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  • I'm David Curry, and I sell real estate for Geneva Lakefront Realty in Williams Bay. I write this commentary to help educate and entertain the Lake Geneva home buyer and seller, and unlike the authors of most other real estate blogs, I actually sort of know how to write. And I promise not to RANDOMLY capitalize Words. I write to extol the virtues of the Lake Geneva vacation home, and I have a personal, deep rooted desire to share my experiences and insight with you and ultimately dominate the activity in the Lake Geneva vacation home market. With more than $20MM in 2014 YTD sales and over $92MM in sales since the start of 2010, that goal is easily within reach.

    I will always attempt to back up my opinions with solid statistics and historical perspective. Visiting this site early and often is hands down the best way to learn about this market. Period. Honestly. My full disclosure statement is available here.






  • I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.

    ― Henry David Thoreau

  • How can I help?

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Williams Bay's New School

Oct 22, 2014 by DC | Add comment
Once, there was a group of people who decided that they no longer wished to be taxed for the sake of being taxed. If they ran their own towns and their own shops and their own limited government, it seemed superfluous to be taxed by a group who didn't have their best interests in mind. So the history books say there were skirmishes, and those skirmishes led to fighting and those fights to battles and those battles to war. The war waged on. It probably waged for so long that they forgot why they waged. They waged because they wanted freedom, even though the price of that freedom was more than some really wanted to pay.

Today, we are a civilized bunch. I mean, we're not, but on the surface we most certainly are. We do all sorts of things to prove that, every day. We wouldn't dream of starting a war over taxation. And so our civilization exists inside this structure where we vote for things we like and we hope that through those votes we may be able to push and pull our town and county and state and country in the direction that we wish it would go. We do this because we are civilized and proper, and we cast our votes into so many boxes and then hope that they are counted by neutral hands.

We pay taxes because we must, and even the most Libertarian among us would agree that some form of taxation is necessary to keep these roads paved and some bullets in our military guns. If the government decided that it would be best to tax us and then relieve us of the burden of voting, there would be outrage. There would be skirmishes and then fights and soon enough there would be war. Democracy is to voting life is to breathing, and without one there cannot be another.

Imagine then, the interesting way that property taxes are paid. If you own a home in Arlington Heights, and you wish to vote on that election that has to do with Arlington Heights, the voter's booth is open to you. If you own a home in Arlington Heights, and one in Williams Bay, you still get to vote. In Arlington Heights. Your tax contribution to Williams Bay be damned, you do not get to vote in the Williams Bay election because you are not allowed to vote in Williams Bay. The sentence was purposefully constructed without reason. You cannot vote in the election because you are not a resident. What makes you a resident? Paying taxes? Nope. What makes you a resident is living there more than half of the time, and paying income taxes as a resident of this state. You must pay taxes, you must not tax the system, and when it comes to deciding what happens in that town you must simply bite your lip.

I believe that phenomenon is known as taxation without representation, and if you think that's acceptable then I would have to speculate which side you would have been fighting on in 1774. Even so, we must abide the rules and if you're an Illinois resident who pays significant taxes on a Wisconsin vacation home, then you have much at stake in the coming November elections and nothing you can do about it. At issue is a Gubernatorial election that pits a candidate who doesn't like taxes against a candidate who loves them. There are other issues, sure, but those are subterfuge.

Williams Bay has an interesting vote on the same ballot, and that, too, pits taxpayers against taxpayers, just that one of the taxpayers gets to vote and the other does not. There is a school referendum on the ballot, and Williams Bay has convinced itself that is must have a new elementary school. I do not disagree with this idea. I think Williams Bay does need a new elementary school. I think the old school is quaint and charming, and it is the school of my youth, but it's old and in need of considerable renovation to the point where it may be better to tear it down and start over. So let's do that, let's build a new school.

The big brick Williams Bay High School building was built on the promise of Harvard's Motorola plant swelling our location population. That plant closed a few years after it was built, and the rush of students never came. Alas, the school was built anyway, and while I cannot remember the exact cost I believe it was somewhere around $8MM. The school was built for many students, of which few are present. The new school that the village wishes to build for its elementary students is to cost $19.9MM. That's $19,900,000. For an elementary school in rural Wisconsin.

The current debt on the older new building is scheduled to be paid off this year, resulting in a possible property tax decrease of $32 per $100k of assessed value. If the new school is approved, the tax increase will be $119 per $100k of assessed value, or a $151 increase per $100k of assessed value. The $119 figure is fuzzy math, as the real increase is the $151. This is to build a $19.9MM grade school for approximately 350 students. We need a new school, because renovating the old school is probably too expensive relative to the end result. What we probably don't need is a new school that's going to cost $19.9MM. Maybe we should build a new school that costs around $10MM? But the children!

