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Perspective Sadness

Perspective Sadness

This very well could have been the Cubs Didn’t Get Swept But They’re Still Terrible Sadness post, but that wasn’t really bothering me this morning. The Cubs were beat by a vastly superior team.  Perhaps if our big hitters had hit and our decent pitchers were decent, then maybe things would have been different. But they weren’t different. They were awful. Just awful. Embarrassingly awful. And so for now my only Cubs memory from 2017 will be one of joy. Joy that I didn’t spend any money to attend a playoff loss.

Even this, though, is about perspective. The Cubs were bad in these playoffs. Really bad. Don’t forget they were also bad last year in some of those games. Super bad. But they still won a lot of games and we still were able to watch terrible baseball well into October, and so this is something good.  Perspective as it relates to baseball fandom is not really difficult. Just remember your team was better than most of the other teams, and in that there is some consolation. We could have been Brewers fans. Perspective in real estate transactions? It’s as rare as a Lackey fastball that doesn’t end up in the basket.

When real estate deals are small, every dollar really matters. If you’re a seller of a house listed at $119k your contract is for $114k,  your mortgage payoff is $105,989 and your closing costs total $8155, then numbers really, really matter.  The car needs rear brakes and there’s a final balloon payment past due on Timmy’s braces. These are difficult times and those are difficult circumstances.  Real estate transactions are all stressful, no matter the dollar amount or the location, but are all transactions created equal? Not at all.

And this is where the perspective comes in. The earlier example is indeed a stressful situation. It’s stressful because in that life, every single dollar matters. Every dollar is one to be stressed over. If a deal with that structure requires a $4,000 inspection repair to be made in order to keep the deal together, that $4k is the difference between solvency and insolvency. Not between life and death, but in that circumstance that’s likely how it feels.

Now, find another deal. Say one on Geneva Lake. One where the sales price isn’t $115,000, but $3,500,000. The mortgage is $1,700,000 and the closing costs are $150,000. Now add in the $4,000 inspection repair or credit. Does this matter? Is this something that means anything at all? Is this something to languish over? Is this something to dwell on? The answer is painfully obvious, but in this real world of high end real estate, many people still dwell on it like it’s the last $4,000 that was earmarked for paying past due medical bills. This is a shame.

This is where perspective is lost. Abandoned, willingly, routinely. Large real estate deals require large amounts of perspective, and this perspective comes in the form of not fighting over insignificant amounts of money. But David, every dollar counts! Yes, I understand that. But do I? When I sell a house that I personally own, I’ll make repairs to that house regardless of what was, or was not, found in an inspection report. I do this because I want the new buyer to be happy. I don’t want the new buyer to wander around the house the day after the closing and curse my name for the things I covered up.

But this isn’t just about sellers. This is also about buyers. Let’s say that the seller won’t make a repair. Let’s say they refuse to give you that $175 plumbing fix. Is this going to ruin your life? Is it really going to make the house you already decided you want to own somehow inhabitable? Is it going to matter at all? Does any of this actually matter?

Today, it’s just about simple perspective. Do what’s right. Today in Lake Geneva there are lots of deals. Lots of high end deals. Lots of lakefront sales for big dollars and off-water sales for big dollars. Sellers, please listen to me. If a buyer wants to give you $1,500,000 in cash and they expect you to fix two leaky faucets and a rotted windowsill, just go along with it. Be happy. Life is good. It’s short. And that plumber’s bill isn’t going to require your last $175.

Construction Sadness

Construction Sadness

I’ve decided, in the wake of the Cubs miserable, awful, embarrassing performance this week, to make every post a sad one. Monday, Multiple Offer Sadness. Today, Construction Sadness. Friday, likely, NLCS Sweep Sadness.  For those not paying close attention, I have been building a small fishing cabin not too terribly far from Walworth County. It’s not super far, but it’s still far. It’s far enough that it breaks my own rule for vacation home proximity, which is similar to last week when I broke my own rule about not burning fires until such and such. The rain was a cold rain!  And in the case of this proximity breaker, the trout fishing was just not good enough closer to home.

My relationship with construction is complicated. Extremely complicated. On one hand, I crave it. I enjoy the creativity the process allows. I enjoy the implementation of a vision. Sometimes, it’s a vision that only I can see, and so I take great pride in delivering what no one else expected. Earlier in  my life, this took the form of remodeling projects. When visitors would stop during various stages of the disaster that is a gut remodel, they’d shake their heads. They’d tell me they don’t think it’s going to work. I paid too much. I improved too much. I was always disheartened by those words, but they fueled my desire to deliver a product that would defy their negativity. In the end, the projects all resulted in success.

The last few construction projects have been new builds, from the ground up. This process is different but still the same. It requires a vision, but mostly it requires dedication to the process. The last house I built is the house I live in now. I finished that home in 2013, and it’s been a dandy of a house for me and my family. The construction process at that house was unique, in that I built the home when the market was poor which meant plenty of tradespeople were willing to work for reasonable wages. Further, those who weren’t affordable were available, and the project started in September and finished the next May. The current project is a handful of highway hours away, in a county where no one knows me and I know no one, in a region where work is a nice suggestion but not really something toward which anyone feels a particular fondness.

Once the land was purchased (that took two full years of searching), the project began. It was a modest project. 1200 square feet, give or take. A rectangle of a house with a tall gable and some cedar shingles. Much to the horror of this Lake Geneva market, I stained the shingles black. Like the night (my wife did much of the staining).  The bathrooms were lined with marble, or are, at least in theory, in the process of being lined with marble. My tile guy hasn’t reported for duty for a few months, but I’m sure he has a terrific reason.

When ground was first torn up by the rusted dozer that cut a twisty path up the side of that hill, the goal was to have the house finished in four months.  Maybe four and a half. Maybe less.  The dozer cut that path 16 months ago. The house is not yet finished. In fact, the house is not even close to being finished. I tell my wife that it’s almost done, and then I look over the list of things remaining. Trim, paint, floors, tile, bathrooms, plumbing, kitchen cabinets, countertops, appliances. It’s really not much of a list, or so go the unconvincing lies I repeatedly tell myself. The project, once a chorus of so much enthusiasm and light, has turned into a dirge.

The process has, however, afforded me many lessons. I sympathize on a deeper level with my Illinois clients who have a hard time getting contractors to do work here. I understand customers who are embroiled in multi-month, multi-year construction projects. How can something take so long? It just can. And I understand that better now.  In spite of the deep construction based depression that has consumed me, this project has given me an opportunity to practice what I preach. Give the market what it doesn’t expect. If the market expects carpet give it hardwood. Make it wide plank. If the market expects vinyl, give it cedar. If ceramic bathrooms with one piece plastic showers are good, then line the bathroom in marble. If Home Depot light fixtures light the neighboring comps, send all of your money to Restoration Hardware and use their lights instead. Markets give clues as to what construction standard is acceptable. If the market is nuanced and there’s an opportunity to create value by creating a superior product, then create it.

Multiple Offer Sadness

Multiple Offer Sadness

When I dream, I dream of the good old days. Of the days before these days. The days when things were worse.   I dream of anxious sellers and opportunistic buyers. Of numbers. Of $3.95MM asking prices that yielded $3.25MM sales prices. I dream of the days when agents were leaving the business instead of charging into it. I dream of aged inventory, of sellers begging. I dream of buyers who’d buy something as long as they were buying it cheap. What was that something? It didn’t matter. I dream of these days, of the days that everyone else thought were bad. There’s just something quaint about a poor market.  I’ll forever cherish the memory of those darker days.

But today there’s nothing dark at all. There’s only light. Bright, screaming lights. The market is hot, which you already know because I’ve told you too many times. There are plenty of dangers in this hot market, and unfortunately, those dangers are dismissed by buyers who either don’t know better, or by buyers working with agents who don’t know better. I can’t be certain which is the chicken and which is the egg. In this new era of hurried activity, the multiple offer situation has returned. Buyers bemoan this development. Sellers delight in it. Agents? Well, we hate it.

Over the past few months, I’ve been part of more multiple offer situations than I had been involved in over the previous several years. What’s a multiple offer situation? It’s just like it sounds. The house is listed. An offer is written. The seller starts negotiating that offer.   The agent, doing the agent’s job, tells some other agents that there’s an offer in on the property. Another agent writes an offer. Now there are two offers. The seller is thrilled, as his negotiating capital just increases dramatically. The buyers are anxious. Angry. Hurt. Hate-filled.  The agent is playing them, they think. The agent is taking advantage of the situation, they think. The agent is doing this to ruin their lives, they think.

Newsflash. Agents like selling houses. That’s because we chose this profession, if it can be called that, to make money. I sell real estate because I’m good at it, and because I’m good at it I make money to pay for such extravagances as a mortgage, and taxes. Also, groceries. Agents do this job because we make money at it. To assume we do it because we like “people” is to assume a hedge fund manager loves his job because he likes to create liquidity. We all do jobs to get paid. In the case of a multiple offer negotiation, agents will hopefully still get paid, but there’s a significant amount of work that accompanies this situation. Pop Quiz: If Jimmy the agent makes $100 for working one hour, or $100 for working two hours, which would Jimmy prefer?

Multiple offers are once again common in this market. There can be only one buyer for any given house. This means one buyer will be happy and another buyer will be sad. Did the agent contrive this situation to make someone angry and sad? Don’t be ridiculous. The agent, no matter how convenient it is to assume, is not the bad guy. Sure, there are awful agents. Terrible, horrible agents. But I’m writing this from my position, as an agent that isn’t either of those things.

The other condition that is increasingly prevalent is the secondary offer. This differs from the multiple offer situation, in that the secondary offer is only written after a primary offer is accepted. This is akin to walking into a furniture store and stumbling upon the most beautiful couch. This is the couch you’ve spent your whole life waiting for. Nothing else matters, except this couch.  You ask the sales lady for the price.  It’s within your budget! And for such a couch as this! But the sales lady notices the tag hanging next to the price. SOLD, the tag says. She tells you that sometimes these couch deals fall apart, and that if the buyer for whom the SOLD tag was written doesn’t make good on the purchase, then you, YES YOU, can buy that couch. You agree to these terms, and you wait by the phone.  Sleep is for those who have never laid eyes upon this couch.

A week goes by. You’ve heard nothing. You call the store. The sales lady is at lunch. You call later, and she says the couch is still in the store, and the primary buyer is supposed to come in tomorrow to pick the couch up. Not liking this answer, you lash out. You tell the sales lady how awful she is. How she must be lying to you. How this isn’t the way things work.  Ah, but this is the way things work. This is the way real estate works. The primary buyer is the primary buyer until he isn’t. If you’re a secondary buyer, please relax. The agent is not doing this to ruin your day. The agent, in fact, hates this almost as much as you do. Why? Because this creates extra work for the agent, and as our prior example states,  agents dislike extra work for the same pay.  Just like hedge fund managers and furniture store salespeople.

