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New Geneva Lakefront Listing

New Geneva Lakefront Listing

It is no secret that the South Shore Club is an exclusive development. Anything numbering just 40 in total would be viewed as exclusive. While this is known, what isn’t so well known is that exclusivity does exist here on a higher level. The homes are each unique,  each impressive. The slate, the stone, the imported this and hand hammered that, it’s all very intoxicating. There’s plenty of reason why the South Shore Club is entirely sold out, with no available inventory as of this writing. Whether the home is on Forest Hill near the tennis court, or right on the semi-circle that rings the lake like a modern day Congress Club, the structure is divine and the home a veritable castle for its fortunate owner. But this is the obvious.  This is what everyone, no, anyone, can see with their own two open eyes if they so much as drive past, or perhaps through, the South Shore Club.

But what is a higher prize are the select homes that line not just the circle of lush grass where a swimming pool and clubhouse reside, but those homes that rest immediately adjacent to the lake itself. These are the few lakefront homes of the South Shore Club, and these are the homes that compete with private frontage in such a way that they are not just a different option for those seeking private frontage, they can indeed become the better option. In this hunt for the exclusive within the exclusive, we find ourselves at the door of 1621 East Lakeside Lane.

We’ve already established that each home in the SSC is a shining jewel in its own right, but what we miss when we paint with this wide brush is that individual homes do stand out among this spiffy crowd. Some homes are larger, as is this one. At just over 10,000 square feet, this home is large enough to meet any square footage desire, and yet boasts a design that is approachable with rooms that feel airy but not so large that they become unnecessary or somehow irrelevant. This home has more privacy, more outdoor space, more this and more that.  The floor plan here is delightful, with everything a discerning buyer might require for a true lakefront home. There are finishes that exceed the highest of expectations. The Ralph Lauren interior design works perfectly at the lake.

In spite of all this perfection, the location of this home might be its most important attribute. Nestled on the extreme eastern edge of the club, there is more space between this home and its lakefront neighbor to the East. This spacious side yard is a result of superior site planning, and it’s this side yard that makes this home feel less like just another home in the South Shore Club and more like one of the finest lakefront homes you’ll ever lay eyes on. The views from the home rival or exceed that of any lakefront home on Geneva, with unavoidable lake views present in many of the rooms, and most pronounced from the epic lakeside stone patio.

This is the appeal of this exquisite home. It is part of the South Shore Club, and along with that membership it enjoys the unrivaled trappings of such luxury- the free and varied boats, the tennis court, the pool and hot tub, the clubhouse.  Think you need to buy a life vest for your daughter here? Think again, they’re included as it’s all part of the South Shore Club experience. These are the amenities, and when a home like this requires the use of those, they are available at any moment. But what is different here is the ability to detach from the South Shore Club and live as a true lakefront home. If the activities are needed, they are there. But if they are not needed, and the new owner requires little more than a comfortable lounge chair to rest on and the sound of lapping waves as their soundtrack, this is also available. It’s in the ability to live as a true lakefront home with the wide array of South Shore Club activities available when they are wanted and out of sight, and perhaps mind, when they are not.

 

This is the only available home in the South Shore Club, and it just so happens to be one of the most special. If you’re looking for lakefront and want to purchase something that’s both beautiful and easy to own, this is your chance. I sold the house next door in less than three weeks last summer. Available for private tour with notice.  $4,850,000

Clear Sky Lodge Home For Sale

Clear Sky Lodge Home For Sale

You don’t really want to be me. Some of my friends think they’d like to be me. To work a bit and make money a bit and drive a nice car a bit. To have nice things and to sell this place. It’s luxurious, they think. It’s fun, they imagine. But they’re wrong. Everyone is wrong. What I really do is take nice people out in my car and show them this lake. I show them this lane and that drive. I take them here and down there. I show them what it is we do here, how much better it is.  The scene is easy to love. The water, same. The boats and the woods and the sails, it’s all rather intoxicating, and nearly everyone agrees with this. The problem is the real estate. Do you know how deflating it is to show someone homes that cost millions of dollars that are, as a point of fact, awful homes?

This is the Lake Geneva problem. This is my problem. This market is expensive, there’s just no getting around it. But it’s expensive for a reason, for many reasons, and it’s worth it.  But whether it’s worth it or not, the homes that buyers can buy are often disappointing. They need significant updating. Or a wrecking ball. Or they lack this and that. They always lack. I’d buy this house if only it had (insert anything here, anything at all).  With this housing deficiency understood, imagine now my delight in bringing you this new listing at 1100E South Lakeshore Drive in Fontana.

This house measures more than 5000 square feet. It has a two car garage. Five bedrooms. A large great room with tall ceilings. Four fireplaces. Huge outdoor patio space. 1.78 acres of wooded privacy. Two driveways with ample room to park as many as a dozen vehicles. It has a shared pier with a canopied slip. The current owner keeps his 27′ Cobalt there. I suppose you could put yours there as well.  There’s SubZero and Wolf.  Stone and granite. Big wooded doors that swing on huge steel hinges. This isn’t so much a mere lake house in Fontana as much as it’s an Adirondack Lodge in Fontana.

But this is the house, the big, beautiful house. That’s not what really sets the property apart. It’s that privacy, that delicious, rare, wooded privacy. It’s the Fontana location with water and sewer and an easy walk to town or the Lake Geneva Yacht Club.  It’s these things, but it’s much more.  Here we have an inground swimming pool, set back in the woods surrounded by lush perennial gardens. There’s a Lord and Burnham Greenhouse, one that causes me to green with jealousy every time I enter. The current owners don’t use it as a greenhouse, they just use it as a pool-toy storage center, but I’d use it as a greenhouse if it were mine. Once you buy this house, I’d like it if you’d use it as a greenhouse again.

It’s not just a big house with all those fireplaces and a pool and a greenhouse and so much wooded privacy on all that land. There’s a tennis court, too. A tennis court with lights and basketball hoops. The current owner holds the Spotted Cow Open here each year. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it. The sponsorship by Spotted Cow isn’t official yet, but they should appreciate the free advertising.  If you’re tired from tennis you can retreat to the pool, and when you tire of the pool you can enter the greenhouse. The tomatoes need picking.

This comes back to the price. $2.99MM for all of this lakeside luxury. This house gives you what other homes in this price range can’t. You can buy a lakefront home for this money, easily and often. But you can’t buy an estate with these country club amenities. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be in Fontana and it wouldn’t have a pier, and it certainly wouldn’t be walking distance to the Yacht Club.   My job typically forces me to sell around what isn’t there. In the case of this Clear Sky Lodge property,  there’s nothing I need to sell. The property does it for me.  Available for private showings this weekend.

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

We intended to arrive as a party of seven sometime around 6 pm. Having been rebuffed in my dinner attempt on the prior Friday, I called ahead to make a reservation. It felt unnecessary, a dinner reservation on a snowy night in February, but I didn’t want to face the difficulty of a 30 minute wait. The hotel operator answered and asked how many in my party. Seven, I replied. She informed me that reservations are only taken for tables of eight or more.  Seven is trivial, eight is everything. And so we went to the restaurant and hoped there would be a table. There was.

The Waterfront restaurant sits on the lower level of the Abbey hotel in Fontana, closest to the harbor. The hotel has undergone some significant improvements over recent years, but some of it still feels sad and old. This is the plague of an old hotel with low ceilings. You can gild the walls and diamond encrust the ceilings but when the last stone is set you’ll just be left with an ornate coffin.  The restaurant is broken into two distinct dining areas separated by a bar. The initial space is comfortable, with a lower ceiling,  while the lakeside room opens up to a soaring ceiling with ample glass to take in the views. The hostess quickly sat us at a high-top in the lakeside room overlooking the icy harbor. Outside, twinkly lights lit a makeshift skating rink, nearby an outdoor fire. If this were Colorado, dozens of people would have been gathered, toasting to the mountain gods and reveling in the dry cold. But this is Wisconsin, so we all sat inside and wondered what insanity would  compel someone to stand outside, fire or not.

Our waiter was a bit nervous, perhaps on account of the large group.  We ordered a round of waters, and my friend asked for a half order of ribs for a warm up. The fish fry featured a choice of broiled or fried cod or walleye, and to my surprise, the walleye and cod were both just $13, all you can eat. The side offerings include potato pancakes, fries, and sweet potato fries- the first restaurant to offer the additional potato. I ordered the fish, one piece walleye and one piece cod, both fried, with the potato pancakes.  The rest of the table ordered various bits and fishy things.

The Waterfront boasts a menu with several smoked items, much in the way that Harpoon Willies has added a smoker and the accompanying meats to their menu. The ribs arrived quickly, slathered in sauce, smoked to tender. The half rack was small, as if taken from a tiny pet cow at a petting zoo on the outskirts of some small Midwestern town. The ribs came with a side order, which we filled with sweet potato fries. The fries were robust wedges of sweet potato, cooked perfectly. I’ve had these fries before and sometimes they tend to be a bit undercooked, so I was pleased to find the outside crispy and the inside soft. The ribs were quite good, and given their miniature size, we ate them without pause.  The only complaint I had on the ribs was the dry rub, presumably the rub they are smoked with prior to saucing, still tasted a bit too grainy. Perhaps the ribs are smoked and then tossed in some additional dry run before saucing. If that’s the case, I’d recommend they skip that step.

The fish was brought within 20 minutes of ordering which felt like the right timing. The plates were large, filled with fried things and served with ample sides of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw. The apple sauce was deliciously chunky.  I skipped the tartar sauce as usual, but my tablemates proclaimed the tartar sauce to the best ever. High praise from women who eat only to stay nourished. In the Midwest, Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewery is a pretty important beer. Imagine then the delight of Waterfront patrons when they learn that their fish fry batter is a Spotted Cow batter.  The fish was nicely battered and fried to a perfect golden brown. The pieces were well sized, thick enough to hold moisture, and filet shaped.  The square cuts of fish that have plagued some of our reviewed restaurants were thankfully absent.

Both the walleye and cod received glowing reviews from our table, though I found the walleye to be better than the cod. I am not a walleye aficionado. I do not eat walleye shore lunches with the Chicago businessmen who fly to remote locations in Ontario to impress gullible walleye with their awful angling skills.  Still, the walleye was tender and so was the cod, though each could have used a touch more salt. This evening was shaping up to be the evening where Anthony’s was dethroned. The applesauce, chunky. The fish, tasty. The batter, crunchy. Nothing could derail the Waterfront now.  Nothing, except the potato pancake. It wasn’t as bad as Gordy’s Sawdust Cake, but it was close. It looked good and had a nicely crusted exterior, but inside, the cake was a bit dry. If you’re going to impress me, you cannot serve me a dry pancake. No amount of delicious tartar sauce or chunky applesauce can mask this fatal mistake.

Even though I should find a way to eat less bread, I was nonetheless displeased with the Waterfront’s lack of table bread. No roll, no loaf, no slices. At least they didn’t try to serve me Rye, I suppose. But no bread meant no butter, which means a key component of the fish fry review was rendered untested. Once I had eaten my fish and choked through the potato pancake and recovered from the breadless disappointment, I ordered my second helping of fish. This time broiled, one piece cod and one piece walleye.  During this wait I nibbled at the hushpuppies that come with each order. They were fine, though a bit drier than I would have liked. I appreciated the inclusion and the effort.

Our timid, but polite, waiter brought the fish out, one piece to one plate. The filets both looked remarkably similar. Both skinny and long, one indistinguishable from the other. If you know what a walleye looks like and you know what a cod looks like, I suppose they could have the same dimensions, though I found this highly unlikely. I just hope I wasn’t eating Florida golf course tilapia. The broiled pieces were far inferior to their fried counterparts. That rub that felt misplaced on the ribs was present again, or at least the paprika component, and the filets were liberally covered in this spice. I didn’t like it. The walleye was served skin on, which is fine, but since the fish was broiled and not first tossed in flour and quickly pan fried (sautéed, like the Gordy’s perch), the skin became slippery and slimy. I didn’t care for it.  Far worse, my son found two bones in his single piece of broiled walleye, which is the first bone anyone has found at any  of the restaurants we’ve visited.  For shame.

Another Friday night, another near miss. The fish was good, likely the best fried fish I’ve had on this tour. The broiled fish was a miss. The potato pancake was a miss. The bone-in filet was a huge miss.  The lack of bread was a miss. But the restaurant was reasonably busy on this cold night and the finishes in the space are stylish.  The service was attentive and polite, and the timing of the food deliveries was appropriate. I just wish they hadn’t screw up the potato pancake, and I left wondering if my wife would take offense to me stopping at Sentry on the way hope to buy some bread and butter. Try the Abbey’s Waterfront for fish fry. It’s quite good. Order the walleye, get it fried not broiled, and let’s hope your potato pancake is better than mine.

 

The Waterfront Restaurant at the Abbey Hotel  7/10

269 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana, WI

$13 All you can eat cod or walleye

 

Fish Fry photo courtesy the Abbey Resort and Waterfront Restaurant

 

Winter

Winter

I entered February with a heavy heart. Things were happening that were beyond my control. These things were beyond your control.   They weren’t even things, really. It was just one thing, one quiet thing, marching slowly but obviously, out of my control. It was January and it turned to February, and soon it’ll turn to March. Marching through March, like the meme or the poster or like nothing at all. April comes next. Rainy April, with showers and following flowers, May. Soon they’ll all be here and the piers will be in and the sun will be on my face, on yours. It’ll be summer and we’ll laugh and splash and things will be different. They won’t be better.

That’s because it’s winter in Wisconsin, and it’s winter that I’m worried about missing. January turned to February and I couldn’t do a single thing about it. I stacked my oak high and I turned my thermostat higher, to 68 sometimes when I’m feeling a chill. The Facebook is full of summertime wishes, of warm tropical beaches. Did you know a palm tree saw its shadow and now there will be six more weeks of paradise? How proposterous.  I don’t even know what the woodchuck, or the hedgehog or the badger saw. A shadow? I saw mine, does that count? Do I get to decide this thing called winter and the leaking towards spring? If it was my choice I’d vote winter. In my old age I’m not wishing for summer, I’m relishing winter.

