear a path to the launch.
Today, two words of advice. Call in sick. Get to the lake. Sure, Sunday is going to be warm, but Sunday is many days from now. Today is warm, you have a boat, your association or your pier guy is old and wishes you to remove your boat immediately so that he doesn’t have to break ice to remove the pier. The second word of advice is even more simple. If you own an association home and you wish to no longer be forced into this sin of early boat removal, you have one very easy way to fix this. Buy a private lakefront house with a private pier. Then you can be like me, and we can remove our boats only when the snow flies. This way, we won’t miss the days in October and surely some in November that will more than justify our irrational decision.
I built a real estate office at 57 West Geneva Street. I did this because I needed a place to work. You’d be surprised to learn, or maybe you wouldn’t, that Realtors often work from home. This work is equal parts appointments and office work, but the office work is just phone calling and typing, and if you own a home without small children clamoring about, you could easily do this from home. I have clamoring children, and so I have this office. I sit here and I type, I call, I sit on the couches and read. This is how I office.
The traditional real estate office is nothing like mine. I use my office to work, whereas other agents use their offices to generate leads. This is why there are offices in downtown spaces that lack convenient parking. Who cares about parking when you have so many people walking by and in, seeking condominium rentals on the north side of Elkhorn? One step further, this lead generation is why there are offices at the entrance to Geneva National and Abbey Springs. These are offices engineered, successfully so, to dominate the activity in those developments where they reside. This is a good plan, and it works.
But what it doesn’t do is stop the effectiveness of outside firms within those gated boundaries. It is true, the broker that owns those two offices inside those two developments carries out the bulk of the business within those boundaries. Is this a good thing for the consumer? Is this the only way to find success within those gates? If property is owned in either GN or Abbey Springs is the only way to either buy and sell to employ the on site broker? Of course not.
This spring, I listed the home at 62 Saint Andrews Trail in Abbey Springs. It was a fine house, and I only represented the sale because I had previously worked with the owner on other endeavors. As those were successful undertakings, I was employed. Once employed, I struggled to find my bearings with that home. I struggled to understand the market, to understand how to incentivize other agents to bring me buyers. I struggled because I was an outsider. I struggled because I didn’t have an office inside those gates.
Just kidding. I didn’t struggle at all. I closed that sale last month for $746k, but only after fielding two offers one weekend and locking in the better bid. The same situation holds true for a property I recently listed in Geneva National. Outside agents, or so the story goes, can’t have success in the associations without access to the prized walk-in traffic. But that new listing in Geneva National found a buyer rather quickly, just like the Abbey Springs listing.
Moral of the story; sometimes an outside approach works as well as the standard approach. Find a competent agent. Hire the competent agent. Make sure your agent incentivizes the agents to sell your house. Then, sell your house. This isn’t really that hard.
I’m not going to say what I want to say. I’m not going to say that a house with a modest 110′ worth of cliff frontage shouldn’t sell for five million dollars. I’m not going to talk about the work required to take a basic parcel and turn it into an estate-type parcel; the landscaping, the tennis court, maybe a pool. I’m not going to talk about fit and finish, about what constitutes high end construction and what does not. I’m not going to do any of those things, because a sale is a sale, and the market tells me what it expects and doesn’t really concern itself with what I expect.
The house sold last week for $5.1MM (I wasn’t involved in the sale). That blue house, the one high on the hill just north of Gordy’s. It sold. It was first listed in 2014 for $6.25MM. Was the home worth $6.25MM? No. And the market proved it, allowing the house to sit and stir on the market for the majority of that year and into this one. Throughout that time, buyers presumably came and went, opting for other things, or for nothing at all, over this house on the hill. But the house had some style, and it had some polish, and it was new and of a contractor pedigree that means something here, and so the house attracted interest but failed to achieve the only measure of interest that matters: A sale.
What happens next is some intrigue, some subterfuge, and disappointment. The listing expired and was removed from the market, but the market knew the home was still for sale. And so it went, a house off the market, an aged asking price that never fell below $6.25MM. If you were simply computer screen watching, as 90% of agents do, you might have been surprised to see this property print in the MLS this week with a $5.1MM closed price. We do not computer screen watch.
