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.
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.
If you’ve noticed that I haven’t written as much about individual market segments of late, you’re perceptive. I haven’t. It isn’t that I haven’t had thoughts, or that the market isn’t doing things I’m noticing and feel like sharing with you, it’s just that the market isn’t really all that fun right now. To be a buyer with some level of contemplative thought isn’t fun. To be a seller who sees the market ripping and roaring excepting your individual house, that isn’t fun. And to be an agent who has to deal with all of this, well, that isn’t fun either. It’s summer and we’re supposed to be having fun. But I’m not, and if you’re a buyer then you’re not. And some sellers aren’t either. This is the summer of our discontent.
The issue is that the inventory is limited. This we know. We knew this last year and we knew it was going to be an issue this year. And it is. Showings on lakefront homes are at all-time-high levels, and it’s not uncommon this summer to see four or five different lakefront showings a week on a lakefront listing. Offers are plentiful, and just this past week there’s a new contract on an aged bit of South Shore Club inventory listed in the $2.8MM range, and a new contract on an entry level cottage in the Elgin Club in the $1.2MMs. The other pending lakefront is of the Woodhill property on Basswood listed at $4.5MM. That’s a home that the market perceived to be a tear down, but rumor has it the soon-to-be-owner has chosen to renovate it.
For all of this new activity, there has been just one lakefront closing in the past six weeks. That closing occurred last week when the old Born Free estate on the north shore of Geneva closed for $5.35MM. That property last sold in 2011 for $3.5MM. There were no significant changes made to the property between 2011 and 2018. That’s real appreciation. To further that story, the new owner of that parcel tried in vain to cut the piece into three lots. Thankfully, the township struck that concept down, and the new owner was only able to get 2 lakefront lots out of the 200′ parcel. When the piece sold last week, the new owner turned around and sold off the vacant 100′ of that lot to a new buyer for a rumored price in the high $2s.
There were six other lake access sales over the past six weeks, including the large stable home in Loramoor. That large property closed for $1.37MM. On a price per square foot measure, which our market doesn’t typically have interest in, that property sold for an unbelievable bargain. But in real life the price was about right for an off-water home (with slip) in need of some final finishing touches. As with any aged piece of inventory, it’s terrific to see that property no longer on market. I have several properties pending sale, including my modern off-water home on the south shore, a vacant lot in East Loramoor, and my Woodstone listing that I brought to market just a few weeks ago.
I’ve personally had several lakefront listing appointments in the past month, but all have ended with sellers either choosing to hang on to their homes, or other delays for unknown reasons. The last several weeks of hot and sunny have provided powerful momentum for buyers who were possibly ambivalent about their purchase before. It’s one thing to be hot and bothered at the lake. At least refreshment is close. It’s another thing entirely to be hot and bothered in the city or suburbs, and that’s brought buyers to the lake in tremendous numbers. Oh, and there’s a new listing on the lake for $14.5MM. It isn’t my listing, which is unfortunate and terrible. That will test the high end up here, which last printed an $11MM+ sale for 415′ of frontage and 19 acres on Snake Road.
If you’re a buyer in this market, I sympathize with your plight. Low inventory is making for a difficult process, but in spite of this there are still deals to be had. Some sellers are motivated, even while most of the others are not. Find aged inventory and pick at it. Needle it. Consider it. If you’re jumping around from agent to agent you need to stop doing this. Email me. Let me help you understand this market. Let me help you discover patience. The market won’t stay this tight forever. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
(No Fish Fry Review today. I went to the Lake Geneva Yacht Club on Friday night and the fish was overcooked and the potato pancakes blah. This reflects my recent disappointment during my return visit to the Abbey’s Waterfront.)
My calendar said spring turned to summer last week. The first day of summer, it said, capitalized with an exclamation point. The hardware stores had an ad in the paper, every paper, telling us that it’s summer time and because of this we need things. Grills! Plants! Bee Killer! I was in a hardware store over the weekend when a man walked in with a bee problem. He told the store worker that his bees were out of control. They were in the rocks and around his waterfall. They were a problem and his children wouldn’t be happy if they were stung, even though no one had been stung just yet. I kept quiet for a while but ultimately decided to ask if he was certain these were not honey bees, because honey bees are valuable and shouldn’t be choked by a foaming pesticide. He didn’t know. They’re all bees he said. And they’re all going to die. Welcome to Summer.
A woman drove a convertible down the road and across the intersection where I was stopped. There was something going on around the corner, a race maybe. Some bikes zipped past. Numbers painted onto the participants’ arms. So much determination, so much haste. The woman in the convertible didn’t care, she had on her big hat, and I wondered how it stayed attached to her head without blowing away in the open-top-breeze. Pins, maybe. I figured there was a trick, something women know that I don’t. She turned the corner too tight and her wheel clipped the curb, causing the car to bounce and her hat to flop and her neck to whip back like something happened that she couldn’t control. Later, when she’s home she’ll tell her husband that she just can’t understand what happened to that wheel. By then the scrape on her shiny rim will be smudged dark by summer dirt that washed from the spring fields during the last storm.
No one knows when it’s summer more than boaters. You can see the boats now, sitting on trailers and in slips, full of gas and ready. There’s no time like now to boat, at least now that it’s summer. If you have a boat and you own it during summer, what a thrill. Boats in the winter aren’t nearly as much fun. That’s when the bills come due. Winter service, winter storage, winter protection from the winter: $2650. Last year it was $2250, but the economy is better and the labor is tighter so the price has to go up. Boats are like that, a good measure of inflation and of the economy. Need your boat waxed? It’ll cost you $550 during a recession and $825 during a boom. It’s booming now, and the bill was $900. The extra is the Geneva fee. It would have still been $825 in the Chain, but no $75 has been better spent.
It’s raining again. It’s not a spring rain, it’s a summer rain. I’m sure because the weatherwoman said it would be a passing shower, like how it rains at Disney every afternoon. It always amazes me how much rain we can get in the summer and yet when I want precipitation in January so my kids can ski, it’s as dry as the driest of deserts. It’s dry in the Southwest, and they have purple mountain sunsets there. Come to the Southwest and see our cacti and our purple mountains and our sunsets! There’s nothing like a sunset over a purple mountain with some cacti in the foreground. That’s what they say, but I don’t believe them. Because it’s summer here and our sunsets are better. Once this rain passes I’m sure there will be a better sunset tonight. A summer sunset. The humidity will make the sky dazzle.
The calendar told people it’s summer, and they’re reacting. Boats are boating, sunsets are filling up Instagram. #summervibes, someone writes. Others Like. It’s that time, when summer comes to those who otherwise wouldn’t know. But I know. You know. We know summer has nothing to do with the calendar. Summer arrives when we first feel it on our skin. When the first pier is in, white and sturdy. The first boat pushes through the water from West to East and back again. When that first sunset is no longer visible through the bare branches of winter, but instead hides behind a deep, dark canopy of Oak and Maple. Summer doesn’t start at the end of June unless you’re not paying attention. Summer for me started sometime in May, whether the calendar watchers knew it or not.
Last weekend, it was hot. You know that. I know that. It was super hot. Smoking hot. Summer hot. If you were here, then you were less hot than the other people who chose to stay there. But still, hot. Williams Bay had a big pile of rocks on its lakefront, with some earth moving equipment stacked next to a small stream that I’d like to have moved. If I do anything in this life, it should be that I’ll have that stream moved. On Memorial Day, Williams Bay had a nice little Memorial Day Parade. The dandelions noticed. The earth moving equipment, sitting idle for the weekend out of respect, noticed. The trees in the beach park, with weeds growing up around them, noticed. Williams Bay was not ready for prime time.
It was Memorial Day Weekend in Fontana, too. The beach was combed, the large pile of sand pushed up to that child-friendly mound. The boulevards were mowed and trimmed. The baseball diamond that has withstood lakefront re-development was mowed, its infield dragged. Someone might have dusted off the bases, I can’t be sure. The Harbor is new now, shiny and better. No matter that the floating piers are awkward still and they slope unnaturally from shore, and there might be a few too many lights, LED or not. But the Harbor was spiffed and the boats were waxed and the infield was dragged. In the boulevards, flowers bloomed.
In Lake Geneva, the road project near the lakefront was completed. The giant potholes that plagued that lakeside stretch of Main Street have been fixed, and just in time. But the yards that were torn to complete this work were only seeded, not sodded. So the dandelions pushed and the grass stalled. The glistening blacktop flanked by messy stretches of straw and netting. Sod would have been nice, considering it would have required such a modest amount. My friend had a sod farm once. He closed it down and planted corn, because no one wanted to pay him for his fine sod.
What exactly are these lakeside communities? What do they aspire to be? I contend that only one town here knows the answer to that question. Fontana knows what it is, what it wants to be, where it wants to go. It makes the effort. It sees the vision. It understands the market, the clientele, and the visual that they demand. Williams Bay hasn’t a clue. Not a single, tiny clue. There’s an auto-repair shop with constant torque wrenches and a view of the lake. There are three ice cream shops within a 150 yard radius. Most of the shop spaces are for rent, and those that aren’t will be some day. There’s a piece of vacant dirt in the downtown with a FOR SALE sign. For Rent signs litter the surrounding corners. Williams Bay is a sleepy hamlet, but it’s only sleepy because it doesn’t have a plan. Without a plan, why get out of bed?
In spite of Fontana’s confidence and Williams Bay’s awkward adolescence, Lake Geneva is the town that truly isn’t sure of itself. On one hand, a dynamic, rare lakefront. Parks, walkways, grass and water. The new walkway over the beach is smart and shows awareness. The downtown remains idyllic, even if the rents are too damn high and the result is too many vacancies. The downtown is truly the only thing that needs to remain a draw, and there’s no danger of that status changing. But around that special downtown, what exactly is the City of Lake Geneva doing?
A five story chain hotel adjacent its major thoroughfare? Big Box stores of all makes and models littering its primary entrance? Increased revenue from every angle but no decrease in taxes? Why is it so had to understand what it is that the residents and visitors want? The Wisconsin Dells is a nice enough place, I suppose. If you get married on a Friday and have no time for anything but a two day weekend, then the Dells is nice. Honeymooning at a waterpark, that’s something. But absent that shot-gun wedding, or a carload of 12 year olds headed for a birthday party, who really wants to go to the Dells? Not me. And not the people who call Lake Geneva home, whether that’s a permanent home or a seasonal one.
These lakeside municipalities have made strides in the last decade, but only one has identified its highest and best use. Fontana, thank you for being what you are. Thank you for understanding yourself. Williams Bay, please, please figure it out. Million dollar bike paths are fine, but are they? Invest in your lakefront. Invest in your downtown. Offer incentives to develop and redevelop your commercial buildings and residential properties that line your main streets. It’s so great that you’ve spent untold millions on your school buildings. Terrific. Now focus on the reason your tax base is so high and your expenses are so low: the lakefront and your general business district. And lastly, to the City of Lake Geneva. Stop it. Be a high end resort town. Every time a new proposal for some new nonsense comes your way just ask yourself: Does anyone like the Dells?
I was born in Elkhorn. Raised in Williams Bay. Then I lived in Linn Township, Geneva Township, Delavan Township, Fontana, and now Walworth Township. I am the embodiment of local. The word was made for me. If I’m not a local here, no one is a local anywhere. I was in France last week, being a non-local. If not for my strapping American frame and my obvious American nature, I might, after some lengthy period of time, be considered, at least by some, as a local. This business of localness typically requires significant effort and significant time. Last Friday night I walked in to the South Shore Bar and Grill on Delavan’s southern shore, feeling very much not like a local.
I’ve been to this bar before, or I should say, at least once before. I went with a friend for pizza on a night when our wives weren’t looking. On that night, I generally enjoyed the pizza, which is tavern style. But on this night, I was there for the fish fry, and the parking lot sign proclaimed that I was indeed at the right place. I should say that I didn’t intend to visit the South Shore Bar that night. I first went to the Rushing Waters Trout House restaurant in Delavan. The restaurant there is very large, and when we walked in we were delighted to see open tables and no one waiting. The hostess told us there would be a 20-30 minute wait. But there were open tables, I replied, incredulous in my tone. She said there weren’t enough servers. And so we left. This is embarrassing for the Trout House, and if I were in any position of authority there I’d quickly right my ship before all of this excess water sinks it.