And why wouldn’t I? My house is warm and my car prepared. My jackets have liners, cotton or down. A bald eagle just flew over my office on his way to the lake where the arctic birds flock. Dinner, it’s calling. And so is my house and the firewood and the fireplace and a college basketball game, the outcome of which I couldn’t care less. It’s dark now, but it’s lighter than it once was. Soon I’ll be driving home in the sunshine, and soon I’ll have to tend to my lawn and edge the beds where my summer flowers now lie deceivingly still. They’ll be alive soon, sprouting and shooting and thriving. How I wish they’d lie still just a bit longer.

Rush through winter if you must. Hurry up for the summer sun if you cannot find your wintery peace. As for me, I delight in these days. In the chill on my toes and the fire in my hearth. I soak in the low dim sun, wishing for a few more weeks of it. The snow piles, finally, and I welcome it. Pile higher, please snow. There will be time enough for summer. Time for the sun and time for the water. Time to fish and time to lounge under a shade tree while the waves lap. But for now, it’s time to be still. Time to enjoy the scene. To appreciate the snow and the crisp and the calm. It’s winter, still, and I’m glad.

Gordy’s Fish Fry Review

Gordy’s Fish Fry Review

I am a creature of habit. This means I do certain things the same way, for better or for worse, with amazing consistency. Perhaps my most notorious habit is my repeated ordering of the Yacht Club Chicken Wrap. When at Gordy’s, this is what I order. It’s not because it’s the best chicken wrap I’ve ever had. It’s not because I think it’s healthy. It’s just because this is what I order, and this is likely what I always will order.   With this in mind, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to tell the waitress that I’d be having the fish fry. Habits, they die hard.

When my son and I left his basketball game on Friday night, we didn’t intend to visit Gordy’s.  We first drove to the Abbey to sample the fish fry at the Waterfront restaurant. We approached the hostess table with anticipation. The restaurant was buzzing, even if a quick scan proved around 30% of the tables were open.  Two, for fish fry, I said. The hostess studied her book, as if looking for a loophole in the tax law, and told us that the wait would be around 30 minutes. She didn’t say it apologetically, but rather enthusiastically. I asked about all of the open tables, but she was unfazed. Thirty Minutes.  Perplexed, we drove around the corner to an open parking spot near Gordy’s Boathouse.

Parking, as you’re aware, can be a trick at Gordy’s. Thankfully, on this cold evening there was a spot open in front of the pro shop, and we hastily walked through the biting wind into the restaurant. Inside was warm and appropriately lit. The bar had a few patrons, the front dining room was mostly full, and a few groups had settled into the hi-tops near the restrooms. There was a hot chocolate bar set up with various hot-chocolate toppers and add-ins. I’m not a monster, so I didn’t mix fish-fry with hot chocolate, but I thought the hot-chocolate bar looked nice and charming, and I applauded the wintery effort. Our table for two was near the bar, close enough to smell a bit of hot chocolate in the air, but not so close that the smell disrupted my fried dinner.

Our waitress quickly brought us waters.  The fish fry, she said, was cod. Fried or broiled. There was a perch option, which came sautéed. She suggested the perch, so I followed her lead. Perch it would be, with an extra side of cod. The french fries at Gordy’s are among the best in the area, but I stuck to my guns and order the potato pancakes. I would soon be overcome with potato based regret.

We waited around 15 minutes for the fish to arrive table side, which was a fine wait and didn’t feel too long. The fish was presented, along with a dinner roll and a small plastic cup of coleslaw, tartar sauce, and applesauce. The little cups were tiny, maybe two spoonfuls, which was disappointing. I didn’t touch the coleslaw or tartar sauce, but I did eat the apple sauce. I prefer my applesauce like I prefer my silhouette: chunky. This was too smooth, too small, too sad.  The dinner roll looked nice, wheat maybe. But it wasn’t wheat at all, it was rye. I feel that a rye roll should be offered with some warning. Like, “are you sure you want the dinner roll? It’s rye”.  You can’t just pass off a rye roll and expect I won’t notice. I noticed, and I nibbled it only to find out of it was properly toasted and warm. It was moderately warm, but should have been toasted. The butter that I wouldn’t be eating with the roll that I didn’t eat was served Big Foot Inn style, in a small square, foiled wrapped. Like I was eating take-out on a park bench next to an airport. The butter and roll were a fail.

The perch filets were small, which I liked. Sometimes perch filets can be large, unnaturally so. These were appropriately sized, lightly dredged in flour or corn starch and then pan friend, which they called sautéed. The accompanying sauce was buttery, but I would have liked a bit of extra flavor with it. After my Pier 290 bluegill experience I was nervous to eat this perch, but my fear was quickly pushed aside in favor of delicious, tender bites of perch. They were skin on, but the skin was crisped and the fish tender. It was a nice variation on classic fish fry. I added a squeeze of lemon and greedily ate the filets.

The potato pancakes were large and looked the part. Sadly, they looked much better than they tasted. The filling was a bit too bread-like. As if the mixture called for one part potato to three parts cracker. Or one part potato and three parts sawdust. They were dry, unpleasant tasting, and easily the worst potato pancake of any potato pancake I’ve eaten. My son and I bemoaned the poor execution of this side, because we were prepared to crown Gordy’s the king of the fish fry and forgive the sin of the rye roll, but now we could do no such thing. If you’re going to unseat Anthony’s, you’re going to need to make a potato pancake worthy of the crown.

The waitress kept our water glasses full, and asked quickly if I wanted some more fish. I did, obviously.  The cod this time, one piece fried and one piece broiled.  After a few minutes I was served a new plate, with a couple of pieces of cod. The broiled was tender and tasty, eve if the filet was a bit odd. It was less a filet and more a collection of small bits and pieces. But it was delicate and nicely seasoned. The fried cod came in a fish-stick shape, which is an immediate downgrade from a natural looking section of fish. The breading was nicely browned,  less a beer batter and more a panko crust. The shape aside, it was tender and nicely salted, though the stick was a bit greasy, even for my well-adjusted palate.

The dinner for two came to $27.90, pre-tip. $12.95 for the cod all you can eat, and $14.95 for the perch, which is offered fried or sautéed and is not an all you can eat option.  The dinner was quite good, and I was happy to have eaten both delicious perch and cod.  Gordy’s came close, but the fish was still a small step under Anthony’s, and the potato pancake was several escalators under every other potato pancake that has come before.   The restaurant is charming and comfortable, and our service was outstanding.  Next time I visit I’ll be sure to check on the potato pancake to see if they’ve fixed that poor recipe, and you can bet I’ll expect the rye roll to be replaced with a delicious, all-American, bleached flour roll served with a generous dish of softened butter.

 

Gordy’s Fish Fry  7/10

Cod, All you can eat $12.95. Perch, $14.95

Gordy’s Boat House

336 Lake Street, Fontana, WI 53125

 

2018 State Of The Market

2018 State Of The Market

(Lake Geneva lovers to the left of the podium, smiling and clapping, standing. Michigan lovers to the right of my podium, scowling, sitting, glaring. Me, walking, shaking, waving. My hair tall, my grip firm, my smile electric. Scene.)

 

My fellow Americans, those prized long tenured lake lovers, those recent converts to our religion of lake living, and those new buyers who hail from Winnetka and beyond, today in Lake Geneva some snow sculptors put on one extra layer of long underwear before heading out of their hotel room door. Today it is a good day to be us. Today, we are the American dream.

An architect put his pencil to paper, intent on designing another great vacation home for another discerning buyer, and we shall count this work as a job saved by the bustling Lake Geneva economy. A city worker plowed and pushed so much snow, up over the median and onto the lawn, so that it might be trampled on and later today carved into a swan, or Shrek, or a dragon, and he did this without complaining. Later today, a mother from Buffalo Grove will log on to her computer, and she’ll stumble upon this website and her eyes will be opened to the possibility of a Lake Geneva vacation home. This is the promise of America, yes, but it’s the further promise of Lake Geneva. And when this mother searches and strives and brings her family to the lake this summer, and oh so many summers after, this is when the dream of my father, and of her father will have been realized. Of course, that assumes her father dreamt of this in the way that my father did, but still. It’s in these people, the city worker and the snow sculptor and the mother from Buffalo Grove and my father and her father that combine to make the state of the Lake Geneva market strong.

The results of this work, of the street plower dutifully fulfilling his pledge, and of the mother looking and then buying the most perfect lake house, is that our market has never been stronger. We have never been stronger.  We own the Midwest vacation home market, and it is all but assured that the coming year will be as bright as the years that preceded it. No, brighter.  We do not shut off our lights, or turn away any weary travelers just because we are content in our own strength. Instead we offer benevolence to the lake weary, to those who toil and labor in cities and in suburbs, and we offer them shelter because that is what we do and this is who we are.  How can we call ourselves Americans if we do not encourage those with the means to lay down roots near our shores?

The question for us today is actually only for you. It is not for you if you’re content with your vacation home ownership here. If you splash your way through every summer, this is not a charge that you need to consider because you have already passed this greatest test. The question today is for those who sit at their computers, who sit on their couches, who spend Saturday wondering what Sunday will bring even though you know it just brings a long line and then brunch.  Maybe a stroller ride through an insufferable park.  The question is what, exactly, are you doing? Why are you allowing a most un-American complacency to drag down your weekends, when you know that we’re here- the city worker, polishing the streets that we’d like you to drive over, and the mother, picking up corn at the farmer’s market in the morning to cook it lakeside in the evening. We are here, working and playing and living in a most amazing fashion, even while you sit there in that same new chair, obstructing your own path in life simply because you’re scared to venture into the unknown.  Do you not dream our same watery dreams?

But this isn’t the unknown, my friends, this is America, yes, the most pure version of it. This is America, if the entirety of it would be washed in clean water, surrounded by a lush green shore, where every family gets not just an organic chicken from Yuppie Hill Poultry, but also a boat in every slip and some gas in that boat and a few hours of leisure. This is what we offer, and in the coming months you must make a decision to join us or forever get out of our way. In God We Trust, yes but do we not also trust in blue water and soft summer skies?  We can make progress this year, together, but we cannot do this without your cooperation. We can lead you to the water but we cannot make you swim. We cannot simply urge you to join us if you will not make even a modest effort. This isn’t what it is to be an American, to lie and lounge in city apartments and in suburban backyards, this isn’t the sense of adventure that our fore-bearers wished for us. Do you not aspire to join us in our greatness?

But today is for the laborer. The partner and the founder. The director and the vice president.  They rise and they work, and they rise and they work. They wake on Saturday and they pretend that this day is somehow different. They rise and think that a Lake Geneva vacation home isn’t for them, because it hasn’t ever been for them. That this dream is unattainable. They huddle in their darkest corners, holding tight to their money that they’ve worked so hard to earn, and they fear the things that might happen if they let some of it go. They live as though their pedigree is in question, as though they cannot consider Lake Geneva because of its long enduring reputation as a place for the societal elites. I assure you today, as I will assure you again tomorrow, that Lake Geneva is for everyone, for every make and model, for anyone who wakes on a Saturday and says, “I’m bored here, let’s go to the lake”.

And so I make this decree, by executive order I hereby demand every vacation home seeker of some means to at least consider a Lake Geneva vacation home.  Your complacency cannot thrive under this bright lakeside sun, and so this command today by me, your dictat- err- President, shall be followed otherwise the willing dissenters risk being labeled enemy combatants.  We may disagree on the course of value, or on the benefits of one shore over the other, or on which restaurant is worthy of our breakfasting intentions and which restaurants are not, but we can agree that Lake Geneva is the place to be. In fact, it always has been, and it always will be. If we can summon the courage to live in a way that finds our weekends at the lake, then we can overcome anything. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless Lake Geneva and no place else.

Vail Fish Fry Review

Vail Fish Fry Review

The woman on the chairlift said her boyfriend was filming something in some other mountain town. He’s a skier, like her.  She was happy about that, about him, about all of it. Her age led me to believe this wasn’t her first boyfriend. She was older now, content to work her mountain town job of selling ice cream or skis or bumper stickers, “THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING”. They already called her, and she rode up that chairlift beaming because it had just snowed. The other things didn’t matter.  She had to be to work by 11, so maybe she was a waitress who worked lunch/dinner. But for now there was fresh powder on the slopes and she was happy.   Happier than I think she should have been.  Exuberant about the snow. SNOW! She couldn’t contain herself. There was no other reason for living. Her boyfriend was away and her work was calling but first she had to worship the snow.

I spent last week in Beaver Creek watching the strange people who worship the snow. If you step back and look at it, it’s really quite insane. The snow is everything, in fact, it’s mostly the only thing. It’s why they get up, it’s why they live. It’s an obsession. That’s how I feel about fish fry. On Friday night we were walking the small faux-village of Lionshead and saw a sign outside a nondescript restaurant. “FISH AND CHIPS $13”.  Not wishing to break the chain of Monday fish fry reviews, I took the bait.

Bart and Yeti are dogs. This is their bar, or it was their bar. I think they’re dead now.  The bar claims to be one of the last few “local” hangouts in the Vail valley. We had to  park a half mile away in one of those terrible Colorado parking garage structures, but as it was after 5 pm we narrowly dodged having to pay for our stall. The bar was loud, full of snow-worshippers reveling in the dying dim of a powder day.  The restaurant was cold, a condition that plagues mountain towns everywhere. Somehow, somewhere, someone convinced Colorado that the cold is fine, that if it’s a bit sunny then 25 degrees feels nice on the skin. This is why the doors to restaurants, bars, clothing shops and even ice cream shops remain open, all through the winter. They’ve lied to themselves. It’s a dry cold, they say. It’s a warm sun, they insist. But they’re wrong, it’s just winter and it’s cold and Bart and Yeti’s was as cold as the Hagen Daz shop that sold the sort of ice cream that Culver’s would only serve to their back lot dumpster.

The waitress was an older woman who seemed both happy and disinterested. Perhaps she was still buzzing from her earlier sacrifice to the Powder gods. We were seated in a small room to the right of the bar. Our corner table was near the window, and close to a group of skiers who wore straight brim hats without the slightest hint of irony. I listened in on their conversation, which revolved around snow, beer, and an epic ski trip to Taos in the mid 1980s. Gnarly!  The men told the tales and the women laughed,  still high from their powder day or recently high from something else. Our waitress brought us water, which tasted like minerals, which tastes like all of the other restaurant water we drank that week. I ordered the clam chowder, which the waitress told me was homemade.

