A Wednesday reminder that my listing at W4396 Basswood Drive is still available. I just reduced the price of this home to $8,495,000, and it’s now offered at an extreme discount to replacement value. Consider the pending sale of a home in Lake Geneva listed at $14,500,000. Now consider buying this home, renovating it, and being all in for far less than the sale price of that nine year old home. It doesn’t take a genius to make the right moves in this market, it just takes a bit of effort. Contact me for a private tour of this most lovely estate.
It might seem strange to even mention the term Price Reduction during this remarkable summer run. With sales popping and records breaking and everyone in the Midwest clamoring for a vacation home in Lake Geneva, why would we even bring up such a thing as a price reduction? It’s a wet blanket, really. It’ll throw off our momentum, ruin the buzz from this Kool-Aid fest. The agents who vie for your attention don’t want you to think about price reductions, they want you to think about how you can buy that home NOW! Need help figuring out how to win a bid on a Lake Geneva area home? You’re in luck, some agents are holding seminars to teach you (YES YOU) how to win the bid.
But this is all ridiculous, really. The truth of our market is that it’s hot, yes. All price segments are hot. All categories and sub-categories. Except vacant land in Geneva National, of course. A lot just sold there last week for $4000. That’s the price I paid for a 1986 Saab 900 with a questionably service history and 130,000 miles, which, in Saab miles, is at least 1,000,000. Every other market is hot, every home in demand. So why talk about Price Reductions? Well, silly, because ’tis the season.
See, smart sellers know that while our market is active for each of our 12 months, there will be a dip in overall activity once school starts. Knowing this, sellers with relatively aged listings are faced with a decision. Reduce now or reduce later? If they’re smart, they’ll reduce now, while there are a few extra buyers in the market. Something I’ve heard often this summer is a buyer’s plan to wait until the off-season to buy. Prices will be lower then. This is the position of the uninformed, as Lake Geneva doesn’t cycle based on seasonality it lives and dies on inventory. If inventory presents in August and it’s right for you, then buy it. If it presents in January and it’s right for you, then buy it. Don’t base decisions on the color of our leaves.
Still, sellers recognize the market will ebb and flow, and if a reduction is in the cards, now’s the time to make that move. Recently, I’ve been applying this to some of my listings, because I’m smart, and my sellers are smart, too. I dropped the price of my W4396 Basswood listing $500k to $8.495MM. That home, by the way, offers value far and away better than the pending listing in Lake Geneva priced at $14.5MM. Far. And. Away. Like with Tom Cruise, but different. I just reduced my incredible Bay Colony offering to $879k, even after we came close with several different interested buyers over the past few weeks. Why reduce in the face of activity? Because activity only counts when the result is sold.
Around the lake, there have been reductions. A new home on the north side of Fontana dropped its price not so long ago, as did a newer home on the south side of Fontana. I dropped my Clear Sky Lodge listing $120k. A home in Cedar Point Park that came to market earlier this year has been reduced several hundred thousand dollars, as that seller searches for a buyer. Off water, a home in Academy Estates has endured a series of micro-reductions this year, and a listing in Shore Haven just dropped in price last week. For all of the buyers claiming this is purely a seller’s market, have you considered any of these properties that are bleeding from self-inflicted chops?
It’s August, and it’s still summer. In fact, this past weekend was one of the more active, glorious weekends of the entire year. In spite of this, sellers are making moves, and if they’re serious about selling this year they’re going to be adjusting their prices a bit. Consider the market this month, consider the aged inventory, and be on the look out for price reductions. And as always, let me know if I can help.
Above, my Bay Colony Condo, just reduced to $879k.
Woodstone, prior to last week, was a nice subdivision in Linn Township with mostly architecturally pleasing homes and a delightful little wildflower corridor. Prior to last week, the development was in decent shape, though it’s taken more than a decade to fill in the few existing homes that you see. Prior to last week, the top sale in the association was around $670k. Then, last week, things changed.
I listed a home in Woodstone in June, and then I sold it last week. The price was $900,000, including an adjacent vacant lot that wasn’t included in my initial list price of $845k. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume that lot was thrown in for consideration of $60k or so, leaving the home sale at $840k. This was fine for my seller, fine for the buyer, and fine for me. Who won here? The market at Woodstone.
With construction prices ratcheting higher and higher, neighborhoods are having a hard time justifying the new built values. If you buy a lot for $50k in a neighborhood that traditionally sells for $325k, that’s fine. But if the new build costs you $400k, then you’re a fish out of water. Neighborhoods need new comps to prove that the increased building costs still allow a buyer margin. That’s exactly what Woodstone just did, and it did it in a big way.
Now consider the new math of Woodstone. Buy a lot for $80k or so. Build a 2500 square foot house for $500k or so. Be all in sub-$600k. Prior to last week, that still made sense. There was a tiny margin. But now? There’s proof that the market has some room to run, and if you build the right house and add a swimming pool, you, too might be able to sell north of $800k.
Speaking of swimming pools, the market loves them now. Craves them. Can’t live without them. If you’re building a new house on the lake or in the country and the market supports the extra investment, add a pool. You’ll thank me when it comes time to sell. Unless you don’t sell until such a time when the culture hates pools, then you can blame me.
Congratulations to the seller who was kind enough to let me represent their lovely property. And congratulations to everyone who lives in Woodstone, or who might one day live in Woodstone. The market just got a whole lot better. Address Thank You Cards to me, at my office address.
It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that we’re in the middle of another Lake Geneva summer. August is the peak of summer, sure, but it’s not exactly the middle. You could argue that it’s the end. School starts soon. The sun sets earlier and earlier each night. We’re no longer building toward summer, we’re doing our best to hang on to a summer that’s rapidly fading. In spite of our dwindling summer, the real estate market at the lake has given us something to talk about.
June and July were fantastic months for our lakefront and lake access markets. That late June through early July heat and the supporting sun pushed this market into hyperdrive, with contracts piling up like so many rock bass in my Uncle Joe’s five gallon pail. June and July saw five lakefront closings, and ten more lake access sales. The lakefronts that closed included a few bits of aged inventory as well as some new to market listings.
At the top end, the old Born Free Estate closed for $5.35MM. The new owner then promptly sold off a 100′ lot on the East side for $2.75MM. I’d expect to see a significant renovation of the existing home in the near future. Another high priced sale occurred on Basswood, that of the Woodhill Estate, which printed at $3.9MM. That’s a reasonable price for that property. The market had a hard time figuring out if that home was a tear down, but the rumor is the new owner plans to renovate the existing structure.
On the lower end of the lakefront, a home in the Elgin Club closed for $1.245MM, likely a tear down or significant remodel candidate. In Williams Bay, another home closed on Walworth Avenue where those thin 50′ lots rule the day. That street featured two sales this year, both in the $1.2MM range, both side by side. I sold those homes back in the very early 2000s. This time around, both homes have sold to the same owner, leaving speculation that both homes might be torn down to make way for one new home. While that buyer is not my client, I’d offer up this unsolicited advice: Don’t do that.
Pending contracts on the lakefront as of this morning include a listing for $2.4MM in the Geneva Manor, a piece of aged inventory in the South Shore Club ($2.795MM) and my listing in Buena Vista on Sylvan ($2.875MM). I’m guessing the Geneva Manor property will print at a meaningful discount to that lofty ask. With buyer activity at all time highs (far exceeding the activity during the 2005-2008 run), I’d expect to see many more contracts this month on the 17 active lakefront homes.
While these are nice sales and nice new activity, the property that’s on track to shock the market is the lakefront home at 590 S. Lakeshore Drive in Lake Geneva. This listing came to market earlier this summer for $14.5MM, with 210′ of frontage and above grade square footage of 9862 according to the assessor’s office. The property, as of yesterday, is pending sale. I’ll repeat, that property, listed at $14,500,000, is under contract.
I’m betting the property is going to close somewhat close to its asking price. That’ll make it the highest sale in Lake Geneva history, which will be the third time in the past 24 months that this benchmark has been raised. This magnificent upper bracket run started in the fall of 2016 with my $9,950,000 print of this fabulous Pebble Point home. The home at 590 has a current assessed value in the $5.75MM range, with a $117k tax bill. Assuming a print in range of the asking price, it won’t be a surprise to see the new owner receive a tax bill in the $250k range. So that’ll be something.
At first blush, this sale is terrific for our market. It further proves that this market has no rival in the Midwest. Other resort markets will gladly take your millions of dollars in exchange for a second rate vacation home experience. Geneva will take your millions and then, when you’re ready for another chapter, give you those millions back. Likely with interest. Clean water and beautiful homes might be the obvious allure of this area, but liquidity is our greatest asset here, and this sale proves it once again.
But this sale also showcases the premium that our market places on newer construction. This home was not new, but with a completion date of 2009, at least one buyer figured it was new enough. Older homes on the lake that have not had recent updates are punished here, as buyers prefer to either buy new, or build new. That preference opens up a value play for buyers looking to make their mark on these shores, if only they’d be willing to undertake a remodel of an outdated home.
The market is in the middle of a most epic run, but I still see value out there. It’s not found in spiffy fixtures and Wolf ranges. It’s found in the land, in those piers, under that ugly carpet and behind that stupid basement powder room. It’s not obvious to the uninitiated. That’s why I’m here. To help guide the discerning. Consider the text message that I received last Saturday night (I posted this on my Instagram genevalakefrontrealty, which you should be following):
Tonya and I just said… Thank God Dave Curry talked us out of buying all those other stupid homes. Love this place. Hope summer is going well for you and your family.
If you’re in the market, you’ll know it isn’t hard to find a Realtor to talk you into something. That’s what everyone does. The real value that an experienced agent brings to the transaction is not in his or her ability to walk you through a house. My 12 year old daughter could do that, and she’d be terrific at it. The value is in finding an agent who cares enough about your purchase to talk you out of a property. If you need some better advice, let’s talk.
Old people get a bad rap for eating early. Younger people flaunt their late eating habits as though they’ve made it into some exclusive club, the club that only eats late. Dinner reservations for me and my cool young friends at 8 pm, please. But throughout this year of fried fish dinners, I’ve found that old people don’t deserve this bad rap. There’s nothing wrong with eating early. In fact, I’ve been eating most of my fishy meals around 5 pm. Why? Because I don’t want to wait in line. The old people don’t want to wait either, that’s why they head out early. And that’s why I cozied up to a garden-view table at Crandall’s last Friday at 5 pm on the nose.
This review wasn’t easy for me. I’ve long known of Crandall’s, but I hadn’t yet been. As I defend and flaunt all things Wisconsin, Crandall’s is on the other side of that skinny border. It might be two short miles from Wisconsin, but it’s technically in Hebron, Illinois. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and we’ll begrudgingly allow our Illinoisan brethren to adopt our culture. I went there Friday night to determine whether or not they’re doing a proper job representing the Friday Fish Fry, which is, unequivocally, our thing.
I should note that my dinner at Crandall’s was covered by a gracious client of mine who had told me often of this regionally famous institution. I was grateful for his invitation, and grateful for his wise guidance that led us to a four top table with a view of the pleasant gardens that Crandall’s has cultivated. Something to be sure of, Crandall’s is not a Fish Fry Joint. It’s a Chicken Joint. The website isn’t CRANDALLSFISH.COM. It’s CRANDALLSCHICKEN.COM. Even though the lake set knows Crandall’s predominately for its place in our fish fry realm, it’s a chicken shop first and a fish shop second.