But the new school is likely going to be approved and then built, because why wouldn't it be? The residents of town get to vote on the taxation of the group that owns the bulk of the assessed value in the district- the non-resident property owners. These non-residents get to pay the bulk of the taxes, including the significant increase for the new school, yet they do not receive the benefit of education for their children. They simply come here on the weekends, support the local economies with their entertainment dollars, and then return home, to pay the same taxes on their primary homes, where they actually get a say in the matter. It's somehow unpopular for me to proclaim the taxation without representation of our vacation home owners to be unfair, but isn't it the most patriotic theme of all?

Abbey Springs Deal

Oct 20, 2014 by DC | Add comment

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I hope by now you've figured out there's a difference in the way I sell, and promote, real estate. I have, at any given time, plenty of listings. Right now, I'm a bit low on listings, but that's only because low inventory is the welcome consequence of selling inventory. It's like when there's a storm coming to pummel the East coast. The TV people report live from barren shelves of the local super center, they flash to guys using small nails to hold up large sheets of plywood, and then back to the store shelves. We're supposed to feel badly for these people, because where there once was 100 bottles of Tabasco there are now only 11. I see those empty shelves and I don't think dire thoughts, I just think, hmm, good for that retailer. Without that storm they'd still have too much Tabasco. As if there is such a thing.

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Anyway, one of the differences on my side is that, aside from being awful at returning phone calls, I don't promote my own listings at each opportunity. I think that's sort of a rookie move, to proclaim every listing the best, every view sensational, every kitchen gourmet. I think it insults the intelligence of the reader to do such things, so I try not to. If I really wanted you to buy only my listings, I'd work for a different company. Zing! Along these promotional lines, I don't like to talk about my own listings all the time, because the reality of this realty is that I possess only a miniscule fraction of the inventory. Lots of my listings are interesting and worthy, but the broader market has more to offer, so I talk about deals wherever they exist, even if there's no file on my desk authorizing my praise.

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With that, this: I have a listing in Abbey Springs that needs to sell. It makes absolutely no sense that it hasn't sold yet, and I'm taking it to you, the people, to help me. The condo is an Alpine model, which is so much better than a Lookout. It's a large unit, it's clean, it's offered fully furnished. It has a private wooded view, it's not too close to South Lakeshore Drive, and it's close enough to the clubhouse without being too close. It's a nice condo, and even if it were priced above market I'd think it to be a nice place that someone may take a bite out of. The thing is, it isn't overpriced. It isn't above market. There isn't anything wrong with it. It's tasteful, well kept, and downright cheap. Yet, for the economical nature of it, I haven't been able to sell it. For my shame.

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Earlier this year, a similar Alpine model sold for $252,500. I'm asking $249k for mine. My seller is ready to move this unit, not because he hates the unit or because he hates Abbey Springs, but because he's owned the unit for several years and it's time to pursue something else. The seller bought the unit near the peak for $306k, and if we are to believe that prices are currently somewhere between 15-20% off the prior peaks, then our value in the $240k range is further cemented. Know anyone who wants a piece of the Fontana scene for a super low admission fee? Abbey Springs offers unrivaled amenities including indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, exercise facilities, a super nice golf course (a la carte), three restaurant options and a beach and pier system. It's really quite nice, and if you could buy this unit for $240k or so, why wouldn't you?

Lake Geneva Market Update

Oct 17, 2014 by DC | Add comment
I think we need to establish a few rules today. These are very simple rules, but they have been confounding the market for a long time. Buyers mostly present in the same way. They present as though they are smart, shrewd, fiscally sound and otherwise intelligent. While they are likely all of those things in real life, real estate is not real life. Real life finds you at the grocery store with a coupon, buying the cereal that's on sale, because that's the one that's usually on sale and therefore that's the one that you like. Real life has you opting for the vacation in Cancun, because it's so much cheaper than the vacation in the Bahamas, and you know the ocean is pretty much the same. This is your real life.

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Your real estate life? You still act like you're super smart, but your actions in real estate are something that cannot be hidden. You buy something, the world knows it. You sell something, we know that, too. If you're making a move in real estate, say, in the city of Chicago, there's some anonymity to that move. There are a lot of people, after all, and you can buy something bad without many people noticing. At Lake Geneva, it's a small market, and a smaller world. It's impossible to hide what you've done here. We know what you did last summer.

That's why we must have rules, to spare you the shame of a dumb move. For instance, rule #1: If you're buying a lakefront house, you had better not be buying a shared pier. It's so simple, this rule. If there's a white pier in front of your home, and you're paying lakefront prices for that lakefront property, then the only person with permission to lounge on that pier had better be you. The neighbor up the road has an easement to use the pier? Run for the hills. See, super simple- don't buy a shared pier unless you're buying some remarkable structure for below retail, or if you're buying in an association type setting with no delusion that your purchase is private frontage. Paying private frontage retail AND you have a shared pier? Interesting.

