Blog : Door County

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

This article, perhaps originally from Thrillist.com, whatever that might be, has been making the rounds lately.  The piece outlines 12 of the most luxurious lake towns in the world, and by now you’ve already guessed it: Lake Geneva is on the list. Because of course it is. It’s not a surprise that it’s on the list. It would be a surprise if it weren’t. The article is on Facebook and other various bits online, and local resorts and businesses are sending out emails to the tune of “Come Do This With Us Because We’re On A List Compiled By A Website That No One Has Ever Heard Of”. It’s nice of the Thrillist to tell us this, but it’s sort of like telling your favorite kid that they’re the favorite. It’s unnecessary, because their birthday BMW hasn’t even had its first oil change yet.

So thank you, Thrillist, for including our town, as if you ever had a choice. The thing is, this article doesn’t appear to be new. In fact, it looks like it’s almost two years old. Someone just found it and posted it to some social media and then it once again pushed around the circle of Lake Geneva influencers and influenced.  The article doesn’t mention anything important, just that we have some terrific mansions and some terrific water. Again, these are the things we already know. So let’s not take this article for what it says, and let’s not be shocked for our inclusion, rather, let’s use this article as a very important reminder.

There’s a particular agent in the Chicago market who has made a bit of a late career in selling large properties and larger homes in Wisconsin. These homes are usually oversized, like mega-oversized. Like 20,000 square feet, or built as an exact scale of Some Castle in Ireland, or built with 32 bedrooms, one for each of the dreams the owner had the year before he built this towering ode to an overactive dream cycle. The homes are rare. The 12,000 square foot replica of a replica of a Frank Lloyd Wright student’s parents’ home. This is what this Realtor has been tasked with selling. On paper and online, the properties look like a most impressive collection, but they are, as a point of absolute fact, disasters.

The homes might be large, they might be fancy, they might even be nice, but one thing they are not: built in the right place. They are creations that were spawned by ego, where the cry of the building mantra was, “I can do this, and I will do this”. The doing this part doesn’t make sense, even while we can understand the can. These are the homes in Oak Brook, the ones built to 20,000 square feet to resemble something other than a Midwestern house. These are the palaces built in Door County, made to be the biggest and the best. These are the sprawling estates built in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, an 18,000 square foot modern built on 100 acres in a community where 15 acres and a cabin are the desired property. These are the mistakes that plague every region in every state. These are the misfits, born of a desire to put something where it doesn’t belong.

And that brings us back to perhaps the most unique aspect of Lake Geneva. There are buyers who wish to build things, to build rare levels of sophistication, to build and build, up and out, to make something memorable. This has happened at Lake Geneva, and it’s happening more now than it has at any point since the early 1900s when barons and magnates took to these shores to build the testaments to their wealth. The thing is, at Lake Geneva it all makes sense. The market here supports mostly whatever you can build. The market here is strong, capable, and it’s not just because our waters are so clear and our shoreline so dynamic. It’s because there are other homes like those, lots of them, big mansions along every stretch of shore. Old estates giving support to new estates. The lake isn’t just a lake that’s on some website’s best of list, it’s a lake that can play host to whatever fancy you might crave. Lots of lakes can do that, but if you ever tire of our wonderful scene, Lake Geneva can give you something that these other Midwestern locations cannot: liquidity. And that’s the actual rare bit.

Temptation

Temptation

As I understand it, Door County is a place where you go because you want to eat cherries while spending the better part of a full day searching for a place that will serve you a proper espresso.  Door County is also a place where lake access doesn’t mean the same thing that it means here. That’s because the lake isn’t really a lake at all, rather it’s an inland ocean, which is beautiful to look at but also mostly unusable for the typical weekend warrior. The lake is different, the market is different, the cherries are good, the espresso absent. This is all you need to know about Door County.  You’re welcome.

The market here is very unique, as lake access or lake rights really means something. For years I’ve heard sellers explain to me the reasons that lake rights don’t matter. Coincidentally, the only sellers that undertake this attempted explanation are those that own homes that lack the attribute. They’ll opine how lake access isn’t important because of beaches, and because of launches, and because of parks and restaurants. They’ll work to convince me that they’re right, all the while we both know they’re wrong.

That’s because no amount of dialogue, no matter how impassioned, can change generations of market behavior. The market expects lake access, it wants lake access, and when someone emails me this week and wants to buy a vacation home at Lake Geneva, they’re probably going to ask me about lake access. Once they ask me, I’m going to tell them that they need it. In doing so, I’m furthering the generational standard, leaving very little room for wavering. If you’re looking Lake Geneva, you should be looking lake access.

