Apr 16, 2014 by DC
I think it would be fun to write about baseball. Not baseball the game, but baseball the season, the team. To be a beat writer is to be faced with constant deadlines, but there is a new game to write about almost every day, so I don't think content procurement is all that difficult. One game, your star right fielder will get hurt. You get to write about that. One day, your star left fielder will have the flu, and he'll still get up to bat and then he'll make important contact and drive in a run. You can email his high school coach to see if he ever played sick before. If he did, you can write about that and declare him a trooper, a selfless player, a stand up guy. Writing about all of that would be easy, because there is new content being created on the field every day and all you have to do is report what you see.
In real estate writing, there is new content every day, sure. But it's mostly boring content. Someone bought this house. Big deal. Someone is selling that house. Yawn. Some Realtor just got a new car and another one took a new photo. Who cares? Collectively, these stories might add up to one measly 600 word post, but individually they require even more filler words that I'd normally use, just to make the post passable. That's why I wait for some news to accumulate before pushing it out for the world to digest. Today, a compilation of events, and thankfully, none of them have to do with any new cars or new glamor shots.
The lake access and lakefront market on Geneva has grown quite interesting of late. There's a general feeling of urgency, which is common in spring when colors start to reappear, and the lake turns from ice to water. That happened last Sunday, by the way, and that's a date that I called nearly two weeks before. I called it on twitter, so if you're on Facebook, where I'm not, then you missed the incredible clairvoyance of my prophecy. The lake is open, the grass is greening, the rains from last weekend permeating the soil that now needs only to be warmed to send up flowers and leaves and all sorts of cholophormy bits. Spring is upon us, and the market knows it. People are in a hurry, as they should be.
This urgency is widespread, and showings around the lake appear to be up in every single segment. Lakefront condominiums are active, lake access homes are, too. Lakefronts are always active, it seems. The lake access market has ample inventory, priced from $150k to $900k. There's plenty of it to be had, so if you want a basic cottage for $225k or a nice home with a slip for $750k, we can fulfill whatever your present desire. The lakefront market is behaving a bit oddly, at least in terms of inventory. We've built masses of high end inventory, those homes priced over $4.5MM. There are eight homes priced over $4.5MM, and I hesitated before labeling them all homes, and not estates. What's an estate? Well, it's 2+ acres, it's 150+ feet of frontage, and by that metric there are only three true estates available on Geneva. I'm bringing two more such properties to market in the coming days and weeks, and those will be true estates. Remember, calling a property an estate in an advertising description doesn't make it so.
The entry level market on Geneva is starving for inventory. The only new entry level property to come to market this year is a small house in the Birches, and that is already under contract with an asking price of $1.499MM. Aside from that home, and removing a South Shore Club offering at $1.749MM, the cheapest lakefront is in Glenwood Springs, and we all know that Glenwood Springs is only lakefront inside of the market context, and not in actuality. The "cheapest" true lakefront home is listed at $1.875MM, and that's next to a hotel, so you can imagine how impressed I am with that location. There was another time when the most economical lakefront home was priced around $1.9MM, and that was 2007.
We could use some quality lakefront inventory in the $2MM to $3.4MM range, as that's the undeniable sweet spot for our lakefront market. My large listing on Loramoor priced at $3.195MM is under contract as of last week, so that makes me happy. Also pending is the large property on Southland for $2.475MM, also to a buyer of mine, so I'm still happy. There are offers circulating in the South Shore Club, and likely an offer or three circulating on the lakefront that I'm not involved in. That, it should be noted, makes me sad in a brooding, selfish way.
I've written loads of offers over recent weeks, and there's a new theme in the market that I'm not thoroughly pleased with. Sellers are holding tighter to their list prices than they have at any point since the spring of 2009. Of the seven or eight offers I've written of late, only two have come together. If this were 2011, I would have likely put all of these written offers under contract, as sellers used to view buyers as treasured possessions, and now they view them as a rather un-rare commodity. This, of course, will come back to bite many over-confident sellers, as a buyer today does not guarantee a buyer tomorrow. I'm hearing reports of seller confidence increasing because of increased showings. I'd argue that increased showings and a lack of corresponding offers is actually a negative for any given property, making a singular written offer all that more valuable.
If you're a buyer, expect two things. First, get ready for fresh sellers to be somewhat smug. They don't want to negotiate like they used to, which is why the title of my someday book will be, "Sellers: I Only Loved Them In 2011"
. If a buyer wants a real bargain, they must look to the aged inventory, as those are sellers who are generally tired of market times and of showing feedback reports, and those are the sellers that can still be massaged into signing onto an actual deal. New sellers, not so much. Second, unless you're an upper bracket lakefront buyer, be prepared for somewhat limited inventory. I'm sure we'll add some inventory as we creep towards summer, but it's safe to say that any expected influx of inventory this spring has not happened, and likely won't.
For now, the lake is open, and my boat is broken. I have work to do, and it involves some wrenches, a solenoid, and a complete lack of engine related intelligence. Above, a spectacular new lakefront coming to market next month.
Apr 14, 2014 by DC
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If I were to write about those woody things that grow from the ground, those things with bark and branches and leaves, I would probably call them what they are: Trees. I would describe them, with the bark and the roots and the branches that push back and forth in the summer breeze, and then I would use the word that this fine English language of ours has decided to call them: Trees. I'd write trees, trees, trees, probably many, many times throughout the course of my article about these things. Imagine my surprise that the Chicago Tribune wrote about vacation homes, again, and decided to avoid the most obvious vacation home destination for the most discerning Chicagoans: Lake Geneva. If the Tribute ever writes about woody things with bark and roots and so many leaves, do not be surprised if they leave the word with the T and the R and those two E's, out.