The next rule is similar, but different. Instead of allowing another owner access to your pier, this one has to do with another owner traipsing over your property to get from point A to his point B. If your desired lakefront lot has a lakefront easement over it, I'd skip it. These easements come in various sizes and shapes, and are not all created equal. If, say, a neighbor has a tiny little strip of land that runs over the far edge of your property, and that easement allows them to gain access to the shore path, that's not really a big deal. If that easement is large enough to loiter on, and the easement spills from your land onto another person's pier, this is bad news. Remember, shared piers- Bad. Easements- Bad. These rules are not very difficult.

There are properties pending today, lots of them. There are some lake access homes pending sale including one in Oakwood Estates and another two in Country Club Estates. There's a cool little cabin on Aspen Lane pending sale, and another little cabin in Oak Shores waiting to close. There's a little joint with a slip and a view pending in Wooddale, priced in the low $600s. A home in Shore Haven just sold for $860k, which was a great price for that seller on that home. There are some other homes on that street that seem ready to sell, and I'd be tempted to buy a cheaper one and throw a big renovation on top of it rather than buy something that's farther from the lake, but that's just me.

There's a small lakefront in Cedar Point Park for $1.3MM pending sale, and that one has some shared things, and I don't like sharing. There's a large home off Glen Fern pending, one with a slip and a big lot but no lakefront or lakeview. That's listed just under $1.5MM, and it would make a fine primary home, or a nice, large vacation home, whichever. It's in a high rent district, so I'm a fan of that property and that sale, even if the house itself does need to be de-1990-ed. (Update, that home just closed for $1.37MM)

The lakefront on the side of the cliff in Fontana (actually Walworth Township) is pending, with a list of $1.7MM. That's a neat old house with a great lake view and 100' of frontage. On paper, it's really a nice deal, presuming it sells sub $1.5MM. I showed that house many times over the last few years, and never had any success in talking a buyer into it. The house needs a lot of work, and even once that work is finished the access to the house from the road will forever be tricky, as will the access from the house to the lake. It's a good house for someone, and we can all be thankful that it doesn't have a shared pier, or shared frontage.

A house in the Birches just sold for $2.4MM. The house was mostly log cabin-ish, so if someone wanted to get their Minocqua fix in Lake Geneva, they'll now be accomplishing that. Was it a great deal? Nah. Was it a fine deal? Sure. It was a nice house, so even if the frontage was steep, it's okay. The spec home in the South Shore Club that was built on lot 3 just closed as well, for $1.645MM. That sale is very important for the SSC, as it re-establishes the floor that I've seen develop over many years. There are two other homes for sale on that street, Forest Hill, but not a single home available on the circle that views the lake and the pool. This is a wonderful situation for the SSC to be in, as the inventory that has plagued the club for the last six years has finally been cleared. There's a foreclosure coming back to market there in the next few weeks, but that'll sell and simply add to the momentum here.

Lastly, I'm pleased to announce that I have a contract pending on my large lakefront listing on the North Shore. Listed at $5.995MM, this is, by a million miles, the best dirt available on the lake. 5.3 acres with 234' of levelish frontage does not come to market often, and when it does, it's certain to attract discerning value hunters. That's what's happening now, and assuming we can work through to the successful close, the buyer will be situated on one of the top 20 pieces of land on the entire lake. I mean, I haven't counted them exactly, but I'm guessing. Also, no shared pier.

This weekend, as I said before, will be glorious. Be here.

Lake Geneva Fall Color

Oct 15, 2014 by DC | Add comment
The salmon run. They run up streams in Michigan and in Indiana and Minnesota. They run up streams in Ohio and New York. They run from salty oceans and up fresh streams in California and Oregon and Washington. These salmon run up streams in Wisconsin, too, and there's some tangible proof that our Wisconsin salmon runs are as prolific as any salmon run anywhere. Unfortunately for these salmon, they run up the rivers' Pike and Root, and Milwaukee, and Oak. They run through city parks and back alley parking lots, through golf course fairways choked with chemicals. All the while, they must run through and around the sharp hooks of the fall meat fisherman that line those muddy banks from dawn until dusk, day after day.

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The problem with the fall salmon run is that it always happens, but it happens on its own schedule. If you were to plan a fishing trip to catch one of those massive salmon while they're struggling up those tiny streams, you'd be welcome to do so. Plan away. You could plan that trip for when you know the salmon typically run. Since they run from mid September until late October, you figure you stand a fighting chance at a hook up if you fish for them on October 1st. The fish will be running by then, and the fishing message boards are full of chatter in the days leading up to your trip. The day before your trip the message boards go dark, which is good, because fishersorts only talk when there's no fish to be caught. Silence speaks with the most clarity.

You arrive to fish, but find only a few scraggly fish, those ones that bear the signs of a difficult struggle upstream, through that dirty urban river. The banks are littered with rotting fish, the smell so pungent that you knew you had missed the primary run from the moment you pulled your car off the side of the road and opened your door. Rotting salmon smells like any other rotting fish, except that rotting salmon are huge and so the smell is, too. The salmon run for six weeks, maybe longer, but the run isn't marked by a few fish swimming into that river mouth every few hours, it's marked by an all-out rush upstream on that first day that the river breaks through the beach, pushed higher and stronger by a heavy fall rain. You may have found a salmon or two swimming in circles with a big casting spoon and a few feet of trailing fishing line hanging from their backs, but you missed the peak of that previously glorious run.