Still, the waitress was table side and told us of the special. Fried Icelandic Cod is all you can eat. Broiled cod is single serve. If your obesity is uncontrolled, you can order the combo platter which is chicken and fish. And if you’re me, you order the combo platter AND a side of the broiled cod, just to be sure. The orders were placed and the waitress promptly brought out a basket of fresh, warm bread and cinnamon rolls. The butter was forced into a tablespoon rectangle and held captive by foil, but it was softened, so things weren’t all bad. The dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls were both light and airy, and both quickly disappeared from our table. Our waitress removed the empty basket and we felt deep shame over our gluttony.
The fish was brought out soon enough, as the restaurant slowly filled with Friday diners of all makes and models. Some old farmers from down the road, some families from town. I recognized several diners from the Lake Geneva scene. Everyone was happy. A heaping plate of chicken and cod and potato pancakes was placed before me, a towering tribute to fried flesh. My large piece of broiled was on its own plate, served with some lemon slices. I ate first from the cuts of fried cod. They were flour dredged and fried, not battered. The fish was a slight touch dry, but the seasoning in the dredge was pronounced, which was a good thing. The theme of proper seasoning would run throughout the night.
The baked cod had a nice texture and was properly salted, but it, too, was just a touch dry. I realized I was judging this place more harshly than it might have deserved, but this place is royalty in the fish fry world and I felt I had to hold it to that standard. The potato pancakes were crisp and moist and well salted. Maybe a bit too salted, if there is such a thing. While I was there for the fish, I ate a piece of chicken and quickly realized why the website proclaims the chicken to be world famous. It was tender and nicely salted, the thin seasoned dredge impossibly crispy. The chicken was divine.
As quickly as it started, dinner was over. I was stuffed. The dinner was a success, and it wasn’t difficult to see why Crandall’s holds captive the attention of the thousands of patrons who frequent this roadside restaurant. While I’ve only been once, I had a distinct feeling that Crandall’s doesn’t waiver much from week to week, dinner to dinner. It has the air of consistency, much like Anthony’s, and that’s what keeps that till humming. The staff was pleasant and courteous, the space clean and inviting, the parking lot oversized and accommodating. Unlike other restaurants in this series, I don’t think you need me to tell you to go to Crandall’s. If you already know, you already go, and chances are you’ll be there next Friday just like you were the Friday before.
10441 Route 47, Hebron, IL 60034
At this point, we should have all learned a few things. If we were paying attention during the last market cycle, from slow rise to raging boom to crushing collapse, then we should have taken some things away from that decade long episode. In the same way, from that collapse to the nascent recovery to this now active and vibrant seller’s market, this should be teaching us something as well. I suppose in that there is a difference. Have we learned anything or have we just observed it all from afar?
What I’ve learned, mostly, is that housing markets do not rise and fall based on the math of it all. Sure, low interest rates and stable stock markets might kick off a resurgence of housing haste, but that isn’t what propels a market. What pushes a market from Tidy Recovery to Raging Bull is confidence. Confidence is what makes a family of 4 making $90k annually purchase a new vinyl box in a cornfield for $410k. This is the same thing that makes the same family drive to the car dealer and sign for a 0% loan on a $70k Tahoe. Interest rates and unemployment figures are sweet, but what pushes a market into hyperdrive is nothing more than individual consumer confidence.
Most of the things that happened during the last cycle are happening in this one as well. FHA loans are way up. Like sky-high, as a percentage of new loans. These are US Taxpayer backed mortgages that are given out with very little money down. When a market is appreciating, these mortgages are fine. But when the market stalls and reverses, these homeowners who were given those house keys with as little as 3.5% down will be the first ones to run for the hills. But if we continue our learning from the last cycle, then we shouldn’t panic sell our house unless circumstances (job loss, illness, etc), mandate it. If you bought a house in 2008, then 2012 was a difficult time to consider your negative equity. But if you’ve hung on into 2018 you’ve more than likely made a full and complete equity recovery. That, and you’ve had a place to live for the past decade.
But these are not market specific lessons. For those, let’s turn to the Lake Geneva condotel market. Condotel is a silly way of describing the sort of housing unit that is sold as a condominium, but operates like a hotel room. You buy the unit, you pay taxes and dues and extraordinary fees to the hotel, and they give you a percentage of the rental income generated. In theory, it’s a tidy idea. In practice, it can be either great, reasonably acceptable, or downright horrible.
The Lake Geneva market has a handful of these so-called condotels. Notably at the Grand Geneva (Timber Ridge), The Cove, The Bella Vista, The Abbey Resort, and a few others. Understanding the context that our broad market is hotter than a pistol, let’s consider the current market for these sorts of properties. I won’t delve into each development, but I’ll sample a few to give you an idea as to how I feel about them as an “investment”. Crud, those quotes likely gave me away already.
Timber Ridge is at the Grand Geneva. It’s a waterpark. It’s nice enough. There used to be a rib joint inside the waterpark hotel, but I haven’t been there since my kids were last invited to a birthday party there. Today there are nine units available at Timber Ridge priced from $99k to $189k. None are pending sale. Normally someone dissecting a condotel market would look at the net income and compare that with the purchase price. Not me. I don’t care if the units print 3% or 5% or 7% annual return on the most recent run of numbers. That’s because that’s not the issue with these sorts of units.
I care about the value of the real estate. Let’s look at the $99k unit. First sold by the developer in 2001 for $160,400. Nice. Then sold once or twice. Then sold in 2003 for $206k to the current owners. After 15 years, their investment has declined more than 50%. Another unit listed at $102k sold previously for $181k. Another unit listed at $189k previously sold for $305k. And the beat goes on. Rather than view these units as an opportunity that the market has beaten up, I prefer to view them as a painful lesson of what happens when consumer sentiment shifts. Take away the free steak dinner and boat cruise; would anyone ever buy a timeshare again?
Let’s check on the Cove in downtown Lake Geneva, the place with that absurd blue roof. A little unit for sale for $109k. Prior sale? A 2008 print at $170k. Here’s another unit listed at $134,900. Initial sale by the developer in 1996: $135,400. 22 years, negative equity. Let’s move to Fontana, and check on what is likely the best of this bunch, the Abbey Hotel. Here’s a unit listed at $150k. Prior sales price? 12 years ago for $254k.
It’s not that I enjoy beating up on a particular market segment, it’s just that I don’t know as though I’d be a buyer of something like this. Yes, they might turn a small profit on an annual basis. But what of the initial investment? What about that crushing loss? These properties are relatively illiquid, intensely sensitive to overall market conditions, and reliant on a consumer that just might have learned their lesson.
If you’re a buyer searching for an economical condo that you can rent out to generate some income, I’d opt for the lower priced condominium units in non condotel properties. I’d look at lower priced listings in Geneva National, Abbey Springs, and the Abbey Villas. I’d consider those options 99 times before I’d consider anything else. If you’re in the market for this sort of thing, email me and I’ll set you up with my assistant Vicki who can help guide you through this particular market segment.
Most of the players in this game are endless and unflappable cheerleaders. I did this! They say. I’m amazing! Others chime. Such is the business of self promotion. Without this promotion, no one would know anything about any of these players. Aside from a news article once in a while, no one will spend much time considering your success. In the real business world, this is fine. To quietly go about mining dollars is the preferred way, but alas, the rules of this game do not allow quiet success.
I engage in this self congratulation often. I write this blog to educate and entertain, but also to make sure the reader knows which player in this game is indeed the most meaningful. Heck, I write a whole magazine dedicated to this market, and as a fortunate aside, this player. Some pose with their real estate signs as though they’re prom dates, others plaster their names on their cars, while others still want to watch you while you grocery shop. No matter the platform, we’re just playing by the rules.
But sometimes, there’s no praise to be given, no praise to be asked for. There’s just a sale and a seller and a buyer, and that’s that. This is what happened last week when I finally closed on my aged listing off of South Lakeshore Drive. I first listed this home two years ago, and throughout that time I asked for listing extensions and price reductions more than I’d like to admit. I worked to sell this house, and ultimately I did sell this house, but I did a miserable job at it.
The market is, by all accounts, back to the prior market peak. In many instances, prices have pushed above that peak. Now consider this house that I just sold. It previously sold during the prior market escalation for $1.5MM and change. I just closed on it last week for $925k. That’s a terrible thing, and while I feel relieved that the property is no longer on the market, I know I was rather unsuccessful in selling this home.
The issue with the home was a complicated one. It wasn’t one issue at all, really. It was the perfect storm of trouble. First, a high prior print to chase. Second, an initial and subsequent list price (with another broker, by the way) that was sky high. After that initial list, the market was lost and the owner spent the next several years chasing buyers in the only way that actually makes a material difference: price reductions. By the time I took over the market had written the property off, and while I thought I might be able to put some shine on the listing I ultimately failed at doing so. The price of $925k was a reasonable market price, but in this case, the buyer won.
I closed on another property last week, also somewhat of an aged piece of inventory. This was my vacant land listing in Loramoor. The lot was quite lovely, just one home from the water with slight views and proper lake rights through the East Loramoor Association. That lot was on the market for a year or two before closing last week for $625k. In this market, that sale makes perfect sense. It was a nice market rate, with seller and buyer both doing well for themselves. Why would a buyer buy a home in a cottage neighborhood only to significantly renovate or rebuild it, when they could buy this lot in a high end neighborhood and be surrounded by high priced homes? Expect a new home to be built there soon, one that will likely make proper market sense.
These sales prove one important thing about the state of our market. As the lakefront inventory dries up (the lowest priced true lakefront home available today is my listing on Bluff for $2.145MM), buyers will look off water for reasonable values. If the cheapest lakefront is $2.1MM, it only makes sense that buyers in the low buck range will seek alternatives to sparse lakefront inventory. Expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future, as off-water homes in the $900-$1.7MM range find favor with inventory hungry buyers.
This fish fry thing has become a problem for me. It’s not even a problem that I was required to consider, which makes it even worse. It’s a problem I volunteered for. If no good deed goes unpunished, then consider this review series to be both my deed and my punishment. The problem isn’t that I’ve been eating lots of fish. I’ve enjoyed the fish. I’ve enjoyed discovering locations that are new to me. I’ve enjoyed all of it. And until last Friday, one of the places I most enjoyed was the Abbey Springs Yacht Club.
The first time around, I praised the club. Their bread was warm, their butter soft. Their potato pancakes creamy, their applesauce cold. Everything was above average, close to perfect. I told you this. I told other people this. When I’d receive emails where people wish for me to distill this search down to the champion, I’d willingly suggest that the Abbey Springs Yacht Club was the best available. With this in mind and lots of visiting family in town, I took control of the fish fry schedule and brought my party of 16 to the lakeside restaurant for what I presumed would be a lovely dinner.
We were seated at two adjacent tables, each with a pleasing view of the lake, at a few minutes past five. Yes, we went early. A long day in the sun necessitated this. Out waitress was soon table side, and she was as nervous as anyone has ever been, over anything at any time in history. She barely squeaked out the special, and had a difficult time with any basic questions that our table posed. I felt sorry for her, but I also felt that by the end of July any summer server should have figured out how to overcome their jitters.
Our drinks were brought out soon enough, but the wait for the fish was significant. Perhaps 35 minutes? Perhaps a few minutes more, maybe a few less. The restaurant was not even half full, due to our early reservation, so the kitchen couldn’t have been in the weeds just yet. When the food did arrive the plate looked mostly right, but there were things amiss.
The coleslaw was piled on the plate, not in a small dish or container as I’ve learned is standard. The reason you don’t set a pile of coleslaw on a plate is obvious. This isn’t a solid. This is a creamy item that bleeds and leaks all over the plate. My potato pancakes had coleslaw on them, so did my hushpuppies and my fish. This was an unacceptable condition. Speaking of hushpuppies, I had one on my plate, my wife had two. These are the inconsistencies that plague Lake Geneva area restaurants, and it’s a shame. They are not inconsistencies that require secret formulas to fix. They just require a touch of effort.