The article, written more clunkily than most of these morning posts, makes many statements of supposition as fact. The article tells us that vacation home volume is down, that distressed sales are up, and that buyers who are considering Galena or Harbor Country are somehow similar to those sharp individuals who consider Lake Geneva. On most fronts, the author is wrong. Sales volume is off from the peak? Really? Would you believe that the lakefront and lake access sales between 4/14/13 to 4/14/14 are up 25% over the same sales from the same period of 2006/2007? The article dives shallowly into National statistics and tries to bend them into applicable local context, especially when it tells us that 42% of vacation home sales over the past year have been distressed sales. Would you believe that at Lake Geneva just .024% of lakefront and lake access sales during the past 12 months were distressed?
This is why I don't like national context for local markets, because they skew buyer and seller sentiment by introducing facts that have nothing to do with the market in question. This follows my writings last week about the nature of subjective headline hawking when looking for facts and trends for any national segment. Did you see a lakefront property in Greenwich sold last week for $120MM? So did I. Did you know that it doesn't have anything to do with your lakefront home on Geneva? I know you did, I was simply asking for the benefit of those national real estate writers who may not know the answer.
The Tribune piece works off of a few national statistics, a few local (Galena, Green Lake, and Harbor Country) Realtor's anecdotal tales, and efforts to tell us that the Chicago vacation home buyer has a lot of options, and they are in complete and utter control. It's a buyer's market, after all, and if you don't believe me, well, then, you certainly didn't read Mary Ellen Podmolik's definitive essay on the topic. She tells it's a buyer's market at Lake Geneva, because at Green Lake, a lake that is twice as far from Chicago as Lake Geneva is, it's that sort of market. And at Galena, a resort area for people who don't like large, clean, lakes, it's that way, too. Harbor Country, a market that is represented by a photo of a Harbor, because that's the only place you can keep a boat there, it's like that as well, and buyers have all sorts of options at their disposal. It's a buyer's market, except when you're in a different market, say, like Lake Geneva.
Those local inaccuracies aside, the real discussion this morning is about rentals, and their strange, tight ties to the vacation home market. The Tribune article cites rental properties not as some unique segment of the vacation home market, but as a standard issue inclusion, as though vacation homes are as much about rental income as they are about beach towels and sandals. I have always marveled at the close connection between vacation home discussions and rental prospects, and perhaps this personal confusion is due to the fact that Lake Geneva is not a rental fueled vacation home market. Sure, we have rentals at the Abbey Villas and at some of of the time share/ condotel type developments, but these are not the properties that make up the Lake Geneva vacation home market. Single family homes and residential condominiums, used as weekend homes for their owners, that's what drives the Lake Geneva market.
Much of the discussion of rental properties as vacation homes stems from proximity issues. If you live in Hinsdale, and you think it's a great idea to buy a vacation home in Aspen, then perhaps the rental possibilities are extremely important. Similarly so if you live in Barrington and you're considering a vacation home in Georgia. Such purchases are subject to the very heavy, damning, travel tax. It's not a real tax mind you, not yet anyway, but it's the fee you're levying upon yourself by buying a property that requires such an inordinate amount of effort to even get to. If this is your aim, then I understand the need to rent the property. It's not easy to make a horrible decision palatable, but some rent may offset your egregious financial and personal mistake.
It's because of Lake Geneva's incredible proximity to our clientele's primary homes that we do not need the silliness of rental to make this ownership work. Other markets, perhaps, but not here, not now. We're a market for active home owners who wish to use their homes themselves, and have little interest in showing up to sleep on sheets that Joe Blow Renter just slept on the night before. To further cement Lake Geneva's disdain for the vacation rental, Walworth County has imposed a 30 day rental minimum for nearly all residential homes here. Most of our lakefront condo developments limit rentals to long term tenures, or they ban them altogether. Rentals are not our thing, but then again, neither are distressed sales and low volume.
Photo by Michael Moore Photography.
Apr 09, 2014 by DC
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My father has no hobbies. Not a single one. He used to play a bit of golf, but that effort only produced two lasting memories. There was the un-witnessed hole-in-one at George Williams that must have occurred sometime during the early 1980s. That feat fell on absent eyes and deaf ears, but the only other enduring event was a lasting phrase that my brother and I can both hear to this day. It was a pleasant afternoon on Lawsonia Golf Course, north near that Green Lake. My father was struggling, as is his golfing habit, and after ripping multiple drives into multiple directions, he swung his club in frustration and uttered the famous phrase, "I can do this"
. It was more a plea, half a beg, tinged with both immediate desperation and long enduring golfing despair. We had witnessed the death of his golf game, and while we played many times since then, we have never played without someone telling the others that he could, indeed, do this.
He used to sit on his pier, often. In fact, when I was a child, before the advent of cellular telephones and even cordless ones, he ran a telephone line from his house to his pier, so that he could sit there and conduct business. It was a strong effort, and I suppose that was no different than today, when I sit on a boat in the middle of the lake, iPad and similarly branded phone sitting on the bow cushions at the ready, assuming I'm motivated enough to pick up the phone when it rings. The desire to do work from a place other than an office has always been strong, as evidenced by the 100' of telephone cable that attached my father's pier to his house. Even those pier sitting days are limited now. He boats some, sails a little more, and he looks over a collection of shiny red automobiles routinely, though all of these are diminishing. My father is not dying, but his love of hobby is a goner.
It's because he has no hobbies that he knows not how to rest. Naps are not rest. I struggle from the exact opposite affliction. I cannot nap to save my life. This nap phobia stems from my childhood, when my parents forced me to take an afternoon nap. We didn't have to do this at home, but on vacation, when the church camp had morning and evening activities for kids, we had to nap. We were on vacation, and we had to spend some amount of time hidden from the afternoon sun, huddled in our rented bedrooms. It was a cruel punishment, as few things are worse than spending time in a dark bedroom while hearing the squeals and laughter of the kids whose parents didn't subscribe to this primitive form of torture. Because of that, I cannot nap now, and my parents have stolen the supposed joy that is a nap, cat or otherwise.