It's no coincidence that this salmon run happens in the fall. Just like the run, the fall is a mysterious creature. It's summer one day, fall the next. Then it's summer, then winter, perhaps fall for another day or two, then spring, followed by winter. Fall lasts for quite a long time, but that's only because November is still fall. The fall we all want, like that salmon rush on the day the river breaks into the great lake, is happening right, precisely, exactly now.

Last weekend was glorious, but the fall colors were yet to make their strongest impression. Today, through these low clouds and this petulant rain, I see colors. I see yellows and oranges and reds and browns. Yes, there are still greens, but those greens have a rapidly approaching expiration date. Once those greens turn to something else, they're not going to be here forever. In fact, they're going to be here just long enough for you to catch a glimpse, before the rain returns and the wind tears each and every one of those leaves from their summer homes.

Peak Lake Geneva color will be happening this weekend through the following weekend, barring too much of that wind and rain. Sure, you can wait. You can show up sometime in a few weeks and think that what you see is a Lake Geneva fall. You can also drive up to the Root River today and snag some nasty, rotting salmon.

Geneva National Market Update

Oct 13, 2014 by DC | Add comment
The American real estate story, as told from the mid 1990s through today, could very easily be told not through lots and lots of words, but simply through reading the closing statements of the homes that I've personally bought and sold. My story started in 1997, when I bought a small home on Clover Street in Williams Bay. The story wove through Walworth County, but no farther East than Knollwood and no farther South than Kinzie Street in Fontana. My current house is the westerly boundary of my pursuits, and the northern boundary is Geneva National. I spent plenty of years there, as renter, as owner, as builder, as schemer.

In the summer of one year I bought a two bedroom Fairway condominium in Geneva National. That was as far north as I had previously gone, and to this day that's still as far north as I ever got. The condo was nice, enough. It looked like the early 1990s, with green this and oak that, plastic counters and square white tiles. The purpose of buying that condo on that day was simply to have a place to find shelter while I built the house on Saratoga that I had planned to call home. I bought the condo for $144k, or maybe it was $146k. It didn't matter, because the year was 2006 and it was very hard to make a short term housing mistake then. I bought the unit, took down the wallpaper, tiled some bits, put granite where there once was plastic, painted things, changed the mantel, and did the revolutionary thing of the day: Hung a TV on the wall.

A year later, my house was nearing completion, so I put the unit on the market and sold it. It was, literally, that easy. Listed, sold. $188k, as I recall. A tidy profit for my efforts that were rather minimal. The fall that I sold that condo represented the peak of the market at GN. There have been fits and starts since then, spurts of activity that looked as though they would be the start of a market re-born; of a market that had once again found its stride. Since that fall, every sign of recovery has proven a false start. I don't say that glibly, as I have seen how powerful the market in GN can be, and I see how feeble it is today. Geneva National, no matter how hard it tries, just cannot gain any momentum.

I had a listing in GN earlier this year. The property was nice, and it wasn't all that expensive. I had showings galore, and one miserable offer that the buyer should have actually been visibly embarrassed to write. I failed to sell that house, just as I failed to sell the last condo I had available there. Earlier this fall, I had a call from a nice owner in GN, and after I bumbled the return of that call for a while, I had to come out and say it: I had no secret formula to sell a house in GN. I had no edge. I had no insight into who the buyer was and how we might find her. I had to level with that seller and simply tell him there is nothing aside from persistence that can sell a property in Geneva National.

Last spring I had an inkling that GN was about to rebound with some serious intent. The spring numbers looked solid, and there was plenty of activity. Interest rates were low, prices were low, and GN, while mired in a market slump, was still looking and acting like a high end resort development. More on that look later, but once the spring of 2013 turned to summer, the market recovery that I thought I saw was nowhere to be found. It was a head fake, nothing else. Consider this: By October 13, 2012 there has been 29 YTD sales. In 2013, the year that I thought started with an obvious bang, there were 49 YTD sales. But this year, this 2014, the year that the rest of the market looks fully recovered, there have been just 32 YTD sales.

Volume isn't the only way to judge market momentum, as low inventory markets can stall out on volume but still excel in market performance. In high inventory markets, like GN, volume is the best gauge of market strength, and so we must acknowledge that the performance this year is lackluster at best. For all this devil's advocacy I'm doing, there are some positive signs. Inventory is falling a bit. Prices are still falling, mostly, which means buyers will be forced to pay attention and focused buyers means sales volume. The foreclosures that have been constantly tripping GN are abating, and fewer foreclosures combined with less inventory should allow GN to continue its slow slog towards normalcy.