The sale now closed was handled by an agent other than the agent that brought the property to market at that lofty price in 2014. The agent who closed the transaction was not the agent who toiled at the high price. This was not the agent that knew the market would react differently to the property if it were listed in the middle to upper fives, rather than the low sixes. The agent who did the fine job of selling this home last week was not the agent who introduced the property to the market, who broadcast it to the agents, who made known the quality and the importance of the home (even if I didn’t agree with the level of importance). The property sold via another agent, and the market, those uninitiated who follow from afar by watching Instagram screens and Facebook posts, will assume that some heroic event was made possible by the introduction of a new face.
When I took over the South Shore Club marketing in 2012, and promptly began selling both homes and lots with a regularity that the market there had never experienced, was it because of me? Was I so much better than the prior representation that I somehow convinced the public that this South Shore Club was worth their time and money? Was I a star who brought with my power of personality and made this development matter again? Or was I just the guy who came on the scene, with messy hair and pointy shoes, and convinced the sellers that the price structure was wrong, and that if they would oblige my suggestion they would find success? It’s the latter, which is why I didn’t take out full page ads telling you how tremendously effective I was. I was merely the person at the helm when the market heated to such a level that success was the only possible outcome.
The same likely applies to the blue house on the hill in Fontana. Was this some feat? Was this a sale that wouldn’t have happened if not for a change in agent or broker? Of course not. This was a sale, like most sales, that had everything to do with price, and had the price of that $6.25MM home been dropped to $5.3MM (the ultimate list price when the property sold) I would suggest that anyone of a 100 different agents in this town could have played the star role. And all of that goes back to this. On television, red carpets and Burning Man parties sell houses. In Lake Geneva, just hack off your price a bit and make your agent a star.
As a market aside, this sale was high. There were multiple parties interested in it, but it was still high. The premium was paid because Fontana is a desirable locale, and new construction in the $5MM range generally doesn’t exist. Buyers can convince themselves to spend $5 something much easier than they can convince themselves to spend $7+. No matter that $7+ gets you a product like 1014 South Lakeshore, a property so vastly superior to the blue house on the hill in every possible measure. Compression is the high end buyer’s friend here, and if you can swing $5 something, better reach a bit and spend $7 something, because that two bucks you left in the market is now worth $1.6 bucks, and a house is so much more fun.
Without the weather, what would we talk about? When I meet someone new, what would I open the conversation with? If I couldn’t say, what a day! or, cold enough for you? or, it’s freezing out! then what would I say? I’d have to recreate my entire game, based about something new. That’s one heck of an outfit today. Who knew a green shirt and a green sweater could work? But then they’d know I was being insincere, and they’d wonder if I was really the right agent for them. They’d ask me, who was the president when you last combed your hair? Things would fall apart rapidly, and society would ultimately tear apart. The weather, and the way it makes our initial conversations so easy, this is what holds us together.
This summer featured two distinct seasons. First there was faux summer, that being June. The month of June is a month when every self respecting vacation home owner should be at their Lake Geneva home, but it is a month where the weekends are a gamble of epic proportions. Consider the weekends of June. This may be a title of my someday book, if I can ever figure out how to write more than 800 words at a time. The four Fridays of June were four difficult days. Fridays are of paramount importance to the vacation home set, as even though they are the shortest of the weekend days, by virtue of most arriving to the lake when the day is nearly over, it is important because the weather of that day usually sets the tone for the weekend. A sunny, warm Friday makes the transition from city to lake a celebrated event. A cold, dreary Friday makes the drive still important, but the celebration muted.
The four Fridays in June featured high temperatures that averaged 10 degrees below the historical norm. This included one particularly dastardly Friday where the temperature climbed to 62 degrees fahrenheit. The average for that day was 76 degrees. This is an epic fail, and June was both somewhat cold and oft rainy, and that’s why June was terrible and should be forgotten. Also, only 11 of the 30 days that month reached temperates at or above the historical average.
Summer started, rather abruptly, over the Fourth Of July Weekend. Capitalized because. Once summer began, July was pretty nice, and so was August. There were a few cold bits here and there, but nothing lasted and mostly we had generous sunshine and average temperatures. It was a good summer, but it wasn’t a hot summer. Lake Geneva recorded only 1 ninety degree day, though there were several high 80s days, and those are indistinguishable from 90 degree days, especially if I’m wearing a shirt of some sort. Really, looking back, July and August were about right, and days were warm and nights were cool, and all was right with the world so long as your world had you in Lake Geneva with frequency.