 

Above, my Basswood estate listing, offered at $9,750,000
Lake Geneva Liquidity

Lake Geneva Liquidity

Increasingly, I’m a fan of all things Wisconsin. This has been difficult on one of my sporting allegiances. I’ve been a Bears fan since birth, but how can I actively root against the team that means so much to the economy of the state I call home? In this, I find myself pulling for a team I used to aggressively hate, for the benefit of my state.  This state has been winning lately, in case you haven’t noticed. Our budget crisis was circumvented by a willingness to tackle the problem head on. Our job numbers continue to increase as our Governor lobbies for, and on behalf of the working people of Wisconsin. Business is growing, the state is thriving and the leaves are turning. In Wisconsin, life is pretty, pretty, pretty, good.

While I root for Wisconsin at all times, unless the Brewers are playing, I find it obvious that the real estate market in this great state is not at all uniform. There are hot markets here, to be sure. Milwaukee’s Third Ward is growing. The collar communities of Brookfield, New Berlin, Elm Grove, etc, are bustling.  Things are good here, but things being good in the state have very little to do with things being good in the lofty segments of the Wisconsin vacation home market. The upper bracket real estate market in Lake Geneva is on fire, so I decided this morning to do a quick check of how that particular segment is faring in the rest of our wonderful state.

I only have access to the MetroMLS, which is not necessarily the MLS that the entire state uses, so my statistics here are more representative than they are bulletproof.  Today in the MLS, excluding Walworth County, there are 27 homes for sale in Wisconsin priced in excess of $3,000,000.  The only home in that segment under contract is on Crooked Lake, listed just over $3MM. To be fair, that is a very nice looking house that someone is buying. Good for them, and good for Crooked Lake, wherever it may be. Over the past 12 months, there are two MLS sales over $3MM in the entirety of the state, again excluding Walworth County. Of those two, one was an off-market direct sale that was entered into the MLS after the fact. If we’re going to be super basic here, 26 available homes and two sales over the past year means we have 13 years worth of upper bracket inventory in the state.

Now consider Walworth County, home to the reigning king of luxury real estate, Geneva Lake.  On Geneva Lake, we currently have 15 available lakefront homes priced over $3MM. Of those, nine are under contract this morning. Looking back over the past 12 months, we’ve closed nine lakefront sales over $3MM. That means while the rest of the state has 13 years worth of upper bracket inventory on the books, Geneva has just 12 months worth. Geneva Lake, take a bow.

Other markets in Wisconsin (and Michigan, for that matter), will gladly sell you a house in excess of $3MM.  That’s really not that difficult. The trick is, can you ever sell that house you just bought? Geneva will sell you that upper bracket house, and then when you’re ready to upgrade or simplify, Geneva will sell it for you again. It’s called liquidity, and while our water clarity and our lakeside scene is what we like to think sets us apart, it’s actually upper bracket liquidity that is our best, and most unique attribute. We like to seek out liquidity in most of our investments. Shouldn’t our vacation home investments demand the same?

Above, my lakefront sale from last fall. $9,950,000, closed.
Fall Rules

Fall Rules

I have several different sets of rules pertaining to several different disciplines. My real estate rules are well known. Don’t buy a house on any lake that doesn’t start with a G and end with an EVENA. This is the main rule. Other rules involve other things. I’ve been lifting weights for a year or so now. You can’t tell. I’m getting mostly fatter but marginally stronger, so if I ever need to lift a car off of a small child there is now a good chance that the car will at least wiggle when I apply force. My workout rule is simple. Show up late on leg day. Show up early on chest day. Simple, rules.

We have six chickens at our house now. My wife collects an egg or two each day, small oddly shaped eggs of different colors. They’re nice, enough. But the chickens wander all over my yard and scratch through my mulch beds, and use my bluestone patio and sidewalk as their commode. This is unacceptable to me. My wife visits the chickens and returns to the house with chicken crap on her shoes. This is unacceptable to me. At my house, my rules of no chicken crap in the house are viewed as being unnecessarily onerous, for reasons I cannot understand. Still, rules.

I have other rules for other things, but now it’s fall and there are fall rules that are very, very important. I have three fireplaces in my house. They’re nice. I love burning wood, and view an affinity for gas fireplaces as a character flaw. When a real estate description says “gas fireplace”, I generally feel sad and empty inside. Fires are meant to consume, and if I can’t feed the fire wood, what good is the fire? In the fall, the temptation to burn wood comes early. The first crisp night. The first rainy Saturday afternoon. The problem with all of this is the rules are the rules.

No fires until the nighttime temperature is consistently in the 40s. No fire if the daytime high exceeds 62 degrees. In tandem, these two rules work beautifully. A cold night does not allow for a fire if the preceding day was warm. And vice versa. These rules keep the burning of wood as an important and restricted ritual. If I had a fire whenever I felt like it, just because, then the importance of the fall and winter fire would be diminished. Do you eat cake every night? Of course not. That’s why it’s nice to have on birthdays. Fires should be revered in a similar manner. This is the first fall rule.

Apple orchards are wonderful. They really are. Apples are delicious. Anyone who disputes this is an apple bigot and should be silenced. Freedom of speech does not include the right to diss the Wisconsin apple. If you live in Texas, I’ll grant permission. But Wisconsin apples are the best apples, and northern Illinois apples are nearly equal. The Lake Geneva area has several orchards, but there’s really only one that matters. Just south of Walworth a ways you’ll find Royal Oak Farm Orchard.  The name is clunky, but the apples are not. It’s fall, and it’s orchard time.

Or is it? I cannot visit the orchard on nice, warm days. Warm days at the orchard are terrible. Bees, apples, and sweat do not mix well. That’s why I abstain from orcharding until such a day that the temperature is not more than 60. An ideal orchard day is in the mid 50s, with some light breeze. And U-Pick must be open on most of the apples. If you go to the orchard on a 70 degree fall day and the only U-Pick is Jonagold, what are you doing? And are your parents aware of how much shame they should feel?

Fall at the lake is perhaps the best time to be here, at least second only to summer.  But if you’re going to be here, please follow these rules. They’ll make your experience that much better, and your life that much fuller.

Lake aerial, courtesy Matt Mason Photography.
Lake Geneva Market Update

Lake Geneva Market Update

When times were particularly bad and getting worse, I hatched a particular theory.  The theory supposed that in spite of the various factors that we know prod consumers to buy and sell homes, things like interest rates and employment and marriage, there’s really only one thing that makes real estate markets move. In bad times, it’s fear. If you have $10MM in the bank and your $2MM home is only worth $1.7MM, do you need to sell it? Of course not. Then why sell it for $1.6MM? The answer, which we can only know now, is that you sell at $1.6MM because you’re afraid next month it’ll be $1.5MM. That’s why this market moved like it did from 2009 through 2012, because of fear.

And if it’s fear that drives a declining market to lower lows, then it must be the opposite that drives an escalating market to higher highs. Job growth is great, but it doesn’t fuel the top end at Lake Geneva. Interest rates are important, but are they? Stock market return are incredibly important to this vacation home market, and with steady returns piling up it makes sense that consumer confidence is as robust as it is. The opposite of fear is confidence, and it’s that confidence that’s driving the Lake Geneva market. And it’s driving super fast.

Another week, more contracts. More offers. More sellers wondering if their house is next, more buyers buying homes they didn’t know they needed but now can’t live without. There are 30 lakefront homes available this morning, per the MLS. Of those 30, nine are under contract. That makes just 21 available lakefronts.  Of those 21, several have active offers being negotiated. 20 true lakefront homes have already sold in 2017, leaving us to assume that we’ll break the 30 home mark for 2017.  Last year was a banner year, and we only closed 24 true lakefronts (MLS). If we break 30 this year, it’ll be even more important to remember that in 2007 we only sold 17 lakefronts. This new norm is really, really something.

This week, a lakefront closing. That of Kerry Wood’s house in Fontana. At $4.7MM it’s an okay sale. I don’t love it, and I don’t hate it. I’m ambivalent, which is how I feel about baked cod and maple syrup.  It’s a lofty sale for the frontage (102′), and the location (mostly homes valued under $2MM in the immediate neighborhood). It’s proof, once again, that our market loves new(er) homes, and will do just about anything to own them.

More contracts this week as well. A new contract on my listing in the Elgin Club. A new contract on a large Fontana lakefront listed in the $6s. A new contract on the non-lakefront modern home ($1.85MM) that sits on the cliff overlooking Fontana Bay.  A new contract on the house next to the Lake Geneva Country Club ($3.095MM), and a new contract on the Main Street, Lake Geneva lakefront ($2.495MM) that sits near the Library Park.  Hillcroft, that big estate with an older house that anchors 415′ of Snake Road lakefrontage is still pending ($12.5MM), as is the spec home in Williams Bay ($3.85MM) and the Circle Parkway lakefront ($2.95MM).  My South Shore Club lakefront also remains under contract ($4.595MM). Rounding out this flurry of activity is the small home on Marianne Terrace in Lake Geneva that’s under contract ($1.799MM).  The market is searingly hot. Breathlessly hot.

Do you think every deal is a good deal? Absolutely not.  Some of the deals I see are pretty awful. Embarrassing, really. But that ties in with Monday’s bit, so you already know how terrible this is. Still, the market is moving and there’s plenty of room left in 2017 for it to move further. Are prices increasing? Well, yes, they are. The wood sale just printed at $47,000 per front foot. That’s not the average, but a few of those in a year will skew our 2017 average to the very high end.  Continue to expect sales as we finish the year, and continue to expect many of these sales to be carried out by buyers who really should have done some more homework before they docusigned on the dotted line.

Above, my dynamite Loramoor listing.

 

Lake Geneva Agent Representation

Lake Geneva Agent Representation

We know lots of things. We know that if we don’t cut our grass once a week it will grow too tall and too thick, and when we cut it after the week off we know that the cutting will be difficult. It would have been easier to mow it last week. Once in a while, it’s good to let it go and struggle through the off-week cutting, to remind oneself not to skip the lawn. In the same way, we know we should floss our teeth. It’s a good habit, this flossing. I floss, sure, but when sitting in the dentist chair I have to both admit it’s not twice a day and then endure the chastising reminder. Flossing, it’s good.

In the same way, there are certain real estate things that everyone needs to remember. This is your Monday reminder. In an attempt to make this exceptionally easy reading today, I’ll distill the reminders down to just one.  What I’m asking you, no, what I’m begging you to remember, is so simple. It’s nothing complicated. It’s not painful like mowing too-tall of grass, or annoying, like flossing stupid back teeth. It’s so easy, anyone can do it. Best of all, this thing you must do doesn’t cost you any money. In fact, it will likely save you money, and also save you from the heaps of shame that accompanies the forgetting of this thing.

