Blog : Entry Level Lakefront

2017 Geneva Lakefront Market Review

2017 Geneva Lakefront Market Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above, the lakefront at my Loramoor listing. Pending sale at $5,950,000
Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Geneva Lakefront Market Update

In real estate, being shameless is quite important. I’ve struggled with this at times, most of the time, really. But I still tell you I’m this and I tell you I’m that, because if I don’t, no one will. But I’ve only developed some shamelessness when there was something to actually be proud of. Too proud, perhaps. The new market has generated so much shamelessness that you’d think everyone was the top agent.  Lakefront Specialist, that’s a common email tag. Lakefront Pro. Some opt for the shorter version, lest they spell specialist wrong. And others still, “The Most Powerful”. This is more like a Master’s Of the Universe theme, but in 2017, all of it has been adopted by my competition. It’s a bit dizzying.

The market appears to me today to be absolutely ladened with buyers. I say appears to me, because it’s impossible to know exactly what buyers are truly active and which buyers are just looking at properties because it’s 2017 and that’s the thing to do. I would guess there are more buyers in the market today than at any single point in the past 20 years. Yes, that’s a serious claim. But it’s likely accurate.  The smart ones are working with me, the others are working with the various and assorted Specialists that have very recently self-assigned that title.

Yet for all of these buyers, the market is still a Wisconsin market. We are still Midwesterners. And so we watch and we wait and we look for the right thing. Contrary to what your Specialist may tell you, the right thing is not always whatever was just listed.  This morning, there are just 22 lakefront homes available for sale on Geneva Lake. This includes the Trinke’s house that’s really just Trinke’s frontage, but we’ll add it in because we’re desperate for inventory.

Beyond those 22, there are others pending sale. A listing on Main Street in Lake Geneva in the mid $2s is soon to close. It should be noted that another lakefront in that area was under contract but has since returned to market. My marvelous listing on Jerseyhurst is under contract with a fall closing scheduled. A listing on the South Shore in the mid $2s is pending. And a small entry level lakefront in Fontana listed at $1.475MM is pending this morning. That’s a decent amount of activity, but it is not commensurate with the buyer activity on the lake.

There are several reasons for this. First, and perhaps most damning, is the absence of reasonable sellers. Note I say reasonable. The market is hot. Everyone knows this.  Even your newly minted Lakefront Specialist knows it. Sellers know it, too, and they’re attempting to capitalize on it. Sellers are listing aggressively, and we cannot blame them. But what we can do is blame them when they receive solid offers within mere percentage points of their bottom line and they choose to walk. This is foolish behavior. Sadly, this is the behavior many sellers have chosen to display. Perhaps the market run will continue long enough to prove them right, but perhaps their 2017 confidence is just a touch too much.

The inventory that deserves your consideration is both the new bits that have been trickling to market, but mostly the aged pieces of our market. If there’s a new lakefront for $3MM, guess what? You’re going to have to go for it quickly or someone else is going to buy it. That’s just the nature of this market. But if there’s a $3.5MM listing that’s been dying on the market for a year or two, isn’t this the sort of property we should be gunning for? I believe the answer is yes. Your Lakefront Specialist is reading this, furiously scribbling down notes, and he/she concurs.

So what comes next? What do we do with the rest of this superfluously soggy summer?  If we’re a buyer, we remain vigilant. We look for new inventory. We align ourselves with the only top agent in this market (spoiler- it’s me). We don’t chase every golf course hushed rumor down the rabbit hole. We don’t reach out to the new Lakefront Specialist. We just watch and we wait and when something looks right we take a run at it.  If we’re a currently listed seller, then we look at this market through a different lens. We consider our position in the market. We reduce if we haven’t had any offers in months, years. We look to position our property in the perfect light, with a hefty consideration for reality. And if we’re a lakefront owner considering selling, this is the easy part. We reach out to Dave Curry.


Above, my new Elgin Club lakefront listing. $1.975MM. 


Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Geneva Lakefront Market Update

This is the weekend we need. This is the weekend we deserve. This is the weekend that starts it all, really. There’s a long standing believe that Memorial Day Weekend is the kick off to summer. That’s nice that people still think that. I don’t. I think what I know, which is summer starts just as soon as the weather warms enough to turn our thoughts to it. A warm weekend in February doesn’t accomplish this. We enjoy the warmth but we know it won’t last. A warm weekend in April, now that’s the start of something. This is the weekend that starts it all. Seventies and sun, here we come.