September ends today. It ends with a 64 degree sunny day, where the only clouds are puffy and white, littered here and there but certainly not everywhere. September began with this bright sky, and the month continued mostly uninterupted with this perfect weather. There was a wedding weekend in September that required fine September weather. Events were to be held outside, under the open air, without a tent in sight. Lake Geneva was up to the task and delivered a perfect early fall weekend, with sunshine and pleasant temps and a noticeable absence of humidity. The month continued and it continued warm and dry, sunny and full. Last Saturday I sat on a lakeside lawn for some time and thought that if a day could be any more perfect I’d rather not know.
So here’s to September. Here’s to the summer bookend that performed perfectly. Here’s to the month that makes me hate June even more. Now I must think of October, and while I push back against pumpkins and dried corn in September, I welcome them in October. September isn’t the gateway to anything, it’s just the most quiet and predictable month of summer. October is the true gateway, and I’m ready.
I watch the million dollar shows on television. I used to think I liked those shows, because they portrayed Realtors as being cool and hip, and Realtors have, since the advent of the Realtor, been sufficiently anything but cool or hip. I liked the new Realtor, and I liked that the industry found a way to reshape their image. I don’t really feel that way anymore.
I like the fancy cars and pointy shoes as much as the next guy, and I appreciate snarky comments and faux conflicts, but there’s some damage being done to the industry if you look beyond the pocket squares and excessively gelled hair. While we’ve become accustomed to watching these television agents dance through negotiations and coyly bluff each other over drinks at a fancy bar (the deals always come together), the bragging about setting new records and beating the market has convinced much of middle America that this new game isn’t about facilitating market transactions efficiently and competently, but rather it’s about the gimmickry that can, or in the case of the show, always, leads to beating the market.
My market beating experience this year just played out last week at the South Shore Club. I saw there the last two sellers, those owners of lot 8 (unbuilt), and lot 7 (built). When I took over the South Shore Club marketing in 2012, these two parcels were for sale. When 2014 faded to 2015, both of these parcels were still for sale. Both properties held the lofty expectations of their owners, and if both parcels had been in Beverly Hills I likely would have sold them both to foreign investors and then tap-danced my way to a champagne lunch. But this is Lake Geneva, which is, if you’ve been dawdling, a small resort town in Wisconsin that caters almost exclusively to the Chicago affluent. It is a beautiful area, but it is to Beverly Hills what I am to an olympic decathlete.
These two properties weren’t catastrophically flawed. They were South Shore Club properties, owning all of the luxurious amenities that every other club property owns. They were on a dead end cul-de-sac, on a street that hosts a total of 8 parcels. In the time since these two properties were listed, nearly every other property on the street sold, and every buyer that bought on the street looked at these two parcels and said no thanks.
It wasn’t that these owners weren’t trying to sell. The vacant lot #8 switched representation a handful of times in an attempt to rouse a buyer through a different narrative, a different set of pictures, a different approach. That failed. The lot 7 owner, whom I was pleased to represent, chopped the price consistently. He re-painted. He removed the furniture. He had a pre-inspection performed (some agents love those now). He took the property off the market and then put it back on. He chopped the price some more. New pictures were taken. A new narrative written. After several years of efforting the properties had several serious looks, several seriously interested, and dozens upon dozens of showings, yet both sat unsold.
When both parcels sold last week, they sold for the reason that Lake Geneva properties ultimately sell. They sold because the prices were cut to a level that the market accepted. They didn’t sell because of pointy shoes or gelled hair. They didn’t sell because the Realtors drove shiny cars. They sold because the market had rendered judgement on them, and in order to find a buyer they both had to sell cheap. I sold lot 8 last week to a buyer of mine for $420k. I sold lot 7 for $1.45MM. These prices were discounted, tremendously, even as the remainder of the market appreciated. Importantly, these two parcels represented the last two available pieces of aged inventory in the South Shore Club. From here on out, any sale in the SSC will be something new to market, and that’s exciting for everyone that has played a role in this development over the past 14 years.
Did these parcels fail to sell years ago because the Realtors were somehow bad? Is it because the Realtors couldn’t manipulate the market to suit the individual needs of their clients? Well, no. Of course not. The properties didn’t sell because beating the market isn’t just something that supposes one side is extremely naive and gullible, it’s also very difficult to do, unless of course we were in Beverly Hills right now.