In part, I blame the internet for the way it has made all real estate, and all markets, feel the same. When zooming over a map of a county on Zillow, all the consumer sees is a “market”. A house here for $4MM, a house over there for $400k. A house down the road for $1.1MM and one over here for $200k. The market, when viewed through the lens of a smartphone, looks small and quaint. In the same way, an agent in Middleton is the same as an agent in Madison, is the same as an agent in Milwaukee. It’s all one state, and it’s a midwestern state at that, which means it must be simple and it must be easy.  For the Zillow tells us so.

I’ll tell you a secret about Lake Geneva. When an agent has a listing that he or she knows is overpriced and/or a very difficult sale, guess what we hope happens? Of course we hope the listing sells. That’s our job, to work and to hope. But we really hope a buyer shows up who is tethered to an agent who isn’t from our market. Make it an agent from out of state and our eyes light up at the naivety of it all. A buyer working with an inexperienced agent, or one who isn’t from our market, is a buyer that will likely make mistakes. If we’re the listing side of a grossly overpriced property, we hope you make the mistake soon.

This is the problem, and this is the reminder. Stop working with agents that don’t know the market. It seems so obvious, so elementary. Yet the market is full of buyers working with agents who aren’t active in the particular segment they’re attempting to sell.  There’s a reason I don’t go to Door County and sell real estate on Thursdays. There’s a reason I don’t go to  Bayfield on Wednesdays and Elm Grove on Fridays. I’m pretty good at this real estate game, and I know my limitations. If I don’t know a market I’m not going to represent myself as an expert in that market. It’s just that easy.

If you’re a lakefront buyer seeking a Geneva Lake property, is it in your best interest to walk into a real estate office on a Saturday and sign up with the agent standing in front of you? Would you visit the walk-in clinic to have your kidney transplant performed? Real estate is not as complicated as surgery, but the analogy of a surgery taking place is indeed accurate in that real estate surgery involves removing too much money directly from your pocket. If you’re looking for a $3MM home in  Hinsdale, work with an agent who routinely sells $3MM homes in Hinsdale. If you’re looking for a $200k condo in Lake Geneva, work with an agent who routinely sells $200k condos in Lake Geneva. And if you’re looking for a $3MM lakefront home on Geneva, work with the agent who routinely sells $3MM homes on Geneva. And if you have a dentist appointment tomorrow, start flossing right now.

 

 

 

Oak Shores

Oak Shores

When thinking of lake access associations, it’s best to think first in terms of the obvious. Once the obvious is understood, then it’s time to progress to the nuance. With this process in mind, it’s in the nuance where the good and bad decisions should be made. The obvious, in the case of the Geneva lake access market, pertains to location. A good house a million miles away from the lake is not as good as a bad house right next to the lake. This is generally the understanding. But even this understanding has some departures, as a large lot far from the water can indeed be superior to a tiny lot near the water. Still, closer is generally accepted as being better.

In the same way, smaller associations are generally better than large ones. This aligns under the obvious. The reasoning here is that pier systems tend to be similar in size, and so sharing a pier with 25 neighbors is better than sharing it with 125 neighbors. You might love neighbors, but I usually don’t. And so smaller associations are better, and closer homes within those smaller associations are better. These things are simple to understand, even for people who prefer to vacation in Michigan.

Along the nuanced lines, there are things that many buyers fail to take into consideration. Proximity to the lake is wonderful, and meaningful, but in this is a steep walk downhill something that we’d like between our lake house and the water? If you prefer the steep walk downhill, I won’t necessarily disagree with you. But it’s the walk back uphill that I consider an offense.  If closer is better and smaller is better then surely level is equally as important.

And if we’re looking for close and level and small, then shouldn’t we focus our attention on associations that match up with these preferences? Sadly, there are few associations that meet these criteria that are affordable. That’s because these are the more desirable attributes, and desirability leads to pricing power, and pricing power leads to $9handles on lake access homes. That’s not attainable for many, which leads us to the doorstep of my newest listing. Oak Shores. $624,900.

This listing combines these rare lake access attributes, and does so in an easy to understand, easy to manage, easy to improve package. The house is three bedrooms and three baths. It’s around 1940 square feet. It has a two car garage. It’s been well maintained. Best of all, it’s 714 feet from the house to the lake. Those 714 feet are level, making the walk more a stroll, the stroll more a saunter. At the lake, there’s a fully transferable boatslip with plenty of water depth for ease of boat maneuvering. If you squint through some trees, there’s even a lake view. The association is small, the ground level, the only thing between you and the water is a small association road that feels more like a private driveway.

This is an easy house. It’s easy to buy and easy to own and easy to have fun with. The current seller has enjoyed it for decades, and it’s now time to pass the torch to another family who wishes to enjoy this lake in an entirely different way. If you’re a buyer and you understand that countertops can be changed but location is forever, then let’s chat.

Ban

Ban

It’s late and I’m here and I should be wondering why. But I’m not wondering at all. I know why. It’s because I was meant to be here.  Something prompted me to stop here. Something beyond my control. Something urged me to stop at this office so late into the night, when there was nothing really that I needed to do. I checked Twitter. I checked the Cubs score. I checked Facebook to see if I missed any cat memes. I checked the MLS. I made the mistake of checking an investment account. I did the things I thought I should do. And then I saw something that I had recently thought I had long ago forgotten.

The picture was innocent enough. A pier. That’s all it really was. A pier on the lake. The pier was white, as it should be. The water was clear, as it should be. The pier and the water were unavoidably Geneva. I know this when I see it, without context or tip. I know it because I’ve spent all of my years here, never wandering away for any reason good or bad. Never chasing something I wrongly thought was better. The pier was fine. But on the right side of the image, tethered to the pier, protruding down into the water and deeper still into my consciousness: A metal ladder.

It’s been some time since I’ve been so offended. Stand or kneel, it’s up to you. But the only time I’ll kneel is on a white wooden pier with a drill in my hand as I unscrew the unholy connection between wood pier and steel ladder. It might be aluminum, that wouldn’t matter. If it’s staunchly upright and it’s metal colored and I know it isn’t made of wood, then it’s not something that I can abide. It’s not something any of us should abide. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand here and watch metal piers take over my beloved lake. What’s next, synthetic lawns?

There are very few rules here. Hardly any, really. Don’t send money to fire departments so they can buy cartoonish fireboats with it. That’s one rule. Don’t buy a pontoon boat. Yes I know it’s so comfortable and I know you can sit on it like it’s your living room, but just don’t. That’s another rule. Paint your pier white, even if you’re a Wrigley.  Don’t let your children wear floaties if they’re over 10 years of age. But these rules pale when stacked against the one unbreakable rule. Metal ladders are for metal piers. Metal piers are for other lakes. Wood ladders are for wood piers. Our piers are made of wood. Douglas Fir, to be exact. Respect the pier. Respect your feet. Respect my eyes. Ban the metal ladder.

Fall At The Lake

Fall At The Lake

Of the things we know to expect during an autumn here, 95 degree sunshine is not among them. The heat is rare, but in a summer devoid of any lasting heat, I don’t know how we could do anything but welcome this heat with open, sweaty arms. It’ll be cold soon, consistently cold, where the days that hit 60 will be the summery ones. We’ll delight in those days, saying they’re too warm to wear a sweater, and we’ll sweat just a bit and we’ll be happy. For now, the green is fading but the summer remains, which leaves us little choice but to hold onto it like grim death.

This is something we don’t expect, but there are now market things we should expect. If we don’t expect them, that’s because we’re working with the wrong Realtor, which isn’t so much my fault as it is yours. The things you should expect are both obvious and yet, many of them are contradictory. That’s Lake Geneva in a single sentence. It makes perfect sense as long as you understand that sometimes up is down and often down is up and expensive properties sell so long as they have a Wolf range or so long as you’re the buyer who just latched onto a Realtor that you met because that Realtor was working floor time at the office on a weekend.

Sellers. It’s September, and sellers who haven’t yet sold are a bit concerned. Some are, some aren’t, but the general theme amongst aged inventory is some cautious concern.  There are two things that must now happen. First, asking prices should soften. This is not going to be the case for all sellers, but for some, prices will adjust as sellers look toward the off season. Second, what off season? Our market will remain vibrant up through Thanksgiving and beyond, with just a seasonal adjustment being made for Holiday weeks when only the faithful few will be actively buying and selling. The key for sellers is to understand the market remains hot, and will remain so, no matter if our 90s fade to 50s. Lake Geneva is still king, and kings do not relinquish their crowns when the temperatures drop, they just wrap themselves in some fine custom garments.

Buyers.  There are lots of you out there, and lots of you are making terrible, terrible mistakes. I try to warn you, but some of you insist on waltzing into real estate offices and make the assumption that the warm body in front of you is going to be your best chance at securing lakefront, or lake access value. This is sadly not the case, but you keep doing it anyway. There’s a funny game we can play. It’s called look at properties that no one thought would sell for the prices they sold for, and often you can find the selling agent to be an agent that doesn’t routinely work the lakefront market. To be certain, all agents are not created equal, though agents love to attempt to punch above their weight in the lakefront market because the prize money is alluring. Agents who sell $205k ranches in Elkhorn are not the agents who routinely sell $3MM houses on Geneva Lake. I’m begging you to understand this.

But for buyers there are still deals to be had. There is aged inventory that has been fielding and rebuffing offers all year, and those properties might be open to negotiations.  My recent experience is that sellers are still far too confident. Solid offers are being declined, because there is too much optimism. Sellers don’t seem to understand that 9/10s of a bird in the hand is so much better than 10/10s of a bird in the bush. This is what the game has come down to- fractions of lofty valuations- and sellers are proving their lack of real estate prowess by routinely ignoring solid, market bids.

If we’re buyers, does this mean we give up and look to another lake that might more feature more motivated sellers? Just because it’s September does this mean we wear boots and jeans when it’s 95 and sunny?

Above, my Elgin Club lakefront, now $1.925MM. It is, in my infallible, expert opinion, the best lakefront on the market priced under $2.5MM.
Jerseyhurst Sells

Jerseyhurst Sells

There are nice locations on this lake. We know most of the nice ones. If we get to drive down Snake Road while en route to our lake house, this is a wonderful thing. If we turn off of South Lakeshore Drive onto Basswood, this also makes us happy. If we drive down Linn Pier and get to turn left onto Lackey Lane, we know we should celebrate that we were able to turn left instead of just right. There are roads that deserve our praise, and each person who has ever driven these curving lakeside roads knows it. 

But the roads we know are not the only roads. There is one road that most people don’t know. Tell them to find Jerseyhurst without the assistance of GPS. Tell your older friends to find it without a the help of a Rand McNally. It’s a road we know about, because we once heard someone at a nearby dinner table mention it. Or we know about it because a friend once went on a garden walk down that lane, though most invitees became lost along the way.

Once you do find Jerseyhurst, just to the West of the Elgin Club, it requires no creativity to understand why it’s so special. There are several homes here, but not so many really. Just a handful, each unique and each manicured and each representing the best that Lake Geneva has to offer. This is a unique lane, short and curved and limited, but why it’s special is apparent to anyone and everyone who has ever wandered down it.