The baked fish was ok. It wasn’t great, but it was ok. The pieces were small, almost like the kitchen shredded them with a fork so that we could eat them with a spoon. The fried piece on my plate was large, and at first glance, looked nice and appropriately browned and crisped. But the truth was revealed by the edge of my fork, as the interior of the filet was the consistency of applesauce. The potato pancakes were redeemable, with a tender, creamy interior and nicely crisped exterior. I liked my pancakes very much, but the rest was a tremendous miss.
I felt the need to apologize to my group for leading them astray, for bringing them to this place with the mushy cod and the leaking coleslaw, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to sway those who might have been otherwise satisfied with their meal. But over the course of that evening and the next day I learned that no one particularly enjoyed their dinner. My dad said his french fries were the best he’d ever had, so that was nice. But the opinions were uniform: dinner was not very good.
This is why I’m going to kill this fish fry review series in the next couple of weeks. There are a few places left to consider, including Crandall’s (the stalwart) and Fitzgerald’s Genoa Junction. After those two options, I’ll crown a winner and we’ll be done with this thing. The biggest problem isn’t finding a nice place to eat fish on a Friday. It’s in finding a place that will serve good fish on a Friday in April, and back it up by serving good fish on a Friday in July. Sadly, Abbey Springs Yacht Club just failed this test.
I don’t really know exactly how Hamburger Helper works. I assume it’s just a powder mix, with some starch to bind and some salt to flavor. Maybe a dash of onion and garlic powder for good measure. I’m guessing you brown some meat, strain off most of the fat, and then stir in this powder. Give it a bit of time on some heat and it thickens and becomes Hamburger Helper. Maybe you add in macaroni or other noodles, I can’t be sure. But whatever you’d made you can eat it, and if you’re not a snob you can recognize that in spite of its name it tastes ok. It’ll satisfy your hunger, much in the way that a fine Porterhouse steak cooked on the dying embers of a wood fire will accomplish the same. Both are food, both come from a cow, and both will allow you to push away your pangs of hunger. In this, they are the same.
When I eat fish fry and tell the world about it, I get mixed reviews on my reviews. Some people like them. Good one, Dave. Other people shake their head because I just insulted their favorite restaurant. Others still tell me that fried fish isn’t good at all. That it’s not really food. Unless you’re grilling a fine piece of line caught Tuna or a fat sliver of a Swordfish steak that you’re not really eating fish at all. But that’s where they’re wrong, because I am eating fish, and it did taste fine, and my hunger was satiated. Would a nicely seasoned, seared piece of fresh Tuna be a finer option? Of course it would, but I was just looking to eat an easy dinner with $14.
This market of ours is causing buyers significant pain, as you know. It’s causing strife and anguish and terrible, terrible bouts of regret. Should you have listened to me and bought that lakefront home in 2013? Obviously. Increasingly, as buyers find little to pick over in this Lake Geneva market of ours, they’re turning to other ideas. To other lakes. Other places. Other states (shudder). Michigan is better they say. Michigan has antique stores! Michigan has more nuclear power plants and more beach syringes!, they plead. Do you know what Michstakegan also has? Inventory at lower prices. No one will admit this, but inventory and price drive decisions, and if water is water and a tree is a tree, then some water and a tree anywhere will do.
Maybe it’s not in Michigan, maybe it’s here. Another lake, perhaps. Farther away where the dollar stretches a bit. Beaver Lake, that’s a nice place. Look how clear the water is! Yes, it’s clear and you just might have two or three feet of it off the end of your brown wooden pier. Maybe Pine Lake, where the water is clear and the shoreline green, where you can sit on your dock (they don’t get piers there, these are ours) and watch nothing go by. If you’d like to sit in the woods by yourself, Pine Lake is fantastic. If you’re hungry and you want to go to dinner but you’re a recluse now and you’ve forgotten to renew your driver’s license you could shoot a deer and eat it. No one will notice.
There are other options. Lots of them. Anywhere you want to go, options. If your standard for a lake house involves just a house and a lake, this can be accomplished anywhere. Want to save some money? Go to Tennessee, there are loads of lakes there and wonderful, plucked banjos to provide the soundtrack of your float. Or drive to the Northwoods, like so many do. It’s nice up there. Just plan to leave by 5 pm so you can roll in around midnight. Rainy on Saturday, oh well! You can go take your picture next to a giant wooden fish.
As I stood on a pier last night with the last few bits of sun peaking out around the Observatory’s iconic dome, I breathed the scene in. Soft waves, a gentle breeze, a boat or two slowly plying past heading to their nighttime piers. In the shallows, a Huron plucked around the rocks looking for the minnows that couldn’t escape his beak. In the distance, a sailor sitting stationary, hoping for a few last gasps of wind to bring him back to the pier. There’s something about this place that the uninitiated cannot fully grasp. Something rare. A blend of action and solitude, of peace and motion. Something unique that other lakes simply cannot attain. You could leave this place in search of a lake that will more generously offer you inventory. They’ll give you nice homes for much less money. They’ll give you some water to swim in, no matter if your bathing suit will slowly turn green from the exposure. You could go to these places. But please don’t you ever mistake their Hamburger Helper for our Porterhouse.
On one hand, I should have probably visited France before I turned 40. Maybe it would have been more interesting if I had been 20 years old, backpacking and hitch-hiking my way through Europe, free as a bird without a care or concern or shred of responsibility. Or maybe that would have been a terrible idea, because who would want to sleep in a dirty hostel when Amex has a Fine Hotels Collection? Who knew about this when they were 20? Regardless of the benefit of better lodging, there’s one other desire I discovered on my recent trip that likely would have been lost on 20 year old me: The allure of outdoor dining.
While wandering our way through that foreign land I do believe we only ate three or four meals in-doors. This outdoor style had nothing to do with weather, as we ate outside as frequently in sunny Provence as we did in rainy Paris. On my first full day home, I met up with a client who is also a friend and we decided to eat breakfast at Simple. It was a lovely spring morning, warm and dry. The patio beckoned. But when I asked to be seated on the patio I was told that I couldn’t eat there. That it was closed. That the outdoor server wasn’t in yet. When I suggested that the indoor server could step a few feet out of the door and voila, become the outdoor server, I was met with resistance. We ate inside, much to our chagrin and much to the offense of my newly adopted habit.
Last Friday night it was a bit rainy, a bit cloudy, a bit windy. But Novak’s in Fontana was up for their turn on the Fish Fry Freighter, and so we pulled in and found a seat on their outdoor patio. Their patio has old metal chairs and tables, a lovely old iron fence, and ample umbrellas, so many that had it been raining we may not have even noticed. There is no remarkable view from this patio, no lake waves to watch, just a side of the fire station and a distant view of the gas station. Still, the landscaped boulevards in Fontana are in bloom and the grasses pushed and pressed with the wind, and the scene, in spite of any focal view, was rather delightful.
The fish fry at Novak’s is rather straight forward. It’s fried or broiled cod, served with a side of potato and all of the traditional accoutrements. The cod meal is served as three pieces. If you want two, you’re out of luck. Expecting four small pieces? Hit the door. It’s three and you’re going to like it. When we inquired of our waitress whether or not we could do half and half, we were told no. Perhaps that’s because they can’t properly split three pieces. Maybe they have no tolerance for half pieces of fish, and they interpreted our request literally, with no wiggle room. My wife ordered the baked and I ordered the fried, thereby working around their no substitution rule. We were bored and hungry so we ordered the cheese curds to pregame.
It should be noted that while the patio is quite nice, the interior space lacks any particular panache. It’s just a restaurant space. You won’t remember it. Our waitress was polite and prompt, perhaps owing to the fact that at a bit after 5 pm we were one of only two occupied tables. I’m guessing the restaurant filled up after we left. We drank our water and watched the boulevard grasses dance in the lake breeze.
The curds were out within several minutes. They were smallish, and pale in color. I like my curds bronzed, but these were pale, almost yellow. Never mind the color, they tasted right, even if there was more chew to the cheese than I prefer. The cod was out a few minutes later, a nice little platter of fish and potato. The baked cod was covered in what we thought looked like dill, though it didn’t carry a heavy dill favor. The baked was well seasoned, nicely salted, and overall quite good. The pieces, however, were small. I could have used a slightly larger fish.
My wife ordered fries with her dinner, and we both agreed the fries were memorable. They are basically the same french fry that Gordy’s serves, which are among the best in the area. If you don’t eat french fries because you’re super fit and can’t spare the handful of calories, I weep for you. My potato pancake was singular, and it was just decent. I found it to be too dry for my liking. It was close, but not close enough. Too much time on the griddle, or not enough mayo, sour cream, or whatever they use as a moistening agent.
The fried cod was properly crunchy, nicely salted, and nearly perfect. But there was something amiss. The batter was a bit soggy around the fish, so even though the exterior was crisped, the full bite featured some soggy batter. Still, the fried portion was larger than the baked, and at the end of the dinner my wife and I both agreed that while we’ve had better, we’ve had many that were worse. The tartar sauce was sweet and nicely seasoned, and while the applesauce won points for being served in a larger than typical plastic tub, it was too smooth for me.
I’d definitely add Novak’s to your Friday Fish Fry rotation. The patio might not transport you to Paris, but it’s better than sitting inside. At $14 per dinner it was in line with my pricing expectations, and the waitress was both polite and prompt, which is really all any of us can hope for. The fish was properly cooked, properly seasoned, and quite enjoyable. It wasn’t perfect, mind you, but attention was paid, and I appreciated their effort.
158 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana
$14 For Baked or Fried Cod
It’s another nice day here. The sky is calm and the birds are chirping. Some water from the sky would be nice, but that’s an opinion only shared by the farmers, me, and those birds. My Hydrangeas are nearly in bloom. I’m excited to see them again. I planted a few Hydrangeas at my office and they’ve already found the time to bloom and be eaten by the deer that stalk these mean Williams Bay streets under the cover of dark. Come to Nantucket, they say, we have all of the Hydrangeas! Look, some shingles and Hydrangeas and beaten up old shingles. I’ve been looking around here, and we’ve got all of those things. Big deal, Nantucket.
In spite of this delightful sky and these big, white blooms, I can’t help but look forward. It’ll be football season soon, someone just said. 55 days until College Football, written so boldly over a picture of a running back from some school diving into the end zone. I want to resist this. I want to think that football is a silly sport that I don’t even like, and fall is a time that I know will come at some point so why long for it now? Why, under these bright skies and with so much summer still in the tank, do I think about how lovely that first winter fire will be?
It’s July now. My son turned 15 last week. My dad will turn 74 next month. Or maybe it’s 73. Who could know? My uncle turned 60 recently, I think. My cousin got married in May and another cousin announced his engagement in June. I saw a license plate in town the other day, a recognizable plate that I’ve seen in this little town for the entirely of my life. I hadn’t seen the plate for a few years, so when I did notice it I focused on the driver to see if I recognized her. Sure enough, it was the lady who owned that plate when I was a kid, except she wasn’t the woman I remember. She was old and gray, weak in a way. If she’s that old now, so much so that she looked like maybe driving a car wasn’t the best idea, then what does that make me?
