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Market Oddities

Market Oddities

Once in a while, I look at something other than the Lake Geneva lakefront and lake access market. I look at the market on Other Lakes, Wisconsin. I look at the market where the primary residents live and work. I look at the market as a whole, not just at the specific segment that I serve so dutifully. I read the real estate descriptions written by the agents that work those other segments. Close to Lake Geneva, they say when they write about a lake by East Troy. Enjoy All Of The Geneva Lakes Area, they say about a house in Pell Lake. All of these other markets want to be us. They want to be here. They want our action and our pricing. Want to see a visible chip on an actual shoulder? Tour a home on Any Lake, Wisconsin and you won’t be able to avoid noticing this awkward affliction.

But I look beyond those other lakes, and I look at the other markets. The markets where the primary residents live. The markets on the other side of town where the market doesn’t fluctuate with the stock market. Speaking of, there should be no surprise that the Lake Geneva lakefront market performed so well during 2019. The stock market made it that way. The economy made it that way. Seems like a bad time to throw it all away with an experiment in socialism, but this isn’t a political blog, at least not on the surface. The lakefront market is humming along, as is the lake access market. The only part of the lakefront scene that isn’t enjoying such an incredible 2019 is the lakefront condo market, which continues to baffle me. Have you seen these two condos? What must I do to make you buy one?

Alas, when I look at this broad market there is just one segment that surprises me. One market trend that I can’t quite make out. One segment that feels like it might be overheated. Some buyers think that’s the lakefront market, but they’re wrong. I spoke with a buyer this week and suggested she buy a lakefront home that I sold four years ago. The new price is 20% higher than the price four years ago, which caused the buyer to pause. She thought that seemed like an unearned level of appreciation. Welcome to the Midwest, folks, where we think 5% a year in asset appreciation is unwieldy… But again, I’ve gone off on a tangent that I didn’t intend to follow. The oddity isn’t in the lakefront. It isn’t in the condo market. It isn’t in the market on Any Lake, WI. The only oddity I see in 2019 is in the value of a Corn Field Spec Home.

I’ve been shocked at the values in these new developments. And, if you look at the pace of the building, so have the developers. I came of age in this business during the mid 1990s. At that time, a new Williams Bay development was just scraping away the last of the corn stalks and planting foundations in that previously tilled ground. The price points then were mostly in the low to mid $200k range, but by the time the early 2000s rolled around we were seeing priced in the low to mid $300s. This made sense, and it wasn’t a surprise. A $340k house could be bought by a normal family making a nice, healthy wage. By 2006, Williams Bay subdivisions were consistently printing sales of new homes in the $340-380k range, but nothing that year touched $400k. Then the market crumbled and foreclosures popped. The dust settled and the developers waited. What were they waiting for? 2019.

In 2012, the year that we can look back on with spite and malice as being the market bottom of the last cycle, these new subdivisions printed plenty of sales. Most were in the mid to upper $200s, with only a couple over $300k. The market had cratered, and with it, the aspirations of appreciation that were once held by these owners. The slow slog from 2012 to 2019 claimed many casualties, but for those owners who stuck it out and stayed the course, they have been rewarded with the new trend that they see popping up on the empty lots around them: The enormously popular $500k spec home.

Sure, I’m rounding up, but the number of sales over $440k in these subdivisions is rather impressive. And it’s not just Williams Bay seeing this phenomenon. Lake Geneva is in on the action, as is Fontana, though Fontana is lucky because it’s mostly land locked and cannot, (and should not) continue to grow into the corn fields, uninterrupted, in the way that Williams Bay, Elkhorn, Walworth, and Lake Geneva can. In Williams Bay and Lake Geneva these new-home markets fall apart around $500k. Elkhorn, Delavan and Walworth see the wheels fall off closer to $300k. In fact, Elkhorn hasn’t had an in-town-newer-home sale for more than $330k this year.

My issue with these specific markets, and why they’re prone to wild market fluctuations, is based on one thing: Scarcity, or lack thereof. Corn fields and retiring farmers are common in Walworth County, and that will always allow a developer to find another piece of property to develop. When the market is hot, they’ll sell $450-500k homes. But when the market is slow, they’ll sell $319k homes, and you’ll be sitting next door in that shiny, once-new $500k home wondering why you can’t find a buyer. This concerns me.

But it isn’t all fire and brimstone, because there is a simple way that primary home buyers can attempt to insulate themselves from market fluctuations. Instead of being tempted by shiny, consider buying an older home in a lake access association. Country Club Estates, Cedar Point Park, Knollwood, et al, are terrific primary home options that are often overlooked. By buying in these associations a primary home owner will be opening up their value to the vacation home market, which will always be more liquid and more attractive than a similarly priced home that appeals only to a primary home buyer. Is this a fool proof way to preserve value in a declining market? Of course not. But if given a choice of hitching my wagon to the lake access market or to the corn field market, I can’t imagine choosing the latter.

Clear Sky Lodge

Clear Sky Lodge

It’s a shame I haven’t yet sold this beautiful home. Where else can you find a private tennis court, private (heated) swimming pool, Lord and Burnham Greenhouse, acres of privacy, shared frontage with private, canopied slip, AND find all of that in Fontana, a short walk to the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and the Fontana lakefront scene? The answer is, you can’t. Come buy this house. It’s almost winter, and as you can see from this video, winter looks pretty terrific on this lovely property… Price reduced to $2.69MM.

Lake Geneva Water

Lake Geneva Water

I see the world in black and white. I see it in wrong and right. I see the people who dwell in the gray and I wonder why. Packers fans see Bears fans and wonder why. Bears fans feel the same. Some people saw that dress as being gold and some saw it as blue. Some think the President is good and some think he’s bad. These are binary situations with predictable outcomes. It’s one or the other. Black or white. Blue or Gold. Orange and Blue or Green and Gold. Capitalism or Socialism. Two choices, nothing in the middle. No gray to be found, anywhere.

My lack of gray awareness extends to the Lake Geneva lakefront, as do most things in my life. In this case, there are once again two sorts of people. Two types of buyers. Two positions that can be adopted, each a religion, one of conviction and one of ignorance. There are really only two types of buyers on this lake. An easy play here would be to assume that I’m talking about the smart buyers who work with me, and the other buyers that don’t. But this is the low hanging fruit and we’re not seeking the easy way out. That’s for the other group, the group that we don’t belong to. The two groups? Those who understand that the water adjacent their would-be-lakefront-home is important, and those who are wrong.

It’s true that all of Geneva Lake is divine. While the lakefront homes themselves can vary by make and model, many subscribe to the belief that the lake is the lake. If they’ve found their way here, they know they’ve already eschewed the bad lakes in favor of this, the good lake, and in that they feel as though they have made the correct decision. They would be correct, in a way. But if we dig deeper we can find that not all of Geneva Lake was created equal. This is a lake of good and better, and ultimately best, but there is a misunderstood part of this lake, one that can only be considered to be nothing but bad.

Sacrilege, you say? Heresy? Or is it just the truth, the sort that can only be discovered after a lifetime of walking this path and swimming these waves and casting from these piers? Should it be any surprise that there are good spots on this lake and bad spots? And what exactly does that mean? After all, if you’re a buyer looking for lakefront you’ve certainly already identified that this is the only lake worth buying on, which means you’ve already gained membership into a most exclusive, enlightened group. This is where many buyers stop. This is where they assume the decisions from here on must all be relatively equal. And this is where they are wrong. It’s not nuanced, it’s as binary as anything has ever been. It’s one or the other, either the water matters or it doesn’t, and it does.

The lake is deep. We know this. 150′, give or take. But this isn’t the unique aspect of Geneva Lake that keeps it so remarkable and shimmery. It’s the volume that does that. 70% of Geneva is 70′ or deeper. So this isn’t some spread out mud-puddle in Texas, the sort with swimming tarantulas and brain eating amoebas, this is a sparkling, natural, spring-fed lake of royal proportions. In spite of this magnificent volume, the lake still has its edges, and by default, those edges feature shallow water. It would be forgivable if you viewed a home in the winter without the assistance of an informed agent and you weren’t aware of the quality of the water adjacent that home. But in the summer? In the spring? The fall? With piers in and lawns mowed, this shouldn’t be difficult to figure out.

A proper pier on Geneva should feature end of pier water depth in the 5-8′ range. If you are on Black Point, you might be in 20′ range. But if you’re in a shallow corner of the lake, the sort of corner that might have been a straight up swamp before the property owners of the 1800s filled those corners in with rocks and dirt and tree stumps, then you very well might be in trouble. Full sections of the lake suffer from this shallow-water concern, and I’m positive that the owners of such homes no longer find themselves concerned with the lack of water at the end of their pier. But if you’re a buyer you have a choice, and the choice is simple. If you’re considering a lakefront home on Geneva, be sure you’re buying at a price point that matches the quality of the water. If you’re considering a home search and you’re uncertain what sort of water might be good or bad, don’t sweat that detail. Just ask me.

November

November

If I were the sort of person who was forced to spend sixth months in a more tax advantageous state, it would be a struggle for me. In order to find those six months and that extra day, it’s obvious that you’d need to be in that warmer state for the months of December, January, February, March and April. The problem is that those months only count to five, and I’d still be missing a month, and that day. On one hand, the month of May is typically, mostly, awful. It wouldn’t be a sin to miss such a month of Midwestern spring. But on the other hand, May is delightful, with blooms and birds and rising trout and calm waters. Who could trade a month of incredible change for yet another month of tedious sun and boring, swaying palm trees. Everyone look, I found another shell shaped like a heart!

Beyond May, who could trade December? What could possess someone of Midwestern roots to wish for a Holiday season spent without snow? How does one roast Chestnuts over an open fire while looking foolish in shorts and flip flops? What’s the point of hot chocolate if you’re already warm? I can see a trip to the warmth for a Holiday novelty once in a great while, but every year? You’d have to put up a fake tree, and then you’d need to decorate it with obnoxious things like ornaments of starfish and stone crabs. I can’t watch football games while also sweating. December would be a tough month to trade.

November is an option, and indeed nearly everyone who spends their lives hoping for the six months plus one ends up swapping November. This is the most egregious of the month swaps. Why would I trade this month? I just spent the last six months of color looking forward to this month of dull grays and browns. I love the still of November. The lake finds some peace. The fields turn gold and then tan and finally pale. The woods shed their leaves and show us what they’ve been hiding all summer. The month finishes with a celebration of the harvest, one last, big dinner to show our appreciation. The month is quiet and it’s still and yes, it’s dark, but it’s my kind of dark and I wouldn’t trade it for bright colors and soft salty waves.

But this year things may be different. This morning, with this blanket of insufferable snow and crunchy iced over roadways, I may be willing to negotiate with November. If November is going to count as winter, and I’m not going to get to see those dull pale colors that I love so much, then I’m open to trading November. I hate the months that don’t do anything well, which is why I hate March, and April for that matter. But now the weather has come for my steady November, and I wish it hadn’t. The issue here is even if I trade November and hang onto December then I’m still going to have to trade May. This is the problem, and we haven’t even begun to debate that extra day.

Lake Geneva Market Update

Lake Geneva Market Update

This morning there are just 15 lakefront homes for sale on The Lake. It’s the last week of October and our colors have peaked. The boats are leaving. the piers being unbolted. My Superjet is one of the only vestiges of summer than remains, and even that watersled will soon make the icy journey from pier to ramp to garage, soon. The snow is coming, my dad says. There are only fifteen homes for sale and there are two ways to look at this. Both are good. Buyers, be happy. Sellers, same.

The key to any off-season is inventory. The key to in-season is the same. The key to all of Lake Geneva is inventory, which isn’t entirely different from any real estate market anywhere, but here, it seems to matter more. That’s because our market is so small. Powerful, but small. In times good, it’s a small market. In times bad, still small. It’s low volume always, and because of this low volume churn we are heavily dependent on inventory. In season, we need it to grease the bearings. In the off-season, we need less inventory to keep the market performing optimally. This year, we had the inventory when we needed it, and now that the seasons have changed and winter is knocking, we need less of it, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Summer contracts are closing now. You’ve noticed that I’ve closed a few large deals of late, and you can expect the rest of the market to follow through with their sales, those pieces of property that narrowly slipped through my grasp. The REO on Lakeview just closed for $1.4MM, after first coming to market in the summer at $1.092MM. That sale surprises me, as there were two handfuls of offers and many of them, to my knowledge, were very, very strong. I figured this property would print $1.5MM or better, but that isn’t what happened, which is good, because I would have hated that sale at $1.5MM or better…

The entry level lakefront on Park is pending sale, as is the cottage collaboration on Walworth Avenue in Williams Bay. A home next to the Geneva Inn is under contract, as is one in the Geneva Manor. A new listing near the Lake Geneva Country Club is under contract in the high $3s, which his fine by me, at least if you ask me in public. And lastly, the spec home on 60′ in Williams Bay is under contract with an ask in the high $4s. I would expect that all but the spec home will close in 2019, which will be nice for the market, and nice for those agents.

But this isn’t about what’s happened, this is about what is going to happen from this day forward and through the end of 2019. The market will add some new inventory. It will. It always does. Who would list their home in November or December? Someone who would rather sell into a specific market condition rather than someone who would rather sell into a season. The market is low on inventory, with just 15 lakefront homes for sale (one is Clear Sky with shared frontage, one is Westgate with shared frontage, and one on the Trinke’s Lagoon), and there are still buyers actively searching. Does a smart seller wait to list next spring, as the conventional, tired wisdom would dictate? No.

While the new inventory will elicit an excited response, the aged inventory is, at this time of year, in some trouble. It’s time to pick around the edges at this aged inventory, time to make a few insulting offers. Time to see which sellers really feel like making 2019 the year they sell. Remember, just because inventory is aged that doesn’t make it bad. It might be aged because the seller has been stubborn and rejected offers that they realize only now they should have taken. Let’s work together to find these deals, and let’s make November a month of action. This is all possible assuming I survive the freezing, wet-suit-free, Superjet from pier to launch…

Basswood Sells

Basswood Sells

I just wrote a brilliant review of the sale at W4396 Basswood. It was amazing, if I do say so myself. Succinct, powerful, articulate. And then, with a press of the PUBLISH button, it vanished. Forever lost. Eighteen minutes of my morning, gone in the click of a mouse. Still, I persevere, albeit with an embarrassingly succinct version of my prior masterpiece.

Last week, I sold my listing on Basswood for $7,200,000. I wrote a lengthy bit about how important this sale is to the market, and how the sale price, no matter if it was lower than I would have liked it to be, made sense to the market. It was a legacy house that was equal parts rare and stylish, but any modern eye would see the need for renovation here. The market is skewed toward new construction, where the larger scale buyers seek to create their own vision rather than bend someone else’s to meet their own aim. Throughout years of market time, the property known as Royal Oaks battled against that market trend, and when the dust settled last week, the property had found its new owner. Renovations will commence soon, I imagine.

I’m grateful and humbled to have represented this fine property and even finer owner. The sale marks my fourth sale over $7MM, and the volume brings my running tally since 2010 to over $317,000,000. That’s the tops in Walworth County. Further driving home the point of just who leads the lakefront market, the three most expensive sales of 2019 are now $4,995,000, $6,950,000, and $7,200,000 and all were my listings (and my buyers on two of the three). There’s much chatter in this market about market leaders and top agents, but if you’re seeking to buy or sell in the upper bracket on Geneva Lake, it’s rather obvious that we should be working together.

Elevated

Elevated

I spent last week in the south of France. It was a nice week, although it could be successfully argued that sitting at this desk watching the fall leaves flutter from their summer trees is much more relaxing than traveling across France with my children in tow. The sights and sounds of another land are always of interest to me, no matter the complexities that arise from my host country not having the sheer decency to adopt my language of proficiency, and choice. The travels were good and the travels were meaningful, but something happened on that trip that you should know about.

This summer it was known that I sold two homes high on the tip of Cedar Point. If you didn’t know about those Lake Geneva lakefront sales, then you haven’t been paying attention as closely as I had assumed. Those homes were different, but the location was quite the same. I showed both homes often over the course of the summer, yet no matter how many times I walked in and out to the lakeside patios or decks I was struck by the strength of that view. Remember, I show lakefront homes nearly every day, and I spent the first 18 years of my life in a lakefront home on this same lake, so my awareness of the view should have, by this point, waned. And if not waned, then certainly softened, and if not softened then certainly faded. Yet this view, over the course of this summer, from those two elevated lakefront homes continued to capture my attention. Lots of stairs to the water, sure, but that view, man. That view.

Last week I stayed for a while at a hotel with a golden goat, in a seaside village that is more cliff-side than sea-side. The hotel was stunning, the food commendable, the $12 lemon tart smaller than a golf ball. There was a chef event in the village of Eze that weekend, so the streets were crowded with people, the smell of breads and paella and charcoal kissed lamb filling the cool Mediterranean air. I spend some time lounging here, though most of the time was spent climbing the steeply positioned stairs (railings, seemingly optional) from one terrace to another, each level backdropped by an endless view of Cap Ferrat, Antibes and the sparkling azure sea. No matter where you walked here, the sea was there. Below you. Next to you. In front of you. The view was unavoidable.

Rather than have that view remind me of other sea views I’ve have the privilege of seeing, whether that be from the sea-side a California or the palm-tree filled islands of the Floridian Gulf, or the serious views off the sides of Kauai, the views from Eze and that goat hotel reminded me the most of the view from the very tip of Cedar Point. The view from 246 or 250 Circle or the view from Eze, which one would I prefer? I cannot easily choose, but if I were to come to a conclusion, the misery of air travel would need to be factored in and with that, I would choose the tip of Cedar Point. The croissants at Simple are not of French quality, but in a pinch, they’ll do.

But the market doesn’t necessarily agree with me. The market is conditioned to want level frontage. 100′ and level, they say. Eighty-two feet and level is better than one hundred feet in the air, the market insists. But I say the market is wrong. The market is soft. The market doesn’t understand that the views that are captured from elevated perches can easily and thoroughly wipe away the temporary pain of climbing a few steps. The Provencal villages of note tend to have similar characteristics. Lots of narrow, squiggly paths, lined with cobblestones of varying makes and models. Lots of pastries. Lots of shops to buy bags filled with dried lavender. But the most defining characteristic is their elevation. These are mountain-top villages, positioned for safety and awareness.

A vantage point is the position from which something is viewed or considered. This is why if you wish to view or consider this lake, whether that consideration be paid on a dazzling October Sunday like the one just ended, or on a drizzly Monday morning from which I write you today, shouldn’t your view be the best view possible? If the answer is yes, then eschew what the market tells you and look to the peaks. Look to the hills. Look to the points. Climb a few steps to find that view, and once you’re there, sit for a while. Take it all in. If you’re doing it right, if won’t be so hard to imagine that you’re looking out at the Mediterranean, but, as an important improvement, ordering dinner won’t be even remotely difficult.

