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Decisions

Decisions

On a day last week, in the afternoon of that day, there was a choice to be made. The sky opened after a period of rain and a period of warmth. The day had been hot. Hot for October but hot for any month, really.  Only the most ardent admirers of heat could pretend that it wasn’t. It was humid, too, and revelers took to the water and captioned their posts something about this being the last. This is it. This, this span of a few days during this month, this was all that we had left.

That afternoon, after the sun warmed and the southwestern winds pushed in the summertime air, there was something of a choice in that sky. To the south, towards Fontana and beyond, the sky was dark. Not formidable, not stormy, but darker than pale. It looked like it might rain. Like the it might spread over the lake and then the houses and the corn and bean fields. To the East, to Williams Bay and then Lake Geneva, the sun was still shining, the sky still blue. The brightness was a stark contrast to the darkness, the separation jarring. A decision would need to be made.

In Williams Bay, the sun. The warmth. A chance at some warm fall, or some slightly cooler summer. The leaves were just beginning to change, and if you squinted and looked away from the maples you might be forgiven if you thought August had somehow returned. There was a chance to live out another day, or another afternoon, or at least another moment, under that sun and in that place. A warm place. Summer, extended. To sit on a bench on that northern shore and be cleansed by the pleasant southern wind.  To crunch over shore path leaves with t-shirts on, to take the boat for another ride on top of those blue, excited waves. To embrace what is almost over.

To the south, to Fontana, the clouds. Ominous, but not really. The temperature was the same, but it looked colder. It had to be colder. The gray sky hanging low over the field that was, just a week prior, standing tall and upright. Now the field was reduced to stalks, and the leaves on the trees looked frail. They were fluttering from view, ripped by that wind, matting on the ground under the tires and boots. Boats were being hurried into their winter caves, hatches were being battened. Winter was coming, but first a blustery and cold fall. The colors failing, the wood stacking, the fireplaces lit.

Two options, one choice. I could live out the summer into October, or I could move to fall, to the colorless gray that I know so well. I chose the latter, because I’m ready for this new season. And I was heading to Fontana anyway.

389 North Lakeshore Drive

389 North Lakeshore Drive

There are three things that attract people to houses. Yes, there are renters who rent based on price and convenience, those who say they won’t be pinned down, won’t be tamed. But for the rest of us, the regular people, houses simply attract us. The reasons are many, sometimes bold reasons like colors and sometimes nuanced reasons like the way a front door beckons when you first pull into the drive. But really, there are three main reasons that houses either attract us or repel us.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Homes For Sale

First things first, there’s the approach. Curb appeal,  some would say, but that’s assuming you can see the house from the curb. The approach itself matters to homes, which is why homes have gates. It’s not to keep people out so much as it is to provide a visual enticement that something important lies beyond. If I had a gate on my house, no one would stand out front and wonder who lives inside, but they might stop and think there must be something slightly interesting back there.

The lot itself, that property beyond that gate, the trees and the grass and so many boxwoods. How is that lot? Is it wide enough, deep enough? Is it hilly or flat? Does it catch my interest. And if I’m looking towards something, what is it, exactly? Just more trees? Too much grass? Basic landscaping, or elevated landscaping? A path to the lake that feels right, or a path that feels like the owner gave up on the project long before every making her way to the shore?

That lot, where is it, exactly? Is it on the side of a busy road? I was driving with my kids last week and reminded them that under no circumstance shall they ever purchase a home adjacent a busy road, to say nothing of an actual highway. The reasons are obvious, but mostly because there is never an actual reason to do so. The nuance of the front door positioning on the house and the quality of the backyard is meaningless if the house faces that busy road. The lot, the thing that we need as much as a leak-free roof and some hardwood floors, is the single most important part of home.

Lastly, it’s the style of the home itself. Tudor or Cape Cod, Colonial or Mid-Century? What suits your style? Moreover, what suits the style of your market?   A recent plague on construction in this immediate area has no real symptoms except a general lack of consistent style. If the home is to be traditional with a twist towards modern, like Michael Abraham might encourage, that’s terrific. If the home is traditional to the core, with bold, classic finishes, that’s fine as well. There is no error in design as long as the design is consistent. But whether or not that design attracts the interest of buyers and passersby alike depends on the style itself.

With those aspects of desirability understood, I introduce  389 North Lakeshore Drive in Fontana. Where is it? Along the curvy, wooded road that bends and whispers from Fontana to Williams Bay. What’s there? Only some of the most beautiful newer homes on the lake, mixed with some of the traditional homes that effortlessly anchor our scenery to the past. The approach is as it should be: A simple gate with no pretension.  The entrance drive turns through the trees, past a fitting four car detached garage because who would want a lakefront estate without room for a few extra toys?

The home itself is more than 10,000 square feet of turn key efficiency. There’s a main floor master suite, dressed in marble. Upstairs you’ll find five more bedroom suites including a bunk room that’ll hold nearly everyone you know. On the lower level that walks out to the water, there are two more suites, a theatre room and a screened porch that does double duty as a summertime gym.  What’s more, this home is nearly new. Finished in 2013 by Orren Pickell, this shingle style home doesn’t waiver from what it is.

What is it? It’s a shingle style home on 2.4 lakefront acres built recently to exacting standards and elevated for a hassle free lakefront experience by the current owners. Where is it? It’s on the North Shore of Fontana, with views long and wide, a short stroll to Gordy’s and Chuck’s even while the home and property feel tucked away and secluded.  What does it look like? It looks like the sort of house you’d build if you were in the market to build a new house here. But why would you do that when this home is here, now, available and practically perfect? $7,895,000

Entry Level Lakefront Market Update

Entry Level Lakefront Market Update

I’m not sure if there’s a more interesting segment in our market than the entry level lake access market. While other segments exist because particular homes move in and out of that defined value range, the entry level market is truly the only range for which their is no defined price structure. When times are good, entry level might mean $1.5-2MM. When times were bad, we learned that entry level meant $800k-$1.2MM. If we look over any particular decade in our past, there’s nothing consistent about the pricing of this segment. In that, it’s a curious segment, but beyond that, it’s also our most important lakefront segment.

Yes, yes, we know liquidity at the top end is the most unique attribute of our market. We know our liquidity makes every other vacation market in the Midwest look like a low quality timeshare rental. But still, in spite of that robust upper bracket strength, the entry level market is the market that matters to more people. The goal of vacation home buyers, if the budget affords, is to find lakefront.  Knowing that the entry level market is directly connected to the upper-end off water market, we know that if the entry level market struggles then the off-water market struggles. If the off-water market is strong, then that must mean that not only is the entry level market strong, but it’s light on inventory. These two markets are connected, and 2018 has proved that once again.

This isn’t about the off-water market, even though it is remarkably strong and liquid as a direct result of the low inventory and sales patterns of that entry level lakefront market. This is about the entry level market itself, and what 2018 has done to it, and for it.  This year, there have been four lakefront homes sold between $1.1MM and $1.25MM.  All four of those properties had around 50′ of frontage, and three of the four were on Walworth Avenue in Williams Bay. If you’re familiar, Walworth Avenue is the road to the North of Pier 290. The other sale was in the Elgin Club.

The fact that there have been four sales in this segment isn’t surprising. It is somewhat surprising that the prices, in spite of the spectacular market activity of 2018, have been somewhat stagnant in that tight, low buck range. While the homes that sold were certainly habitable, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that they are all in need of some additional attention. Whether that comes in the from of wide-scale renovations or surface improvements, that is up to the new owners. Will any of these four be scraped to make way for a new home?  No one, except the owners, can answer that question.

Walworth Avenue hasn’t shown any real strength over the mid-million dollar market. There’s a giant newer home on that road, one that represents a significant investment, but is that an individual pursuing what is best for that individual, or is that a market market-minded play? Will Walworth Avenue soon be home to more tear downs, to more new construction? And if so, will that new construction find favor in the market?  I honestly don’t know the answer to my own questions. I’m inclined to suggest that new construction in that location wouldn’t be a wise play. But I know the tight inventory markets on the lakefront between $1.8MM and $2.5MM, so it wouldn’t be crazy to suggest an owner could pursue new construction here, even though the neighborhood hasn’t shown the ability to support it.

There have been a few other happenings in the entry level market this year, notably a pending foreclosure in the Lake Geneva Highlands and a private lakefront sale on Outing Drive. You’ll remember the Outing house, as I had it for sale earlier this year, and another agent had it for sale for a spell as well. The home sold in what appears to be a private sale for a price (as shown in the transfer rolls) of  $1,525,000. That’s a reasonable price for that house. The Highlands lakefront is one that was on market last year and under contract (per MLS), but failed to close. That home is likely valued in the mid $1s, and I’ll be curious to discover if it comes back to market as REO, or if someone takes a stab at it through the sheriff’s sale.

Today, the entry level market is once again void of inventory. The lowest priced home with frontage is over in Trinke’s, a property with the lagoon in front of it, priced at $1.85MM.  The next available lakefront is to the East of there, priced just over $2.2MM. This is a tight market, and a difficult one for would-be lakefront buyers.  What’s interesting here is that the lack of inventory and consistent sales really hasn’t translated into valuation gains in this segment. I’d expect that’ll change if the market stays tight for too much longer. Maybe it won’t change at all until someone breaks the pattern on these entry level streets and builds something new. Something that seems out of place, something that doesn’t make sense. Or at least it’ll feel that way until everyone else does it, too.

 

Cedar Point For Sale

Cedar Point For Sale

A couple of weeks ago, I started working on a new listing.  This lakefront house was in Cedar Point, on the very top of the point, where the view is as wide as it is long, where days last and last, where sunsets, no matter the season, cannot hide from view. The house was to be listed at $2,595,000, and I was ready to work on the sale. Photos were scheduled, details were arranged.

But then it rained. And it rained some more, and when it wasn’t rainy it was misty, which would be a terrific name for a horse. Photos were scheduled and the schedule changed. The weather didn’t cooperate. But in the mean time I told a couple of buyers about this house, and before the photos could take place, before the MLS listing could be set to ACTIVE, before all of those visible sales efforts could commence and before most agents knew about the property, the new listing on the hill went under contract to a buyer who knew he needed to be in the know. It’s in the MLS now, but it’s already sold.

Compass, Et Al

Compass, Et Al

It should come as no surprise that there’s a competition to be what’s next. In this context, we should capitalize What’s Next.  If you own a business that makes money, or you own a business that has a lot of customers but fails to make money, you know about private equity. You know they want to buy your business, to pay you a multiple that makes your head spin. Should you sell? Probably.  Those in this investment world that are tasked with finding the next big thing. Recently,  everyone has collectively decided that real estate is that thing.

There’s no debate that the business of real estate is big. The debate is over what that business is going to look like in the future. Will traditional brokerages and their traditional models continue to dominate the national landscape? Or will there be something new, something else, something more.  SoftBank’s Vision Fund recently invested $400MM each in two real estate “tech” companies. One is Opendoor, one is Compass. If you haven’t heard of these two companies, don’t feel bad about it. In time, no one will remember either of their names.