The compound word homemade should never appear on a restaurant menu. Housemade is the proper term, unless someone really did make the soup at home and then transport it to the restaurant, in which case I’d like to question the sanitary conditions in that home kitchen. Still, the clam chowder arrived and it was okay. The clam bits were tender and sandy, but the broth was a bit thin. I like my clam chowder to cling to my spoon with intent. We ordered an appetizer of nachos, because they waitress told us we couldn’t go wrong with that. She was wrong, when the nachos came out under a top layer of charred cheddar I found the juxtaposition  of hard cheese, tortilla chips, and heaps of raw onion and tomato to be a big swing and a miss.

The fish fry arrived almost 25 minutes after I ordered it.  Three pieces of fried cod, some french fries, and a side of tartar sauce. No coleslaw, applesauce, or other accoutrements. No table bread, no butter, softened or otherwise. The cod pieces looked more like chicken tenders, thin and shallow, almost kidney shaped. The breading was golden and crunchy, the fish overcooked but adequate. There was also some confusion as to the make and model of the fish. I asked the waitress if it was cod, and she replied in the affirmative. But the menu says “white fish”, which could be almost anything.  It might have been cod, but it might have been tilapia from the golf course ponds of central Florida. Who could know? The french fries were skinny, like McDonald’s fries but not nearly as good. The freezer bag must have been running low because my fries were mostly little stubs. The dinner was to come with chips, which could have implied fries, but the waitress made it appear as though the fries were an upgrade. I’m not in third grade, so don’t serve me potato chips with dinner. Thanks.

This was not an all-you-can-eat dinner. That would likely be too gluttonous and unhealthy for these Colorado patrons. With the smell of weed wafting through every faux-village, ski slope, and coffee shop, I suppose I can understand why the thought of a large fish dinner might make these locals squeamish. My wife was keen to point out that my dinner was not a fish fry. It was fish and chips, which is different, I suppose. And why shouldn’t it be? This wasn’t Wisconsin, where we know what a fish fry is, and what it should be. This was Colorado, where Bison Burgers and Rocky Mountain Oysters rule the menus of the bars and tourist restaurants.  When the tab was paid and we walked in the freezing cold back to the elevated parking lot, I felt confident to have been reminded of what I already knew. Colorado is fine, but Wisconsin is better.

 

Bart and Yeti’s 5/10

Lionshead (Vail), Colorado

$13 Fried Cod

2017 Geneva Lakefront Market Review

2017 Geneva Lakefront Market Review

Several of our vacation home segments finished 2017 without a particular narrative. They were nice markets that had a nice year. Nothing more, nothing less. No major breakthroughs, no particular oddities. The other markets have been on a roll, and we have no choice but to pat them on the back and tell them they did well. The lakefront market, too, had a nice year. It built on volume and built on price as inventory disappeared. But this is where the lakefront market says goodbye to the other markets and wishes them well. The lakefront market is on to bigger and better things. The lakefront market has a different story to tell.

That story, in case you’re new to this blog or new to the Lake Geneva media mentions, is a dramatic increase in upper bracket sales activity.  This is the story that needs to be told. This is the difference between Lake Geneva and all other Midwestern vacation home markets.  If this sounds like a common refrain coming from this site, that’s because the refrain is historically rare and is worthy of this praise. Consider the prior market peak. That peak was between January of 2007 and January of 2009. During those months the lakefront market on Geneva printed three sales in excess of $4MM. The top sale for that period closed for $4.95MM. Now consider the current market cycle and the sales that have occurred between January 2016 and January 2018. For those 24 months, the lakefront market printed 10 sales in excess of $4MM and three sales over $7MM. The top sale was $9.95MM.  For my part, I represented either the buyer or seller in seven of those ten sales, and each of the top three sales.

Currently we have five more properties pending sale over $4MM and one pending sale over $12MM. This is no longer a market that struggles to provide one or two sales over $4MM annually. That’s the old Lake Geneva, and this is the new Lake Geneva. Increased upper bracket activity, a stronger overall buyer, and a top end that has been completely and thoroughly redefined. While there are questions about the long term strength of this particular segment, I think there is one nagging question that has been answered. Can Lake Geneva provide liquidity to owners who have homes justifiably valued in the $10-15MM range? Yes. A follow up question with more devastating results: Are buyers buying lakefront houses for too much money, in part because they don’t seek qualified counsel in the decision? Also yes.

For the year just ended the lakefront market closed 26 single family properties (MLS). These sales registered $27,578 per front foot, up a bit from the $27, 193 from 2016. In total we sold 2455 front feet on Geneva, down from the 2882 front feet sold in 2016.  I’m finding the traditional price per front foot metric to be increasingly antiquated, even though the market still likes to point to that number as the best and easiest way to identify value.  I’ve started to add in a price per square foot of structure ($560.96) and price per square foot of land ($58.09) so that buyers have additional means by which to understand the value of a particular property.  There is no particular means to measure value, but these three metrics combined with nuanced understanding of desirable locations and attributes can help narrow down the valuation range.

Entry level lakefront traded with some vigor in 2017, and I did find it curious that this segment offered strong value even as the broad market accelerated. Five lakefronts traded under $1.325MM last year, including two under $926k. Those sales represented a nice entry point into this lakefront scene, and I continue to believe that we will find ourselves in a position where the market runs out of sub $1MM homes. These sort of basic cottages only exist on the lake is certain areas, and with each sale these are properties that are typically transformed via renovation or reconstruction. If you’re an entry level lakefront buyer, you’d be wise to move on properties and not miss out on  purchases over small negotiation points and percentages.

The story for 2018 will be inventory. Today, there are just ten Geneva lakefront homes available (private frontage, without offer). If the stock market maintains this incredible level (note, it doesn’t need to keep moving higher, just not correct significantly), Geneva will see another terrific year. Heck, the way buyers are buying in January, maybe we don’t even care about the stock market anymore.  New construction is rampant at the moment, and while the upper end values currently support these builds, it’ll be interesting to see if this upper bracket market hits resistance in the coming years.

For now, expect inventory to remain low, and cary-over sales from 2017 to close during the first quarter 2018.  The market is clamoring for inventory in each segment, including that lofty $6MM+ range. New construction in any price segment will be of interest to current buyers, so long as the parcels match up with the price. That’s a key.  I’m expecting inventory to build over the coming months, as opportunistic sellers see a market rife with activity. Some brokers are telling sellers to name their price, but that’s ridiculous. The market is hot, but buyers and sellers still need to understand basic fundamentals of market valuations.   If you want an agent to tell you every house is the right house, then I’m not your guy. If you want an agent to help guide you through this increasingly active and competitive market, I’m here to help. 

Above, the lakefront at my Loramoor listing. Pending sale at $5,950,000
The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

There is risk in trying a new restaurant. When given the menu choice between discovering something new and retreating to the familiar, I opt for the familiar. The familiar doesn’t let you down. New choices can lead to wonderful discovery, but more often they lead to huge embarrassing disappointment. This is the basis of dinner envy, or order error, of coveting thy neighbor’s plate.  It’s out of this same fear that I’ve never found my way to the Big Foot Inn, located just south of Walworth. Technically it’s in Illinois, but that’s only technicality. This is a Wisconsin supper club, whether it wants to be or not.

The restaurant sits a solid throw off of Highway 14, just south of State Line Road. You can leave the Fontana lakefront and be to the Big Foot Inn in less than 7 minutes. If you drive by during the day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be closed. A relic of another era, you’d think. Too bad it didn’t make it, you’d say. But it did make it and it is open, and on Friday night I pulled in the driveway to find a busy parking lot and a warmly lit entrance. This evening I was joined by my wife and daughter while my son toiled away at another Friday night basketball practice. We arrived at 5:35 pm. The foyer was classic supper club, reminiscent of Anthony’s, with a drawing of whom I presumed to be Chief Big Foot on the south wall.  The bar is to the left, the dining rooms to the right. I looked longingly into the bar as we were led past it, not because I was thirsty but because it looked the part. Vintage furniture, softly lit, a handful of patrons at the bar and a scattering at tables. Nice.

The dining room wasn’t at all like the bar.  The website says the restaurant received a thorough renovation in 1987, and this was indeed the style of the dining rooms.   The furniture wasn’t new enough to be nice and it wasn’t old enough to be cool. It was trapped in the middle. Not vintage, not shiny. Just dated. Our oak dining table was in the far corner of the front dining room, which was nearly full with diners. Aside from one table near ours, we were the youngest people in the building.  While the bar was softly lit, the dining area was bright. Too bright, my wife and I agreed. Soon after,  as if having noticed our squinting, a waitress turned down the lights to an acceptable dim.

The fish fry is all you can eat cod, but only if you’re ordering the fried cod. Broiled cod is single serving. My wife ordered the broiled and my daughter and I ordered the fried. The table quickly filled with accoutrements. A basket of dinner rolls, a bowl each of applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce, and potato salad.  The dinner rolls were small and shiny, torpedo shaped, and absolutely delicious. Warm with a crunchy exterior, it was hard not to eat the entire basket. And I might have if not for the butter situation. The butter was served not in a dish or a bowl, but in small single serve containers, like a gas station might offer next to their hotdog rolling machine. It was a tremendous disappointment.

The potato salad was German style, but different than any I’ve ever had. Most salad of this style would be heavy on vinegar, but this was basically chopped up boiled potatoes with some bacon and deeply caramelized onions in a sauce of butter. The sauce was sweet, but there was no discernible vinegar present. I thought the dish to be different, and I couldn’t tell if I really like the difference, but I ate it anyway because it was quite good.  Shortly after ordering the fish arrived, a single plate for my wife and family style dishes for my daughter and me to share.  The potato pancakes  were super crunchy, super greasy, and super good.   My daughter ordered the fries, which were pale and looked like every french fry any diner has ever served. My wife’s broiled fish came with a side of vegetables, which were obviously from a frozen bag. And not the gourmet frozen bag, but the frozen bag that goes on sale Four For a Dollar.

My fried fish sections were lightly battered and appropriately golden brown.  When you buy cod in the frozen section of a grocery store, they come in long rectangle shaped bricks. Our fish was similar, except that the fried pieces were cut into 2 x 2 squares.  They were crunchy, adequately salted, and properly cooked. I liked them. But the shape was a distraction, and combined with the glimpse of my wife’s small cut up vegetables and the oak table with paper place settings I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the dining hall of a well cared for nursing home. I tasted a piece of my wife’s broiled cod and it was fine, although she mentioned that the tartar sauce was a bland and had let her down.

In the end, the tab with tip was $50.00. No drinks, no appetizers, no dessert. The portions were large, and I left feeling contented without ordering a second helping of anything. This may have been on account of the additional roll intake, but nonetheless, no seconds were ordered.   The waitress did ask us if we wanted more, which was nice, and she was pleasant and attentive even if our water glasses did get a bit dry midway through dinner. We weaved back through the two dining rooms, past the bar that still looked neat and inviting, and to our car. The night was a success,  and I was glad to visit a new to me restaurant.

I enjoyed my dinner. The price was in line, the service was sweet, and the food plentiful.  Nothing was bad, and the dinner rolls were terrific. But nothing left me feeling as thought I needed to go back. I wasn’t overly impressed with any aspect of the evening.  I liked my fish, but did I love it?  I liked the Big Foot logo work, but did that overcome the paper place settings?  I liked that it was just a handful of miles from my home, but will that make me come back? I think the answer to each is an easy no. Not a forceful no, because things were fine, but I don’t find that I’ll need to add the Big Foot Inn to my standard fish fry rotation. I’d ask that you try it, and maybe the dinner rolls and potato salad will bring you back. Maybe you’ll get a seat in the bar and it will affect your opinion, just as the back dining room affected mine.

Big Foot Inn  6.5/10

All You Can Eat Fried Cod $13 (I think, because I can’t seem to find my receipt and the website doesn’t list the price)

11508 Highway 14, Harvard, IL 

 

2017 Geneva National Market Review

2017 Geneva National Market Review

Do people still golf? It seems to me that they do, even though I don’t. Previously, I enjoyed golf. I enjoyed getting to the course a bit early and hitting some range balls. I enjoyed a sandwich on the patio. I enjoyed the scramble for par, the thrill of a birdie. I once almost had a hole-in-one and that was almost super fun. But the game of golf no longer fits into my ideal day. I enjoy it still, if the course is green and the company prime, it’s a nice way to spend a morning, or an afternoon, or an entire day. But increasingly, my schedule doesn’t allow for a long round on the links, and when time does allow my distractions have taken other forms. Still, I used to like golf and I understand why other people still do. Geneva National has some incredible golf courses, but you needn’t love golf to consider ownership there.

This has come up often in my long history of Geneva National sales. New buyer asks for nice vacation condo at the lake. New buyer doesn’t want to spend lakefront money, and new buyer doesn’t want to buy one of our standard issue two or three bedroom, 1200-1500 square foot off-water condo units. I suggest Geneva National, knowing that there’s tremendous bang for the buck inside those gates. Buyer says she doesn’t golf. This is the Geneva National flaw, the common refrain, the reason some people dismiss this place without ever considering it. News Flash: You needn’t have a desire to golf in order to live in Geneva National. If you hate manicured lawns and rolling, forested terrain, then you should hate Geneva National. But if you like those things and you hate golf, then you should like GN. It’s really that simple.

Geneva National is huge. It’s a monstrosity in our small overall market.  That size is what makes it so susceptible to momentum swings. Those market swings have occurred with some frequency since GN first bulldozed their first roadway sometime around 1990. The good news is that the last several years have featured a solid combination of strong sales and diminishing inventory, and that recent trend continued throughout 2017. For the year just ended, GN closed 84 single family and condominium units. More likely sold- private sales, direct from builder sales, and new construction. But the MLS number is 84.  There were 71 sales in 2016 and 82 in 2015. The market strength today is obvious, and the trend supportive of a strong market. But GN isn’t without an issue.