250 Circle Parkway Sells

250 Circle Parkway Sells

Last year, about this time, I sold the home at 254 Circle Parkway in Williams Bay, up on the tip of Cedar Point. The home was lovely, with newer updates and a marvelous boathouse. That home was listed and sold by me in the span of one day, and on October 30th it closed for full price, $2,595,000. Earlier this year, I listed the home at 246 Circle Parkway. It was a nice enough home, in need of updating, on a similar lot (more frontage) than 254 Circle Parkway. I sold that home a couple of weeks ago for $1,820,000. At the end of July, I listed the home at 250 Circle Parkway, in the middle of the two previously mentioned sales, and within days I had competing bids. Last week, that home sold for $2,775,000. One year, three sales, all adjacent. There is a story here.

And the story isn’t about how I’m grateful to have represented each of these three sellers, though that is indeed the truth and my gratefulness only grows with each successive sale, though it could be supposed that this would not be the case. The story here is about a market, and in this case, a specific market in a specific location on this very specific lake. If the lakefront is its own market, which it is, then Cedar Point Park must be its own market, which is again, true. Further still, Circle Parkway is its own market, and in this, there are these three sales. As fate would have it, I closed each of these, so I know them exceptionally well, and having had the listings on each, I know the way the market responded to each of them. An analysis follows.

254 Circle was listed and within moments I had two competing bids. As is often my way when negotiating with two bids, I singled out the bid that appeared to me to be the most viable and negotiated that one quickly. This way, if that bid doesn’t come to contract, I still have the other bid to negotiate. If I try to press both bids, I risk losing them both. In this case, I negotiated quickly with one bid and it stuck. This home was very nice, and the sellers had completed numerous meaningful and impressive upgrades, but the home needed some bathroom and kitchen renovation, and in that, the price was capped. $2,595,000 cash closing was the result of appropriate pricing and swift negotiating. The sale made sense.

246 Circle was listed late this past spring, at a price that was easily defined as aggressive. The property was nice, the view divine, the pier recently expanded and improved. But the home itself was basic and needed some level of updating. By my eye, the property was full of opportunity, yet the market, in spite of a quick initial bid, wasn’t as easily convinced. Even as a spec home on a 60′ lot (considerably narrower lakefront than 246) hit the market in the high $4MMs, this home sat. Soon enough, a lakefront buyer with long term goals took aim and purchased the property. $1,820,000 was the price paid this fall, and that sale made complete and lasting sense.

250 Circle, in the middle of the two, was updated. Marvelously, so. New windows, new siding, new this and new that. Nearly everything, new. Perfect landscaping. A perfect view. Perfect cottage style. The owners know perfection, and having traded through many Lake Geneva homes over the years, they know how to execute it. This property came to market and quickly fielded two offers. As with the 254 sale, we pursued the sale that offered us the preferred set of terms, which, unknown to many buyers, include things other than price. Timing. Contingencies. These matter, often times, as much as price. When 250 closed last week for $2,775,000 (and pushed me over $40,000,000 in closings for 2019), the sale made thorough sense.

Three sales. One street. One year. This is the way a market should work. One home wasn’t renovated at all, and it sold for $1,820,000. One home was mostly renovated, it sold for $2,595,000. The other property was entirely renovated, and it sold for $2,775,000. Often times Lake Geneva doesn’t make sense. Homes come to market in $2MM neighborhoods and find buyers in the $4MMs. This doesn’t make sense to me, and in fact, assaults my sensibilities. The way a real estate market should function, even a market within a market within a market, as is the case on Circle Parkway, is to find a baseline and adjust the value from there. Where this falls apart, at least to me, is when new construction is involved. Buyers are wildly overpaying for new, and as long as that trend continues, expect instances like a fully functioning, fully pragmatic, market like 246-254 Circle Parkway to become increasingly rare.

Out Of Towners

Out Of Towners

I blame the television for this one. I also blame the internet, but it should be argued that the bulk of this blame lies with the television. Namely, the producers of the real estate shows that start with Million Dollar. The very name makes me cringe. But nonetheless, consumers like the entertainment that is found by watching brokers get rich by selling the homes of the rich and sometimes famous. The concern isn’t about the shows, since I watch them sometimes as well. In fact, the television shows are reasonably well orchestrated and have spent considerable time developing these characters. The concern is about the geography of it all.

Ryan Serhant sells real estate in New York. He’s good at it. I find him to be mildly obnoxious, but that’s not the point. Josh Flagg is in Beverly Hills, lounging poolside and driving vintage automobiles. I don’t fault him for the fact that his business only took off due to the tailwind that is having a rich and indeed famous grandmother. Josh Altman might be the most annoying of the bunch, or at least the most cheesy. If Josh weren’t making millions selling expensive real estate he’d either be a mortgage broker or an YouTube reviewer of expensive automobiles that he wouldn’t actually own. The other characters don’t matter to me. They are filler.

But this isn’t about these characters, it’s about what the television show, and their subsequent social media channels, have decided the game of upper bracket real estate looks like. It looks like this: Serhant in Manhattan. Psyche, Serhant helicoptering to the Hamptons to sell some new development. After all, he has a portfolio of wealthy New Yorkers, and what’s not to like about a portfolio like that? Switch scenes. Servant is in a helicopter again, this time over a ranch in Colorado. It’s barren. It’s desolate. It’s high desert. But alas, a lodge. Big and bold, elk antlers everywhere. Green Malachite bathrooms as far as the eye can see. Serhant peers out the window then makes eye contact with the camera. Before he says it we know what he’s going to say. Insane! Ryan thinks everything is insane, and this is no exception.

Switch coasts. Altman’s turn. He’s driving in a blacked out Rolls. Bird Streets, something-or-other. Shiny shoes. His wife has had some more surgery, maybe. Probably. Josh is working out in a cut off sweatshirt that says, DO WORK GET RICH RINSE AND REPEAT, probably, Or maybe not. Then, he’s off. To Tahoe, to show a customer a $45MM estate. Or somewhere in New Mexico. Maybe Aspen, I believe his wealthy parents live there. This is what a forty million dollar ski home looks like! His eyes alive with excitement, his shoes super, intolerably, shiny.

It’s not a problem that these guys are so successful, in fact, I think all success, in each of its forms, is wonderful. The problem here is in the assumption that the only concern with geography is the travel. Have helicopter or private jet, or access to both? Then geography is nothing. Travel to see some real estate, and I’ll help you. After all, if Altman knows rich people and their Beverly Hills behavior then he certainly knows rich people and their Aspen behavior, right? If Serhant knows the rich people in Manhattan, then it’s the same rich people in the Hamptons, which means he knows what he’s doing there just as sure as he knows what he’s doing in the city, right? The show assumes that high end real estate is the same everywhere, and in that, there is some truth. But that truth supposes the market itself is the same, when in fact it’s just the psychology that remains consistent. If Altman shows a $40MM home in Aspen, he can declare it be amazing, that’s fine. But did anyone ever consider asking the local market leader, you know, the Aspen guy, or gal, what they think of the house? Did anyone ever think that $40MM house is $10MM overpriced, and the listing agent is thrilled beyond belief that Altman is there to sell it, you know, because Altman doesn’t know anything about the actual Aspen market?

In Lake Geneva, the upper bracket liquidity is unique. We can say that often, but still not grasp it. Not only is it unique, it’s likely the most powerful resale market in the Midwest. Sorry luxe condos in Chicago, I said resale market. Because of this, it attracts agents from all over. Agents who come to town with a buyer, because they know the buyer. Buyers work with these out of towners because they trust them, based on something favorable that has happened in the past. These buyers show up hoping to buy something, and their agent, the one who isn’t from here, aims to understand the market simply by looking through the MLS and driving around. I’ve spent 23 years in this market, each and every day, and I still find the market to be confounding at times. Imagine then how lost an out-of-town agent might be, plying these waters with little more than MLS access and perhaps a lengthy history of having taken a tour boat ride three summers ago. I don’t blame these agents for trying, they’re just emulating what they’ve seen on television. In case you haven’t seen these shows and you’d like a primer on showing expensive real estate in markets that you don’t understand, just take a lesson from Serhant. Proclaim every home to be Insane! and sales are sure to follow.

Jonathan’s Fish Fry Review

Jonathan’s Fish Fry Review

In January of 2018 I started my Fish Fry Review series. It was a nice little series, full of fish and potatoes and repulsive slices of rye bread. The review series was fun for me, and after some time of eating fish on Friday it became habit. At some point during the day on those Fridays my thoughts would turn to fish and to potato pancakes. With each week the habit intensified. At some point, there was no longer a question as to if I’d go eat fish, but only where. I was hooked.

But then, when the review series was over, the habit was broken rather easily. This was not, for me, a life long habit. This was a winter-long habit, one that I could break without effort. As such, between the last review series and a week ago last Friday night, I had maybe gone out for fish on a Friday twice. Perhaps three times, but no more than four. When I rolled up to the newish restaurant in Delavan, my palette was cleansed, my motivation high, my craving for fish not so much overwhelming as present. It was time to check out a new restaurant, and time to judge their fish.

I had heard over the course of last summer that this new restaurant in Delavan was good. It had taken the place of the Trout House, which had taken the place of Brick Street Market, which had taken the place of something else. Some friends had sworn by Jonathan’s fish fry, so we met them streetside and walked into the restaurant for our 5:45 pm reservation. The restaurant was filling, but not full. Loud, but not buzzing.

The space here is large. Two separate areas, one with a bar, one with only dining tables. It’s neither fancy or dull. It’s a nice enough space, but the cavernous size makes it feel awkward when it’s only half full. We were seated at a four top near the window, with a nice view of a large elephant, and in the distance, the very stylish Curate shop. Our waters were quickly poured and everything seemed fine. My friend wore a green t-shirt and that bothered me, but everything else was going as planned.

That friend, I should say, told me to get the Bluegill. The fish fry menu has a fried cod option, a baked cod option (oddly named the “Poor Man’s Cod, which made little sense to me since the baked option was the same price as the fried. Perhaps they meant to say Poor Man’s Lobster?), and the fried Bluegill option. I had encountered fried Bluegill at several restaurants during my review series, notably at Pier 290, where I found the fish to be decent but fishy, in a bad way. Because of this I was afraid of the Bluegill, and opted instead for the three piece fried cod dinner, which I recall was $14.50. I have to say “recall” as I don’t have the receipt, due to a credit card read malfunction that extended our evening and erased my paper trail, but more on that later. My friend opted for the fried Bluegill, our wives ate salads. As an appetizer, I requested the Clam Chowder, and a table-mate ordered the French Onion.

He told me the French Onion was the way to go. That the soup was amazing. But I, having grown up in the kitchen of Charley-O’s, decline french onion soup that isn’t his. Today, that famous soup is available at Anthony’s, and it’s as good as ever. I find that a typical french onion soup is too thin for my liking, too watery. Too bland. When our respective soups arrived, I tasted the french onion, and I was surprised to find that it closely resembled Charley O’s, which is an incredible honor. My chowder was good, if a bit heavy on the bacon. No table bread was brought, which was fine, since I’ve been indulging in a rather heavy bread intake since birth.

While we waited for the fish, our waitress was attentive to our water glasses, and she was pleasant if not uniquely service oriented. When the fish arrived, my plate looked the part. Three chunks of battered cod, two potato pancakes, a small container of coleslaw, and two slices of abhorrent rye bread. The waitress needed to be reminded to bring our applesauce. I was happy to see this plate of fish in front of me, and was quickly reminded of how much I do enjoy the Wisconsin institution that is a Friday night fish fry.

The batter on my cod was not too heavy, nicely crisped, and a perfect shade of not-quite-brown. The fish itself was decently seasoned, but I found the flesh to be a bit dry. My friend shared his Bluegill, and he was right. The Bluegill was superior here. Sweet, well seasoned flesh, a light batter, and just the slightest hint of the fishiness that can spoil a Bluegill dinner. The potato pancakes were dry, too small, and overly darkened. But I didn’t let that ruin my dinner. The coleslaw went untouched, as is my way, and the tarter sauce was barely sampled–it was acceptable. The applesauce was smooth and as expected. The dinner, all in all, was a respectable version of what a fish dinner should be.

After dinner, we ordered a few bits of dessert and coffee, and both the coffee and desserts were pretty good. The creamer was served in little plastic thimbles, which I always, always hate. Aside from that, everything was going swimmingly when we asked the waitress for our check. She took our credit cards and left for the back of the house. We waited. Then we waited some more. I walked outside to show my friend a rather funny clip of Kevin Hart showcasing his Gun Compartments, and when we returned we waited a bit more. The waitress was back to our table, flustered, to explain that the credit card machine was not working because the internet was down. No matter, we could walk to an ATM or just wait. We waited. When it was apparent that this internet issue would not be fixed quickly, we left our credit card numbers with the owner and headed home.

It wasn’t their fault that the internet was down, but I’d be lying if I told you that the 30 minimum addendum to our dinner wasn’t annoying. Even so, in hindsight I was pleased to once again indulge in a typical Wisconsin Friday Night Fish Fry. The Cod here was fine, comfortably average when measured against the fish fries that I’ve sampled, but I would recommend the Bluegill over the Cod, as I had previously been told. Order a soup, but opt for the French Onion. In other words, if your friends have been to a restaurant that you’ve never been to, just listen to their advice.

Jonathan’s On Brick Street

116 East Walworth, Delavan

7.0/10

$14.50 For The Three Piece Cod

I forgot to take a picture of the fish, so enjoy this random photo instead.

Lake Geneva Price Per Foot

Lake Geneva Price Per Foot

There’s a problem with our market. A long standing problem, one that has been established by people who thought, at the time, that they were helping. It was the Realtors that initiated this problem, through well-intentioned averaging, and once the problem took hold into the psyche of the Lake Geneva real estate market, it quickly became deeply and thoroughly entrenched. The concept is the Price Per Foot, and if I had to tell you how many times over my 23 year career I’ve been asked where that magical number was currently residing, I couldn’t, for the life of me, come up with the tally. It’s a number everyone wants to know. Everyone needs to know. It’s a number that tells us whether or not the market is hot, whether it’s appreciating, whether it’s time to sell or time to buy. And the number, unfortunately for the followers of this religion, is almost always misleading. It turns out the most commonly cited number for lakefront value on Geneva Lake is, as a point of fact, irrelevant.

The reason for its irrelevance isn’t always understood. It’s not that the number isn’t a nice number to think about when you’re valuing, whether on the buy side or the sell side, a lakefront home. It is. It’s meaningful, but it’s not everything. That’s because in order to interpret the number with any real accuracy there needs to be a hefty dose of market knowledge added to the formula. Yet, when deals are being negotiated the price per foot barges into the negotiation, especially if that magical number advances your particular case. If the seller wants $30k a foot, you’ll happily and aggressively remind him that the average is $28,700 per foot. If you have the listing and the buyer wants to pay you $24k a foot, you’ll remind her that the price is, in actuality, much, much higher. This is how the game works, but the game is flawed.

And it’s too bad, really. Because it’s not the fault of the seller, or the fault of the buyer, it’s the fault of the long standing market tendency to hold this number up as the true market indicator. At this point, there’s nothing we can do about this tendency. It’s become part of the market, in good times and in bad, and for that we are all worse off. That’s because the magical number fails to take into account the single most important thing in the game of real estate: Location. We pretend to understand location, but we don’t. We pretend to understand how valuable it is to the market, but we don’t. We pretend that the entirety of Geneva Lake consists of equal and consistent shoreline, but it isn’t. The lakefront is nuanced, sometimes in such a subtle manner that the true definition of value is entirely subjective. But the lakefront is also blunt, a heavy hammer taken to different ideas and locations in such a way that there an be no mistaking a quality location for an inferior one. The market is both things, and yet this pesky price per foot insists on blending the good with the bad to come up with an indicator of value.

A lakefront property on Basswood recently sold. The price for 150′ of level frontage? Right around $30,000 per foot. There are several other large-ish lakefront properties for sale, including one on the South Shore of the lake that is listed closer to $10,000 per foot. Does this mean the lakefront is worth $30,000 per foot? Not really. Does it mean the lakefront is worth $10,000 per foot? Nope. Does it mean, as the longstanding measurement would dictate, that the lakefront is worth $20,000 per foot? Not even close.

What it means is that level feet on Basswood are worth more than sloped feet somewhere else. It means a street that’s capable of holding value up to and perhaps beyond $12,000,000 is going to command a higher dirt price than a street that might be hamstrung around $6,000,000. This shouldn’t be hard to understand, but throughout the myriad negotiations that I’ll captain this year I will continually and consistently run into either buyers or sellers who fail to grasp this most basic concept. The lakefront is not uniform. And as such, the pricing cannot be, either.

Next time you’re buying or selling Lake Geneva, use the Price Per Foot to your advantage. But know that it’s generally nothing more than one of three or four indicators that point to the value of a specific property. Also know that if you’re buying on Valley Park, where recent sale printed for around $16,000 per front foot or you’re buying in Indian Hills, where a recent sale went closer to $50,000 per front foot, both properties could represent a value, or both could be overpriced. The only way to know? Understand the market by working with an agent that understands it better than you do. (that’s me)

Fall Sales

Fall Sales

I didn’t have a great summer. My superjet sat on the lift, used only by my son and perhaps twice by me. The family had a new boat this year, and I used it, some. My daughter sailed, a bit, and I went with her on at least one occasion. Just kidding, it was only once. I didn’t eat casual summer dinners by the water. I didn’t walk the shore path. That’s because I was too busy. June was rainy and then when the summer weather arrived, the activity tagged along. My summer was a blur, a missed opportunity, but only because I was busy with this thing called work. Thankfully, now that the summertime deals had time to gestate, it’s time for some closings.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I was pleased to close several of these summertime deals. First up, a parkway home in Cedar Point. This one was a basic cottage in a special setting. Parkway homes are rare, but the market tends to appreciate them sometimes more than others. This summer the cottage went overlooked, before finally catching the eye of a couple of buyers. As with any deal that features one property and multiple buyers, there could be only one successful buyer. In this case, the deal closed for $630k and I was pleased for the seller, and excited for the buyer.

Last week, I closed on a classic cottage in The Lindens. In case you didn’t know, there are not very many locations around the lake where off-water homes can find support in the $1.5-2MM range. Those associations where this is most likely to occur include Loramoor, Glen Fern, The 700 Club, Black Point, and The Lindens. This sale closed at $1.625MM and I was pleased to represent the buyer who will now go about instilling some of his distinctively stylish touches into this lovely home.