The childhood scars aside, the real reason I cannot nap is because I have so many other things I wish to do at any given time. I have work to do, sure, but I am not a spaz Realtor, beholden to working at every waking second. To quote David Burge, "Follow your passion"? Bulls@%t. Find something you're good at and that other people value. Use the resulting income to pay for your passion". I work to afford a tenacious pursuit of hobby, and that pursuit will ultimately be my professional undoing. Can you blame me? I live here, in this land where every hobby ever worth pursuing is available to me on a daily, hourly, basis.
Monday, I had a tick bite me. This was the first tick of 2014, but it will not be the last. I have flicked as many as 10 ticks off of me at one time, and while I have never been diagnosed with Lyme's Disease I have also never been diagnosed with ADHD. Morel hunting and ticks go hand in hand, not happily, like a couple skipping through a field, but instead angrily and necessarily, because climbing through brush and sliding under brambles is a requirement of the great coming hunt. I hated that tick on Monday, and I cursed it for biting me, but it was not entirely unwelcome. You know when ticks don't bite you? In January. You know where they won't bite you in April? Inside an office building. It's spring, and I'm nothing if not an outdoors-man of a soft sort, and so a tick bite is a rite of passage, a signal that I have made it from winter and into spring, which is where I spent the last six months hoping to end up.
We all know that spring is simply a necessary transition from that place where we didn't want to go to the place where we hope to be. Without spring, we'd shovel one day and boat the next, and that sounds somewhat appealing but would be, in practice, absolutely disorienting. When the summer does come, after Morel Season and before Boating Season, we will have so many hobbies at our disposal. There is swimming and sailing, boating and fishing, shore path walking and town shopping. There is morning golf and afternoon tennis, and sometimes there is morning tennis and afternoon golf. There is ice cream licking and firework watching. There is lazy breakfast making and sunny Saturday sunning. There is early morning fishing and earlier morning skiing. There is evening boating to evening dining, and there are slow cruises home, through that inky dark water and under that bright starred sky.
There are hobbies to indulge in, and the time is coming. The lake and sun are working overtime to rid us of this icy blanket (prediction- ice will be out by Sunday evening), and the season of The Hobby has nearly arrived. I don't doubt that you can have hobbies in the city. It's just that those hobbies are sort of lame, and they are boring. If you disagree, spend one Saturday on the flesh blanket that is a Chicago beach, and spend the next Saturday lounging on a white pier that juts out into this deep blue lake. Vacation homes are fun, yes, and the appliances matter and so does the material of the floor. But more than shelter a vacation home is really just a launching point for all those hobbies that you've yet found time to practice.
Apr 07, 2014 by DC
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Saturday was a nice spring day. It was so nice, in fact, that I went to the hardware store and bought a trailer hitch ball. It was bright and shiny, clean. Pity those trailer hitch balls, so shiny in packaging yet immediately destined to be scratched, dirty, and worn as soon as they are put to work. I bolted the ball to the hitch of my tractor, and went hunting through the woods, looking for the spot that I stashed my boat. Normal people would put their boat in a barn, or under a tarp behind their garage; I stuck mine into the woods behind my house, far enough to be out of sight during months when looking at a boat is nothing but depressing.
I found the boat, lowered the trailer tongue, and pulled it from the woods and onto my lawn. The boat was dirty, as it always is, but it would need to be washed, and waxed, and cleaned and tuned before I launch it into the waters of the Abbey Harbor, potentially as soon as this week. I surveyed the boat, making a mental tally of the tasks ahead. I would need to clean the hull with toilet bowl cleaner before waxing with an orbital buffer. I need waxing pads for the machine, and I need some wax. The boat needs gas, lots of it, so I'll fill it, too. The boat has five batteries, all of which are dead and will need ample charges. The depth finder ceased working last year, so that's been sent to the manufacturer with a note that I scribbled with a post office pen, "Please fix".
The boat will be launched this week, but there is much work to be done and much more money to be spent before that can happen.
If I were an owner at the South Shore Club, last Saturday's sun and tolerable temperatures would have caused my mind to wander towards summer, and to boats and to open water. The difference, I suppose, is that South Shore Club owners get to revel in all of these fun summer events without preparing for them. I must wash and wax and gas if I someday wish to boat. They simply wait for the boats to be prepared on their behalf, and they'll take them for a drive when they feel like it. There is no commitment to the boat required, there is none of the sowing and plenty of the reaping. I think it would be nice to be a South Shore Club vacation home owner, and apparently most everyone else feels the same.
Take a drive through the South Shore Club. The grass is still brown, the pier still stacked on the shore, the pool still covered in a dark green canvas. None of this looks particularly wonderful, but there is a movement underway here, and the motion is undeniable. I've long felt that the SSC will, over a long enough timetable, thrive in this market. There is nothing like it, pretty much anywhere. But short term, I have had my individual market concerns about the Club. Inventory will always be the issue at the SSC, and as long as there is too much inventory inside these pretty boundaries, the market will struggle. This is why wild inventory swings are dangerous for the SSC, and this is why, last fall, I had some hesitations.
My concern was over the built inventory. While I had been successful in selling existing homes and the scant few remaining vacant parcels, it seemed that one built home sale begot a new built home listing. We weren't eliminating inventory so much as we were replacing it. One sold, one listed, and so on and so forth. Last fall, I ran through scenarios in my head and with my intelligent buyers. I thought this spring was going to yield as many as eight built homes on the open market. This, I figured, would be too much inventory, and the gains the SSC made over the prior 12 months would be met with the stiff headwinds of heavy inventory. This was my short term concern, and I voiced it often.