Crain’s Chicago Business has a fun little column that appears on Thursdays. It’s called Ten Things To Do This Weekend. It is a nice list. And it’s good for Chicago area events and businesses, because it supposes that everything there is to do on a weekend should happen in the city or the suburbs. The events are wildly varied but somehow all the same. Come visit a three piece cello band while they play you their greatest hits at some outdoor place in some suburb. That strangely sounds the same to me as a painting class at some university under some tutelage of some artist, who painted some piece that no one has heard of. See, the things are very different but somehow both the same.
The list fails most, because anyone with any sort of sense knows that if you live in the city the weekends are for anything but the city. If you live in the suburbs, and you’re not tethered to your child’s soccer or baseball schedule, you also know that the suburbs are lame and that you should leave them whenever possible. This list is, at the very heart of it, what’s wrong with the thinking of most city and suburban dwelling affluents. Tuesdays you have little choice where you’ll be, but Saturdays? Well, Saturdays you could either make the hour drive from Naperville to Millennium park to witness the first ever Basketweaving While Blindfolded competition, or you could point your car north and drive as fast as possible. I choose North.
And why wouldn’t you? This weekend, like all weekends, there are things to do at Lake Geneva. But this weekend, unlike all of the other weekends, there’s a wood boat show. That’s not really fair, to call this a wood boat show. Because it’s not a show, it’s the show, and if you’re anyone who appreciates fine things, you’ll be here. Note I didn’t say you had to appreciate wood boats. That’s the same reason I don’t think you have to love golf to live on a golf course. It’s nice to look at something that’s beautifully maintained, no matter if it’s a sprawling green golf course or a highly polished wooden watercraft. Nice is nice, and if it’s at Lake Geneva it’s usually nice made nicer.
The show takes place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Abbey Harbor in Fontana. The forecast, as you may have noticed, calls for 75 and sunny on both Saturday and Sunday. The real highlight of the show is the boat tour that happens today, Friday. This tour is mostly missed by the casual boat show attendee, as those patrons visit on Saturday and Sunday, oblivious to the fact that they missed the most important event of the weekend. Then again, if you’re reading this right now you’ve likely already missed the Friday portion and you’re completely and utterly out of luck. But still, come Saturday or Sunday and you’ll enjoy the finest wooden boats in the country as they ply the finest lake in the Midwest.
My oldest friend had a birthday yesterday. He’s not old, he’s my age, but it was his birthday and he is the person who has been my friend longer than any of my other friends, so he’s my oldest friend. We will generally fish on our birthdays, either on the exact day or near the day, but yesterday was a day that neither of us could fish, and so I invited him to lunch. You pick the place, I said, in a generous birthday tone. When he said that we should meet at Manny’s Snack Shack in Twin Lakes, it was too late for me to renege. I had already made it sound like I was available, and though I tried to get him to meet me in Lake Geneva, on this side of that county line, he refused. Manny’s it was.
You’d probably be surprised at how many local agents, Experts, they’d say, have trouble finding their way around Lake Geneva. I’ve had agents who proclaim themselves to be Top, and other things, get lost en route from one place they should know to another place they should know. I don’t get lost at Lake Geneva, because Lake Geneva is in my blood and how can one divorce himself from his own DNA? But as I mentioned on Monday, I am not an expert in all things, though if you saw me throw an axe into a chunk of wood you’d be forgiven for assuming that I was. Twin Lakes is an area near here, but so far away. So I relied on my GPS and set the location. I would drive to the Twin Lakes, which lake of the two I was uncertain.
The route from here to there is not that difficult. I drove East on Highway 50, and when my car told me to, I turned to the south. This was an unnatural turn, one that I only typically make in order to perform a U-turn. The road was unimportant, but it was something like 386000RTW50th Street. I paid little attention, because soon I was to turn on 99820th Avenue 4, before veering slight right onto EWP County Highway. I stayed on that Highway for a bit, then took a sharp right followed by a sharp left. I was leaving the corn fields and arriving into a town. I saw a lake ahead, and while I knew I was on 3860000RTW50th Avenue, the sign ahead beckoned me. Lake Avenue, it said.