The top end in Geneva National is remarkably weak. Consider in 2017 just two homes sold for more than $560k, and the top sale registered $750k. In 2016, there were four sales over $560k, and the top end printed $795k. 2015 closed six over $560k, with the top at $1.050MM. Now that you understand the pricing history, look to the active inventory. While there are just 43 active homes and condominiums (four more pending), there are five properties priced over $1MM.  Given the last three years of history produced just one sale over the million dollar mark, Geneva National currently has 15 years of upper bracket inventory on its books. If I’m a seller in GN and I’m looking for a number north of one million dollars, I’m not pleased.

The issues that plague the housing stock in GN are varied, but all come down to dollars and cents. GN still has ample vacant parcel inventory. Currently, 44 vacant parcels are listed for sale. Many more exist off-market.  Last year, 10 vacant lots sold. Of those 10, six sold for $13k or less. For all of 2016, the MLS registered two vacant lot sales in GN.   Geneva National has lots of vacant inventory, and a housing stock that is aging. It might come as a surprise to some owners, but a house built 15 years ago needs to be remodeled already. A 20 year old house definitely needs to be remodeled. And sadly, your eight year old house likely needs some refreshing. The problem with existing inventory in GN is that it cannot compete with the availability of easily sourced vacant parcels.  If you’re a buyer in GN seeking single family and you like a vacant lot listed at $50k, are you going to hire a builder to construct a $650k home for you (one where you get to pick the colors and materials and design), or are you going to go shopping for a 15 year old house that looks like it needs a new roof?

That’s why the single family market in GN is difficult and may remain difficult for a while. The association should do everything in its power to eliminate vacant inventory, and the easiest, most simple way to encourage that absorption is by allowing existing homes to buy vacant, neighboring parcels and be allowed to own those without incurring another monthly association fee. If the association enacted this policy, perhaps more vacant inventory would be removed from the market, and that would be the start of price appreciation for the single family homes. Until then, or until the market slowly absorbs this inventory, expect stagnation.

The condominium market in GN is much healthier at the moment, and I’d expect the low inventory to benefit this segment especially.  If you’re a buyer looking to spend $150-350k on a vacation home in the Lake Geneva market, I cannot see a better option for large square footage at a discounted price.  While the property feels like a country club, you can either enjoy it as such or just enjoy it for the natural beauty it so easily displays.  Just remember, if you hate golf, Geneva National might be perfect for you.

2017 Upper Bracket Lake Access Market Review

2017 Upper Bracket Lake Access Market Review

It’s well known and generally accepted that anyone with a lakefront budget will wish for lakefront. There were some people who lived up the road from my parents’ lakefront house in Williams Bay. Those people would tell me how they were glad they didn’t live on the lake. Too much noise from the boats, the waves, the sound of all that enjoyment. They preferred, they said, to live away from the lake, where it’s quiet. Where the lapping or crashing of the waves cannot find them. I remember that even as a young child I knew those people were lying. No one would prefer to be off the lake, and if a budget allows and the aim is true, then lakefront is the result. Or is it?

The upper end of our lake access market is unique in the flexibility such a budget might afford. A lakefront buyer with a budget up to $2MM might very well, and usually will, choose lakefront. But what will that lakefront be? Will it usually be nice? Will it be large? Will it afford privacy? Well, no, not usually.  The concept applies to those with lower lake home budgets as well. If you’re a $1.2MM buyer, I can typically find you lakefront. But will that lakefront be a beautiful house with two car garage and a pool? Of course it won’t. It’ll be a cottage, with some questionable structural supports and tight neighbors. But for $1.2MM an off-water buyer can find something quite unique. They can find a boatslip, maybe a view, maybe privacy, maybe a pool, maybe five bedrooms. This is why even when market segments overlap within the same price boundaries, many buyers will opt off water in order to gain something the on-water home cannot offer.

In 2017, the upper bracket lake access market experienced a strong influx of buyer traffic and closed the year with a significant volume total. 2017 closed 27 off-water homes priced over $500,000. That’s a huge number, but what’s most remarkable is the presence of liquidity in the $900k and above segment.  This lofty segment closed nine homes, including two in the $1.5MM range.  During 2016, the same segment closed 22 properties, with just five selling for more than $900k.

Thirteen of those 27 homes sold with transferable boat slips. Two of the sales were in our co-op communities, one in the Congress Club for $1.53MM and one in Belvedere Park for $564k. There were no public sales in the Harvard Club for 2017. Associations with volume in this segment included Geneva Oaks, Cedar Point Park, Country Club Estates, Indian Hills, Oakwood Estates, Black Point, The Lindens, Knollwood, The Loch Vista Club, Sybil Lane, Oak Shores, The Lake Geneva Club, Forest Rest, Maytag and Sylvan Trail Estates. That’s some widespread activity, and the market should be pleased for producing such strong volume.  Oddly,  there wasn’t a single residential MLS sale in this segment in Glenwood Springs last year.

Most of these sales made good sense to me. I was involved in six of these 27 sales, which means that at least six of the sales made perfect sense to me. Of the other sales, I was surprised at a few of them, including an off-water home with no slip that sold north of $1MM. Another shocker, at least to me, was the sale of a hilltop home in Fontana that closed over $1.5MM and was subsequently torn down.  That property lacked a slip, but the lake view is, as a point of fact, one of the best off-water views I’ve ever seen.

I was asked this week what I thought would be the better buy with a $1MM budget: an on-water cottage or an off-water home. I admitted I’d always look lakefront first, but I would consider a larger lot off-water, so long as I had a boat slip and was located in a high quality neighborhood (think Black Point, Lindens, Glen Fern, Loramoor, 700 Club). In those settings, I would happily consider off-water to be a near equal trade off. This segment today is light on inventory, as is the rest of the vacation home market. Just 16 off-water homes are available priced in excess of $500k. Of these available properties, my favorite is the modern home (my listing) on  South Lakeshore Drive that’s been reduced to $1.095MM. This is a lot of house in a rare location, and while it’s off-water it feels like a private lakefront home. It’s unique, but it’s a winner.

This particular segment is heavily influenced by overlapping lakefront inventory, which is, at the moment, similarly low in inventory. If entry level lakefront properties continue to be difficult to source, and the off-water market in the $900k-$1.8MM range provides some nice options, expect this market to benefit. If you’re a buyer in search of a lake house around the million dollar mark, I’m here to help.

Above, an idyllic cottage I sold this summer in the Lake Geneva Club.
Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

There are many things that set Lake Geneva apart from its so-called competition. The water quality, the housing stock, the liquidity; all are important aspects of our superiority. But perhaps chief on the minds of residents and would-be residents is the plentiful existence of places to dine or imbibe that are accessible via boat. Lots of lakes have a place to eat on the water. Like one place. Maybe two, but probably one. When living on Geneva, there are loads of restaurants reachable via water chariot, and among those restaurants there are bars like Chucks, casual joints like Gordy’s, and the king of waterfront dining: Pier 290. When Pier 290 opened several years ago it immediately became a shining lakefront beacon, drawing residents and day trippers to this lakefront scene. The fanfare was and is deserved.

Friday night called for an early dinner.  My daughter was skiing and my son had basketball practice, so my wife and I put on our going to dinner clothes (in a twist, these are also my going to work clothes and going to Walmart clothes) and arrived at Pier 290 at 5:25 pm. It was dark, cold, and we were pleased to find a parking space near the front door. The hostess led us to an ideal table for two, in the far southeast corner of the main dining room, near the lakeside window and fireplace. It was a wonderful spot in a beautiful room. The firewood was stacked neatly near the fireplace, our table so close I could have tended the fire if I wished. And I did wish. The fireplace was absent of fire on this 14 degree January evening. Why is there a fireplace here if not for an evening such as this? Suddenly my fireside table felt out of the way and meaningless.

The waiter was soon table side and took our order. He was both polite and well spoken.  Two waters and an appetizer of deviled eggs. I’ve had these deviled eggs before, and though they were previously a bit overly mustardy, they were always delicious with a splash of Tobasco. The  plate, two eggs cut in half ($8) arrived quickly. The deviled eggs were good, though not at all as I remembered. The white of the egg was firm, perhaps too firm. In a twist, it seemed to me that the yolk filling also contained chunks of the egg white, which I found to be interesting at first and then annoying.   Bread and butter were served, and I was delighted in the softened butter. I will always delight in softened butter.  The bread was warm, though barely. It could have used another minute in the oven, but was a nice bread, airy and chewy, an ideal accompaniment to the soft butter.

When the waiter returned, we ordered the fish fry. On the menu, it’s listed as an All You Can Eat fish fry with two options: Cod or Bluegill.  Neither option had a listed price, which I thought strange, but perhaps the market price of frozen cod fluctuates wildly and the menu pricing is best left blank. The waiter recommended the bluegill,  so I succumbed and ordered bluegill, it only comes fried. I also ordered one piece of cod fried and one piece of cod broiled. Potato pancakes as the side. Pier 290 offers house made potato chips as a side, and I would suggest you not order those. If you’re going to eat potato, you might as well eat it in the proper dinner form.

In the entirety of the front dining room, just one other table was occupied, so when our fish arrived quickly after ordering I was pleased but not surprised. The plate was large, the serving size ample. Two potato pancakes, one piece of broiled cod, one piece of fried, and perhaps five small bluegill filets. The fried items were not golden fried, as you’d expect with a fish fry, but were rather lightly fried, as if the fish was tossed only in flour or cornstarch before frying.  Maybe dredged, not battered.  That’s fine, but I found the exterior to lack crispiness and necessary crunch.  The potato pancakes were flavorful, hot, and generally delicious. There was more to this mix than is typical, lending a creaminess to the interior that I enjoyed.

The bluegill, with that pale breading, was served skin-on. It was overcooked and had a dull flavor not at all like the bluegill filets I grew up eating.  We would always filet our fish and remove the skin entirely before breading with an egg bath and instant mashed potato mix on the exterior. If you’ve never done this, I suggest you do. I’d also suggest Pier 290 consider it, because the bluegill dinner wasn’t something I’d ever order again. The cod was better, though breaded in that same light crust.  The broiled piece was fine, if small and square, like a Williams Bay 1986 cafeteria serving. Still, it was well salted and not overcooked like the bluegill.  I ordered a second piece of broiled, to make good on that All You Can Eat offer, and was quickly presented with two more squares of cod. These came with a lemon wedge, something the initial plate didn’t include. These are the sort of odd inconsistencies that are common here.

The waiter remained attentive to our water glasses and quickly asked if we wanted any seconds. We declined, and asked for the check. The cod dinner was $13, which comes in just below Anthony’s price. The bluegill dinner cost me $18.95, which came as a surprise only because it wasn’t priced on the menu. I wouldn’t consider ordering that bluegill again, no matter the price. Our total dinner tab for two (no drinks) was $51.15 including tip. In line with expectations, and in line with a typical Wisconsin fish fry.

If you go to Anthony’s, you go to celebrate the big plate of fried fish, and to tolerate the rest, even if the rest is quaintly charming. At Pier 290, you go to celebrate the scene, to celebrate the design of the restaurant and the way the space feels. You tolerate the fish. Will I go back to Pier 290? Of course I will. I’ll always go to Pier 290 because it’s so darn pretty. But the food remains a mystery, and a Friday Fish Fry that should seemingly be the easiest to master because it never, ever changes, was still a slight miss.  Visit Pier 290 because you can. Because it’s accessible by boat, and you can dine outdoors in the summer with your toes in the sand. Visit because it’s our most beautiful area restaurant. But when you go, don’t order the bluegill.

 

Rating 5/10

Pier 290  

1 Leichty Drive, Williams Bay, WI

Friday Fish Fry $13 (Bluegill $18.95)

All You Can Eat

 

2017 Abbey Springs Market Review

2017 Abbey Springs Market Review

I owe Abbey Springs something. Not money, I don’t think. It’s never paid me very much, so I shouldn’t feel obligated to pay it back. In the mid 1990s, I was a kid with a new, disastrous real estate career, and a desire to play tennis. I don’t know why I wanted to play tennis. I had never played when I was a kid.  We’d sneak down to hit a few balls at Conference Point Camp, on their cracked and heaved courts, but that wasn’t really playing tennis.  I couldn’t afford the Grand Geneva, with their shiny courts and wood lockers. So I played at Abbey Springs, under the tent they’d blow up over their outdoor courts in the winter. It was cold in there, dimly lit, and loud.  The inability to properly relay the score, on account of the noisy blower fan, suited me just fine. Thanks, Abbey Springs.

But that’s the end of the thanking. Abbey Springs the real estate market is really quite a spectacle. It’s a machine, finely tuned, running without a miss, or a knock, or a sputter. The market is perhaps the most unique and widely varied here, with vacation condominiums starting in the high $100s and single family homes reaching or exceeding a million bucks. Remember that sentence.

For the year just ended, Abbey Springs closed 28 built properties including condominiums and single family homes. For all of 2016,  there were 40 prints. Now, if I were were a headline writer for AP,  I’d right this in a way that would appear negative: SALES DROP 30% AMID MARKET TURMOIL. But I’m not AP, I’m just a kid from Williams Bay, and even I know that shrinking sales totals are natural and normal in a market with shrinking inventory.  We cannot sell what isn’t for sale. The sales total for 2017 is fine, the inventory today, at just 19 active properties (four of those under contract) is low. The market at Abbey Springs is in fantastic, healthy condition.

But that’s not really the whole story here, as much as Abbey Springs wishes it were. Consider the upper bracket sales from last year. There were four sales over $800k in Abbey Springs, with the highest sale reaching $885k. That’s nice.  For the last five years, the two top sales in the market registered the same amount: $885k. Nothing higher, and over those five years just five sales over $800k. Seems fine, right?

The prior market top was mid 2007 to mid 2008. We know this.  Abbey Springs, from 2005-2008 sold a lot of product, but where was the top end back then? For those years, Abbey Springs closed four sales over $900k, with the top sale at $1.3MM.  If the markets today are as strong as they were then, why can’t Abbey Springs push over $900k anymore? Where did the $1.3MM sales go?

There’s no particular mystery in this. The market is strong today, yes. But the top end has obviously been redefined, and that new definition falls short of $900k. There has been some inventory over $900k to press that theory, but those homes have failed to sell. The prior market peak found buyers in this range with relative ease. It’s apparent to me that this higher level buyer is still in the market, but has found his or her way outside of Abbey Springs and instead wants a traditional lake home experience. That buyer wants a slip. Maybe some privacy. A smaller association where the beach isn’t so crowded. The buyer who once purchased $950k homes in Abbey Springs has proven elusive in this current cycle.