The South Shore Bar and Grill is a bar. There’s a large bar in the main room, with a small dining room off to the West side. When we arrived the parking lot was full and so was the restaurant. We were told the wait would be maybe 10 minutes, so we stood by the door, sticking out like very sore thumbs. Eyes glanced our direction. At least one man at the bar whispered something to another man at the bar. It might have been about my powder blue shorts, but I couldn’t be certain. A man on the other side of the bar drank from a tall can of Busch Light. His wife nursed a cocktail. Everyone knew each other, no one knew us. If it weren’t for the Wisconsin law, I’m guessing 40% of the bar would have been pulling on a heater.
A polite but somewhat harried hostess led us to our booth. The booth cushion on the one side was torn open in many spots, so I opted for the other side. But the other side had very little breathing room, and the table was affixed to the wall, a condition I only realized after pushing and tugging at it for a while. I switched with my son and sat on the torn side. I reviewed my fishy options.
All you can eat fried cod, $11.50. Baked cod dinner, $11.50. Pan Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Perch Dinner, $15.95. These are fine options. Impressive really, for a small bar on the way to no-where, just around the corner from Nothing. The menu reflected a general understanding of the Wisconsin Fish Fry. All items were served with a side of potato and access to the small salad bar that resided in between the bar and the dining room. I asked the waitress what she recommended. The fried walleye was a bit bland for her taste. She loved the perch. I opted for the fried cod, with a piece of baked cod for good measure.
The salad bar was modest. A few bowls of mayonnaise based salad of some variety, along with some lettuce, chopped onion and tomato, and shredded cheese. I could have used a few more accoutrements, but seeing as how I was at a bar for fish fry, I didn’t mind. If you wanted a salad bar, you should have gone to a salad restaurant. This was a fried food restaurant with a side of pizza, and I was content to nibble a bit of salad and wait for my fish. After a week of French food, my stomach was hankering for some classic Wisconsin fish fry.
And the South Shore Bar didn’t disappoint. The fried cod came out, two pieces with my initial order, and it was delightful. The batter was well seasoned, and the fish was moist, sweet, and salty. I really loved it. The baked was a bit dry, but it was served with a small plastic tub of drawn butter, and that made everything better. There was a single slice of rye bread on my plate, which was awful as expected but it was buttered so how terrible could it really be? Give me liberty or give me death, but if you’re going to give me rye bread you should at least butter it for me.
The two potato pancakes were nicely fried to a golden brown, and while they were a touch dry, they met the expectation of an average pancake. I quickly ate all of my food and asked for a few more pieces of fried cod, not because I was hungry but because I refuse to walk away from an all-you-can-eat dinner offering without ordering seconds. The cod was again delightful, even if my second piece was thicker and ended up being slightly undercooked. My wife said the tartar sauce was okay, and I found the applesauce to be delicious. It was served ice cold, and had immense flavor. It was, perhaps, my favorite applesauce to date.
I enjoyed my dinner at the South Shore Bar and Grill. The waitress was sweet and attentive, the food above average for this tour. The fried cod was a real treat, as the seasoned batter elevated otherwise bland cod to a higher level. I’d add the South Shore Bar to your Fish Fry rotation, especially if your preferred joint is slammed this summer. I left feeling satisfied in my dinner, and had it not been for those powder blue shorts and my wife’s white jeans, we might have fit right in.
South Shore Bar and Grill 7/10
W6763 South Shore Drive, Delavan, WI
$11.50 All You Can Eat Fried Cod
If you think the vacation home market at the lake is active, you should check out the market for sub-$350k single family and condominium residences that lack lake access. That market is absolutely on fire. A recent search I performed showed 23 single family homes in Williams Bay priced between $310k and $400k. Of those 23, 15 were pending sale. That’s a hot market. Similarly so, the vacation home segment under $400k is also active, and that activity isn’t only involving properties with lake access. There’s an entire subset of vacation homes here, those condominiums that lack dedicated water access but still, often, appeal to a vacation home buyer.
Condominiums, wherever they are found, lend themselves to vacation home ownership for pure ease of ownership, and as a result, the off-water, non-access condominium market in Walworth County is a common target for vacation home seekers who find themselves with a fixed budget. Many of these buyers find their way to Abbey Springs, where they receive lake access, or to other condominiums like Willabay Shores in Williams Bay or the Abbey Villas in Fontana. It’s obvious, too, that these buyers end up in Geneva National. But increasingly I’m finding it annoying that Geneva National is overlooked by so many in this sub-$300k price range.
As I don’t often work this market, you’ll know my annoyance is genuine, as I’m not stumbling into this condition simply because it doesn’t serve my purpose. Geneva National might offer solid value and a rare setting, but as budget minded buyers know, it also offers a hefty monthly association fee. Often lakefront condominiums on Geneva will have elevated fees, but that’s an understood situation given the piers and pools and increased amenities. Geneva National has high fees, and while it offers justifiable amenities, many buyers will look directly past GN based solely on those monthlies. I think this is a mistake.
Let’s consider a random Geneva National condominium and contrast it to competing inventory in the broad market. For our purpose today, we’re going to look at a Highlands unit listed around $220k. This unit is a three bedroom, three bath, with a two car attached garage, three levels of finished space and a walkout lower level. The unit is a bit dated at this point, but who isn’t? The tax bill is around $3500 with monthly association fees of $590. That fee covers exterior maintenance, pools, tennis court, gated security, private roads, etc and etc. It’s a nice condo for the money.
If we’re a buyer of a three bedroom condominium in the Lake Geneva area, another reasonable option would be a unit listed for sale on the East end of the City of Lake Geneva listed at $290k. This is a four bedroom unit with slightly more square footage, but a two car garage and a one less full bath. To be certain, this is also a nice unit, and any buyer on a budget would likely find living here to be pleasant. The condo fees are $235, the taxes $4200. The fee covers exterior maintenance. And exterior maintenance. There’s nothing else for it to cover.
The sort of buyer that might be drawn to the city condo would likely find the low monthly fees to be an important data point. Those fees might be the same reason they avoided Geneva National. But let’s really consider those fees. The GN fees allow use of a resort community with pools, tennis, walking trails, gated security, and more. The fees at the other development cover simple exterior maintenance. There’s no resort there. No other value added amenities. Just a condo that lists access to the highway as an amenity. These may seem like similar units, but they are not, as a matter of fact, even remotely the same.
But that’s just the lifestyle difference, and that’s where Geneva National shines, so let’s go back and look at those monthly fees. To own in Geneva National, versus our fill-in-competition, it’ll cost an extra $4260 per year. Ouch, that’s rough. That’s why people avoid GN. But let’s dig a bit more. The taxes at GN are $700 cheaper, owing that to a Town of Geneva tax scale, rather than the City of Lake Geneva. Now our annual premium is down to $3560. The fee in Geneva National covers water and sewer charges, which the other condo adds in separately (according to the MLS listing). It’s fair to assume the annual water/sewer charge for moderate use would be around $800. Now our Geneva National premium is down to $2760.
Now that we’ve figured out the monthly fee difference, consider what that $2760 buys you. Tennis, pools, gated security. Is that worth $230 a month? I think it is, but you might not be so easily convinced. What we’re forgetting here is that the Geneva National condo is a full $70k less in initial purchase price. If we’re financing our transaction with a 20% down payment, that means the non-GN condo cost us $14k more up front, and adds $335 to our monthly liability. If we’re paying cash for the purchase, assuming a similar discount to ask for each unit, we’re forking over an additional $70k for the amenity-void unit. That’ll cover the next 25 years of Geneva National premium.
The exercise today is simple. Let’s stop ruling out condominiums based solely on monthly fees. Let’s consider the real numbers behind that initial number, and let’s buy something that matches our lifestyle and our budget, not just our budget.
Photo Courtesy either Ideal Impressions or Matt Mason Photography. I’m really not sure…
I love my kids. I really do. Of the few things in this life of which I’m certain, that condition is firmly assured. But I can’t stand driving anywhere with them. Short trips, long trips, it’s all the same, and it’s all awful. Social Media, this week and the last, has been full of road tripping families, heading to some awful place in Northern Florida, the kids crammed into the backseat with pillows and blankets and iPads and earbuds. The images are supposed to evoke feelings of good old fashioned family fun, but to me, they are the stuff of nightmares. Loving my kids is one thing, loving spending time in cars with them is an entirely other thing.
During the summers of my youth, in between bouts of rag tag, lawn mowing and, well, rag tag and lawn mowing, my family would take to the interstates and spend two weeks in another place. We did this for many reasons, but mostly so my dad could rent out his house to raise money to help pay his property taxes. We packed our station wagon, whichever one it was at the time, hitched up the trailered Boston Whaler, and proceeded to pack the Whaler full of everything we thought we might need for two weeks in the north woods of Minnesota. The preparation for the trip was remarkably stressful, and to this day, I cannot pack for a trip anywhere without falling into my father’s pattern of yelling and stressing over every detail of the chaos.
Most years, we’d cram into the back of that station wagon, first a blue one and then a red one, three brothers in the back, parents in the front, and we’d drive through the night without much excitement. The drive was long, perhaps eight hours worth, and exceedingly boring. There were no iPads to distract. No iPhones to amuse. Just the road and the night and three sweaty boys, packed like sardines in a can lined with red upholstery.
One year, a wheel bearing gave out in Minneapolis sometime around midnight. I don’t remember the details of that night, but it was similar to when Clark fell asleep and took that exit to the wrong part of Saint Louis. In spite of the hiccup, we arrived the next morning in those northwoods, the washboard rumble of the camp driveway serving as our only notice. Once we arrived, we’d spend our time swimming and following girls and attending more church services in two weeks than most fit into a year. After two weeks we’d pack up and drive through the summer night. We’d be home by morning, because there were lawns to mow.
The summer trips we took were never about the journey. They were only about the destination. We didn’t stop to see the World’s Largest Ball Of Twine. We didn’t stop to take pictures at overpasses. We just drove because we knew the destination was worth the effort. The journey, well that was just the price we had to pay.
There’s a new Pure Michigan commercial disrupting my television commercials of late, and it’s a commercial that praises the journey. Along the way, Tim Allen insists, is where we have the most fun. Along the way, he says, is the place we’ve been longing for. I’ve always been trained to endure the journey to embrace the destination. Suffer through the trip, because it’ll be worthwhile when you get to where you’re going. This is why I fly Frontier to Denver. Tim Allen says otherwise. He’s told us that the journey is where it’s at. But, like always, he’s wrong. This is what people say when the destination isn’t very good. This is what people say when the journey is long and the travelers are weary. Drive to Michigan if you must, just remember the commercial asks you to enjoy the trip because the destination isn’t all that great.
Image by Matt Mason Photography
Sometimes, dive bars aren’t where it’s at. They’re fun, the irony of it all, of the dated this and the out of style that. But once in a while you just want to be surrounded by nice things. This is why we have nice lake houses. Old cottages are cute and fun, but luxury isn’t so bad either. Last Friday night I abandoned the dive bar scene and embraced the fanciful surroundings of the lake set. The Lake Geneva Yacht Club serves a Fish Fry, which means it must be judged.
Friday night wasn’t a great night. It was a bit windy and a bit cloudy, excepting a bright burst of sun that pushed through the low clouds right around sunset. The dying light made one last gasp and filled the lakefront bar just as we pulled up a chair. Our benevolent hosts had arrived before my wife and I, and as we chatted in that beautiful bar that lakefront light slowly faded beyond the western shore.