But I jest.  Compass is a rapidly growing real estate business.  The founder was on CNBC last week and talked about his “platform”. There’s all sorts of “tech”, apparently. But what is Compass? Well, it’s a real estate company. What do they do? They list your home for a fee and then they try to sell it. What’s their secret? Nothing, really. They have signs that light up at night, which is cutting edge, or so someone thought. They also have proprietary technology that enables their agents to better serve their customers, and to provide AI insights into markets. This sounds nice, and the fine folks at SoftBank really bought it, but is Compass revolutionizing the real estate business?

Headlines out of Chicago will claim it is. That’s why top teams of agents are leaving @Properties and Sotheby’s and the like to join this new, exciting, dynamic company with the signs that have lights on them. You know, so people can see them at night.  Consumers might assume there’s something here. Something unique, something rare. Something New. But what they don’t know is that agents are being bought. Brokerages are being paid handsome amounts of money to sell to Compass. Agents are typically happy with some free calendars from the title company. Heck, I don’t even get those anymore. Compass is paying them real money to join their company, and in the case of top agents and teams, that might mean signing bonuses of a million dollars or more.

Compass doesn’t want to talk about this, because they want the consumers and their target audience, the agents, to think there’s something here. @properties did the same thing over the past decade as they grew a real estate behemoth. They told the market that they’re something better. Something rare. Something unique. But really they were a traditional real estate model banking on a consumer who was looking for whatever was next. Something New, that’s all this game is about.

Compass is growing, Compass is moving into your neighborhood, but why? The answer, as with all answers relating to the growth of real estate companies, is that they’re simply poaching agents. There’s nothing new under the sun, especially in a business where the entire business lives and dies on one simple thing: a real estate agent.  Every real estate company that grows only does so by taking agents from other companies. These agents flee what’s old, and move to what’s next. They send out postcards. They issue a press release. I’m What’s Next!

OpenDoor wants to buy your home, I think. They also just bought a traditional brokerage in California, or maybe Arizona, so they want to be in the regular business of real estate as well. Maybe they’re hedging their own business model, assuming not everyone will want to sell their home for cash at a market discount.  This model has been around for ions, or at least a few years, and it’s working. Opendoor is reinventing the business of real estate, or so they think. They’re just like Amazon and Uber, the CEO says.  They’ve raised fortunes, led by a who’s who in the world of investing, including a big fat investment of $400MM by SoftBank. SoftBank knows one thing, they want in on whatever is next. Is it Opendoor?

Opendoor has a current valuation over $2B, yet they only operate in 19 cities more than five years after their launch. Why aren’t they in more cities? Why aren’t they everywhere? Well, because the model relies on algorithms to determine the current value of your home, as well as the value of your home in the coming weeks and months.  Opendoor will buy your home, without a pesky agent, and without that pesky market exposure, and then, once you’ve moved out and closed your deal with them, they’ll resell your house for a profit. That’s it. They’re the modern day tech company that has replaced the yellow signs on the side of the interstate that promise “I BUY HOUSES CASH”.

The model works as long as the market is appreciating. It also works as long as the market has a very tight pattern of sales. Would Opendoor work in Lake Geneva? Not in a million years. Will it work in Winnetka? Nope.  Will it work when the market falters? No.  The reason is simple. When a market stalls, consumers generally fail to recognize the slowdown for a reasonably long period of time. They are defiant. They are insistent. They are stubborn. If OpenDoor needs to buy your home for a 5% discount to actual value today (in an escalating market), what will they offer you in a declining market? 90% of the value? 80% of the value? Will consumers be willing to sign on for this initial, deep cut, without finding out if the market is indeed as poor as OpenDoor is telling them? No, they won’t.

Compass closed their last round at a $4.4B valuation. In 2017, Compass closed $17B in sales. There’s another real estate company in these United States, one called Realogy. Realogy owns some brokerages that you may have heard of. Some small companies like Century 21, Caldwell Banker, Sotheby’s, ERA, Better Homes and Gardens, among others. Realogy is a publicly traded company with total 2017 sales over $500B. Realogy’s market cap? $2.5B. The world, it seems, has gone mad.

As a small independent broker in a small Wisconsin town, I’m not immune to the changes in the real estate business. Competition increases every year, and much of that competition comes to my office to beg me to work with them. They want me to be part of What’s Next. But in that, there’s an admission, and I can already see What’s Next. They don’t believe in their own models. They don’t think they have anything proprietary. Not Compass, not @properties, not OpenDoor, not Realogy. The real estate business, at the end of every long day, is only about one thing: A Real Estate Agent.  No matter the broker names, no matter the affiliation, the agents will remain. They’ll just change their name tags and wear a different color jacket, but if you think they’re somehow different because their sign has a nightlight on it, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Glenwood Springs For Sale

Glenwood Springs For Sale

There’s a reason you read this blog. That, of course, was a lie. In actuality, there are many reasons you read this blog, but perhaps there are are only two or three really good reasons.  The market commentary might be the most valuable asset of this site, but that’s followed very closely by the fact that I like to leak new listings on this blog well ahead of the time the rest of the agents and the MLS learns about them. Today, there is no commentary, which means there’s a new listing to discuss.

This new listing is one that you may be familiar with. I sold it two years ago to the current owner, who is now looking on to what’s next. The property, 434 Oakwood in Fontana, is likely the most dialed lake cottage I’ve ever sold. Correction: it’s the most dialed lake cottage I’ve ever seen. In spite of my propensity for hyperbole, I assure you there is no exaggeration here. This property has it all, and it’s perfect.

There’s a view, a private pier with shore station for a 25 foot boat. There’s proximity. In that, we have completed the trifecta of Lake Geneva off-water value. Pier, View, Proximity. Collect your winnings at the counter. But beyond that, there’s something more here. The house itself is filled with high end luxuries that leave even lakefront homes unwell with envy. It’s so perfect that I’m not even going to describe it. I’m just going to leave those pictures there, and leave this video here. $1,295,000. If you want to transform your weekends, please let me know.

Wish

Wish

I used to wish for things. Lots of things. In the third grade, I wished that a girl I liked wouldn’t move away. She did. Later, I wished that the tight ankle roll I’d apply to the hem of my jeans wouldn’t come undone during the school day. But they always did. Later still, I’d wish for a listing or a sale, I’d hope for something to break my way.  After a decade or so of futility, they did.  As I’ve grown older, my wishes seem less important than they once did. In the third grade, the act of that girl who didn’t even like me moving away was very devastating, my wish rendered useless. Today, I don’t even know what I’m wishing for. At least I didn’t know, until a couple of weeks ago.

Times were, I’d spend this month wishing for more. Wishing for the sun and the heat, for the calm water and the continuation of a summer that never left me feeling full. I craved summer, and how much more delicious that summer was that came after everyone else thought it had ended. I’d boat and I’d swim, I’d work and I’d play. I’d live my best life in September. The life I was destined to live, the life I wished for without knowing it. Typically, on this late September morning, I’d be out there, living.

But not today. That’s because it rained on Labor Day, and it rained a lot. It rained the day before, too. And maybe the day before that, and a few before that one. It rained too much, and we all knew it.  What we didn’t know was what would come next. A swarm. A plague. When we hid in our houses on Labor Day, we bemoaned a soggy end to our summer, but we didn’t understand the greater evil that was brewing. Or breeding, as it was. Those puddles left behind, those low lying areas of mud and wet, those corners of shade under the trees where the grass won’t grow. The rains came and the rains went, but they left behind those incubators of terror and we didn’t even know it.

My house is normally a nice place to live. It’s in the country, but it’s close. It’s a rare combination here, something out away from the people but something so near to it all.  During the month of September, it wouldn’t be a surprise to drive by my house in the evening and see my son shooting hoops. I’d play as well, only for a while until my back hurt and I realized that I will never, ever, regain whatever semblance of basketball skill I used to possess. My wife might be out tending to her chickens.  We’d be enjoying the cooler, calm afternoons, aware of their fleeting nature and wishing for just a few more weeks. Things would normally be pretty, pretty, nice.

Those rains, though. Those rains and those puddles and then that sunshine and that heat. The nicest two weeks of the year followed that dark, stormy holiday weekend, and those puddles warmed and billions of biting demons crawled from that yard soup. The mosquitos, normally an afterthought by this time of year, came back with an ungodly vengeance. They bit and they ate and they sucked and they ruined. Basketball tonight? No thanks. Lawn needs morning? Pass. Garbage cans need to be taken to the road? What, and walk that 500 feet through a winged, sucking gauntlet, the likes of which no one has ever seen?

Today, I’m no longer wishing for summer. I’m just wishing for a hard frost. Damn the flowers and the rest of the fall niceties. If we have to kill summer to kill these bugs, I won’t lament the cost. This time around, I’m only wishing for the death of the mosquitoes and their banishment to eternal hell,  and no other wish I’ve ever wished has mattered nearly as much.

Black Point Sells

Black Point Sells

One of the many benefits of this strong vacation home market is that I get to test my theories on a daily basis. These theories were first penned when the market was in rough shape, which was just a few years ago in reality but so much farther away in the minds of 2018 buyers. The theory relating to the off-water lake access market over $1MM was simple. If lakefront homes were plentiful in the $1-2MM range, then off-water homes in same range would suffer. Why buy off water when the same price put you in the front row? In the same way, if $1-2MM lakefront homes were scarce, then off-water homes in the range would attract buyers. Lake Geneva real estate can be quite simple.

Simple as it may be, the theory was difficult for many off-water sellers to understand. During those dark years, most off-water homes that sought to capture a $1-1.5MM sales price ultimately languished on the market and fell victim to the price erosion that is a hallmark of lengthy market exposure. Most of those homes ended up selling, but rather than finding buyers in that $1MM+ range, most of these homes sold between $900k and $1MM. Buyers rejoiced, sellers wept.

Over time the entry level lakefront inventory dried up, leaving available only true cottages on small lots in modest settings. As that inventory shrunk, buyers turned their attention to the off-water homes that meant something. A slip, a view, a pool, some privacy. Maybe a combination of all of those. In the fall of 2016, I printed the sale in Loramoor for $1.625MM. Then another sale in Glenwood Springs for $1.1MM. Then, in 2017, a super high priced print with no slip in Oakwood Estates north of $1.2MM.  In 2017, another in Maytag Estates in the same range. Then a sale in Fontana north of $1.3MM. The market was moving, and buyers were once again looking for off-water properties simply because the on-water options were so scarce.

Last month, a new offering in this range. This one on Southland, or Black Point, as the tax records would show. $1.699MM for a few acres of wooded bliss, some terrain, a pool and a slip, a large home with pedigree, outbuildings and more. This was a property that the market rarely offers, mostly because it has no true rival. There are locations where off water homes will sell upwards and north of $2MM, but those associations are rare and historically light on inventory. The Lindens, Black Point, The 700 Club, Loramoor, Glen Fern. These are the rare associations, made that way by decades of low inventory and highly polished homes. These are the associations that matter to this segment, and this particular home was among the most rare inside even unique settings.