Now, if I had just fallen off the turnip truck and I saw this Lake Avenue sign, I might have been convinced. But I am not so green that I can’t see a 386000RTW50th Street when I see one, and while Lake street urged me to consider that it was indeed Lake Street, I knew better. This was a county road, with a hugely long and uninteresting name, masked under the guise of a more friendly vacation home street name. I sat and ate with my friend, and while everyone else thought they were dining near a lake on Lake Street, I sat and wondered how they could be so gullible. At one point I almost stood and asked the patrons to consider their mistake, to understand that they were not dining casually on Lake, but instead they were lined up on 386000RTW50th Street and no one could ever enjoy such a setting. I imagined the name wasn’t Manny’s but Lake Street Diner. How the people would love that name, and they’d eat there in their flip flops and they’d feel at one with the area, at one with the lake, at one with that street. But 386000RTW50th Diner would have gone bankrupt years ago.
Having eaten enough food to last for days, I drove back, following those confusing directions posted on my car’s display. When I made it back to Lake Geneva, I noticed my surroundings, and the things that we’ve named our routes. Wrigley Drive. Basswood. Snake. Folly and Bonnie Brae. Constance and North Lakeshore. Linden and Glenwood. Ara Glen and Hollybush. These aren’t masked highways at all, these are pure street names, vacation home names, and they provided me with great relief after the journey I had just endured.
I’ve thought often about buying some land in the country, far from here where I might fly fish once in a while. I look for this land somewhat often, and when something pops onto my MLS screen I judge it before clicking on the pictures. I see a street name “HIGHWAY NN”, and I know I can’t buy it. I see COUNTY LINE S and shake my head, that can’t be for me. I can’t buy on such a road when I know that roads like OAKSTAAD and LOVAAS RIDGE exist. How could I tell my friends to go to my house, the one at 39W50RT COUNTY HIGHWAY NN? I want to tell them to take that highway for a bit, when veer right onto HORNBY HOLLOW. I could live in a Hollow, just not on a highway.
Last week, a closing in Lake Como. The property was nice, the price fine, the market something other than what I know. But the street name was interesting, and it further makes my point. Street names matter. The latest Como sale was on URANUS Street. Maybe it’s a road, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If you’re ready for a lake house, I’ll be over here, at 57 West Geneva Street, which sounds so much better than all of the alternatives.
When a real estate market is slow, the fundamentals matter. The price per front foot, price per square foot, of the land, not house- this isn’t Beverly Hills- it matters. The prior sales price, the current list price, the expected discount to ask and the all time highs against the current cycle lows. This is the sort of research that matters in a down market. This sort of thing mattered in Lake Geneva, at one time, back in the good old days of 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, back when market context and market forecasting was everything. RIP, days when things mattered.
Don’t get me wrong, they still matter to me, to those among us who seek value in times good and bad. All of those things will always matter to me, which is why I’ll likely spend the remainder of my working days loving tumultuous market times and tolerating times of hyper lift. It’s easy for Realtors who lack a greater degree of curiosity to see a rising tide and throw everyone into the sea. Leave your fancy math behind and jump into the water! Quickly, we haven’t much time! This is what they say, and this behavior is an insult to my intelligence but mostly to yours.
Delavan Lake this year has performed remarkably well. There have been no fewer than 11 lakefront sales, which is nice, but most impressive is that six of those have closed at or over one million dollars. Nice job, Delavan. I hope that most of those sales occurred in the winter, early spring, or the coming fall. Those are the times when the water rests a bit, and if you weren’t a student of water clarity (I have my PHD) you’d be forgiven for thinking the water is fine there. The sales mostly make sense, and even the outlier that closed last week makes some sense. But this is before you consider the prior sales activity- the peaks at the high and the supposed valleys at the low. Things look fine, until we dig a little.
If we throw out the highest lakefront sale at $1,599,000 and consider the other 10, the average lakefront sale this year printed at 84.4% of the ask. The top sale, the one mentioned prior, closed at full price. That’s 100% for the math-hating-market-hypers. I was about to demonstrate the egregious price per foot difference between this top sale and the others, but Delavan Lake is an odd bird and doesn’t really follow any rough price per foot outline that can be trusted. It’s especially difficult on a lake like Delavan, where some spots you can walk on water due to weed growth, and other spots are more lake like.
That property had closed in the fall of 2008, at what was likely very near the top of the market, for $1.425MM. It sold again in 2012, at what would have been the bottom of the market, for $1.3MM. For perspective, the nearest priced sale to that one, a victorian style Delavan lakefront that sold for $1.44MM this year, had sold for $1.657MM in 2012. Some of the other sales on Delavan this year also sold prior in 2012, and some sold then for less than the recent 2015 sale, while others sold for less. It’s this sort of research that should be done for these sorts of sales.