This is why my Jerseyhurst listing sold, and sold so quickly. I was pleased to represent the seller and work directly with the buyer in this transaction, and the print price last Friday of $2,795,000 represents a fair ransom to find ownership on this most lovely lane. To the new owners, a big congratulations for becoming the new stewards of this wonderful lake house. To the sellers who spent many fine years here, a most sincere thanks for allowing me to handle this sale, and best wishes for whatever comes next.

As a self-indulgent aside, this sale has pushed my 2017 sales volume to $34MM and change, which leaves me alone at top of the Walworth County leaderboard. So that’s neat.

Bay Colony For Sale

Bay Colony For Sale

There’s a thing about lakefront condominiums. The typical way to remodel these condos is, well, typical. Some new countertops. Paint. A backsplash of something from Home Depot. And this way of doing things is just fine. When people come to see the newly remodeled condo they’ll tell you it looks nice. Good job, they’ll say. But they won’t really mean it. They’ll wonder why you put new counters on old cabinets and painted the old doors. They’re still hollow, after all. White paint doesn’t change that. But they’ll tell you it’s nice and they’ll leave wondering if the lie was convincing.

At my newest lakefront listing in Bay Colony, there’s nothing to look at that isn’t new. There’s nothing that was missed. What started out as an intended surface renovation ended up including new everything. Everything? Everything. And instead of the typical wares you’re used to seeing in this segment, the owner decided to do the unit right. The floors are oak. The counters are quartz. The bathrooms are marble. There are custom built ins galore. There’s a new laundry room. There’s style here that is not just rare on this lake- before now it didn’t even exist.

Two bedrooms and two baths with a slip. Immediate outdoor access from both the parking side and the lakefront, making for no annoying hallway conversations. Is this unit simple? Yes. It’s simple. But in the simplicity is the value. I’m offering this unit today at $899k, fully renovated by Lowell Construction. Fully furnished. Fully ready to transform your weekends. If you’ve been in the market for a turn key lakefront residence but have been let down by your condominium options, come visit me at Bay Colony unit 101.  It’s stunning, and that’s not the slightest exaggeration.

Geneva Pier Legislation

Geneva Pier Legislation

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources does many good things. They also do many stupid things.  They do a decent job managing fisheries, though even in this there is both good and bad. They help protect shorelines from erosion, which is uniformly viewed as a good thing. They also manage piers, and on Geneva Lake, piers are everything.  Take a nice house off the lake that doesn’t have a private pier. Then add a private pier to that house and you’ll see a value increase of perhaps $250k. Piers are life.  With the DNR watching Geneva as closely as any body of water in the state, it only makes sense that our piers are often in their crosshairs.

At issue over recent years has been the existence of pier canopy curtains, the canvas extensions that button down the side of a boat slip to better protect the slip from the sun, wind and rain. These curtains have existed for eons, and have only very recently caught the eye of a watchful DNR, who have in turn labeled these curtains to be detrimental to aquatic habitat. The theory on their side suggests that curtains limit the light that can make it through to the interior of the slip, therefore limiting plant growth, thereby limiting fish habitat. Nice theory DNR, but it’s pretty absurd.

If you’ve ever lived on this lake, or observed the fishing habits of those who ply these waters for our mighty gamefish, you’ll see why this theory doesn’t hold up to real life. Fisherman on Geneva tend to fish in one of three ways. First there are the down riggers. Those who troll the depths hoping for something large and toothy to bite their lure. Then there are the drop-off fishermen, those who find the weed edges in 15-25′ of water and fish those margins for large bass and pike and walleye. Then there is the most populated group of fishermen- those who throw plastic baits into and around the piers. Why do they pitch and cast their lures into and under the piers? Because fish love cover and piers passively offer plenty of it.

If you’d like to view this in person, I could meet you at a particular pier on the south shore of Geneva. The pier is large and the water deep, and the fish under this pier are amongst the largest you’ll see in shallow water. The fish love this pier.  Coincidentally, this pier also has three slips protected by canvas side curtains. The fish don’t seem to know that side curtains are detrimental to their health.  The DNR also doesn’t seem to know that shade cools water and cool water is beneficial for fish.

Current legislation features an exemption from the side curtain ban for those side curtains that are covering wooden boats. This might be viewed as a win for some, but it’s discriminatory to those who own fiberglass boats.  Who is the DNR to suggest that only wood boat owners have the right to protect their personal property? This would be akin to allowing only those homes with hardwood floors to install drapes. Carpet lovers be damned.  I understand that the legislation is attempting to make the best of a sticky situation, but why is it sticky? Why should the DNR have so much power over private property owners?  What’s next, citations for too many umbrellas on a pier?

Today it would be a good idea to email Representative Tyler August (R), and tell him to adjust the language in his bill to allow fiberglass boats as well. Maybe tax the curtains at $10 per year, then the DNR can remain loyal to their actual goal: fee collection.  But don’t discriminate against fiberglass boat owners just because it seems an easier way to pacify a department that continues to persecute riparian owners.

 

Tyler August

Email: Rep.August@legis.wisconsin.gov          Phone: (608) 266 – 1190         Address: P.O. Box 8952 Madison, WI 53708

Bored

Bored

The West is burning. It’s been burning for quite some time. From Los Angeles to British Columbia, it’s all ablaze.  Their smoke bothered our Labor Day Weekend skies, casting a silver shade over our otherwise perfect sun. The forests are burning and the grasslands, too. Animals are hiding in swimming pools. The smoke chokes. The residents lie fitfully in their smoky beds, gasping through the thick air. I’ve been told for ages that mountain air is crisp and delightful, clean and pure. This is the other sort of mountain air, and it’s no good, not for the animals, not for the fish, and not for the residents.

The South is flooding. Palm trees swaying, ripped from their shallow, sandy home. Street signs twist in the wind. Garbage from one house blows to another, from one county to the next, up the coast and around and around. The storm was coming for a while, so slow it seemed as though it might never arrive. But it did, and the storm surged and the houses flooded and the people blamed the government.  Weathermen braced against the wind in displays of strength and hubris, delightfully unaware of the mockery their spectacle encourages.

In Texas, the stench of drying flood waters fills the air. It’s hot. And wet. Too hot and too wet, and the air is still and it smells and there’s no where to go. Wait, they must. The waters have receded, or they are receded, how could I know for sure? The flood waters are terrible and the wildfires are burning and the smoke follows its stream to the other parts of this country and the one above. An earthquake shook Mexico, shook it something terrible.  But the news has no time for the earthquake and the fires and the other hurricane. There is a storm in Florida and it’s blowing and it’s flooding and some would say it looks like the worst thing they’ve ever seen. Others say it’s nothing but a summer storm. Either way, it’s all terrible and it’s all bad.

And here I am. I’m looking out my window like I do every morning. The sky is blue. Powder blue to be precise. The trees are fading but they’re still very green. The grasses in my office garden look beautiful, even the coneflowers with their dark, dried seeds and leaves look delightful. It’s crisp this morning, like it has been for the past dozen or more.  There’s no reason to think today will be unlike those other days, with mostly sun and some thin, wispy clouds. Are those clouds or just the remnants of the western fire? No one knows. We don’t really care. It’s just another Monday and the temperature is perfect and the grass is green and later the lake will fill with some September activity. Not too much, just enough. That’s the thing about the Midwest.  The coasts call it boring. The mountains call it flat. New York doesn’t know where it is. But on this morning, with so much to worry about in the world and so much remembering to be done, there’s a place where life happily marches along. It’s called the Midwest.

Market Test

Market Test

By now, we all know the last two decades of market conditions at Lake Geneva. We understand the cycle. The market rose steadily from 1997 through 2008. Then the market fell from early 2009 through mid 2012. Today, we know we’re in year four or five of the latest bull market run. How long this run lasts is something we cannot yet know. I’ll let you know when it’s over. For now, we know the history and we understand it, but the biggest test for the market is beginning now.  Not now in terms of September 2017, not now in terms of Autumn.

Every market runs in these cycles. Some cycles are longer. Some are shorter. Some are less aggressive on the way up and less considerate on the way down. What lies ahead is the interesting bit.  I can guesstimate the percentages of appreciation and decline, with relative accuracy. I can tell you that at the bottom of our market cycle in 2011/2012, lakefront prices were off around 30% from their prior peak highs (2007/2008). I can tell you that since the market bottom we’ve regained perhaps 20% of those losses. In some cases, properties today are worth more than their 2008 market highs.  Try telling that to a lakefront home languishing on market in the Highlands for a price that’s not dissimilar from what it would have fetched in 2012. This is the anomaly of Lake Geneva. The market does not rise and fall with uniformity.

But that’s not the test. That’s just the set up. The real test is in the actual prices paid for properties that sold perhaps at the prior market peak, then again at the market bottom, and now again in 2017.  Today Lake Geneva is testing itself. It’s self inflicted, like volunteering to take a difficult exam even though the teacher is on vacation and the other students are still catching up on their week old homework.  The test is to prove, not with my theoretical statistics, or with some silly Price Per Foot averaging game, just how far the market has come since 2012. The only way to really know is the look to the lakefront houses that sold in 2012 and see what they’re selling for in 2017.

We know there have been some resales that roughly align with this timing already. I’ve sold a few homes in the last few years that sold during the market bottom once and then again as the market improved. Many of these have sold under unique circumstances. I sold a home on Folly Lane several years ago at the market bottom that has since resold. But the property resold at a higher price to a  neighbor because the neighbor had to have it. In the same way, the lakefront sale from last fall on the south shore of Fontana. The house that Matthew McConaughey was rumored to have bought (he didn’t). That home sold for a fat premium just one year after it originally sold. Was that a sign of the market appreciation? No, it was just an interested party pursuing a specific property. That sale looks nice in the MLS, but it isn’t a sign of broad market interest, nor does the PPF mean anything.

In order to really look at the gains since 2012, we need sales that have occurred at an arm’s length, under normal marketing conditions. We need an average sale. Moreover, we need several of these sales if we’re going to consider the outcome to be representative of the market. Thankfully, there are a few such sales, but for the sake of our concept, we’re going to need to cast a wider net. Let’s look at lakefront properties that have sold in the past 12 months that also sold between 2010 and mid 2013. In a low volume environment, which Geneva is in good times and bad, we’ll need to open the view to capture a larger sample size. Those MLS sales that match the stated criteria are as follows:

These are the handful of sales that follow our pattern.  The sales are not exact, since transfer prices can fluctuate based on allowances for furniture and other personal property, and the sales are not particularly equal since a sale in 2010 was of a property that likely still depreciated through 2012. Additionally, at least one of these properties was remodeled and updated in between sale dates (1014 S Lakeshore). But this is all we have to base our estimates on. These sales point to an average increase of just 10%.