When the market was hot, buyers moved away from this standard. They’d buy homes on Anystreet, Williams Bay, because of the beach and the launch and the restaurants. They’d buy a home on Oakwood Street because it’s a nice enough street, and they could pay $180k for a house that would have cost $319k in Cedar Point Park. I understand the economics of a non-lake access purchase, I really do, which is why there should be a discount paid for homes that are in otherwise boring locations that lack lake access. If you’re contemplating a vacation home purchase here, your vacation home should be surrounded by other vacation homes. It’s really that simple.

Now that the market is warmer again, buyers are returning to their old discount-seeking ways. The house in Cedar Point is $289k now, and the house on Oakwood is still $180k, so Oakwood wins. If that’s all your budget will allow, I completely and entirely understand the reason you’d entertain Oakwood. I honestly do. But if the budget allows for the $289k, please go that route. Not because I want your Realtor, who should actually be me, to make more money, but because I want your future appreciation tied to the vacation home market, not to the primary market.

There are exceptions to this rule of mine. Unique homes in special locations, those get a pass. Unique lots- oversized or featuring some sort of special view- I’ll let those slide as well. But if we’re buying a normal house on a normal in-town street, let’s first exhaust our lake access options.  Because once you buy that non-lake access house in town you’re pretty much going to spend every day from then on wishing you had a private association pier to hang out at. And if you’re not going to have a private association pier to hang out at, you might as well keep driving for another day and end up in Door County. It’s BYOEspresso, just so you know.

 

PS. I was at the Cub game last night, which means it is likely my fault that they lost. 

October Drive

October Drive

The Saab 900 was gunmetal gray. The roads were straight, the path clear. North. That’s all I needed to do, bearing East when possible, but mostly just North. The Saab had a top speed that I never discovered. The rattle and wobble at 70 made sure that the higher numbers on the speedometer wouldn’t be touched. The roads were gray, the sky gray, the trees browned and grayed, the clouds gray. The lights dim, everywhere dim. The lake, that big lake to the East was gray, the water and the shore and the clouds and the space between, gray. It was late fall, I was 18 and I drove into the night.

On a typical trip to some other place, the route is dark and confusing and the turns many  but the destination, once it comes into view, is clear and bright, welcoming a weary traveler to the place where he intended to be. The traveler finds his destination and the troubles of the trip are forgotten, the wrong turns now merely a laughable memory because the journey is complete and the place he finds himself is perfect.  Instead, I drove the tired hatchback down slippery roads, soaked with rain and trampled leaves that had been ground into a paste on these county roads. I drove not knowing where I was going, not knowing what I was searching for.  The Pinkerton album my misfitted soundtrack.

A Vacancy sign was all I needed to see, and after some time I had been seeing nothing but. Vacancy, they’d all say, the NO distinctly quiet and dark, like the woods on these roads and the rain that fell and the paste that clung to my balding tires. The I didn’t want to commit to any particular lodging option until I had driven past many of them, each one darker and dimmer and more unwelcoming than the last. After some time of this I decided that one was as good as another, and I pulled in to a small cabin that looked like a house, with a car out front and a lamp lighting the window. The pull chain light flashed Vacancy.

The older woman was kind enough, and I exchanged some money for a key and a map to the cabin that would be home for as long as I decided it should be. If it was dark on the road, and dark in front of the cabin office, then it was positively pitch but the time I found my way down the leaf soaked path to the cabin. I don’t remember if the cabin had a name, like the  Chipmunk House, or if it just had a number, like Cabin 3, or a letter, like B. I found the cabin and went inside, the rain intensifying, the darkness finding its way darker still.

It wasn’t scary in the cabin, but it wasn’t not scary, either.  It smelled like wet dust, like any cabin would smell after the first rain of spring, after a long time of sitting empty over a long, cold winter. But this was fall, not winter, and so it smelled anyway and I left my bag on the bed and drove towards town to find something to eat. The town greeted me in the same manner as the county did, in the same way as the cabin office did, in the same way that the cabin did. It was dark in town,  a few cars offering the only movement, the only thing open a small gas station with two pumps, pay inside, cash only. I bought a cardboard wrapped pizza, first estimating its size to determine if it would fit inside the narrow oven at the cabin. A two liter of pop rounded out the order. The man at the register looked at me like any man at any register has ever looked at a single traveler who appears lost and confused, whose clothes and hair were soaked from the dark rain, who looked as though he didn’t belong there.

I couldn’t just drive back to the cabin at this point, because the TV was small and the pizza would only offer a few minutes of distraction, and so I drove down to the shore to look at the water. That’s why I was there, after all, to fish for the salmon that should have been running in such great numbers that even me, a kid from another place who drove there only on a whim, with some cash and a new CD and a wobbly gunmetal gray car. I pulled up to the harbor, to look out between the swipes of the wipers, to see the water whipped and the waves crashing. There were no fishermen there. Just me, in my car with my pizza and a fishing pole. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but this wasn’t it. This looked intimidating, unappealing, difficult. I ate the pizza on my bed and tried to ignore the wind that felt like it might knock the cabin down and bury me in a pile of dusty rubble in a county where I shouldn’t have been.