That’s why a buyer whom I was pleased to represent jumped. We closed on the house last week for full price, which is nothing to be ashamed of. In this context, full price was required, and full price was still less than the seller had paid for the home in the fall of 2011 when the market was in awful condition.  To further prove the strength of this off-water market, consider the home that would come to market just a few weeks ago in the 700 Club. That home hit the MLS at $1.495MM and promptly received multiple offers before finally settling at a contracted price that is rumored to be far over the ask. The market doesn’t always love off-water homes over $1.5MM, but if you give the market something unique in a highly desirable setting, the buyers will find it.

To this buyer who let me guide them through this curious segment of our vacation home market, I thank you. There’s an opportunity at this property to transform it into something without equal in our market, and I’m hopeful that the end reality matches your unique and exciting vision.

New Subdivisions

New Subdivisions

In the morning I wake up, clean up, dress up (down), drink the espresso that my wife kindly makes me, take my kids to school, and go to my office. I do this five days a week. On the other two days,  I skip the part where I drop the kids off at school. When I get to the office, I turn on the lights, sit down at this desk, and check the MLS. I check the new listings and the sold listings, the reduced listings, too. I think about what to write about. I think about the weather and the scenery, the lake and the sky. I think about the trees and the tinge of whatever color might be deepening or fading.  I think about the lakefront market, the lake access market, the vacation home segments in their pieces and as a whole. And then, when I sit back and consider everything I just say, “man, people are paying lots of money for really basic subdivision houses.”

Most days, I ignore those primary market thoughts, and write instead about lakefronts and the sort of real estate that interests me and my clients. But today, the primary market interests me, because this trend is established and it’s serious and I can no longer ignore it. The primary market is hot, all segments, all prices, so long as we’re talking about less than $400k. Some of the primary neighborhoods are selling for more than $400k, but not with particular regularity. Those primary home subdivisions that I wrote about with fervor a few years ago have come to life, and buyers appear to be content to purchase their own version of vinyl perfection.

When I wrote about the state of the primary market, the subdivisions were mostly idle. Some construction, but not much. In the three years that have followed, the construction market has boomed. New homes are being built with frightening speed, slapped up in a matter of a couple months. Efficiency, claims the builder. Haste and synthetic materials, counters this Realtor. But still, the market is hot and I’m curious to see what, if anything, today’s buyers have learned from the past market cycle. That cycle, in case you forgot, was especially hard on neighborhoods for the simple reason that platted neighborhoods tend to function as their own specific market. If there are four comps on the road you happen to live on and all of the homes were built to a similar standard at a similar time, you can bet your value will be seriously impacted by the sales of those nearby homes.

To check on the market, let’s look at a few random, recent new home sales in the new home subdivisions on the west end of the village of Williams Bay. I won’t identify the owners or the addresses, but let’s look at sale price ranges and mortgages pulled to gauge the strength of this homebuyer. That strength is important simply because the market isn’t going to appreciate forever (too bad, OpenDoor), and once the market stalls, those with the smallest percentage of equity are the most likely to face difficulty. The first sale was well over $400k- a price threshold very rarely surpassed in the primary market.  A check of the mortgage reveals the buyer only financed around 80% of the purchase. Good for them, and good for this subdivision.

Down the road, another sale. This one also over $400k, this one to a buyer who appear to have financed around 85% of the purchase. Another winning data point for this subdivision, as another strong buyer has entered the fold. The next sale was a bit under $400k, and that buyer looks to have put less than 4% down.  Another sale in a different subdivision, this one in the lower $300k range, this one to a buyer who put around 5% down. Another sale, this one just over $300k, the new owner putting around 4% down.  There are other examples, some with 20% down, others with less, but the concept here is simple. If you’re buying into a hot subdivision, paying hot subdivision 2018 prices, and your neighbors are, perhaps 40-50% of the time buying their homes with less than 5% down, is this is a solid model for sustainable values if we head into a down cycle within the next 4-6 years?

Personally, I don’t think it is. That’s why I wish primary home buyers would exercise caution as they rush to these newly drywalled homes. I understand the desire to be in a new home, but I’d rather be in an older home in an existing neighborhood than be surrounded by a constant cloud of low-money-down-construction-dust. An interesting side-note from my market studies of 2015 and 2016 is the desirability of subdivisions that are close to schools. If kids can walk/bike, or otherwise easily get to a school, the subdivision tends to be fairly hot. If the subdivision is outside of town, without a nearby city center or grade school, the subdivision is still somewhat stagnant. If you’re a primary buyer considering a new home priced $450k and under, please be cautious. I say that fully knowing caution doesn’t play a role in a hot market, no matter how badly I wish it would.

 

 

Lake Geneva Video

Lake Geneva Video

It’s been three years since I had my homepage video filmed. That was a terrific video, if I do say so myself. But this last week’s weather was so perfect I decided to have a new homepage video created. I hope you like it.

 

 

Bonnie Brae Boathouse

Bonnie Brae Boathouse

For each of us, there is something unique in our story, some important event in our past, or in the past of our parents, or our grandparents, or our great aunts and uncles, that led us to this place.  For the Ryerson Family, the events were rather curious. As the Great Chicago Fire raced through the city, decimating businesses, destroying homes, killing indiscriminately and ruining lives, there was but one large city lumberyard spared from the carnage: The lumberyard owned by the Ryerson Family. When the rebuilding process began, one family was prepared to supply those efforts. And when the ash settled and the city was restored, the Ryerson Family had not only played a major role in those efforts, they were rewarded with lasting riches.

Martin Ryerson was the son of the lumberyard owner, and as a son of privilege he attended CPS before ultimately graduating from Harvard Law School. At age 25, he was married and working his law practice, content in his city life. At age 34, his father died, leaving him the family business and making him one of the richest men in Chicago. His interest in education and civic matters led him to help found the University of Chicago, where he played a key roll in the design of the campus and served for decades on the board. The Ryerson Physics Laboratory still operates to this day. Due to his involvement with the University, he visited Lake Geneva to tour the brand new Yerke’s Observatory. After that visit to the lake he was hooked, and the same year purchased the property that would become known as Bonnie Brae (Pretty Hillside). At one point, the estate measured  nearly 100 acres and possessed more than 1200 feet of lakefrontage on the north shore.  If you think impulse buys are some sort of new thing, created by our impatient generation, Martin Ryerson would quickly disagree.

A year after purchasing the property and initiating a large scale, multi-building construction project, Martin turned his attention to the water and hired the Racine Boat Company to build his 72′ steam yacht.  At the time, the residents of Geneva would take the train from the city to the lake, and board their elegant steam powered yachts which would chauffeur the owners to their lakefront homes.  Hathor, one of a small handful of original steamers still on Geneva to this day, played host to elite society, including Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Harvey Firestone, and a fairly well known impressionist painter by the name of Claud Monet.

With the addition of Hathor, Martin was in need of a place to store her, so he built a boathouse at the water’s edge, to the West of the main house, on a remarkably level section of lakefront.   For the next 34 years, the Ryerson’s would spend their fanciful lives traveling, building up the cultural scene of Chicago, and relaxing lakeside at their Bonnie Brae.   It was at the lake where Ryerson would die, at the age of 75.  Upon his death, 90 percent of his wealth was given away to the Field Museum, The Chicago Art Institute, and his cherished University of Chicago. Some time later, the large estate was divided, and one four acre parcel with 185′ of level frontage and a deeply wooded hillside was assigned to his original boathouse.

Over the years, the boathouse was renovated into a single family home. Additions over recent years made for a proper master suite.  An extra garage was built for storage. Bathrooms were updated with marble. Today, the original Bonnie Brae boathouse, with that long wooded drive off of Snake Road,  is offered for sale. $3,895,000 for 185 feet of frontage, 4.3+ acres of fabulous depth, and a 4,742 square foot house that is one of the last remaining boathouses on Geneva Lake. Martin Ryerson was friends with Monet and the Rockefellers. He studied in Paris and London. He founded universities and lasting civic institutions. But most of all he was just a guy who loved spending time at the lake, swimming off his pier and bragging about the speed of his boat. Today,  you can own his boathouse, and you’d be wise to act as quickly as he did in 1897.

 

Buena Vista Sells

Buena Vista Sells

It’s a curious thing to watch buyers as they watch the market, and the houses that exist inside of that market. Buyers are attracted to various things, to shiny, for sure.  They like marble and they like glitz, and even the most staunch defenders of Location First cannot help but be dazzled and drawn by the varying shapes and sizes of housing perfection that exist here. But beyond those things, there are locations that speak to buyers in different ways. One buyer might find a location to be busy, dense.  One buyer sees that scene and they decry their lost privacy, their potential involvement with their neighbors, their exposure. And yet another buyer comes to that same scene and feels at home. They feel at peace with those same surroundings. They thrive off of the activity, the proximity, the scene. To each his own is just a saying, until you come to these shores, at which point it becomes a most steadfast rule.

This week I closed 274 Sylvan in Buena Vista for $2,775,000. The house was special not just because it shared that glamor of sparkly hardwood and expensive appliances. It was a vintage home made to live like a modern one, but still filled with the original touches that made it feel rooted on that shore.  Buena Vista isn’t an association for everyone, but that’s only because there wouldn’t be enough houses to go around. There are tennis courts, an ample lakefront park and pier system, and then these scant few lakefront houses. A dozen, perhaps. These few lakefronts on this Northwest shore of Fontana Bay offer a classic lake experience combined with dynamite views of the lake and an easy stroll to Fontana’s lakefront scene.

To speak to the unique nature of this now sold offering, consider the last MLS sale to come to market here was this same house, when I sold it in the spring of 2011. Who can know when the next Buena Vista lakefront will come to market?  Like every lakefront sale on this lake, once a property is under contract or sold there are numerous buyers who wish they had bought it, and this home had its fair share of regret filled buyers. That’s because it wasn’t just an old cottage on the lake. It was an old cottage with a recent addition and important updates, but it still oozed that vintage appeal. That appeal isn’t easy to find on this lake, especially if you’d like to find it in Buena Vista. To the owners who allowed me to represent them in this sale, I thank you. To the new buyer who gets to enjoy their weekends in an entirely different frame of mind, congratulations.

Discernment

Discernment

A few weeks ago, I wrote an offer on a property on behalf of a buyer. This is no feat. There is no trick to this. It’s just a form written by a gaggle of attorneys and I’ll I’m charged with is the ability to fill in a few blanks. My son, at age 15, if given a few practice runs, could handle the document just fine. This buyer had looked at a few houses, decided he liked one of them, and we made the bid. Then we waited.

Sellers in 2018 are not uniquely motivated,  so this property that had sat on the market through the season now ended.  Our bid came in low, relative to the asking price, but high, relative to the actual lasting value of the house. We bid, we negotiated, the seller stalled, and in the midst of this another buyer materialized and purchased the home. My buyer was left out, in the cold. Disappointed, sure, but aware that other properties will, and must, exist.

There are brokers today feasting on the new market attitude. Many of these brokers are newly initiated, fresh to this game and racing to gobble any scraps that they find.  Some have held “clinics”, or so they’re called, to advise buyers on how to craft the winning bid. Others take the social media to explain how they maneuvered to get their buyer’s offer to be the one that the seller accepted. They are the victors, the capable and skilled sherpas who have led their buyers to the top of the heap and who will now rightly claim their commission based prize. All of this is fine, but it’s exactly what’s wrong with the business of real estate and the market of 2018.