This is a restaurant at a yacht club (with a venerable history), so the E-Scow hanging from the ceiling and the trophies filling the glass cases shouldn’t come as any surprise. The surroundings here are vibrant and clean, beautiful, really, as they should be given the building is only a few years old. A large fireplace anchors the Eastern wall of that large, lakeside dining room. The glow flickered throughout the room, with the overhead chandeliers warmed to low. Excepting Pier 290, this is the nicest scene of any fish fry you’ll find in the Lake Geneva area. But this is also a private club, so you’ll need to consider membership to enjoy this place. Or just be like me, and tag along with friends.
After some time lingering near the bar, where I nursed my Sprite, we sat at a table for four in the middle of that lovely dining room. The crowd was well dressed, happy, with most sporting birth years that fell closer to those of my parents than my own. The waiter was quickly table side, and with a slightly uneasy cadence described our dining options. The Fish Fry was two piece cod, served broiled or fried, served with potato pancakes, applesauce, tartar sauce, hushpuppies, and coleslaw. That sounds good, I’ll take it.
The Crab Cake appetizer looked worthwhile, so we took a stab. It was a singular cake ($14), nicely crisped but tender as a crab cake should be. It was served with a smear of something or other and a small assembly of finely diced vegetables, bacon, and some corn. It was a delicious appetizer, though I would have liked to have some larger chunks of crab in the cake. In the distance, the old men in blazers discussed the wind and knots and cleats and sails.
The fish arrived within a reasonable amount of time, served on a white platter with quality, smaller dishes holding in the tartar sauce and other accompaniments. I liked this, as the plague of plastic takeout containers had been kept out of this fine establishment. The fish filets were not large, but they were large enough, and shaped like a proper rectangle, not a silly square. A lemon wedge sat atop my broiled piece. The potato pancakes were moderately sized, and after a disappointing run where my cakes were served in the singular, I had a nice pair of pancakes to consider.
My first bite was of the fried cod. The batter was super crunchy, thin, not tough, the cod white and tender like the cod in my dreams. It was perfect. Well salted, slightly sweet, and perhaps the best fried cod I’ve had so far, only rivaled by the Lookout Bar at Lake Lawn Lodge. The broiled piece was slightly undercooked, which is preferable to slightly overcooked. The hushpuppies (2) were sweet and creamy, the best hushpuppies I’ve had to date. If dusted with powdered sugar and served after dinner on a small white plate, I would have appreciated them even as a dessert.
The potato pancakes were well salted, with a bit of extra flavor that I couldn’t quite identify. They were thin, but properly cooked, nicely crisped, and delightful. Were they the best pancake I’ve had? No, but they were close. The applesauce was too smooth for my liking, but it was cold and flavorful. The tartar sauce, according to my dinner mates, was lighter than typical, nuanced with flavor, and generally accepted as being delicious.
This was a beautiful dinner. The food was wonderful. The scene divine. The hushed murmurs of sailing strategy only slightly distracting to my fishy focus. Given that this is a private club, it only stands to reason that it would be better than your average fish fry, but this dinner was exceptional. The next day, I inquired of the membership manager as to what a social membership would cost me. This is a fish fry I might not be able to live without.
Lake Geneva Yacht Club 9/10
1250 South Lakeshore Drive, Fontana, WI
$17 Single Serve Fried or Broiled Cod
It’s fun to see the media make a fuss about a sale on Geneva Lake. First up, please know that the media itself doesn’t pay such close attention to these lakefront sales. Once a sale is completed, the brokerage involved has a representative reach out to numerous media outlets to generate some buzz. This happens at large firms that need to hang on to their market share. This is why, on the fresh heels of the Hillcroft sale, you’ve read so much about it and from so many different sources. Local news sources fawn all over Lake Geneva, largely because our market is so much different than that of the rest of this great state. Lots of places in Wisconsin have large homes. Lots of places have high valuations. But at Lake Geneva, we not only have high valuations we also have high prints. You can own your expensive home anywhere in Wisconsin and that’ll be nice for you. The difference at Lake Geneva is that we can actually sell that house when you’re done with it. It’s good to be king.
In spite of the media attention and the well known nature of this story, there is still work to be done. There is analysis that must be considered. The Hillcroft property was immensely large for this lake. 415′ of rare, mostly level frontage, situated on a small point. The frontage was spectacular. The location on the lake, just West of downtown and off of Snake Road, pretty much ideal. The overall property is 20 acres. That’s an obscene amount of property on this lake. Don’t forget, for the purposes of our local definition, 200′ of frontage and 3 acres constitutes a reasonable estate. Hillcroft is off the charts in terms of land mass, and it should be applauded for simply being. Consider the 2017 average for price per square foot of overall lakefront land mass was $58.09. Applied to Hillcroft, that would place the valuation over $50,000,000. (Compression doesn’t allow for this, of course).
There has been much fawning over the home itself. Over the size of it, the bedrooms, the baths. The dining room and library. I always loved this home from the lakeside. The way the structure follows the curve of the lakefront is rather divine. But as an agent who showed this home when it was available I can say this: The house, while beautiful on the exterior, was average. The layout compromised, the finishes mostly dated. Any praise this property receives should be dedicated to the property, to the old Wrigley buildings that still exist, and to the history of it all.
The average price per front foot of lakefront settled at $27,193 for 2017. Typically, larger properties are unable to achieve that average, as compression once again rears its ugly, insistent head. But in the case of the Hillcroft property, the price held up. At 415 feet of frontage, the average would have yielded a print at $11,285,095, which is nearly identical to the actual print of $11,250,000. That’s a surprise of sorts, given the structure was so meh, but when you factor in that overall value of land mass, the lakefront average makes perfect sense.
Is this the highest priced sale in Lake Geneva history? Yes. Was the sale a surprise? Not at all. It makes perfect sense, and the only issue in our marketplace now is that we won’t likely have another Hillcroft to sell for a while. But that brings us to an important concept regarding this lakefront market. Is Hillcroft a rare property? Obviously. Will it remain as the top dollar sale for a long time? Not likely. Consider the previous high sale was the property that I represented at W4449 North Lakeshore in Linn. I closed that property for $9,950,000 in late 2016. Hillcroft surpassed that sale by only 13%. The North Lakeshore sale was of a gorgeous house on reasonably nice dirt. The Hillcroft sale was of legacy dirt with a reasonably blah house. What the market has yet to see is the ultra rare combination of a gorgeous, newer house built on top of rare, meaningful dirt. Yes, 200′ lots with beautiful homes on them exist, and they exist plenty. Yes, those prices could easily be in the $7-10MM range. But those prices won’t dethrone Hillcroft. What will dethrone Hillcroft, and likely soon, will be the combination of that perfect house on that perfect dirt.
Don’t blink, it’s coming.
(I wasn’t the listing or sale agent for Hillcroft, which is a terrible and embarrassing shame. If you’re a buyer or seller of such a property, you should be working with me. This sort of top sale without my involvement can never, ever happen again).
I called ahead. It was 5:50 pm and I figured I’d arrive at Popeye’s with my party of six sometime just after 6. I learned many weeks ago not to take off-season dinner seating for granted, so I called Popeye’s and a woman answered. I asked if I needed a reservation for dinner. She said, “honey, we seat 600.” But then she proceeded to tell me that a reservation wouldn’t be a terrible idea and she took my name. I asked if they had fish fry, a question asked with an answer already known. Honey, we have the best fish fry in Southeastern Wisconsin.
It’s difficult to be a big restaurant in the biggest location in the biggest resort town in the Midwest. While I imagine it’s nice to have seating for 600, and that premium location will never go out of style, if you would have asked Andre, he’d agree. It’s not easy being a giant. When I suggested Popeye’s for fish fry my friend immediately replied, “Is the food good or is it just a cheesy tourist trap?”
The parking meters are no longer free. We learned this after parking and noticing the meter maid waltzing along the lakeside street, after 6 pm. I insisted to the meter maid that assuredly parking had to be free after 6 pm, at least in March, right? 7 pm, the maid replied. I fed my credit card into the machine and felt certain that had it been 7 pm his answer would have been 8 pm. Slightly irritated by the gall of the Lake Geneva Parking Policies, we entered Popeyes and were led to our seats in the elevated dining room to the East of the entry and bar. In the event that you didn’t know, Popeye’s Lake Geneva is not affiliated with the fast food restaurant that shares their name.
Our water glasses were quickly filled and my typical question about the fish fry posed. $14.99, all you can eat fried or broiled cod, with a choice of potato pancake or fries, hush puppies and a few of the usual sides. The waitress moved quickly through the dining room, quickly to our table, quickly from our table. Quickly. The evening rush was on and this large restaurant was filling up nicely. We ordered the fish and a half rack of ribs as a pregame to our fishy meal.
The ribs arrived quickly, and were fine. Nothing special. It’s a shame really, since there’s a charcoal spit roasting chickens outside at nearly all times. I’d make a custom basket for the ribs and twirl those over the charcoal along with the chicken. But that’s just me, and I like tasty food. The menu says the ribs are smoked, which they may very well be, but I couldn’t detect a whiff of smoke in these ribs. Within 10 minutes our dinner was served.
A huge tray of food was placed on an elevated platform in the middle of our table. It was like a pizza platform, but filled with fried and broiled fish, potato pancakes, and hushpuppies. A few lemon wedges dressed up the edges. The french fries came in their own basket. It was a feast. I must say that I don’t like family style servings. It cheapens the food. That’s the reason shrimp cocktail is usually served with five or six or eight shrimp tails. Throw 100 shrimp tails on a platter and smear some cocktail sauce in the middle and the special treat has turned into a free for all.
I grabbed a few pieces of fried cod, one piece of broiled cod, a potato pancake and a hushpuppy. The hushpuppy was nicely crisped, tender in the middle. It tasted of crab. It may have had some crab in it, but I didn’t check the menu to see if it really did. The pancake was quite good. My grandmother was a terrible cook, but she did whip up a fine dish of Tetrazzini with bits of pimento peppers. These pancakes had pimento peppers, and I enjoyed the nostalgic flavor quite a bit. The potato was shredded, as it should be, the exterior crisped but not greasy. These were delicious potato pancakes, and for the first time this tour, I was offered a dollop of sour cream for my pancakes. I liked the effort.
The fried cod was shaped more like an extravagant fish stick. The pieces were slender and narrow, like fingers. But there was some variation in the sizing, and I like variation in my fish filets. The batter was light and airy, the first of its kind on this winter tour. The fish was tender, well seasoned, and quite delicious. I was impressed. The broiled cod was your basic square of cod, needing salt and lacking any particular dimension. The french fries were delicious, slightly spicy, and memorable. I place them in a tie with Gordy’s for finest traditional french fry in the area.
The sides were a disappointment. I have long adored the dinner rolls at Popeyes, and used to eat one with a bowl of clam chowder long ago when I ate semi-frequent lunches there. This fish feast, not that it needed it, didn’t include any bread. No dinner roll. No loaf of bread. No slice of intolerable Rye. I suppose I’d rather have no bread than be blindsided by Rye, but still. With no bread there was no butter, no judging. The applesauce was bland and smooth, and sadly served in a small plastic take out container.
The tartar sauce was apparently rather sweet, but not terrible, also served in a take out container. There was no coleslaw. Had there been coleslaw, it would have been served in one of those take out containers, the sort you’d pump ketchup into at a Culver’s. We finished most of the mountain of food and the waitress quickly cleared our table. There was some leftover fish and at least one potato pancake, but the food was unceremoniously taken from the table. The menu warns that leftovers will not be taken home.
Popeyes very well might be a cheesy tourist restaurant. There is so much flair here, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Chotchkie’s. It’s an undeniably large, loud space. The prime seats are the two tops nearest the window, even on a dark March night. While this Lake Geneva institution won’t win any awards for excellence in design, Popeyes manages to be both cheesy tourist trap and purveyor of above average fare. On this Friday night, I left impressed by the fish fry. Sure, I bemoaned the lack of bread, coleslaw (the menu says it’s included), and softened butter. And I felt ill over the plastic cup my flavorless, smooth applesauce was served in. But the lightly fried cod was delicate and well seasoned, the potato pancake with pimento rather divine, and that’s all it takes to win my affection.
Popeye’s Fish Fry 8/10
Cod, All You Can Eat, $14.99
811 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva
Above, Popeye’s image courtesy Visit Lake Geneva.