The next day, the water was high, the sky gray, the town as empty as it was the night before. I kicked some leaves down the sidewalk in town, looking like a lost tourist who showed up the day after everyone else left. The restaurants had signs, THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT YEAR, even though I knew they didn’t mean it.  If the year was so great there would have been some money left over to fix the awning that was tearing at both ends, mildewing so heavily that I wasn’t sure what color, exactly, the fabric was supposed to be. The river that I wanted to fish was wide and muddy. Even if there had been fish in it I wouldn’t have been able to catch them, and since I didn’t see them it didn’t make any sense to me to fish for something I wasn’t sure existed. I had missed the run and I had missed their fall, I figured, and that’s why no one was here. I shuffled through town for the remainder of that day and drove home before the night fell.  It was October and I had missed what I had driven so far to find.

Today, it’s bright and the leaves are green, except the few that are yellowing and the others that are turning to red. Mostly, it’s still summer here, even though the temperature disagrees. It’s early enough that you still have time. You won’t miss fall here if you visit this month, but if you show up later in the month I assure you the lights will still be on. We’ll still be here, because it’s Lake Geneva and we don’t look at October as the end of anything. It’s just the start of another season, and like all of the other seasons, it’s one that should find you here.

Barron’s Top 20 Second-Home Resorts

Barron’s Top 20 Second-Home Resorts

When the Chicago Tribune talks about vacation homes, it likes to talk about South Carolina. And then also about Uruguay. If not those, then Arizona, maybe Florida. Sometimes, Michigan. Other times, Door County. Once in a while Green Lake. Other times strange lakes in strange places that I’ve never been to. If the Chicago Tribune is doing the writing, then the elephant in the room is Lake Geneva. It’s so close and so known, they’d rather just ignore it. For their shame.

Barron’s is headquartered in New York. That’s a far distance from here when measured in miles, but really it’s farther than that.  I subscribe to Barron’s for no other reason than I once subscribed and I now subscribe annually when I notice they’ve billed my credit card again. I should probably cancel my subscription, but I can’t now. I can’t because the fine New Yorkers at Barron’s like Lake Geneva.  They like like us.

Last week, the Barron’s Top 20 Second-Home Resorts was published. Never mind that the title is clunky and actually  makes very little sense, we’ll just accept the accolades and bask in our nationwide importance. In this report, the super-intelligent, savvy folks at Barron’s compiled 20 top vacation home markets, and they ranked them based on something that’s not entirely clear. Some proprietary combination of something with another something, divided by a few, averaged and then stacked in order.

Number 1 on the list, Austin, Texas. Austin sold 568 homes priced over $1MM, which is incredible and should be congratulated. But Austin is also being overrun by Californians, so we know that Austin won’t be weird for long, it’ll just be strange. Next on the list, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We’re runner up really, silver medalists on a national stage.  Here we were, just minding our own business, when New York decided that this little town in fly-over country is worthy of their list.

The snippet on Lake Geneva explained that our market is hot, up 10% over the past year. They told the country what we already know, that our market is exclusive. That’s it’s rare and it’s hot and it’s only for the discerning.  Then they talked about other, lesser markets, like Park City and Vail and Hamptons and Lake Tahoe. But these are all the unimportant places in the country. Perhaps they could all try harder next year to dethrone us from second place.

I wish they would have interviewed me for the article, but they didn’t. They might have called, but if BARRON’S shows up on my caller ID I’m going to assume it’s related to the subscription that I’ve forgotten to cancel for 10 years, and I wouldn’t have answered it anyway. They did mention the $6MM Stone Manor unit, which is my listing, so in a round about way I was mentioned.

The author accurately noted that our sales volume was up 30% from 2014, and that there’s roughly 2 dozen lakefronts for sale is correct (the actual number is just 19 today). But in that there is a common mistake made. Stating that our market appreciated 10% over the past year is simply incorrect. It’s incorrect because in low volume markets there’s nothing accurate about averaging any given year’s worth of sales and assuming that the resulting tally is somehow an indicator of appreciation, or depreciation. That’s because low volume markets offer too many variables to be constrained by the simple math of averages.

Last year, Geneva printed 11 sales over $2.4MM, including five sales over $3.79MM. In 2014, we closed just 3 sales over $2.4MM, and 2 over $3.79MM. That 10% price appreciation you’ve heard about? It didn’t actually happen, we just sold more higher priced homes relative to the year prior. Sure, the market was up, and I’ve guessed it was up around 5%. Why is the number a guess and not an accurate reflection of the data? Because the data is too easily skewed, and my guess is based on the nuance that makes this market what it is. What is it? The #2 resort market in these United States.

Michigan failed to make the list, but if Barron’s would just agree to do the Top 10,000 Second Home Resorts, I’m confident Michigan will make the cut.