Is that it? Is that the answer to the question? Well, not really. This is just a small sample size. We sell on average around 23 houses a year on Geneva Lake and this is just a snapshot of five of those sales. I would guess the market gains across the board have been somewhere around 20% since our market bottom of 2011/12. The market hasn’t yet printed enough volume to draw attention to that gain, but that’s my estimate and my eye is fairly keen. The market today is testing that 20% theory with several current listings that had previously sold during that recent market bottom. On average, these sellers are seeking 30% or more over the prior sale prices. The test today is to see if a market that is as robust and active as our lakefront market can indeed support that large increase over such a short period of time.

Do we know the answer to that question? Nope, but the good news is that the question has been asked and the market will answer soon.

The Why

The Why

It was windy. It hadn’t rained yet, but the clouds had overtaken the moon and everyone knew the rain was near. It wasn’t warm anymore, not warm like the day and not warm like the summer. It was cool. Cool like fall, cool like late-fall.  The day had given us a taste of summer, whether or not this was the last taste no one could be sure. But the wind blew the trees and a few leaves fell and the rain was coming and the moon had gone dark. It wasn’t late. A month ago it would have been light, or at least glowing, the last bits of the day still visible.  It was dark.

But the porch lamps were on and the screens are still free from their winter canvas.  A distant whiff of woodsmoke in the air, blown here by that wind that stripped a few leaves with it. The night was damp even before the rain came. Damp like a mountain night, cold like one, too. Cars clogged the driveways. The paved and cobbled drives that lead to the lakefront homes were littered with cars, just as the gravel drives with grass creeping in from the margins that lead to the small wooden cottages were filled as well.  A porch table with the mostly eaten dessert still left out, a crisp probably. Peach I’d bet, because the apples are not yet in season even if the cold wind proves their time is very, very near.

A flashlight in the yard. Kids running and playing and hiding behind the trees. The wind masks their steps even as the fallen leaves of late summer give them away. The adults lounge on that summer porch, with their bare feet tucked under blankets. The old wool ones look so nice in that porch stack, but they’re scratchy and uncomfortable and everyone knows it. Laughter leaks from one porch to another. A cruise boat pushes through the darkness, the revelers laughter making it to shore as nothing more than a happy murmur.

Me? I wasn’t on a porch. I was just driving a truck back to my parents’ house. Down the roads I know so well, around this corner and turning at that one. The streets full of those weekend cars. The porches light. The kids playing. The stories being told.  The weather, that damp cold night, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t even okay. It was pretty terrible, really. But the weekend went on, and the people gathered at those houses. The porches are all different, some large and fanciful, others small and bare. But the night was all the same, each house happy to be in use. Each group happy to have gathered here, at this lake, during this time. Even on the darkest, dampest of summer nights that feel more October than not, this scene is the same. We come here because we love the lake and the sunshine and the way it makes for a summertime afternoon. We stay here because at night on a cold porch with damp cushions and scratchy wool blankets nothing feels more like home.

Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Geneva Lakefront Market Update

This market has a way about it.  Sometimes the market feels slow to me. It feels sluggish, lifeless. It feels as though the last seller has sold and the last buyer has bought, and the rest of the days we’ll just while away, wishing for the way it was. It feels as though we’ve done everything that we were going to do. We’ve sold the last big house. Sold the last lot. Sold the last cheap house. It feels as thought we’ve run out of tricks. And then a new week begins and the market proves why it is the single most robust vacation home market in the entire Midwest.

This week was one of those weeks. New contracts flying. New listings selling. A fresh contract on my lakefront home in the South Shore Club ($4.595MM). A fresh contract on a baseball player’s house ($4.995) in Fontana. A new contract on an entry level house ($1.195MM).  I wrote on that house earlier this week on behalf of a buyer, only to be told the house had just the day before gone under contract. A listing on 68′ in Lake Geneva for $1.799MM, under contract within 24 hours of hitting the open market. A contract on a spec home in Cedar Point ($3.85MM). Two more contracts are still pending,  those on my listing on Jerseyhurst ($2.895MM), and a lakefront in Knollwood ($3.325MM). The market, just when it seemed as though the summer lull was taking hold, has surged.

Of the 28 lakefront homes available today, 7 are pending sale, leaving just 21 available homes.  Lest you think all of the good homes are sold, consider that there’s still a lakefront home available on Geneva Lake priced under $1MM.  We’re going to run out of those homes someday, so if you have vision, it’s time to snap up this remaining bit of aged, cheap inventory. My listing in the Elgin Club ($1.975MM) has no reason to be available today. It should be sold. Perhaps I’m not very good at this game, because I’m failing on that house. It’s a large house on 50′ of level frontage with private pier and fantastic features, and it’s available today.  You should come see it this weekend. My listing in Fontana for $3.2MM is turn key perfection. My Loramoor lakefront for $5.995MM couldn’t be replicated for the price it’ll sell for. The market might be active, but there is value still to be discovered.

Aged inventory has a way of weighing heavily here, and today there is still plenty of it. There are properties entering their second autumn on market, and those homes, in spite of the market conditions, appear ripe to sell right. Let’s go look at those together. Let’s revisit the things the market has passed up time and time again. And let’s be first in line for the new offerings that are bound to make their way to market this fall. Remember, September is only fall in our minds, it’s still summer on our skin.  For now, let’s rejoice in the summer that we’ve had. Let’s be proud of this market, and of the recent spate of sales that will let 2017 be our sixth fantastic year in a row. And let’s realize that in spite of all this activity, there are still deals to be had. Here’s to this place. Here’s to us. Here’s to the last Labor Day weekend you’re ever going to have to spend in the city.

Sell The Lake Geneva Riviera

Sell The Lake Geneva Riviera

In a recent Lake Geneva Regional News article, City of Lake Geneva Alderman John Halverson, when discussing the state of the Lake Geneva Riviera and a desired multi-million dollar referendum for repairs asked, “If we don’t get it passed, what should we do? Sell the building?”

I’m so glad he asked, so that I can answer.  Yes. That’s the answer. Sell the building. The question was posed rhetorically, in a way that would suppose a yes answer would be ludicrous, even sacrileges. But the best way for the City of Lake Geneva to deal with the aging Riviera and the several million dollars of repairs it supposedly needs is to sell the building to the highest bidder. To keep the building beyond 2017 would be a significant mistake, and would prove once again that the city has no regard for the tax payers who already pay the highest rates around the lake.

I’m not suggesting the building be sold in a traditional manner, wherein the new owner would have the flexibility to do with it as he or she pleases. I’m suggesting that the city utilize the power of deed restrictions and covenants to clear an aging liability from their books.  The Riviera is a most impressive structure, and its unique location and design lends a visual boost to downtown Lake Geneva and that commercialized lakefront scene. The structure has anchored downtown for generations, and should be respected.   In the 1930s my grandmother would ride the train up with her sisters to dance at the ballroom on Saturday nights. She met my grandpa there, while he was hawking popcorn or cigarettes or newspapers. The Riviera has a deep and important history, and the building itself should be preserved. That’s why the property should be sold. Here’s how it could work.

The city slaps deed restrictions on the property, dictating the allowable future uses and the exterior design and color palette of the structure. What happens to the interior shouldn’t be any concern of the city, especially once they receive a few million dollars for the building.  With the deed restrictions in place, the aesthetics of the Riviera and the setting will be secure, no matter who owns the deed. There are options as to how to sell the space. The city could rezone the building into a condominium, and retain the lower level retail spaces to be operated as they are today. The problem with this model is that the city would then still be on the hook for repairs, that’s why it’s best to sell the entire structure. Separate the park from the building, retain the park (the fountain, etc), and sell just the building. The entire thing.

Who buys it? Well, I don’t know. Maybe one of the nearby local business would like added square footage? Maybe the cruise line operating from the adjacent city pier system?  The cruise line could utilize the space for some offices and use the ballroom for a wedding venue, just as it is used today. The difference is that rates could be increased exponentially from those paltry sums the city charges, and the building could be modernized to host more events.  Some might suggest the increased usage of the facility would be a negative for the city. I’d argue that the structure is a ballroom. It wasn’t built to sit idle. It was built to host bands and dances and parties of epic proportions. Why not let the private market return the building to its original intent?

The city has estimated the repairs to be in the neighborhood of $5MM. My estimates that I’ve considered now for all of five minutes prove that the cost would be significantly less. The problem is municipalities pay retail plus for everything they do (just check on the cost of school construction for proof). The private market could handle those repairs for less than a million dollars, likely with ease. Yes, a new owner would have to undertake these repairs, which drives up the initial investment. Yes, the fact that the city has broadcast these repairs to the world means a buyer will use the city’s figures against them in a negotiation.  Yes, that might mean the building sells for less than it might otherwise sell for. But the alternative is worse. The alternative is the city taxes its vacation home owners to fix up a building that loses money. To repair the Riviera on the taxpayer’s dime is the very definition of throwing good money after bad.

The idea of selling the Riviera hasn’t been discussed much in public, but it’s time the conversation begins. There is no reason for a city to own such a valuable liability. Deed restrict it. Zone it to allow very few select future uses, and sell it to the highest bidder. Since I am nothing if not a fan of Lake Geneva, I’ll even offer to sell the building for the city at a reduced commission rate.

New Lakefront Listing

New Lakefront Listing

The South Shore Club is all quite nice. The pool and the entrance, the tennis courts and the piers. There’s nothing like it here, and likely never will be anything like it again. Within the South Shore Club there are nice homes, some better than others. Some new, others older, some by the pool and some near the tennis. But beyond the typical homes in the SSC there are the elite. There are the select homes that do not merely angle over lawn and towards the water, but those that sit right up on the water. The front row. There are four of these built homes that match this description, the last having sold in 2014.

But of those front homes, only two were built in a sunny lake home style. Two have white trim, light cabinets and brighter exposures that feel more like a typical lakefront home on Geneva.  Today one of those rare lakefront homes is available, light and bright and ready for a new vacation home owner.  N1619 East Lakeside Lane features eight bedrooms and four full floors of finished living space. The lower level is a walkout to the lakefront, with a large family room anchored by a full masonry fireplace.  You’ll also find a bunk room with three adjacent baths. If you have a large social circle and feel the need to entertain, this house was built with you in mind.

The current owner (who is the original owner)  has a very large family, and when working with Orren Pickell and the architects to design this lakefront, he made certain that his entire family would have space of their own. That’s why the elevated bedroom and bath count. That’s why the fourth floor finishes into an office/den with an additional bedroom and bath. That’s why the lakefront deck is oversized and wide. That’s why the garage is deeper, with 8′ garage doors so your SUV can actually fit (a rarity given some of the tiny garage doors that plague certain SSC homes). That’s why there’s an elevator and a main floor bedroom suite.

Beyond the sheer size, there are finishes here that are both expected and unique to this home. Waterworks faucets and marble floors. Wood-Mode cabinetry and Wolf ovens. Sub-Zero refrigerators, both in the kitchen and the butler’s pantry. A solarium, constructed on the south side of the home in a classic English style, would make a terrific office or reading room.  There’s nothing lacking here. No space concerns, no quality issues, and obviously no location issues. This is the front house. The best house. The lot that faces the water fully, with a slight western tilt to take advantage of the sunsets.  The location on the water is tremendous, opening to the widest section of the south shore, offering dramatic viewing of the nearby Lake Geneva Yacht Club regattas.