Fast forward to this morning, and the worst case scenario that had kept me awake at night never happened. I sold the home at 1599 Lakeside for $1.725 (package price was $1.875MM). The home at 1622 Lakeside is under contract, and not available. One home that I thought was being built on spec turned out to be a custom home being built for an owner. Another home that I feared might come to market has decided to stay, and to enjoy the bounty of another Lake Geneva summer. Instead of eight open market listings, the South Shore Club has just four--One up front at $3.799MM, one by the pool for $3.199MM, and two on Forest Hill, priced at $1.749MM and $2.149MM, respectively. The inventory boom that could have created some short term trouble for the SSC never happened.
In addition to the dwindling built inventory, there have been more lot sales as well. I sold lot 27 late last fall, and I have lot 20 under contract to a discerning buyer. There are just four developer owned lots left, out of 40 original parcels. Lots 19, 31, and 32 (listed in the $600s and $700s) are on the semi-circle with some water views, and lot 7 is back on Forest Hill, tucked into the trees, listed at a buyer pleasing $395k. A drive through the club today will show four homes under construction, and thankfully for the owners it appears as though all four will be finished or at least finished on the outside, prior to Memorial Day. It'll be a beautiful summer in the SSC, and as the club gets further built out it becomes even more exclusive. The financially stressed, or otherwise disinterested owners have sold, and we have a new crop of owners seeking to enjoy the lake in a most leisurely way.
If you took the South Shore Club for granted over the last decade, I can't say that I blame you. If you take it for granted now, it's safe to say that your window of opportunity has nearly closed.
Apr 04, 2014 by DC
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Someday, I won't write about the wealth effect. I'll just write about trees, or fish, or about life and death, probably one or the other, but likely both, on alternating days. Since that day isn't today, let's talk about wealth. Long before it was popular and obvious, I wrote about the effect that stock market indices have on the Lake Geneva vacation home market. While joblessness, interest rates, and time of year all play some roll in determining the health of our market, they really don't matter much at all. Put the jobless rate at 20% (not far from where it really is now, though the number sounds hyperbolic), set interest rates at 10%, and bury us in the deepest, darkest January Tuesday. Then tell me the stock market was up 30% over the prior year and I'll show you a Lake Geneva market alive and buzzing with activity.
More than a pay increase, more than perfect job stability, and more than a sunny summer afternoon, Lake Geneva's vacation home market is fueled by paper wealth. I admit to checking the balances of the seventeen dollars that I have saved, and I feel better on days when that balance has jumped to $17.26. On those days, I might go out to dinner, just because. On days when that seventeen falls to $16.84 I feel down, my mood reflecting a loss of wealth that I never see except on a screen of a magical tube that sits atop my desk. Given all of this, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Wall Street Journal wrote a feature on the Vacation Home Market yesterday, and they told us the same things that I have been telling you for a rather long time: Stock markets drive vacation home purchases more than anything, ever.
The piece in the Wall Street Journal comes on the heels of two other real estate tidbits from yesterday. Housing statistics on a national level are subject to extremely fuzzy math, and so one study or another cannot be viewed and considered in a vacuum, Dyson or otherwise. This is why Realtors who place propaganda, err, advertising, that tout one cherry-picked statistic should not really be trusted. If housing starts nationwide are up, who cares? If pending sales are down, who cares? If California is doing swell, remind me why that matters to my home in Lake Geneva? I once had a client tell me, in a most self-confident way, that what happens in California happens in Lake Geneva a short time later. He was wrong. If he was right, where's our most recent earthquake, or mudslide? See what I mean? National bits and pieces only matter when viewed against a number of different considerations, so let's consider.
Pending home sales are down, but this doesn't matter. They're down because they were, before, up. Fewer pending sales over the winter months could have been a product of the weather, or of the weather, or possibly the weather. Vacation home sales are up, and Manhattan real estate is up too, which must mean the Lake Geneva market is on absolute fire! I heard a Russian billionaire just bought a penthouse in NYC for as much as $55MM, and this means my cottage in Knollwood is absolutely, 100% in demand! Did you see some heiress just bought a house in Beverly Hills for $100MM? I did too, but your home on Aspen Lane isn't worth more now. Vacation home sales nationwide are up, but have you looked at the numbers? No?
Did you know that the median sales price of vacation home sales in this country is $168,700? Did you know that $168,700 in Lake Geneva buys you very, very little? Did you realize that most vacation home sales are timeshares, or small condos at resorts, or little cabins on muddy lakes just to the East of East Nowhere, Somestate? Did you know that vacation home sales are up 30% over the past year, but they're still down 40% from the peak? Did you know that while interest rates don't matter much at Lake Geneva, they do matter a whole lot to the vacation home market in Clearwater, Florida?
Crain's told us yesterday that 20% of real estate transactions in Chicago, which likely means the city and the entirety of the suburban markets, sold at or above the asking price. Did you know that some prince from Sandyville, Dubai bought a house in Southampton for $16MM, a price that was $2MM over the asking price? I mean, he didn't, but if he did, I wouldn't care about that either. Because Southampton is not Beverly Hills and Beverly Hills is a long ways from Clearwater, and Clearwater is a long ways from Kishwauketoe, which I believe may or may not mean Clear waters. I don't care about any of these things, because they don't remind me of anything.
Lake Geneva's market is doing well, and it's nice to know that we're not alone. YTD we've had 18 total lakefront and lake access sales, five of which were lakefront, five of which were priced under $200k. Lest you think we're on hallowed volume ground, consider that the same period in 2013 printed 16 such sales, six of which were lakefront. The volume is high, but it is not so high that it's without precedent. While we lack lakefront inventory in all segments (we have plenty at the top end, and if severely overpriced tear downs appeal to you, we have that market absolutely cornered), the lake access market is adding inventory at a very steady clip. The lakefront condo market is doing its best to quash its own recovery, as a few sales just begot too much new inventory.
Take nothing from this post except this: One little national statistic means nothing to me, and it should mean nothing to you. If a house on your block in Lincoln Park just sold over ask, don't listen to an agent that tells you to do the same thing on any old property here. Also, if you know any Russian billionaires, any LA heiresses, or any princes from Dubai, I'd like an introduction.