I also closed on a condo at Abbey Ridge, this one for $560k. I sold that condo to the now-seller last summer for the same price. The seller moved onward and upward, and sold the condo to a new buyer looking for their own piece of the Fontana scene. In this case, $560k was a nice price for the buyer, and nice enough for the seller who had already moved on.

On Friday, I closed 246 Circle Parkway in Williams Bay for $1,820,000. I was pleased to work for the seller and with the buyer in this transaction. As is standard issue here, the seller moved on to another lake property, and the buyer was a prior client who found the property, mostly the view, to her liking. If we consider some basic math, we can see a spec home on a 60′ lot in Cedar Point pending sale with a $4.8MM ask. This home on Circle, with that enormous view and 92′ of frontage, just sold for $1.82MM. If you want to renovate this house, go for it. If you’d like to tear it down someday and rebuild, well then go for that, too. The market has spoken, and 246 Circle was a solid value for the buyer, and a solid sale for the seller who moves on without moving away.

The sales this week push my 2019 sales volume over $37,000,000, which is a terrific thing. But it isn’t the only thing, as increasingly I’m driven by helping buyers and sellers maneuver in this sometimes tricky market. Expect the sales cycle to continue this autumn, as my summer deals slowly close and new falls deals fall into place. If we were curious how the 2019 year would turn out, I think our curiosity should turn to confidence. It’s been a productive year, and it looks like the volume from the summer is rolling right into, and through, fall.

Sunday

Sunday

There are days in our life that matter more than the other days. The days that matter do so for various reasons. Some of those days are momentous days, achieved only after a year, two or ten or forty, of hard and dedicated work. This is when you are gifted the gold watch for your time spent. The day you are handed a meaningful piece of paper that proclaims your knowledge or skill. The days you win. The days someone is born or the day someone near to you dies. The days we rejoice and the days we mourn, the days when the things that we remember happen. These are the days that shape our lives, right?

What if we’ve been lied to this entire time, and as a point of fact, these are not the days that actually matter? What if the days we see as the highpoint or the low point, the days we see as a victory or a crushing defeat, what if these aren’t the days at all? As I sit here this morning I can look back through my life in rewind, and I can see the days that should have mattered. The day I successfully passed my real estate course and exam? Anyone can do that, and I mean absolutely anyone. So that isn’t a day that matters, even if it was the day that would shape my future in almost every way. The day I met my wife was certainly an important day that had a hand in every single day that followed. The day I met my children was a terrific day, indeed, and from those individual days the course was charted for what would become of the rest of my days. But these are the days that I remember for what they were, for who they made me, for what they said about where I was and where I might go. It couldn’t be argued that they don’t matter, but they are benchmark days, a handful of them collected into one small pouch, numbering barely a few.

There are people who trade their lives for a job. A pension. The promise of someday freedom. If I just work for the next 11 years then I can take all of the other years off. If I get 74 hours in this week, then once the next seven years are over, I’ll have shaved 59 weeks off of my retirement age, and then I’ll be able to move to Pensacola. This is a thought process that leverages today for tomorrow. It trades a sunny Saturday when the lake is blowing bright, for a long lawn that grew too much after the Thursday rain to be ignored. It trades this week for some other week. It trades this Monday for a theoretical Monday, sometime far into the future. You know, that future that none of us are promised. Yet in spite of that awareness, we grind and we churn and we spin mostly in place. Moving forward, that’s what we’re doing. Bettering our tomorrow by sacrificing today. Trading this small thing for that far off grand thing. Where do we want to be? Somewhere else. When do I want to go there? In two and a half decades.

I admit I write this from a privileged position where the only thing shaping my days are the needs of innumerable clients who trust me to help guide their real estate decisions. This is an incredible position to be in, and I’m grateful for it every single day. But on a Sunday like yesterday, when my phone abruptly shut off and refused to turn back on, when the trout greedily ate our flies in spite of the heavy rain and stained water, when the afternoon was spent with my son and his friend hiking up a stream we had never, ever fished, is that a day that I should trade for something else? Is that a day like the one I wish for some day several years from now, the one that I have no promise of ever meeting? Is a day like yesterday, where I spent three hours riddled with anxiety over what calls and texts I was likely missing, is that a day I should have traded the calm of that stream for the stress of this desk?

What if, when the dust settles and we back to it, none of the big days are the ones on our minds? What if the day we took off to sail because the sky was right and the wind was blowing, what if that’s the day we remember the best? I have said over recent years that the best day of my life was spent doing little else but sitting by a pool in Cap Ferrat with my wife on the lawn chair next to me and a few espressos and desserts on the table in front of us. I’m mostly joking when I call that My Best Day, but what if I’m not? What if that’s just a day that I decided to trade the pace of modern day normalcy for the leisure of a day spent by a pool? When I take some time off once in a while, or I drive up to my cabin for 36 hours of fly fishing, I tell myself one thing. This is my life. There is nothing in the future that’s better than my present. These are the days that matter. A year from now will I regret not holding a stupid open house or sitting at my office on a Sunday morning returning phone calls that piled up on Saturday? Further, when my life is over, which may happen soon or sometime several decades from now, will I close my eyes and remember this desk? Likely, yes, I will. But will the days I spent in a stream with my son or on a sailboat with my daughter or lounging by a pool with my wife matter more than any of the other days? I think yes.

Above, May on the Laser, solo.

Lakefront Condo For Sale

Lakefront Condo For Sale

This is getting out of hand. This condo at Bay Colony was completely, entirely, and remarkably renovated by Lowell Management at a cost that far exceeds the new asking price. And by Far Exceeds, I mean, Astoundingly Exceeds. You’re the new buyer, so you don’t care about what that renovation cost, or how much money the seller is losing. You just care about the value that you’ve found. Now reduced to $729,900, this two bed two bath condo (with slip) is the best deal on the lake, hands down. Bar none. Buy this condo, live in immense luxury, walk to Cafe Calamari and Pier 290. Enjoy the lake, in style, on sale.

Bay Colony
Indian Hills Sale

Indian Hills Sale

Sometimes, timing is everything. Except in real estate, because then it isn’t so much sometimes as all of the time. You could list your home and watch it languish on the market for weeks. Then months. And years. Then a buyer shows up on a Sunday and another one arrives the following Tuesday. You have two buyers where once, forever, you had none. This is the timing of real estate and it makes very little sense.

Last week, I closed a lakefront sale in Indian Hills for $4,999,900. The seller had contacted me about selling, and around the same time a super smart buyer contacted me in search of a lakefront home. A week or two later, the deal was struck. And a few weeks after that, the deal closed. A happy seller, who sold without hassle, a happy buyer, who found what he wanted, and a happy Realtor, who was pleased to have the proper connections in place to make it all happen.

Should you navigate the market in this same manner? If you’re a seller, should you whisper about your property and hope your agent (that’s supposed to be me) knows a buyer who would be interested? If you’re a buyer, should you whisper around and ask about off-market inventory in the hopes that your agent (should be me, again) knows someone who is selling? No, you shouldn’t, because this sort of arrangement is rare and something that cannot be counted on. But if you’re working with the right agent (me), the odds of this sort of arrangement do increase. And if you’re a seller or a buyer, isn’t that what this game is all about? Increasing your odds of finding something rare, be that a buyer or a piece of inventory?

The answer is yes, and I’m here to help. This sale (and the two others this week) brings my sales production since 2010 to a market leading $300,000,000. But none of that matters now. What matters is if you’re a lakefront buyer looking for inventory, let me know. And if you’re a seller looking for your buyer, same.

Geneva National Market Update

Geneva National Market Update

To understand Geneva National you must first understand the fundamental issue with Geneva National. Notice I didn’t call it a problem. A problem suggests that it’s something we can solve. If I have a problem with a certain pair of pants, I would first identify the problem (they’re too long) and then fix the problem (hem). Geneva National doesn’t have a problem, it has an issue. And that issue is simple. It’s such a large association that it requires a significant amount of annual volume to keep it moving forward, both in terms of market positioning and price stabilization, or appreciation. In good times, that volume is present. In bad times, it dries up. And unlike the lakefront market, which can endure some lengthy periods of low volume, Geneva National tends to see pricing pressure the moment (or year) that sales soften. This is the Geneva National condition.

Understanding this, you can imagine how nice it is for me to write a positive review of the market conditions in Geneva National. Just last week I closed on a nice home in the Geneva Club, a gated enclave within Geneva National, for $640,000. This is a nice sale for GN, a nice sale for the seller (lost money) and a nice purchase for the buyer I represented. We contracted on that home in May, only to close in late August, and while we spent the summer under contract the Geneva National market had a serious run of sales.

Currently, there are 12 homes and condominiums pending sale in GN. Of those 12, four are priced in excess of $500k. Since the beginning of 2019, there have been 71 closings in GN (per MLS, excluding vacant land sales). Of those, 12 have closed over $500k. This is an important price point for Geneva National, as you can sell all the $180k condominiums you want and it won’t signal any sort of meaningful activity for an association that is reasonably heavy in $500k+ homes. Liquidity in that upper-middle market is what GN craves, and this summer provided that movement. Consider for 2018 there were a total of 81 sales, with just 11 of those printing over $500k. And for context, you must know that 2012 saw just 35 total sales with only two of those closing over $500k. Geneva National, you’ve had yourself quite a 2019 and it isn’t close to being over.

In spite of this activity, the one thing that continues to weigh on the single family home component (all condo classifications) is the presence of vacant lots that are priced far, far, far below their initial valuations in the early 1990s. There are currently 41 listed lots available in GN, and just one of those shows as pending sale. That property, by the way, is listed at $10k. That $10k lot had sold previously in 1996 for $62k, and again in 2003 for $52k. And in this you’ll find the Geneva National conundrum. On one hand, no one really feels like enduring a construction process when there is ample built inventory priced between $450k and $750k. The presence of this built inventory and the elevated construction costs associated with new construction has left the vacant lot market out in the cold. But on the other hand, the existence of so many cheap vacant lots is weighing on the built home market, because why would I buy your 1994 brick and cedar creation only to have to remodel it (extensively) when I can buy the lot next door for $Free.99? This is the issue within GN, and it all stems from that volume situation. Too much inventory, too large of a subdivision.

There are things that can turn the tide in GN, and one of those that I’ve written about often, would be to adjust the Geneva National Declaration to allow property owners to buy adjacent lots and not have to pay additional association fees on the purchased lot. This would help absorb some of the vacant land inventory, which is at the root of the GN market issue. The association won’t do this because they can’t imagine the loss of that vacant lot revenue (owners pay dues on a vacant lot, just as they would on a built home), but this fixation on the dues is causing market strains that are self-inflicted. If the concern is over dues, then charge each owner who purchases an adjacent vacant lot a one time fee of $3000, or similar, when they purchase the lot. That’ll grease the budget a bit on an annual basis, as owners snap up cheap, adjacent lots. GN, I do hope you’re paying attention.

GN should benefit from low interest rates moving forward, and if this exaggerated Illinois Exodus exists, GN will likely be a landing place for many of those newly minted Wisconsinites (psyche, our top income tax rate is 7.65). Rarely would a family from Illinois (or an individual for that matter) move to Lake Geneva from the Chicago suburbs and land in a small cottage near-isn the lake. Instead, they’d look in GN and find that $400-700k buys a remarkably nice home, and they’ll like the way that looks and feels for a new primary residence. For now, Geneva National, rejoice in your solid 2019. The sales volume is meaningful.

Market Top

Market Top

There you have it, someone said it. Someone in the real estate industry dared say it. More than likely, this will be it for me. This will be the last straw. The quiet choppers of the industry overlords will come to my house in the quiet dim of a starless night and dispatch me. No word yet whether it will be Zillow, OpenDoor, the NAR, but if you’re near my house tonight please take note of the logo on the tail.

After all, I shouldn’t say such a thing. I shouldn’t mention those words. Market. Top. Agents are trained to live in fear of those words. In fear of what they might mean for their wallets. But they only fear something they don’t understand. Consumers fear it, too. They fear what it means for their wallets and their futures. My dad lives in fear of growing grass and rain. If it’s sunny, no matter, it’s going to rain. There are real estate consumers who behave like this as well. They’re recognizable as being the people who are afraid to buy real estate when the market is down because it’s going lower. They’re also afraid to buy real estate when the market is up because, well, it’s going lower.

I’m not afraid to tell you that the market is frothy. It’s obvious. The lakefront? Frothy in pockets (new construction mostly). The off-water homes? Frothy, in pockets. The primary home market in Walworth County? Frothy, entirely and utterly. But what does that mean? Does it mean we should put our lives on hold and wait for the froth to fizzle? Should we, if our kids are young and our wallets full-ish, decide against buying a home because that home may, in theory, be worth less at some point in near or distant future? It means none of these things, but there is a way to avoid being a casualty of the froth: Buy Blue Chip Real Estate.

Word this week of a recent primary home market sale. This home is near neighborhoods that are filled with $300-500k homes. This home just printed around $1.5MM. This home does not appeal to a typical vacation home buyer. It does not appeal to a typical primary home buyer. This home is an albatross, and it sold at a market premium. This home is the sort of home that will see its value crushed by any meaningful market downturn. It’ll be a disaster. The same goes for some of the off-water homes that I’ve seen close this year and last. You might want to pay $2MM for that off-water home because it has a small view of the lake or a tennis court, but just know that when the market softens your home, the one you couldn’t live without, is going to get hammered. This is also true of the corn-field subdivisions that once made their livings with $300k new construction. That price point was fine, and still is. But now these homes are selling in the $500k range and the question is how strong are the hands that are purchasing these homes? (Spoiler answer: Lots of FHA loans here with very small down payments). These home sales are creating boom times for builders and developers, but what happens when the music stops, or at least skips? What happens when your brand new $500k home is no longer brand new, and the neighborhood builders are now targeting $390k home buyers with their new construction? What happens when your $500k home with the $482k mortgage is now barely liquid at $425k because corn fields are one thing that Walworth County is not running out of and builders can undercut you at pretty much any time? Bad things, that’s what.

These are the examples of risky home purchases. They are top end products in a middle end setting. They are lofty sales prices for new construction surrounded by dirt that previously would never, ever consider supporting the new valuations. These are the one-offs, the OTC offerings of our housing market, and these are the homes that you shouldn’t be buying if you’re concerned about how well you’re going to weather some variety of real estate slow down that may or may not occur in the next 18-36 months.

Instead, you should be focusing on value. Contrary to public opinion, and contrary to some prices on the lakefront, value still exists. It exists in homes that need work. In homes that might need some new countertops or a bathroom update. It exists in high quality neighborhoods where a particular product might be, for one reason or many, inferior. There are blue chip offerings today, if only you’ll stop being so dazzled by the countertops. Buy on streets that have a history of supporting value. Buy sections of the lake that the market finds more desirable than others.

The other lesson we should learn from this current market cycle is that patience smooths out times of incredible difficulty. If you bought a lakefront home in 2008, you paid a ton of money. Congratulations. And, if you sold that home in 2011, you lost a ton of money. Good work. But, if you bought that home in 2008 and used it like crazy through 2011 and into 2015, by then your valuation may have recovered. If you still own that Lake Geneva home now, 11 years later, you’re likely back in the black and recognizing some appreciation on your property. Further, if your kids were young when you bought in 2008, they’re nearly or entirely grown by now, and you’ve created a lifetime of memories at your lake house that would have otherwise been impossible to create. Would you trade those memories and those moments for a little bit more money? Don’t be ridiculous.

If you’re a market watcher, terrific, so am I. If you are afraid of the market, that means you’re not looking at it through the right lens, and if you are using the right lens, then your aim is wrong. Want to buy a house in the fall of 2019? Good. Be smart about it. Don’t buy the one-offs. Don’t buy the fringe betting that it’ll get better. Buy the blue chips.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Certain times, there’s nothing more to say. Like when you’ve eaten a most delicious dinner. You can say it was a delicious dinner. You can take a picture of it and post it to your favorite social media account. But beyond that, is there really anything else you can add? You could, two weeks later, tell someone about it. That would be nice, but you would have to acknowledge that no one really cares. That was your dinner. It was good, but there’s nothing more to say.

The Lake Geneva lakefront market is hot. It’s obvious. It’s unavoidable. It’s uniform. Entry level homes are hot. Massive lakefront estates are hot. Buyers are buying things. Correction: they’re buying every thing. The lakefront is hot, and sometimes that’s all you can say.

But that’s if we’re not us, and we’re not intelligent and curious. We want to know exactly what’s pending and what’s not. We want to know why. What are the drivers of this market surge? Is it as simple as the stock market valuation? If we strike a deal with China, will more people buy more lake houses? If we don’t, will they disappear? If the Dow returns 11% will things be wonderful this year, or if it returns 16% will things be that much better? Will low interest rates on mortgages spur more activity this fall, even if we don’t strike a deal with China and the Dow drops because of the tension? Because of the fear? Will JB continue to confuse barely-millionaires with inherited-money-billionaires? If he does, will the market stall? These are the questions on my mind, and on your mind, and on the mind of our remarkable lakefront market.

But first, the run. As of this morning, there are no fewer than 11 lakefront homes pending sale. That’s an astounding number. As impressive as the volume is, more impressive to me is the range of the market activity. The REO in the Highlands is pending with an asking price of $1.092MM. That was the property that came to market and fielded a bevy of offers before finally settling under contract. I expect that sale will be perhaps 40-60% higher than the asking price, but that’s purely speculation on my part. The activity generated by that foreclosure was quite impressive, but alas, one house means only one buyer. The overflow from that bidding war more than likely fueled other sales, as buyers, once committed to the lake via a hard offer, rarely pull back and sit on the sidelines waiting for another year to roll by. Some of those buyers, spurned by the foreclosure, went shopping.

My listing at 246 Circle is under contract ($1.975MM), as is my listing next door at 250 Circle ($2.825MM). Those are very different homes in a very similar location, but both are solid buys that make complete and total market sense. Farther north, a spec home in Cedar Point. This one on just 62′ of frontage, with an asking price near $4.8MM. That home is under contract. I repeat, that home is under contract. Did you know the market loves new construction? Then again, I love a good Butterfingers Concrete Mixer, and my love for this caloric bomb is downright tepid compared to the love some buyers have for new lakefront construction.

Wrapping around Williams Bay to Walworth Avenue, the string of cottages has another pending sale, this one at $1.895MM with a few cottages and large pier on a skinny lakefront lot. Whatever’s in the water on Walworth Avenue, it must be delicious, because change is coming to that section of lakefront. Would I want to invest my money in change there? No I wouldn’t, but that’s just me and I’m just a kid from Williams Bay (with 23 years of full time Williams Bay based real estate sales under my belt and nearly $300MM in closed transactions in the past 9 years…).