It feels like it wasn’t so long ago that I wished for more snow. For more cold. For more winter. Shortly after wishing, all of that came true. Briefly. Since then the weather has been a mix of spring and sort of winter, the dreaded in between that will come to define the next six weeks of our existence. But fret not, for February is nearly over. With it we leave behind the Olympics, and with that, we leave behind the nightly disappointment of a country with so many participants, but so few medals. It’ll be March soon, and then we can lament the weather in March and wish for it to be April. Once April starts, we have just one more month of wishing for May. Soon, it’ll be nice out.
Even though the weather is haphazard, the real estate market doesn’t really care. New inventory has been introduced to market, much of it by yours truly. Pending sales have printed, and new contracts have been written. Some have been accepted. My lakefront in Loramoor closed late last month for $4,950,000, placing that property in what will be a short-lived position of first. Like when a US skater is in the gold medal position before anyone else has laced up their skates. Another lakefront in the city of Lake Geneva closed recently, that of a small hillside home listed and closed at $1.799MM. I’ll be expecting to see that home torn down or significantly remodeled. A home in the Birches on 105′ of elevated frontage closed for $3MM.
A new lakefront came to market with 150′ of frontage and a $3.975MM asking price. I sent it around but didn’t think too much of it, and then it sold. The market doesn’t always care what I think, which is probably good, since I tend to be conservative in my valuations. A small lakefront in Williams Bay listed just over a buck is pending sale, but there’s nothing more I feel like adding to that one. A level lakefront in the Narrows is under contract recently, listed in the $2.3s. Rounding out the lakefront activity, there are three remaining 2017 contracts left out there waiting to close, those of lakefronts listed at $3.85MM, $6.5MM, and $12.5MM. It’s going to be a terrific 2018, and we’ve only just begun. For a full list of available lake access and lakefront homes, CLICK HERE. Feel free to share this post with anyone you know who also might appreciate an accurate list of inventory.
I’ve added some new lake access inventory this month, including a large home in Indian Hills. Listed at $675k, it will give the new owner an opportunity to engage in the Fontana scene, with very little effort. The home is spacious, with two story foyer, main floor master bedroom, and five total bedrooms. There’s also a two car garage, along with those private Indian Hills lake rights. I added another home in the lower price ranges this month as well, that of an off-water home in Geneva West. This is about a mile north of the lake in Williams Bay. That home, pictured above, offers a charming spread for a buyer looking for a primary residence in the Williams Bay School District, or perhaps a vacation home owner looking to find privacy at an affordable price.
A particular sale of note involves a large condo in Fontana at the Fontana Club. I sold this unit to the original owner, when I represented the developer back in 2001. The first sale was of a single unit, then the buyer bought an adjacent unit and remodeled the space into one large residence. I sold that combined unit for him in 2006 for $1.125MM, at the time that would represent the obvious peak in the lakefront condo market. That new owner has offered the unit for sale off and on over recent years, while the price steadily eroded. That double unit closed this month for $685k. That’s a terrible thing. The good news for the Fontana Club is that with this sale, and that of my single unit that closed last fall for $390k, the aged inventory has finally and mercifully been cleared from the market. The best situation for the Fontana Club would now be to withhold any inventory from the market so that demand can slowly build.
Overall, I like the way the market is behaving so far this year, but I’m increasingly wary of over confident sellers. I’ve often told you how I personally behave when I’m a seller of my own home. I recognize the fact that I need that buyer more than that buyer needs me. My particular home is the only home I need to sell, whereas that buyer has several different homes he can choose. Sellers so far in 2018 are negotiating from a position of strength, which they have understandably earned. There are some buyers, as evidenced in the market today, that will pay a seller’s price, no matter if it’s 15% too high or not. But most of the buyers are still smart, even if they choose to work with an agent they found on Zillow, because Premier Agent’s must be amazing! (or willing to pay huge sums of money to buy leads) But these buyers are still reasonably concerned about their investment, and they’re not pushing prices quite as high as sellers would like. I’ve heard of and been part of several negotiations over the last six months that featured buyers and sellers in odd standoffs over insignificant amounts of money. Should buyers come up? Maybe. Should sellers come down? Maybe. Should you stop working with any agent who isn’t David Curry? Duh.
Above, my listing in Geneva West. $499k.
It is no secret that the South Shore Club is an exclusive development. Anything numbering just 40 in total would be viewed as exclusive. While this is known, what isn’t so well known is that exclusivity does exist here on a higher level. The homes are each unique, each impressive. The slate, the stone, the imported this and hand hammered that, it’s all very intoxicating. There’s plenty of reason why the South Shore Club is entirely sold out, with no available inventory as of this writing. Whether the home is on Forest Hill near the tennis court, or right on the semi-circle that rings the lake like a modern day Congress Club, the structure is divine and the home a veritable castle for its fortunate owner. But this is the obvious. This is what everyone, no, anyone, can see with their own two open eyes if they so much as drive past, or perhaps through, the South Shore Club.
But what is a higher prize are the select homes that line not just the circle of lush grass where a swimming pool and clubhouse reside, but those homes that rest immediately adjacent to the lake itself. These are the few lakefront homes of the South Shore Club, and these are the homes that compete with private frontage in such a way that they are not just a different option for those seeking private frontage, they can indeed become the better option. In this hunt for the exclusive within the exclusive, we find ourselves at the door of 1621 East Lakeside Lane.
We’ve already established that each home in the SSC is a shining jewel in its own right, but what we miss when we paint with this wide brush is that individual homes do stand out among this spiffy crowd. Some homes are larger, as is this one. At just over 10,000 square feet, this home is large enough to meet any square footage desire, and yet boasts a design that is approachable with rooms that feel airy but not so large that they become unnecessary or somehow irrelevant. This home has more privacy, more outdoor space, more this and more that. The floor plan here is delightful, with everything a discerning buyer might require for a true lakefront home. There are finishes that exceed the highest of expectations. The Ralph Lauren interior design works perfectly at the lake.
In spite of all this perfection, the location of this home might be its most important attribute. Nestled on the extreme eastern edge of the club, there is more space between this home and its lakefront neighbor to the East. This spacious side yard is a result of superior site planning, and it’s this side yard that makes this home feel less like just another home in the South Shore Club and more like one of the finest lakefront homes you’ll ever lay eyes on. The views from the home rival or exceed that of any lakefront home on Geneva, with unavoidable lake views present in many of the rooms, and most pronounced from the epic lakeside stone patio.
This is the appeal of this exquisite home. It is part of the South Shore Club, and along with that membership it enjoys the unrivaled trappings of such luxury- the free and varied boats, the tennis court, the pool and hot tub, the clubhouse. Think you need to buy a life vest for your daughter here? Think again, they’re included as it’s all part of the South Shore Club experience. These are the amenities, and when a home like this requires the use of those, they are available at any moment. But what is different here is the ability to detach from the South Shore Club and live as a true lakefront home. If the activities are needed, they are there. But if they are not needed, and the new owner requires little more than a comfortable lounge chair to rest on and the sound of lapping waves as their soundtrack, this is also available. It’s in the ability to live as a true lakefront home with the wide array of South Shore Club activities available when they are wanted and out of sight, and perhaps mind, when they are not.
This is the only available home in the South Shore Club, and it just so happens to be one of the most special. If you’re looking for lakefront and want to purchase something that’s both beautiful and easy to own, this is your chance. I sold the house next door in less than three weeks last summer. Available for private tour with notice. $4,850,000
(Lake Geneva lovers to the left of the podium, smiling and clapping, standing. Michigan lovers to the right of my podium, scowling, sitting, glaring. Me, walking, shaking, waving. My hair tall, my grip firm, my smile electric. Scene.)
My fellow Americans, those prized long tenured lake lovers, those recent converts to our religion of lake living, and those new buyers who hail from Winnetka and beyond, today in Lake Geneva some snow sculptors put on one extra layer of long underwear before heading out of their hotel room door. Today it is a good day to be us. Today, we are the American dream.
An architect put his pencil to paper, intent on designing another great vacation home for another discerning buyer, and we shall count this work as a job saved by the bustling Lake Geneva economy. A city worker plowed and pushed so much snow, up over the median and onto the lawn, so that it might be trampled on and later today carved into a swan, or Shrek, or a dragon, and he did this without complaining. Later today, a mother from Buffalo Grove will log on to her computer, and she’ll stumble upon this website and her eyes will be opened to the possibility of a Lake Geneva vacation home. This is the promise of America, yes, but it’s the further promise of Lake Geneva. And when this mother searches and strives and brings her family to the lake this summer, and oh so many summers after, this is when the dream of my father, and of her father will have been realized. Of course, that assumes her father dreamt of this in the way that my father did, but still. It’s in these people, the city worker and the snow sculptor and the mother from Buffalo Grove and my father and her father that combine to make the state of the Lake Geneva market strong.
The results of this work, of the street plower dutifully fulfilling his pledge, and of the mother looking and then buying the most perfect lake house, is that our market has never been stronger. We have never been stronger. We own the Midwest vacation home market, and it is all but assured that the coming year will be as bright as the years that preceded it. No, brighter. We do not shut off our lights, or turn away any weary travelers just because we are content in our own strength. Instead we offer benevolence to the lake weary, to those who toil and labor in cities and in suburbs, and we offer them shelter because that is what we do and this is who we are. How can we call ourselves Americans if we do not encourage those with the means to lay down roots near our shores?
The question for us today is actually only for you. It is not for you if you’re content with your vacation home ownership here. If you splash your way through every summer, this is not a charge that you need to consider because you have already passed this greatest test. The question today is for those who sit at their computers, who sit on their couches, who spend Saturday wondering what Sunday will bring even though you know it just brings a long line and then brunch. Maybe a stroller ride through an insufferable park. The question is what, exactly, are you doing? Why are you allowing a most un-American complacency to drag down your weekends, when you know that we’re here- the city worker, polishing the streets that we’d like you to drive over, and the mother, picking up corn at the farmer’s market in the morning to cook it lakeside in the evening. We are here, working and playing and living in a most amazing fashion, even while you sit there in that same new chair, obstructing your own path in life simply because you’re scared to venture into the unknown. Do you not dream our same watery dreams?
But this isn’t the unknown, my friends, this is America, yes, the most pure version of it. This is America, if the entirety of it would be washed in clean water, surrounded by a lush green shore, where every family gets not just an organic chicken from Yuppie Hill Poultry, but also a boat in every slip and some gas in that boat and a few hours of leisure. This is what we offer, and in the coming months you must make a decision to join us or forever get out of our way. In God We Trust, yes but do we not also trust in blue water and soft summer skies? We can make progress this year, together, but we cannot do this without your cooperation. We can lead you to the water but we cannot make you swim. We cannot simply urge you to join us if you will not make even a modest effort. This isn’t what it is to be an American, to lie and lounge in city apartments and in suburban backyards, this isn’t the sense of adventure that our fore-bearers wished for us. Do you not aspire to join us in our greatness?
But today is for the laborer. The partner and the founder. The director and the vice president. They rise and they work, and they rise and they work. They wake on Saturday and they pretend that this day is somehow different. They rise and think that a Lake Geneva vacation home isn’t for them, because it hasn’t ever been for them. That this dream is unattainable. They huddle in their darkest corners, holding tight to their money that they’ve worked so hard to earn, and they fear the things that might happen if they let some of it go. They live as though their pedigree is in question, as though they cannot consider Lake Geneva because of its long enduring reputation as a place for the societal elites. I assure you today, as I will assure you again tomorrow, that Lake Geneva is for everyone, for every make and model, for anyone who wakes on a Saturday and says, “I’m bored here, let’s go to the lake”.
And so I make this decree, by executive order I hereby demand every vacation home seeker of some means to at least consider a Lake Geneva vacation home. Your complacency cannot thrive under this bright lakeside sun, and so this command today by me, your dictat- err- President, shall be followed otherwise the willing dissenters risk being labeled enemy combatants. We may disagree on the course of value, or on the benefits of one shore over the other, or on which restaurant is worthy of our breakfasting intentions and which restaurants are not, but we can agree that Lake Geneva is the place to be. In fact, it always has been, and it always will be. If we can summon the courage to live in a way that finds our weekends at the lake, then we can overcome anything. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless Lake Geneva and no place else.