I am not, as you have noticed, a Delavan Lake expert. I don’t want to be such an expert, and I never will be. I’ll leave that to the agents who are actual experts on that lake, of which there are several. I’ll stick to Geneva, and I’ll do that because this is the market that I know and understand, and this is the market where most pricing makes some level of sense. The two full price off-water sales near Geneva this year, one at $1.475MM and one at $2.2MM aren’t included in that prior statement.
Today, there’s a very serious admonition. Pay attention to the numbers. Pay attention to the market cycles. Pay attention to prior sales, prior failed marketing attempts, and future downside. Just pay attention. If you have an agent that’s not from this market, one that wishes to be part of the market solely because our prices are nice and rich, then suggest to that agent that they keep your best interests in mind and refer you to me. That’s a terrific way to pacify your city agent and gain exposure to some high caliber local knowledge. After all, we can’t be experts in everything, which is why I’ve spent my life trying rather hard to be an expert in all things Lake Geneva and nothing else. Delavan Lake? Why I barely know where it is.
At first blush, it makes no sense. Why, after so many years of a predictable pattern, are homes in excess of $4MM selling so frequently and easily in 2015? The hedge funds had their huge year in 2011, making it reasonable to expect 2012 and 2013 to be high flying years. The same years, the stock market gained and gained, allowing those with large scale equity investments to cash a bit out and buy real estate, if they so properly desired. If this upper bracket buyer was sensitive to interest rates, they’ve had years and years of them. The catalysts have been in place for several years, so why 2015?
I think it’s private equity. You have Midwestern businesses of varying sizes and industries selling at premium prices. The simple logic goes like this. Mr. and Mrs. Businesspeople own a lake house. Because they’re successful in business and obviously intelligent, well rounded sorts, they own their lake house at Lake Geneva. Their lake house was bought when they ran that business, the one they spent so much time building. They bought that first house with revenue. Private equity found them, negotiated with them, and now our friendly business couple who already loves Lake Geneva just sold their business for many times earnings. They were rich before, revenue rich, but now they’re lump sum rich. Would it be strange to expect them to flip out of a $2MM lakefront and into a $5MM lakefront? Of course not. The lakefront market on Geneva has had a tremendous run at our upper range, and I say we owe it all to private equity.
You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t been writing market updates every day. I haven’t been doing this because the market is hot, and I grow tired of saying that. It’s hot! I say. Everyone else says it, too. They say it with fewer words, sometimes just breathless gestures, othertimes with pictures, but they’re all saying it. The market is hot, it’s active in all segments, and 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year. I think that would be boring to write about three days a week, so I sometimes choose to enlighten you with other meaningless tidbits.
The entry level lakefront has been offering up some tasty deals this year, and up until recently the market has mostly failed to take advantage of the ample inventory. This last week, two entry level homes have gone under contract. One near Abbey Springs, as in not sort of near, but right smack dab on top of it. Listed in the $1.1s, this home was cheap enough and a buyer finally looked past the oddly complicated approach. The other home was another that suffered through a slug of showings and a systematic chopping of the price. This Lake Geneva Highlands lakefront is now pending sale with an ask in the mid $1.3s. Think the market finally caught fire and gobbled these up because they feared they’d never find something quite so good? Think again. The prices came down, and buyers bit.
Other lakefronts under contract include a private listing in Geneva Bay Estates for $2.65MM, my listing on Bonnie Brae for $2.995MM, a lakefront lot in the Elgin Club ($1MM), a shingly thing in Cedar Point in the mid $2s, the bombed out cottage ($879k) shell near George Williams, an old house on the hill in Glenwood Springs in the high $1s, and the large Baywood Heights-ish ranch on Basswood just under $5MM. My listing in the South Shore Club is pending sale, as is the Pickell built home on the hill in Fontana. Expect sales of both within a few weeks. There is an offer on the large Fontana lakefront listed in the mid $4s, so let’s expect that contract is put together. That’s the sort of buyer that would have been better off looking seriously at 1014 South Lakeshore in the $7s, as the all in number for a land buyer in the $4s will likely far exceed $7.