In Fontana, my new listing on Sauk is under contract with a $1.99MM ask. That’s a vintage cottage with some modern updates in a rare setting. There’s a large pier with shore station, garage, ample parking, and terrific square footage. Compare that to typical offerings in Glenwood that lack parking, lack shore stations, and you’ll understand why it’s under contract. I have another one-party listing pending sale in Fontana, but you’ll have to wait until that one closes to learn more about it. Needless to say, it’s a stellar transaction.

Pushing East, my listing on Basswood is still under contract ($8.495MM). Expect that one to close this fall, and when it closes, it’ll become the highest print for 2019. There’s one other private offering I know of that may break the sales price, but that won’t be in the MLS, so it won’t be something we can discuss here. The other listing on Basswood (not mine, $4.79MM) is under contract as well. Buyers love Basswood. They always have, and they always will, especially as old homes are sold and new homes are built.

On the Lake Geneva side, the home to the West of the Geneva Inn is under contract ($2.195MM), as is the log-ish home on the hill near Vista Del Lago ($4.25MM). The log home has a fantastic pool, which has been a significant driver of interest for that home. I know I’ve shown it in the past, and each buyer is initially drawn to the pool and fabulous westerly view.

That’s the current market, and that’s the hottest I’ve ever seen the lakefront in my 23 years of work here. For my take, I have been blessed with more than $31MM in pending transactions this summer, including contracts on five of the pending lakefronts. It’s been a busy season (which is why this blog has been a bit dry over the past month), and the activity has me looking forward to a slower paced fall. Still, expect this market to continue humming along, as low interest rates, lofty equity valuations, and a continued trend where Illinois residents are not reinvesting into Illinois real estate and are, instead, taking those hard earned dollars out of state to vacation home markets around the country. If you were of that ilk, and you were looking for a vacation home market to drop a few dollars in, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a nearby market with amazing liquidity and world class amenities?

Battle Royale

Battle Royale

There’s a battle inside each of us. Every day. Each season of our lives, a battle. Sometimes, the battle is easy to understand. Easy to plan. Easy to flank the opponent and cruise to victory. Some battles are against flesh and blood. Others are not. Others are bigger than that. Sometimes, you battle yourself. Battle who you are and who you wish to be. You battle the past. You battle the future. You battle today, Thursday. When the time comes, we all must battle for our very lives. These are our battles, this is our war, these are our scars.

Whatever you’re battling today, I assure you that it isn’t that bad. Take me, for instance. I’m battling something now that I never thought I’d have to battle. I’m battling and I’m battling and yet, each day, I feel as though I’m making no progress. The enemy is here, there, everywhere. There is little I can do, but I try. No one ever said this battle would be easy, but then again, no one really understands what it is that I’m battling. Your battles for today are meaningful, I’m sure of it. But me? My battle is bigger. Or at least taller. My opponent more menacing. More tenacious. More noxious. Throughout my life I have battled, against competitors, against strangers, against myself. Today, I battle no one. I battle a thing. It’s Giant Ragweed season at my property, and the battle rages.

Earlier this year, I bought a new tractor. A mighty, amazing, glistening new tractor. I have another tractor, mind you, a similar make and model, but that tractor is at my cabin 170 miles from here, and after two encounters with blown tires on the route between here and there I decided that no man should have to tolerate such roadside humiliation. So I bought a new tractor, better than the last, so that my old tractor could stay at my new cabin, and my new tractor could stay at my Walworth home. The plan was perfect, but little did I know I would need that tractor for a far greater purpose.

That new tractor has a rotary mower on the back. I bought it with that attachment so I could mow my wildflower gardens in the spring, and maybe again in late fall, I wasn’t entirely sure. On one hand, the birds like the flowers in the winter, I know this because I see them perched there on the coldest of January days. But on the other hand, I know that the seeds in those flowers are stripped bare by mid November, so there’s really nothing in those flowers for the birds, and I already have plenty of trees and bushes upon which they can easily perch. Even so, the mower was added and I thought it was just a nice luxury.

But that was before the tractor was enlisted, like the boats at Dunkirk, but my lawn is marginally more dangerous. I have spent years sewing seeds throughout the expanse of my ten acre property. Each year, Outside Pride delivers more wildflower seeds for my sewing pleasure. I scatter and rake, scatter and water. I watch. The seeds sprout and the flowers grow. In late spring, the Lupines reign. So. Many. Lupines. Then, the coneflowers take over. Purple, though my wife wishes some were white. Then, the black eyed susans spread and reach. The picture above is from last week, with the BES engaged in a shameless, overwhelming display. Typically, that would be the end of it. Some stragglers would bloom through the middle of October and then the garden would be done for the year. The rabbits and foxes would slink and hop through the remnants of my magnificent prairie, and all would be well. But not this year.

This year the Giant Ragweed has arrived, with reinforcements. The tall army of stalky weeds, each one bigger than the last. Ten feet tall here, twelve feet tall there. Others, at least 40 feet tall, perhaps. My tractor, quietly resting on the margins of my lawn, now no longer a luxury. Now a weapon of war. The rotary mower, best suited for trimming the grass in my flower prairie fields, turned into a brutal killing machine. Random passes through the ragweed lines, first a zig zag to understand how strong this enemy may be, then a systematic approach to their total and complete destruction. At least that’s the plan, but I’m wavering in my commitment. The weeds are everywhere. Tall and bold. Where there were none yesterday, there are more today. Where I once felt I was regaining ground, they haven’t been killed as much as they’ve maneuvered around my swinging, whirling blades. The hidden logs and rocks eliciting dangerous explosions from my towable mower, like so many IEDs along the path to war. The great blankets of yellow pollen coating my tractor, my hair, my eyes. Later, I’ll try to wash off the stains of this war, but sometimes, no matter how hard I scrub I can’t rid myself of the memory of these battles.

I tell you this today so you’ll have some perspective. I understand your life may be hard. I understand your battles may seem unsurmountable. But maybe take a moment and think about me, and count your blessings that at the end of this day you get to go home to your family and I just get to go back to war.

Cancel The Boat Parade

Cancel The Boat Parade

There are things here that we do exceptionally well. Things we do better than anyone, at any place, during any point in history. An evening boat cruise aboard a capable boat, the sun settling below that green western horizon, the calm rotation of a strong engine and the rolling push of white prop wash, it’s all about as ideal as it could be. The lake falling flat, the piers still, the lake nearly, entirely yours. This is what we do well here, among many other things. The evening cruise here is as good as it could be anywhere, and this is something we should be proud of.

But last night, with that lake doing what it does and the boats doing what they do, there was an interruption in the quality of the scene. The carnival that is Venetian Fest was winding down, but leading up to, really, the last important fireworks display of the summer. The fireworks, I should add, were quite good. Never mind that we should still abandon a relatively tedious 15 minute display and instead choose to have an invigorating 6 minute display, one where bystanders cannot help but turn to one another and question if something has gone wrong. We are not used to so many explosions in such a short period of time. The fireworks were fine, the long weekend of Venetian Fest was fine. The Wrigley’s bringing in One Republic to fist bump with Mr. Wrigley, also fine. The problem was was happened in between all of that.

The boat parade is, in theory, a fine idea. Some old boats, adorned with some lights. It’s fine by me. Cruise boats, filled with patrons, each paying the small ransom to spend an hour or two afloat, fine. My issue isn’t with the idea, it’s with the execution. The concept is acceptable, even perhaps fun, but the actual implementation of this boat parade leaves everything to be desired. I sat on a pier on the west side of Geneva Bay as dusk settled in, and the thumping from an over-cranked boat stereo signaled that the disastrous boat parade of 2019 was about to begin. I paid attention.

The first few boats, no big deal. Some haphazard lights strung in varying shapes on some of our nicer tour boats. One was some sort of blue cocktail. Another maybe a surfer. One a pig roasting over flames, done entirely in orange so it looked less like a summer light parade and more a Spirit Halloween window display. While the first few boats pushed from south to north, the music still bumped. Annoyingly loud, it pulsed from the ugliest boat to ever find its way into a boat parade outside the muddy shoreline of Lake Havasu.

Rather than having actual themed decorations, the Ugly Boat had the name of the boat rental company on the side of it. Why would this be? Can I place my boat into this “parade” and write Geneva Lakefront Realty on the side of it? Even if I could, should I? Within a few minutes, the boat parade was over, and the decibel levels returned to normal Sunday evening levels. Everyone was thankful the parade was over. Shortly after, the fireworks exploded and the display was energetic and all was fine. Another Sunday night at the lake, in the books. But all was not well.

The boat parade is silly. It’s obnoxious. I recognize that people worked hard to decorate the boats, but if I work hard to carve a maze into the giant ragweed that are overtaking my yard, does that make the maze a good idea? Let’s get back to acting like Lake Geneva, and kill the boat parade for 2020. If we’re trying to become the Wisconsin Dells, then by all means, let’s boat parade like crazy. But if we’re trying to be Lake Geneva, let’s act like it.

The Test

The Test

It is true that not everyone is cut out for this thing. As a point of fact, this is the case for nearly every thing. For instance, I am not cut out for rock climbing. I have seen this done on the smooth face of bald rock cliffs and thought, that’s not for me. Another thing I’m not cut out for is being eaten to death by a bear. I’ve seen it happen, at least nearly so, on the silver screen and I decided that I am very much against it. Because of this assertion, I will never place myself into a situation where death by bear may occur. In the same way, some people are not meant for Lake Geneva.

While it irritates and appalls me to suggest that this is indeed the case, I know I am not alone in thinking this way. Some people don’t like it here. I’ve heard of these people, though I don’t believe I’ve ever had the chance to look one of these people dead into their mistaken eyes and suggest, however tactfully, that they are being lied to by Satan himself, still, I know they exist. Some of the people that feel this way have come here for a while and found that the schedule of their lives does not find time for a lake house. These people get a pass, but not a full pardon. These are people who have made decisions to pursue other things, but in that wayward pursuit they have not pinpointed that Geneva is not for them. They’ve just chosen another way, albeit the wrong way.

The people of which I speak are generally home buyers. Ambivalent, some. Others, aggressive and searching, but uncommitted when it comes time to pull the trigger. What if I don’t like it there? They ask. What if things aren’t like I perceive them to be? They balk. Never mind that my voice of calm reason is consistently assuring them that they’ll like it here. That they’ll fit in. That they’ll feel a tug to come back as many weeks or weekends as their schedule allows. When one of these would-be-owners gives me their list of 10 data points that they value, I always remind them that at Lake Geneva we’ll gladly deliver on 6 of those 10 points, but never, ever, on all 10, let alone even, perhaps, 7. This is the way our market behaves, and if you come here with some ambivalence and expect to be met at each of your concerns, you best move along. Lake Geneva doesn’t bend to a buyer, a buyer must bend to Lake Geneva.

But this isn’t about these buyers, this is about the test. And in my most professorial way I will tell you how this test is administered. First things first, stop visiting only on weekends. This is a mistake. A huge mistake. There are but two seasons here. Weekdays and Weekends. The test is only offered on weekdays. This is why you must reign in your schedule and find a day to visit. Fridays are acceptable, but not preferred. On a Sunday, look at the forecast for the week. Pick the best looking weather day. Plan on that day. On that day collect your family or friends or just drive up by yourself, it doesn’t matter. The test doesn’t rely on more than one participant. Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves and there is more work to do before you get into the car.

I used to suggest that a homebuyer should rent a boat on this lake and drive around. This was bad advice. What a terrible way to introduce yourself to a lake like this. What are you going to do, rent a pontoon boat and drive around in a carpeted, open air living room to see a scene like this? This is akin to finding your way to the finest of restaurants and wearing torn shorts and that shirt you have with the armpit stains. Don’t do this. If you make the egregious mistake and rent a boat, you’ll be tossed around like a rabbit in my dog’s mouth. The outcome for you and the rabbit are the same: pain. This is why you’re not allowed to take this test on some silly rental boat. You must charter a boat and take this test in style.

A cursory review of boat rental options on Geneva finds most boat rentals costing between $300-500 for 2-4 hours. This is expensive for the sort of boats that you can rent. And, in the spirit of transparency, I have several basic goals for Geneva Lake. 1. Ban Pontoon Boats. 2. Eliminate Boat Rentals. 3. Increase Launch Fees 10 fold. (If we did these things, the lake would be better off, so if anyone is reading and would like to discuss these paths, I’m here to help facilitate). Why would you rent a dumb little boat when you could charter the Lorelei, a most stunning 41′ cruiser and have someone else drive you around the lake? Best yet, even with taxes and fees, the Lorelei will run you around $400 for an hour tour. You don’t need more than an hour to indulge in the lakefront scene. Imagine the grief I just saved you by informing you of the proper option here. No standing in line waiting for the rental company to prepare your embarrassing rental boat. Just a high class, white glove experience aboard a beautiful chartered boat. This is the way to take in the lake.

But this Lake Geneva litmus test is not yet complete. Once you’re done with the boat, you must find a place to eat food, lakeside. You could stay in Lake Geneva, that’s up to you, but you must eat lunch or dinner on the lake. Is our food scene amazing? No, aside from a few standouts, it is not. But if you’re eating lakeside everything will taste just a bit better. Eat your meal. Then, walk the shore path in some direction for 15 minutes. Longer if you insist, but at least 15 minutes. Leave from Williams Bay, Fontana, or Lake Geneva, but get away from town quickly. Walk a ways. Gawk a bit. Imagine walking up one of the lawns to the screened porch that you might someday own.

This is the end of the test. Nothing more is needed. If you follow this program and at the end of the day you hate Lake Geneva, then there is nothing more than can be done for you. You are a lost cause. It’s not entirely your fault, because some things are not for every person. For instance, some people eat poultry medium rare. Other people that I’ve seen on TV eat eels that are still living. Some people bought PT Cruisers, in yellow. To each his own, but if you’re in the mood for a lake house and you’re uncertain as to your geographic aim, just follow my test and when you’re done you can call me and tell me how it went.

Lake Geneva Home Search

Lake Geneva Home Search

You’re not really in the market for a home if you haven’t looked for said home on Zillow. You may have also used Redfin, Realtor.com, and others. They’re all the same, mostly, and they’re all really good at one particular thing. If you’d like the know the asking price of a specific property, and you’d also like to see the photos of that property, you’re in luck. Zillow is really good at that. They’ll happily help. But they’re also really good at telling you the price of a particular home. If you’re in front of a home and you see the sign and you don’t want to call the Realtor, Zillow can help. Just open the app and voila! The price. Also, if you’re wondering about the price of a home, and don’t know it, Zillow will help!

The redundancy is intentional. But Zillow will go one step farther in attempting to help you with your search and they’ll slap a valuation on the home that you’re considering. If the home sold last year, Zillow will know that price and they’ll adjust the price up or down depending on the performance of that particular market. If the home sold recently, it’ll be a decent guess. If your grandmother bought her home in 1978 and it hasn’t been on the market since, and it’s in the country and not in a Phoenix neighborhood where everyone has rock yards, then Zillow is still going to guess, but it’s going to be a pretty terrible effort. If we’re going to give credit to Zillow and friends for what they do well (state known list prices and publish photos), then we should recognize what they do poorly (everything else).

But does Zillow know about my new pending contract on 250 Circle Parkway? A quick search reveals that they do not. We could give them a pass for not knowing, since the market only knew about this last Friday. They probably know about my pending sale at W4396 Basswood ($8.495MM), but do they know that there is back up interest and that the back up interest will likely lead to a sale of another legacy home similar to Basswood? Does Zillow know about my listing in Glenwood Springs for $2.075MM? Do you? Does Zillow know about the pending spec home in The Lindens? Or about the contested DOJ seizure on the North Shore? Do they know that, in spite of a vibrant summer market, buyers will still be able to find value in the aged inventory?

The answer to all of those questions is no. Zillow doesn’t know. Zillow can’t know. And the question today is why you’d consider letting your Lake Geneva vacation home search teeter on the whims of what Zillow doesn’t know. If you’re ready to know more about this market, I’m here to help.

This Day

This Day

This day is too nice to type at this computer. I sat down to type, and I wondered what I was thinking. Who could type on a day like this? I should go back to work, away from the typing and back to the working. But what sane person would willingly work on days like this? For the length of our lives, we will have only a few days just like this. Sure, you could move to some absurd place far to the south of here and have days like this, but what fun would that be? What if a day like this during a week like this occurred each day and each week, every month, all year? Then we wouldn’t care, we’d just work. But we aren’t those people, we are us, proudly so, and if we’re working on this day with this sun and this temperature and that lake, then we’ve lost our minds. This paragraph took me thirty seconds to write and those are thirty seconds I will never, ever get back. It’s Thursday and it’s perfect and I have to go now, because my life is short and summer is shorter and days like this? They’re impossible to ignore.

250 Circle Parkway

250 Circle Parkway

I’m in the process of designing a new office for my business. The current location, an office that I’m quite proud of, has grown tedious with envious conflict and expense, so I must leave. The process is exciting, the new building full of promise, but there is just one hurdle now. The Design. Do I make the office sleek and modern, like the sort of offices I see only on the silver screen? Do I make it comfortable and mature, with the smell of rich mahogany perfuming my masculine new space? Should the floors be wood or stone? The walls drywall and clean or wood and textured? Do I bite at the trend to make at least one bathroom clad in deep blue grasscloth with a shiny brass mirror and faucet? The questions are many, the answers hard to find, the situation perplexing. This is my office problem.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Home For Sale

Thankfully, on the lakefront, there is no such problem. The design aims are true. If we have a cottage and we wish to elevate it, the exterior choices range from shingles, to shingles, to also, shingles. If we’re having patios, they must be stone. There is no other choice. The driveway should be brick, and if we’re going through the trouble and expense of adding brick walks and driveways, then we should be smart enough to lay a herringbone pattern. What good is a superlative driveway without an equally impressive landscape? We have to add hydrangeas and perennials galore, to make the earth look as good as the materials we’ve applied to it. If the brick is set and the stone patios laid, the landscaping thriving, the shingles applied, we should also frame the view with tall and wide divided light windows. The bigger the better, but not so big that we ruin what we’re creating. This is what it’s like to design a proper lakefront home that stays true to the cottage style.