One year ago, I wrote my year end market reviews and worried about 2017 inventory. 2016 had been a terrific year, but without inventory there was no way that 2017 could match that success. For the year 2016, we sold 103 lakefront and lake access homes on and near Geneva Lake. That was a solid tally. With the inventory concerns heading into 2017, I was uncertain we could come anywhere near that figure, but here we are. 2017 wrapped with 119 such sales, beating the prior year even though the outlook, at least based on inventory, was bleak. So what happened? Was there some rush of new inventory? Was there some development that came online and offered up a large chunk of ready-made sales? Neither event happened. Instead, Geneva was Geneva. We sold new inventory relatively quickly, and the market turned to the aged inventory and decided maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.
Today there are just 35 lakefront and lake access homes available on and near Geneva Lake. That number is a bit artificial as it doesn’t take into account properties that recently expired and have not yet been brought back to market, but the number is still startling. Making matters worse, there are only 11 lakefront homes available for sale. That number is just awful, but I suppose that depends on your perspective. If you’re an agent, like, say, me, then this is simply horrendous. If you’re a buyer, you feel the same. But if you’re a seller, especially a seller of a property that has experienced a length time on market, then this news couldn’t be better. Our market, like any market, lives and dies on inventory. Today, there isn’t any. It’s Ground Hog Day in January.
It’s safe to say that the Lake Geneva vacation home market has been on a solid bull-run since the end of 2013. The market recovered volume in 2011 and 2012, but prices didn’t stabilize and find some margin until that later date. That means we’re entering year five of a rather remarkable run. The market has made price gains, eliminated aged inventory, cleansed a few weak owners from the scene, and generally, completely, forged ahead. The lake is abuzz with new construction, leaving a market that finds a $4MM price tag to be somewhat median. The market is starved for inventory, each of decent land in the $2-3.5MM range, of entry level offerings sub $1.5MM, and of newer construction in the $4-10MM range. For the first time ever, I believe there’s a market for homes in the $10-15MM range, even though this market has never been properly tested.
While this run has featured buyers of every sort and wealth finding their way to the lakefront, it can most easily be recognized as being the run that delivered higher end buyers to these shores. $4MM is the new $3MM. $7MM is the new $5MM. The stakes have been raised, and Geneva continues to be set apart not only by the quality of our water and the vibrancy of our scene, but by our ability to produce upper bracket liquidity. I’ve said it often, and it continues to be more true each time I do, but Geneva is alone at the top of the Midwest vacation home segment. There is no market that comes close. Michigan, for all its effort, cannot hold a candle to our inland lake. Door County’s real estate market should be renamed Bore County. The Northwoods? Is that even a market? Geneva is the king, and with each passing year we become more worthy and the title becomes more and more permanent.
I’m looking forward to providing you with 2017 market reviews, and will do so on the typical breaks in our vacation home market. This year, each market has had plenty of success, leaving the recovery no longer spotty, no longer skewed in favor of one segment over another. As with last year, my primary concern for the new year has to do with inventory. If we feed the market, it will continue to grow. In spite of tax changes that take away some advantages of second home ownership and limit SALT deductions, I do not believe these will significantly or adversely affect our market. Why? Because there’s no other market like it, and there’s no better place to spend your weekends. Staying home on a Saturday just so you can have a few extra bucks in your robust bank account doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t see the new legislation hurting our market, even if it likely will keep a buyer or two on the sidelines. If late December/early January activity is a harbinger of things to come, 2018 looks like it will be our fifth straight solid year.
Above, sunset at 700 South Lakeshore Drive, sold by this guy for $5,900,000 in May of 2017.
If you’re lucky enough to be a Lake Geneva vacation home owner, then you’re unlucky enough to be unwrapping Walworth County’s most untimely gift: Your property tax bill. When I’m elected supreme ruler of Walworth County, I will change our fiscal year so that you receive your tax bill on July 6th. While draped in young summer you’ll find the tax bill to be a worthy pittance. Something to be celebrated over brats and charcoal. Why yes, I will pay this ungodly sum of money today! That’s what you’ll say. And you’ll be happy, because you’ll look around and feel the scene and understand that it’s all worthwhile. In early Winter, summer is so very far away, and the tax bill now appears as one last and final insult to the heap that is our year end.
About those taxes. With legislation in Washington DC spiraling towards completion, there are potential changes afoot for the way we’re able to deduct our paid property taxes. It seems as though the bubble of DC has decided it’s in our best interests to pay tax on tax, and who are we, mere peasants, to complain (I’ve complained a lot, and you should, too). With possible changes coming, it might be best to pay those 2017 taxes while it’s still 2017, rather than in two parts during 2018 as the invoice allows. Of course I’m not an accountant, so you should consult with yours, but this year, perhaps more than any other, it’s important to be paying attention.
And along those lines of paying attention, every year owners of Lake Geneva vacation homes miss the deadline for paying their property taxes. This happens through many different circumstances, but typically it has to do with the tax bill being sent to an address other than that which the property owner had planned. Perhaps the bill is being sent to your attorney, to your lake house address, or to the house you used to live in before you moved. The County is very callous towards your reasons, so it’s best to look up your taxes every December and be certain you have the bill and plan to pay it on time (or this year, as I mentioned above). To look up your tax bill, go here. It might be painful, and for that, I’m sorry.
If you purchase a Lake Geneva property this year, there’s an outside chance that your tax bill will be mailed to the prior owner. This isn’t really anyones fault, but it is annoying. Rather than count on the prior owner to look up your address and mail you that tax bill, it’s best that you use the search link above, or contact the municipality in which you own your home and ask them for the bill. Be proactive, be aware, and don’t count on anyone to help you in the process. If you have no time to deal with these things, tell your attorney or accountant to handle it for you. They’ll like that.
Other year end bits to be aware of. Disconnect your hoses from outside spigots. Don’t forget. Leave your heat on at 60 degrees or more. If you need to keep the heat at 50, I’d suggest that you’re just begging for a pipe to break. Don’t do this, it’s a terrible, awful idea. I believe it’s called being penny wise and pound foolish, but I’m not British. Leave your heat warm enough so that your pipes don’t break, but also so that your tile floors and shower surrounds don’t crack. Warmth is good, please embrace it. If you need help with this, install a Nest (or similar) camera in your house, and a Nest thermostat. You can watch your house and your heat on your app. I’m building a tiny cabin in the outskirts of Nowhere, Wisconsin, and I have done this. If I can, you can, too.
Make sure your irrigation system is winterized. Your pool and hot tub, too. Your pier might not be out by now, but this is the burden of the pier company, unless you’re my dad and you’re intent on saving $110.89 by removing the pier boards yourself. Turn an outside light or two on, not because we have crime like Harbor Country, but because it just looks better. You can spare the $.80 per month to leave a few exterior coach lights on. Your neighbors will appreciate your concern for the exterior mood lighting.
Can you see what I’ve done here? I’ve played right into your hands. I’ve given you a list of things to do under the supposition that you won’t be at your lake house this winter. And in that, I’ve caught you. Missing out on winter at the lake would be a most egregious sin, tantamount to willingly paying tax on tax, or leaving your heat on at 48 degrees. You should be here, no matter the month. Ski here. Rest here. Go to fish fry here. If you didn’t want to visit your vacation home in the winter you probably should have bought one in Michigan, or Door County.
In the South Shore Club, there are 40 total lots. Most are built on, a few are not. At present, there is one new construction underway. To date, there had been one sale, that of an aged inventory home near the back of the lakeside circle. While there are 40 total, there are only four built homes that play as true lakefront homes. Those are the front homes, the homes you walk into and see the water, unavoidably. Those are the homes that function as their own market, and the home I sold this week is part of that elite group.
There is some confusion over the South Shore Club, and how to come to a valuation. Will the market pay lakefront prices for these lakefront homes? The answer is yes, and no. The yes part is obvious, because there’s a sales pattern now that didn’t exist prior to 2012. The no part is less obvious, and it might not be a negative in the way you’re suspecting. The market won’t pay true lakefront prices for these homes because the prices paid for them represent a discount to what those homes would trade for if they were on their own private lakefront parcels. So the market respects the South Shore Club, but buyers still expect a slight reduction over private frontage valuations. This is all good news.
Consider one way to look at this closing at $4,175,000. The last front house sold in 2014 for $3,591,000. For 2014, the average price paid per lakefront foot was $21,144. 2017 YTD through October 10th, 2017, the average price paid is $27,743. That represents a 31% increase in valuation. If we apply the same appreciation increase to the South Shore Club lakefront four, we’d see a valuation $4,704,210. Is this the only way to compute value? Of course not. A lakefront in Fontana sold in the high fours this fall, and that home, with a very small lot, sold for $713 per square foot. The South Shore Club home was 8736 square feet, which comes to a $477 per square foot.
A sincere thank you to the buyer and seller who let me help with this transaction. It was not the easiest deal I’ve ever worked on, and that comment may win Understatement Of The Year. That’ll put a wrap on my 2017 sales production, unless someone needs to close on a new house by the end of the year. Put a big red bow on it, like a Lexus. The year ends for me with $44MM in sales, which makes me the #1 individual Walworth County agent for 2017, and in that top slot for the third year in the past four. Combined with the 2016 volume that’s $106MM in the past 24 months. And that isn’t so bad. The address being written wrong on the property below that just sold, now that’s bad.
Buyers have a unique tendency to focus on one or two aspects of a purchase, and in doing so, convince themselves to proceed with the transaction. This is true of jeans. If you love the fit but hate the color, you might buy them anyway. If you hate the fit but love the price, you might buy them anyway. This is why we have closets with jeans that we don’t wear. Sometimes it’s because we started working out and have, as a curious result, gained weight. But usually it’s because whatever jean we bought wasn’t quite right, but we bought it anyway. Houses are like this, too.
On the lakefront, it’s often less about what a house has than what it doesn’t. It has a fantastic stove. Yes! Shiny! But it has one bedroom. It has a big level lawn, sweet! But the foundation is an assortment of neatly, dry-stacked bricks placed at random intervals. Every house has good, and every house has bad. There is no perfect house. Not here, at least. Every property has something wrong with it. Buyers like to focus on garages. Lake houses and garages have a curious relationship. On one hand, a lake house doesn’t need a garage. Not at all. On the other hand, at a certain price point, the lake house demands a garage. It needs one. What’s that price point? That’s for you to decide, but I think it’s somewhere just north of $2MM. If I’m a $1.6MM lakefront house buyer, I should understand that a garage is an extravagance that my budget might not afford. If I’m a $3MM lake house buyer, I likely find a garage to be a requirement of the purchase. This is the way the market tends to behave.
That brings us to my newest lakefront listing, N1939 Bluff Lane. Follow the road through the little stone entry, and you’ll end up on the dead end of Bluff Lane. A few lakefront houses, not much more. It’s quiet, down here on Bluff. If you think the name is cute but not meaningful, you’d be wrong. Bluff Lane is indeed a high lane, with elevated frontage. That frontage creates steps, yes. But that elevation creates a most unique perch through which to absorb the lake. It’s a tree house setting, which is unique on this lake but highly interesting.
The house has five bedrooms, four baths. A two car detached garage is a newer addition to the property, along with a full lower level that opens to the lakeside for water toy storage. There’s off-street parking, a small lakeside yard, and 76 feet of private frontage. The house was renovated and added onto in 2009, leaving this once basic property with a fresh look and a beautiful new master suite. There are three fireplaces here, which should interest you if you like the idea of sitting in a tree house overlooking the lake while the snow piles up outside. It’s a good feeling, a good scene, and with a 30 day close you could be enjoying New Year’s Eve in that exact fashion.