The low inventory theme continues on the lakefront, though several “new” listings have come to market of late.  Of course most of these aren’t new at all, they’re just recycled inventory from last year that might have a better shot at finding a buyer now. On the lake there are at least six pending contracts, and three of those are deals in which I’m involved. I like that ratio, though 100% would be far more preferable than 50%.

I have a new contract on an entry level lakefront in the Highlands (my buyer, not listing). That’s a fixer upper and it’ll sell for a fixer upper price next month. My Park Drive lakefront with 60′ of level frontage is under contract with an asking price of $1.299MM. That’s a nice little house with a big view of the water. A listing on Constance in Williams Bay is under contract with an asking price in the low $2MMs. That’s a listing that I had a couple years ago but failed to sell. This is for my enduring shame.

The modern in Williams Bay for $3.4MM is still pending sale, as is the new construction on Sidney Smith in the high $3MMs.  New and of note is the pending contract on my listing at 700 South Lakeshore Drive in Lake Geneva. I listed this home last fall and told you that I would sell it. I wasn’t lying. It’s under contract now and will hopefully close this spring. If and when it does, that’ll be my sixth sale over $5MM since 2010.  The thing about being a luxury broker is that everyone can call themselves one, but it’s a lot harder to actually be one.

In spite of some new inventory,  we still have only 19 true lakefront homes (including the South Shore Club) on the market today. That’s remarkably low inventory, and it has left the market wishing for two very different things. Sellers love this environment, and hope it stays for the remainder of this year. Buyers are frustrated by this limited inventory and find themselves in foul moods as a result. I’m somewhere in between, hoping for new inventory but appreciating the environment for what it is today. The danger now is for sellers to not be too emboldened by the situation, and for buyers to not disengage from their searches just because they don’t initially see what they like. Sellers, stay smart, stay rational. Buyers, stay engaged, pour over the aged inventory and look for value while at the same time being ready to pounce on something new and exciting.  Buyers and sellers, work with me, and have a terrific first nice weekend of 2017.


Above, sunset at 700 South Lakeshore Drive, Lake Geneva.
New Geneva Lakefront Listing

New Geneva Lakefront Listing

The thing about entry level lakefront is that it’s entry level lakefront. It’s not fancy. If it were fancy, it wouldn’t be entry level.  Entry level exists in increasingly fewer locations on Geneva Lake, due largely to the fact that often times buyers of entry level lakefronts transform those once modest, affordable homes, into something entirely different.  If you’re a buyer for an entry level lakefront, this generally means you’re on the hunt for something priced below $1.5MM. In that segment, there are things you can expect but mostly things you shouldn’t expect. Like garages and level frontage. Entry level buyers rarely have a chance to buy those.

W3298 Park Drive in Linn Township isn’t going to win any design competitions. It’s a nice house, with nice enough things, but fancy it is not. There’s a concrete driveway, fresh landscaping, and a beautiful lakeside paver patio. There’s a terrific H-slip pier, traditional and sturdy. There’s some new siding and a newer-ish kitchen and three bedrooms and two baths. There’s plenty to like. But the rare bits are not those bedrooms or the bathrooms or the stack washer/dryer in the hallway closet. The rare bit, if we’re looking for entry level lakefront, is the 60 feet of dead level frontage and the existence of a two car garage. These are, in the context of entry level lakefront homes, among the most rare amenities.

The house should sell rather quickly in this current market. The renovation of this house, should a buyer choose to improve upon what it is today, would be fairly painless. It’s a simple house without a lot of moving parts. The layout is normal, which, if you’ve looked at entry level lakefront homes for some amount of time, you’ll recognize as being unique for its plainness. There are no spiral staircases here. There are no rooms that you’re not sure what to do with. There’s nothing here that doesn’t make sense. It’s just a house with a big garage and a completely level lot, with 60 feet touching Geneva Lake. The views, as an aside, are among the best on this lake. Facing towards the City of Lake Geneva, the lake here is wide and round, lovely.

If you’d like to tour this home, just let me know. But if you do want to see it, you should probably do so sooner rather than later.