Views. And views. (and more views)

As is my way, if I’ve described it, I’m offering it to you. Consider 250 Circle Parkway in Williams Bay. The Tippy Top of Cedar Point isn’t just some normal spot on this anything-but-normal lake. It’s the spot with the best view. As one customer said after walking through, I can’t unsee that view. You can’t have many things that are “the best”. Hamburgers? Sure, plenty of places will serve you the best burger. Same with pie. But a view of Geneva Lake? There isn’t much of a competition here once you’ve laid eyes on that westerly view from 250 Circle. There is nothing else like it on the lake, and when I tell you that it makes all other views ever seen by human eyes in the history of humanity look like absolute mediocrity, you’ll have to see it for yourself to decide if that’s hyperbole.

Family Room

This home, aside from the landscaping and the views and those shingles and that new pier, is delightful. Thoughtfully, painstakingly, and beautifully renovated by the current owner, this home exudes a gracious lakefront style that is comfortably unpretentious. There’s nothing here that you might not need, but there’s little else you’re left to want. We have three bedrooms upstairs with three baths, along with two sitting areas and a private covered deck where that view demands you to sit and stare, at least for a bit. The bathrooms are renovated with playful pattern tile. The sweeping staircase that joints the bedroom level with the living level is oversized and grand. On the main level, you’ll find a bunk room with adjacent sitting room, vaulted and fun, with access to the private rear patio and entrance. The lakeside living room is complete with fireplace and ample seating, with large french doors that lead to that lakeside patio.

Master Bath

Once you take the bait and head to that patio, there’s nothing more you’ll care about seeing. I’ll suggest you check out the kitchen, with stone counters and stainless appliances and hidden pantries with clever nooks for storage, but you won’t care. That view is there and now you can’t unsee it. And why would you want to? It’s here, it’s ready, and it’s for sale. Now, that view can be yours, and you’ll have a hard time looking at anything else ever again. $2,825,000.

Frogs

Frogs

In the middle of a Wisconsin summer, there are things that happen that you might not know about. I didn’t know about them, when I spent my childhood on the lake. The lake is home lot of creatures, large and small, varying makes and models that rely on its depth and others on its shore. When I was younger a large snapping turtle would find its way from Harris Creek and onto the public beach. Children would shriek and lifeguards would spring, and after some time the turtle would be coaxed back to its swampy playground and the beach would return to the swimmers. Today, you may see a turtle in the lake. But you won’t see very many frogs.

That’s because the frogs are all at my house. There’s a far corner of my land that finds itself sometimes swampy and sometimes lakey. When you see a farm field with some standing water, assume my corner is a lake. And when that field is dry, assume my corner is only a marsh. In the very early spring, before a flower has bloomed and a blade of grass has been cut, this corner is alive with percussion. On the warmest of early spring days, the frogs of my yard crawl from this corner soup and chirp. Others bellow. They’re looking for mates, presumably, or just calling out to celebrate the crawl from that soggy, cold soil, who could say?

When that day has come and the frogs return, the symphony only grows. In May, when the flowers bloom and the corner floods from those rains, the refrain echoes louder still. At night, we’ll sleep with the windows open to hear the song. It’s a nice song, though some with a past that involved unpleasant frog experiences may find it horrifying. I, on the other hand, enjoy it. Soon enough, when May turns to June, the choir retires. There is less joy in that corner, less celebration. That’s when the frogs of the corner are overtaken by the frogs in the yard.

No one can be sure, certainly not me, whether or not these are the same frogs. I suppose I could research the subject, but my interest does not run that deep. The lawn frogs are small, very small, and they number into the thousands. Mow my lawn, you’re welcome to it, and you’ll see the frogs bounding away from the mower deck. At times, I stop to let the frogs pass, but after some time of this pausing and pushing and swerving I let the blade follow its line, frogs or not. It pains me to knowingly run over these small frogs, since I am a lover of all life, excepting mosquitos and whatever animal killed the last of my wife’s six chickens overnight, but I have a schedule to keep and there are more than enough frogs. In fact, each week the lawn mowing pulls back the lawn frog population but each following week the population rebounds with a vengeance. Without the weekly purge, we may be overrun.

There’s another sort of frog, and I’m not sure if it’s the same frog from the lawn which may be the same frog from the swamp corner. This frog is the superior frog. The frog that avoids the mower blades. This frog climbs up my windows and doors and clings from the nighttime glass to have a better chance at snagging the moths and various bugs that crowd my outside coach lights. This frog looks like a tree frog from another place. Another continent. With greens and reds and yellows. In fact, it looks like it may be poisonous, which is likely just a ruse. Still, I let them spend their nights adhered to my glass, and we’ve come to a sort of agreement that this behavior is fine.

You probably don’t have this assortment of frogs in your lawn and on your doors, and that’s fine. But at my house, in the middle of a perfect summer, I have all three kinds of frogs. Lawn, swamp, and door frogs, and it’s obvious to me now that my preference lies with the latter.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Update

I was sitting on a pier last night, just after a lakeside dinner, watching the remnants of a cloudy evening sunset. Kids jigged for bass under the pier. Everything was quite fine. Fine, that is, until someone said that it’s almost August and when it’s August then summer is almost over. Sixteen weeks, someone else said, until Thanksgiving. This is what it’s like to be from the Midwest. We know when things are good, but we’re smart enough to know they won’t last forever.

If you must know why the market is still hot, take a look at your equity positions. They’re up, and when they’re up like they are, for as long as they’v been up, our market can’t help but follow. After a soggy June and a rather tranquil market, July has been as active as any month could ever be. It’s been hot outside, we know that, and that heat has poured over the market as well. If June had you thinking that the market was slowing, then July should have you feeling pretty silly for thinking such a thing.

New lakefront contracts have touched many segments of the market, with current pending deals on a charming home in Geneva Manor ($2.395MM), a new listing in between Pebble Point and Knollwood for $4.5MM, and a decent parcel on Basswood listed at $4.799MM. The Manor home and Basswood have both experienced some time on market, and both are testaments to the way our market behaves when inventory is tight. Buyers may choose to pass on certain lakefronts for a while, but after not finding a perfect match for some period of time, buyers will come back to the existing, perhaps aged, inventory and take another swing. But these two do not tell the story today, the lakefront by Knollwood is the one with the story.

I should note that this is not my listing, a condition that is causing me untold amounts of grief. This listing came to market last Sunday, and I acknowledged the really nice Lowell renovation on some of the interior spaces but didn’t feel overwhelmed with excitement. That property sold in a day. The lesson? If you have an older home that lacks excitement, and you’re thinking of selling it, you should consider your options before you list. Is your property on a large enough piece of dirt that a likely buyer will tear it down? Good, don’t remodel it first (see the Basswood pending contract). But is your property on a smaller piece of dirt that won’t necessarily make for an ideal tear down candidate, and is your house nice, but not super nice? Is it comfortable but not inspiring? Is it good enough, but not great? If so, you may want to follow the smart move of the owner on the North Shore and renovate before bringing home to market. Design tastes have changed, and if you want to capture a high dollar, you’d be wise to consider a remodel. Of course there’s only one way to determine whether or not this is right for you and your property, and that’s obviously to ask me.

For my involvement, you may have seen a listing in Indian Hills that I brought to market a week ago for $1.99MM. That lakefront home was the subject of intense showing and offer activity, but the sellers have decided not to sell. The market behaves oddly at times, and this is one of those times. Since I wrote that we’d be seeing price reductions, no fewer than six lakefronts have reduced their prices, proving that even in this active market sellers are still willing to accept the reality of their pricing aims. Today there are just 18 available lakefront homes to choose from, including one in Trinke’s, two in the South Shore Club, one at Westgate, and my listing at Clear Sky Lodge (reduced to $2.699MM over the weekend). Expect to see inventory increase over the next two months as sellers who wished for one last summer find themselves on the tail end of that summer, their wish nearly fulfilled in an exceptionally bittersweet manner. As always, if you’re looking to buy or sell on the lakefront and need help making sense of the highly nuanced and at times aggravating market, I’m here to help.

Above, the lakeside gazebo at Clear Sky Lodge.

Grassway Organics Pizza Review

Grassway Organics Pizza Review

There are lots of pizza places in this area. There are many more places that also serve pizza. The pizza places have checkered tablecloths made of plastic, and most have memorabilia on the walls. They are all different but they are all the same. When I’ve visited these places I’ve found the pizza framework to be similar as well. Some make their own crust, others buy from the back of a truck. Each pizza tastes good enough, with the only nuance being how crispy the crust is, how soft the vegetables are, how lively the sauce is, or isn’t, and how much fennel they decided to dump into their sausage. Pizza, most times and most places, is pizza.

While on my strictly carb diet, I heard from friends and clients about a place in East Troy. It’s a farm, they’d say. They make wood fired pizza. It’s only on weekend evenings, only in summer, only this and only that. It sounded exclusive. Like one of those basement restaurants in Portland that people can only get into after tussling with Antifa. Not only did it sound unique, it sounded good. Fresh ingredients, local everything. Wood fired, farm, local, pizza? I was intrigued. That’s why my wife and I picked our son up from lifeguarding duty and drove in his new-to-him-car to East Troy, carefully avoiding the Phish people along the way. After a twenty minute drive (from Williams Bay), we pulled into the farm.

That’s what this is, after all, a farm. It’s a working farm with a farm store where they sell everything from pasture raised pork to local wheat, milled into a whole wheat flour. The farm produces milk that is turned into cheese. It’s that sort of operation, and I’m glad that it’s here in Walworth County. We drove in slowly, past the farmhouse and around the corner to a gravel and grass makeshift parking lot where we joined 20 or so other cars who had beaten us to the Saturday evening pizza party. We could hear the live music as we followed the smell of wood smoke up to the location of the kitchen. Perhaps fifty or sixty people milled about, hiding under small umbrellas from the intense summer sun. A few kids ran in a sprinkler. The guy played his guitar (the music was too loud), the man at the pizza oven shoveled pizzas into and out of the smoky inferno, and two girls waited at a small folding table to take our order. It was a scene, but I was still formulating my feelings about it all.

The sign next to the pizza station was inspiring. Fresh mozzarella, organic pork, organic vegetables, wheat flour from Pfeiffer Farms in Delavan. This was a truly local operation, and I was proud to see my community delivering such fine ingredients to this pizza. When I approached the ordering table, I was given a few options. A Classic pizza was $25, with some basic ingredients. For $30, I could get their Specialty pizza, with four options. I chose the Pork in The Woods, with onions, Crimini mushrooms and pork sausage. The play on Hen Of the Woods was not lost on me. I would have opted for the Carnivore, but the inclusion of “beef wieners” did not interest me. I want my hot dogs on a bun, not a crust. At $30 this was the most expensive pizza I had ever ordered. I paid the ransom and we retreated to a small picnic table and waited.

It was hot out there. There was very little shade to be had, and while I appreciate the bootstrapped nature of the scene and the operation, I would have preferred to wait for my pizza in the shade. The website warns visitors that they might want to bring their own shade and tables, chairs, etc, but I wasn’t interested in a camping experience, just a pizza. If this were my business I’d take a bit of effort in preparing the scene. A dozen uniform picnic tables and a large tent, or series of smaller tents, would be a nice touch. In fact, it’s nearly a necessity. We waited for the pizza and I gazed off into the sunset, wondering how much better my life on that Saturday night would have been if only for a dose of shade and an indoor lunchroom table that wasn’t delaminating before my eyes. The musician pumped out his loud music, which included a Weezer cover, so things were looking up for at least the duration of that song.

We waited around 30 minutes for the pizza. That’s a fine wait given the circumstance. When the girl brought our pizza out, I immediately noticed the large cut slices of white onion scattered about, and the exceptionally heavy dose of cheese. This was not a wood fired pizza like you’ll find anywhere else. This is not like the wood fired pizzas that I make at home. Not like the pizzas that a wood fired pizza truck would make. Not like the pizzas that Oak Fire spins. This was a large (maybe 16″) pie, heavy on crudely chopped toppings, heavy on pizza, and sporting a flat crust with no raise whatsoever. Rustic is the best work to describe this pie. Rustic. Like the scene.

I would normally hold up the first slice to test its flop, but this pizza would have none of it. This was not a pizza that you could hold up. In fact, when I tried to fold the crust to eat it, thinking this may be more of a New York slice, the crust broke in half. Gluten? Not much of it here. I would have expected this crust to be one that was made several days in advance, to allow the flavor to develop, but I tasted no such development. The wheat is local, an ancient grain, according to the placard. Perhaps the crust’s soft condition was due to this local grain, and if that’s the case, then so be it. But I come to eat a wood fired pizza and I expect a crunch. Some chew. Here I found only a soft crust with no crisp, and a gummy interior that would have left me exceptionally disappointed had it come out of my home oven.

The cheese was nice and salty, but it was heavy and it burdened the soft crust. Those big half rings of white onion were crunchy, nearly raw. I dislike that. The pork sausage was good, and I felt better eating it, knowing it had come from well cared for, pastured animals. The tomato sauce was salty, not sweet, featuring large chunks of diced tomatoes. Not my style, but not bad. We ate half of our pizza, sweating profusely in the afternoon heat, and boxed up the rest before driving home.

I love that Grassway Organics exists. I love the idea of visiting their farm store and buying some of the good things that were on my pizza. In fact, I plan to do so this week. Their products deserve your attention and interest. But I won’t go back for the pizza itself. It just wasn’t good. It gets high marks for effort and care, but at the end of this day and every day that follows I will write a review on the taste of a food item, not a review on the intentions of those who created it. This pizza was too soft, too cheesy, too soggy, too rustic for me. I like the use of organic, local wheat, but maybe cut that with some bread flour and knead it longer to help develop the gluten? I want some crunch with my crust, I really do. If you’d like to try it yourself, I would encourage you to do so and let me know what you think.

Grassway Organics

W2716 Friemoth Road, East Troy

3.6/10

$30 for the Pork In The Woods Pizza

Chicago

Chicago

One of the reasons I’m bad at this business is that I tend to give people too much credit. I can’t market gimmicks. I’m incapable. Stop in to my open house and win a gift card! I can’t do this. It’s fine for other people, but not for me. I refuse to think that a gift card will draw in a buyer. If you’re a buyer lured in by a gift card, how can we even be friends? How can you look yourself in the mirror?

Do you want a secret behind the scenes guide to something? Well then type in your email address here! You’ll get that thing, and I’ll get your email address, which is all I really wanted anyway. I can’t tell you to Enter Now! I just can’t. I respect myself too much. I respect you too much, and we haven’t even met. This is why I’m bad at business. I can’t pretend a gimmick is anything but a gimmick. I also hope you’ll know the difference, which may be why my clients and customers tend to be the smartest, but now I’m just bragging.

There’s a new rumor in the market. A new play. A new gimmick. It started a few years ago, but as it should be dying out it is, instead, gaining momentum. It’s a movement, really. Devoted followers, intent on spreading the good word. No, maybe it’s not a movement, maybe it’s a religion. The followers are evangelizing and I’m just sitting here calling the tenements of the faith into question.

The issue here is that of some mythical “Chicago connection” Some spoken or unspoken connection to a geographic area, from this area to that area. This connection is, of course, real. It’s obvious. This market is full of buyers from that market. In this, there is a serious connection. Like Chicago and Naples, like Manhattan and the Hamptons. Like peanut butter and jelly. Connections.

This, in and of itself, is not a gimmick. It’s not a sales ploy. It’s the truth. But the gimmick comes in when we go about 2019 pretending like the internet doesn’t exist. If you were looking to buy real estate on the private island of some reclusive billionaire, you would indeed need a connection. Who knows this billionaire? Where exactly is this island? Are there houses to buy? Do I have to join a cult to gain access? Will I have to eat human flesh? These are important questions when considering access to a private island nation, and I admit that I cannot help you with this questions. You need an inside, a connection. Something more. Your life depends on it.

But we are in Lake Geneva and Chicago is about 90 miles away, down a large and wide highway. Several of them, in fact. Our market is not gated. Our information, once proprietary and secretive, is now published on global real estate inventory websites. If those websites are closed, there are others. Your phone has them on it. You can download apps and maps and look up the sales on a particular street in this town. And you can do it from that town, the Chicago town, the big one where the people are from. If the websites are all broken, you can drive here. There is no requirement to obtain the insider’s guide first (this blog is the best guide you can ever find, and it’s free). You can just get in your car and drive.

Marketing around the lake these days is focused on the connection to Chicago. It supposes that one group has more access to the thoughts and hearts of that great city. It supposes that somehow, knowing some people in some other place, gets someone more access to the people who might buy or sell. It suggests that this is an advantage, but beyond that, it suggests the this advantage is unique to one company or many others. The truth is, all of this also supposes that the internet doesn’t exist. It supposes that our geography isn’t as remarkably convenient as it is. If the market was still closed and secretive, as it was in the days before the MLS and the internet, this connection would matter. But it’s 2019 and I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me, and we haven’t even met. Want to avoid the gimmicks? Work with me. I’m here to help. But if you think I’m giving you a gift card for attending a showing, you’ve read this all wrong.

(Want to know about a new listing on the lakefront in Indian Hills/ Glenwood Springs I’m bringing to market today? Email me.)

Lake Geneva Price Reductions

Lake Geneva Price Reductions

Now that was a weekend. Sure, we were forced to sweat through the first few days to get to the last few days, but what sort of people are we? Are we soft, like our southern counterparts? Or are we shook, like our western friends? Are we blue blooded like our northeastern brethren? Are we high, like our mountain friends? No we are not. We are tough and resilient, and we know that a few days of sticky sweat isn’t so bad if we end up at the throne of summer perfection. In case you weren’t here, that’s what the latter part of the weekend was: perfection.

But in spite of this perfect spate of Lake Geneva weather, and in spite of the way those waves lap and the summer sun warms, there are realities to embrace. The summer, sadly, is racing by. June, we can now safely admit, was a garbage month. What a terrible thing, June was. I’m generally quite strong, and as you know from my posts, my weather related malaise was heavy and dark. I nearly succumbed to the low pressure. Since June was terrible and July started in the sauna, summer might feel like it just started, but it pains me to remind you that it is well underway. I know this. You know it. Sellers of vacation homes? They know it, too.

While our market features all-year productivity, we still have seasons of particular activity. Summer is one of those seasons, obviously. Sellers who own properties that have endured some length of market exposure are aware that a summer buyer is more common than a winter buyer, and that’s why this is the season of price reductions. Spring sales are over. Summer sales are here. But fall sales are around the corner (sorry to write that) and it’s time to make an aged property more attractive.