But maybe that doesn’t really matter. Abbey Springs might not be a million dollar market anymore. Or perhaps there just haven’t been any million dollar homes listed for sale.  Either way, expect Abbey Springs to push forward yet again in 2018, and expect inventory to stay low. If you’re a buyer in search of a lake house experience with added country club style amenities, Abbey Springs is likely your best bet.  Condominiums from the $200k range and single family from $500k. Beach, pool, golf, clubhouse, and tennis courts, though the bubble is no more.

2017 Entry Level Lake Access Market Review

2017 Entry Level Lake Access Market Review

That’s a mouthful. I’m sure there’s a better way to say it for search engine optimization, but the market is best defined in that way.  The market isn’t particularly flashy. It won’t make any headlines. It won’t be in Crain’s or in Architectural Digest. But the entry level lake access market is the market that’s as important as any other here. These are the homes available to people who have enough fiscal power to make a vacation home a reality, but don’t have lakefront budgets.  For the purposes of this post, this segment remains at $500,000 and under.

All of these 2017 market reviews are going to tell similar stories. It’s all about inventory. About volume. And about how the inventory is either going to build and feed the market or shrivel and starve it. Today, there are just 12 homes priced under $500k with access to Geneva Lake. Remember, these are not municipal access homes- these are private, club style access points.  These are the associations you know, the associations that can offer a path to the lake, a park, a pier, a diving board, maybe some summertime geraniums in pots.

Those 12 homes vary wildly, just as this market varies. A $200k cottage in Country Club Estates is not at all like a $500k home in Country Club Estates. A small cottage in Oak Shores with a slip for $450k isn’t much dissimilar to a small cottage without a slip in Cedar Point Park, except that the Cedar Point cottage will be 50% cheaper. This is a market that I’ve gladly served for two decades, and it’s a market that hinges on a very important question: Do you want a nice house or do you want to be close to the lake?  You cannot choose both.

For the year just ended, we sold 61 lake access homes of all makes and models, priced under $500k.  The 2016 total was 56, so we’re heading in the right direction.  Just three of those homes had transferable boat slips, proving how hard it is to find a slip in this segment. Perhaps best of all, I personally sold all three of those homes. Why did I sell those homes? Well, because I know how valuable a boat slip is. I know owning a home here is wonderful, but if all you really want is to hang out on a pier and boat, then you’re going to be miserable in your off-water slip-less home, even if it has some stone counters and a master bathroom.

The key to understanding this segment comes back to that bold question about proximity. That drives this particular market more than anything. You can buy a nice house in Country Club Estates for $500k. It won’t be remarkably close to the lake. Or you could buy a small cottage in Knollwood for $500k that might be 900′ from the water. Which do you value? Do you want to walk down to the pier in the morning to cast your line a few times, motivated by the hope that something might bight? Or would you rather sit on your screened porch, reading a book thinking about where fish fry will be on Friday night? Answer those questions, and you’ll have a clear direction for your pursuit.

2018 should be just like 2017. Inventory is terrible now, yes, but it won’t be that way forever. This market might be more sensitive to the new tax law, but if inventory builds there’s nothing stopping 2018 from falling in the 2016/2017 volume range. Prices are increasing, albeit modestly. Value still exists here, and I’ll be here to help you find it.

Friday Fish Fry

Friday Fish Fry

The problem with restaurant reviews is that they’re generally written by people who wish not to offend the restaurant. If we were in a large city, and I were Jonathan Gold or Steve Dolinsky, I would write about a restaurant without any fear of calling out their shortcomings. So long as I praised their successes, no one would mind the negatives. But in small town America, restraurant reviews are written in bulk in the back of seasonal guide magazines, or only after a restaurant opens. The reviews often, always, glow. They glow because they must, because small town America does not wish to see small town America fail. Ah, but fail we do, and so it’s time that someone wrote proper reviews of Lake Geneva area restaurants. I volunteer.

I’ve often written that most area restaurants are not all terrible.  They do one thing well, or a few things well, and equal things, or more things bad. A good dish here and there does not make a restaurant. Consistency across the menu, throughout the experience, that’s what makes a restaurant. And sadly, those are the things that often fail local, small town restaurants.  Because of these inconsistencies it is necessary to judge each restaurant on the same dish. The same night. The same idea. In Wisconsin, thanking the Catholics for their tradition, we have Friday Fish Fry. It’s revered in this state, as it should be, and it’s a staple on every menu across this great state.

That’s why this weekly review is going to pinpoint the Friday Fish Fry, FFF from here on out. I’m going to choose one local restaurant each Friday for the next 12 or more Fridays, and on Monday you’re going to read about it. To keep things fair, I’m going to review based on the experience, the price, the service, the food. For the food, it’s going to be the FFF, and the FFF only. If an appetizer is bought, you’ll know. And unlike other reviews that have proceeded mine, I’m actually going to tell you the truth. If the restaurant’s offering is terrible, I’m going to tell you it’s terrible. If it’s delightful, you’ll know. Since I come to this review with some existing bias, I’ll start where the bias is most poignant: Anthony’s Steak House.

I first visited Anthony’s as a child, perhaps in the fifth or sixth grade. My parents took me and some older relatives. The decor was dated, the interior dark. The circle turn around with covered portico reminiscent of a funeral home. That was likely almost 30 years ago. Friday night,  fresh off a Faith Christian School basketball victory in Hebron, where they’ll never stop talking about that ancient state basketball championship (for good reason, I must admit), I pulled into the dark parking lot (ample, and easy to find a spot in no matter how jammed the restaurant) and walked into the darker restaurant. The iconic roadside sign remains the thing that shines brightest at Anthony’s.

We were joining friends, making the table a party of nine.  After a few minutes to arrange a table (we didn’t make reservations), we were escorted to the back room of the restaurant. There is a large bar on the East end, a large fireplace that long ago burned its last fire on the North, and this banquet room to the far West. It felt like a room in the basement of an older hotel where a low budget wedding reception might take place. The ceiling hangs low in this restaurant. But the space is clean, and the waitstaff was friendly, and avoided calling anyone at the table dear, honey, sweetie, or darling.  The room was warm on that bitterly cold evening. We ordered waters, because I am my father’s son, and were presented with bread and butter. The bread was warm, if lacking any density. Sort of airy, like a Wonder Bread thrown into the oven for a moment to toast the top. The round orb of butter attracted my attention, as butter tends to do, and I tore off a small hunk of white bread and attempted to slather on some butter.

The bread was warm, but the butter was ice cold. Spreading cold butter on warm, airy bread doesn’t work so well. But alas, I had decided to order a bowl of French Onion Soup, labeled “Charley O’s”. I worked at Charley O’s in the very early 90s, and everyone has always known of the special soup that Charley featured. With Charley playing front of house host at Anthony’s, he brought his soup with him, and it was as delicious as I remember. The trip to Anthony’s may be worth while if only for the soup, $5.99 for the bowl. Thick and rich with beef stock and onions, capped with broiled gruyere cheese, this isn’t like that watery fancy-pants-french-restaurant-soup. This is cold hearty, stewy, like it should be, like it was always meant to be. The soup was delicious, the bread light and warmed, the butter ice cold.

The FFF is $13.99 for adults, and it’s all you can eat.  When we ordered, there was some confusion as to whether or not there was a child’s version of this dinner that wouldn’t be $13.99, but no one, including the waitstaff knew if the kid’s version was all you can eat, or not. It didn’t matter. I ordered- half fried and half broiled cod, potato pancakes.  Anthony’s does offer a perch dinner, but it’s not all you can eat and perch tastes like cod, so why not order the cod?  While we waited for dinner, small bowls of tartar sauce, coleslaw, and apple sauce were brought out. Our bread was refreshed without our asking, which was nice. The butter was still nearly as cold as the night air.

We waited around 30 minutes for the fish to arrive. That’s too long, especially considering the restaurant was not yet operating under full capacity, given our early arrival (6 pm).  Whenever a wait is that long  I worry that the food has been sitting on the counter, under warming bulbs, while the waitress takes a smoke break.  When the food arrived it was hot, wiping away my concerns over tepid fish. The potato pancakes were delicious, flavorful patties crisped wonderfully. They were oily, which my healthy friend commented on, but the oil is what makes them taste good. If you want baked potato pancakes, you best stay south of the state line. My fried cod was breaded lightly with a beer-style batter, crispy, hot, and well salted. Fried fish can often lack salt, but these two pieces were ideal.

The broiled cod at Anthony’s features a spice rub of some variety, salt, pepper, oregano and perhaps paprika. It’s a nice rub, though at times it can be overpowering. If you order a full order of broiled, you’ll get a big, thick, handsome filet. But if you order a half order, you’ll generally get the wimpy tail piece of the filet, which is thin and overcooks easily, and is also overpowered by the seasoning. Still, the fish was tender, well salted, and tasty. Given that this is an all-you-can-eat joint, I ordered one extra piece of broiled fish, just to feel like I had gotten my money’s worth. The fish that came out was a skinny piece of tail section, less than ideal.  I don’t eat tartar sauce or coleslaw, so you’ll have to judge those for yourself.

There’s a restaurant in the Driftless that serves a Wednesday night all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner. We went there once and ordered the shrimp. After the first plate was brought to our table, the waiter disappeared for what felt like days. When he finally surfaced we had lost our enthusiasm to re-order seconds, which we had rightfully intended to do. That’s a common trick in the all-you-can-eat business, if you don’t make yourself available to take the order, the patron cannot eat all he can eat. At Anthony’s, we were asked by the waitress if we wanted any more to eat, which is nice, and far better than the shrimp bar out West.

The dinner tab,  for five (two adults, three kids), with a bowl of soup and tip came to $94. That’s not particularly cheap, considering no beverages were ordered, but it should prove to be in line with most area FFF.  The scene at Anthony’s won’t give you any design ideas. You won’t be tempted to take many pictures. It’s just an old, dimly lit restaurant in the model of a Supper Club, charming in the easy way of old establishments,  and you go for the generous portions of hot cod. This cod will set the standard that the other restaurants must be judged against.  If you’re in town on a Friday night, you’d be wise to make your way to Anthony’s for their Friday Fish Fry. Order the soup and be sure to order seconds.   Rating 9/10. 

 

Anthony’s Steak House – 3354 State Road 50, Lake Geneva, WI (about a mile West of downtown Lake Geneva)
2017 Lakefront Condo Market Review

2017 Lakefront Condo Market Review

By now, everyone knows the Stone Manor story. Not the Otto Young story, mind you, because he’s old news. The new news is the news we like, because we’re Americans. The news is, as you know, that a buyer has bought up Stone Manor, that famed limestone manse on our eastern shore. The building has been lots of things since it was first built some 120 years ago, but most of us know it either as an old French restaurant or as the condominiums that it has most recently been. Today, it’s still a  condominium, but not really. There are seven units in the building, and all but one are under the same ownership.  The volume created by those 2017 condo sales is not something we’ll count in our year end figures, because the sales were direct, and the circumstance obviously unique. Stone Manor, we hardly knew you.

Now that the Stone Manor bit is out of the way, let’s consider the real lakefront condo market.  That is, those two and three bedroom condominiums that measure between 1200 and 1500 square feet. Those are the meat and potatoes of this market, and really of every condo market everywhere. Vacation condos follow similar designs- two bedrooms, maybe three, a small kitchen and open living room. Maybe a balcony, or a deck, which are the same thing except one feels like it has to be made out of wood, the other out of stone, concrete or steel. Still, condominiums are similar here and they’re similar there, and in fact they’re similar everywhere.

Lake Geneva condominiums have, as you well know, been lagging the overall vacation home market. I’ve suggested many theories as to why this may be, but I admit I’m not particularly sold on any of them. The lakefront condo is simply not as prized as it once was. But that’s not to say it doesn’t matter. For 2017, we sold 12 lakefront condominiums ranging in price from $302,500 for a Geneva Towers two bedroom, to a four bedroom at Eastbank for $1,212,500. I should add that I blew that Eastbank sale by sending the prospective seller emails to the wrong email address. This is my shame. Of these 12 condominiums, I sold just one of them- the two bedroom at the Fontana Club that printed $390k.

The 12 sales are fine. There’s nothing fancy about these sales. But there’s nothing lacking, either. They’re just sales. The prices have stalled, this is undebatable. Consider the Fontana Club unit that I sold for $390k was originally sold (by this kid) for $393k back in 2001. I was so young then, so healthy, so full of optimism. So was the Fontana Club. Then, at the height of the condo market a mere five years later, this two bedroom unit was likely valued around $600k. Fast forward to December when the unit sold again for a price below that of its original sale in 2001. That’s awful, but it’s a sign of the times for the lakefront condo market.

In all, five units sold at Geneva Towers, one in the Old Boatyard Condominiums ($689k- behind Harbor Watch in Lake Geneva), one in Vista Del Lago ($350k), one in Fontana Shores ($510k), one in Fontana Club ($390k), and two in Bay Colony ($550k/$476k). That’s a fine sales tally, ahead of the eight sales of 2016, and ahead of the 2014 and 2015 totals as well, if only modestly so. And that brings us to the current state of the market, and what’s next.

Inventory is low in the lakefront condo complexes, and this is a good thing. While I worry that the single family market won’t have enough inventory to spur activity, I’d prefer to see limited inventory in the lakefront condo market. That’s because the prices have sagged, and the only way to pull those priced upward is to limit supply.  The best possible scenario for the lakefront condo market is that 2018 features a handful of sales- no need to match or beat the 2017 sales total. Sell a few condos, keep inventory scarce, and see if demand increases. If the $500k-1.5MM single family vacation home market stays light on inventory, this will likely drive some buyer traffic to the condo market. And if that condo market is even lighter on inventory, this very well may help increase valuations.  That’s exactly what I think will happen this year, and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered for our slowly improving lakefront condo market.