Half of the cars driving past my office this morning aren’t even cars. They’re trucks, big ones with trailers toting lawn mowers and weed whips and blowers and gas cans. It’s Wednesday and they’re mowing lawns. They mowed yesterday, too. Last weekend I showed a house in a neighborhood where I used to mow lawns. I looked at one house in particular and remember the owner coming out while I was mowing. He came out to yell. The lawn mower, he insisted, while leaving behind nice striped lines that I was rather proud of, was also pushing the grass down before it cut it. The grass was matted, sort of swept in the direction I was mowing but not entirely cut. As I drove past that house last weekend I stopped and stared at the exact spot that this old man violently raked his leg against the grain of that grass. He was pushing the grass up to show me what I wasn’t doing right. He was right. I had been doing a less than perfect job. But that old man is dead now and his lawn is being mowed by someone else.
My wife said that her days pass slowly. That summer lasts too long. That time doesn’t march nearly as militantly as those fancy-pants neighbors. But I beg to differ. This morning I was scrolling through the photos on my phone, and found myself looking at 2015. What a year that was. My children were little, still children. We had pictures from vacations to the beach, trips to the ski hills, and afternoons spent splashing under this bright Wisconsin sun. I looked much younger in those pictures than only three years should look. But I thought about the pictures from this year that I’ll be looking at in three more. How much younger I’ll look today. How much less gray. My son will have graduated high school by then and my daughter will be begging for her first car. Things will be different then, and then is right around the corner.
That’s why today I’m just going to be. I’m going to work and I’m going to play. I’m going to sand down the patio chairs that my wife decided to buy from the resale shop up the road a bit. I’ve been painting them green, like a Paris Patina, apparently. Later, I’ll swim or maybe I’ll fish. I might see the old lady with the license plate or talk to my dad about what it’s like to get old. I’ll drop my daughter off at sailing school, and I’ll bring my son with me to the gym and afterwards we’ll all stop at the lake for a swim. He benched 135 for the first time last week. There’s nothing I can do to stop this fast progression of time, but I can stop to enjoy the unimportant moments once in a while. The moment isn’t some far away vacation. Some dreamt of goal. Some day far into an uncertain future that we’re foolishly counting on. It’s just today, and it’s another sunny summer day and we should be swimming.
If you’ve noticed that I haven’t written as much about individual market segments of late, you’re perceptive. I haven’t. It isn’t that I haven’t had thoughts, or that the market isn’t doing things I’m noticing and feel like sharing with you, it’s just that the market isn’t really all that fun right now. To be a buyer with some level of contemplative thought isn’t fun. To be a seller who sees the market ripping and roaring excepting your individual house, that isn’t fun. And to be an agent who has to deal with all of this, well, that isn’t fun either. It’s summer and we’re supposed to be having fun. But I’m not, and if you’re a buyer then you’re not. And some sellers aren’t either. This is the summer of our discontent.
The issue is that the inventory is limited. This we know. We knew this last year and we knew it was going to be an issue this year. And it is. Showings on lakefront homes are at all-time-high levels, and it’s not uncommon this summer to see four or five different lakefront showings a week on a lakefront listing. Offers are plentiful, and just this past week there’s a new contract on an aged bit of South Shore Club inventory listed in the $2.8MM range, and a new contract on an entry level cottage in the Elgin Club in the $1.2MMs. The other pending lakefront is of the Woodhill property on Basswood listed at $4.5MM. That’s a home that the market perceived to be a tear down, but rumor has it the soon-to-be-owner has chosen to renovate it.
For all of this new activity, there has been just one lakefront closing in the past six weeks. That closing occurred last week when the old Born Free estate on the north shore of Geneva closed for $5.35MM. That property last sold in 2011 for $3.5MM. There were no significant changes made to the property between 2011 and 2018. That’s real appreciation. To further that story, the new owner of that parcel tried in vain to cut the piece into three lots. Thankfully, the township struck that concept down, and the new owner was only able to get 2 lakefront lots out of the 200′ parcel. When the piece sold last week, the new owner turned around and sold off the vacant 100′ of that lot to a new buyer for a rumored price in the high $2s.
There were six other lake access sales over the past six weeks, including the large stable home in Loramoor. That large property closed for $1.37MM. On a price per square foot measure, which our market doesn’t typically have interest in, that property sold for an unbelievable bargain. But in real life the price was about right for an off-water home (with slip) in need of some final finishing touches. As with any aged piece of inventory, it’s terrific to see that property no longer on market. I have several properties pending sale, including my modern off-water home on the south shore, a vacant lot in East Loramoor, and my Woodstone listing that I brought to market just a few weeks ago.
I’ve personally had several lakefront listing appointments in the past month, but all have ended with sellers either choosing to hang on to their homes, or other delays for unknown reasons. The last several weeks of hot and sunny have provided powerful momentum for buyers who were possibly ambivalent about their purchase before. It’s one thing to be hot and bothered at the lake. At least refreshment is close. It’s another thing entirely to be hot and bothered in the city or suburbs, and that’s brought buyers to the lake in tremendous numbers. Oh, and there’s a new listing on the lake for $14.5MM. It isn’t my listing, which is unfortunate and terrible. That will test the high end up here, which last printed an $11MM+ sale for 415′ of frontage and 19 acres on Snake Road.
If you’re a buyer in this market, I sympathize with your plight. Low inventory is making for a difficult process, but in spite of this there are still deals to be had. Some sellers are motivated, even while most of the others are not. Find aged inventory and pick at it. Needle it. Consider it. If you’re jumping around from agent to agent you need to stop doing this. Email me. Let me help you understand this market. Let me help you discover patience. The market won’t stay this tight forever. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
(No Fish Fry Review today. I went to the Lake Geneva Yacht Club on Friday night and the fish was overcooked and the potato pancakes blah. This reflects my recent disappointment during my return visit to the Abbey’s Waterfront.)
My large lakefront offering in Valley Park is still available, though it probably shouldn’t be. Compare this property to the newest lakefront listing on Geneva, priced at $14,500,000. That listing has 3.46 acres. Valley Park has 6.9 acres. That listing, for $14,500,000, has 210 feet of frontage. Valley Park has 211 feet. That listing has a City of Lake Geneva tax bill. Valley Park has a Linn Township tax bill. If you’re a buyer in the upper reaches of our market, you’d be well served to consider my listing in Valley Park. It’s large, it’s ideal, and it’s ready for the next owner. Best of all, with the $9.3MM I’m saving you, the new house you could build would be stunning, and you’d have several million dollars left over. Why buy someone else’s lake house when you can build your to own your exacting specifications for less?
I’ve purposefully avoided reviewing Daddy Maxwell’s. The reasoning for this avoidance was complicated, I suppose. Daddy Maxwell’s has been a staple in Williams Bay for as long as I can remember, and I hated the thought of delivering an honest review in the event that something went less than perfect. I love all things Williams Bay, and will defend all things Williams Bay, but I cannot effectively defend against my own honesty. My father and his father and my great uncle were regulars at Daddy’s for decades, and I always felt that I, too, might someday make it to that status (I haven’t yet). To make matters more curious, my son works there, dutifully washing dishes and bussing tables throughout the summer. When I sat down at my table last Friday night I was fearful of the fish to come.
We went early. 5 pm, on the dot, early. It felt early, but other patrons were already finishing their fish when we were seated in that front, circular dining room. There’s just two spaces here, one room with booths that open towards the diner’s bar, and the other room with tables on the East side, where we were. There was a large middle table in that space that soon filled with a happy family and one shrieking child. Fish doesn’t taste as good when your ears are under assault, but it was too late to back out now.
Daddy Maxwell’s isn’t open for dinner excepting for this Friday night fish fry. That shows keen awareness by the owner, and the menu reflects a willingness to modify what other restaurants often see as a very strict menu offering. This fish fry featured Haddock, Cod, Perch, Shrimp, and some other fish that’s served blackened with jerk seasoning. There are potato pancakes and the usual sides, each served in a small plastic tub. The menu, in case you haven’t ever been, has small bits of inside jokes and innuendo that I’m sure many people understand but I do not. The deep fried perch comes with three pieces and a question, “Maybe retired old men eat out too often”...
The waitress was polite but firm, and responded with little hesitation when I asked what she recommended. The battered cod was good, she said. The grilled lemon pepper haddock is another favorite. I obeyed her and ordered the Tavern Battered Cod Plate ($10.75 for four pieces) with the potato pancakes and a single extra piece of lemon pepper grilled haddock, just to check it out. My wife opted for the Sizzlin Fish Tacos, (marinated, chopped haddock)…“Que Bueno”. My daughter left the reservation completely and ordered a burger. We nursed our waters and tried to ignore the eardrum shattering screams coming from the neighboring table.
The fish was out in short order, and looked good enough. The dinner was served with two slices of untoasted rye, along side a tiny packet of to-go butter. I’ll avoid comment, because I’m certain my opinion on this is already known. The fried cod looked more like fish-sticks than the larger, chunk pieces of cod most of our market serves. The small chunk of grilled haddock looked nice, so I tried that first. It was extremely subtle on the lemon pepper flavor, but the fish was delicately cooked and flavorful. I enjoyed it very much. The cod was crunchy with a thick batter, and the fish inside was pretty good. It wasn’t my favorite batter or fish on this tour, but it was in line with the average.
The potato pancakes (two) were thin and looked more like actual pancakes than most of the potato pancakes I’ve had. But they were very nicely seasoned and cooked perfectly. The interior was moist and creamy, the exterior just a bit crisped. They were a nice break from my unfortunate run of disappointing potato pancakes. The applesauce is only served with the potato pancakes, so if you opt for fries don’t expect any applesauce. But I am not the sort that slathers applesauce on potato pancakes, which must be something that one learns either at a very young age or never at all, so I eat my applesauce separate. And this was delicious applesauce. Huge chunks of apple, nicely sweetened. A winner on the applesauce scene.
When the dust settled I was satisfied with my meal. I wasn’t amazed by it, or enthralled with it, but I left satisfied that I had just eaten a proper Wisconsin Fish Fry, and my Friday night was still young. I made the most of that early dinner by going home to mow my lawn before returning to the restaurant to wait for my son to finish washing the pots and pans from dinner service. I’m pleased to report that Daddy Maxwell’s didn’t let me down. I was told later that I should have ordered the butterflied perch, but such is life. Is Daddy Maxwell’s in my top five fish fish fry joints? No, it isn’t. But is it a nice, local joint to find a varied fish fry served with careful effort? Yes, it most definitely is.
Daddy Maxwell’s Fish Fry 6.5/10
150 Elkhorn Road, Williams Bay
Cod, Haddock, Shrimp, Perch, from $8.25 to $16.50
It’s summer of 2018 and you’re in Lake Geneva. You’ve done several things right to make it here. You’ve made strategic decisions that have led to this point. You’ve endured difficulties and celebrated successes. You’ve made it, even if you don’t know it. You can’t find yourself along these shores in search of anything and not understand that simply by being here you’ve proven your success. To arrive here, now, to be in this market as an owner or a buyer, there’s something that must be said: I’m proud of you.
If you’re here and you decide that you’re going to be a summer 2018 seller, then you do several things. You set up some listing appointments with the agents that you feel will increase your chances of selling in an efficient and lucrative manner. You interview the guy with the blog, the guy with the magazine (spoiler, those are both me), you interview the lady who your neighbor plays Bingo with, and you interview the guy who your husband’s friend golfs with. That agent is always golfing, but alas, you interview him anyway.
What happens next is the issue. Agents, sensing the market and sensing the competition, battle against each other to drive your price up. You listen. You don’t like the agent who keeps on insisting on using facts to back up his opinions (that’s me), and you don’t like the agent who golfs all of the time because he has two score cards in his pocket next to his soft-edged business card. You really like the bingo player, because she’s super enthusiastic and happy and she thinks your pricing ideas are right on. Name your price, she says. So bubbly and so positive. Never mind that she rarely sells houses, you list because there’s palpable enthusiasm here and her price is 20% over the one the reality based magazine guy gave you.