I just reduced 246 Circle Parkway to $1.975MM. Pretend you’re in search of a lakefront with a dynamic lake view. Now pretend you’re not just looking for some regular lake view, but you want something amazing. You want to be in Eze, overlooking the Riviera, but you aren’t in France and instead you’re in the Midwest. But that view, man, that’s all you want. Now stop pretending and come to Circle Parkway. It’s the view of a lifetime. Of the century. The view that makes other views wonder what they did wrong. If I can reduce that price to be sub $2MM for 92 feet of frontage and that world class view, then imagine what other sellers are considering.

New inventory will come to market this month. It will. That new inventory will be priced accordingly. But today is about the aged inventory, and it’s about the price reductions. If you’re upset with the inventory choices and the prices, it’s time to reengage. And if you’re going to do that, why not work with the market leader? Why not work with the guy who knows that not every property is a good idea? Why not work with the guy who doesn’t want you to make a market mistake? If you want to be talked into something, work with anyone. But if you want to be talked out of a bad idea, work with me.

Lake Geneva Fireworks 2019

Lake Geneva Fireworks 2019

During this time of considerable political tumult, there is just one thing that binds Americans together. Liberals and conservatives disagree on more today than ever before, but we’ll always have our fireworks to bring us back together. Conservatives love fireworks, this is obvious, but even the most liberal cities in America find rare joy in lighting up their skies. Fireworks, this is our thing. And in Lake Geneva, we gladly carry water in this unification effort.

Fireworks in Lake Geneva, WI

On the 4th, Fontana will light a match to their fireworks display. This happens later than it feels like it should, perhaps sometime between 9:20 and 9:50 pm. If you have young children, it will feel much later than that. The fireworks launch from barges out in front of the Fontana beach, so viewing is ideal anywhere on the west facing western end of the lake. Many people take to their boats for this, and if you decide to join the fray, just one work of caution. Fireworks and alcohol go hand in hand (paused to consider a firework finger dismembering joke here but decided against it), so be careful on the water. Keep your lights on. Last year, we went out in the boat and I instructed my son to install the light pole. He shoved the pole in, twisted it, and promptly broke off the connection. We sat in the boat, close to shore, with flashlights. Don’t be like us.

Before the fireworks, Lake Geneva holds their morning Farmer’s Market. This market used to be lame. I know it, you know it, the people who promoted the event knew it, too. But now it’s a really nice market, with ample vendors and a generally pleasant vibe. I like it very much, and you should, too. So go there, buy things, then return home to prepare for the remainder of the day.

If you’re not the Fontana sort, the Ridge Hotel on Highway 50 between Williams Bay and Lake Geneva will also have fireworks on Thursday evening. You will likely be able to see those from a south shore positioned boat, so you’ll likely have two displays available if you’re out for the Fontana fireworks.

Preempting everyone else, The Grand Geneva has their fireworks shooting off this evening, which is Wednesday, July 3rd. This is nice, and you can generally see these from a boat positioned in on the East end of the lake, or from the Grand Geneva itself (duh). If you’re fireworks crazed and cannot wait for Thursday, you’re in luck. If you’re anxious and also on the East end of the lake, the Lake Geneva Country Club will blast their explosives into the air this evening (7/3) as well.

The Williams Bay and Lake Geneva fireworks are in August, the prior included as part of the Corn and Brat Roast, the latter a part of Venetian Fest. No matter your fireworky aim, Lake Geneva has you covered. Just be careful, and let’s all hope and pray for the jetstream to move so we can have more than a few hours in a row without rain. Have a terrific weekend, and don’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I’ll proudly stand up, next to you, and defend her still today… What were we talking about?

Above: Tuesday’s sunset. Captured by a client near Black Point.

Just A Kid

Just A Kid

It’s raining again, and this time it’s getting to me. The sun shines, but then it doesn’t. Here, then gone. Like a rising fish in that corner pool, dark and swirling. You know it’s there because it just sipped the surface, but where did it go now? The sun is like this, too. Here, then gone. Customers complain. It’s too humid here, they say. I’m going to another lake, somewhere far from this place, far from low pressure systems, they threaten. At times, I see their point. I agree with them. I think of the possibilities.

I’ve been to broker events in recent years. Big events in big cities. The sort of events that you have to be invited to because people think you’re something. People think you could be more. I’ve met enough of these other agents, the ones from big cities near oceans and nestled in mountains, to know that my competition is roundly unimpressive. I could go there and sell, I think. The mountains, it’s always dry there. The ocean, the breeze always drifts. The waves lap, like the noise app on my iPhone. The breeze blows and the waves lap and in the mountains the only sound you hear is nothing at all. High pressure sounds like that. Maybe I should finish dusting myself off and leave this place, to another place. My wife would go, I think. My kids have no say in the matter. High pressure, here we come. The agents in those towns will have to start blogging more, or at least hold more open houses.

On my desk there’s a note from my daughter. It says Love U Dad! Have a great day/night. – May. It’s sweet, really. My wife wouldn’t leave me a note like that, but my daughter is 13 and she’s sweet and when I told her this morning that we had to go deliver magazines she hid in the bathroom hoping I’d change my mind, or at least leave without her. I sat in the driveway and honked the horn, a bit of payback for my nocturnal neighbors that light off fireworks as if their very lives depend on it. If this M80 doesn’t rattle the Curry’s windows, then we’re all going to die. I imagine they say this. But I didn’t leave and my daughter came to the car after an exaggerated delay, the tears still fresh in her eyes. I told her if she could make a tear run down her cheek and off of her chin and land on her knee then we could turn around and sit at home. She tried to make those tears drop but she couldn’t, and she laughed and we listened to Third Eye Blind on the way to Lake Geneva. This guy is terrible, she said. The lyrics are terrible and his voice is terrible.

But here I am, sitting at this desk on a Sunday night. I’m 41 now, hardly a kid but hardly an adult. And I’m thinking about these rain clouds. A friend of mine has mud in his yard tonight. It’s not the worst thing that could happen, but you’d be forgiven if you thought it is. The worst. The absolute worst. Rain again, and it just rained yesterday. And the day before. If I’m playing spoiler, then you should know it’ll probably rain again tomorrow. It’s like that here sometimes. It rains and it’s uncomfortable. If it were 77 and sunny each day with low dew points we could make a fortune selling real estate. My dad would tell you I’ve already made a fortune selling real estate. Just ask him. Too much money, he’ll say. But he doesn’t go to broker events with city brokers who would leap from the tallest building if they woke up to find their production in line with mine. It’s almost 8 pm now and my dad is sleeping. The rain is coming and in the mountains it’s dry. There’s a guy there who sells real estate and writes a blog and sends me emails once in a while to tell me what’s happening in the valley. It’s a terrible blog and an equally terrible email. Dreadful, mind numbingly stupid. I could move there and write about the mountains. Look everyone, it’s sunny again and the mountains are still tall. I’d say this and set my flat brim hat atop my long hair and everything would be fine.

But I drive. I drive through this town, down the main street. I hate the power lines that hang over the cracked sidewalks. I hate the repair shops and gas stations that litter my main street. I hate the vacant corner lot that used to be a coffee shop that I once walked to with my dad. I was younger then and my dad didn’t care how much money I made or didn’t make. I hate the centennial flags that hang from the ugly power poles. The design is wrong, faint, unimpressive and largely unreadable. There’s a patio down the road where dinner is served. The best dish is the crusted filet, and I don’t even like filet. I can’t drive by there and not think about the time I crashed my car looking towards the patio, hoping one of the owners pretty daughters were out. It wasn’t really a crash as much as it was a nudge from the hood of my Saab 900 into the bumper of the car in front of me. The Saab was gray and it wasn’t even a turbo, so it didn’t matter.

I used to mow that lawn. And the lawn of the restaurant across the street, too. My friend Eric helped me, worked for me, really. He once wrote down his hours for the week with illustrations and commentary and it was funny, so I kept it. It’s in my office tonight as I write. I’d mow in the middle of the morning, after my dad woke me up with a promise that it was soon to rain. Someday, my dad will die. I don’t look forward to that day. I’ll write a book about him then, and I already know the title. Sunny With A Chance Of Rain. Down the road to the north, the apartment building that Clem owned. I mowed that lawn, too. And in the afternoons I’d cut close to the juniper bushes and the berries would fall onto the top of my tractor’s muffler. The berries would hop and pop and burst on that hot lid, and I’d smell their liquid as it burned. When I drive by there now, I still smell it.

Around the corner I’d drive past the old Feeny house, but not before I passed where Frank lived. I used to want to buy his house, and one day when I was sitting with him his son came in and told me to get out. He was angry. I was 18 and busy going about the wrong way to build wealth. I thought I should buy old houses and fix them up when what I should have been doing was studying for my ACT. Hindsight showed me that. He threatened me with some form of bodily harm and so I never talked to his old man again. The old man is dead now, and I wouldn’t buy the house if they begged me. Turn left and back to the main street and you’ll find my friend Kalen’s old house. He’s doing well now, living in the south. Facebook told me. For no real reason, I’m proud of him, though I’ve never told him that because I haven’t had a chance to speak to him in decades. To the West some more the house of the son who owned the apartment building. That house had a wood foundation my dad would say. I never really understood how that might have worked, but it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. If you drive east from there you can’t help but see the old grade school where I spent considerable time in the hallway during sixth grade. The administrator once pulled me out of gym class to tell me that I had an attitude problem, his face strained and his index finger pushing into my chest harder with each syllable, to drive the point home. My attitude hasn’t changed very much since that day.

The flags on my office lawn are blowing now. I put them there last night after I mowed the lawn, dripping in sweat, after a long day of showing houses to people who may or may not want to buy anything. My son helped push the flags into the ground. As long as I fill the Superjet with gas he’ll help me without concern. So we gave the lawn an approving nod and drove home, those few miles up the hill and past where Mrs. Kudrna lived. She told a story of the ghost with the bloody finger, and I believed every word she said. She’d shake that finger at me, and at the classes that came before and the classes that followed.

There are days I think of different things. Of different places. But then I drive past that corner in Cedar Point where the Moores lived by the Welshes, near the Hayes house and across from the Knights and just down the road from the Connelly’s and on winter days we’d grab shovels and walk the neighborhood hoping someone would pay us $5 to shovel their snow. I think about sledding down those parkway hills and walking home with wet hands and feet and cold cheeks. I think about sneaking around on association piers casting little jigs to hungry spring smallmouth and I realize that I’m not going anywhere. I’m just a kid from Williams Bay, that’s all I’m ever going to be, and that’s just fine by me.

Upper Crust Pizza Review

Upper Crust Pizza Review

I’m still not sure there is a “Pell Lake”. I’ve heard of it. I’ve seen signs for it. I’ve read rumors of it. But I’ve never actually seen it. Still, I know where it’s supposed to be, and I knew that on Saturday night I was at the delightful Geneva Lake Conservancy Party in Loramoor (thanks to all of the people who didn’t clap enthusiastically when Geneva Lakefront Realty was announced as a sponsor), and because I knew where I was and where Pell Lake is supposed to be, I decided to eat pizza there. My friend knew the way, so we ditched the party and drove south. It was time for my maiden visit to Upper Crust, in, or near, or around, Pell Lake.

We arrived a few minutes before 9 pm. The restaurant was quiet, just a few imbibers at the bar and a few patrons at a few tables. The restaurant is, without a doubt, unique. It looks like the restaurant where the Old 96er was served. In fact, given John Hughes’ preference for the Lake Geneva area, no one could prove to me that this wasn’t the restaurant that served as the inspiration for that Northwoods bar. Since Mr. Hughes has passed away, no one could, or should, argue that point with me. This is a Northwoods restaurant/bar, and it’s just south of Lake Geneva. On Saturday night, the scene was subdued, but I have no doubt this establishment hops during typical evening food service.

The waitress was polite, but when we ordered a Chicago Style pizza (mushrooms, onions, green peppers and sausage) with half sausage, on account of my vegetarian friend, it took several angles of explanation to arrive at our chosen pizza. Still, once that was settled we pregamed our second bread dinner with some bread sticks and melted cheese, and things were fine. I marveled at the various bits of flair on the walls, heavy flair really, including some Northwoods decor, some Lake Geneva decor, at at least one large stuffed shark.

The pizza was out in 20 minutes, which is my preferred wait time. Any longer and I get upset. Any shorter and I feel as though I’m fixin’ to eat an undercooked pizza. This 16″ pizza was delivered to our table still in the pan it was baked in, and set atop a pizza serving platform. At first glance it worried me that the cheese was a bit too white, a bit undercooked perhaps. Thankfully, the first bite proved my worry was unnecessary. This was an excellent pizza.

The crust was thin and light yet crunchy and crisped. The closest local facsimile is at Mama Cimino’s in Lake Geneva. But Mama’s pizza crust is softer, with that Ritz Cracker mouthfeel that I appreciated, but didn’t dwell on. This crust was soft, crispy, thin and light. It was delicious. The flop test passed, and the pizza held its crunch through the first four or five pieces. The middle pieces were softer by the time we worked to meet them, but that’s to be expected. The crust here is obviously made in house. Obviously not frozen. Obviously superior to any local pizza joint that starts their pie by reaching into the chest freezer. Don’t debate me on this.

The sauce was slightly sweet, as I like it. The cheese was proper, with no hint of any desire to church up a traditional shredded mozzarella. The vegetables were properly softened, the sausage chunks reasonably ample and only tasting a hint of fennel seed. We greedily ate the pizza, remarking how balanced it was, how light the crust was, how delicious pizza is. Most pizza in this market is notable for what it did wrong. Great crust, bad sauce. Great sauce, bad sausage. Great sausage, bad cheese. But as I ate this pie I couldn’t pinpoint anything that I felt was deficient or misplaced. In pizza and life, the absence of objection is just as important as the presence of perfection.

If we’re judging thin crust pizza, as we are, this pizza is a winner. I had previously anointed Harpoon Willie’s as offering the best tavern style pizza in this area, and the particular pizza I had at Harpoon’s on that particular evening was indeed exemplary. However, a follow up visit to Harpoon’s offered me a pizza that didn’t taste the same, with a sauce lacking salt and zing, and a crust that wasn’t as memorable as the pie I had previously judged. On this night, Upper Crust was superior. I had been told to visit this restaurant by a client of mine who travels the world. He told me Upper Crust pizza is at the top of his list for pizza anywhere, which is high praise from this well traveled CEO. Even though he told me the Sicilian style pie is his favorite there, I found the thin crust to be a delight. If you’re in the Lake Geneva area this summer, you owe it to yourself to visit Upper Crust. If you order the Old 96er, I can’t promise they’ll understand the reference, but I have a feeling they’ve heard it before.

Upper Crust Pizzeria and Pub

1070 Highway H, Pell Lake (if there is such a thing)

8.7/10

$17.50 for a 16″ Chicago Style with sausage, onions, mushrooms and green peppers.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Review

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Review

It still pains me to write all of this on this open format. The thought of new agents reading this and adopting my way of thinking is bothersome. I’ve sat at this desk for 23 years to find this level of intelligence, and yet someone else might have just received their license last year and now I’ll deliver to them the information that they didn’t even know they needed. Regardless, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll write it anyway. Without further ado, your 2019 YTD Lakefront Market Review.

The market is active, we know this. It’s hot, you know it. I know it. The new agent knows it, maybe too well. There’s very little pause here, and if we agree that the single greatest driver of our lakefront market is the stock market, well, the S&P just closed at record highs. Because of this, it’s no surprise our market is active. But just how active? Is it healthy? Are sellers reasonable and buyers motivated? Well, the answer to the last volley of questions is a resounding no. Some buyers are motivated. Some sellers are reasonable. Most sellers are not, and most buyers are not. This is the paradox of 2019. The market? It’s hot. The market participants? They’re all different. Lake Geneva, where I’ll cobble together the market to create some data, but where each weekend and each transaction is nothing more than anecdote.

YTD the market has closed eight lakefront homes, nine if you count the South Shore Club, which counts in market context but not for the representative data that we’ll review shortly. 2018 had experienced 11 closings by this date, which doesn’t mean our activity is less than last year, it just means that we had a bit more inventory and more carry over in contracts from the late fall of 2017 that closed in 2018. The highest price sale for 2019 is my sale on North Lake Shore Drive in Fontana, for $6.95MM. The high sale for last year YTD was Hillcroft, which closed north of $11MM. The lowest priced sale this year was on Walworth Avenue, at $1.25MM. The low sale for YTD 2018 was $1.126MM, also on Walworth Avenue. Walworth Avenue, do you sense a trend? I do.

We ended 2018 with averages of $27,684 for Price Per Front Foot, $625 for Price Per Square Foot, and $58.09 for Price Per Square Foot of Land Mass. Those averages, by the way, are seldom used (outside of the popular Price Per Front Foot), largely because they narrow down value ranges in a way that don’t apply to each transaction. A property might be sheer perfection, but the house might be lame. The house might be intensely beautiful, but on a small lot. The market is full of different makes and models, and when someone tries to point to value based solely on these metrics, they’re proving their ignorance. But these metrics do matter, and they do help take the temperature of the market.

Something that I’ve noticed of late is an immense level of would-be seller confidence. These are the sellers that are contemplating a listing. Prices are high, but seller’s prices are higher. This is where these blended averages can help. Consider the current cycle bottom was in 2011. That year, we averaged $20,241 Per Front Foot. 2018 proved the average was nearly 37% higher, which is impressive and at the same time misleading. Still, let’s presume that prices have risen 37% on average since 2011. If you’re a seller using that to justify a sky high price in 2019, are you willing to admit just how low your valuation was in 2011?

The YTD 2019 numbers are as follows. The PPF for 2019 is at $34,301. Price Per Square Foot is $750. The Price Per Square Foot of Land Mass is $62.63. Those numbers are great, but they’re so misleading I almost decided against printing them. Does this mean that lakefront prices are up another 20% from last year? Some people might like you to believe that, but the answer is no. The market is stable from last year, it hasn’t accelerated more than a few points. The accumulated value differences are due to an abundance of $2-3MM sales and a lack of $4-6MM sales that might temper some of those numbers. I fear that the current figures are going to give sellers a false sense of confidence as they look for pricing clues for their summertime offering.

That said, the market is humming along nicely. It’s functioning just as it should. We should appreciate it. I don’t see inventory building too much in the coming weeks, and I do think that value still exists in spite of some current asks. Expect to see deals pick up once our weather improves. It’s an old excuse, but it’s a valid one. 68 degree weekends with abundant rain have a tendency to dampen the spirits of those looking to park a significant amount of money on our shores. But we know what we have here, and we know how life changing a vacation home here can be. We also know that the showers have made our hydrangeas very happy, which will make for a terrific July show.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Inventory

Lake Geneva Lakefront Inventory

Sometimes, I like to dance around a topic. Actually, all of the time. Except today, because I’m in a hurry and there’s no time. If you’re wondering what’s for sale on the lake this morning, CLICK HERE to indulge your curiosity. There are 21 homes for sale including the South Shore Club and the one in Trinke’s. If you’d like to know which homes are worth your time, and if you’d like guidance through this market that isn’t quite as easy to understand as some may think, let me know. I’ll have a more in depth review of the current market conditions and YTD sales on Friday. Until then, peruse away.