We are programmed to want to win. My daughter wants to win her volleyball games. My son wants to be the valedictorian. I want to lead in the year end volume tallies (spoiler alert, I won’t win this year).  Buyers, well, they want to win, too. They want to win that house with the imperfect floor plan and the leaky basement. They want to win because they think the house will work for them, sort of. But mostly they want to win for the sake of winning.  Their agents prod them on, pushing them to bid higher, cleaner, quicker. The goal is the house, after all.

What house? Well, that doesn’t matter. Any house.  It’s just the pursuit that we find motivating. That brings us back to my failed bid and my buyer who very well might have felt great disappointment over not buying a house that they indeed liked.  Was it a big deal that we didn’t get this particular house? Not really. Would I have liked them to buy the house? Sure. But the market today isn’t separated by those agents who succeed in securing the house and by those who fall short, it’s separated by the agents who know the difference between a house worth pursuing and one worth leaving for the uninformed, undiscerning masses.

When the market was soft, discernment was key. Negotiating tactics were key. Timing was key. Today, with a heated market and throngs of buyers clamoring for lake homes, these prior skills are brushed aside in favor of urgency.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a contract on behalf of a different buyer and we were met once again with a stubborn, inflexible seller. We pushed forward and bought the house anyway. Why?  Because the house was worth the pursuit. The house will have lasting value in the market because it is unique, rare, both in setting and in style. Is it nice to win every bid? Of course it is. But there is contentment in knowing when to walk away and let someone else buy an overpriced house.

Seasons

Seasons

In the northern reaches of this state, where monuments to large men and larger fish draw worshippers and summer starts and ends in the span of barely more than a month, there are two seasons. Sugaring season, and the other season. If you’re of the persuasion, that is. Maple trees freely offer their sap for a couple of weeks each early spring,  causing the men and women to take to the woods and spend their days and nights in their sugaring shacks.  They’ll collect and boil, collect and boil, and soon enough they’ll have have enough maple syrup to last a few days, maybe more. It depends on the season.

In those same woods, but farther north, there’s another season. This one overlapping with the sugaring, and running both in the fall and the spring. It’s still one season, mind you, no matter if it comes around twice in the same calendar.  For a while at the start of winter and the end, and at least a bit of the in between, the rainbow trout run out of these great lakes and into so many little streams. They charge in on the first heavy fall rain, and again on the first early spring melt, intent on fulfilling their reproducing responsibilities. The men of the area go out to catch them, the better men throwing flies of varying sizes and intentions, the lesser men reeling back in large spoons or worse, soaking sacks of spawn on the bottom down line from a heavy hunk of lead.

A bit after the steelhead start, the whitetail rut, another season for another group.   Cautious animals abandon that deep seated instinct to chase a more meaningful goal. A doe scatters and bucks chase, while the men who aren’t fishing paint themselves with markers and drizzle urine on their clothes before scaling trees to sit so very still for so very long. Maybe a buck will snort and scratch its way down that path, the one that the hunter cut in August for that very purpose. Maybe the buck will come close enough so the arrow or the slug will find its fleshy target. Maybe it won’t. I’ll cheer for the hunter in theory and out loud, while I quietly but fervently root for the buck.

Down south, another season for another set. Morel season comes and morel season goes, and most of the world is blissfully, but ignorantly, unaware. If a morel is harvested, then ten thousand more wither in their place. This haunts the morel hunter, and the need to capture as many mushrooms as possible in such a short, temperamental window dictates swift and decisive action. This is no prey, in the sense that the hunter and the fisher aim, but it is as confounding of an opponent as the most wary buck or skittish steelhead. This season lasts but two weeks, maybe three, and as soon as it starts, it’s over.  The hunter must prepare, the hunter must pounce, and the hunter must endure the threat of ticks and the anguish that can come from pretending to be unaware of private property boundaries.

Here, too, there’s a season. Just one, really. Off of Geneva Street, just east of the beach, there’s a small road that runs from the north and towards the south from the start of Cedar Point Park and just barely into it. It’s a short road, stubby. An unnecessary road, one that everyone could do without. In preparation of summer time, the village drops a gate there, for some reason or another, to keep passersby from wandering down that little road.  There is no celebrity residing there, no special or unique house worthy of protection. It’s just a road. And in the summer, it’s blocked off. But after Labor Day, the gate is removed, and the thoroughfare of Bayview Road is once again connected to Geneva Street.  In Williams Bay, there are only two seasons. It’s either Bayview closed or Bayview opened, and I don’t have a particular preference.

 

 

One Last Summer

One Last Summer

Somewhere, sometime, there was a decision made. It was a decision based on indecision, really. This would be it. A lifetime here, in this place, but the times had changed. Someone had died. Someone had graduated. Someone had moved. Their fishing hat, with lures he’d never used, still sitting on the mantle. The sailing shirts, accumulated over years of school, still stacked on the closet shelf.  The place looked the same, but something was amiss. A change would be needed, no matter how badly everyone wished that wasn’t true.

Life brings change, no matter fervently how we root against it. There are times I wish for change as well. I live in the country now, content with it all. Content with the chickens and the bees and the dogs running free. But at times, like last night when the air was soaked with moisture and my expansive lawn needed cutting for the third time in a week, I thought maybe it was all too much. Maybe a house by the lake would be nice, with neighbors and a pier and a lawn that wouldn’t need so much tending. Maybe something simpler, something different. Maybe that’s what I need.

We’re all probably the same in this way, and that brings us to the family that decided in January, or last November over a great meal, or in May on that weekend when we remember, that it was time to make a change. The house had been a good house. A capable host. The catalyst for so many things, so many great times, so many memories, some good and others bad. But life changed, and when life changes, houses are often the casualty. The family made the choice back then, to spend one last summer at the lake.

It’s September now. Still summer, sure, but different summer. Old summer. Summer in the present addressed like it’s in the past. Summer, ish. For those families that made the decision, that last summer has run out. The bell has tolled. The clock has struck. The time is now.  If you’ve ever sold a house in this manner, you know this feeling. Regret. Indecision. Resignation.  But time wears on, and movement is inevitable. We’d all like to keep things as they are forever, to feel the permanence and comfort of what’s already known. But sometimes, there has to be a last summer. To those families grasping for one more day of that last summer, we salute you.

 

Emagine Theater

Emagine Theater

I’d like to become the sort of person who only spells theater theatre. I’d like to place emphasis on the A, while I’m at it. But I’m not sure I can pull this off, as much as I’d like. I don’t even really like movies all that much.  The concept of a Summer Blockbuster is lost on me. Who are these people who go to movies in the summer? Why are theaters even open then? Shouldn’t we only go see movies in the winter, when it’s cold outside and we’re hungry for popcorn? Why are we so drawn to bright lights and loud sounds?

In spite of these concerns, I made my way to the new movie theater in Lake Geneva this week. It wasn’t because I wanted to go see a particular movie. And it wasn’t because I was uniquely bored. I wanted to go to see what this new space was all about. I wanted to see if the new group had dialed in the movie experience, which is, as I mentioned, an experience that I care very little about.  I wanted to give the community a review of this newcomer, so I loaded my family into the car and pulled up to the Emagine Theater for the 5:10 viewing of The Meg.

As I already said, I didn’t want to see this movie. But my daughter has an affinity for Jaws, and so the natural progression to a prehistoric killer shark was unstoppable. After a series of partially completed roundabouts we had arrived at the old Showboat Theater, just outside of Lake Geneva on Highway 120.  The old theater was closed and subsequently sold, thankfully to the Emagine Theater group out of Michigan.

The website for Emagine promises that their theaters are luxurious and modern, with reclining seats and food service far beyond the typical popcorn and Mike and Ikes. They have a bunch of locations in Michigan and Minnesota, one in Illinois, and now one in Wisconsin.  I had bought two tickets to this B movie on my phone earlier in the day. $28 for four tickets to the 5 pm show, including a $4 service charge. That charge, the woman at the ticket counter informed me, would be waved if I signed up for some $10 year long pass, or something. Since I’m not a regular movie goer, I didn’t listen to her.

The interior of this old, boring building was sleek and modern. Fancy, almost. There’s a bar area with a fireplace (as I recall), a large concessions counter with hot food options and the typical movie fare. We ordered a pizza, which they told us would be brought to our seats, and popcorn.  My kids pleaded for water, but why would I buy water in a bottle when there were perfectly good drinking fountains right there in the lobby?

The service, as expected, was quite clumsy. No one seemed to know exactly what was going on, which didn’t bother me so much, as I was there only for the spectacle of the space.   After we were directed to our particular theater, we took our seats. Well, they weren’t our seats, as the ones I picked out and paid for online were supposed to be in the middle of the theater and were, instead, located in the last row. No matter, we had the entire room to ourselves. The lack of other viewers may have been because it was their second night open, or because it was a 5:10 show on a Wednesday, or because we were watching The Meg. I couldn’t be sure.

The popcorn was good, and when the pizza was brought out it wasn’t terrible. Too much cheese and the sauce was odd, but overall it was fine and we ate it all rather quickly. The screen was large and crisp even if the pizza was not. The seats were large and leather, capable of a full recline. I nestled into my chair, tilted it back, and marveled at all of the years we suffered through stiff-backed movie chairs. How awful things were for us back then.

The new theater is nice. It’s better than any area theater by miles, and likely rivals the very well appointed Marcus Theaters in New Berlin. It’s a good thing for the community, a good thing for the immediate area of that new Highway 12/120 interchange. Unfortunately, this new place will deliver the death blow to the Geneva Theater downtown Lake Geneva.

If you’ll recall, that old downtown theater was renovated in just the past two or three years. I was glad to see the renovation, as the space was too visible to go unkempt ad unimproved. While the exterior of the building looks nice, even if a bit art deco-y for my taste, the movie experience there is rather mediocre.  The seats aren’t the fancy new style, the screens are small, and the common areas boring. There was a great opportunity here to deliver a unique product, instead, the group took some city money and performed a relatively low end renovation. If this group doesn’t transform the Geneva Theater into a live music/live plays type venue, it’s going to fail, and soon. With the shiny new Emagine theater down the road, they don’t stand a chance.

 

PS. Skip The Meg

Abbey Springs Market Update

Abbey Springs Market Update

There’s a simple thought relating to markets like ours that supposes a specific pricing segment should prove active in different market segments. The theory would say that if $300-500k condos are selling, then those condos should be selling whether they’re on Geneva Lake, in Geneva National, or Abbey Springs. In the same way, if a $400k lake access home in Loch Vista Club is in demand, then a $400k lake access home in Cedar Point Park should also find an audience. The theory isn’t very difficult to understand, but markets don’t always behave in the most obvious ways.

Consider the lake access market on Geneva Lake right now. There are 34 active homes priced under $700k. Of those 34, no fewer than 12 are pending sale. That’s a very active market segment, with offers flying and summer contracts set to close next month. If that market is supremely busy with buyers seeking a reasonably priced vacation home experience, then the other specific vacation home segments in a similar price range should be similarly active, right?