Offered today for $4.595MM. It will be on the MLS later today and available for tour this Sunday. If you’d like a tour of this home and the remarkable South Shore Club property, I’m here to help.

 

Summer’s End

Summer’s End

The streets are quiet now. The excited conversations of summer are now just a murmur, fading like the green in all of these leaves. There was life back then, so much of it that it needed to be discussed. The green of the trees was bright, full, deep and overwhelming. It’s still very much green, but it’s duller than it was. Our conversations are quieter, the trees are duller, the waves are softer. The streets are quiet. This thing is nearly over.

Oh sure, we’re trying to act like that isn’t true. The gas station is full of boats this morning, their empty tanks being filled again. There’s still time, the boaters say. This day will be the best day. There won’t be many more like it, but this day. This will be the best.  The beer will be cold and the fish might bight.  When the fish ignore then we’ll tube and we’ll toast our skin and we’ll snack and we’ll drink. Today will be the best day of the summer. These are the lies of late August.  We know they’re lies, but we tell them anyway. We have no choice.

We know, deep down inside our summer selves, that the only way to enjoy summer is to engage in it without a clock. The only time that summer is truly bliss is during early summer. The sort of summer that has so much left in the tank that we wouldn’t even think of anything else. An 80 degree in late June will always thoroughly beat an 80 degree day in late August. That’s because in June there are more coming, so many more that who could count? There isn’t anything ahead but more summer, better summer, tons and tons of summer.

It’s not like that now.  There is football on my television, no matter if I click past the programming quickly or not, it’s still there. I looked at the stack of wood on my porch and thought that the stack should be taller. The wood is dry now, lighter than it was. It’ll be easier to stack higher and deeper, and I should start doing this soon. It won’t be long before I burn that maple. I cut and split the limbs in late winter, which is to say it was early spring, which feels now like it was forever ago, but not really. It was just a few months ago, before the spring really took hold, before the heat of June and the deluge of July and the niceness of August. It’ll be that way again soon. I should start chopping wood.

Yes, there are a few weeks of this thing left, but are there? If you’re lying in bed dying of something, is it great to be thinking that there might be a couple of weeks left? Is that life? Is that really, truly living? Or can you only really live when you aren’t thinking of dying? I always tell my parents that life doesn’t change when you’re on your deathbed. Life changes when you’re sitting in the doctors office swinging your feet back and forth off the end of that elevated bed when the doctor knocks at the door and enters the room. Life changes when the doctor tells you you’re sick. It doesn’t change when you feel sick, when you grow weak, when you’re nearly done. It changes right then, when she tells you what you have and why that’s bad. In the same way, is summer over when it’s October and the Sunday temperature barely touches 60 and we feel a sudden and overwhelming urge to wear our boots and visit the orchard?

I say no, that’s not at all when summer is over. Summer’s over when we start to think about fall, and I’m starting to think about it already. I don’t want to, I really don’t. I wish I didn’t have to rush through this season to discover the next.  I already know what fall is like. But that’s exactly what I have to do, because I have no choice. I’m from Wisconsin, proudly, and we can’t linger in any season for too long. I know there are boat rides still to come, swimming and superjetting and sweetcorn. But there’s also wood to chop and jeans to patch and cider donuts to eat.  I don’t want to do those things on purpose, it’s just that I can’t help it. The streets are too quiet for me to pretend any longer.

 

Photograph “Sweet Wheat” by Kristen Westlake.
Lakeview Pointe

Lakeview Pointe

I’ve written often about Geneva National. It’s a staple in our market, one of the largest pieces to this puzzle. Without it, a review of the Lake Geneva vacation home market cannot be complete. If you’ve read this column of mine for long enough, you know how I feel about GN. I love it, but I always advise caution when considering which enclave to choose. I dislike the newer sections of condominiums, those that are still under construction and growing. I encourage buyers to seek out condominiums in the established sections, so that their future value does not hang on the whim of a developer.  My approach to Geneva National in this regard has been consistent throughout the years.

Lakeview Pointe is a gated enclave on the Player course. The development consists of duplex style townhomes, each with two car attached garages, some 3500 square feet of living space, and uninterrupted views of the Player course, the course ponds, and Lake Como in the distance. The setting is as serene as any setting in Geneva National, and for those who haven’t been paying attention, all of Geneva National is pretty darn serene.  It’s close to the Clubhouse for those who wish to be members of the club, golf members or just social. If I’m a buyer looking for a large vacation home that represents the best bang for my hard earned buck, it’s Lakeview Pointe that I’m going to consider.

But within Lakeview Pointe, not all condominiums are created equal. Sure they’re all large, with those main floor masters and walk out lower levels. Sure they all have two car attached garages, and they all front the Player. But my new listing is the best of the best, boasting a view that beats all other contenders. The location on the corner of the run is what lets me see the Player green, the following tee, the ponds, the prairie, and Lake Como. I’m on the peninsula, looking south and east at all of it. If you’re a buyer who values location, there is nothing better.

But this isn’t purely a location buy. Look at the unit. It’s beautiful. It’s large and private, both quiet and exciting at once. The square footage could not be replicated for the $539k listing price. Key to understand here is this needn’t be a specific condominium buyer. This is simply a good fit for anyone in the market who seeks stylish square footage, and loads of it for a low price point. I suspect this unit will sell quickly, so if you have any interest, I’d love to hear from you sooner rather than later.

This weekend is Venetian Fest in Lake Geneva. Come for the carnival rides, stay for the fireworks. I hesitate to call this summer’s last hurrah, because it isn’t. But it’s getting close, and that should motivate you to pay us a visit.  And if you’d like to see the best condo in Lakeview Pointe, just let me know.

 

Whispering Oaks

Whispering Oaks

What is it that makes a lakeside property desirable? Is it the view?  That has to be some of it. Any nice house on any lot is fine, but a nice house with a view is something different. It’s something unique. We can have a nice house in the suburbs, and that’s okay. But what is that house looking towards? What is it surrounded by? More nice houses, I’d guess. Each with a landscape unique but similar, each with some hydrangeas in bloom and a burning bush waiting its turn.  The view of a lake house, now that’s something unique. That’s something special. But is every view as good as the other? Is a lake view on the east shore of Williams Bay the same as a lake view from the west shore of Lake Geneva?

Beyond the view, what is it that makes a house something else? What makes it something more?  We could buy a small lot right now on Geneva Lake for $900k.  The lot would be fine for our lakefront endeavors. We could swim and boat, we could sit by the fire pit and toast marshmallows.  But is an entry level lot with a nice house on it the same as a nice house on a large lot? Is the enjoyment the same? Well, in that, the answer is a resounding sorta. But the larger lot offers more opportunity, more driveway, more perennials, more lawn to run over and patio to lounge on. While nice houses are the same everywhere, the two things that make or break a lakefront house on this lake, or on any lake, are simply the property and the view. On this lake, the distinction between the desirable and undesirable properties is sometimes nuanced, but usually quite obvious.

There’s a house in Lake Geneva on a hill with 140 or so feet of frontage on Geneva Lake. The house sits high on a hill, with ample views looking long down the lake towards the west. This is nice. But is 140′ on a hill as desirable as 126′ worth of level property? If you think the answer is yes, then we’re going to need to sit down and have a deep and honest discussion about frontage. In the same way, is a property next to an association worth the same as a property next to other single family lakefronts? Is a property with an easement for this and an easement for that as valuable as a property with no entanglements?  If we’re looking for lakefront, shouldn’t we look for a nice house, yes, but moreover for a nice lot with level frontage and a deep landscaped lot without any of these annoying easements for access or driveway or something that benefits a neighbor?

Whispering Oaks is a house you might know. There are few homes with log accents on Geneva Lake, and this is one of them. This is also the newest of those existing homes. It was built in 1999 by the current owner, and built to the highest of construction standards. Were an architect called for wood bracing, steal was used. When an asphalt roof would have done just fine, a clay tile roof was installed. Where traditional insulation would have performed okay, fire retardant insulation was used.  An electrical service is an electrical service, until a contractor builds his lakefront dream house- then commercial grade transfer boxes and electrical panels are installed.  Most houses on this lake look nice on the outside, that’s not such a special trick.  What’s unique here is the quality of the construction that you cannot see.

But what you can see is pretty special as well. The great room is massive, anchored on one end by a Montana stone fireplace, and accented with 18″ Canadian Spruce. The windows are something else altogether, huge and wide and tall, showcasing that dynamic view of the lake, from the Lake Geneva Country Club north to the Narrows and east all the way to downtown Lake Geneva. The views on the street side capture the 1.15 acres of perennial gardens, and offers a peek of the Chicago granite driveway that winds from Loramoor Drive.   On the other end of this great room, the open kitchen, with custom cabinetry, and the Viking and Sub-Zero appliances you’d expect. On the main level a three car garage, full laundry room, guest bedroom with bath, and billiard room complete the design. A sprawling stone patio extends the width of the home, offering a robust buit-in grill, fire pit, nightly sunset views, and easy access to 126′ of level frontage.

Upstairs there are four bedrooms, two on the lakeside with private decks, including the master suite with masonry fireplace. The lower level is wide open, a rec room of epic proportions.  In total, we have more than 8000 square feet of well maintained living space. The pier, in case you didn’t notice, is absolutely beautiful, perfectly built for lakeside fun. The outdoor shower is a family favorite, and if you’ve ever taken a cold water outdoor shower you’ll like this shower quite a bit- it’s plumbed to a hot water line in the house- so your last cold shower is in the past.

If you’re in the market for a lake house. Let me show you Whispering Oaks. It’s a terrific lake house, but unlike many terrific lake houses on the market, this one is on the right lot, in the right location, with the right views.  $5,995,000.

Of Agents and Inuendos

Of Agents and Inuendos

This is serious. You’ve been having the pain in your knee for quite some time. It bothered you during your junior year, but what could really, truly bother you then? Some tylenol and a creatine laced protein shake is all you needed to make that slight twinge of pain fade into the background. It was the championship game, after all. The pain now is different than the pain then. It’s more permanent. More achy. Less a twang of pain and more a deep constant, like something has taken hold in that joint that cannot and will not give up.  You wait nervously in the doctor’s office. The smell of the receptionists microwaved lunch turns your stomach. Your knee is getting worse by the minute.

The doctor is friendly, you found him online. He has a billboard on the highway near the Walmart,  “satisfaction guaranteed”. The guarantee is figurative,  because there can be no guarantee with this sort of work. The knee doesn’t react the same each time. The doctor knows you know this, but his insurance company remains steadfast in their demands that he remove the writing from the billboard. He will, he says, but not until the contract is up. To change it now would be costly, and the state is behind in their payments for the elderly care he provides, and so things are tight.  Your knee offers some financial redemption. You hope he looks as he does on the billboard. Capable, confident, full of guarantees.