That’s what sellers do. But buyers? They’re even worse. At least the seller interviews prospective agents. Buyers tend to follow a different path. They drive up to the lake, drive around the lake, stop in at open houses and call the names on signs. Recently, Walworth County Realtors have sprung forward into the 1950s and decided that open houses are the key to success. Every weekend, open houses. Down this road! Open House! Agents press their pleated khakis and affix their gold name tags. They shuffle their stack of brochures next to the sign in sheet. That sign in sheet is often what will do you in.
See, buyers don’t seem to know it, but the real estate business is built around the concept of procuring cause. While I’m not an attorney, I know that this concept is what drives the commissions in real estate. And in case you are exceptionally naive, you should know that commission is what drives real estate agents to work on Saturday and Sunday while the rest of the free world is playing. If you stop in to an open house and give that agent your name and contact info, that agent is going to make a claim that you’re their buyer. If you call an agent off of their yard sign and give them your contact info so that you might receive info, that agent is going to make a claim that you’re theirs. If you so much as breathe in the general direction of an agent, there’s a good chance that agent thinks you’re their customer.
What I’d like you to do is something different. I don’t want you to work with another agent and consult me and this blog for advice. That’s sort of lame, and unfortunately quite common. Instead, I’d like you to determine if you’re a buyer in the Lake Geneva market. If the answer is yes, then I recommend you follow the model of the sellers. You need to interview agents. Pick a couple, interview them. Interact with them. It’ll take an hour of your time and save you considerable consternation in the future. Further, it’ll save you from possible financial errors that won’t only harm your pride. Why would you work with an agent whom you met by sheer chance? Why would you work with an agent who pays the most for your lead on Zillow? Stop doing this. It’s embarrassing.
If you are in the market, and you’re reading this, Send me an email. Set up a time to meet with me. We’ll talk about the market. You’ll quickly learn there’s a significant difference between an agent who says they’re a market expert and one who actually is. The market is hot. There are mistakes being made. I’ll try to help you avoid those, and we’ll have fun along the way.
I might eat a fish dinner on a Friday. That fish dinner might be amazing. Tender, white fleshed fish, crisp, moist potato pancakes. Maybe even some chunky, cold applesauce. That dinner might be so good that I return to this computer a few days later and tell you just how good it was. Amazing, really. Go there, I’ll say.
And you might. The next Friday, because you were hoping to find someplace that might cure you of your bad run of fish-fry-luck. And so you drive, to the place I went, order the things I ordered. The flaky fish and the crunchy batter, the crisped pancake and that perfect applesauce. You order and wait with anxious anticipation. The fish is brought out. The pancakes, too. The applesauce is served. But then something happens.
The batter isn’t crunchy at all. The fish is gray. There’s a bone in your broiled piece. The pancake is greasy and limp. The applesauce is warm. Your waitress is rude and the ripped vinyl bench irritates your skin. You shouldn’t have worn shorts. Everything is terrible. David Curry was wrong.
Last Friday, I wanted to eat some fish. I had appointments that pushed my typical dining time to a later, more normal time. But it’s Fourth of July week, and restaurants are filled to overflowing. I called around to find a reservation. No luck. Our party of 10 would need special consideration, I figured, but no restaurant felt like confirming a table for me. Perhaps the knew the sound of my voice and knew to avoid me. After some calling, we decided that the Abbey Waterfront should have availability because it is, indeed, a large space. We drove. We waited a few minutes. We were seated.
I didn’t really want to go back to one of my prior favorites, but with friends in tow I decided it would be good to stop the exploration and go somewhere I know to be good. The last time I went to the Abbey’s Waterfront restaurant I wrote a nice review. It was a good dinner. On this Friday I expected a repeat performance.
We ordered our various pieces of fish and potato and waited. The lakeside dining room was a bit warm on this sultry evening, but I gave it a pass as I guessed their air conditioning units were trying their best. The restaurant was busy, so the 30 minute wait from ordering to eating wasn’t a surprise, though it was a touch annoying. Nevermind, I’d be more annoyed shortly, anyway.
The fish arrived and I knew it was off. The broiled cod wasn’t white like it should be, it was a bit gray, like it shouldn’t be. There was water pooled in the opened cracks of the fish, not drawn butter like any respectable fish would prefer to be baptized in. The fried piece was still crunchy, but the batter was bland and the fish hidden inside was also gray. The potato pancake was fine, but dry, the applesauce was blah. The first order was cod, so I made the second order walleye. I waited for just shy of eternity, and when the fish came out the fried was just marginal and the broiled walleye was riddled with bones. I left, exceptionally disappointed.
And that’s the problem with fish fry in this area. It isn’t consistent. That’s why people drop anchor at their favorite and enjoy the experience for many reasons that have nothing to do with inconsistent fish and possibly dry pancakes. A friend of mine sent me a text on Friday night, just as I finished my gray dinner. He said, with more colorful adjectives, that the Evergreen Golf Course fish fry was terrible. The worst he’s ever had. An abomination, really. I took that to note and figured that based on his commentary I would be skipping Evergreen in future visits.
But I also sat back and thought that someone just left Evergreen the week before and told their friends it was the best fish they had ever eaten. Someone will leave the Waterfront this coming Friday and extol its impeccable delivery and marvel at the white, flaky flesh of both its cod and walleye. The problem with a fish fry is that for everything to go right there are too many factors. Too many nuances. Too many chances to serve me gray overcooked cod when all I really wanted was a nice little fish dinner.
My calendar said spring turned to summer last week. The first day of summer, it said, capitalized with an exclamation point. The hardware stores had an ad in the paper, every paper, telling us that it’s summer time and because of this we need things. Grills! Plants! Bee Killer! I was in a hardware store over the weekend when a man walked in with a bee problem. He told the store worker that his bees were out of control. They were in the rocks and around his waterfall. They were a problem and his children wouldn’t be happy if they were stung, even though no one had been stung just yet. I kept quiet for a while but ultimately decided to ask if he was certain these were not honey bees, because honey bees are valuable and shouldn’t be choked by a foaming pesticide. He didn’t know. They’re all bees he said. And they’re all going to die. Welcome to Summer.
A woman drove a convertible down the road and across the intersection where I was stopped. There was something going on around the corner, a race maybe. Some bikes zipped past. Numbers painted onto the participants’ arms. So much determination, so much haste. The woman in the convertible didn’t care, she had on her big hat, and I wondered how it stayed attached to her head without blowing away in the open-top-breeze. Pins, maybe. I figured there was a trick, something women know that I don’t. She turned the corner too tight and her wheel clipped the curb, causing the car to bounce and her hat to flop and her neck to whip back like something happened that she couldn’t control. Later, when she’s home she’ll tell her husband that she just can’t understand what happened to that wheel. By then the scrape on her shiny rim will be smudged dark by summer dirt that washed from the spring fields during the last storm.
No one knows when it’s summer more than boaters. You can see the boats now, sitting on trailers and in slips, full of gas and ready. There’s no time like now to boat, at least now that it’s summer. If you have a boat and you own it during summer, what a thrill. Boats in the winter aren’t nearly as much fun. That’s when the bills come due. Winter service, winter storage, winter protection from the winter: $2650. Last year it was $2250, but the economy is better and the labor is tighter so the price has to go up. Boats are like that, a good measure of inflation and of the economy. Need your boat waxed? It’ll cost you $550 during a recession and $825 during a boom. It’s booming now, and the bill was $900. The extra is the Geneva fee. It would have still been $825 in the Chain, but no $75 has been better spent.
It’s raining again. It’s not a spring rain, it’s a summer rain. I’m sure because the weatherwoman said it would be a passing shower, like how it rains at Disney every afternoon. It always amazes me how much rain we can get in the summer and yet when I want precipitation in January so my kids can ski, it’s as dry as the driest of deserts. It’s dry in the Southwest, and they have purple mountain sunsets there. Come to the Southwest and see our cacti and our purple mountains and our sunsets! There’s nothing like a sunset over a purple mountain with some cacti in the foreground. That’s what they say, but I don’t believe them. Because it’s summer here and our sunsets are better. Once this rain passes I’m sure there will be a better sunset tonight. A summer sunset. The humidity will make the sky dazzle.
The calendar told people it’s summer, and they’re reacting. Boats are boating, sunsets are filling up Instagram. #summervibes, someone writes. Others Like. It’s that time, when summer comes to those who otherwise wouldn’t know. But I know. You know. We know summer has nothing to do with the calendar. Summer arrives when we first feel it on our skin. When the first pier is in, white and sturdy. The first boat pushes through the water from West to East and back again. When that first sunset is no longer visible through the bare branches of winter, but instead hides behind a deep, dark canopy of Oak and Maple. Summer doesn’t start at the end of June unless you’re not paying attention. Summer for me started sometime in May, whether the calendar watchers knew it or not.
Lake Como used to be known as Duck Lake, which I contend is a better name. It should have kept it. I had a cousin who once changed her name, and like the Como/Duck fiasco, I liked her first name better as well. In spite of this mix up, Lake Como is a curious thing. On one hand, it’s intensely shallow. On the other hand, it’s uniquely muddy. It’s the third largest lake in Walworth County, but it’s not much to consider. My lack of Lake Como knowledge aside, I gathered the troops, ignored the Highway 67 detour signs, and wrapped my way around to the north shore of Lake Como.
Freddie’s West End is a bar here, across the street from that lake, wedged into a residential neighborhood. It is not without charm. When I pulled up, early, at 5:10 pm, the parking lot and adjacent streets were lined with cars of varying makes and models. The rain from the wet week had cleared and the bar was full of patrons ready to kick the weekend off with some libations and fish. Do not go to Freddie’s expecting to find a restaurant. This is a bar, through and through, much like a Northwoods bar, this place has little concern for what you think of it.
We walked in what I believe to be the side door, off of a small deck that had a few tables and chairs, still soaked from the rain. When I walked into the South Shore Bar near Delavan Lake, I was quickly judged by the patrons who knew I was out of place. At Freddie’s, there was no such judgement. A friendly fellow at the bar mentioned something about the weather, and I, noticing the ease of his effort, chimed in. I asked the bartender if we might be able to sit outside, and though she’d need to find something to wipe off the wet tables, she obliged. We settled into our chairs with a fine view of Lake Como in the background, and learned of their fish fry.
The menu was simple. It’s Mary Lynn’s Old Fashioned Fish Fry for $12. If you don’t like it, the only other thing to order would be the chicken tenders for $6, but more on those later. The fish fry comes with the Wisconsin fixin’s, and gives diners the choice of Walleye Pike (a fancy name for Walleye favored by Northwoods types), Lake Perch, Blue Gill, Fried Shrimp, Shrimp DeJonge, or Poor Man’s Lobster (cod). Interesting to note, the only cod option is baked, not fried. If you came to this bar and wished to eat fried cod, you might as well ask for a cobb salad with avocados. You’re going to leave hungry.
The waitress was attentive and sweet, and we made our decision. The three of us ordered the Walleye, the Perch, and the Cod. Feeling like the chicken tender must have done something special to wriggle its way into this fishy menu, I added in an order at the last minute. We waited for around 20 minutes for the food to arrive, which I found to be somewhat of a strange delay given the basic nature of the menu. Still, the wait offered a nice chance to inhale some cigarette smoke that was wafting across the patio, and I hadn’t had a smoke in my whole life, so I needed my nicotine fix.