Apr 02, 2014 by DC
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There was still snow out there, but really none at all if you compare it to the snow cover from just a few short weeks ago. I found myself near the stream bank, crunching over browned grass that was bent all the way to the ground after long ago succumbing to that heavy, unrelenting snow. The grass was low, long, spread out around me, mixtures of tan and brown, some pale others dark, nothing green in view except wisps of seaweed that trailed in the current, moving back and forth and back and forth, never able to be still. The sun was shining, working to warm the air even while the wind whipped through the valley, pushing that warm air against my face and hands in such a way that the air was no longer warm, but barely tolerable.
I walked for a ways, scanning the stream for signs of life, unable to see too far into the water that had been made cloudy by so much snow melt over recent days. I slipped a few times on mud that was exposed some five, maybe six feet over the surface of the stream, a sign that this little Wisconsin stream had not too long ago been violently blown out by the spring weather, just like a mountain stream might do. There was little life to be seen, excepting a few spiders that scurried over the bent, brown grass. A few turkey vultures soared over head, but looking up is not something someone does when scanning a stream, so those large birds just circled and circled, and I paid them no attention.
The line felt good in my hands, better than it felt a few weeks ago when I cast that fly line during a most brutal winter day. I worked the stream stripping my large streamers through the quick, murky water, bend after bend, riffle after riffle, dark swirling pool after dark swirly pool. Aside from rocks and trees, nothing bit. Two hours, more or less, had passed since I first hiked downstream and my fishing companions hiked upstream. I found myself back at the road, near the bridge, next to our truck that was parked illegally, as all good fly fisherman park. Show me a fly fisher that parks his tidy car squarely in a paved lot, and I'll show you a fly fisher with a pair of clean boots, pressed waders, a neatly arranged fly box and a camera full of landscape photos, not fish photos.
I was sheltered from the wind now, and felt a slow urge to simply lie down on my bed of bent, faded grass, and soak up that spring sun. I think about things like that often, but I rarely do them, because as much as I wish for relaxation I don't find it by being still. I pushed on, under the bridge to a slight bend in the stream, and worked my streamer upstream and across, back and forth, stripping and pausing, stripping and pausing. I missed what I thought was a nice fish, and that strike held my interest in that pool. After the near miss, it wasn't more than three casts later that I hooked into a thrashing trout, a big, bold rainbow that saw my streamer teasing its way through the current and would not tolerate it. The fish bit, I panicked, and after a few moments I had that fish in my hands.
Winter had been long forgotten.
I struggled with what to do next. I needed a picture, but how? I would need to lay this great fish on the grass, if only for a second, so I could snap a photo or be faced with ridicule and disbelief from my fishing friends. I pulled my phone from my pouch and proceeded to drop it into the stream. Crap. I ripped it from the shallow bottom before it could marinate, and dried it on my shirt quickly. I threw it up onto the sunny grass, so it could dry. When I looked up to fling the phone to safety, my friends were approaching. I threw the phone shoreward, and held up the mighty fish. Unrepeatable words followed, along with pictures. I released the fish soon after, and it swam quickly back to the perceived safety of a cloudy bend.
I didn't catch a fish for the rest of the day, and I didn't need to. I simply needed to be, to stand under the sun and not feel cold. I needed to walk on dead, dull grass, I needed to soak in the sepia tone of an early spring day. And this morning, I drove down a dry road, with sun filtering through the roadside trees in a way that it can do now, but not in the summer. The light would be blocked out by then, shielded from the morning road by so many leaves, bright and green and full. I passed one or two piles of snow, hiding cowardly on north facing slopes, and I averted my gaze because after a day like the one above, and on a morning like this, I have no use for winter, and I have no lasting memory of it.
Spring is like that. It makes winter seem like barely anything at all. I cannot remember it well, and now that my driveway made the transition from ice to mud and now to dry gravel, there is little winter left to be considered. I tilled my garden yesterday, and the soil was light and dry. The slop that we needed to embrace has dried, and winter now has just one remaining stronghold- the lake. It is still covered in thick, dark ice, but it won't be too long before it, too, has melted into spring.
I hold no animosity towards winter. I'm simply glad it's gone, and now that it is, I have forgotten it. One day under a spring sun has the ability to erase 120 days trapped under a winter sky.
Mar 31, 2014 by DC
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I think I can remember the days when pricing real estate was fun. Back then, I could wow and thrill potential customers with the promise of immediate and tangible real estate generated wealth. Back then, I could find my way to some neglected little house somewhere, and find an owner who had some idea that their home was worth a lot of money, and then tell them that their idea and my idea were a long ways off. Their idea would mean they could pocket a significant amount of money if they were to sell, whereas my idea would make that wealth 30% heavier. Numbers were subjective, and sellers could, many times, place a value on a property that had no basis in fact and often times they could achieve that. This is how bubbles behave, and the good news today is that we should be able to remember these things and apply them to real estate scenarios for the remainder of our days.
Pricing real estate now is not quite as much fun. If you bought a home in 2010, and you bought the right property at the right price, you are now entitled to some form of return. That return, as I see it today, should be around 10%. I think we've now added that back on for a majority of properties here, but before everyone gets super excited, consider that a 10% gain on real estate over a couple of years is what we used to consider rather normal. While pricing trends and formulas vary from town to town, association to association, and indeed house to house, there are several things we need to remember when pricing real estate for the 2014 season.
I find it interesting that agents have a difficult time agreeing on pricing. If I disagree with an agent on price, you will not find it interesting that I always think my opinion of price is right. Today, I find myself disagreeing with pricing more and more, as prices seem to be made up out of some formula that starts with "Dear seller"
, and ends with "how much money would you like for this home? xoxoxoxoxoxo (smiley face emoticon/ heart emoticon)"
There's some serious price pandering underway at Lake Geneva, and I don't like it one bit. That's why we need to remember our formulas, and consider them again as a rock solid path that will invariably lead us to a correct price range.