Above, my delightfully stylish lakefront condo at Bay Colony, listed for $899k.
2017 Market Reviews

2017 Market Reviews

One year ago, I wrote my year end market reviews and worried about 2017 inventory.  2016 had been a terrific year, but without inventory there was no way that 2017 could match that success.  For the year 2016, we sold 103 lakefront and lake access homes on and near Geneva Lake. That was a solid tally. With the inventory concerns heading into 2017, I was uncertain we could come anywhere near that figure, but here we are. 2017 wrapped with 119 such sales, beating the prior year even though the outlook, at least based on inventory, was bleak. So what happened? Was there some rush of new inventory? Was there some development that came online and offered up a large chunk of ready-made sales? Neither event happened. Instead, Geneva was Geneva. We sold new inventory relatively quickly, and the market turned to the aged inventory and decided maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.

Today there are just 35 lakefront and lake access homes available on and near Geneva Lake.  That number is a bit artificial as it doesn’t take into account properties that recently expired and have not yet been brought back to market, but the number is still startling.  Making matters worse, there are only 11 lakefront homes available for sale. That number is just awful, but I suppose that depends on your perspective. If you’re an agent, like, say, me, then this is simply horrendous. If you’re a buyer, you feel the same. But if you’re a seller, especially a seller of a property that has experienced a length time on market, then this news couldn’t be better.  Our market, like any market, lives and dies on inventory. Today, there isn’t any. It’s Ground Hog Day in January.

It’s safe to say that the Lake Geneva vacation home market has been on a solid bull-run since the end of 2013. The market recovered volume in 2011 and 2012, but prices didn’t stabilize and find some margin until that later date.  That means we’re entering year five of a rather remarkable run. The market has made price gains, eliminated aged inventory, cleansed a few weak owners from the scene, and generally, completely, forged ahead. The lake is abuzz with new construction, leaving a market that finds a $4MM price tag to be somewhat median.  The market is starved for inventory, each of decent land in the $2-3.5MM range, of entry level offerings sub $1.5MM, and of newer construction in the $4-10MM range. For the first time ever, I believe there’s a market for homes in the $10-15MM range, even though this market has never been properly tested.

While this run has featured buyers of every sort and wealth finding their way to the lakefront, it can most easily be recognized as being the run that delivered higher end buyers to these shores. $4MM is the new $3MM.  $7MM is the new $5MM. The stakes have been raised, and Geneva continues to be set apart not only by the quality of our water and the vibrancy of our scene, but by our ability to produce upper bracket liquidity. I’ve said it often, and it continues to be more true each time I do, but Geneva is alone at the top of the Midwest vacation home segment. There is no market that comes close. Michigan, for all its effort, cannot hold a candle to our inland lake. Door County’s real estate market should be renamed Bore County. The Northwoods? Is that even a market?  Geneva is the king, and with each passing year we become more worthy and the title becomes more and more permanent.

I’m looking forward to providing you with 2017 market reviews, and will do so on the typical breaks in our vacation home market. This year, each market has had plenty of success, leaving the recovery no longer spotty, no longer skewed in favor of one segment over another. As with last year, my primary concern for the new year has to do with inventory. If we feed the market, it will continue to grow.  In spite of tax changes that take away some advantages of second home ownership and limit SALT deductions, I do not believe these will significantly or adversely affect our market. Why?  Because there’s no other market like it, and there’s no better place to spend your weekends. Staying home on a Saturday just so you can have a few extra bucks in your robust bank account doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t see the new legislation hurting our market, even if it likely will keep a buyer or two on the sidelines. If late December/early January activity is a harbinger of things to come, 2018 looks like it will be our fifth straight solid year.

 

Above, sunset at 700 South Lakeshore Drive, sold by this guy for $5,900,000 in May of 2017.
Happy New Year

Happy New Year

If you’re reading this, we made it. You made it. I made it. We’re the lucky ones. It’s freezing cold today at the lake, temperatures below zero today just like yesterday. Tomorrow, probably. The lake is icing up. The bays gave in first, Geneva Bay leading the surrender. Fontana or Williams Bay will tap out next. There’s ice off Black Point. Ice in the Narrows. It’s icing and it’s cold but we’re here and we made it. Welcome to 2018, just like 2017 but hopefully better. Or the same. Anything but worse would be absolutely fine with me.

Because what a year it was. My kids are healthy, my wife still tolerates me, I’m healthy and kicking. My business was a success, and that’s something that causes me pause. I’ve had eight straight years that now represent the best eight years that any agent has ever had in this market. No one has had a better eight years. $236,000,000 worth of sales over those eight years. I don’t quite know how to react to that. When I started this blog, I did so because I felt like my typical agent efforts weren’t working. An ad in the paper here. A cold call there. A stupid business card and a stupid shirt with a stupid tie. Those things were awful and kept me from explaining the market the way I knew I could explain it. How could I tell someone what house they should buy if they would’t call me? How could I tell them the market was hot or the market was terrible if they didn’t know who I was? So almost ten years ago this blog was born, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that it has changed my life. I write it out of duty, often, sometimes it’s glib and sometimes it’s dark. Sometimes I hope you can’t tell that I don’t really have much to say, but usually I know that you know. It’s okay that way.

For the year just ended, I finished with over $45,000,000 in closed volume. That number was, far and away, the highest individual agent sales total in Walworth County.  I spent most of my adult (working) life behind this desk hating the agents who sold more than me. Wondering how they did it. Wishing for their success.  I looked to them in the only way I knew to look at my competition; up. But now, on the heels of this run, I don’t really know what to say.  The $45MM is added to the 2016 volume of $62MM- the volume that put me as the top agent in the whole state for 2016.  That’s $107,000,000 worth of Lake Geneva sales in 24 months. I didn’t close those totals by changing my aim, either. I didn’t sign on to rep a commercial project in Kenosha. Or list restaurants or density-loving developments in Elkhorn. I did it by remaining true to the only market in this world that interests me, the Lake Geneva vacation home market.  Since 2010, I’ve been the listing or selling agent (or both) in seven of the top nine sales this market has closed, including the three most expensive sales.  Those sales are sales that I previously could have never imagined facilitating.

In a way, these sales totals scare me. They set a bar so high that I don’t hope to clear it, I just hope to sniff it. Maybe touch it, barely, like I did the rim during 9th grade gym class. I don’t know how to get back to those levels, nor do I know how to beat them. I know I’m replaceable. I know I’m disposable. I know you can find someone else to show you houses. You can find someone who’s better at answering the phone than I am.  Now, you can’t find someone else to show you houses in the same way that I show you houses, and I know you can’t find someone to work with that’s as fun or effective as I am, but I still know I’m only here because of you. My success does not hinge on me, insofar as I cannot singularly declare success and then achieve it. My success depends on you, and on my ability to not fail you. I can’t promise that won’t ever happen, but I can promise I’ll be here, at this desk, in this place, serving this market, for as long as you’ll have me.  I’m grateful that you’ve made my effort matter.

Here’s to you. To me. To Lake Geneva and to this new year. May we all keep our health and find our peace. See you at the lake.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

While watching a movie, I think it’s common to live vicariously through the lead character.  This probably isn’t true for some movies, as there’s no dedicated star to wish to be.  When I watch the Bourne movies I feel as though I should take some fighting classes. Not self defense classes, just fighting classes. I’m jealous of all the fighting skill. When I watch Top Gun I wish to be at those controls, in that cockpit, shooting down the enemy.  But when I watch Ace Ventura I don’t wish to be Ace.  I don’t want to have all of those animals in my room. I don’t want that hair. I can’t relate.  I watched It’s A Wonderful Life again last weekend.

Imagining being George Bailey isn’t really very difficult for me. George never left his home town, and neither did I.  George went to work at a family business, and in a looser way, so did I.  I feel, in the way that any small town kid might, that George Bailey is me and I am he.  I have an old man Potter in my life.  I feel his pain when he wonders what might have been. Had he been able to go off to see the world. Had he invested in the plastics business. Had he been a bit more shrewd in the lending business.  The only difference between the two of us is that I never lost the hearing in my left ear, because neither of my brothers were dumb enough to slide on a shovel into open water.

Besides these obvious similarities, the stronger connection in this movie is not between small town boys. It’s not the connection between angels and their wings. It’s the connection between business and stress. That’s really what this movie is about, after all. It’s about anxiety.   George is faced with a problem. His sloppy uncle inadvertently sticks $8000 into Potter’s newspaper, and on the same day that the bank examiner happens to be in town for a visit. George panics. He begs Potter to bail him out. Potter only turns up the heat. Law enforcement is coming. George is going to jail. Except, is he?  He doesn’t think he is, because he tells his Uncle that one of the two of them are going to jail and it isn’t going to be him. No, George isn’t going to jail. But he screams at his wife and kids and overturns the Golden Gate Bridge and slips out for a night of drunken despair.

In the end, George’s wife goes out and begs the town for some help, and help they do. No man who has friends is poor. Or something like that. That’s the moral in the cinema. But the real takeaway is back to the anxiety. The stress. The feeling as though it is all on your singular shoulders.  George should have sat down with the bank examiner and explained what happened. If the bank examiner didn’t buy the story, George should have gone out and called everyone he knew. He called Sam Wainwright, but Sam was busy or something. Later, when the townspeople are giving George their last $5, Wainwright sends a telegram. He’s directing his bank to wire $25,000 to George Bailey immediate.  George was only upside down $8k. Why did he need $25k from Hee Haw? If he got the $25k that easily, and quickly, why did the maid have to give George the money she had earmarked to pay for her future divorce? Once the $25k wire was announced, I would have quietly pulled my ten dollar bill out of the pile.  The whole story is a sham.

Because the crisis in this movie isn’t ever really a crisis. In the way that a deal going south on a Thursday isn’t really a crisis. In business, and in real estate, we tend to forget what actually matters. Deals do not matter.  If I live another 20 years and die, will the Johnson deal on First Street ever matter to me? Or will the way I treated my son when he left his light on this morning for the millionth time be the thing I regret? These deals consume me, and they make me into a person that I don’t particularly like.  They needn’t do that. This year has been a stressful year for me. Successful, sure, but at a cost. When surrounded by customers who routinely fail to keep perspective it’s easy to fall prey to anxiety.  After all, that’s all that really happened to George. He wasn’t going to jail. His crisis lasted all of a few hours. He woke up that day feeling fine and he went to bed that night feeling fine. It was the in between overreaction that nearly killed him.

I’m going to take a few days off to celebrate Christmas. My wife is home with the flu, so I’ll mostly be tiptoeing around my house trying not to touch any doorknobs or faucet handles.  But whether you’re on the heels of a Hanukkah celebrations or just about to begin your Christmas joy, I wish you a most peaceful Holiday season.

 

Gifts

Gifts

A man in a sweater.  He’s sitting on the couch. The sweater isn’t very nice, implying it’s not his dinner-sweater. It’s his Christmas morning sweater. He fumbles with batteries. The plastic container is too difficult to open with bare hands, too inconvenient to open after walking to the kitchen for a knife. Or a scissors. A child plays in the background. The room is bright. It’s Christmas morning. In Arizona, maybe. It can’t be here, because there’s a child in the room and there’s no way he’d have waited for the light to grow to brighten the room before opening his presents. Kids open presents in the dim dark of dawn. But here we are, in the light, in this room, with the batteries and the sweater and a kid in the distance. The Christmas tree is there, too. There is no wife. Not yet, anyway.

But wait, here she comes. Rushing into the scene, full of joy and beauty and optimism. She jumps on her husband, pushing him down on the couch in one excited tackle. She’s beaming.  She says nothing, but everything, her eyes dancing.  The husband, his batteries cast aside, says, “so you like it“. It’s not a question, he knows the answer. She looks at him longingly and says yes. But we, like our sweatered battery-fumbling friend, already know she likes it. She jumped on him to say it. What is this gift? What made this wife so filled with wonder and amazement at the finely honed gift giving skills of her otherwise normal husband? Why, it’s an intertwined necklace made of the fine diamond shavings that are swept up after the real diamond jewelry is made. This one is in the shape of a swan, with a duck in the middle, a swan and a duck. Both with bills, caressing each other, necking with their necks ablaze in tiny shards of diamond dust. The message is simple. Ducks and geese can be friends, and if them, why not us? Ducks and Geese, forever at last. Be the duck, be the goose, Forever, the commercial says. The woman ponders her husband’s face with suggestive intent, wondering how he could be so perfect. He, yes he, that man, thought enough of this woman to buy that $169 collection of diamond dust,  and she has never, ever been happier.

Cut to scene. A bow. Huge, red. Draped over the car. It’s in the garage. No, it’s outside. The snow has fallen. Fresh snow, but the car is perfect. Shiny and bright like a showroom model. It’s outside their house. They live in the mountains. The house is made of stone and hewn lumber. Spruce trees dappled with snow, everywhere.  The man, inside, near the fireplace, shaking his present. With one pull of the bouncing red ribbon the box is opened. It’s a key.  He knows that that means. He opens the door, his children near him, his wife excited. There it is. That car. It’s white, like the snow, and the bow is red, like the ribbon. The husband is so happy. I’ve never seen him happier.  Never mind that he would have never bought himself a white car on purpose, he’s still thrilled. The wife knows he’s thrilled. He deserves this car. He’s suffered for too long in that mountain house of hand cut granite and scraped cedar. He’s lived, cooped up in that low-key existence for too long. This is his chance. At age 42, it’s the first good thing that has ever happened to him. No-one deserves this car, and the eight-hundred and thirty-seven dollar monthly payment more.

This week, I have presents to buy. Thankfully, television has taught me everything I need to know in order to be a most effective, loved, admired, wanted gift-giver. I’ve erred in my gift giving previously, but no longer. I want in on the starstruck wife on Christmas morning thing.   If you happen to see my wife this week, don’t mention any of this to her. I’m off to Kay Jewelers, or Zales, or whichever one is in the closest mall,  and I cannot wait to see the look on her face when she sees that I not only opted for the Duck/Goose/Intertwined Neck/Heart Pendant, but I added the gift wrapping AND the 12 month warranty.  This is going to be the best Christmas ever.

Tax Time

Tax Time

If you’re lucky enough to be a Lake Geneva vacation home owner, then you’re unlucky enough to be unwrapping Walworth County’s most untimely gift: Your property tax bill.  When I’m elected supreme ruler of Walworth County, I will change our fiscal year so that you receive your tax bill on July 6th.  While draped in young summer you’ll find the tax bill to be a worthy pittance. Something to be celebrated over brats and charcoal. Why yes, I will pay this ungodly sum of money today! That’s what you’ll say. And you’ll be happy, because you’ll look around and feel the scene and understand that it’s all worthwhile. In early Winter, summer is so very far away, and the tax bill now appears as one last and final insult to the heap that is our year end.