The food arrived in plastic baskets, which felt right for this bar. The fried assortment of fish and potato looked the part, and I was excited to taste the variety. The perch filets were numerous, lightly breaded with a cornmeal exterior, and almost crunchy. The very light dusting of cornmeal wasn’t enough to make for a crunchy exterior, but it was enough. The perch was quite good. I had perch at Gordy’s, and this was easily as good or better. The french fries that accompanied that order were crunchy and thick cut, very nicely prepared. French fries shouldn’t be hard, but they are, and Freddie’s has them mastered.
The walleye dinner was one large fried filet, dusted in the same cornmeal as the perch. It was meaty and white, perfectly cooked. Unfortunatley it desperately needed salt, and I had loads of bones in my piece. I have ten intense fears in this life, and one of them is choking on fish bones. I don’t know if I have ever choked on one, but I fear it anyway. In the way that I’ve never been bit by a large spider, but it’s one slot above the fish-bone-choke on my list. I cannot tolerate bones in fish filets, so it was a disappointment. The applesauce was smooth and blah, the tartar sauce and coleslaw both okay but, much like me, did not receive any express praise from my wife.
The baked cod was quite good. A touch overcooked, but just barely. The drawn butter was flavorful, as drawn butter must be. I dunked a few pieces and decided it was an above average cod. The potato pancakes, two to an order, were small and dense. Too dense. The interiors were starchy and dry. Last up, these chicken tenders. One bite revealed the truth that the menu was hiding. These were not chicken tenders, these were chicken tender shaped Mcnuggets. The assortment of mashed chicken bits into a tender shape was not good. In fact, it was terrible. I wouldn’t order these bits of chicken again if they were the last chicken Mcnuggets on earth. Even McDonald’s knows there’s a different between a nugget and a tender, and I’d hope Freddie’s fixes this error, soon.
All in all, I sort of enjoyed my visit to Freddie’s. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. The subtle ambiance of a Northwoods bar is something that slowly grows on you and gains your allegiance, and I can see how Freddie’s has become a local favorite. But judged without prejudice, it was just okay. The perch was the standout I think, though it was admittedly made better by a quick bath in the drawn butter that I borrowed from my wife’s cod. The walleye had too many bones for me, and the potato pancake was below average. I’d add Freddie’s to your rotation if you haven’t ever been, and if you’ve already been, well, then I’m guessing you already knew to avoid the chicken.
Freddie’s West End 6/10
W4118 Lake Shore Drive, Lake Geneva, WI (North shore of Lake Como)
$12 cod, walleye, perch, shrimp
The thing about houses, is they’re all the same. A few bedrooms, some bathrooms. The number of each signaling the value, sometimes. A kitchen down the hall from the dining room, or a breakfast room if space is scarce. The living room, that’s something every house will feature. A tiny house even has one, with the wheels and the hitch and the fold out table. Look, the dining room!
What makes houses different, or better, is where they’re located and what else they offer. If I have a basic house, older and damp, with a roof needing tending to, but that house and that old roof are located on the lake, then I’m in luck. It’s valuable. Further, if my house isn’t on the lake and it still needs the roof but it’s on 80 acres with incredible rolling hills and a small stream in the valley, then I still have something that others will value.
The home at 1593 Woodstone Lane is a nice house. It’s really nice. Built in 2013, there’s nearly 5000 square feet of nice. I won’t insult your intelligence by describing each nice thing. There’s nice wood floors, two fireplaces, a deep and wide screened porch. The kitchen is super sweet, the first floor master bedroom suite both convenient and, perhaps, someday necessary. There are three more bedrooms, bunches of bathrooms. One bedroom has been made into a bunk room with the help of some snappy carpentry. Oh, and the finished, walkout lower level has a large rec room, full bar, and exercise and theatre rooms. See, it’s nice.
But it’s the extra here that matters. The landscaping is lush, irrigated, and full. For an off-water home, the views of the surrounding wildflowers and hills and deep, dark deciduous border, all divine. Walk out of that large screened porch and onto a stone patio, where umbrellas and lounge chairs surround a private, in-ground swimming pool. Barrington Pools installed this pool, complete with automated cover, to the exacting specifications of the owner, and what a pool it is.
You could buy a lot in Woodstone and build a house. There’s nothing stopping you. But what you’ll do is spend more money to achieve a lesser than result. Why build new and abide the aggravation, delays and expense, when you can buy this for less than it would cost to replicate? You wouldn’t, because you’re smart. Use as an affordable primary home close to Lake Geneva but with low Linn Township taxes, or continue using as the current owners have: As an ideal vacation home close to downtown and the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. Available for private tour this weekend. $845,000.
I didn’t grow up in the church of the Friday Fish Fry. Sure, I went once in a while, but it was never a pattern. Once a year, twice maybe. In the summer when relatives were in town, we’d fish fry. But we never made a habit of it. As an adult, I too would fish fry. But only every so often. There was never any particular need. With plenty of other things to eat on a Friday, why fish?
With that in mind, I must tell you what happens later. If you’re a fish fryer, then you already know, and even if it’s never discussed, it’s always understood. If you’re not a fish fryer, this might come as some strange surprise to you. But when you start going to fish fry, the habit that might become a pattern sneaks up on you. Eat fish on a Friday, feel fine about it. Eat no fish for the next six days, feel fine about it. Friday afternoon, when the work day is dwindling off towards another weekend, that’s when it grabs you. Where are we going to eat fish tonight? The habit becomes a pattern and the pattern, at least for those in Wisconsin, tends to become a religion.
Last Friday it was intolerably hot. Much like the weekend that followed. Because of this heat I needed to eat somewhere that I thought might have a modern air conditioning system, something adequate to ward off this heat and humidity. Last Friday, more than any Friday before, I wasn’t so keen on discovering something new. I wanted to go somewhere known. I wanted to go to Abbey Springs, to use my dining membership for the second time in several months. To Anthony’s, where I know exactly what to expect. But alas, I soldiered on in the attempt to weed out the pretenders in this Friday Fish game. My son and I pulled into the Waterfront’s parking lot at 5:45 pm last Friday. It was hot out.
This restaurant is on Highway 50 in the Delavan inlet. It was built new several years ago, or so I recall. I went there to eat a few times after it first opened, but as with most restaurants here, if the menu doesn’t resonate and the scene doesn’t inspire, I often don’t go back. The Waterfront is a nice enough space, new, with icy cold air conditioning. There’s a front porch (too hot), a main dining area focused around a large bar, and a side dining space on the East side of the building. That’s where we were seated, in a booth with wood top and cracked vinyl covering the bench seats.
The waitress was chipper and quick to our table, and without delay I asked of the fish fry. It was presented several different ways, one with some sort of creamy concoction, one might have been Walleye, and the others baked and fried cod. It was all you can eat, which I always enjoy on account of my terminal obesity. Given the options, I asked the waitress what she preferred. The fried cod was good, she said, and so I ordered half and half with a side of potato pancakes.
The wait was short. Like insanely short. I suppose that’s good, but the wait to receive our food was so short it almost caught us off guard. But the plate was large and filled to the edges with food, and so we didn’t complain. The baked cod was served three pieces in a small dish, much like you’d use to plate shrimp scampi. The baked was dry. It lacked salt. I exhausted my lemon wedge onto the pieces and my son lathered tartar sauce on his, but they could not be saved. Time Of Death: Approximately two minutes before the cod was removed from the oven.
The fried cod was much better, as the waitress promised. The batter was crunchy, the interior flaky and white. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. The thing that can put a fried cod piece over the top is usually some sort of combination of salt and slightly flavored batter. This lacked both, so while it was good enough, it wasn’t a standout on this tour. The coleslaw and tartar sauce were both okay, according to my son, who declined to elaborate except to say the coleslaw had some seeds in it that he didn’t appreciate. There was also a piece of marbled rye bread, or perhaps pumpernickel, which though I despise, I nibbled as a form of self-punishment. The bread was buttered, but there was no table butter.
The potato pancake was served two to an order, though they were small. They were also curious looking, like they were hand formed in the way you’d hand form a sugar cookie before pressing it with the palm of your hand to flatten a bit. The reason they were slightly off-looking is because they were not a typical pancake. Instead of shredded potato, as God intended, these were some sort of mashed-potato creation, lacking any tooth to the bite and overall leaving me with a feeling of deep and thorough disappointment. I understand that chefs often take liberties, but if you’re in Wisconsin and you’re serving Friday Fish Fry, please don’t waiver from the standard. Shred your potatoes. Rinse them. Squeeze out the starchy water. Mix with some classic ingredients, and fry on a flat top or, if you must, in your fryer.
In spite of these issues, the dinner was nearly saved by a most amazing applesauce. It was served in a plastic tub, which is terrible, but the side itself was delightfully cold, immensely flavorful, and delightfully chunky. The latter of which is how my grandmother would compliment me when describing me to her friends. Applesauce cannot save a dinner that was destined for obscurity, but it does show a nice attention to detail. Unfortunately, the detail was skipped on those mashed potato disks and just missed on the fried cod. I liked the Waterfront for its convenient location, ample parking, hefty portion size, and refreshingly cold AC. But as for the items that matter most, the Waterfront missed the mark.
The Waterfront 5/10
408 State Road 50, Delavan, WI
$13.99 All you can eat fried or baked cod (optional creamy cod dish and possibly walleye, but I wasn’t paying attention)
A fresh video for my rare listing in Fontana’s bucolic Buena Vista. This home offers a large private pier, beautifully updated finishes, immaculate gardens, and loads of lakeside patio space. You’ll also have full access to Buena Vista’s large park and pier system and private tennis court. It’s a winner. Contact me for a private showing.
It’s still not clear to me whether or not the air conditioning worked. I remember a serviceman arriving in his rusted Suburban, the smell of his cigarettes, the sound of wrenches and hammers coming from the basement. But in spite of those visits, who could know if the air ever, actually worked?
The excuses were many. It’s an old house, my dad would say. My mom, wiping sweaty bangs from her face, would echo the same. But her words were less certain. Like she was reciting a line rehearsed in private. In private, from that room at the end of the hall, that larger lakefront room with so many windows, that’s where they hatched the plan. I’ll tell them the house is old, my dad would say. My mom would nod. They disagreed often, but on this they could agree. No one thought of the children. My dad thought only of the $8 he would save that month from keeping the air conditioning at bay.
I’ve owned plenty of older homes in my life. All of them had air conditioning. I paid to have it installed, because without it there could be no peace. In these older homes, some older than my parents’ home, the same man with the rusted Suburban would take his hammers and wrenches down to the basement. But when he had finished his clamoring there was some obvious sign of his success. Cool, dry, life sustaining air would pump from the registers in these old homes, bringing relief to the residents.
During that sweaty childhood there was an ongoing debate. If the outside, nighttime air temperature was 80 degrees, would it be better to shut the windows and wait for that slow, slight trickle of coolish air to pulse from the scant registers in my room, with the hope that the system would be able to cool the room to at least 79 degrees? Or was it wiser still to leave the window open, with the sounds of the fighting raccoons and the passing nighttime boats, and the slight chance that the air would cool on its own and settle, in the depth of a dark summer night, to 78? This was my arbitrage, a degree or two would make the difference, and the debate raged. Decision making skills wane during an 80 degree summer night under that blanket of intense humidity and a sheet of still, suffocating air.
Today, I’m want to turn on my air conditioning at the slightest hint of warmth. Some choose to leave their windows open during soft spring days. I say no, because I have no choice. On hot summer days when the night cools and the humidity falls, many will open their windows and rejoice in those cool summer nights. Not me. I can’t. I set my air conditioning to 70 in the spring and leave it there until it’s time to switch the cool to heat. I cannot consider another night in a sweaty bed.