Entry Level Geneva Lakefront

Entry Level Geneva Lakefront

My body is slowly succumbing to the course of time, to the insistent, constant force that seeks to whittle and pry and break and bruise, to the inevitable process wherein these ashes will find their way back to ashes. It’s sad, really, at such a tender age to be falling apart. I didn’t intend for it to be like this, but this is my first time in this aging process, and I’m no longer in control. I’m just a guy with creaks and cracks, and while others put up a most impressive facade, I’m nothing, really. I feel this way mostly because of my trip last week, a trip that started fine, included some wonderful skiing and the smiling faces of my children, and ended with my ear pressure being locked somewhere around the Vail Summit.

After driving deep into the far away horizon where the Denver International Airport hides, my ear pressure was the same.  Likely comfortable around 10,000 feet, but now I was at 5,000 and the pressure of those 5,000 feet was constant and unavoidable, ringing and pounding and bullying my inner ear. The flight would cure this, I figured.  When I landed at Milwaukee it was obvious then that my previous attempts to calm my worry were in vain. The pressure built,  my right ear finding some form of normalcy at 900 feet, but my left ear still stuck in the mountains. Certainly it wouldn’t last the night, but last it did. And the next day it would subside, obviously. But it didn’t. For sure the following day things would be fine and my 10,000 foot ear would slowly slip down to 900 feet. No. Such. Luck.

And so I write this morning, contemplating who might be my Gaugiun, but also contemplating the state of the entry level lakefront market on Geneva Lake. That market is one that I’d like to call our most interesting, our most confusing, our most obvious. But none of that is true, because all lakefront segments are that way, they are at once easy to understand and overtly complicated. They are nothing at all but everything, easy to dissect and explain until they aren’t. The entry level market, however, has some unique intracacies that are on display today. Notably, is there a top for this particular market?  Is the land worth what the land is worth and then the house might be worth whatever lofty price someone, someday, assigns to it?

Let’s consider a few things first. Not all entry level properties are created equal. A 50′ lakefront lot in Cedar Point Park that might be 300′ deep is not the same as a 50′ lot in the Lake Geneva Highlands that might only be 180′ deep. I could sell a 50′ lot in Cedar Point right now for more than I could sell a 50′ lot in the Highlands. That’s not anything but the obvious and simple truth. That’s because Cedar Point has proven the ability to sell re-built (whether remodeled or new construction) homes far above the cost of the dirt and the Highlands has not. In fact, fantastically improved homes in the Highlands rarely sell in excess of $1.5MM.

Another example of this is on Walworth Avenue in Williams Bay. This street is a nice enough street, with some condominiums and some entry level lakefront homes with very deep lots. Yet for all that depth, the market there has always struggled to sell anything over $1.5MM. In fact, a 100′ lakefront lot sold there for $1.2MM a few years back, at a time when a 50′ lot in the Highlands would have sold for similar dollars. If Walworth Avenue offered you a $1.2MM lakefront house you might think you’ve found something rare and incredible, when in fact, you’ve found something at nearly the top end of that individual market. Why is that the top end? Because you really can’t buy a tear down or supreme fixer upper on Walworth Avenue for $1.2MM and expect you have any margin in your all-in investment.

The same theory applies to most locations on the lake, excepting Glenwood Springs. In Glenwood Springs, the lakefront homes aren’t even true lakefront homes, yet an entry level home will sell for $1.2-$1.5MM and then the buyer may indeed tear it down. Does this make any sense? Well, actually, yes. Homes in Glenwood Springs have sold in excess of $2.5MM, and such a sale is not an anomaly. At the same time, a 50′ lakefront lot in the Highlands or on Walworth Avenue with actual, real, private frontage, would struggle mightily to achieve even $2MM, let alone $2.5MM.

As I was showing lakefront homes yesterday I thought about this market. I thought about the top end. I thought about where these prices might be able to go. And then I realized there’s likely a disconnect between what I think is reasonable and what a few individual buyers might think is reasonable. If I’m buying a tear down in a market that I believe to be capped in the mid $1s, I know that I’d want to have some margin for my effort. I don’t want to spend $1.5MM and a year of my life stressing out over a project that in the end will perhaps be worth $1.5MM. I want to spend $1.3MM to get to the finish line where a $200k equity bonus might be awaiting me. But perhaps that’s just me. And perhaps that’s just this 10,000 foot ear talking.