There are 99 active listings in GN this morning. There are three more pending sale. I continue to believe that GN is the easiest way for a family on a budget to buy and own a vacation home at Lake Geneva. I was showing economical condominiums there last week, and I was a bit surprised at how cheap some of the condo units have become. $150k buys a pretty nice little place, one that I'd be more than pleased to frequent on weekends. For all the difficulties at GN, remember that the development is simply too nice, the terrain too varied, the woods too deep, the scenery too pleasant. Markets change, interest rates will rise, but developments that have unique visual appeal should always find their way back. Some just take far too long.

Lake Geneva Oktoberfest

Oct 10, 2014 by DC | Add comment
There's a website operated by one of my competitors that lists a billion things to do in Lake Geneva. I'm sure it's helpful. I, too, fall into the trap of listing things to do, but I only list the things that I'd actually like to do at the time that I'd like to do them. For instance, in the fall, I go to the orchard. I don't go to the orchard in the summer, nor do I go in the young fall. I don't even want to go to the orchard on moderately warm days. I want to go orcharding when it's downright chilly. When the wind blows and the leaves are past their peak show. I like to go to the orchard and drink coffee, not because I need to stay awake but because I'm cold and I need the coffee to warm me. This is why I haven't yet told anyone to go to the orchard. There's a time for that, and it's not quite now.

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If I told you to go to Venetian Fest, I'm sorry. I don't go. I don't like carnies so much, which may mean I'm missing out on bundles of fun. If that's the case, so be it. It's because I'm judicious with my attempt at dictating your leisure schedule that there should be some power behind an actual endorsement. If I told you a zillion things to do at the lake, you could bet that many, many billions would be really, really bad. Have you ever heard me tell you to go bowling? Of course not. I'm cautious and selective, because most times just being at the lake is retreat and entertainment enough. What's better than a Saturday lakeside with nothing on the schedule?

This weekend, you should probably be at the lake. Lake Geneva's Oktoberfest is today, Saturday, and Sunday. You should go. The weather is going to feel like fall. The lake looks like fall. The trees are starting to get with the program. There are shops in town to patronize, drinks to be imbibed, food to be consumed, and goods to buy. There's also a section of roadway on Broad Street that will likely be closed to vehicular traffic, so anytime you can wander down the middle of a Lake Geneva street on a weekend is a good time. There will be horses, and some hay, probably pumpkins. Corn, too. Field corn, dried and tied.

That's it. That's what you should do. That's what the city of Lake Geneva would like you to do, but what of the rest of the weekend? In all fairness to the festival, there's little go capture your attention beyond a couple of hours. The rest of the weekend you should do something just as fun, something far more relaxing, and something way more worthwhile: You should do nothing.

The art of doing nothing is nearly lost. Like blacksmithing and buying vacation homes in Michigan. There's always something to do, especially at Lake Geneva, but what if the best thing to do on any given weekend is precisely nothing? Why must we always be doing something? I have a good friend who has dozens of children. He may not have that many, but the number feels that strong when in their collective presence. He is tired, a lot. I tell him that he's tired not because of the 28 kids, but because he doesn't have any true, daily, down time. He has no window at night, when the kids are asleep in their beds, their futons, and in their drawers. No time to rest on a couch with a news show flickering in the background. No time to just be. There's tremendous power in being.

This weekend, I'd like you to visit Lake Geneva. Not for my good, but for that of our retailers and those people who are, at this very moment, loading their tame horses into a trailer to drive to Lake Geneva. After you visit the town, and stroll our perfect streets, go somewhere and do nothing. If you have a home here, go there and rest. Sit on a deck in the sun, or sit on a couch in front of the first fire of the season. Stroll around your yard, down the shore path, some ways but not so far as the walking could be construed as purposeful exercise. Just enjoy the lake and this cool October, and set your mind to accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Variety

Oct 08, 2014 by DC | Add comment
The people who make cars make them in silver and black and white and red. Most of the cars on the road fall under one of those four schemes. Is graphite a dark silver or a faded black? It doesn't matter. Those people who make our cars also make them in purple and orange and yellow and bright, Mountain Dew Green. The people who make jelly beans make them in raspberry, cherry, lime, and strawberry. They make mixtures of those, too, like strawberry-lime and raspberry-cherry, the latter of which is more than likely to be simply called Double Berry because it's more marketable. Those people also make salty popcorn jelly beans, and dour anise ones.

There's a nice house with vinyl cladding on the side of that popular interstate. I mean, it's not popular because people like it, but if you thought that people drove on certain roads in great masses and at the same time, and you thought that doing so made a road popular, then this road is as popular as they get. Big semis with Canadian license plates like that road, too. They particularly like it late into the night and early into the morning, when they engine break even though the signs clearly tell them not to. That house that shares a backyard fence with that wide road is $319k.