The first indicator for current value is to consider peak value. If you bought a home in 2006, 2007, or 2008, and you paid a lofty market price at the time, we can apply a consensus discount that that price to give us some direction on current value. I have been a part of many documented cases where an owner who bought in 2007 has lost 40% of his value from that time to this current time. The idea that we're off 40% from peak values is somewhat understood now, but there are times when current value is only 25% off peak value. Some lakefronts are off 40%, some lakefront condominiums are off just 20%, and some condos in Geneva National are off at least 50%. A fine average for these is 30% off peak. Examples?
An average two bedroom condo at Bay Colony sold for around $600k at the peak. I sold a unit there last fall for $450k, give or take, representing a 25% discount from peak value. I sold a lakefront on Oak Birch this January for $1.81MM. The seller of that home had purchased it in 2008 for $2.85MM, showing a 36% loss from peak to 2014. There are occasions where sellers have lost less, and others have lost more, but again, we're hunting for direction here so that we can get on the same page as current value, not the exact paragraph and line.
Another way to find value direction is to line up current market conditions with those from a prior year. 2014 prices should, in fact, look quite similar to 2004 prices. For a while, we were at 2003 price levels, but I'm bumping us up to 2004 prices, as I see that gain of around 10% from our recent lows for the broad vacation home market. If you bought a house here in 2004, there's a strong chance that current value is similar to what you paid then. Again, this is not always the case, but we're trying to establish a price range that some how reflects current reality, and the best way to do that is to look to our past.
If these last few models will get our prices close to accurate, the last factor is current market conditions. If you currently own a lakefront house valued in the $2MM to $2.5MM price range, there's a great chance that this low inventory, high buyer environment will let you cheat your price to the top end of that range. If inventory swells this year, and buyers fail to keep up, then your number will skew downward within that range. Market conditions can swing value 10% or more, depending on the exact sentiment and inventory available when you list. This is the subjective part of the process, and this is the part that requires input from an active, aware, and intelligent agent. Note the adjectives.
Today, I see some new prices that have no basis on current realities. If a price today is a price that is higher than the peak value, and it's higher by a large percentage, you can bet that property does not represent value. It seems absurd to think prices today could represent significant appreciation over prior peak values, but it's happening around the lake. There are properties coming to market at prices that would have looked out of place on the sunniest August of 2007 afternoon. Buyers and sellers alike are hearing the repetitive refrain that this market is on fire, and like any tune, it can be quite catchy if played again and again. Until we start seeing printed prices that reflect some form of new reality, let's assume the broad market is still off around 20% from the peak. We're going to assume that because we're the smart ones, remember?
Mar 28, 2014 by DC
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By now it should be obvious to you; I do not live here and play here because I so deeply love downtown Lake Geneva. In fact, I have taken to avoiding downtown in the summer months, at nearly all costs. I'll come into town for breakfast and feel fine about it. I can get in and get out before the clogging of a summer afternoon commences. I don't mind downtown in winter, though winter weekends are similar to summer weekends if we're counting cars and swerving to narrowly miss jaywalking tourists. Indeed, I am not a downtown person be that downtown Chicago or downtown Lake Geneva. The lake and the country suit me better than the shops and walks of a city, no matter the size.
But this is me, and I am not you. I like things the way I like them, and you like these things the way you like them. While I would rather be floating on a boat in the middle of the triangle that adjoins Conference, Cedar, and Black Points, I understand that many would rather have a shopping bag in one hand and a coffee cup in another, walking from store to store, taking in the sights and sounds and sales. This thriving downtown of Lake Geneva is what separates us even further from our competition, though competition is a word too friendly, in the same sense that Baylor was Wisconsin's competition
last night. If you were to walk the town near that vacation home you own in North Somewhere, Wisconsin, you'd find little to do, unless you love buying cherried this and cherried that.
Similarly, if you were to walk a town in East Nowhere, Michigan, you'd find little to do, or buy, unless you've fallen victim to age old advertising that touts someplace as having the world's best burger, or another place that has the world's best ice cream. Like anyone can even know that. These two sample towns, and the shopping that they may or may not offer, generally close in the months that are not summer, which, in case you haven't been paying attention, is the vast, overwhelming majority of our calendar year. This is why downtown Lake Geneva matters, not because of all the variety that it offers, but mostly because that variety is not found in other resort towns, not in this Midwest, anyway.
I drove through town this morning, aware that you were likely not doing the same, and so there's an update for you today on the continual changes that occur without pause here. There has been much consolidation over recent years, as the successful business owners slowly push out the unsuccessful ones. This is survival of the fittest, and this is why people open failed restaurants and then get pushed from town in order to allow the successful to take their place. Clearwater Salon has been an institution in Williams Bay for many years. It has been a shining spot in an otherwise dismal Williams Bay commercial scene. Clearwater is now working to open a Lake Geneva store, in a space that will now have had three tenants in as many years. Clearwater is successful, in demand, and thriving. Their Lake Geneva location will continue that tradition.
Some years ago, EStreet Denim, of Highland Park and Winnetka fame, opened a clothing store here on our Main Street. The store is nice, and good people help cool people buy expensive jeans. It's a good store, and I challenge you to walk downtown Lake Geneva on any weekend of the year and not spot someone walking about with an Estreet shopping bag. It cannot be done. The folks at Estreet opened a furniture/decor store on the West side of downtown a few years back, and their Brick and Mortar Home has obviously been a success. They opened another store on Main Street last year, some store with a Bird name, and while I haven't been there, it looks nice from the outside and any strong ownership is ownership that provides stability for downtown, and stability breeds success.