He enters the room. He’s confident. His office, he says, is among the best in the entire country. He’s number one in his group. The group over which he reigns is unclear, but he’s number one, that he’s sure of.  He’s been doing this for a while, years, in fact. How many is left out.  He does this all the time he says as he looks over the file. Nothing to be worried about. His knee is bouncing, nervously.  Your knee aches. He asks what the problem is. You tell him it’s your knee. He glances towards your leg. I see, he murmurs while furiously scribbling on his notepad, nodding the whole time as if asking himself questions and answering them quietly. Now let’s have a look at that knee.

His chair wheels over to you and he picks up your leg and rests it on his lap. His fingers prodding your achilles, pushing and waiting for your reaction.  He turns your ankle to the left and to the right, no reaction. He pushes your toes away from your heel, up and down, back and forth, all the while watching your face for any sign of discomfort. There is none. Satisfied with his work, he wheels away and looks toward his clipboard.  Good news, he says. It appears as though your knee is, as a point of fact, 100% healthy.

This may seem to be an absurd way to contrast a doctor with a Realtor, but it’s all I have for you this morning.  This market has me concerned, as buyers and sellers alike flock to agents who don’t know the difference between an ankle and a knee. Agents who see pictures of sunsets and ask if the house is on a shore of the lake that would never, under any circumstance, offer a sunset view. Agents who drive to listings and call for directions. Agents who ask if association frontage is private. Agents who don’t know the difference between a slip and a private pier. Agents who show on Powers Lake on Sunday and Geneva Lake on Monday and condominiums in Whitewater on Wednesday.  Incompetent, uneducated agents who find success because the work for a company that has some credibility.  This hot market has been a breeding ground for inexperienced agents, and sadly,  the market is falling for it.

In that, there is a real estate story.  Consumers see a brokerage, and they think the brokerage to be good. Or at least capable. They then approach the brokerage, looking for an agent. The assumption is that the agent, if aligned with a  large brokerage, is somehow an expert in their field. I would suggest to you that expert status is not attained by aligning oneself with a large firm. Now, if you’re in search of an attorney and you find one who is a partner at Kirkland and Ellis, you can reasonably assume that this partner is indeed a capable and competent attorney. But that’s because there’s a barrier to entry to such a firm. Only the best of the best gain membership. The barrier to entry to real estate is the ability to robustly fog a mirror, and if the test is completed without much difficulty, the agent is awarded a set of business cards and a gold jacket. You, the consumer, wander into the office the next day looking for a lake house. This is all a terrible, terrible mistake. Thankfully, there is a way to avoid the mistake. Looking for Lake Geneva real estate? Look with me.

 

Summer Night

Summer Night

There is some thought, rampant among those who cannot yet know, that a night is a night is a night. The night it dark here, just like there, in fact like every night. Night.  Those who love the night take great pride in this universal truth, that night is dark and it’s dark everywhere. In the daytime everything can be different. Every place its own, each unique. Some places with high mountains and cold rivers, others with wide plains and low, wet marsh. Some other places teeming with dark leafy trees and little dotted lakes, clear perhaps. Daytime, now that’s different because it looks different. But in the night when there’s nothing to see, each place is the same: dark and quiet.

But that’s not at all true. The night is filled with sounds, each season its own, each place its own. A winter night under a brilliant cold sky is something to behold. The deep, snowy still of a leafless and seemingly lifeless field contrast under the brilliantly bright stars.  But it’s not something one can savor. It’s too cold to dwell, and in, and so a winter night is something gulped in deep breaths and left alone. It’s still night outside, but inside with the wood fire and the warm lamp light is much more comforting.

A fall night is a noisy night, a windy night, some rain maybe. But that’s not entirely true. A fall night can be as alive as a summer night, or as still as a winter night, or it might be anything in between. There’s no rule for fall, nothing it must do. What it will do is build to a colorful crescendo just before it ebbs and falls silent. Fall is like winter without snow, unless it isn’t.

But those summer nights. In our memories, they all sound the same.  Crickets and hoppers, chirping and singing their redundant tune. Softly fading as the night wears on, only to be replaced by the chirping of song birds once the morning light is near.  This is what night at my house sounds like. My house, surrounded by prairie and distant trees, alive with the casual rhythm of so many field bugs. An occasional rustle in the grass, a rabbit hiding from a fox. A coyote clinking through the wooded edges, thinking about which chicken it will steal. There are other characters in this prairie night, but the stars are those bugs that I cannot identify, crudely scratching out the sound that I’ve come to love. Summer days can wear on me, but the sound of a summer night has yet to grow old.

I spent a few hours last week on a lakeside screened porch. The sounds were those of my childhood, a slow churning boat pushing through the night, returning its guests after dinner. Or the other boats, the large boats with parties aboard, spinning around the lake and clearing each point,  the dull murmur of the happy crowd reaching across the window and to my childhood bedroom. But what struck me wasn’t the familiar sound of a few slow boats. It was the quiet of it all. It was the distinct sound of a Geneva lakefront porch.  The steady but louder pitch of the cicadas, a sound I know well but one that I don’t hear at my prairie house. The quiet hush of leaves flittering in a late night lake breeze.  Next time you think a summer night is a summer night, spend one in a screened porch next to Geneva Lake. You’ll soon be like me, well aware of the privilege of a summer night anywhere, but equally aware that there is one place where that night is better. At the lake.

 

Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market

Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market

The thing about summer in Wisconsin is that as summer we know it starts on Memorial Day weekend. That’s when we’re first ready to light our grills, gas our boats, and indulge in this thing we call summer. Except that Memorial Day weekend is rarely summer, it’s more like spring with  swim shorts, and so we typically wait some amount of time for real summer to begin. Then once real summer begins we swim and we boat and we do the summery things. But this is June and that is July. If we’re waiting for summer to look, feel, and taste like summer, then we have no choice but to wait until August. We’ve waited, and it’s August. It’s time to eat.

Sure, we could have visited farmer’s markets in June. They exist then. The Lake Geneva market, on Broad Street in front of Horticultural Hall is open and ready for business (Thursday Mornings). But what would we buy? Some local honey, that’s nice. Maybe some fish from Rushing Waters. Some relish and jam, made by someone. But the product in Wisconsin then isn’t what we want it to be. If we were in Marco Island at their farmer’s market, we’d just buy produce that came off the Sysco truck (repackaged farm stand style, of course). But we’re not in Marco Island, we’re here, and we’ve waited and now the produce of Wisconsin is ready.

The Farmer’s Market in the Lake Geneva area is a thing of relative consistency. There are several of them (Fontana in front of the Coffee Mill on Saturday mornings),  but they’re basically all the same. What can you expect? Jam, honey, eggs, meat, cut flowers, bird feeders (made by Hank, or Hal, or Uncle Joe, or whomever), and other various and assorted things.  You’d be wise to buy all of those things at the market, but if you’re looking to entertain for the weekend at the lake, don’t you date buy your produce from Whole Foods and bring it here. Shop here. Buy our things.

Pearce’s Farm Stand (open daily) is outside of Williams Bay, in between here and Fontana on the corner of Highway 67 opposite Inspiration Ministries. It’s large and it’s nice, and while I dislike the carnival style haunted house stuff that’ll come in the fall, the summer stand is near perfection. The sweet corn is the main draw, and while the corn has been available for several weeks, it has only now begun to taste like Wisconsin summer corn should. It’s delicious, and you can’t buy it at Whole Foods. Even if you could, why would you? If you’re here,  indulge the markets. Wander around. Find some honey and some eggs. Do these things because you can’t fully enjoy a Lake Geneva summer if you don’t even know what it’s supposed to taste like.

 

Lakefront Inventory

Lakefront Inventory

It feels like an epidemic. Each day starts full of hope. Each day passes choked with despair. New inventory should be here by now. But it isn’t. Why isn’t it? This is what the people want to know. The smart Lake Geneva buyers are working with me, and I’m working for them, trying to dig up shreds of inventory so that I might offer it to them on this silver platter. Despite my efforts, the silver platter remains empty, carrying only the dust from a desperate summer.

Buyers are active on the lakefront, this we know.  Lots of agents have buyers at the moment. Lots. They’re asking me for inventory. David, what do you have that I might sell? This is sweet of them to ask so nicely, but what they don’t know is that any inventory that I uncover will be inventory that I offer to my buyers first, and to everyone else last. This is why buyers should be working with me, among all of the other reasons, but still, the market persists and summer moves along and there’s no inventory.

But that’s not entirely true. There have been seven new lakefronts brought to market from June 1st through August 1st. Of those seven, I’ve presented three of them under my brokerage. The thing is, five of those seven are listings that were previously on the market. Of the two new ones, I sold my listing (Jerseyhurst, closing next month), and the other listing is an entry level home seeking a buyer (visionary).  While I do see several of these new listings selling this year, it’s obvious to admit to you that our inventory is light at best. Anemic at worst.  But how does it stack up to a typical Lake Geneva summer?

Last year there were nine new lakefront listings 6/1-8/1.  For the sake of this historical reflection I won’t be deciphering which listings were “new” new, and which were  regurgitated new.  The same two months in 2015 brought 10 new listings to market. 2014 saw 12 new, and 2013 gave us 10. For the sake of averages, the market has produced 9.6 new lakefront listings between June 1st and August 1st. If we’re trying to be dramatic, that means the 2017 inventory production is 25% off the pace.

Still, in spite of the lighter 2017 listing volume, we’re still faring much better than the 2007 market. Those buyers were truly up against it, with just 3 lakefronts listed over those two summer months. And back then, the “cheapest” new listing was $2.2MM.  So yes, our inventory is constricted. Yes, that makes it tough on buyers. But don’t for a second think it’s some sort of historical anomaly.  It’s just a bit behind the running average, and I’m confident that August and September will bring some new inventory that will satiate the market.

 

Above, the master bathroom at my pending sale on Jerseyhurst.
Home

Home

My wife has adopted a particular driving habit. No, not the way her car crowds mine in the garage. They just want to be together, she says.  And not the way her foot lacks the ability to slowly and responsibly adjust the pressure to the gas pedal. It’s a road trip habit, but really whenever we’re driving, anywhere. A license plate from Manitoba. She spots them from miles away. Then she accelerates (see earlier note) to catch a glimpse of the truck, or car. Does she know the driver? She must, or so she thinks. She’ll wait outside restaurants for the plate owners to finish their meals so she can find out if, by some chance, she knows them.

The truck had a Manitoba license plate. It was southbound, as most plates from Manitoba tend to be, on that wide interstate. Traffic was hustling, but alternating between the hustle and a crawl with a complete stop thrown in now and then for good measure. The plate was affixed to a truck, a big truck, but not a semi. It was a dually, not unlike the truck my friend Eric’s dad drove in the early 1990s, but this one was newer, bigger, with dirt dried onto the paint around the wheels, up the tailgate, on the hood. The driver was going somewhere in a hurry. I sped up to see if I recognized the driver. I didn’t.