It’s been noticed that the thing most of the tortured souls who have been lost adrift at sea crave is ice. Ice cubes. Not water, not food, but ice. The sound of it in their teeth, the sharp sting of cold in their throat. The numbing of their cheeks and tongue. Lost at sea once, forever in search of ice. I, too, was lost at sea, and I, too, crave the comfort of cold. It’s just that my sea was a childhood bedroom, and it was hotter, and more humid, and my chances of survival, less.
This weekend, it’s going to be hot. You should be at the lake.
Above, my Clear Sky Lodge listing in Fontana. Air Conditioning, included.
Travel down any of these wide roads that lead to other towns and other states, and you’ll likely find something from here, there. There’s a nice parcel of land north of Elkhorn that was blessed with an abundance of cold water springs, the sort that are perfect for raising rainbow trout. Those ponds have tens of thousands of trout owned by Rushing Waters, and those trout find their way from this little spot in Wisconsin to some of the finest restaurants and grocery stores in the country.
A few years ago, Rushing Waters decided to try its hand at a restaurant, so they built out a nice space adjacent the building that houses their operations. The restaurant there is very nice, a wonderful addition to the sparse restaurant scene that the Lauderdale folks must abide. I ate at that restaurant a few times and generally enjoyed my meals. Last year Rushing Waters and their Trout House branded restaurant expanded into the Lake Geneva market, albeit by way of Delavan. That’s where I went to eat last Friday night, because who better to serve me fish than an operation that understand fish from egg to table?
The space that the Trout House Delavan now operates from was most recently a large expansion undertaken by the cheese and sandwich shop known as Brick Street Market. The name comes from the brick streets in Delavan, in case you haven’t been to Delavan, ever. The cheese shop first occupied a smaller area to the West of this one, and then upgraded to this cavernous expanse of square footage and tables. Brick Street Market didn’t last, sadly, and the Trout House took over the space. The issue with this particular location remains one of some trouble. On one hand, it’s Delavan, which struggles to pull from the Lake Geneva market. On the other hand, that space is so large that it’s nearly impossible to feel as though you aren’t eating a hot lunch in a school cafeteria on a Saturday, when just you and the other few kids in detention are in the building.
I tried to go to the Trout House twice before, both times being turned away. So last Friday I went early, arriving at 5:30, and found immediate seating near the front window. The space, as described above, is nice and new, with some generic updated finishes, but the space remains so large that I cannot imagine it feeling lively or cozy under any circumstance. Still, the restaurant is clean and bright and there’s some exposed brick on the walls. Once seated, we perused the menu. No mention of a fish fry. Some rainbow trout dishes, of course, but where was my cod?
I inquired of the waitress, and she told me of the fish fry. It’s two or three piece fried cod, or a single piece broiled cod, served with choice of potato and the typical sides. I ordered the three piece fried, as I need to keep up my weight in the event that I am ever called upon to hold onto a hot air balloon that has blown dangerously close to power lines. My wife ordered the one piece broiled. We drank our water and waited.
The wait wasn’t long, which was nice. My fried looked crunchy and sublime, my wife’s broiled appeared to be a hefty portion. Hers was served with drawn butter, which immediately captured by attention. There was no table bread or butter, which I thought odd for a restaurant like this. The potato pancakes were served two to an order, and the accompaniments of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw were offered up in small plastic tubs. How I longed for the sophistication of a ceramic or metal dish.
The potato pancake was up first. Nicely crisped, smallish in size, overwhelmingly bland. It had some green flecks in it that I initially thought might represent flavor, but those flecks turned out to be parsley, which is the anti-flavor. The pancakes lacked salt and needed a bit more panache. The fried cod was appropriately crunchy and sported a very nice battered exterior. The interior was white and flaky, well seasoned. The fried fish was a delight, and after two weeks off from the Friday Fish Tour, I enjoyed my three pieces rather quickly. My wife’s broiled cod was dry, and needed some salt.
The applesauce, all two spoonfuls of it, was righteously chunky, which was also the name of my childhood praise and worship band. But it was a bit warm, which detracted from the otherwise wonderful sauce. The coleslaw was ok, and my wife liked the tartar sauce. When I pressed her for the reasons why the tartar sauce was good, she declined to comment further. The dinner was over shortly after it began, and left me with a general feeling of meh.
Having spent that vacation in France last month, we decided that dessert would be nice. We ordered the chocolate torte at the waitress’s recommendation, along with two coffees. The torte was divine, deep and rich, not too sweet, but dense and more closely aligned with fudge than anything else. The coffee was acceptable, but would it kill local restaurants to indulge in an espresso machine? I have one that cost $599 and it works perfectly. Please, local restaurants, I’m begging for something other than drip coffee. Worse yet, we were served cream in single serve take-out plastic teaspoon size tubs. The sort you’d find at a rest stop somewhere between Lodi and Necedah. What a terrible miss this is for any restaurant, and what an easy miss this is to fix. Please serve cream with your coffee. It’s so easy. Painfully easy.
The dinner tab with tip came to $53. The fish dinners were $15 each, which is in line with expectations. Sadly, on this night, the Trout House failed to impress me. I love what it is that Rushing Waters does. I love their business, and their impact on this local economy. But a fish business should serve me a better fish fry. If not them, who? It shouldn’t be so hard to dial in the details of a proper Friday Night Fish Fry, but I’m finding that somehow it is. I’d give the Trout House a visit, either in their Delavan location or the Palmyra one (north of Elkhorn). But don’t expect to be dazzled, just expect to be fed.
Trout House at Delavan 6/10
118 East Walworth Avenue, Delavan, WI
$15 Fried or Broiled Cod
A lack of inventory is a curious thing. On one hand, lack of inventory typically leads to pricing increases. This is obvious. If I have one of something and three people would like to buy it from me, I get to raise my price. Simple. But lack of inventory has an uglier, less talked about side. Like your uncle who isn’t allowed to attend family gatherings. Sure, you see him once in a while and pretend everything is fine. The weather fine, your job, fine. But you know. You know.
That other side of low inventory is that it has a nasty tendency to choke out market momentum. Imagine a particular market segment is like a fire. A nice, tidy, fire. Sometimes it’s crackling and blazing and other times it’s just smoldering, but it’s always burning so long as you add a bit of wood to it now and again. The key isn’t the strength of the fire, it’s your supply of wood. Keep feeding that market some inventory and it’ll keep burning. But limit the inventory for long enough and that fire is going to go out. Lack of inventory is all fun and games until your market decides to quit.
It’s not exactly like that, but it’s sort of like that. And in my world, sort of still matters. We know our issue for 2018 has been a thorough lack of lakefront and lake access inventory, but without checking the actual statistics it’s just chatter. The year is now old enough that we can measure it against another year. It’s time for 2018 to be judged.
From the first of January through yesterday, the MLS shows 28 sales of lakefront and lake access properties (Geneva Lake). Of those 28, 11 have been lakefront. That feels like a low tally, to be sure. And low it is, when compared to the 45 homes and sold during the same period of 2017. Of those, 11 were lakefronts. Looking farther back, 2016 printed 38 sales, eight of which were private frontage. 2015, the last year that could be considered some reasonable semblance of a buyer’s market, we closed 34 sales, nine of which were lakefront.
With those numbers in mind, it’s obvious that our broader lake access market is short of supply and therefore short of closings. But what of the lakefront, what of that king of all markets, that mighty ruler by which all other things are rendered unimportant? Well, the lakefront market, with 11 YTD sales, is obviously doing just fine. It has matched the 2017 production and exceeded both of 2016 and 2015. Maybe our inventory problem is one of perception?
There are a few things that are going to happen this summer on the lakefront. There will be more inventory. I’m certain of it. There will be more to choose from and there will be buyers intent on changing their boring weekend lives who make the right choice. The key isn’t to flood the market with inventory, rather to keep introducing pieces of it, slowly but surely. We don’t need to light the whole forest on fire, we just need to toss a log on every once in a while. And I’m fixin’ to throw some oak in the coming weeks (let me know if you’d like to know when I do).
As recently as last year, it wouldn’t have been easy, perhaps not even possible, to fetch $2.1MM for a vacant lot in the South Shore Club. That’s not because the broad market wouldn’t have appreciated an offering of a rare, lakefront lot in the Club. Nor is it because the market hadn’t yet appreciated to such a wonderful extend that the sale price would have been possible. That price wouldn’t have been possible one year ago because the supporting sales that prove that particular value hadn’t yet printed.
There’s something interesting about what’s happened in the South Shore Club over these past several months. First, a lakefront listing, last August. I closed that listing for $4.175MM, making it the first sale in the SSC to exceed $4MM. Plenty of owners have investments in their homes that exceed $4MM, but never before had the market validated those outlays. Following that sale, another owner sensed the timing might be right for his family to make a move and he listed, also with me. We closed that sale this spring for $4.6MM (plus $100k for personal property). With those sales cemented, it was this vacant lots turn.
I listed this lakefront lot last month for $2,195,000. I didn’t feature it on this website, in large part because the buyer presented quickly and was ready to roll. The lot closed last Friday for $2,100,000, making it the highest vacant land sale in the SSC, ever. But was it some unique marketing spin that I employed to sell this property? Other agents might have you semi-convinced that they have some proprietary blend of marketing wiz-bang, but they don’t. And neither do I. It’s not hard to place an ad in a newspaper and have no one call you from it. But it is hard to print two sales within 10 months that successfully prove a segment’s market value and then introduce a piece of inventory that falls nicely in line with that newly affirmed market.
And that’s the real secret to this recent SSC success. It’s not in the marketing, though if I’m involved that’s pretty nice stuff, indeed. It’s in the timing of it all. It’s in understanding how a certain piece fits into the greater SSC puzzle. Yes, an owner can list his property whenever he or she feels like it. But is this approach smart? Or is it better to understand the process, to understand the inventory and the competition, and apply a rare dose of sensible timing to the process? This seems simple, but timing an offering within the greater context of an association market is anything but common. Thankfully, these past three properties sold because the sellers listened to me, and the result was perfect.
To the seller of this most recent property, I thank you. To future buyers and sellers of properties within the South Shore Club, work with me. Since 2012, when I was hired by the developers of the SSC to represent several of the homes and remaining lots there, I’ve closed on 8 of the 13 single family home sales (including the top two sales), and 11 of the 13 vacant lot sales. If your aim is the South Shore Club, you’re in luck. The market couldn’t be healthier, the future more secure, and your choice in agent more clear.
It was good to be a buyer in 2011. And in 2012. 2013, too. We know that now. What a time! We think. If only I could have been a buyer then, say the buyers now. But was it so great back then? Was everything perfect? I remember a buyer from the fall of 2011. He was worried about the 2012 election. Worried about the economy, or the economy as measured by the stock indices. He bought in the fall of 2011, and the lakefront purchase changed his life. But he almost didn’t buy and it almost didn’t change his life. It was good to be a buyer then, but it wasn’t easy.
If you were a buyer then and you didn’t buy, and in the days that have followed from those days to these days, I understand how you must feel. Shame is a powerful thing, but shame with equal parts regret is devastating. I have buyers today that tell me they wish they had bought. They wish they had upgraded. There were so many properties for so few dollars. What an amazing market it was, they say, as if they were non-eligible bystanders during the whole show. I should have bought something. Anything. That’s what a buyer of mine told me in a text last weekend.