Abbey Springs currently has 19 available condominiums and single family homes. Of those 19, the MLS shows not a single pending contract. Year To Date, Abbey Springs has closed 18 condos/homes, which isn’t awful, but it certainly pales to the 24 such sales for 2017 YTD. If there weren’t inventory, I’d understand the difference in activity, but there is inventory, even if it is a bit light.

In the same way, Geneva National has 57 available condominiums and homes priced under $700k. Of those 59, twelve are pending sale. That’s a decent amount of activity, especially for Geneva National, which has had its fair share of ups and downs over its lifespan. If the lake access market has approximately 35% of its under $700k inventory under contract, and Geneva National has 20% of its under $700k inventory under contract, then what’s eating Abbey Springs?

The answer, likely, is nothing. It’s just the unique nature of the Lake Geneva vacation home market.  That’s why I write this blog as often as I do. Markets here hinge on such low overall volume that a good weekend can right any listing ship. If there were three or four new contracts written in Abbey Springs last week that have yet to show in the MLS, just like that we’d see Abbey Springs marching in lockstep with the remainder of the vacation home segment.  If you’re trying to figure out the exact rhythm of sales at the lake, don’t.

Lake Geneva Realtors

Lake Geneva Realtors

There’s nothing that makes me hate my chosen profession more than leafing through a local glossy magazine. There are lots of glossies here, most notably that Summer Homes For City People glossy. That’s a heck of a magazine, but you knew I’d say that.  In spite of my magazine being the only magazine of importance and relevance, there are others that persist. I made the mistake of thumbing through one of these magazines over the weekend, and what I discovered left me weary for this business of real estate.

The issue isn’t Realtors, themselves. They’re fine, really. The issue is advertising. The issue is what we choose to say about ourselves in the hope that someone will believe us. The glossy I read through featured heaps and heaps of advertisements for brokers and their Realtors, and I thought I might lend a bit of MLS based fact checking to the advertised claims.  I’m all for self promotion (see: this blog, my magazine, my life, etc), but there’s a reason why my self promotion is heavy on specifics: I want to be taken seriously.

Without further ado and in no particular order, the ads I stumbled upon:

One claimed 33 reasons why a brokerage is super amazing. I did some research this morning and found that the Walworth County average closed sales (2018) for those 33 particular reasons was $1.67MM. For perspective and context, during 2016/2017 I averaged over $4MM in sales, per month.

Another ad, this one really fancy looking. The agent has been closing lakefront deals on Geneva, since quite a long time ago. Some MLS searching to provide background on the advertisement revealed that indeed this agent has put together single family lakefront deals on Geneva. Four of them, in total.  I, also have closed a few lakefronts on Geneva. 48 of them since 2010, and more before that, but alas, I don’t even have an ad in the magazine.

There’s some mention in other ads of agents winning awards from their companies. Watches, gold circles, platinum things. This is nice for these agents and their host companies. One such company gives away a watch the first year you sell $10MM with the company.  I sent an email to the company asking if I’d qualify for 4 watches for 2017 based on my production, of if I’d be capped at just one watch. (I jest)

Ooh, here’s another ad. This one is sleek. Super sleek.  This agent sells lots of houses that afford the lake lifestyle. To review the claim, let’s look through the MLS…. That agent has sold one home with lake access or lakefront on Geneva this year. One.  This does not make for a terrific year, but it does make for a great ad.

There’s no need to go on and on, as I think you have likely grasped my concern. As a consumer in the market you’ll need to figure out which agent you should use to represent you. Sadly, the lakefront market on Geneva is hot, which is attracting more and more agents to the lakefront fray. You can’t blame them, as it’s the biggest pie and everyone longs for a slice. Unfortunately, no matter what the ads say, not every agent is a lakefront specialist. Not every agent has success in specific market segments. If you’re an agent and you do a  terrific job selling in Geneva National, then put that in your ads.  I have a horse farm for sale (it’s amazing, really), near Clinton, Wisconsin. The fact that I have this farm for sale does not make me an Equestrian Property Expert.

This morning, it’s just another reminder, I suppose. If you need an attorney to help with your Last Will, please don’t hire a personal injury attorney. If you need a mechanic to replace your timing belt, don’t drop your car off at the bicycle repair shop. If you need a Lake Geneva area Realtor to help with your purchase or your sale, choose an agent with a pattern of success in the specific segment that has your attention. If you’re looking for a Realtor to assist you in Des Moines or Hinsdale, do the same.

Gone

Gone

This week wasn’t like the other weeks. It wasn’t like the one before it, or the two before that one. It’s been a week unlike any since this week last year.  No amount of sun can coax the summertime swimmers back to the shallow beaches. No particular special, even the all-time favorites, can tempt the diners back to those summery patios. There’s nothing that can be done now to slow this week down. The next week will come, soon enough. Summer is still here, but it’s mostly just a memory.

And we’re fine with that. Sure, some aren’t. Some are making their travel plans even this morning, as they sense the morning chill of September and wish it weren’t so. It’s too cold to golf today, someone will say. The club in Naples has their annual Welcome Back outing October 21st, and what an event that will be. It’ll be warm and sunny, so long as no hurricanes see fit to disrupt that ideal. What a life it would be, to leave summer and find your way to another summer. So much summer, all summer. All the time, summer.

With age, this is supposed to be what we crave. Summer, only. I had a good friend once tell me that it’s not good for kids to be raised in a climate where half of the year they have to stay inside. I agreed, thinking that Arizona would indeed be a terrible place to raise a family, what with the summer heat. I have other friends tell me they dream of days where they can transition from our summer to another summer, from our blue water to the bluer gulf water. From one summer utopia to a winter utopia that stays dressed as summer each day of the year.  I say this is all foolishness.

We here count our perfect weather days on one hand. Maybe two. This past week was just fine for me, I liked it rather a lot. But it stormed on Monday and it blew on Tuesday and only Wednesday and Thursday were nice days. Today it’s Friday and it’s cool again, cloudy and sprinkly. Like a warm day in late October, except it’s August and some still crave summer. I don’t. The two days this week were plenty for me. I loved them very much, and yet in spite of this affection I feel no particular need to dwell in them. They’re too perfect to expect too often.

It isn’t just late August that has me in this mood. I felt this way earlier in summer, too. A stretch in July where it was hot and sunny, then sunny and hot. A week, maybe more. Steady and unwavering, sweaty and persistent. Then, one day, I woke up to clouds and a wet sidewalk. Rain. My eyes rejoiced in the relief. I needed that day, because who am I if not a Wisconsin creation through and through? I was not made for intense summer, for the constant pressure that it brings. Yes, I know I should go down for a swim because it’s so nice out, but what if I just want to rest once in a while?

Yet here we are. The end of a summer. The kids are back in school, and those that aren’t won’t be able to escape it forever. The forecast still promises summer, and it will for quite some time yet, but the mood has been lost. If you’re sad for that, and you’re ready to escape this place in favor of another place where the summer never stops, I wish you well. I’ll abide your irrational mistake.

But if you’re like me, then you’re reasonably disappointed that summer is over but you’re more than ready for what comes next. You’re ready for cool mornings and still afternoon waters. For a town set free from its summertime rush. You’re ready for all of the joys of a Midwestern fall, and in case you weren’t aware, our kind of fall is glorious in a way that few places can comprehend. But so is what comes after, the cold rain of late October and the transition of color from red and yellow to the dull calm of November. From November to Thanksgiving, to that great feast, and into the first snow. The firewood is idle now, but its time will come.  I, for one, cannot wait.

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a thing for restaurants that offer Tater Tots as a side.  When a choice of potato is offered, it’s usually baked or fried. The baked potato is a thing of the past, even though Big Baked Potato works hard to convince you of their imaginary relevance. French Fries will always be a thing, always near and dear to me, but there’s no surprise here. It’s the Tater Tot that’s unique in today’s world of potato, and that’s why the West Wind Diner in Darien has a leg up on its competition, even before the rest of the menu is considered and a dinner is ordered.

The West Wind Diner is at the intersection of Highway 14 and Interstate 43, just outside of Darien.  The restaurant looks like something from Steinbach, Manitoba. If you’ve never been, trust me, this is what the restaurants look like. I’ve been. The parking lot is huge, mostly gravel, made that way on purpose to entice hungry truckers. It’s a truck stop, really, but it’s clean and it’s modern and there’s a case with  pies in it right next to the Please Wait To Be Seated sign.

A super friendly waitress sat us at a booth near the window. There’s no view here to consider, just the front grills of the vehicles in the parking lot.  We hadn’t intended to eat here, mind you.  We drove this direction to eat at the Duck Inn, farther to the North. That supper club staple was slammed at 5:40, with a 30-45 minute wait, so we drove back towards home and I remembered some fine diner meals I’ve had over the years at West Wind. That’s why we were there, and that’s why we listened intently to the fish fry offerings.

Baked or fried cod, fried is all-you-can-eat. There’s a perch offering, too, but when pressed the waitress revealed her affinity for the cod. The baked variety is offered plain, lemon-peppered, or blackened.  The choice of potato was as I earlier mentioned, and while I longed for the Tots, I stuck to my guns and ordered the potato pancakes. A choice of soup or salad was nice. My daughter went for the dumpling soup, my wife and I ate salad, appropriately drenched in ranch dressing.  The croutons were oily and misshapen, which at first seemed a bit difficult but was, in fact, a sign of their housemade origins.

I opted for fried and baked (lemon pepper, apparently, though I don’t remember ordering it that way). My wife went with the blackened cod and fries.  The baked pieces were large, rectangular. They were pretty good, though my wife thought the consistency was a bit chewy. They were a touch dry, and mine lacked salt. The seasoning additions were fine, but nothing memorable. I munched on some bread, because that’s what I do. The rolls were wrapped in plastic, like we were in seats 31 E and F, traveling from Newark to Tampa. There was no butter, foiled or otherwise, in sight. For shame.

My fried pieces were extra crispy, uniquely shaped, and sadly, dry. The tartar sauce helped a bit, but alas, they were beyond redemption. The potato pancakes looked the part, but they, too, were off. The texture was spongy, rubbery,  perhaps over-beaten to such a degree that the starch was too wound and bound. The applesauce was smooth, but at least it was served in a small metal tub (as was the tartar sauce).  At the end of our meal we were given the option of a few different sorts of ice cream, which were served in old-timey sunday glasses. The ice cream was meh but the touch was appreciated and charming.

When the dust settled, I was stuffed. The meal was perhaps a bit below average, but the waitress was sweet and there was obvious care put into the menu and the preparation. Sadly, this is not a congeniality contest. For the Lake Geneva Set, I can’t recommend driving this far out of your way for this fish fry.  While I appreciate the West Wind Diner, I think next time I’ll visit in the morning hours, and order an omelet with a side of tots.

 

West Wind Diner 5/10

620 North Walworth Street (highway 14) Darien, WI

All you can eat fried cod, or baked cod dinner (one or two pieces), typical sides plus tater tots.

Basswood Lake Geneva

Basswood Lake Geneva

A Wednesday reminder that my listing at W4396 Basswood Drive is still available. I just reduced the price of this home to $8,495,000, and it’s now offered at an extreme discount to replacement value. Consider the pending sale of a home in Lake Geneva listed at $14,500,000. Now consider buying this home, renovating it, and being all in for far less than the sale price of that nine year old home. It doesn’t take a genius to make the right moves in this market, it just takes a bit of effort.  Contact me for a private tour of this most lovely estate.