A horse trailer had 11 stickers of horses on the back of it. Five on one door and six on the other. The sticker horses were bucking, jumping, kicking.  11. I figured there must have been 11 horses in the horse trailer. Who would put 11 stickers on if there were only two horses in the trailer? The number seemed arbitrary, which means it must have been specific. The trailer was from Oklahoma, presumably as was the truck towing it. I couldn’t catch a glimpse. Just as I intended to accelerate the traffic turned to a crawl. All four lanes in either direction, crawling on a road meant for supreme and uninterrupted speed.

Feet on the dash. This isn’t something I’ve ever done. I’m too tall, I think. I did sit in the passenger seat once with my feet out the window, but that was when driving to a new fishing spot from an old fishing spot. My waders leaked something awful.  My socks were tucked into the outside of the backseat windows, flapping in the wind to dry. My feet outside the front window felt rare, like some sort of treat, born of necessity but also pleasant and curious.  After the interstate drive, I felt less special, less unique. Everyone drives with their feet on the dash, even if the truly brave (like me) go fully out the window.

The plates were mostly from Illinois. Trucks, cars, SUVs, campers even. Lots of trucks towing things. Bikes, both the motorized and regular kind. Fishing boats, some small, mostly smaller. But also four wheelers, loaded with mud, empty gas cans strapped to the front of the trailer. The various automobiles whipped past me, as I screeched along in the left lane, my rear calipers recently having decided that they had had enough of the squeezing and releasing.

But where were all these people going? I knew were I was going, but that was the only puzzle I could solve. Some answers were easy to guess. Arlington Lexus, the license plate holder said. Perhaps that driver with his wife blabbing in the front seat and his children glued to their individual screens in the back; perhaps he was headed to Arlington Heights. White Oak and Vail, maybe, somewhere near where my grandma lived for all of her best years. Other plates weren’t so easy to guess. Ah, but there’s a Cayenne with The Exchange written on it. North shore, for sure.

Traffic stopped again. Why would it stop now? Out of nowhere, with no construction tonight, as the flashing signs clearly stated Monday-Friday Road Work. It wasn’t one of those days, so why now? I thought of my brakes and imagined smoke pouring from the metal on metal grind. It was a truck, Illinois plates, pulled over on the shoulder, which wasn’t very wide, to re-position two kayaks on his roof.  Probably a weekend trip to the Wisconsin river, I guessed. Maybe the Kickapoo, but the Kickapoo is still high and dirty from the two weeks ago storm.

My exit. A couple of roundabouts and I found my way back onto a two lane county road, the sort that leads from the wide road and to my narrow gravel driveway. Turn right at the gas station, left twice and one more right.  Corn fields and soybean fields as far as the eye can see, or at least until the next tree line of Mulberry and Boxelder. The last turn onto my slow driveway, chickens on the lawn, eating whatever it is the chickens eat. I was home.

But where were the other drivers headed? Where were those Illinois plates going? John Kass told me most are leaving, most unable to accept a tax increase that puts them in an elevated tax bracket still far below mine in Wisconsin. If this mass exodus required the last carload to turn the lights out, where were these Illinois plates traveling in those southbound lanes so late into the fading Sunday sky?  The were going to the same place I was.  Home to the place where the roads are familiar. Home where the sporting team wears our favorite logo. Home, just past the school where their son bench sits with the football team and their daughter starts volleyball soon. On a road filled with travelers, only a few were weary. Most were just on their way home.

Geneva National Market Update

Geneva National Market Update

Ah, yes. Geneva National. The single greatest argument against Walworth County growth that I, or anyone, has ever made. Growth, it’s good, they say. It’s a necessity of life, like breathing and tacos. But it really isn’t. It might be good initially, for the mattress salesmen and the carpet installers, but over time, spurts of growth generally cannot be maintained in low population locations. There was a spurt of growth in a small town of Arena, Wisconsin. Perhaps it was Mazomanie. There’s a new commercial building on the main drag, shiny and bright. Vacant as vacant ever was. It’s for sale now, the restaurants long ago gone. Nothing there to take their place. Sure, growth dictated that the building initially be built, but the community lacks the ability to maintain the vestiges of that growth once the cycle slows. This is the problem with Geneva National.

When times are good, as they are now, things are fine. Things are never terrific, just fine. Today, Geneva National is fine. The inventory is low, which is the single best condition for GN. There are just 70 listed homes and condominiums. There are an additional 11 properties pending sale. All of this is good. What’s not so good for current owners and sellers is the pricing. Consider a little house on Saratoga. I lived on this street once. It’s a nice street. The house is listed at $599k and is pending sale. It’s the most expensive property in GN to be listed as pending sale this morning, which is a side- topic for a different paragraph. The house sold in 2007 for $750k. 10 years have passed, the market on the lake and near the water has recovered most, if not all of its losses from the past crisis, and yet Geneva National properties remain stuck.  Geneva National is struggling through the end of its lost decade.

But perhaps this is just anecdotal. Maybe it’s not all like this, right?  There’s a house on Edinborough pending sale. That’s a nice street, what a noble name. That house is listed at $347,500 and is under contract for a number that is, presumably, somewhere near that price. The house sold initially in 1995 for $375k. In 1995, lakefront homes on Geneva were selling in the $400-500k range. Those lakefront homes have appreciated 300% over the years, while Geneva National properties have found a way to decline over the same tenure.  Not good.

There are currently 11 homes listed for sale over $700k. That’s not a ton of inventory for a development this large, but it’s tough when not a single home in GN has closed (per MLS) over $600k all year. 44 homes and condos have closed this year in GN, outpacing the 38 sales YTD for 2016. That’s a good sign, but the weak performance at the top end, and the lack of appreciation at all segments is the issue here.  Last year, three homes sold over $600k, and even that was anemic. Does Geneva National offer a buyer a good value? Yes. Would I be a buyer in GN right now? Yes-ish.

I’d be a buyer of the condominiums in built enclaves. I’m not a buyer of something new in an unfinished section. This isn’t unique to Geneva National, this is my standard for any purchase, anywhere. Why buy into a segment that is possibly more sensitive to a  softening of the market? Why buy and leave your investment up to the future whims of the developer? I  like the idea of buying in stable segments with a pattern of sales that allows me to feel confident in my purchase. I want to buy something that cannot easily be replicated. Would I buy an existing house in GN right now? You bet I would. But I’d be looking for value in the sub-$550k price range, or over that I’d be considering homes that I can buy well below current replacement costs.

I love Geneva National. Because of this I want it to succeed. Sadly, the only way it will succeed is if future development stops and the existing inventory is absorbed. As long as GN keeps building new products, the existing products will find themselves in a tough spot. But growth is good, the simpletons scream.  They’re wrong, and Geneva National can prove it.

My Son’s First Job

My Son’s First Job

My first job was a job that I now think I’d rather not have had. I mowed lawns. Lots of them. Every week I mowed. Twenty weeks, sometimes more. If an August drought persisted, maybe less. I had an orange lawn tractor and a matching trailer and I’d drive around town and mow. I never really wanted to mow, of course. My dad made me. I remember dreading his heavy morning footsteps on the stairs. I’d hear them, and I’d know it was time to work. It was always time to work. They were coming to wake me up, to tell me it was going to rain, and the lawns had to be mowed.  I was just a kid, and while my friends rode their bikes around town and flirted with the red-suited beach girls, I drove my little tractor across the road, stopping only for a few quarters worth of gas from Herb’s and an egg roll and Sprite from Doc’s.

I guess I used to be proud of that work ethic. I used to remind myself of an old saying, “in order to make a success of old age you have to start young”. What a terrible thing that is to say.  I look back at my childhood now, thinking about all the time I spent working, and I wonder why.  Do I get to retire early because I mowed lawns when I was 13? Do I have some inordinate amount of money because I mowed 31 lawns a week at age 16?  The obvious answer to both questions is a resounding no. Did I learn to work? Sure. I learned to work, but some days that doesn’t feel like such a feat. Everyone works. Some work harder and some work less. But we all work, we all work, and when we’re done working we die. Why speed it all up and make a kid burn his lungs while washing out buckets of bleach for the guy who sold the contents of those buckets to restaurants? Did I really need that job, too? Why work at Doc’s on Saturday mornings in the winter, when that’s when the best cartoons were on? Why place such a burden on a kid when he’s just that, a kid?

My son started his first real job last week. It’s at a restaurant, bussing tables and washing dishes. It’s doing the things I did for Charley O. My son wanted the job because he felt like he needed some money. His friends buy shoes for hundreds of dollars. They have iPhones and iPads and iMacs. They have everything that he doesn’t. And they have these luxuries because they work.  And so it went, a desire for money and the just requirement of work to obtain it. He was beaming after his first day. He made $55. Or was it $70? I don’t know. I don’t really care. He opened a new bank account, this one near the restaurant, so he could walk from work to the bank. Depositing his money, like a real grown up. Saving for this and saving for that, and spending on this and spending on that. He has to work four days this week.  After his last shift his feet hurt and his back ached, but he’s happy about it.

I want to be happy for him. I want to be proud of him. But why should I be? Why does work have to define us? Why does he need to hurry to work when he just turned 14?  The answer, we tell ourselves, is that he needs to learn a work ethic. He needs to learn how to take instruction. To be berated for failure. To be praised for success. I understand these things. I used to work so hard for the same results. I wanted the money. I wanted the responsibility. I wanted the acknowledgement. I wanted to be told I was doing a great job, and at such a young age. Looking back, I just wish I had spent more time at the beach with my friends. I wish just once I went to a summer matinee at the downtown theater.  I wish I hadn’t grown up fearing the sound of my dad’s footsteps on the stairs.

But so it goes, my son, the worker. I’m proud of him. But I’m sad at the same time. The cycle of work only ends when we’ve won the game or the game beats us. There is no other way out. The working life is always there, always waiting for us, always expecting us to join in, always making us feel like someone else is working harder, achieving what we want. Must we do this at age 14?  I’ve done okay, I don’t need his help buying groceries. He’s starting his work life, and sadly, unless he can break a couple generations of an unhealthy emphasis on work and a narrow fixation on money that only seems to intensify as we age, it just might ruin him. I hope that it doesn’t.  I don’t want him to fear the sound of my footsteps outside his door. I don’t want him to always think it’s going to rain. I’d rather he just live, and enjoy his young life before the time for work is unavoidable.

Maybe Jackson Browne was right. Maybe we just should say a prayer for the Pretender. Who started out so young and strong. Only to surrender.

 

 

Author’s note:

 

This post generated quite a bit of commentary. I should probably clear up a few things. This was not an “anti-work” post. It was simply a post about the attitude towards work when we’re young. Work is good and necessary, but an attitude that values work over everything else is not good. The post was also written with some sadness as I watch my little boy grow up lightening speed.