At the lakefront, there’s a massive pier, complete with oversized canopied boatslip and a large swim deck. It’s Linn Township, so the taxes are just $16k and change. This home is in terrific condition, ready for immediate use. Why wait until May to join the race for summer? Start the race now. Tweak your new house over the winter. Some new paint colors here, some new couches there. Do the work in the off-season that so many people put off until the in-season. Take the winter to enjoy the scene, decorate the house, and prepare. When Memorial Day Weekend rolls around, you never again have to wonder which suburban BBQ you’re going to attend.
In the news this week, more of the continuing saga surrounding Stone Manor. I suppose most of this story is my fault, so I should take some time to explain myself. Several years ago I was hired to represent the marquee unit at Stone Manor. The first floor residence is as marquee as marquee gets, and since I’m the agent with the most success in that particular segment (no matter what the stapled letter you received in the mail from some other agent says), I was chosen to sell this space. After some market time, I sold it for just under $6MM to a strong buyer. As a point of fact, you won’t ever see me drop my client or customer names in this blog. That’s low-class and I’ll leave it for the online gossip pages to fill in the gaps that I intentionally leave empty.
After all, that’s what this story is all about. That’s why it has legs. The story has personalities involved, and media types love a personality. But again, here I am getting ahead of myself. The first floor unit sold in late 2016, and I was pleased to represent the seller. Stone Manor, for those who are unaware, features(d) several condominium units. There is a double unit and a single unit on the top floor, the same configuration on the second floor, and the large single floor unit that I sold on the first floor. Shortly after the first floor unit sold to this buyer, a double on the top floor sold. Then, some fancy deed work between two owners, and ultimately the second floor double unit sold. In November, the single unit on the second floor sold. That unit, by the way, was the unit owned by Tony Rezko, infamous associate of a prior president.
Even though the sales prices have been poorly or inaccurately reported, the transfer returns point to sales prices as follows: First Floor: $5,995,000. Top Floor Double: $1,899,667. Second Floor Double: $3,400,000. Second Floor Single: $2,250,000. The top floor double may have sold in a different manner to reflect that lower transfer price, but I’m not privy to any details, and those don’t matter. What matters now is that a singular owner now owns all of Stone Manor excepting one single top floor unit. The price paid so far? $13,544,667. This means every reported number you’ve read over recent weeks and months is wrong.
So now what? An owner who isn’t well known locally now owns nearly all of Stone Manor. The new owner has paid a handsome market rate for the property acquired. And because of this, everyone is going insane. Local news reports on the purchases as if they’re somehow unexplainable. Los Angeles based bloggers can’t figure out what’s going on here. Why would someone want to own so much of a building in rural Wisconsin? Has the world gone mad? We demand answers. We must know. We have to know. What’s going on at Stone Manor?
The answer, is nothing. Stone Manor is a monster limestone structure. It’s somewhere around 30,000 square feet. The property has 400′ of frontage and nearly 10 acres. It is, without question, the most important estate on this lake. No matter what other billionaire lakefront owners think, Stone Manor is actually the king. And if you’re a lakefront owner or a lover of this lake, you should be thrilled that the property is on the verge of returning to single family ownership. Why would we bemoan a purchaser investing so much in our market? Why would we wish to understand this beyond what it looks like on the surface? It’s an owner who loves a property that had previously never been given much attention on the market, and that owner now seeks to turn 400′ of frontage into a singular estate. This matters, and we should be appreciative.
Let’s say the top floor holdout owner sells. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, it matters little to me. But if he does, and the price is in line with prior sales in the building (let’s not consider the alternatives for an owner who no longer has meaningful voting power in the condo structure), then the singular owner will have purchased the entirety of Stone Manor for around $16MM. Want to know what Stone Manor, in its entirely is worth? Probably around $16MM. Has the new owner overpaid for this property? No. Does it matter if she did? No. Does it matter that she might be from California and her husband might be from New York? No.
My advice to the community is to recognize a compliment when paid one. This owner could choose to spend millions of dollars in any vacation home market in the world. She chose Lake Geneva. I, for one, am flattered by her interest, and as a caretaker of this market and this lake, I welcome the consolidation of ownership. To that new owner, I say thank you. I say congratulations. I say welcome to the lake.
Halloween is a stupid, fake holiday. There, I said it. It’s absolutely the worst fake holiday there is. I’ll take Sweetest Day over it, and I don’t even know when said day occurs. Easter is a great holiday, even if my wife tells me it has pagan roots, just like Christmas. Both of those Holidays are not universally adored, because both are Christian holidays heavily connected in tradition and procedure to the aforementioned pagan celebrations. Labor Day is nice, but is it? Memorial Day is something everyone can get behind, but this isn’t a Holiday with a season so much as a long weekend. Holidays, they’re confusing, and they’re different for each of us. Well, except one Holiday. The King of Holidays, Thanksgiving.
There is no one alive who wishes for Thanksgiving to go away. Try to even imagine such a person. Even Ebenezer Scrooge was well known to enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey, even while he displayed open disdain for the Christmas Goose. See, everyone likes Thanksgiving. Even Canadians and people who willingly vacation in Michigan. Thanksgiving is the one weekend when everyone is in disagreement over something said at the table, or over the way something was prepared (my mom shouldn’t cook her turkey in an oversized crock pot), but when everyone is also in agreement. Thanksgiving is the best. That’s undisputed.
But what is thanksgiving? Not the capital T holiday, but the lower case t act? If we’re thankful, which we know we should be, to whom are we to be thankful? I admit I struggle with being thankful. I have a very hard time balancing being content and striving for more. I don’t know where the balance is. If I’m grateful and thankful, does this mean I’m content? It should, I think. But I admit that I am not. Ask my wife. I’m not predisposed to contentment, even if I am predisposed to be thankful. Indeed, shouldn’t one require the other? This is my personal struggle, the feeling of a unique form of driven anxiety coupled with an understanding that my life, while far from perfect, has been pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Today, my children are healthy. My son is addicted to some Starwars video game, and my daughter hates homework, but things are, on balance, good. My wife is struggling with an unfortunate deer hunting incident from last weekend, wherein she was an unwilling accomplice to Buck murder, but that’s a story for another time once the wound isn’t so fresh. Her figurative wound, not the Buck’s mortal wound. That wound isn’t fresh anymore. But still, my wife is well and my kids are well and I love them all dearly. I almost wrote deerly, in reference to the murdered Buck, but I didn’t think you’d get the joke.
This week, like every week, I’m going to try to be more thankful. To be more understanding. To be less frustrated and more content. This week, like every week, I’ll fail. But I adore Thanksgiving, and the way it brings a family together to give thanks for the many blessings that have been dropped squarely into our unworthy laps. The thing is, while my family will have disagreements and spats this weekend (like every week), we know to whom we are thankful. And that’s really what this Holiday is all about. We’ll enjoy this week and keep with us an attitude of thankfulness to the bestower of these blessings.
Photo Courtesy Matt Mason Photography.
I already know the sort of fall you like. I know the sort of fall everyone likes. It’s the fall we had last Saturday. Sunshine, 70 degrees, bright leaves and a deep blue lake. A cloudless sky, excepting a few puffers pushed from the South and out to the East by a weekend wind. Boots and leaves, orchards and pumpkins. Walks along the shore path with dogs. Happy dogs. Happy people. Happy skies and happy days. This is nice that you’re so positive all the time, so nice that fall can behave like this, much to the delight of the fall enthusiast. Fall, it generously gives the soft people the fall they so badly desire.
But fall isn’t just like this. Fall gives to people like me, too. It’s not that I don’t love the above fall, I do. When I spent a few hours boating last Saturday with clients and friends, I wasn’t mad about this. The kids flopped around on the tube as we whipped from shore to shore, basking in the waning warm rays of 2017. I enjoyed it as much as anyone, but not more than anyone. I just enjoyed it, enough. But the time for that has past. The time for the soft fall is nearly over. The opportunities for the casual fall enthusiast to stroll over bright, crisped leaves have just about expired. It’s still fall, mind you, still delicious, wonderful fall, but it’s about to be fall for the serious. Fall for the brooding. Fall for the hardened.
This fall comes with little warning. Fall might blow bright on a Saturday and dull on a Sunday. When the crisp leaves no longer crunch and instead cling, gummed to the bottom of a nearly soaked boot, this is the fall that the masses dislike. It’s so wet, they’ll say. It’s so dark, my wife will say. It’s so muddy, someone else says. It’s raw. The temperature might not break 50. If it does, it’ll settle at 51. The wind will blow. The leaves will strip. The gutters will clog. When we drive by the pumpkin patch we won’t hear laughter. No children searching for the perfect, orange gourd. We’ll just drive past without slowing and see the withering, muddied field, wondering why the farmer planted 10,000 pumpkins when he knew he’d only sell 600. Real fall is full of second guessing.
This is the fall I love. The fall that’s dark. The fall that’s cold. The fall that might be wet and windy on Tuesday and dry and cloudy on a Wednesday. I don’t need the sun like you do. I need the comfort of a low sky. I crave the familiar of a late afternoon that already feels like evening, when the only lights visible are the window lamps, warming a room and reaffirming the distinct difference between inside and outside. In summer and in soft fall, the distinction is blurred. Windows are opened, doors left cracked open, wedged there by a fall boot that has no summer use. In the fall, the boundaries are once again established. Inside it’s warm and it’s soft and it’s comforting, the fire slowly consuming. Outside, the woodsmoke hangs just under that low sky and the deer walk quietly through the tall faded grass.
This is the fall I love. It might still be bright, some days. Peak leaves will be peaking this weekend, assuming they all haven’t been forced to the ground by the wind and the rain. It’s going to be cold this weekend. It’s cold now. Some will run for the warmth of southern Florida. Others will wish they could escape the drear. The happy fall lovers will find this unsettling, while I’ll try to hide my enthusiasm. Because fall isn’t just for you. It’s for me, too.
I’ve decided, in the wake of the Cubs miserable, awful, embarrassing performance this week, to make every post a sad one. Monday, Multiple Offer Sadness. Today, Construction Sadness. Friday, likely, NLCS Sweep Sadness. For those not paying close attention, I have been building a small fishing cabin not too terribly far from Walworth County. It’s not super far, but it’s still far. It’s far enough that it breaks my own rule for vacation home proximity, which is similar to last week when I broke my own rule about not burning fires until such and such. The rain was a cold rain! And in the case of this proximity breaker, the trout fishing was just not good enough closer to home.
My relationship with construction is complicated. Extremely complicated. On one hand, I crave it. I enjoy the creativity the process allows. I enjoy the implementation of a vision. Sometimes, it’s a vision that only I can see, and so I take great pride in delivering what no one else expected. Earlier in my life, this took the form of remodeling projects. When visitors would stop during various stages of the disaster that is a gut remodel, they’d shake their heads. They’d tell me they don’t think it’s going to work. I paid too much. I improved too much. I was always disheartened by those words, but they fueled my desire to deliver a product that would defy their negativity. In the end, the projects all resulted in success.
The last few construction projects have been new builds, from the ground up. This process is different but still the same. It requires a vision, but mostly it requires dedication to the process. The last house I built is the house I live in now. I finished that home in 2013, and it’s been a dandy of a house for me and my family. The construction process at that house was unique, in that I built the home when the market was poor which meant plenty of tradespeople were willing to work for reasonable wages. Further, those who weren’t affordable were available, and the project started in September and finished the next May. The current project is a handful of highway hours away, in a county where no one knows me and I know no one, in a region where work is a nice suggestion but not really something toward which anyone feels a particular fondness.
Once the land was purchased (that took two full years of searching), the project began. It was a modest project. 1200 square feet, give or take. A rectangle of a house with a tall gable and some cedar shingles. Much to the horror of this Lake Geneva market, I stained the shingles black. Like the night (my wife did much of the staining). The bathrooms were lined with marble, or are, at least in theory, in the process of being lined with marble. My tile guy hasn’t reported for duty for a few months, but I’m sure he has a terrific reason.