Lake Geneva Price Reductions

Lake Geneva Price Reductions

It might seem strange to even mention the term Price Reduction during this remarkable summer run. With sales popping and records breaking and everyone in the Midwest clamoring for a vacation home in Lake Geneva, why would we even bring up such a thing as a price reduction? It’s a wet blanket, really. It’ll throw off our momentum, ruin the buzz from this Kool-Aid fest.  The agents who vie for your attention don’t want you to think about price reductions, they want you to think about how you can buy that home NOW! Need help figuring out how to win a bid on a Lake Geneva area home? You’re in luck, some agents are holding seminars to teach you (YES YOU) how to win the bid.

But this is all ridiculous, really. The truth of our market is that it’s hot, yes. All price segments are hot. All categories and sub-categories. Except vacant land in Geneva National, of course. A lot just sold there last week for $4000. That’s the price I paid for a 1986 Saab 900 with a questionably service history and 130,000 miles, which, in Saab miles, is at least 1,000,000. Every other market is hot, every home in demand. So why talk about Price Reductions? Well, silly, because ’tis the season.

See, smart sellers know that while our market is active for each of our 12 months, there will be a dip in overall activity once school starts. Knowing this, sellers with relatively aged listings are faced with a decision. Reduce now or reduce later? If they’re smart, they’ll reduce now, while there are a few extra buyers in the market. Something I’ve heard often this summer is a buyer’s plan to wait until the off-season to buy. Prices will be lower then. This is the position of the uninformed, as Lake Geneva doesn’t cycle based on seasonality it lives and dies on inventory. If inventory presents in August and it’s right for you, then buy it. If it presents in January and it’s right for you, then buy it. Don’t base decisions on the color of our leaves.

Still, sellers recognize the market will ebb and flow, and if a reduction is in the cards, now’s the time to make that move. Recently, I’ve been applying this to some of my listings, because I’m smart, and my sellers are smart, too. I dropped the price of my W4396 Basswood listing $500k to $8.495MM. That home, by the way, offers value far and away better than the pending listing in Lake Geneva priced at $14.5MM. Far. And. Away. Like with Tom Cruise, but different. I just reduced my incredible Bay Colony offering to $879k, even after we came close with several different interested buyers over the past few weeks. Why reduce in the face of activity? Because activity only counts when the result is sold.

Around the lake, there have been reductions. A new home on the north side of Fontana dropped its price not so long ago, as did a newer home on the south side of Fontana. I dropped my Clear Sky Lodge listing $120k. A home in Cedar Point Park that came to market earlier this year has been reduced several hundred thousand dollars, as that seller searches for a buyer.  Off water, a home in Academy Estates has endured a series of micro-reductions this year, and a listing in Shore Haven just dropped in price last week.  For all of the buyers claiming this is purely a seller’s market, have you considered any of these properties that are bleeding from self-inflicted chops?

It’s August, and it’s still summer. In fact, this past weekend was one of the more active, glorious weekends of the entire year. In spite of this, sellers are making moves, and if they’re serious about selling this year they’re going to be adjusting their prices a bit. Consider the market this month, consider the aged inventory, and be on the look out for price reductions.  And as always, let me know if I can help.

 

Above, my Bay Colony Condo, just reduced to $879k. 

Woodstone Sells

Woodstone Sells

Woodstone, prior to last week, was a nice subdivision in Linn Township with mostly architecturally pleasing homes and a delightful little wildflower corridor. Prior to last week, the development was in decent shape, though it’s taken more than a decade to fill in the few existing homes that you see. Prior to last week, the top sale in the association was around $670k.  Then, last week, things changed.

I listed a home in Woodstone in June, and then I sold it last week. The price was $900,000, including an adjacent vacant lot that wasn’t included in my initial list price of $845k. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume that lot was thrown in for consideration of $60k or so, leaving the home sale at $840k. This was fine for my seller, fine for the buyer, and fine for me.  Who won here? The market at Woodstone.

With construction prices ratcheting higher and higher, neighborhoods are having a hard time justifying the new built values. If you buy a lot for $50k in a neighborhood that traditionally sells for $325k, that’s fine. But if the new build costs you $400k, then you’re a fish out of water. Neighborhoods need new comps to prove that the increased building costs still allow a buyer margin. That’s exactly what Woodstone just did, and it did it in a big way.

Now consider the new math of Woodstone. Buy a lot for $80k or so. Build a 2500 square foot house for $500k or so. Be all in sub-$600k. Prior to last week, that still made sense. There was a tiny margin. But now? There’s proof that the market has some room to run, and if you build the right house and add a swimming pool, you, too might be able to sell north of $800k.

Speaking of swimming pools, the market loves them now. Craves them. Can’t live without them. If you’re building a new house on the lake or in the country and the market supports the extra investment, add a pool. You’ll thank me when it comes time to sell. Unless you don’t sell until such a time when the culture hates pools, then you can blame me.

Congratulations to the seller who was kind enough to let me represent their lovely property. And congratulations to everyone who lives in Woodstone, or who might one day live in Woodstone. The market just got a whole lot better. Address Thank You Cards to me, at my office address.

Lake Geneva Market Update

Lake Geneva Market Update

It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that we’re in the middle of another Lake Geneva summer.  August is the peak of summer, sure, but it’s not exactly the middle. You could argue that it’s the end. School starts soon. The sun sets earlier and earlier each night. We’re no longer building toward summer, we’re doing our best to hang on to a summer that’s rapidly fading. In spite of our dwindling summer, the real estate market at the lake has given us something to talk about.

June and July were fantastic months for our lakefront and lake access markets. That late June through early July heat and the supporting sun pushed this market into hyperdrive, with contracts piling up like so many rock bass in my Uncle Joe’s five gallon pail. June and July saw five lakefront closings, and ten more lake access sales. The lakefronts that closed included a few bits of aged inventory as well as some new to market listings.

At the top end, the old Born Free Estate closed for $5.35MM. The new owner then promptly sold off a 100′ lot on the East side for $2.75MM.  I’d expect to see a significant renovation of the existing home in the near future.  Another high priced sale occurred on Basswood, that of the Woodhill Estate, which printed at $3.9MM. That’s a reasonable price for that property.  The market had a hard time figuring out if that home was a tear down, but the rumor is the new owner plans to renovate the existing structure.

On the lower end of the lakefront, a home in the Elgin Club closed for $1.245MM, likely a tear down or significant remodel candidate.  In Williams Bay, another home closed on Walworth Avenue where those thin 50′ lots rule the day.  That street featured two sales this year, both in the $1.2MM range, both side by side. I sold those homes back in the very early 2000s. This time around, both homes have sold to the same owner, leaving speculation that both homes might be torn down to make way for one new home. While that buyer is not my client, I’d offer up this unsolicited advice: Don’t do that.

Pending contracts on the lakefront as of this morning include a listing for $2.4MM in the Geneva Manor, a piece of aged inventory in the South Shore Club ($2.795MM) and my listing in Buena Vista on Sylvan ($2.875MM).  I’m guessing the Geneva Manor property will print at a meaningful discount to that lofty ask. With buyer activity at all time highs (far exceeding the activity during the 2005-2008 run), I’d expect to see many more contracts this month on the 17 active lakefront homes.

While these are nice sales and nice new activity, the property that’s on track to shock the market is the lakefront home at 590 S. Lakeshore Drive in Lake Geneva. This listing came to market earlier this summer for $14.5MM, with 210′ of frontage and above grade square footage of 9862 according to the assessor’s office. The property, as of yesterday, is pending sale. I’ll repeat, that property, listed at $14,500,000, is under contract.

I’m betting the property is going to close somewhat close to its asking price.  That’ll make it the highest sale in Lake Geneva history, which will be the third time in the past 24 months that this benchmark has been raised. This magnificent upper bracket run started in the fall of 2016 with my $9,950,000 print of this fabulous Pebble Point home.  The home at 590 has a current assessed value in the $5.75MM range, with a $117k tax bill. Assuming a print in range of the asking price, it won’t be a surprise to see the new owner receive a tax bill in the $250k range. So that’ll be something.

At first blush, this sale is terrific for our market. It further proves that this market has no rival in the Midwest. Other resort markets will gladly take your millions of dollars in exchange for a second rate vacation home experience. Geneva will take your millions and then, when you’re ready for another chapter, give you those millions back. Likely with interest.  Clean water and beautiful homes might be the obvious allure of this area, but liquidity is our greatest asset here, and this sale proves it once again.

But this sale also showcases the premium that our market places on newer construction. This home was not new, but with a completion date of 2009, at least one buyer figured it was new enough. Older homes on the lake that have not had recent updates are punished here, as buyers prefer to either buy new, or build new. That preference opens up a value play for buyers looking to make their mark on these shores, if only they’d be willing to undertake a remodel of an outdated home.

The market is in the middle of a most epic run, but I still see value out there. It’s not found in spiffy fixtures and Wolf ranges. It’s found in the land, in those piers, under that ugly carpet and behind that stupid basement powder room. It’s not obvious to the uninitiated. That’s why I’m here. To help guide the discerning. Consider the text message that I received last Saturday night (I posted this on my Instagram genevalakefrontrealty, which you should be following):

Tonya and I just said… Thank God Dave Curry talked us out of buying all those other stupid homes. Love this place. Hope summer is going well for you and your family.

If you’re in the market, you’ll know it isn’t hard to find a Realtor to talk you into something. That’s what everyone does. The real value that an experienced agent brings to the transaction is not in his or her ability to walk you through a house. My 12 year old daughter could do that, and she’d be terrific at it. The value is in finding an agent who cares enough about your purchase to talk you out of a property. If you need some better advice, let’s talk.

Crandall’s Fish Fry Review

Crandall’s Fish Fry Review

Old people get a bad rap for eating early. Younger people flaunt their late eating habits as though they’ve made it into some exclusive club, the club that only eats late. Dinner reservations for me and my cool young friends at 8 pm, please.   But throughout this year of fried fish dinners, I’ve found that old people don’t deserve this bad rap. There’s nothing wrong with eating early. In fact, I’ve been eating most of my fishy meals around 5 pm. Why? Because I don’t want to wait in line.  The old people don’t want to wait either, that’s why they head out early. And that’s why I cozied up to a garden-view table at Crandall’s last Friday at 5 pm on the nose.

This review wasn’t easy for me. I’ve long known of Crandall’s, but I hadn’t yet been.  As I defend and flaunt all things Wisconsin, Crandall’s is on the other side of that skinny border. It might be two short miles from Wisconsin, but it’s technically in Hebron, Illinois. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and we’ll begrudgingly allow our Illinoisan brethren to adopt our culture. I went there Friday night to determine whether or not they’re doing a proper job representing the Friday Fish Fry, which is, unequivocally, our thing.