There's a house a ways away from there, in a nice subdivision with trees and grass and mailboxes with names on them. That house, it has cedar on its exterior walls, and the end of that cul-de-sac backs up only to some trees. A distance farther into those trees, there's a wetland, and while there are some mosquitoes that dwell there, it's generally considered to be a very nice swamp. This home is in the township next to the interstate, but it's on the other side of the township- the side that borders that Preserve, not the side that borders that great concrete vein. The house with the mailbox and the deck and all those trees is listed for $319k.

In the sixth grade, my friend's grandparents had a home in Florida. My friend went there every winter for a week. He came back to school tanned with stories of pools and palm trees and alligators and for at least some time after his return, he wore a shark tooth around his neck. His grandparents must have lived on the ocean, I figured, in a great big house with a great big boat out front. In Florida, there are lots and lots of homes. It wasn't until I visited Florida some time after the sixth grade that I realized Florida was not all alligators and palm trees and ocean-side mansions. It was also inland deserts and scabby swamps and trailer parks. Lots and lots of trailer parks.

These Florida homes are available all over, and right now there's one with a tile roof and a small backyard pool listed for $279k. That's a nice house, and it's in Naples. Not the nice Naples where the glamorous people shop and dine, but Naples nonetheless. From this home, you can drive to the airport in 30 minutes or less, or you can drive the other direction and find the beach in 10 minutes. You can drive to window shop on that famous shopping street, and you can dine waterside, assuming you're not golfing in a cart of gulfing in a boat. This is a nice place, Naples.

Farther north a long ways, there's a town. It's in Florida, but it's not close to anything except Orlando. There are pools there, and golf courses, and scabby swamps with some alligators and long-legged white birds. There's a house there, too, and it has a tiled roof and a small backyard pool. It's listed for $279k, and it's fine enough. The owners decided to paint it the color of a Florida sunset, so it's mostly orange with some yellow on the eaves. There are some restaurants in that town, but one of those is Waffle House, so I suppose there are really only two other restaurants. There's a theater, too, and if a movie releases on October 25th, that theater is sure to get it sometime around Christmas. The golf course there is simple, straight up one way and then straight back, again and again until 18 holes are completed. The carts are gas, but there's a rumor that they'll be getting four electric ones for next year.

Today, I was going to contrast sales volume on Geneva this year over last year, and then compare that to the Delavan Lake market over the same two tenures. I started looking at some of the Delavan sales, and I couldn't imagine, not for the life of me, why some of those homes sold. One in particular struck me in the way that that ugly baby struck that doctor on that one Seinfeld- breathtaking. It's a good thing we all like different things, otherwise there would be no one to buy that house near the interstate. There would be no one to eat the popcorn jelly beans and drive that purple crossover hatchback. There would be no one to buy that house in that no-name, land locked Florida town, and there certainly wouldn't have been anyone to buy that breathtaking lakefront on Delavan.

The O'Leary Double Standard

Oct 06, 2014 by DC | Add comment
There are benefits to having this new television in my office. For starters, it's nice to have something to keep me company. The constant dim glow that I can catch from the corner of my right eye is a pleasant office-mate. When the markets are having good days, I enjoy the green arrows and breathless hype. When the market is down, I abide the red arrows and the breathless hype. I get to listen to the populist snippets of David Faber, and judge the day to day pony tail stylings of one of, or maybe both, the Najarian brothers. And last week, I spotted the always snide Kevin O'Leary, doing what he does best: Telling people not to buy real estate.

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Mr. O'Leary, a Canadian, suggests that in a rising interest rate environment, it's best to keep your money out of real estate and into the stock market. He has all sorts of reasons for this, but most of it has to do with liquidity and return on capital, which are the sorts of concerns that can keep people from actually enjoying their lives. Kevin, as I'm now going to call him, just doesn't see the point in owning houses. He feels so incredibly strong about this stance that he owns homes in Toronto, Boston, and Switzerland. Those are the ones we know about, but there are bound to be others. On that list I'm seeing all cool weather destinations, so there has to be an island home in the mix somewhere. Of course all of this means that Kevin loves his real estate, but he doesn't love it for you.

That's because Kevin is super rich, and he'd have you know that on account of this, he doesn't mind owning real estate. In fact, he loves owning it. His homes are lavish, or at least I'll assume they are, as his primary residence is on Marlborough Street in Boston. If you also hate real estate, there's a nice brownstone on the market there for $4.9MM. His lake home, on Lake Joseph in Ontario is pictured above, and it's obviously a quaint little cottage, just some place to hang his hat when he's not in Switzerland. There's a strange variety of ego involved in proclaiming something to be toxic while personally indulging in it.

This most recent real estate cycle of boom and bust has spawned many, many demographically bases real estate studies. At first, there was a made up trend that said people didn't want big homes anymore. It said they wanted basic little cottages, because real estate, the studies supposed, was a tough investment that people would rather shy away from. Then, there were studies that came to the conclusion that we would become a nation of renters, not out of necessity, but by choice. Even conservatives like Chicago's Jonathan Hoenig subscribed to this theory. Most recently, some guessed that newly minted adults, whatever their generation is called, would not buy real estate as had their parents and grandparents, because they didn't want to get burned by depreciation and burdened by responsibility.