About those taxes. With legislation in Washington DC spiraling towards completion, there are potential changes afoot for the way we’re able to deduct our paid property taxes. It seems as though the bubble of DC has decided it’s in our best interests to pay tax on tax, and who are we, mere peasants, to complain (I’ve complained a lot, and you should, too). With possible changes coming, it might be best to pay those 2017 taxes while it’s still 2017, rather than in two parts during 2018 as the invoice allows. Of course I’m not an accountant, so you should consult with yours, but this year, perhaps more than any other, it’s important to be paying attention.

And along those lines of paying attention, every year owners of Lake Geneva vacation homes miss the deadline for paying their property taxes. This happens through many different circumstances, but typically it has to do with the tax bill being sent to an address other than that which the property owner had planned. Perhaps the bill is being sent to your attorney, to your lake house address, or to the house you used to live in before you moved. The County is very callous towards your reasons, so it’s best to look up your taxes every December and be certain you have the bill and plan to pay it on time (or this year, as I mentioned above). To look up your tax bill, go here. It might be painful, and for that, I’m sorry.

If you purchase a Lake Geneva property this year, there’s an outside chance that your tax bill will be mailed to the prior owner. This isn’t really anyones fault, but it is annoying.  Rather than count on the prior owner to look up your address and mail you that tax bill, it’s best that you use the search link above, or contact the municipality in which you own your home and ask them for the bill. Be proactive, be aware, and don’t count on anyone to help you in the process. If you have no time to deal with these things, tell your attorney or accountant to handle it for you. They’ll like that.

Other year end bits to be aware of. Disconnect your hoses from outside spigots. Don’t forget. Leave your heat on at 60 degrees or more. If you need to keep the heat at 50, I’d suggest that you’re just begging for a pipe to break. Don’t do this, it’s a terrible, awful idea. I believe it’s called being penny wise and pound foolish, but I’m not British. Leave your heat warm enough so that your pipes don’t break, but also so that your tile floors and shower surrounds don’t crack. Warmth is good, please embrace it. If you need help with this, install a Nest (or similar) camera in your house, and a Nest thermostat. You can watch your house and your heat on your app. I’m building a tiny cabin in the outskirts of Nowhere, Wisconsin, and I have done this. If I can, you can, too.

Make sure your irrigation system is winterized. Your pool and hot tub, too. Your pier might not be out by now, but this is the burden of the pier company, unless you’re my dad and you’re intent on saving $110.89 by removing the pier boards yourself. Turn an outside light or two on, not because we have crime like Harbor Country, but because it just looks better. You can spare the $.80 per month to leave a few exterior coach lights on. Your neighbors will appreciate your concern for the exterior mood lighting.

Can you see what I’ve done here? I’ve played right into your hands. I’ve given you a list of things to do under the supposition that you won’t be at your lake house this winter. And in that, I’ve caught you. Missing out on winter at the lake would be a most egregious sin, tantamount to willingly paying tax on tax, or leaving your heat on at 48 degrees. You should be here, no matter the month. Ski here. Rest here. Go to fish fry here. If you didn’t want to visit your vacation home in the winter you probably should have bought one in Michigan, or Door County.

 

South Shore Club Sells

South Shore Club Sells

In the South Shore Club, there are 40 total lots. Most are built on, a few are not. At present, there is one new construction underway.  To date, there had been one sale, that of an aged inventory home near the back of the lakeside circle. While there are 40 total, there are only four built homes that play as true lakefront homes. Those are the front homes, the homes you walk into and see the water, unavoidably.  Those are the homes that function as their own market, and the home I sold this week is part of that elite group.

There is some confusion over the South Shore Club, and how to come to a valuation. Will the market pay lakefront prices for these lakefront homes? The answer is yes, and no. The yes part is obvious, because there’s a sales pattern now that didn’t exist prior to 2012. The no part is less obvious, and it might not be a negative in the way you’re suspecting.  The market won’t pay true lakefront prices for these homes because the prices paid for them represent a discount to what those homes would trade for if they were on their own private lakefront parcels. So the market respects the South Shore Club, but buyers still expect a slight reduction over private frontage valuations. This is all good news.

Consider one way to look at this closing at $4,175,000. The last front house sold in 2014 for $3,591,000.  For 2014, the average price paid per lakefront foot was $21,144.  2017 YTD through October 10th, 2017, the average price paid is $27,743. That represents a 31% increase in valuation. If we apply the same appreciation increase to the South Shore Club lakefront four, we’d see a valuation $4,704,210.  Is this the only way to compute value? Of course not. A lakefront in Fontana sold in the high fours this fall, and that home, with a very small lot, sold for $713 per square foot. The South Shore Club home was 8736 square feet, which comes to a $477 per square foot.

A sincere thank you to the buyer and seller who let me help with this transaction. It was not the easiest deal I’ve ever worked on, and that comment may win Understatement Of The Year. That’ll put a wrap on my 2017 sales production, unless someone needs to close on a new house by the end of the year. Put a big red bow on it, like a Lexus. The year ends for me with $44MM in sales, which makes me the #1 individual Walworth County agent for 2017, and in that top slot for the third year in the past four. Combined with the 2016 volume that’s $106MM in the past 24 months. And that isn’t so bad. The address being written wrong on the property below that just sold, now that’s bad.

Fire

Fire

The living room was too hot.  The outside temperature barely registered 19 degrees, and the windows were open with the thermostat set at 68, but the living room was hot. Too hot, really. Sweaters made their wearers into them. Blankets, arranged to encourage a winter time wrap, were thrown far from sight. Who could need a blanket on a night so cold, in a room so hot? The fire blazed. Faint hints of woodsmoke flavored the air. The hearth was warm, no, the hearth was hot. Those stones, so many of them, cut from some other state and hauled here, stacked into place by a skilled mason. Each one radiating heat out and up.  The reflection of flames dancing on the thin windows that separated so much heat from so much cold.

Such a scene, such a night, could not be possible under the faked glow of a gas fireplace. A gas log set, the preferred source of sterilized winter fire, is indeed a fire. It’s a fire in the way that a pool is a lake. In the way that a football game played in a dome on top of plastic grass with rubber dirt is still a football game.  The gas log set was patented in 1911 in the state of New Jersey. New Jersey! That it to say that before 1911, from the year when it all started until that year in the last century, no such log existed. A fire was made of wood, or coal, burned for the heat but also for the ambiance. Ambiance from a gas log set?  If you paint a window in your daughter’s bedroom with a view of the mountains beyond, the sun just about to set and a few deer in the meadow, are you really in the mountains?

It’s no wonder people in the Midwest bemoan the winter. How could you enjoy winter with the faint flicker of a fake fire? How can you chase away a heat with flame that burns so cold? You have a blower on your fireplace? I have a rubber duck that I throw into my pool, but this doesn’t mean there’s a duck on the lake, anymore than your blower means your fire is real. A fire that doesn’t consume anything isn’t really a fire. Yes, it’ll burn. Yes, those synthetic logs you think look real will, indeed, heat up. But that doesn’t mean your room will glow and it doesn’t mean your guests will feel the heat of a live fire, lapping over the room and chasing winter away.  Take back your fireplace. Throw the gas log set in the garbage. Order some oak. Split it if you must.  Stack it. Load it into the fireplace. Crumple up yesterday’s newspaper and arrange the kindling. Light it. Bask in the glow and wonder about those poor gas log owners who think winter is somehow so difficult.

Preparations

Preparations

I have so many hoses. They’re the best hoses. Except the ones that have been cut by lawn mower blades. And the ones that had their metal bits crushed to an oval under car tires.  One of the problems of owning a large property is that watering isn’t so easy. I don’t have an irrigation system, I just have these hoses. Connect three or four together and I can reach some distance out to my lawn. Not the whole lawn, of course. The hoses can reach the garden but we only water that for a few weeks until the weeds crowd out whatever seeds we planted. The squash are in the far corner, we think.

When fall turns to winter, the hoses have to be put away. Disconnected from their spigots, drained of their water, and wound in a hoop. I should put that hoop in my shed, but my shed is only half sided, because it’s a four year project and I still have a few months left. So I put the hoses on the ground near the tiller attachment for my tractor, on a path of gravel I made with with the tractor, some time ago. I planted fifty or so small evergreen trees on my property last November, and I’m pleased to report that all but one is still living. The one that isn’t living died in a fire when I burned off the remnants of last year’s weed garden to make way for this year’s weed garden. It was a good tree, but it wasn’t fire hardy as I had hoped.

The other trees need tending to, so my daughter and I drove our slow Gator down the road to the corner where they sell bales of straw. Straw and hay are different things, or so the sign said. We loaded four bales, two for my wife’s chickens, and two for the trees. We drove around the property, finding the small evergreens that had been covered in the weeds that I call flowers, and placed some straw around the tiny trunks of these tiny trees. I don’t know why I do this. In my mind, it’ll help the trees last the winter. I have not googled this, nor do I plan to. I believe it’ll help, and so it must. We put the straw around the trees and we put the chicken straw in the unfinished shed.

Then we had some hydrangeas with roots exposed. This is not an acceptable condition heading into winter, so I shoveled mulch up and around these hydrangeas, to protect the roots from the coming cold. I scraped shovel fulls of gravel from the gravel pile into the Gator, and from the Gator into the potholes that had formed during the fall rains. I fill the holes now so the gravel freezes, and the bumps go away for a few months, until they return with an unholy vengeance next spring. Gravel driveways are fine in the summer. Fine in the winter. Pretty terrible during the transitions. The potholes filled, I pulled the outdoor furniture cushions and brought them to the basement. While down there, two furnaces needed new filters, and that’s exactly what I gave them.

The day before I had chopped wood and reaffirmed the strength of my porch-stack, but in doing so I dropped bits of bark and dirt all over the stoop. The blower had a sip of 2017 gas left, so I blew off the patios and the drive, cleaning as best I could before the rain and the cold.  The bird feeders needed filling, a nice generous top off of the large and varied feeders that grace the backside of my house. I like the winter Bluejays, even though the other birds don’t. My wife prefers the subtlety of the female cardinal.  There were three pumpkins on the back steps, molding and sagging and sad. I threw them into the weed garden, where they exploded with a soft pop. Something will eat that, I figured. I felt good for taking such good care of the animals.

The work done, I surveyed the property one last time. The firewood stack was strong, but it’ll need adding to over this month. The driveway and patio, clean as a whistle. The hoses, disconnected, drained, and wound. The lawn mower tucked inside the shed. Two bails of hay, waiting for the chickens. The driveway holes patched, for now. The lawn, mowed in its winter stripes. The tiny trees, tucked into their straw beds, that may or may not help. Some people complain about the work of owning real estate. The work of preparing for a harsh change in seasons, much like preparing for a violent intruder to break through your city gate. I relish the work. I enjoy the preparation.  There’s nothing uniquely hard about it, and now I feel content in knowing I’ve prepared my house, and my family, for what comes next.

Notable November Sales

Notable November Sales

The month of November came in like a lion, or so I remember, and then it went out like a lamb. A tender, delicious lamb. Those early quitters found themselves baking in southern Florida, or dodging scorpions in Arizona. Others went on vacations to tropical locales, to avoid the dull of November.  These people missed out. November wasn’t terrible. November wasn’t awful. November wasn’t even tolerable. November was incredible. A perfect blend of fall and winter, a bit of cold here and some cold there, followed by sunshine and sunsets that would make July blush. November was quite a month at the lake, and like every month, there were sales that we should review.

The most expensive closing last month wasn’t really so expensive. $1.7MM for the house in the Elgin Club. This was my listing, as you’ll recall, but a buyer from a prior listing came back and bought it, so even though it closed my children still need new shoes.  The sale when viewed through a price per front foot prism is high ($34,000), but that’s because smaller properties always look high when judged by this blended average. The sale at $1.7MM was a terrific value. The seller decided it was time to move on, and the buyer took a flyer. The Elgin Club is an ideal spot on the water, and if you’re a buyer under $2MM and can find your way into the Elgin Club, you’re doing very well for yourself.

Next up is a dated modern house on a hill overlooking, at least from the top floor, Fontana Bay. The house on North Lakeshore Drive closed for $1.575MM, and the rumor around town is that this home will be torn down. If that’s the case, I will refrain from comment. No matter how hard it is for me to keep quiet, I won’t say a word. No, in spite of having so many things to say, so many cutting, terrible things to say, I won’t say a word. Not a peep from me, about this sale for $1.575MM. No boatslip here, by the way. But that’s all I’m going to say. Nothing more.

A home in Academy Estates closed for $950k, this one possessing a slip, and a pool, and some deferred maintenance. The price is okay, not great, not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. The house was one of those homes that couldn’t aspire to more than this price, so in that, I’d say the market provided a price that the seller felt acceptable, and that, is that. Academy Estates is a nice association to the East of the South Shore Club. If you’re an off-water buyer, there are far worse places you could end up.

The most interesting sale of the month was in the Lake Geneva Highlands. Earlier this year, I sold a small lakefront house for $925k. That was, at the time, the lowest price lakefront sale of the year. The house next door to that one just sold for $850k. That’s a nice price, no matter how difficult the house. I say it often, and I’m not wrong: the lake is running out of sub-million dollar homes. That’s because when one of these homes sells (perhaps one lakefront every other year sells below $1MM), the new owner rarely stands pat. Instead, they undertake some form of renovation. Perhaps a huge renovation, maybe an addition, maybe they tear it down.  No matter the course, a $900k lakefront home is rarely the same home a year or two after that low print. When that home comes back to market improved, it now commands a $1.5MM asking price, which removes one more sub-million dollar home from our lakefront. That’s why these low priced lakefronts are almost always a good idea.

Rounding out the activity that matters, I sold two smaller properties last month. In October I listed a ranch with a boatslip and dynamite proximity to the water in Oak Shores. Last month I sold that home for $610k. The home needs a bit of cosmetic updating, but it was a nice house in a wonderful location, and it made complete market sense.  Last week I sold a large townhouse in Abbey Ridge, near the Abbey Harbor, for $555k. That was a beautiful condominium, offering loads of square footage and upgraded finishes. Abbey Ridge is a unique creation in our market, as it offers two, three, and four bedroom condominiums in a resort setting for a reasonable price.