I should note that my dinner at Crandall’s was covered by a gracious client of mine who had told me often of this regionally famous institution.  I was grateful for his invitation, and grateful for his wise guidance that led us to a four top table with a view of the pleasant gardens that Crandall’s has cultivated.  Something to be sure of, Crandall’s is not a Fish Fry Joint. It’s a Chicken Joint. The website isn’t CRANDALLSFISH.COM. It’s CRANDALLSCHICKEN.COM.  Even though the lake set knows Crandall’s predominately for its place in our fish fry realm, it’s a chicken shop first and a fish shop second.

Still, the waitress was table side and told us of the special. Fried Icelandic Cod is all you can eat. Broiled cod is single serve. If your obesity is uncontrolled, you can order the combo platter which is chicken and fish. And if you’re me, you order the combo platter AND a side of the broiled cod, just to be sure. The orders were placed and the waitress promptly brought out a basket of fresh, warm bread and cinnamon rolls. The butter was forced into a tablespoon rectangle and  held captive by foil, but it was softened, so things weren’t all bad. The dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls were both light and airy, and both quickly disappeared from our table. Our waitress removed the empty basket and we felt deep shame over our gluttony.

The fish was brought out soon enough, as the restaurant slowly filled with Friday diners of all makes and models. Some old farmers from down the road, some families from town. I recognized several diners from the Lake Geneva scene. Everyone was happy.  A heaping plate of chicken and cod and potato pancakes was placed before me, a towering tribute to fried flesh.  My large piece of broiled was on its own plate, served with some lemon slices.  I ate first from the cuts of fried  cod. They were flour dredged and fried, not battered. The fish was a slight touch dry, but the seasoning in the dredge was pronounced, which was a good thing.  The theme of proper seasoning would run throughout the night.

The baked cod had a nice texture and was properly salted, but it, too, was just a touch dry. I realized I was judging this place more harshly than it might have deserved, but this place is royalty in the fish fry world and I felt I had to hold it to that standard. The potato pancakes were crisp and moist and well salted. Maybe a bit too salted, if there is such a thing. While I was there for the fish, I ate a piece of chicken and quickly realized why the website proclaims the chicken to be world famous. It was tender and nicely salted, the thin seasoned dredge impossibly crispy. The chicken was divine.

As quickly as it started, dinner was over. I was stuffed. The dinner was a success, and it wasn’t difficult to see why Crandall’s holds captive the attention of the thousands of patrons who frequent this roadside restaurant.  While I’ve only been once, I had a distinct feeling that Crandall’s doesn’t waiver much from week to week, dinner to dinner. It has the air of consistency, much like Anthony’s, and that’s what keeps that till humming.  The staff was pleasant and courteous, the space clean and inviting, the parking lot oversized and accommodating. Unlike other restaurants in this series, I don’t think you need me to tell you to go to Crandall’s. If you already know, you already go, and chances are you’ll be there next Friday just like you were the Friday before.

 

Crandall’s  7.5/10

10441  Route 47, Hebron, IL 60034

Lake Geneva Condotel Update

Lake Geneva Condotel Update

At this point, we should have all learned a few things. If we were paying attention during the last market cycle, from slow rise to raging boom to crushing collapse, then we should have taken some things away from that decade long episode. In the same way, from that collapse to the nascent recovery to this now active and vibrant seller’s market, this should be teaching us something as well. I suppose in that there is a difference. Have we learned anything or have we just observed it all from afar?

What I’ve learned, mostly, is that housing markets do not rise and fall based on the math of it all. Sure, low interest rates and stable stock markets might kick off a resurgence of housing haste, but that isn’t what propels a market. What pushes a market from Tidy Recovery to Raging Bull is confidence. Confidence is what makes a family of 4 making $90k annually purchase a new vinyl box in a cornfield for $410k. This is the same thing that makes the same family drive to the car dealer and sign for a 0% loan on a $70k Tahoe. Interest rates and unemployment figures are sweet, but what pushes a market into hyperdrive is nothing more than individual consumer confidence.

Most of the things that happened during the last cycle are happening in this one as well. FHA loans are way up. Like sky-high, as a percentage of new loans. These are US Taxpayer backed mortgages that are given out with very little money down. When a market is appreciating, these mortgages are fine. But when the market stalls and reverses, these homeowners who were given those house keys with as little as 3.5% down will be the first ones to run for the hills. But if we continue our learning from the last cycle, then we shouldn’t panic sell our house unless circumstances (job loss, illness, etc), mandate it. If you bought a house in 2008, then 2012 was a difficult time to consider your negative equity. But if you’ve hung on into 2018 you’ve more than likely made a full and complete equity recovery. That, and you’ve had a place to live for the past decade.

But these are not market specific lessons. For those, let’s turn to the Lake Geneva condotel market. Condotel is a silly way of describing the sort of housing unit that is sold as a condominium, but operates like a hotel room. You buy the unit, you pay taxes and dues and extraordinary fees to the hotel, and they give you a percentage of the rental income generated. In theory, it’s a tidy idea. In practice, it can be either great, reasonably acceptable, or downright horrible.

The Lake Geneva market has a handful of these so-called condotels. Notably at the Grand Geneva (Timber Ridge),  The Cove, The Bella Vista, The Abbey Resort, and a few others.  Understanding the context that our broad market is hotter than a pistol, let’s consider the current market for these sorts of properties. I won’t delve into each development, but I’ll sample a few to give you an idea as to how I feel about them as an “investment”.  Crud, those quotes likely gave me away already.

Timber Ridge is at the Grand Geneva. It’s a waterpark. It’s nice enough. There used to be a rib joint inside the waterpark hotel, but I haven’t been there since my kids were last invited to a birthday party there. Today there are nine units available at Timber Ridge priced from $99k to $189k. None are pending sale.  Normally someone dissecting a condotel market would look at the net income and compare that with the purchase price. Not me. I don’t care if the units print 3% or 5% or 7% annual return on the most recent run of numbers. That’s because that’s not the issue with these sorts of units.

I care about the value of the real estate. Let’s look at the $99k unit. First sold by the developer in 2001 for $160,400. Nice. Then sold once or twice. Then sold in 2003 for $206k to the current owners. After 15 years, their investment has declined more than 50%. Another unit listed at $102k sold previously for $181k. Another unit listed at $189k previously sold for $305k. And the beat goes on.  Rather than view these units as an opportunity that the market has beaten up, I prefer to view them as a painful lesson of what happens when consumer sentiment shifts. Take away the free steak dinner and boat cruise; would anyone ever buy a timeshare again?

Let’s check on the Cove in downtown Lake Geneva, the place with that absurd blue roof. A little unit for sale for $109k. Prior sale? A 2008 print at $170k. Here’s another unit listed at $134,900. Initial sale by the developer in 1996: $135,400. 22 years, negative equity.  Let’s move to Fontana, and check on what is likely the best of this bunch, the Abbey Hotel. Here’s a unit listed at $150k. Prior sales price? 12 years ago for $254k.

It’s not that I enjoy beating up on a particular market segment, it’s just that I don’t know as though I’d be a buyer of something like this. Yes, they might turn a small profit on an annual basis. But what of the initial investment? What about that crushing loss?  These properties are relatively illiquid, intensely sensitive to overall market conditions, and reliant on a consumer that just might have learned their lesson.

If you’re a buyer searching for an economical condo that you can rent out to generate some income, I’d opt for the lower priced condominium units in non condotel properties. I’d look at lower priced listings in Geneva National, Abbey Springs, and the Abbey Villas. I’d consider those options 99 times before I’d consider anything else. If you’re in the market for this sort of thing, email me and I’ll set you up with my assistant Vicki who can help guide you through this particular market segment.

 

 

Loramoor Sells

Loramoor Sells

Most of the players in this game are endless and unflappable cheerleaders.  I did this! They say. I’m amazing! Others chime. Such is the business of self promotion. Without this promotion, no one would know anything about any of these players.  Aside from a news article once in a while, no one will spend much time considering your success. In the real business world, this is fine. To quietly go about mining dollars is the preferred way, but alas, the rules of this game do not allow quiet success.

I engage in this self congratulation often. I write this blog to educate and entertain, but also to make sure the reader knows which player in this game is indeed the most meaningful.  Heck, I write a whole magazine dedicated to this market, and as a fortunate aside, this player. Some pose with their real estate signs as though they’re prom dates, others plaster their names on their cars, while others still want to watch you while you grocery shop. No matter the platform, we’re just playing by the rules.

But sometimes, there’s no praise to be given, no praise to be asked for. There’s just a sale and a seller and a buyer, and that’s that. This is what happened last week when I finally closed on my aged listing off of South Lakeshore Drive. I first listed this home two years ago, and throughout that time I asked for listing extensions and price reductions more than I’d like to admit. I worked to sell this house, and ultimately I did sell this house, but I did a miserable job at it.

The market is, by all accounts, back to the prior market peak. In many instances, prices have pushed above that peak. Now consider this house that I just sold. It previously sold during the prior market escalation for $1.5MM and change. I just closed on it last week for $925k. That’s a terrible thing, and while I feel relieved that the property is no longer on the market, I know I was rather unsuccessful in selling this home.

The issue with the home was a complicated one. It wasn’t one issue at all, really. It was the perfect storm of trouble. First, a high prior print to chase. Second, an initial and subsequent list price (with another broker, by the way) that was sky high. After that initial list, the market was lost and the owner spent the next several years chasing buyers in the only way that actually makes a material difference: price reductions.  By the time I took over the market had written the property off, and while I thought I might be able to put some shine on the listing I ultimately failed at doing so. The price of $925k was a reasonable market price, but in this case, the buyer won.

I closed on another property last week, also somewhat of an aged piece of inventory. This was my vacant land listing in Loramoor. The lot was quite lovely, just one home from the water with slight views and proper lake rights through the East Loramoor Association. That lot was on the market for a year or two before closing last week for $625k.  In this market, that sale makes perfect sense. It was a nice market rate, with seller and buyer both doing well for themselves. Why would a buyer buy a home in a cottage neighborhood only to significantly renovate or rebuild it, when they could buy this lot in a high end neighborhood and be surrounded by high priced homes? Expect a new home to be built there soon, one that will likely make proper market sense.

These sales prove one important thing about the state of our market. As the lakefront inventory dries up (the lowest priced true lakefront home available today is my listing on Bluff for $2.145MM), buyers will look off water for reasonable values. If the cheapest lakefront is $2.1MM, it only makes sense that buyers in the low buck range will seek alternatives to sparse lakefront inventory. Expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future, as off-water homes in the $900-$1.7MM range find favor with inventory hungry buyers.

Abbey Springs Yacht Club

Abbey Springs Yacht Club

This fish fry thing has become a problem for me. It’s not even a problem that I was required to consider, which makes it even worse. It’s a problem I volunteered for. If no good deed goes unpunished, then consider this review series to be both my deed and my punishment.  The problem isn’t that I’ve been eating lots of fish. I’ve enjoyed the fish. I’ve enjoyed discovering locations that are new to me. I’ve enjoyed all of it. And until last Friday, one of the places I most enjoyed was the Abbey Springs Yacht Club.

The first time around, I praised the club. Their bread was warm, their butter soft. Their potato pancakes creamy, their applesauce cold. Everything was above average, close to perfect. I told you this. I told other people this. When I’d receive emails where people wish for me to distill this search down to the champion, I’d willingly suggest that the Abbey Springs Yacht Club was the best available. With this in mind and lots of visiting family in town, I took control of the fish fry schedule and brought my party of 16 to the lakeside restaurant for what I presumed would be a lovely dinner.