Above, the property at 246 Circle Parkway, Williams Bay. If you want an entry-level priced home with tremendous, value minded upside, this is a good one. If you want to buy on a street with no upside, this isn’t the right house for you.

Ugly Houses

Ugly Houses

My cousin recently had a baby. I saw this baby at a different cousin’s wedding over the weekend and my suspicions were confirmed. It’s a cute baby. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was the ugliest baby anyone had ever seen? Would anything have been different? Would anyone have cringed at the first glimpse? Would anyone have opted out of the obligatory first hold? If the baby had been hideous, would the parent have even brought the baby to the wedding in the first place? Would the birth announcement cards have been sent sans baby photo, instead choosing a picture of tiny baby feet? After all, baby feet are undeniably cute, unlike, say, the baby itself. No matter the make or model of baby, we all must agree: that’s a cute baby.

But babies are not houses, and houses are not babies. This is the sort of news that only I can deliver. Babies are living, breathing, humans. They are valuable and they are, whether some teeter on the edge of this condition, cute. No one would, or should, suggest otherwise. But houses? We dance around the topic as it relates to houses, but houses, whether we admit it or not, can be ugly. Hideously ugly. Stomach turningly ugly. Disgusting, really. They can be so off-putting that one could wonder how someone could, indeed, sleep through the night in such a God-forsaken structure. We cannot pretend any longer: Lots of houses are ugly.

The initial OpenDoor, Zillow, et al, was the yellow sign in the median of the interstate that screamed “I BUY UGLY HOUSES”. This was thoughtfully engineered to appeal to those owners who own the ugly houses. And by admitting, at least internally, that you were the owner of one such ugly house, you would also, internally, recognize that your home is not as valuable as a pretty home. This is what the sign-maker wanted, and you played right into his ink-stained hands. If you own the ugly house, you admitted it’s indeed you who owns it, and this guy would be happy to buy it from you. Perhaps you should sell, after all, it is an immeasurable burden to be the owner of such a home, at such a time as this. Life is short and ugly houses make their inhabitants wish it were even shorter.

If you’re feeling picked on today, I assure you that your house is likely not as ugly as you think. A dated house in need of renovation is not, by rule, an ugly house. In fact, your older, dated house is likely beautiful, because older houses tended to have more of a pedigree than the homes that followed. Old does not equal ugly, by definition. I drive around this market and I see the ugly homes. The boring homes. The homes that lack symmetry and lack everything else, too. The danger in a summer-time market is that these homes come for sale, and these homes might be priced a bit cheaper than the similarly sized pretty home. The bait is placed, the trap is set, the ugly house awaits your weekend tendencies.

It’s cheaper, you say. I can fix this, you think. But the market today has these properties waiting for you. The ugly houses. You think you can fix them, but you can’t. The asymmetrical turrets cannot be fixed. The wall of windows, each one from a different sale at a different Home Depot cannot be replaced. The seven level interior, complete with two story spiral staircase, cannot be repaired. And even if it could, at what cost? Do you buy the Ugly because it’s cheap, and then, while desperately trying to eliminate the ugly, do you spend more than you could have spent to revitalize a pretty house? Yes. That’s why you shouldn’t buy it. Let someone else buy it. Let them work to not only update, but to pursue a fix that will prove eternally elusive. That’s because an ugly house is an ugly house, today, tomorrow, and always.

Weather Malaise

Weather Malaise

Well, I have it. The malaise. But this case is so severe it should be capitalized, like Malaise. I should add something more to it. Like The Malaise. You wouldn’t say there’s a plague sweeping across Europe, you’d say The Plague is sweeping across Europe, and the death toll is astounding. Bring out your dead, they’d call. And we’d wheelbarrow the dead to the curb and when someone asked what happened they’d already know. It was The Plague. This is how I feel today.

It didn’t have to be this way. In fact, I’m generally resistant to this strain of weather borne illness. When someone complains about the cold in January, I tell them it’s fine. Make a fire, I say. When someone complains about the rain in April, I tell them don’t worry. The flowers will come, and I have houses that need to be photographed for my May magazine and I need the rain, I explain. In October, when the rain comes and strips the leaves from the trees and everyone moans and cries, I know it doesn’t matter because the salmon won’t run unless it rains, so rain away. And in December when it’s almost Christmas and it hasn’t snowed yet I think it’s terrible but I can also go out and chop some firewood without getting my feet wet, so that’s nice. See, this is my generally pleasant weather disposition.

But that was before The Malaise. Part of this condition is owed to my firm belief in a very negative weather related thing. My belief supposes that if a rainy, cold, windy spring has not been shed by June 15th, then the entire summer will be awful. I don’t like having this belief, but it has been true most of my adult life, and I have no reason to doubt it now. Rainy and cold with wind in late May isn’t a big deal for me. It’s just spring, I say. But now, when I’m staring down June 15th on my calendar and I’m seeing the clouds of today and feeling the chill of late Autumn in the air I’m falling deeper and deeper into my despair. Will this summer be a bad summer? I suppose we have through tomorrow to find out.

There is but one way around The Malaise, just one vaccine, one antidote, one homeopathic cure. The Malaise will grab you. It’ll shake you. It’ll make you wonder what your life has become and where your life is headed. If you’re not strong enough to fight it, it can, and will, ruin your summer. The only way to stave off the terminal outcome of this condition is to fight it in moments. To disregard the forecast. To ignore the men and women who tell you to grab your umbrella, and cancel your afternoon BBQ. You must ignore the macro and focus on the micro. If a weekend is going to be bad, is it all bad? Is the entire weekend bad just because Saturday was awful? Is this Friday going to be wasted just because it’s supposed to be windy and the clouds are hanging low and my furnace kicked on overnight? Or will there be something redeemable today? Something worth our while. Something in the sky, some blue, some white, puffy clouds that will replace this heavy gray paint that now obscures the sun? If the day is lost because the forecast says so, is it really lost?

I read a quote this morning of unknown origin. As I was deep within the grasp of The Malaise, the quote felt timely.

The perfect future never arrives. Life is full of seemingly endless trouble, and then life ends. Find peace in the imperfect present.

Never mind the fact that I believe Jackson Bowne said it better:

No matter where I am, I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away from where I want to be.

The concept is the same. Enjoy the day. The weather might be terrible. It might be lame. But the day will wear away no matter the color of the sky, so just try to enjoy it. If we’re lucky, the sun might come out and The Malaise might blow over to Michigan, where it belongs.

The Boat House Pizza Review

The Boat House Pizza Review

It’s hard not to judge a restaurant by its location. If Oakfire had been built in Elkhorn with a view of the Burger King, rather than in its current, splendid, lakeside location, would the pizza taste the same? Along those lines, can we judge a restaurant that inhabits a space known for being a restaurant killer in the same way that we might judge a restaurant housed within a non-infamous building? These are the things I was wondering when I puttered up to the Boat House in Lake Geneva.

I called ahead to see if there was boat parking available, and sure enough, there was. When I pulled up to the piers, two kids helped usher the boat into an open slip. The problem with this pier set up is that there doesn’t appear to be many mooring spaces for diners, which could be problematic if you, like me, left your pier in your boat in hopes of eating pizza by the lake. Still, the sun was shining, the lake was calm, and the patio beckoned.

But about that restaurant space, about the ghosts of restaurants past. This is the lakeside building to the South of Big Foot Beach, to the Northeast of the Geneva Inn. Next door, bulldozers have recently torn up what was left of a lakeside forest to make way for a clubhouse- a clubhouse that I argued shouldn’t have been approved, but we live in a community that has greedily bought the lie that progress is good. The restaurant here is a few years old, and that’s a long time for a restaurant in this building. Prior iterations have all failed. But why? It’s hard to say. Those who are quick to blame the location as being out of the way and too far from town obviously haven’t watched the success of far-away icons like the Duck Inn. It’s not the location that has doomed the earlier restaurants, it’s the restaurants themselves that have doomed the restaurants. Bad food is bad food, no matter the lakeside patio.

When I was hopping from pizza place to pizza place last winter, I was told several times to try the Boat House. I was told the pizza was good, maybe great. A favorite, for some. I was also told that the live music on the patio is often too loud, and that it can be an impediment to table-side conversation. When my son and I walked across the street and to the hostess table, the music was indeed loud. I asked to be seated on the patio as far from the live music as possible. It was the right decision.

The waitress was over with waters and menus, as we listened to the musician croon and the waves lap. It was a pleasant scene, and I was glad to be part of it. We didn’t waste any time with the menus, ordering a 14″ pizza with jalapeño and sausage (eschewing my typical green pepper/mushroom concoction, and leaving that in the past, with the winter). As this pizza was just 14″ and we were two strapping men, we added an order of calamari. I have a theory that supposes you can tell the quality of a restaurant by ordering their fried calamari. If the squid is good, odds are the restaurant will be as well. We ordered and waited. The man plucked out Take It Easy, which I pointed out to my son was made famous by the Eagles but actually written, mostly, by Jackson Browne. He didn’t care.

The calamari was out first. It was darker than typical, with large rings and whole bodies. It was tender, but the flour coating tasted a touch raw to me. I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t bad. The theory about calamari was being tested, since there was no clear opinion on this dish. The pizza followed shortly, taking 18 minutes from when we first made the order, which is in line with my expectations. The pizza was noticeably smaller than the usual 16″ pie. It was cut tavern style. Some restaurants cut small and some large squares, this was of the large variety. The jalapeño was obviously cut and placed on the pizza raw before cooking, which is a method I don’t like. The sausage dotted the surface with some consistency but it lacked an impressive quantity. The pizza, with those caveats, looked good.

And it was good. The crust was exceptionally thin, and well crisped. It wasn’t chewy, nor was it hard to eat (like some of the thin crust pizzas have been). It was just thin and crispy, and I liked it quite a bit. The pizza passed the flop test with ease, and in a rare feat, the test was passed on the first slice and on the very last. A nice surprise, indeed. But the defining characteristic on this pizza was the sauce. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t spicy, but there was a ton of it. JoJo’s should visit the Boat House to see how a ladle of sauce looks. This was a saucy pizza, to be sure. The cheese was normal, the sausage typical. In a blink, the pizza was gone and my son and I were left to ponder the score.

Was it as good as the best in this series? No. I think it was better than the Kringle Company and not as good as Mama Cimino’s. I liked the crust, but it’s a frozen crust, so we can’t go about pretending this is some fine pizza establishment like Larducci’s. This is just a restaurant/bar on the lake, in a building that is no stranger to restaurants. And on this night, with the sun fading and the musician singing, the pizza was quite good. Check out the Boat House next time you’re lakeside, and let me know what you think.

The Boat House Bar and Grill

N2062 South Lake Shore Drive, Lake Geneva

7.0/10

$19 for a 14″ pizza with sausage and jalapeño

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Lake Geneva Lakefront Market Update

I spent much of Sunday on the lake. There’s a new boat in the Curry fold, and the boat must be used. Boats are like that. If you don’t use them, they’re no fun. Just like lake houses. You can own one, and the ownership won’t be all that much fun. It’ll be work. But if you use it, then it becomes fun. It’s like money. Having a lot of it is fun, I imagine. But what good is it if you don’t use it? Along that line of thinking, the boat, and that sunshine, and Sunday. And a stop at Gordy’s for lunch and a gawkers tour of the lakefront to see what has changed since last fall.

Like every year, the lake has experienced changes. New builds are underway. Some large, some small, mostly, however, large. Renovations, big, deep, heavy renovations. Some renovations that you drive past on the boat and wonder if the renovation was the right decision. Should the old house with old house rooms and old house stylings have been scraped and rebuilt, rather than rebuilt around what was old? A new house in Loramoor, beautiful. Another new one in the Lindens, beautiful. Some new homes here and others there. The constant on this lake is the scenery. It’s always the same, always green, always lush, always dialed in. The change is the shade of the siding and the roof pitches of the new homes. Each year, the same, yet each year, change.

Earlier this week, a lakefront sold on Walworth Avenue in Williams Bay. This was not my sale. The buyer paid full price for a cottage with 50 feet of frontage, which is now the last domino in a line of five lakefront homes to have sold in the past two years along this particular stretch of lakefront. There are rumors of new construction coming to these skinny, long lots. Tear downs, maybe. Each of those sales closed between $1.1 and $1.5MM, whith just one at the $1.5MM mark and the other four in a clearly defined range between $1.1MM and $1.25MM. If gentrification is coming to this stretch of the lake, we’re about to find out.

The question now for the owners is whether or not this stretch is worthy of the gentrification, and the bigger, market question is whether or not this is a smart decision. I would argue that it’s a good decision if the initial purchase and the initial budget is range-bound. I’m speculating here, but that’s what I’m paid to do. Speculate on the current status of the market. Speculate as to where it’s going. And help buyers and sellers react to the market in an appropriate and intelligent way. That’s why I’m here today to think about the lakefront market, and to think about these sales on Walworth Avenue. There have been too many of them to ignore.

Times were, you wouldn’t want to buy on Walworth Avenue and tear the house down. This had been done in recent years, but it didn’t make a lot of market sense. Now, today, on the heels of five sales in 24 or fewer months, has something changed. Does this now make sense? I would argue that it does, with a big caveat. That caveat is not a market based caveat, but a personal one. If a buyer wants to buy for $1.2MM on this lake, they have very few options. Historically they would need to be in the Lake Geneva Highlands or on Walworth Avenue, with a few other spots dotting certain other sections of the lake. If you’re a $1.2MM buyer, you typically would not have a lot of options, but with ample, steady inventory on Walworth Avenue, it makes sense that these buyers found their way to this specific shore.

If you’re going to tear down a $1.2MM cottage and build a new house for $1MM (the low end of new construction on the lake, in my opinion, even on a small lot), you’ll be $2.2MM into a brand new lakefront house. Admittedly, this cannot be done anywhere else, and if you’re a buyer with eyes on a new house for $2.2MM, this is indeed your only option. Build away, new buyer. But this article isn’t about that buyer, it’s about the buyer that might be able to do better. The buyer who could have spent $2MM on a tear down instead of $1.25MM. This is about the buyer who is going to build a bigger house. A better house. And with all things bigger and better, that also means more expense. This is about the buyer who settled for this location rather than reached for it.

This is about the mistakes that are made by seeking out lower priced land. Don’t forget, it’s only a mistake if a particular buyer has a personal economy that is healthy enough to reach for more. Because for that buyer, reaching higher for the land purchase will always yield a higher top end once the new home is built. If you can do better, why not hope for that improvement? Why not wait to find better land with a higher upside? Why build in a range-bound section of lake when you could build in another location that might have legs to reach to $4MM or beyond? Why be early to a specific shoreline’s gentrification when you can settle in to another shoreline that has already made those strides? Why entertain the risk of one location when another, slightly more expensive, location will all but guarantee a gain at the end of the project? These are the questions that I ask on behalf of my buyers, and these are the questions that every home buyer who is considering building new on Geneva Lake should entertain. Without working through this process, you’re just buying a silly house on a lake without any real idea as to what amount of money you may be throwing away.

The market today is active, we all know this. Even new agents who tell you that they’re lakefront experts in spite of never having any lakefront experience or success can tell you this (and they do, in postcards, weekly). But the market is not without traps, and the easiest trap to avoid is the one that would have you over improve a specific section of shoreline that has yet to prove it is worth the investment. If you’re stumbling around this lakefront market looking for guidance, I’m here to help.

Oakfire Pizza Review

Oakfire Pizza Review

One year ago, I stopped writing fish fry reviews. Over the following weeks, I was often asked why I didn’t crown a winner. Why, after so much fish and so many potato pancakes, I never declared the outright victor. When I began the series, I had every intention of doing just that. Eat, score, rank, declare. That was my intended process. But after some time of visiting different restaurants and hearing commentary from the patrons who prefer certain establishments over another, I realized something. Going to fish fry isn’t about finding the best fish or the crispiest potato pancake. It’s about the idea. The concept. The practice. If your dad took you to the Village when you were growing up, you take your kids to the Village. Never mind the odd potato pancake, you love it. Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin isn’t about finding the best fish, it’s about going where you want to go.

This lies in stark contrast to the pizza series. People don’t just go out for pizza, they want to go eat good pizza. But this is where the problem lies. People like different sorts of pizza. I might dislike the sort of pizza you like. If you like to order a pizza well done, you will love The Next Door Pub. If you know to order extra sauce on a JoJo’s pizza, you’ll love it. If you like the slightly pungent cheese that Larducci’s uses, you’ll find this to be the best pizza in the area. We’re all different, and we all have different tastes, and that’s just fine by me.

I did take some heat for this pizza review series, just as I did for the fish fry series. I had some shop owners lambast me for my honesty. This is not an area that takes kindly to objective reviews. This area is used to puff pieces, like you’ll find in local magazines or newspapers. There’s never a grade applied to an effort. Never an opinion levied. It’s just a glowing non-review that lacks any substance. I had hoped to change those generic puff pieces, but in doing so, struck a nerve. No one likes to be told their pizza (fish, burger, burrito, etc and etc) isn’t any good. No one wants that in print, and I do not blame them. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t mind being pummeled by people after I tell the world (or at least this tiny part of it) that the pizza they make, or the pizza they prefer, is no better than Meh.

With that in mind, I’m not going to wrap this series, but I am going to slow it down. There are places I have yet to visit. A new place in East Troy (wait until the Elkhorn people learn how I feel about East Troy), some other joints here and there. But that’s in the future, and the past is the only thing we can review. Which is why I went to Oakfire last night, and pregamed my Oakfire pizza with a Mod pizza. This the new fast-casual joint by Starbucks. I wanted to try this first to see if Oakfire was better, or if our local places were getting beaten by an upstart franchise. The good news is that Oakfire was better, but Mod is a nice little place if you’re in a hurry for a quick lunch or dinner, and you also want a delightful view of the Walmart parking lot.

Oakfire first came to Lake Geneva several years ago and opened in a renovated space that used to house Scuttlebutts. After they renovated, they opened, and then a couple of years later, they tore down the building and built new. The new building is modern, large, and if you want to know if I think the architecture is right for our lakefront, I’d tell you that it is not. However, on this night, with the calm lake to our south and the sun setting to the west, there was little about this scene that some reasonable person could dislike. We settled into our streetside table (here there is a large interior space and patio on the first floor, an interior space upstairs with matching open-air patio, and the streetside patio adjacent the sidewalk), and ordered.