Geneva Interiors was a long-lived furniture store downtown, in a large space opposite Starbucks. It went out of business several years ago, and something called I Love Funky's took its place. I never went inside that store, mostly because they painted the exterior black and purple, which is not to be confused with sky black and blue. I'm not a huge fan of purple buildings, and so you can imagine my delight when this store went out of business recently. There's a new store coming to that giant building, and the exterior renovation has already begun. It's going to be very pretty on the outside, and I'm betting it'll be the same on the inside. It's a furniture store, and it's owned by the folks that operate Brick and Mortar Home, which are the same people that operate Estreet, which, in turn, are the same people that operate the store with the Bird name that I cannot recall.
The Board Shop is in the old McCullough's building on the corner of Broad and SomeOtherStreet, just north of Main. It's a cool store, and instead of visiting Boulder, you could just stop in to see the gnarly stuff at this epic shop. It's boards of all sorts, skis and snowboards in the winter, and all sorts of skis and boards for water use in the summer. It's a neat store, but until now the exterior has been painfully ugly. There appears to be an exterior renovation underway, which is fantastic. Add the supreme stylings of Haberdapper in the same neighborhood, and you have the makings of a very pronounced shopping scene that has always struggled to spread North of Main.
We're all here, or thinking of coming here (do it) because of this deep, clean water, and the spectacular things that we can do on and in it. However, without this vibrant downtown, many would not find this area quite so captivating. Even if I don't need the shops, I know the market does. We should be excited for a new season of new shops, and thankfully, the new shops appear to be owned by the strong and purposed sort of business owners that we already know and love. Also, East Nowhere, Michigan is still closed until further notice.
Mar 26, 2014 by DC
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It was probably January of 2010 when I first hatched this idea. This blog had been doing fine, and some out there found it to be a valuable and quasi-entertaining way to follow the Lake Geneva market, and moreover the Lake Geneva scene. With the blog traffic increasing at a remarkable rate, I thought it might be a good idea to print a magazine of some sort. It wouldn't be like the other real estate magazines that are heavy on small print and small photos and light on anything entertaining, instead it would be the opposite; heavy on entertainment and light on the details. I would call it Summer Homes For City People, a take off of the original sales brochure from the late 1800s that sought to lure wealthy Chicagoans to these developing shores. It would be the anti-real estate magazine, and when I first told my dad about it he thought it was a bad idea. As with most things, if he disagrees then I know I'm on the right heading, and so in a few months later I printed a magazine that was really more like a pamphlet. It was early June of 2010.
Fast forward to March 26, 2014, and that magazine has grown and prospered. By "prospered" I mean it loses me several thousand dollars each time I print it, so it's more of a moral victory than a monetary one. Over these last years I've had a magazine designer whom I appreciated and enjoyed working with, but this year I've upped the game and switched to a professional designer. The result will be a new magazine, a better magazine, a more memorable magazine. It'll be printing in mid-May, and this is effectively a last call for vacation home owners who may become sellers in the next 60 days to enroll their property in the coming issue. The power of a full page spread for a lakefront home is somewhat overwhelming, and there is simply no better way to get your property in front of many tens of thousands of eyeballs than by listing with me and letting me lavish praise upon your lakefront home.
That's the new cover up there, an original Neal Aspinall piece, clean and pretty, like this lake. That's your sneak peak of the cover, and here's a sneak peak at the regurgitated content that fills the interior pages, or at least the ones that don't feature your home, or the ones that don't feature incredible lake photographs from all-star local photographers. There will be between 15-18 "stories" like this, and they should work in concert with the house photos and the lake photos and that marvelous cover to reinforce our feelings about this lake that we are so lucky to live and play on. If you're a seller, you know what to do. If you might be a seller, your job is the same. If you're a lakefront owner, and you think your neighbor might be interested in selling, you also know what to do.
The Smell Of Our Success
If you can smell your lake, you better find another one
I remember the first time I smelled an ocean. It was the Atlantic, off of Daytona Beach, and my family had just driven from Disney World in a rented, white Lincoln Towncar. My brotherís fingers had not yet been smashed between the window and the door frame, as my family struggled with the dangerous convenience of power windows. The sea was rough, filled with kelp, mostly gross. I went swimming, but I didn't like the beach, I didn't like the water--not the way it tasted nor the way it looked nor the way it smelled-- and I certainly didn't leave the beach that day thinking that the Atlantic ocean was something I should get to know. The year was 1985.
It wasn't until 1997 that I went back, this time not to the Atlantic side but to the Gulf, and I found the tamer water much more interesting. Kelp didn't wrap around my legs when I swam, and I didn't get the sense of danger that I was overwhelmed by 12 years prior. I liked the Gulf side, and so I went back, again and again, from that day until this day. One year, I was greeted by a noxious onslaught of Red Tide. Most other years it was just the sweet smell of the salty backwaters that met me, that somewhat stinky, somewhat spoiled smell that emits from exposed muddy bottomed flats, a smell made by dead organisms of all sorts slowly decaying back into the salty, silty bottom. While some find that smell off-putting, to me that smell is a welcome sign that I have left behind, if momentarily, a cold climate and traded for a warmer one.
Lots of lakes smell. They do. Don't get all bent out of shape about it, Other Lakes, the truth of this matter is- you smell. It isn't the sweet smell of the rotting backwaters of western Florida, it's just the smell of dead fish intermixed with slippery seaweed, an empty bag of Funyons and some crayfish claws. I used to live near enough to one of these other lakes. When I lived there, at times I'd go for a walk. Some of those walks led me just down a nice road and around some fields and woods, and back again. Other walks, I'd venture down a nearby road and walk along the corner of this lake for a spell. This was a horrible thing for me to do, because that lake, at least in that corner, smelled like all this dead and evil. It smelled like nothing should ever smell, even if I would tolerate the smell every now and again and throw a five weight line to some eager panfish.