When ground was first torn up by the rusted dozer that cut a twisty path up the side of that hill, the goal was to have the house finished in four months. Maybe four and a half. Maybe less. The dozer cut that path 16 months ago. The house is not yet finished. In fact, the house is not even close to being finished. I tell my wife that it’s almost done, and then I look over the list of things remaining. Trim, paint, floors, tile, bathrooms, plumbing, kitchen cabinets, countertops, appliances. It’s really not much of a list, or so go the unconvincing lies I repeatedly tell myself. The project, once a chorus of so much enthusiasm and light, has turned into a dirge.
The process has, however, afforded me many lessons. I sympathize on a deeper level with my Illinois clients who have a hard time getting contractors to do work here. I understand customers who are embroiled in multi-month, multi-year construction projects. How can something take so long? It just can. And I understand that better now. In spite of the deep construction based depression that has consumed me, this project has given me an opportunity to practice what I preach. Give the market what it doesn’t expect. If the market expects carpet give it hardwood. Make it wide plank. If the market expects vinyl, give it cedar. If ceramic bathrooms with one piece plastic showers are good, then line the bathroom in marble. If Home Depot light fixtures light the neighboring comps, send all of your money to Restoration Hardware and use their lights instead. Markets give clues as to what construction standard is acceptable. If the market is nuanced and there’s an opportunity to create value by creating a superior product, then create it.
When times were particularly bad and getting worse, I hatched a particular theory. The theory supposed that in spite of the various factors that we know prod consumers to buy and sell homes, things like interest rates and employment and marriage, there’s really only one thing that makes real estate markets move. In bad times, it’s fear. If you have $10MM in the bank and your $2MM home is only worth $1.7MM, do you need to sell it? Of course not. Then why sell it for $1.6MM? The answer, which we can only know now, is that you sell at $1.6MM because you’re afraid next month it’ll be $1.5MM. That’s why this market moved like it did from 2009 through 2012, because of fear.
And if it’s fear that drives a declining market to lower lows, then it must be the opposite that drives an escalating market to higher highs. Job growth is great, but it doesn’t fuel the top end at Lake Geneva. Interest rates are important, but are they? Stock market return are incredibly important to this vacation home market, and with steady returns piling up it makes sense that consumer confidence is as robust as it is. The opposite of fear is confidence, and it’s that confidence that’s driving the Lake Geneva market. And it’s driving super fast.
Another week, more contracts. More offers. More sellers wondering if their house is next, more buyers buying homes they didn’t know they needed but now can’t live without. There are 30 lakefront homes available this morning, per the MLS. Of those 30, nine are under contract. That makes just 21 available lakefronts. Of those 21, several have active offers being negotiated. 20 true lakefront homes have already sold in 2017, leaving us to assume that we’ll break the 30 home mark for 2017. Last year was a banner year, and we only closed 24 true lakefronts (MLS). If we break 30 this year, it’ll be even more important to remember that in 2007 we only sold 17 lakefronts. This new norm is really, really something.
This week, a lakefront closing. That of Kerry Wood’s house in Fontana. At $4.7MM it’s an okay sale. I don’t love it, and I don’t hate it. I’m ambivalent, which is how I feel about baked cod and maple syrup. It’s a lofty sale for the frontage (102′), and the location (mostly homes valued under $2MM in the immediate neighborhood). It’s proof, once again, that our market loves new(er) homes, and will do just about anything to own them.
More contracts this week as well. A new contract on my listing in the Elgin Club. A new contract on a large Fontana lakefront listed in the $6s. A new contract on the non-lakefront modern home ($1.85MM) that sits on the cliff overlooking Fontana Bay. A new contract on the house next to the Lake Geneva Country Club ($3.095MM), and a new contract on the Main Street, Lake Geneva lakefront ($2.495MM) that sits near the Library Park. Hillcroft, that big estate with an older house that anchors 415′ of Snake Road lakefrontage is still pending ($12.5MM), as is the spec home in Williams Bay ($3.85MM) and the Circle Parkway lakefront ($2.95MM). My South Shore Club lakefront also remains under contract ($4.595MM). Rounding out this flurry of activity is the small home on Marianne Terrace in Lake Geneva that’s under contract ($1.799MM). The market is searingly hot. Breathlessly hot.
Do you think every deal is a good deal? Absolutely not. Some of the deals I see are pretty awful. Embarrassing, really. But that ties in with Monday’s bit, so you already know how terrible this is. Still, the market is moving and there’s plenty of room left in 2017 for it to move further. Are prices increasing? Well, yes, they are. The wood sale just printed at $47,000 per front foot. That’s not the average, but a few of those in a year will skew our 2017 average to the very high end. Continue to expect sales as we finish the year, and continue to expect many of these sales to be carried out by buyers who really should have done some more homework before they docusigned on the dotted line.
Above, my dynamite Loramoor listing.
We know lots of things. We know that if we don’t cut our grass once a week it will grow too tall and too thick, and when we cut it after the week off we know that the cutting will be difficult. It would have been easier to mow it last week. Once in a while, it’s good to let it go and struggle through the off-week cutting, to remind oneself not to skip the lawn. In the same way, we know we should floss our teeth. It’s a good habit, this flossing. I floss, sure, but when sitting in the dentist chair I have to both admit it’s not twice a day and then endure the chastising reminder. Flossing, it’s good.
In the same way, there are certain real estate things that everyone needs to remember. This is your Monday reminder. In an attempt to make this exceptionally easy reading today, I’ll distill the reminders down to just one. What I’m asking you, no, what I’m begging you to remember, is so simple. It’s nothing complicated. It’s not painful like mowing too-tall of grass, or annoying, like flossing stupid back teeth. It’s so easy, anyone can do it. Best of all, this thing you must do doesn’t cost you any money. In fact, it will likely save you money, and also save you from the heaps of shame that accompanies the forgetting of this thing.
In part, I blame the internet for the way it has made all real estate, and all markets, feel the same. When zooming over a map of a county on Zillow, all the consumer sees is a “market”. A house here for $4MM, a house over there for $400k. A house down the road for $1.1MM and one over here for $200k. The market, when viewed through the lens of a smartphone, looks small and quaint. In the same way, an agent in Middleton is the same as an agent in Madison, is the same as an agent in Milwaukee. It’s all one state, and it’s a midwestern state at that, which means it must be simple and it must be easy. For the Zillow tells us so.
I’ll tell you a secret about Lake Geneva. When an agent has a listing that he or she knows is overpriced and/or a very difficult sale, guess what we hope happens? Of course we hope the listing sells. That’s our job, to work and to hope. But we really hope a buyer shows up who is tethered to an agent who isn’t from our market. Make it an agent from out of state and our eyes light up at the naivety of it all. A buyer working with an inexperienced agent, or one who isn’t from our market, is a buyer that will likely make mistakes. If we’re the listing side of a grossly overpriced property, we hope you make the mistake soon.
This is the problem, and this is the reminder. Stop working with agents that don’t know the market. It seems so obvious, so elementary. Yet the market is full of buyers working with agents who aren’t active in the particular segment they’re attempting to sell. There’s a reason I don’t go to Door County and sell real estate on Thursdays. There’s a reason I don’t go to Bayfield on Wednesdays and Elm Grove on Fridays. I’m pretty good at this real estate game, and I know my limitations. If I don’t know a market I’m not going to represent myself as an expert in that market. It’s just that easy.
If you’re a lakefront buyer seeking a Geneva Lake property, is it in your best interest to walk into a real estate office on a Saturday and sign up with the agent standing in front of you? Would you visit the walk-in clinic to have your kidney transplant performed? Real estate is not as complicated as surgery, but the analogy of a surgery taking place is indeed accurate in that real estate surgery involves removing too much money directly from your pocket. If you’re looking for a $3MM home in Hinsdale, work with an agent who routinely sells $3MM homes in Hinsdale. If you’re looking for a $200k condo in Lake Geneva, work with an agent who routinely sells $200k condos in Lake Geneva. And if you’re looking for a $3MM lakefront home on Geneva, work with the agent who routinely sells $3MM homes on Geneva. And if you have a dentist appointment tomorrow, start flossing right now.
Of the things we know to expect during an autumn here, 95 degree sunshine is not among them. The heat is rare, but in a summer devoid of any lasting heat, I don’t know how we could do anything but welcome this heat with open, sweaty arms. It’ll be cold soon, consistently cold, where the days that hit 60 will be the summery ones. We’ll delight in those days, saying they’re too warm to wear a sweater, and we’ll sweat just a bit and we’ll be happy. For now, the green is fading but the summer remains, which leaves us little choice but to hold onto it like grim death.
This is something we don’t expect, but there are now market things we should expect. If we don’t expect them, that’s because we’re working with the wrong Realtor, which isn’t so much my fault as it is yours. The things you should expect are both obvious and yet, many of them are contradictory. That’s Lake Geneva in a single sentence. It makes perfect sense as long as you understand that sometimes up is down and often down is up and expensive properties sell so long as they have a Wolf range or so long as you’re the buyer who just latched onto a Realtor that you met because that Realtor was working floor time at the office on a weekend.
Sellers. It’s September, and sellers who haven’t yet sold are a bit concerned. Some are, some aren’t, but the general theme amongst aged inventory is some cautious concern. There are two things that must now happen. First, asking prices should soften. This is not going to be the case for all sellers, but for some, prices will adjust as sellers look toward the off season. Second, what off season? Our market will remain vibrant up through Thanksgiving and beyond, with just a seasonal adjustment being made for Holiday weeks when only the faithful few will be actively buying and selling. The key for sellers is to understand the market remains hot, and will remain so, no matter if our 90s fade to 50s. Lake Geneva is still king, and kings do not relinquish their crowns when the temperatures drop, they just wrap themselves in some fine custom garments.
Buyers. There are lots of you out there, and lots of you are making terrible, terrible mistakes. I try to warn you, but some of you insist on waltzing into real estate offices and make the assumption that the warm body in front of you is going to be your best chance at securing lakefront, or lake access value. This is sadly not the case, but you keep doing it anyway. There’s a funny game we can play. It’s called look at properties that no one thought would sell for the prices they sold for, and often you can find the selling agent to be an agent that doesn’t routinely work the lakefront market. To be certain, all agents are not created equal, though agents love to attempt to punch above their weight in the lakefront market because the prize money is alluring. Agents who sell $205k ranches in Elkhorn are not the agents who routinely sell $3MM houses on Geneva Lake. I’m begging you to understand this.
But for buyers there are still deals to be had. There is aged inventory that has been fielding and rebuffing offers all year, and those properties might be open to negotiations. My recent experience is that sellers are still far too confident. Solid offers are being declined, because there is too much optimism. Sellers don’t seem to understand that 9/10s of a bird in the hand is so much better than 10/10s of a bird in the bush. This is what the game has come down to- fractions of lofty valuations- and sellers are proving their lack of real estate prowess by routinely ignoring solid, market bids.
If we’re buyers, does this mean we give up and look to another lake that might more feature more motivated sellers? Just because it’s September does this mean we wear boots and jeans when it’s 95 and sunny?
Above, my Elgin Club lakefront, now $1.925MM. It is, in my infallible, expert opinion, the best lakefront on the market priced under $2.5MM.
In a recent Lake Geneva Regional News article, City of Lake Geneva Alderman John Halverson, when discussing the state of the Lake Geneva Riviera and a desired multi-million dollar referendum for repairs asked, “If we don’t get it passed, what should we do? Sell the building?”
I’m so glad he asked, so that I can answer. Yes. That’s the answer. Sell the building. The question was posed rhetorically, in a way that would suppose a yes answer would be ludicrous, even sacrileges. But the best way for the City of Lake Geneva to deal with the aging Riviera and the several million dollars of repairs it supposedly needs is to sell the building to the highest bidder. To keep the building beyond 2017 would be a significant mistake, and would prove once again that the city has no regard for the tax payers who already pay the highest rates around the lake.