All of those theories have proven to be mostly wrong. The newest generation wants to buy real estate, but many cannot, because of the job deficit and a general apathy towards adulthood and the things that feel adulty- like home ownership. The average new house built in the US is now 2,598 square feet, besting the previous record of 2,521 square feet set at the market's peak in 2007. From this vantage point in late 2014, it's obvious that most of the "lessons" learned from the last bubble have been either quickly forgotten or summarily dismissed. Why? Because home ownership can be difficult and is, at times, troubling, but it's also incredibly satisfying.

Just remember the lesson of our real estate guru Mr. Kevin O'Leary. He's going to keep on owning his fabulous real estate, but he still thinks that you should be a renter.

Lakefront Condo Market Update

Oct 03, 2014 by David | Add comment
Times were, a condo buyer was a condo buyer. They wanted a condo because they liked the idea of having someone to handle their maintenance for them, and they weren't looking for anything but a condo. If they were looking for a condo on Geneva, they liked that they'd have a nice lake view, perhaps a boat slip, and maybe a pool or a tennis court or some other amenity. This is what they wanted, and they looked at condos until they found the condo they liked. Life was so simple back then.

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When the market sputtered, all segments of our vacation home market were thrown into some level of chaos. The condo market looked like it might suffer some serious foreclosure trouble, and one astute young man who writes a real estate blog speculated that lakefront condo foreclosures may become common. The theory was that condo buyers were often leveraged, and many condos sold at peak valuations. Throw in complete illiquidity, high monthly fees, somewhat high taxes, and you would have the makings of a mini-foreclosure boom. That was the theory, but that didn't happen. Very few foreclosures occurred on the lakefront, but the market suffered nonetheless.

When buyers returned, they were no longer true condo buyers. Most were price range buyers, seeking out something to buy in a specific price range- say $500k. If you're a $500k buyer, you have options here. You can buy a condo on the water, yes, with a lake view and maybe a slip and perhaps a pool, or you could buy a classic cottage, with a slip and no view, or maybe just a nice home off the lake a ways with no slip and no view, but a super shiny kitchen. Post-apocalypse buyers were rarely focused solely on condominiums, instead opting to explore all of their housing options, condo or otherwise. This open minded approach hurt the condo market.

There are macro forces at work that have also hurt the condo market. Our buyer at Lake Geneva can be anyone, but increasingly our buyers are young city dwellers. If you live in the city, in a condo or a narrow brownstone, you're looking to get to the lake to escape congestion. Because of that, this buyer rarely looks at condominiums. They opt for cottages with yards, for those sort of single lane associations with community and freedom, like Shore Haven, or the Lake Geneva Club, or the Loch Vista Club. They aren't looking for condominiums.

Another issue with the condo market is that the condo model has proven, time and time again, to be broken. Condominiums operate on the theory that every owner pays a little to the association every month, and when a repair is needed the association has the money to make that repair. It's a nice idea, really, but perhaps it's a bit naive. The way condos typically work is an association takes your monthly money, spends it on whatever, and then when the roof needs replacing they levy a special assessment to pay for the roof. The model is broken, and when you combine that with the demographic shift in our buyer base, you have the makings for a very slow lakefront condo market.

The good news, after all of that bad news, is that the condo market has finally recovered. There have been 10 lakefront condo sales YTD, and that's a lot. At this time in 2013 we had only sold 3 lakefront condo units, so our volume this year speaks for itself. The inventory has also dwindled, with only 14 lakefront condos on the market today. There are units pending at Bay Colony (two have sold there this year), and one at Fontana Shores. Fontana Shores is probably the best value on the lake right now, as those units are able to be bought in the low $300s and while the building may not be much to look at, the views from those units are among the best on the lake.

Prices have fallen in these lakefront condominiums, but they really haven't fallen as much as the broad vacation home market. I'd guess prices are about 20% off the peak, which is about right, the important difference being the lakefront condo market never plummeted to a 40% discount from peak in the same way that the single family market did. With the two units pending, I'd expect another two sales of other units yet this year, bringing the 2014 total volume to 14. That's peak market volume, so perhaps the lakefront condo market isn't really dead at all.

Upper Bracket Lakefront Update

Oct 01, 2014 by David | Add comment
I rarely play the lottery. That's not because I once won a huge sum of money via the lottery and now I don't need to play the lottery, it's just because I don't ever win. If the lottery makes the news, and everyone is saying that everyone is buying tickets, then I, too, will buy some tickets. Usually five dollars worth, however many tickets that buys. That's what I play, and when I do play, after I receive the computer generated combination of numbers, I am quite confident that I will be winning this lottery. I wonder why others even bother playing, given that their purchase will only serve to drive up my winning purse. I appreciate the other ticket buyers, I think, because of this. But when the numbers are drawn I rarely think about checking my paper stub. That's because I know I'll never, ever win.