I fish plenty of rivers. Most of these rivers are more like streams, and these small streams do not smell like much. Even if they did, it's impossible to smell what the water smells like when surrounded by a field where cows graze, on account of the cow pies that they leave to bake in the sun. Other rivers I fish, those of the Root, the Pike, and the Milwaukee; those rivers smell, all right. They don't smell sweet like the gulf waters, nor do they smell like dead things of all varieties like the water in that corner of that old lake, nor do they smell of manure like the streams. They smell like a toxic mix of sewer run off, garbage, and sadness. These are rivers that have been forced to flow through urban areas, though these rivers so badly wish they could flow somewhere else. They flow, from West to East, and as they flow through cities they pick up all the things that are bad and then deliver it downstream into Lake Michigan. I'd give quite a bit of money to have a chance to know what Steelhead fishing on the Root River was like back in 1850. I'd need to bring with some penicillin, a rifle, and my cell phone, but I'd still like to go.
What exactly is water supposed to smell like? Every lake, every river, and every ocean answers that question differently. Ask that question to Geneva and Geneva will answer as though on Jeopardy, with another question: Who says a lake is supposed to smell like anything? And that, Alex, is the right answer. There are moments when areas of Geneva will smell as any other lake. There are. Certain corners that give way to oncoming winds are apt to smell like whatever algae bloom has just occurred, but the general smell around the lake on any given day is exactly nothing. There might be a dead fish here and there, and if you're downwind of said dead fish then you're going to smell that fish, but that's the case anywhere. What we're after here is the true smell of the lake, of any lake, and my olfactory sense tells me that Geneva smells as pure and clean as anything ever could, which is to say that it smells like nothing.
Mar 24, 2014 by DC
There are many, many things you can do to sell your home. You can put a sign in the yard, because that often works. Or you can hold an open house, one where you make cookies and lemonade, even though I don't think lemonade goes well with most sorts of cookies. It would be more appropriate to offer cookies and milk, but who offers milk at open houses? You could do that, and you could put an ad in the local paper and another one online, and you can wait. Ideally, someone will come to buy your house soon, because that's always nice. Chances are, if your house is unique or overpriced or otherwise difficult, it'll sit. And sit. And then once you think it's finally ready to sell, it'll sit some more.
The best way to sell a home that has been sitting is to hope and pray that your wealthy neighbor buys it. He doesn't have a tennis court, and he should have one, but your home is in the way, and so, without ceremony, he buys your house and demolishes it to make space for the court and the net and the fence. That's what happened this winter at Alta Vista, and one family paid $3.6MM for their neighbors lot, which, for a while after closing, still had a house on it. The $3.6MM price won't be reflected in any MLS searches, but it is the recorded price for a home that was listed originally in 3009 for $5.9MM. It was never worth that, mind you, but when the listing expired last fall the price had fallen to $3.95MM. The $3.6MM price paid by the neighbor (more accurately, by the entity that these properties are held under) was a fine price, but with 101 feet of frontage and a shared driveway, the property was obviously worth the most to this neighbor, and that's why he bought it.
This move brings to light a test that is forthcoming for our market. Geneva Lake is famous not for our bread and butter lakefront homes, those priced from $1.5MM to $3.5MM, but instead for our estates. A boat tour will rarely point out the house that Tom and Sally Jones bought for $1.8MM last year, instead it'll point out the true palaces of our lake, those large estates owned by household names. Spectators will see those lavish estates, and their eyes will be drawn to the new versions of those turn of the century showcases. These are the new mansions, the large, shiny ones. These are the homes that have been built over the past decade, the magnificent displays of lakeside confidence.
For all the wealth surrounding Geneva, and all the deserved acclaim that this venerable body of water has elicited, these upper bracket homes are not as easy to sell as you might think. On any given year, we may sell one home priced in excess of $5MM. Some years, there will be two or even three sales, other years not a single transaction will print in this thinner air. This year, our market will be tested as we search for not one of these large buyers, but several of them. There is inventory coming, and in fact, some of it has already arrived. A new lakefront, built just last year, has come to market for $6.25MM. It's a beautiful home, on a mostly deserving lot, and it is now in pursuit of a buyer that has proven elusive.
There is more inventory coming, too, as I'll be bringing new large estates to market over the coming weeks. One estate is about as perfect as any estate ever was, ideally engineered for a vacationing family to indulge. The home is large, spanning 12,000 square feet, the land wide and deep, amassing two and a half acres, the frontage level and ample, at 165'. There is a guest house, a tennis court, garage parking for 8 cars, and a brand new three-slip pier ready for whatever water chariots the new owner wishes to pilot. This is an estate in turn key condition, a newer build, and it'll be hitting the market in May in the high sevens. It's a rare estate, to be sure, and if there's a buyer out there in search of a showpiece, this is the home he, or she, will buy.
Another one coming is heavy on land, bringing nearly 5.5 acres and 230' of frontage to the table. It's a rare estate with all of the estate components that one would expect in the high fives. There's a swimming pool, a tennis court, a guest house, a storage barn, and a driveway that winds and spins through acres of woods. It's a value play for a land baron, and it should sell somewhat easily when it comes to market in a week or more. Both this property and the one mentioned above are unique, treasured, and obviously valued in close proximity to their respective asking prices, but will they be easy to sell? I suppose that depends. On a lot.
The lack of steady upper bracket (defined as $5MM+ in this context) sales is a chicken an egg sort of dilemma. Do these homes not sell routinely because there are few buyers, or do they not sell routinely because they are not readily available on our open market? We do not need masses of lakefront buyers for these sorts of homes, and we do not need billionaires, even though this lake has at least five such owners positioned along its shores. All we need are buyers capable of swinging large properties, and there are so many buyers of this make and model that to sell two or three of these $5MM+ homes during this calendar year should not come as a surprise. I think it's a given that we'll end 2014 with at least two sales in excess of $5MM, and likely there will be three. Why? Because we have inventory that should excite, and quality inventory here tends to be more rare than quality buyers.