I’m not suggesting the building be sold in a traditional manner, wherein the new owner would have the flexibility to do with it as he or she pleases. I’m suggesting that the city utilize the power of deed restrictions and covenants to clear an aging liability from their books. The Riviera is a most impressive structure, and its unique location and design lends a visual boost to downtown Lake Geneva and that commercialized lakefront scene. The structure has anchored downtown for generations, and should be respected. In the 1930s my grandmother would ride the train up with her sisters to dance at the ballroom on Saturday nights. She met my grandpa there, while he was hawking popcorn or cigarettes or newspapers. The Riviera has a deep and important history, and the building itself should be preserved. That’s why the property should be sold. Here’s how it could work.
The city slaps deed restrictions on the property, dictating the allowable future uses and the exterior design and color palette of the structure. What happens to the interior shouldn’t be any concern of the city, especially once they receive a few million dollars for the building. With the deed restrictions in place, the aesthetics of the Riviera and the setting will be secure, no matter who owns the deed. There are options as to how to sell the space. The city could rezone the building into a condominium, and retain the lower level retail spaces to be operated as they are today. The problem with this model is that the city would then still be on the hook for repairs, that’s why it’s best to sell the entire structure. Separate the park from the building, retain the park (the fountain, etc), and sell just the building. The entire thing.
Who buys it? Well, I don’t know. Maybe one of the nearby local business would like added square footage? Maybe the cruise line operating from the adjacent city pier system? The cruise line could utilize the space for some offices and use the ballroom for a wedding venue, just as it is used today. The difference is that rates could be increased exponentially from those paltry sums the city charges, and the building could be modernized to host more events. Some might suggest the increased usage of the facility would be a negative for the city. I’d argue that the structure is a ballroom. It wasn’t built to sit idle. It was built to host bands and dances and parties of epic proportions. Why not let the private market return the building to its original intent?
The city has estimated the repairs to be in the neighborhood of $5MM. My estimates that I’ve considered now for all of five minutes prove that the cost would be significantly less. The problem is municipalities pay retail plus for everything they do (just check on the cost of school construction for proof). The private market could handle those repairs for less than a million dollars, likely with ease. Yes, a new owner would have to undertake these repairs, which drives up the initial investment. Yes, the fact that the city has broadcast these repairs to the world means a buyer will use the city’s figures against them in a negotiation. Yes, that might mean the building sells for less than it might otherwise sell for. But the alternative is worse. The alternative is the city taxes its vacation home owners to fix up a building that loses money. To repair the Riviera on the taxpayer’s dime is the very definition of throwing good money after bad.
The idea of selling the Riviera hasn’t been discussed much in public, but it’s time the conversation begins. There is no reason for a city to own such a valuable liability. Deed restrict it. Zone it to allow very few select future uses, and sell it to the highest bidder. Since I am nothing if not a fan of Lake Geneva, I’ll even offer to sell the building for the city at a reduced commission rate.
There is some thought, rampant among those who cannot yet know, that a night is a night is a night. The night it dark here, just like there, in fact like every night. Night. Those who love the night take great pride in this universal truth, that night is dark and it’s dark everywhere. In the daytime everything can be different. Every place its own, each unique. Some places with high mountains and cold rivers, others with wide plains and low, wet marsh. Some other places teeming with dark leafy trees and little dotted lakes, clear perhaps. Daytime, now that’s different because it looks different. But in the night when there’s nothing to see, each place is the same: dark and quiet.
But that’s not at all true. The night is filled with sounds, each season its own, each place its own. A winter night under a brilliant cold sky is something to behold. The deep, snowy still of a leafless and seemingly lifeless field contrast under the brilliantly bright stars. But it’s not something one can savor. It’s too cold to dwell, and in, and so a winter night is something gulped in deep breaths and left alone. It’s still night outside, but inside with the wood fire and the warm lamp light is much more comforting.
A fall night is a noisy night, a windy night, some rain maybe. But that’s not entirely true. A fall night can be as alive as a summer night, or as still as a winter night, or it might be anything in between. There’s no rule for fall, nothing it must do. What it will do is build to a colorful crescendo just before it ebbs and falls silent. Fall is like winter without snow, unless it isn’t.
But those summer nights. In our memories, they all sound the same. Crickets and hoppers, chirping and singing their redundant tune. Softly fading as the night wears on, only to be replaced by the chirping of song birds once the morning light is near. This is what night at my house sounds like. My house, surrounded by prairie and distant trees, alive with the casual rhythm of so many field bugs. An occasional rustle in the grass, a rabbit hiding from a fox. A coyote clinking through the wooded edges, thinking about which chicken it will steal. There are other characters in this prairie night, but the stars are those bugs that I cannot identify, crudely scratching out the sound that I’ve come to love. Summer days can wear on me, but the sound of a summer night has yet to grow old.
I spent a few hours last week on a lakeside screened porch. The sounds were those of my childhood, a slow churning boat pushing through the night, returning its guests after dinner. Or the other boats, the large boats with parties aboard, spinning around the lake and clearing each point, the dull murmur of the happy crowd reaching across the window and to my childhood bedroom. But what struck me wasn’t the familiar sound of a few slow boats. It was the quiet of it all. It was the distinct sound of a Geneva lakefront porch. The steady but louder pitch of the cicadas, a sound I know well but one that I don’t hear at my prairie house. The quiet hush of leaves flittering in a late night lake breeze. Next time you think a summer night is a summer night, spend one in a screened porch next to Geneva Lake. You’ll soon be like me, well aware of the privilege of a summer night anywhere, but equally aware that there is one place where that night is better. At the lake.
When I listed this property last August, I knew exactly what it was. It wasn’t the most perfect house on the lake. The kitchen wasn’t exactly the current style. But it was 4 acres and 162 of frontage with so much square footage and so many resort-style amenities. The house had been listed off and on for what felt like ages, as if anyone really knows exactly what an “age” feels like. Still, the property was repositioned with the help of a fresh perspective and some fresh marketing efforts and I was pleased to work for that seller to get that property sold.
Last Friday, I sold 700 South Lakeshore in the city of Lake Geneva for $5,900,000. The sale is the fifth over $5,000,000 since the start of last year. Of those five sales, I’ve represented the seller in four of them. I’m not really sure now what else I can do to help convince the upper bracket market that I’m the man to handle these luxury listings. Perhaps the secret will be unlocked after I sell five out of the last six…
While I’m happy for the seller who now gets to move on to the next chapter of her life, I’m exceptionally pleased for the buyer. This is a new lake owner, with a new reason to look forward to the weekend. There’s something extra rewarding about selling a lake house to a first time Lake Geneva owner. They don’t yet know what they’re in for, but I do. We do. A very special thank you to this seller and buyer who allowed me to help bring this sale together.
By now, we all know that things haven’t been going our way. We started out with that winter, so intent on enjoying it and skiing it and sledding it, scraping and shoveling it, too. But what happened wasn’t anything like that. We skied, a bit. Shoveled, a bit. Scraped, some. But the winter had come and the winter has left and nothing really happened. It was a winter without. We knew what would come next, and we waited and we waited and in February it came. Bright spring. Sunny spring. Warm and soft, spring.
That was a few days, maybe four, and it was February and no one thought it was really spring. Winter returned, but it was easy winter, annoying winter, just enough winter to ward off spring. That winter relapse was quickly forgotten and there have been days of spring, days of warm, soft sun, and days of wicked wind, biting cold. Then the rains came, so many rains with so much water, sheets and sheets and buckets and buckets. No one thought it could last, but it did, and it washed our streets and soaked our lawns and filled our lakes. The season isn’t so much spring, it’s just a rainy winter.
There are barns between my house and this desk. Many barns. Most are clad in metal, some form of sheet paneling either vertical or horizontal, typically in fleshy tones of white, gray, or brown. In the winter landscape, these barns blend in, offering no excitement, no allure, just utilitarian usefullness. But there is one barn painted the brightest of reds, and in the winter it is a beacon on my drive, a visual reminder that color exists even in the dullest of dark winters. In the spring, too, when the ground is gray and what isn’t is brown, and the tans of the cut corn stalks and the dull olive of the roadside grass means everything is quiet and stark, that barn shines bright and vivid, a reminder of color in an otherwise colorless world.
But these rains and this sky and this gray and this brown, it’s not all bad. My eyes can rest under this sky. There’s no strain here, no squint to see beyond the glow, because there is no glow. It’s just March in Wisconsin and things are easy on the eyes. The north side of Geneva Street is greening this morning. The grass is greening and the bulbs are shooting and the crocus is blooming. The dull wrens of winter are being crowded out by the orange breasted robins of spring, and soon, the elusive Orioles will coast in on a southerly breeze in search of our fresh cut oranges and our purple grape jelly. The piers are falling into place, now dulled and chipped by the winter but soon scraped and painted and bright again. The water is warming, slowly, but it’s warming and it’s still blue, even in the face of so much gray it is still blue. The grass is greening and the flowers are awakening and the sky is brightening and soon it’ll be the spring we’ve seen in our minds all winter. Prepare your eyes, the color is coming.
Photo courtesy Kirsten Westlake
When you’re a Realtor, you’re supposed to want to do everything you can to sell anything you can. You’re supposed to pay attention to every segment within your market, to the goings on in the rental world, to the commercial things, to vacant land and to that cute bungalow in town. The one near the school. Realtors are told to be experts. In the next breath, they’re told to be always available, always present, always here for whomever it is that requires service. This is all a terrible mistake, and not coincidentally, this desire to do all things is the reason that most agents can’t achieve success.
Now, take this guy on the other hand. I don’t really want to do any business that isn’t the sort of business I want. If you own a wonderful apartment building in Elkhorn, I’m super happy for you. But I don’t know enough about the rental market in Elkhorn and the desired returns of that particular investor community, so I can’t (and won’t) successfully work with you. I’m not a commercial guy. In the same way, I don’t know anything about the single family housing market in Darien. I heard it’s okay. Taxes are high. That’s all I know, and as such, you wouldn’t be doing yourself any favor if you were to wish for my services in Darien.
The benefit of this narrow focus is as obvious as the detriment. I am not all things to all markets. I’m all things to one market. That’s my goal, and that’s my life, and I’ve made a decent little living serving only one master. But today isn’t about me, no matter how well I’ve done so far to leave you with that impression. Today is about the broad Walworth County market. Today isn’t about Lake Geneva, it’s about everywhere else. The markets in these other areas are thriving. Absolutely, positively, thriving.
Want to buy a little cottage on Cherry Street in Williams Bay for less than $200k? So did someone else. The house is pending. Want to buy a vinyl ranch in Lakewood Trails? Yeah, so does everyone else. Feel like a little starter house in Delavan for $69k? Too late. It sold. How’s about a late 80s raised ranch, complete with some sort of brown brick and a mismatched brown roof? Pending. Delavan is doing well, except on the lakefront, where there appears to be just one home pending sale today. Earlier, I meant to say everywhere is going fantastic, except Delavan Lake.
Want to find a reasonably decent house on 3-5 acres in the country somewhere? Nowhere in particular, just somewhere around here-ish? Ideally under $400k. Good luck! Those homes are selling at a feverish pace, and inventory is low. Darien has 14 homes available, five are under contract. Elkhorn has 34 homes for sale. 18 of those are under contract. Nine others are pending sale. That’s absolutely remarkable if you think about it. Amazing, really. Well done, sub-$250k buyer. You’re buying, and you’re smart.
Why is the primary market here doing so well? It’s thriving today because the prices are still modest, still reasonable, still affordable. The interest rates are low but rising, and this market is super sensitive to rates, and to the threat of increased monthly costs. The primary market is performing well, but over $350k that strength dries up. Consider the city of Lake Geneva, where 40 homes are available today. Of those 40, 25 are priced under $350k. Of those 25, ten are under contract. Another four are pending. Over $350k? Not a single under contract or pending sale.
And all of that makes solid sense. The primary housing market is driven by those people who work here, and most of the jobs in a resort market are the sorts of jobs that can support home ownership on a modest level. A nice Walworth County job can buy a $275k colonial on a lot that was home to corn not so long ago, but most Walworth County jobs cannot support purchases over $350k. But this isn’t about jobs and it isn’t about interest rates and it isn’t about me. It’s just about the primary housing market, and today I tip my hat to a vibrant market segment that I have absolutely nothing to do with.