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But between the time that I buy the tickets and the time that the actual winner finds out that he has won, I speculate what I'll do with my riches. I'll buy a few houses, in a few different spots. I'll buy some cars and some watches, and flocks of bald eagles. I'll give plenty of money away to organizations that deserve some money, and I'll give at least a taste to my family members. How much I'll give them depends on how much money is left after I buy all those miniature giraffes.

I think about which house I'll buy, and I've generally decided that if Pat Ryan won't sell me his house in the woods, I'll just buy the next big thing out there. Will I care about the price? Very, very little. After all, I received that giant cardboard check and took the lump sum. I'll find the best house with the best land in the best spot on the lake, and I'll strike. I'll buy other houses elsewhere in the country, too, and perhaps one in the Bahamas or Caymans where I'll keep most of my gold bars. The houses I'll buy in other places will be houses, but my lakefront masterpiece here will be my home. That's what I'll do with my money, when I win that lottery that I hardly ever play.

Aside from me winning the lottery, what else is there to move the epic estates on Geneva Lake? A drive around this lake on a boat will reveal stupendous amounts of wealth, and the cherished, manicured prizes that this wealth brings. There are estates that should be valued in the $20MM range, or higher. There are other estates where the investments into the property total near those numbers, regardless of what the actual market value is. There is tremendous wealth here, and the houses prove that. But are these homes liquid? Are the investments able to be traded as other investments? Are these high end properties conventional investments at all, where the return is measured in dollars and not in quality of life?

The upper bracket market on Geneva operates best through a series of smoke and mirrors. We have existing homes aplenty with valuations over $8MM. We have lots over $10MM and more over $15MM. Some are so impressive that they compete with the finest estates the global real estate market has to offer. Yet, for all the wealth and all the improved real estate, our market is at its best when this inventory never hits the MLS. Our market shows best when a drive around the lake showcases the homes themselves, not the gaudy real estate signs proclaiming FOR SALE on the piers and in the lawns. The market hosts huge properties worth huge sums of money, but the market operates most smoothly when these homes stay off the market.

There is weakness exposed when many marquee lakefronts hit the market during the same year, and that is the case today. We have a long history of success at Lake Geneva, of printing high dollar volume sales and spinning large tracts of land from own rich owner to another. What we do not have is any history that proves the properties priced in the $10MM range are liquid. We have, in the history of Lake Geneva, one sale that has printed over $8MM. That's the Pritzker purchase of Casa Del Sueno ($9.7MM). That tells me that properties in the $10MM range are indeed liquid, assuming we have billionaires in the market at all times, which, of course, we do not.

So what of the current state of the high end Lake Geneva market? We have plenty of inventory, indeed more so than we have ever had in my lifetime. Yet, for the quality inventory and the overall strength of the lakefront market, we have yet to trade one of these large properties. Why? Is there a problem here? Is the market overheated, and thus the uber-rich are aware of that and are sitting on the sidelines? Is there something fundamentally wrong with Lake Geneva real estate? No, on all counts.

There's a very simple reason why none of these elite listings have sold, as of yet. That reason, truly and profoundly, is because the upper bracket buyer has not yet presented himself (herself). In an exactingly precise, low volume market like ours, there are marquee buyers for marquee properties. If there weren't, we wouldn't have a situation like we have had recently at Alta Vista. A few years ago, a buyer bought a vacant lot for $6MM. Then built a house for untold sums of money, then bought the neighboring lakefront house for $3.8MM (give or take), and tore it down. Then purchased a small off-water home behind his estate for $880k (or thereabouts). This investment is likely approaching $20MM. This is the sort of buyer that buys high end property on Lake Geneva, but this is the sort of buyer that only presents every now and then. This is not a standard issue buyer, and those properties looking for this caliber of client must simply wait for the buyer to appear.

That sounds simple, but it's actually the key to understanding the high end market on Lake Geneva. If a house is listed at $7MM and it hasn't sold, what does that tell us? Well, if the house is at all in the price range it should be, and that's always a big if, and if the broker representing the property is somewhat competent (again, a big if), then what's the reason that it hasn't sold? Should we reduce the price, from $7MM to $6.9MM? Will that attract the buyer we seek? Nah, instead we should stay the course and realize that these upper bracket buyers are rare, with an average of one coming to this market per year, and we must simply wait for the timing to be right. If we advertise in China's top newspaper, will that yield a $7MM buyer for Lake Geneva real estate? Not likely. That $7MM home will sell when a family with a Lake Geneva connection sells their family business for a couple hundred mil and decides that the time is right to put down roots on these shores. Or when a buyer has admired Lake Geneva from afar for years, and then finds the financial ability to make a big splash and enter the market in style. That's when an upper bracket lakefront sells. In the mean time? Crickets.