We were seated at two adjacent tables, each with a pleasing view of the lake, at a few minutes past five.  Yes, we went early. A long day in the sun necessitated this.  Out waitress was soon table side, and she was as nervous as anyone has ever been, over anything at any time in history.  She barely squeaked out the special, and had a difficult time with any basic questions that our table posed. I felt sorry for her, but I also felt that by the end of July any summer server should have figured out how to overcome their jitters.

Our drinks were brought out soon enough, but the wait for the fish was significant. Perhaps 35 minutes? Perhaps a few minutes more, maybe a few less.  The restaurant was not even half full, due to our early reservation, so the kitchen couldn’t have been in the weeds just yet. When the food did arrive the plate looked mostly right, but there were things amiss.

The coleslaw was piled on the plate, not in a small dish or container as I’ve learned is standard. The reason you don’t set a pile of coleslaw on a plate is obvious.  This isn’t a solid. This is a creamy item that bleeds and leaks all over the plate. My potato pancakes had coleslaw on them, so did my hushpuppies and my fish. This was an unacceptable condition. Speaking of hushpuppies, I had one on my plate, my wife had two.  These are the inconsistencies that plague Lake Geneva area restaurants, and it’s a shame. They are not inconsistencies that require secret formulas to fix. They just require a touch of effort.

The baked fish was ok. It wasn’t great, but it was ok. The pieces were small, almost like the kitchen shredded them with a fork so that we could eat them with a spoon. The fried piece on my plate was large, and at first glance, looked nice and appropriately browned and crisped. But the truth was revealed by the edge of my fork, as the interior of the filet was the consistency of applesauce.  The potato pancakes were redeemable, with a tender, creamy interior and nicely crisped exterior. I liked my pancakes very much, but the rest was a tremendous miss.

I felt the need to apologize to my group for leading them astray, for bringing them to this place with the mushy cod and the leaking coleslaw, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to sway those who might have been otherwise satisfied with their meal. But over the course of that evening and the next day I learned that no one particularly enjoyed their dinner. My dad said his french fries were the best he’d ever had, so that was nice. But the opinions were uniform: dinner was not very good.

This is why I’m going to kill this fish fry review series in the next couple of weeks. There are a few places left to consider, including Crandall’s (the stalwart) and Fitzgerald’s Genoa Junction. After those two options, I’ll crown a winner and we’ll be done with this thing. The biggest problem isn’t finding a nice place to eat fish on a Friday. It’s in finding a place that will serve good fish on a Friday in April, and back it up by serving good fish on a Friday in July. Sadly, Abbey Springs Yacht Club just failed this test.

Not The Same

Not The Same

I don’t really know exactly how Hamburger Helper works. I assume it’s just a powder mix, with some starch to bind and some salt to flavor. Maybe a dash of onion and garlic powder for good measure. I’m guessing you brown some meat, strain off most of the fat, and then stir in this powder. Give it a bit of time on some heat and it thickens and becomes Hamburger Helper. Maybe you add in macaroni or other noodles, I can’t be sure. But whatever you’d made you can eat it, and if you’re not a snob you can recognize that in spite of its name it tastes ok. It’ll satisfy your hunger, much in the way that a fine Porterhouse steak cooked on the dying embers of a wood fire will accomplish the same. Both are food, both come from a cow, and both will allow you to push away your pangs of hunger. In this, they are the same.

When I eat fish fry and tell the world about it, I get mixed reviews on my reviews. Some people like them. Good one, Dave. Other people shake their head because I just insulted their favorite restaurant. Others still tell me that fried fish isn’t good at all. That it’s not really food.  Unless you’re grilling a fine piece of line caught Tuna or a fat sliver of a Swordfish steak that you’re not really eating fish at all.  But that’s where they’re wrong, because I am eating fish, and it did taste fine, and my hunger was satiated. Would a nicely seasoned, seared piece of fresh Tuna be a finer option? Of course it would, but I was just looking to eat an easy dinner with $14.

This market of ours is causing buyers significant pain, as you know. It’s causing strife and anguish and terrible, terrible bouts of regret. Should you have listened to me and bought that lakefront home in 2013? Obviously. Increasingly, as buyers find little to pick over in this Lake Geneva market of ours, they’re turning to other ideas. To other lakes. Other places. Other states (shudder).  Michigan is better they say. Michigan has antique stores! Michigan has more nuclear power plants and more beach syringes!, they plead.  Do you know what Michstakegan also has? Inventory at lower prices. No one will admit this, but inventory and price drive decisions, and if water is water and a tree is a tree, then some water and a tree anywhere will do.

Maybe it’s not in Michigan, maybe it’s here. Another lake, perhaps. Farther away where the dollar stretches a bit.  Beaver Lake, that’s a nice place. Look how clear the water is! Yes, it’s clear and you just might have two or three feet of it off the end of your brown wooden pier. Maybe Pine Lake, where the water is clear and the shoreline green, where you can sit on your dock (they don’t get piers there, these are ours) and watch nothing go by.  If you’d like to sit in the woods by yourself, Pine Lake is fantastic. If you’re hungry and you want to go to dinner but you’re a recluse now and you’ve forgotten to renew your driver’s license you could shoot a deer and eat it. No one will notice.

There are other options. Lots of them. Anywhere you want to go, options.  If your standard for a lake house involves just a house and a lake, this can be accomplished anywhere. Want to save some money? Go to Tennessee, there are loads of lakes there and wonderful, plucked banjos to provide the soundtrack of your float. Or drive to the Northwoods, like so many do. It’s nice up there. Just plan to leave by 5 pm so you can roll in around midnight. Rainy on Saturday, oh well! You can go take your picture next to a giant wooden fish.

As I stood on a pier last night with the last few bits of sun peaking out around the Observatory’s iconic dome, I breathed the scene in. Soft waves, a gentle breeze, a boat or two slowly plying past heading to their nighttime piers. In the shallows, a Huron plucked around the rocks looking for the minnows that couldn’t escape his beak. In the distance, a sailor sitting stationary, hoping for a few last gasps of wind to bring him back to the pier. There’s something about this place that the uninitiated cannot fully grasp. Something rare. A blend of action and solitude, of peace and motion.  Something unique that other lakes simply cannot attain. You could leave this place in search of a lake that will more generously offer you inventory. They’ll give you nice homes for much less money. They’ll give you some water to swim in, no matter if your bathing suit will slowly turn green from the exposure. You could go to these places. But please don’t you ever mistake their Hamburger Helper for our Porterhouse.

Novak’s Fish Fry Review

Novak’s Fish Fry Review

On one hand, I should have probably visited France before I turned 40. Maybe it would have been more interesting if I had been 20 years old, backpacking and hitch-hiking my way through Europe, free as a bird without a care or concern or shred of responsibility.  Or maybe that would have been a terrible idea, because who would want to sleep in a dirty hostel when Amex has a Fine Hotels Collection? Who knew about this when they were 20?  Regardless of the benefit of better lodging, there’s one other desire I discovered on my recent trip that likely would have been lost on 20 year old me: The allure of outdoor dining.

While wandering our way through that foreign land I do believe we only ate three or four meals in-doors. This outdoor style had nothing to do with weather, as we ate outside as frequently in sunny Provence as we did in rainy Paris.   On my first full day home, I met up with a client who is also a friend and we decided to eat breakfast at Simple. It was a lovely spring morning, warm and dry.  The patio beckoned. But when I asked to be seated on the patio I was told that I couldn’t eat there. That it was closed. That the outdoor server wasn’t in yet. When I suggested that the indoor server could step a few feet out of the door and voila, become the outdoor server, I was met with resistance. We ate inside, much to our chagrin and much to the offense of my newly adopted habit.

Last Friday night it was a bit rainy, a bit cloudy, a bit windy. But Novak’s in Fontana was up for their turn on the Fish Fry Freighter, and so we pulled in and found a seat on their outdoor patio. Their patio has old metal chairs and tables, a lovely old iron fence, and ample umbrellas, so many that had it been raining we may not have even noticed. There is no remarkable view from this patio, no lake waves to watch, just a side of the fire station and a distant view of the gas station. Still, the landscaped boulevards in Fontana are in bloom and the grasses pushed and pressed with the wind, and the scene, in spite of any focal view, was rather delightful.

The fish fry at Novak’s is rather straight forward. It’s fried or broiled cod, served with a side of potato and all of the traditional accoutrements.  The cod meal is served as three pieces. If you want two, you’re out of luck. Expecting four small pieces? Hit the door. It’s three and you’re going to like it. When we inquired of our waitress whether or not we could do half and half, we were told no. Perhaps that’s because they can’t properly split three pieces. Maybe they have no tolerance for half pieces of fish, and they interpreted our request literally, with no wiggle room. My wife ordered the baked and I ordered the fried, thereby working around their no substitution rule. We were bored and hungry so we ordered the cheese curds to pregame.

It should be noted that while the patio is quite nice, the interior space lacks any particular panache. It’s just a restaurant space. You won’t remember it.  Our waitress was polite and prompt, perhaps owing to the fact that at a bit after 5 pm we were one of only two occupied tables. I’m guessing the restaurant filled up after we left.  We drank our water and watched the boulevard grasses dance in the lake breeze.

The curds were out within several minutes. They were smallish, and pale in color. I like my curds bronzed, but these were pale, almost yellow. Never mind the color, they tasted right, even if there was more chew to the cheese than I prefer. The cod was out a few minutes later, a nice little platter of fish and potato. The baked cod was covered in what we thought looked like dill, though it didn’t carry a heavy dill favor. The baked was well seasoned, nicely salted, and overall quite good. The pieces, however, were small. I could have used a slightly larger fish.

My wife ordered fries with her dinner, and we both agreed the fries were memorable. They are basically the same french fry that Gordy’s serves, which are among the best in the area. If you don’t eat french fries because you’re super fit and can’t spare the handful of calories, I weep for you. My potato pancake was singular, and it was just decent.  I found it to be too dry for my liking. It was close, but not close enough. Too much time on the griddle, or not enough mayo, sour cream, or whatever they use as a moistening agent.

The fried cod was properly crunchy, nicely salted, and nearly perfect. But there was something amiss. The batter was a bit soggy around the fish, so even though the exterior was crisped, the full bite featured some soggy batter. Still,  the fried portion was larger than the baked, and at the end of the dinner my wife and I both agreed that while we’ve had better, we’ve had many that were worse.  The tartar sauce was sweet and nicely seasoned, and while the applesauce won points for being served in a larger than typical plastic tub, it was too smooth for me.

I’d definitely add Novak’s to your Friday Fish Fry rotation. The patio might not transport you to Paris, but it’s better than sitting inside. At $14 per dinner it was in line with my pricing expectations, and the waitress was both polite and prompt, which is really all any of us can hope for. The fish was properly cooked, properly seasoned, and quite enjoyable. It wasn’t perfect, mind you, but attention was paid, and I appreciated their effort.

 

Novak’s 7/10

158 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana

$14 For Baked or Fried Cod