Bill Shakespeare once said, “striving to be better, oft we mar what’s well.” It’s no secret that I’ve built myself a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, on the road from Where? , just past Nothing, Unincorporated. I commonly bemoan what it is that I’ve done. I built something too small. I built it a bit too far to this side. I painted that a bit too blue. It was supposed to be gray. The shame is intense. The deck isn’t finished, the patio never will be, and the gravel driveway is nearly impassable several months out of the year. There were some execution issues. It took two years to build a scant few square feet.
But it did get built. And I do get to sleep there. And when I drive down the road and fish the streams, I feel content. I say hello to the cows in the pasture and wish there was something I could do to help them get rid of those flies that pester and bite. I wander the farmer’s market once in a while, and buy something from someone who made it near there. The process was painful, the execution questionable, the outcome reasonably acceptable, if full of concerns. But I’m happy with it. Because it lets me hang my hat when I’m done with a long evening of casting tiny dry flies to wary, wild trout.
In the same way, last Memorial Day I sat lakeside and watched the show. It’s our show, after all. This is our thing. After a dreary winter it’s easy to forget how much passive fun can be had while watching boaters boat. New boats, old boats, new boats made to look old. Shore path walkers, some strolling, aimless in their amusement, others hiking, working, efforting. This place is unique, and it’s ours. On that day, was there any difference between the boater who has a Viking range and the one without? Was there any difference in the way that cool May water felt to the owner who has a small cottage a few doors away from the owner who has the larger home closer to the lake?
The great equalizer in the home search is found when you maintain focus on the true goal. If you want a nice house, just buy one in the city or the suburbs. There are lots of them for sale. Shiny ones with fancy things. But those homes don’t get you any closer to what you want. To indulge in this place. To wake up Saturday morning in a different state with a different state of mind. A different state of being.
The buyers from 2012 who missed out largely did so because they wanted better. They wanted different. Something with a larger living room and another bedroom. A shinier kitchen. One more bathroom. What a tremendous mistake to hold your lifestyle hostage when the demanded ransom is something as trivial as square footage. Or a garage. Today, buyers are doing the same thing. They’re deciding that an extra bedroom is worth another summer in the city. They’re choosing nothing over better, because they really want best. I have buyers tell me they’re being patient. Being patient is easy. It’s finding motivation that’s often far more difficult.
Above, the entry at my Basswood estate listing. Now reduced to $8,950,000
Last weekend, it was hot. You know that. I know that. It was super hot. Smoking hot. Summer hot. If you were here, then you were less hot than the other people who chose to stay there. But still, hot. Williams Bay had a big pile of rocks on its lakefront, with some earth moving equipment stacked next to a small stream that I’d like to have moved. If I do anything in this life, it should be that I’ll have that stream moved. On Memorial Day, Williams Bay had a nice little Memorial Day Parade. The dandelions noticed. The earth moving equipment, sitting idle for the weekend out of respect, noticed. The trees in the beach park, with weeds growing up around them, noticed. Williams Bay was not ready for prime time.
It was Memorial Day Weekend in Fontana, too. The beach was combed, the large pile of sand pushed up to that child-friendly mound. The boulevards were mowed and trimmed. The baseball diamond that has withstood lakefront re-development was mowed, its infield dragged. Someone might have dusted off the bases, I can’t be sure. The Harbor is new now, shiny and better. No matter that the floating piers are awkward still and they slope unnaturally from shore, and there might be a few too many lights, LED or not. But the Harbor was spiffed and the boats were waxed and the infield was dragged. In the boulevards, flowers bloomed.
In Lake Geneva, the road project near the lakefront was completed. The giant potholes that plagued that lakeside stretch of Main Street have been fixed, and just in time. But the yards that were torn to complete this work were only seeded, not sodded. So the dandelions pushed and the grass stalled. The glistening blacktop flanked by messy stretches of straw and netting. Sod would have been nice, considering it would have required such a modest amount. My friend had a sod farm once. He closed it down and planted corn, because no one wanted to pay him for his fine sod.
What exactly are these lakeside communities? What do they aspire to be? I contend that only one town here knows the answer to that question. Fontana knows what it is, what it wants to be, where it wants to go. It makes the effort. It sees the vision. It understands the market, the clientele, and the visual that they demand. Williams Bay hasn’t a clue. Not a single, tiny clue. There’s an auto-repair shop with constant torque wrenches and a view of the lake. There are three ice cream shops within a 150 yard radius. Most of the shop spaces are for rent, and those that aren’t will be some day. There’s a piece of vacant dirt in the downtown with a FOR SALE sign. For Rent signs litter the surrounding corners. Williams Bay is a sleepy hamlet, but it’s only sleepy because it doesn’t have a plan. Without a plan, why get out of bed?
In spite of Fontana’s confidence and Williams Bay’s awkward adolescence, Lake Geneva is the town that truly isn’t sure of itself. On one hand, a dynamic, rare lakefront. Parks, walkways, grass and water. The new walkway over the beach is smart and shows awareness. The downtown remains idyllic, even if the rents are too damn high and the result is too many vacancies. The downtown is truly the only thing that needs to remain a draw, and there’s no danger of that status changing. But around that special downtown, what exactly is the City of Lake Geneva doing?
A five story chain hotel adjacent its major thoroughfare? Big Box stores of all makes and models littering its primary entrance? Increased revenue from every angle but no decrease in taxes? Why is it so had to understand what it is that the residents and visitors want? The Wisconsin Dells is a nice enough place, I suppose. If you get married on a Friday and have no time for anything but a two day weekend, then the Dells is nice. Honeymooning at a waterpark, that’s something. But absent that shot-gun wedding, or a carload of 12 year olds headed for a birthday party, who really wants to go to the Dells? Not me. And not the people who call Lake Geneva home, whether that’s a permanent home or a seasonal one.
These lakeside municipalities have made strides in the last decade, but only one has identified its highest and best use. Fontana, thank you for being what you are. Thank you for understanding yourself. Williams Bay, please, please figure it out. Million dollar bike paths are fine, but are they? Invest in your lakefront. Invest in your downtown. Offer incentives to develop and redevelop your commercial buildings and residential properties that line your main streets. It’s so great that you’ve spent untold millions on your school buildings. Terrific. Now focus on the reason your tax base is so high and your expenses are so low: the lakefront and your general business district. And lastly, to the City of Lake Geneva. Stop it. Be a high end resort town. Every time a new proposal for some new nonsense comes your way just ask yourself: Does anyone like the Dells?
To all of the soft people who complain about winter and whine about spring, you’ve made it. I mean, I’ve made it to, to this place, to this time, to this summer. But it’s really about you, the soft-weather-whiner. It’s 80 something and the leaves are green and the shrubs are flowering and the lake is as deep and clear as you remembered it. If you cannot be happy now, will you ever be? Are you not entertained?
This weekend, I wish you a most pleasant time at the lake. This is the weekend to immerse yourself in this scene, in this place, in this thing that we have that’s so very hard to describe. The key to a long summer is to get a head start, to squeeze a few extra weekends early and a few extra weekends late. No matter what happens from here on out, we already have this weekend. Sure, it might rain. Sure, it might get cloudy for a bit. But on balance it’s nice out, and for that, we can all be thankful.
You’ll start seeing my new issue of Summer Homes For City People around town this weekend, and I do hope you enjoy it. I know I don’t really enjoy creating it, mostly because I’m overwhelmed with anxiety when I think about what I might have missed, or what errors slipped past multiple proof-readers. If I make an error on this blog, which I tend to do, it’s not really a big deal. It’s just a bunch of words thrown onto a screen. But in print, it feels so much more important. The magazine is out, with design help from Flair Studio and a new cover by Neal Aspinall. You’ll find it around the lake wherever cool things are found.
This Memorial Day Weekend, be sure to apply sunscreen. Boat safely. But above all be thankful for the sacrifices made by others so that we can argue over the petty. Today, I’m worried about some deals and about some smudges on a few of my magazine covers. I’m not worried about invading forces from the north, or artillery fire landing near by home. I’m just worried about silly things. It’s the superfluous things for which men sweat (Seneca), but we’re only able to do so because the truly brave have made that possible. My thanks to the veterans, to the active military, to everyone who has given more than I’ll ever be asked to give.
Now, let’s strike the grills and gas the boat. There’s summer to be had.
There was an old Lilac outside my childhood bedroom window. It wasn’t a great bush, or tree. Whichever it was, it wasn’t the finest specimen. It was just a bush around the corner from an old garage, wedged in between that old garage and older house, down around the cracked concrete driveway that later would be paved. When the pavers came they found an old brick cistern under the driveway that no one knew was there. Well, I suppose someone knew, but that someone was dead. He might have been the one who planted the lilac.
Down the road, around the corner, up a ways and over just a bit, there was another man. An older man, a shorter man. Just a man, really. I met him on the pier, his fishing rods stuck into PVC holders that he affixed to the outside horses on that long association pier. The lilacs were in bloom. His bucket was full of bloody water. Rock bass twitched their fins, bluegills rested, belly up, their eyes blank and wondering. Lower still a crappie, maybe two. Large and white with black dashes. Papermouths, the men called them. A smallmouth bass, wedged in the bottom of that bucket of death and dying, not longer than 12 inches.
It’s a rock bass, the old man told me, his tone proving his lie. I knew better. I knew it was a smallmouth and I knew it wasn’t legal. I knew it was too small. It bothered me something terrible. Later, as the years wore on and both of us grew older, I’d sneak down in the morning and release the fish that the old man had caught and tethered to the pier with an old sailing rope. Other times there would be no fish to release, so I’d open his minnow bucket and let the minnows swim free. If he didn’t have any minnows then he couldn’t skewer them with a hook. If he couldn’t thread that hook through their eyes then he couldn’t cast that old frail monofilament out and set the worn rods into those homemade holders. If I could stop the first part of this cycle, the death could be spared. My desired end more than justified those particular means.
He’d give me advice, once in a while. Sometimes, the water was too cold. It’s early yet, he’d say. The water needed to be 50 degrees, or maybe 55. His old thermometer would dangle from the swim ladder, close enough to where he’d store those fish that I’d later release. I wondered if he knew what I was doing. I assumed he didn’t, but now as I think about it he must have known. There was no one else but me. Without the thermometer, he told me, it wasn’t hard to know when the bass would be biting. When the lilacs bloom, that’s when they’ll be biting.
There was another large lilac on my way to and from school, and in April and then May I’d walk by that bush with anxious anticipation. That lilac, and the one by my window, took forever to bloom. Cold, late spring would cling for so long. Every day, nothing. Then, something. Tiny sprouts at first, but then within days, maybe just hours, I’d witness the unfurling and pushing of all those leaves. Bright green, young green, then, when the blossoms were near, deep and lovely green. Every day, a little more. And then, like magic, the flowers. Those flowers with their purple petals and overwhelming perfume, they told me it was time. Time to grab by rod and reel and cast those chartreuse jigs as far as I could, sometimes towards shore and sometimes towards the depths. Smallmouth bass would eat, greedily, angrily, their red eyes filled with malice towards that little collection of feathers.
These days, I don’t fish in the lake very often. I want to, but I don’t. There are times when the pull is greater than others, like late into a summer evening when the southwest wind falls flat and I see the bass chasing minnows to the surface. Or in the fall when the boating traffic has left and the lake is clear and the water cools. I know the big fish are in shallow. I know the lake trout and the brown trout are spawning, and I know the musky and the pike are binging before a long dark winter. But the strongest of pulls is right now. In the spring, when the grass is green and the lilacs are purple. I haven’t fished in the lake for a few years, but I know the bass are biting. The lilacs told me so.