I was pleased that both of these sellers chose to list with me this fall. In doing so, they made the smart decision to not wait until Spring to list. That’s the common refrain at this time of year. Wait ’till spring. That refrain sounds nice only because it sounds familiar.  Sell to your competition, not to the season. This isn’t Door County. This isn’t Harbor Country.  Lake Geneva doesn’t close just because the temperatures drop. We just put on some sweet boots and play in the snow.

Bluff Lane

Bluff Lane

Buyers have a unique tendency to focus on one or two aspects of a purchase, and in doing so, convince themselves to proceed with the transaction. This is true of jeans. If you love the fit but hate the color, you might buy them anyway. If you hate the fit but love the price, you might buy them anyway. This is why we have closets with jeans that we don’t wear. Sometimes it’s because we started working out and have, as a curious result, gained weight. But usually it’s because whatever jean we bought wasn’t quite right, but we bought it anyway. Houses are like this, too.

On the lakefront, it’s often less about what a house has than what it doesn’t. It has a fantastic stove. Yes! Shiny! But it has one bedroom. It has a big level lawn, sweet! But the foundation is an assortment of neatly, dry-stacked bricks placed at random intervals. Every house has good, and every house has bad. There is no perfect house. Not here, at least. Every property has something wrong with it.  Buyers like to focus on garages. Lake houses and garages have a curious relationship.  On one hand, a lake house doesn’t need a garage. Not at all. On the other hand, at a certain price point, the lake house demands a garage. It needs one. What’s that price point? That’s for you to decide, but I think it’s somewhere just north of $2MM. If I’m a $1.6MM lakefront house buyer, I should understand that a garage is an extravagance that my budget might not afford. If I’m a $3MM lake house buyer, I likely find a garage to be a requirement of the purchase. This is the way the market tends to behave.

That brings us to my newest lakefront listing, N1939 Bluff Lane. Follow the road through the little stone entry, and you’ll end up on the dead end of Bluff Lane. A few lakefront houses, not much more. It’s quiet, down here on Bluff. If you think the name is cute but not meaningful, you’d be wrong. Bluff Lane is indeed a high lane, with elevated frontage. That frontage creates steps, yes. But that elevation creates a most unique perch through which to absorb the lake. It’s a tree house setting, which is unique on this lake but highly interesting.

The house has five bedrooms, four baths. A two car detached garage is a newer addition to the property, along with a full lower level that opens to the lakeside for water toy storage. There’s off-street parking,  a small lakeside yard, and 76 feet of private frontage. The house was renovated and added onto in 2009, leaving this once basic property with a fresh look and a beautiful new master suite. There are three fireplaces here, which should interest you if you like the idea of sitting in a tree house overlooking the lake while the snow piles up outside. It’s a good feeling, a good scene, and with a 30 day close you could be enjoying New Year’s Eve in that exact fashion.

At the lakefront, there’s a massive pier, complete with oversized canopied boatslip and a large swim deck. It’s Linn Township, so the taxes are just $16k and change. This home is in terrific condition, ready for immediate use.  Why wait until May to join the race for summer? Start the race now. Tweak your new house over the winter.  Some new paint colors here,  some new couches there. Do the work in the off-season that so many people put off until the in-season. Take the winter to enjoy the scene, decorate the house, and prepare. When Memorial Day Weekend rolls around, you never again have to wonder which suburban BBQ you’re going to attend.

 

Stone Manor Saga

Stone Manor Saga

In the news this week, more of the continuing saga surrounding Stone Manor. I suppose most of this story is my fault, so I should take some time to explain myself.  Several years ago I was hired to represent the marquee unit at Stone Manor. The first floor residence is as marquee as marquee gets, and since I’m the agent with the most success in that particular segment (no matter what the stapled letter you received in the mail from some other agent says), I was chosen to sell this space. After some market time,  I sold it for just under $6MM to a strong buyer.  As a point of fact, you won’t ever see me drop my client or customer names in this blog. That’s low-class and I’ll leave it for the online gossip pages to fill in the gaps that I intentionally leave empty.

After all, that’s what this story is all about. That’s why it has legs.  The story has personalities involved, and media types love a personality.  But again, here I am getting ahead of myself. The first floor unit sold in late 2016, and I was pleased to represent the seller. Stone Manor, for those who are unaware, features(d) several condominium units. There is a double unit and a single unit on the top floor, the same configuration on the second floor, and the large single floor unit that I sold on the first floor.  Shortly after the first floor unit sold to this buyer, a double on the top floor sold. Then, some fancy deed work between two owners, and ultimately the second floor double unit sold.   In November, the single unit on the second floor sold. That unit, by the way, was the unit owned by Tony Rezko, infamous associate of a prior president.

Even though the sales prices have been poorly or inaccurately reported,  the transfer returns point to sales prices as follows: First Floor: $5,995,000. Top Floor Double:  $1,899,667.  Second Floor Double: $3,400,000. Second Floor Single: $2,250,000.  The top floor double may have sold in a different manner to reflect that lower transfer price, but I’m not privy to any details, and those don’t matter. What matters now is that a singular owner now owns all of Stone Manor excepting one single top floor unit. The price paid so far? $13,544,667. This means every reported number you’ve read over recent weeks and months is wrong.

So now what? An owner who isn’t well known locally now owns nearly all of Stone Manor. The new owner has paid a handsome market rate for the property acquired.  And because of this, everyone is going insane. Local news reports on the purchases as if they’re somehow unexplainable. Los Angeles based bloggers can’t figure out what’s going on here. Why would someone want to own so much of a building in rural Wisconsin?  Has the world gone mad?  We demand answers. We must know. We have to know. What’s going on at Stone Manor?

The answer, is nothing.  Stone Manor is a monster limestone structure. It’s somewhere around 30,000 square feet. The property has 400′ of frontage and nearly 10 acres. It is, without question, the most important estate on this lake. No matter what other billionaire lakefront owners think, Stone Manor is actually the king.  And if you’re a lakefront owner or a lover of this lake, you should be thrilled that the property is on the verge of returning to single family ownership. Why would we bemoan a purchaser investing so much in our market? Why would we wish to understand this beyond what it looks like on the surface? It’s an owner who loves a property that had previously never been given much attention on the market, and that owner now seeks to turn 400′ of frontage into a singular estate. This matters, and we should be appreciative.

Let’s say the top floor holdout owner sells. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, it matters little to me. But if he does, and the price is in line with prior sales in the building (let’s not consider the alternatives for an owner who no longer has meaningful voting power in the condo structure), then the singular owner will have purchased the entirety of Stone Manor for around $16MM.  Want to know what Stone Manor, in its entirely is worth?  Probably around $16MM.  Has the new owner overpaid for this property? No. Does it matter if she did? No. Does it matter that she might be from California and her husband might be from New York? No.

My advice to the community is to recognize a compliment when paid one. This owner could choose to spend millions of dollars in any vacation home market in the world. She chose Lake Geneva. I, for one, am flattered by her interest, and as a caretaker of this market and this lake, I welcome the consolidation of ownership.  To that new owner, I say thank you. I say congratulations. I say welcome to the lake.

 

Cool White

Cool White

It takes a while for a tradition to become a tradition. An act, repeated once or twice on an annual or bi-annnual basis, does not constitute a tradition. In the same way, if you go out to eat at a particular restaurant every Sunday morning, this is also less a tradition and more a habit. If you visit that restaurant every year on your birthday, then the visit becomes a tradition, but only after several years.  Young, newer families struggle to break from the larger family traditions, those bestowed over years and years by the parents of the new parents.   New families think of the things that they’d like to become their traditions, and they do them over and over again until some stick, and others fall off. Traditions take work, time, and commitment. That’s why my family purchases our Christmas Tree over the weekend that follows Thanksgiving.

The problem with this tradition is that it’s based, at least somewhat, on emotion. On feelings.  Which is why I told my daughter on Friday morning that we would not be cutting down our tree that day. Who could think about cutting a tree down under that blistering sun?  Only a fool would cut down a winter tree on such a warm day. My daughter was distraught by the news, even as we spent some of that morning skiing the melting slush at Alpine Valley. Saturday was colder, but still warm. Sunday was chilly in the morning, and knowing I was running out of time to continue this tradition, we loaded up the Gator and drove down the road to pick, cut, and haul the tree that would become our 2017 Christmas Tree.

Fast forward. I sawed the tree down, we hauled it back on the roof of our UTV, my daughter beamed. I trimmed the trunk, crammed it into the heavy iron base, and in spite of five watchful eyes, the final adjustments to plumb and level left us with a tilting fir. The tote of 2016 lights was pulled from the corner of the basement, and the light checking process began. First strand. Works! At least a few of them did. The first half didn’t, the second half did. The next strand, nothing. And the third and fourth, nothing. A few more half strands, a few more duds. When the lights were all checked there were three sections in the working pile and ten in the garbage pile. The lights that I bought last year, carefully unwound and stored in my lidded tote, were duds.

Walmart could save us from the darkness, but when I stood in the light aisle, jostling for position and staring at the bounty of different lighting options, I felt uneasy. I know not to buy colored lights. I know not to buy flashing lights. The strobe effect is dizzying.  There were LED and green wires and white wires, and larger bulbs and smaller bulbs. Bulbs shaped like teardrops and others shaped like gum balls. Some smooth and others rough like a cheese grater.  I’ve erred before while buying lights, falling victim to the white wire strand when I clearly wanted the green wire. I surveyed the wall of lights. My daughter stood back, silent, knowing this was a decision for a father. For a man.

My wife had mentioned some lights she liked in the RH catalog. But this was Walmart, and so I’d have to match the fancy style with whatever lights were available in Delavan on that day. I settled on some LED lights that promised 25,000 hours of lighting.  The bulbs were shaped, the glass etched, they were fancy. Expensive, considering the other lights on those shelves.  I felt like I was doing the right thing, right by my daughter, right by my wife, right by the planet, on account of the LED.

I’m a big fan of the big reveal, which meant I wouldn’t turn on one section of lights before the entire tree was lit. The six boxes were enough, if a bit light, as I should have bought seven. Maybe eight. But the tree was lit and the ladder was needed to get close enough to the top of the 15′ Fir.  Now all we needed was an extension cord. After scouring the Christmas Totes, we had none, but we did have those left over strands of lights from last year, so we used that twinkly section to connect the outlet to our new, beautiful LED lights.  There was no hurrah, no particular fanfare.  No Griswold moment of delayed satisfaction.  But when I plugged in those lights something awful happened. The LED bulbs turned on. Their eery, cold light pushed through the pine needles, barely. The late afternoon sun was fading by then, but the now lit tree somehow made the room darker.  The lights weren’t white, not really. They looked white on the box. They looked white when we put them up. But now electrified, they were blue. I checked the remnant boxes that were scattered on the floor. Cool White. I bought Cool White LEDs, which are cleverly named because no one in their right mind would buy blue Christmas lights.

The greatest trick the devil ever played was not making people believe he doesn’t exist. No, the his greatest trick was in labeling blue lights Cool White. Tonight, there’s no need to ask me what I’ll be doing. I’ll be taking down Christmas lights and replacing them with ultra cheap, warm, glowing, green wired Christmas lights. And next year, I’ll throw those new lights into the garbage, because that’s our tradition.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

Halloween is a stupid, fake holiday. There, I said it. It’s absolutely the worst fake holiday there is. I’ll take Sweetest Day over it, and I don’t even know when said day occurs.  Easter is a great holiday, even if my wife tells me it has pagan roots, just like Christmas. Both of those Holidays are not universally adored, because both are Christian holidays heavily connected in tradition and procedure to the aforementioned pagan celebrations.  Labor Day is nice, but is it? Memorial Day is something everyone can get behind, but this isn’t a Holiday with a season so much as a long weekend. Holidays, they’re confusing, and they’re different for each of us. Well, except one Holiday. The King of Holidays, Thanksgiving.

There is no one alive who wishes for Thanksgiving to go away.  Try to even imagine such a person.  Even Ebenezer Scrooge was well known to enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey, even while he displayed open disdain for the Christmas Goose. See, everyone likes Thanksgiving. Even Canadians and people who willingly vacation in Michigan.  Thanksgiving is the one weekend when everyone is in disagreement over something said at the table, or over the way something was prepared (my mom shouldn’t cook her turkey in an oversized crock pot), but when everyone is also in agreement. Thanksgiving is the best. That’s undisputed.

But what is thanksgiving? Not the capital T holiday, but the lower case t act? If we’re thankful, which we know we should be, to whom are we to be thankful? I admit I struggle with being thankful. I have a very hard time balancing being content and striving for more. I don’t know where the balance is. If I’m grateful and thankful, does this mean I’m content? It should, I think. But I admit that I am not. Ask my wife. I’m not predisposed to contentment, even if I am predisposed to be thankful. Indeed, shouldn’t one require the other? This is my personal struggle, the feeling of a unique form of driven anxiety coupled with an understanding that my life, while far from perfect,  has been pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Today, my children are healthy. My son is addicted to some Starwars video game, and my daughter hates homework, but things are, on balance, good. My wife is struggling with an unfortunate deer hunting incident from last weekend, wherein she was an unwilling accomplice to Buck murder,  but that’s a story for another time once the wound isn’t so fresh. Her figurative wound, not the Buck’s mortal wound. That wound isn’t fresh anymore. But still, my wife is well and my kids are well and I love them all dearly. I almost wrote deerly, in reference to the murdered Buck, but I didn’t think you’d get the joke.

This week, like every week, I’m going to try to be more thankful. To be more understanding. To be less frustrated and more content. This week, like every week, I’ll fail. But I adore Thanksgiving, and the way it brings a family together to give thanks for the many blessings that have been dropped squarely into our unworthy laps.  The thing is, while my family will have disagreements and spats this weekend (like every week), we know to whom we are thankful.  And that’s really what this Holiday is all about.  We’ll enjoy this week and keep with us an attitude of thankfulness to the bestower of these blessings.

 

Photo Courtesy Matt Mason Photography.