The lake access market is active as well, with buyers reaching back towards off-water homes that lack slips in the $600k range. This isn’t a range I love, unless the house is somehow special. A boring house on a boring lot that lacks a view or a slip in the $500s? I’ll pass, thank you. For all the activity, I still see value in the sub $550k price range. There are some winning properties with slips that can be bought around $500k, and there are some reasonably nice lake access homes in the $300s that look interesting to me.
The lakefront condo market is just okay, with plenty of inventory and plenty of value offered. There’s a pending deal on another Geneva Towers unit, as the developer who wished to transform the condo market there has mostly, by my math, maybe broken even on the effort. Maybe he’s made a fortune, but it looks to this outside as an endeavor that maybe wasn’t worth the effort. Abbey Springs housing is hot, with three single family homes pending sale there priced over $550k, including my listing on Saint Andrews for $765k. Geneva National is similarly active, with loads of interest in the condominiums and single family homes. I have a deal pending on one of my Terrace Court condos, and another contract pending on the GN Saint Andrews.
What to expect this fall? The same. The market is active, deals are plentiful, and buyers have largely pushed aside any concerns over the stock market tumult. If buyers wish to make 2016 a lakeside year, then they’d be wise to begin the process now. Not in January, not in March, but now. Start the hunt. Identify the target. And most importantly, avoid disastrous decisions by letting me be your guide.
Above, my newest listing. An Eastbank townhome with 3300 square feet of brand new luxury. Four bedrooms, four baths, canopied slip, two car garage, lake views, and so much fancy. $1.299MM
I took my car in to be fixed. The mechanic was nice enough, the dealership shiny and large. Emblems and logos, everywhere. I normally sit in the lounge, where they have a chef that makes sandwiches and soups, one of each per day, as well as some cookies and snacks. I like that lounge. I brought my car in because it made a rattle that I didn’t like, and so I sat in the lounge while the mechanic determined the cause. I wondered if the noise came from the wheel. But it couldn’t come from the wheel because I felt it in my seat when I went over a bump. Maybe it came from the chassis, though a rattly chassis would be much worse than a rattly wheel. I waited. What was taking so long?
The mechanic’s name was Jeff. He had greasy hands and greasy nails, and I thought that there would be no way for him to clean those nails. I thought that some days he must have his hands perfectly clean, and when he does he probably looks at them and makes sure people notice. Like he’s a hand model. But he was under the car, standing there with a flashlight, looking at the various parts and thinking. I know he was doing this because I left my seat in the lounge, threw away the paper plate that my chicken pesto panini was served on, and walked around the parts department to the shop. Then I stood under the car next to Jeff and turned the flashlight on my iPhone and stared at the underside of the car as if I had seen one before.
I had, after all, once almost changed a tire. I had a flat when I was driving to Minnesota, and before calling AAA I had considered changing the tire by myself. I even looked around for the spare tire, but when I realized it was in the trunk, under a bunch of things I had packed for my trip, I decided against the action. I suggested to Jeff that this metal rod might be the culprit, and I reached up and shook it violently. I told him that he needs to consider that the rod is the problem, and that we needed to sit down and have a meeting about it, because I, the person who nearly thought about chaining a tire once, have determined that this is our problem. The tie rod.
Jeff ignored me, even though I shook the tie rod again to remind him that it wiggled when I did so. Jeff said I should leave the shop now, because I “didn’t know what I was talking about”. I told him that this was no way to speak to a customer, and he told me that’s why there are nicer men and women with name tags who work at the computers outside of the shop, the ones who don’t have greasy nails. He said I should leave. I asked about the tie rod. He said it wasn’t the tie rod. I shrugged my shoulders and said it was the tie rod. Then I fired him and took my rattly car down the road to another dealer, where I stood with a mechanic named Brian and shined my iPhone light under the hood with him.
I didn’t really do any of these things. But I do speak with sellers every day, and I am as Jeff, or maybe Brian, and they are me. They tell me that they know better than I do. That the market isn’t really a market, but rather the market behaves in the way that brokers tell it to behave. The suggestion is that if the brokerage community gets together and enforces a strict $5MM minimum list price on all lakefront homes that, in some time, this will be the norm. A 50′ lakefront home will sell for $5MM, and a 200′ lakefront home will sell for $5.5MM. Sellers of unique or otherwise overpriced properties have terrific ideas as to how to accomplish those market defying goals, except that all of their ideas are the equivalent of me, violently shaking that tie rod.