The waiter was nice and quickly talked me into the Di Bufala Margherita as opposed to the regular Margherita. The imported cheese is worth the $2 he told me. We ordered another pizza, this the Diavola, and swapped the salami for the spicier soppressata. This is the only restaurant in this series that features a real wood-fired pizza oven. This type of cooking requires skill and knowledge, and we’d be fools if we didn’t both understand and appreciate that nuance. The pizza’s arrive table side within 15 minutes, and they were undeniably beautiful. The edges charred, the crust raised just a bit, the cheese sparse and nicely melted. This is a wood-fired pizza, all right.

The Di Bufala was good, though the cheese slid off the pizza when we tried to pick it up. A note of advice for Oakfire: serve this true Neapolitan pizza in a true Neapolitan way, with a knife and fork and not pre-sliced. The complaint about Oakfire is that the interior tends to be sloppy and wet. This is true, and this condition of Neapolitan pizza was affirmed to me by Steve Dolinsky before I began this tour. If the pizza is going to be soggy and floppy, too much so to properly pick up, then why cut it into slices? Serve it as it would be served in France, with a large knife and fork, uncut. That’s my two cents. The pizza, either way, was quite good. The sauce is made of San Marzano tomatoes, and while I would have liked it a touch sweeter and a tweak spicier, it was good. I cook my sauce longer, so this sauce has a slight raw-tomato flavor that isn’t my favorite, but it’s undeniably good anyway.

The Diavola was equally good, the crust nicely charred and chewy. It’s a nicely executed pizza, and on this night, there was nothing about Oakfire that I didn’t like. The scene was delightful, the pizza tasty, the service capable. I ate pizza at Stella Barra in Lincoln Park a few weeks ago, and while I preferred that pizza to the Oakfire pie, the scene at Oakfire was, dare I say, better? Happy patrons ate their pizza, music played, the big old lake turning shades of pink and purple as the sun faded. This is the finest of our pizza scenes, and the only place to eat a wood-fired pizza. Because of this, Oakfire deserves our praise, and if you’d like to put your fancy shoes on and enjoy a night out in our lovely town, this is your place.

Oakfire Pizza

831 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

8.2/10 (this is the highest score I’ve given, but this score is based on this type of pizza, so I’m not saying this is the best overall in our market, just the best of this style (and, coincidentally, the only of this style)

$16 Margherita Di Bufala, $16 Diavola

Five Star Farm

Five Star Farm

I’ve never been to Edgar, Wisconsin. The odds are good that you haven’t been there either. Because I’ve never been, I don’t know much about it, other than they used to build some rather spectacular barns there. How do I know this? Simple, one such barn was built nearly 100 years ago in Edgar and in 2002 it was patiently and painstakingly moved to its new location just outside of Walworth a few miles from the south shore of Geneva Lake. That project was significant, as you might have guessed, and the end result is available today. This farm, known as Five Star Farm, features this vintage barn, masterfully converted into a dynamic living space adorned with old growth timber, combining for more than 7000 square feet. The land that was chosen for this home is 40 or so acres (some of which lies under the marsh line) along the North Shore of Lake Petite, a 200 acre lake known as being a springtime favorite of weary migratory birds. Five Star Farm is unlike anything in our market.

You’ll find a four bedroom farmhouse at the front of this country estate. This is an ideal home for an on-site caretaker, or perhaps for use as a rental. Beyond the farmhouse you’ll see the first of two barns, connected by large vestibule. The garage barn is 40 x 80 and has a second floor that would make for a most perfect party venue, or perhaps you’d like to return that upper floor to its original purpose and store your hay there? Follow the first barn through that foyer and you’ll arrive at the post and beam constructed main barn, the one that began life in Edgar. Today it is a posh country retreat anchored by a three story free-standing stone fireplace. Explore further and you’ll be greeted with a custom kitchen boasting two stainless steel islands, Viking ovens, Sub-Zero refrigeration, and two sinks with accompanying dishwashers. Planning to entertain here? Good thing, the large dining area comfortably seats 18, but that’s assuming you won’t be eating dinner al fresco in the adjacent screened silo. Beyond that, there’s a main level there’s a private master suite with built in dressers and full bath, and a spacious sunroom cleverly built in to a silo that matches the one on the East end of the structure. The walkout lower level has a 15 seat theatre, large family room, and two more full baths. In total there are seven bedrooms and seven baths, including two bunk rooms capable of sleeping as many guests as you’ll allow.

The property itself is a quiet oasis in an otherwise bustling vacation home scene. Enjoy time on the lake, time at the Yacht Club, or time on the golf course, but when the day is done, return to your unique country retreat. The property is vast and calm, and when I tell you there’s nothing else like it here, you just need look at these photos to know that’s no exaggeration. Contact me for a private tour. $2,150,000

Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day Weekend

Well, here we are. On the cusp. Don’t forget, this isn’t it. This is the cusp. This isn’t summer. This is a dress rehearsal. This is the weekend where you do the things that you need to do in order to be ready for summer. Remember that.

But this isn’t a weekend for remembering that, it’s a weekend for remembering those who paid the price so that we could worry more about the weather than anything else. Will it rain this weekend? Probably. Does it really matter? Not really. Don’t forget those two things- it’s a dress rehearsal for summer and it’s really a time to pay respects to those who made our lives so very, unbelievably, easy.

It’s also the weekend where you’ll find the new issue of Summer Homes For City People. Pick up a copy or three. Put them in your guest bedrooms. Read them. Discover the errors that escaped my proofreading. There will be plenty of them, I’m sure of it. I hope you enjoy the new issue, and I hope you’ll patronize the intelligent businesses that saw fit to advertise in the issue.

For now, take a breath. We’re on the other side of that miserable, petulant winter, and we deserve whatever good things are coming our way. This weekend, it’ll be fun. Enjoy it. And hopefully I’ll see you at the lake.

Cedar Point Parkway Listing

Cedar Point Parkway Listing

Much of the development around Geneva Lake in the early and mid 1900s focused on cottage building. How can we force as many small summer cottages as possible into this smallish section of land? This is what the developers must have had on their minds when they set about slicing up the large estate parcels that surrounded this lake. When the developer of Cedar Point Park arrived at the scene, he, or she, made a decision to develop single family homes around large grassy swaths of land that would connect these homes to the water in a most unique way. With that, the Cedar Point parkway was born, and the homes that line these select parkways are among the most desirable in our entire lake access market.

Lake Geneva Lake Access Home For Sale
531 Park Ridge

This home on Park Ridge is one such home. Close enough to the lake to have a pleasant lake view and easy stroll from the home to the pier, yet far enough to feel immensely private, like a lakeside tree house. This four bedroom parkway home might be in need of a bit of updating, but it’s this location that is so very rare in our market. The home itself has a cut-granite wood burning fireplace, a large lakeside screened porch, and hardwood floors throughout. The lot is wide and deep enough to hold a two car detached garage. As of this printing, this is the only available parkway home in Cedar Point, and if you’re looking for a way to get as close to the lake as possible with delightful water views, you should contact me for a tour. $765,000

Lakeside Screened Porch
New Cedar Point Lakefront

New Cedar Point Lakefront

Wander through Williams Bay and follow the lakeshore to the southern tip of Cedar Point Park and you’ll notice something. Something serious. Something obvious. Something unavoidable. You’ll notice, if you’re the noticing sort, considerable and significant gentrification along the lakefront. Old houses have been made new. Renovations have taken old cottages and turned them into new creations, mixing some quaint lake house features with modern day amenities. To the north, new construction abounds. Spec homes, sold. Four million dollars, give or take. And to the south, new construction and more renovations. Shingle style examples of lakeside bliss.  If there is a trend on the lakefront in Williams Bay it’s simple: Buyers are showing a particular affinity for the southern edge of Cedar Point Park. 

Why do you suppose this is? Why are buyers, with a wide lake full of opportunity, focusing on this section of shore to design their version of vacation home perfection? It may have something to do with the views. They might be the best on the entire lake, after all. It might be that westerly exposure, that afternoon sun that lights the pier long after evening has fallen on the western shore of Williams Bay. Or it might be that buyers feel comfortable investing here simply because other buyers have already been doing so. Investment spurs investment, in the event that you didn’t know. 

246 Circle Parkway is a capable lakefront home designed in the cottage style of many of the most desirable Cedar Point homes.  Here you’ll find three bedrooms and two baths, with a detached garage and 92 feet of lake frontage. The pier is brand new and large, two slips worth so you can keep both of your boats, or buy two new boats, either is fine. It’s ideal, as is the positioning of the home along that southwestern shore of Cedar Point.  While this home is easily a proper lakefront home right now and ready for your immediate enjoyment, the real magic lies in the opportunity. Renovate this home, and do so feeling secure in your investment. The end result will be a vacation home equal to the setting, and that setting, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is remarkable.   $2,099,000

Holi Cannoli Pizza Review

Holi Cannoli Pizza Review

During this pizza series, one place was the most consistently and aggressively recommended to me: Holi Cannoli. You know how I feel about Elkhorn. And you know how I feel about Whitewater. Imagine then, if you will, how I could feel about the space between these two towns. That’s where Holi Cannoli lives, in the space between. The only question is were these recommendations wicked lies or were these people hoping to keep me safe from the pain that is a miserable, if local, pizza.

It was Saturday night and I was tired. I had worked during the day, and then retreated to more work in the evening. The office garden needed weeding and mulching, and my wife had a party that appeared to include every woman in Walworth County. I had to go somewhere. Anywhere, and since it was Saturday and I was tired that meant I was also hungry. My son was finishing a baseball double header, and I would need some salve for my blisters and he some salve for his wounded ego. I called HC at 7 pm and was told it would be an hour wait. The place was slammed. I asked if they take reservations and they did. 8:30 was the soonest they could offer, which was fine because I had to clean up and look reasonably respectable for this, my first ever visit, to Holi Cannoli. We drove through Elkhorn, quickly, stopped at Walgreen’s for a couple of last minute Mother’s Day cards, and arrived at the restaurant at 8:30 sharp. The parking lot was jammed.

Most pizza places in Walworth County lack any type of recognizable scene. They’re just places to get pizza, and when you’re in the mood to devour pizza you care very little about the terrible decor that haunts most local pizza establishments. A good pizza erases any concern of your surroundings. But HC was happening. The interior space isn’t much to consider, it’s just a couple of dining rooms with a large bar in the middle, and the decor is typical North American Italian Restaurant Issue. Some faux paintings of wine bottles, some plastic grape vines with impressive plastic grape clusters, some paintings of Napa, or Tuscany, no one can be sure. HC might not win any design awards, but on Saturday night the crowd was lively and happy, the wine appeared to be flowing with vigor, and the various plates of food scattered about all looked equally delicious.

After the pleasant hostess sat us at our four top near the wood-fired oven, the bus-boy was quickly over to slap down a couple of waters. The sign outside says “COAL FIRED PIZZA”, which I thought interesting since “WOOD FIRED PIZZA” is the same thing, just at a different state of combustion. The oven on the back wall was clad in brick, and the busy hands of an open pizza kitchen were arranging toppings, stoking the fire, and feeding the dough through a mechanical roller. I wasn’t sure what type of pizza I’d be eating here, since a typical wood-fired pie is normally of the neapolitan variety, similar to what I had last week at Stella Barra in Lincoln Park, and similar to that which is served at Oak Fire in Lake Geneva. The mechanical roller threw me off, as any proper neapolitan dough would never be rolled like this. Never mind, the mystery would soon unravel, and we ordered a sausage pizza with mushrooms, along with an order of Calamari. Shortly after ordering, a bevy of bread and a dish of marinara was brought table side. We dipped and munched. My son summed up this part of the dinner perfectly, “it’s not very good, but it’s free bread”. Free bread indeed, son. Free bread indeed.

The calamari arrived quickly. It was lightly breaded, more pale than golden, and mostly rings. We dipped it in the cocktail sauce, which tasted a bit too tangy and not in a horseradishy sort of way. It reminded me of a Heinz cocktail sauce that you squeeze out of a bottle. Too much ketchup, maybe. We ate the plate anyway, it was fine, but not memorable. The pizza was out quickly. Frighteningly quick. Maybe eight minutes after ordering it, tops. It was impossibly flat, nicely browned, the edges charred in the tell-tale style of a wood-fired pie. It looked delicious. 16 inches of razor thin pie for $21.95 plus $1.50 for the added mushrooms. Not a terrible ransom. The first slice passed the flop test, which is rare for a neapolitan style pie.

Ah, but this isn’t a neapolitan style pie. This is a wood fired pie that is, in actuality, a tavern style pizza. The crust is mechanically rolled, which creates that super thin, remarkably uniform crust. There is no raised edge here, no soft middle. It’s a hybrid of sorts. The cheese was proper and well browned, the sausage mild but plentiful without being overwhelming. The mushrooms were mostly absent, but I would prefer that to the overload that occurred in Whitewater a week or two prior. The exterior bits of crust were crunchy and singed by the flame. It was a good pizza.

But there was a problem here, and it’s one that I can appreciate as someone who has struggled at the helm of a wood-fired oven. The top of the pizza was nicely browned, but the bottom of the crust featured no such browning. It was nearly flour white. The edges were crisped, but beyond that the crust was soft and undercooked. I know what happened here. A gas oven heats up uniformly, with the oven deck holding that heat beautifully, just as the thermostat dictates. But a wood-fired oven, after working overtime during the heated pace of a Saturday night service, tends to lose some deck heat. The chef fixes this by adding wood and stoking the fire that burns in a back corner of the oven, but while the air heats, the deck is shielded by a handful of pizza pies. The deck stays cooler than the air, which results in a pizza that shows beautifully on top but is, as a matter of undeniable fact, undercooked on the bottom. This was the fate that befell our pizza.

I liked this restaurant. It was bustling with activity, and the pizza was reasonably good. The bigger question for me is will I be back? Sadly, I believe the answer to be no. But that’s just me, and it takes some effort and time for me to leave Williams Bay and drive to that location north of Elkhorn. It’s a good pizza, don’t get me wrong, but is it as good as the best? No, on Saturday night it most certainly wasn’t.

Holi Cannoli

N7605 US Highway 12, Elkhorn, WI

6.7/10

$21.95 for a 16″ Sausage Pizza, plus $1.50 for mushrooms.

PS. I may do one more review along with a summary next week to wrap the series.

Market Cycles

Market Cycles

It pains me to write about the market on this blog. During the earlier times of these writings, I could write and write and only some buyers and sellers would pay attention. Now I write and write and other agents pull my insights and commentary and adopt them as their own. My selfishness objects to this. But there’s no way to combat it, unfortunately, aside from a fatal paywall. No, this information might be my proprietary blend, formulated only after decades at this helm and distilled by the fire of many market cycles, but once I write it it’s free. Other agents who find their market insights from this blog, you’re welcome for what follows.

To understand this market, you must understand the macro functions of a generic real estate market. First and foremost to that understanding is the awareness that people, en masse, do not buy or sell based on personal circumstances, or their personal economy. They buy based on confidence and they sell based on fear. There is nothing else. In 2008 a homebuyer on Geneva Lake bought a lakefront house on the exact day the market topped. In 2011 he sold it on the exact day the market bottomed. His personal finances between those dates changed very little. The only thing that changed was his perception of the market, and that perception started with confidence and ended in fear. All other commentary related to the movement of markets is nuance.

This is why corn-field subdivisions in 2006 sold with violent fervor and then died with a silent dirge in 2012. This is why those same cornfields are selling now at a furious pace, for prices that far exceed any market top of 2007. $500k for a cornfield ranch? Sure! Why does this buyer buy for $500k now when she could have bought for $340k in 2012? Has her income increased commensurate? We know that interest rates have risen since then, so that isn’t the catalyst. We know that the job market in greater Walworth County isn’t welcoming Google or Facebook anytime soon. So why the rush now in the heat of competition when there was only silence back when value was literally everywhere? Confidence and fear.

Now that you understand this, consider the 2019 buyer. This is not a uniform buyer, by the way. There are three sorts of buyers in the market this morning, the morning of my birthday. Our first buyer is the scared buyer. This is the buyer who was afraid to buy in 2006 because the market was too hot. He was afraid to buy in 2012 because the market was too cold. And he’s afraid to buy now because he feels that it is, once again, too hot. This is what market cycles do, they go from hot to cold, repeatedly, with various stops along the way. This buyer doesn’t like 2019. He wishes it was 2014. He wished, in 2014, that it was 2012. In 2012, he was terrified. This is a buyer who fails to understand real estate and its purpose, and instead wishes to time the market with the hope of immediate and lasting gains. This is the buyer who wouldn’t buy Apple at $8 because IBM.

The other buyer is the feverish buyer. This is the frantic buyer. The buyer who is so whipped up by her own confidence and by the confidence of her cheerleading agent that she has no choice but to buy. Bad house in a bad location for a bad price? SOLD! This buyer can’t wait. Won’t wait. To suggest that better inventory might be coming next week is to suggest pause, and pause will not be tolerated. This buyer is motivated by confidence, by personal economy, by haste. I want to hate this buyer, because this generally isn’t the smart of sophisticated buyer that chooses to work with me, but in reality, I understand this buyer. This is a buyer that knows summer is coming, and that buyer wants to spend it in a better place. That buyer wants this scene so badly she’s willing to rush into it to secure it. This buyer skews markets. This buyer prints albatrosses. This buyer is what every open-house holding agent prays for. Walk this way, young lady.

And then there is the other sort of 2019 buyer. This buyer understands that the market is hot. He understands that prices are higher than they were two years ago. He understands that 2012 was a good time to buy, but he wasn’t in the market then. But this is a buyer who is neither terrified of the future, nor will he sloppily rush to secure it. This is a buyer who understands, even in this cycle of low inventory and high competition, that value still exists. It is still out there. It is present, even this morning, with limited inventory and incredible buyer activity. There are cracks and there are properties that find their way into them. Deals will be had, or maybe they won’t.

To each of these buyers I would suggest the market is indeed hot. Not as hot as the fanatic buyer would suggest and not as dangerous as the regretful buyer would insist. This market is hot. Undoubtedly hot. To buy in 2019 is to entertain some sort of premium. The cycle is getting old, but is it spent? I do not think it is. There is a market trend that is presenting routinely and blatantly, and that trend has everything to do with the state of Illinois. Not the State, mind you, but the state. The pending income tax and constant property tax increases are not a good thing for our market. To suggest that they are is insane. But is a diminished Illinois bad for Lake Geneva? Is an Illinois that has yet to see a tax increase that it isn’t willing to consider a fatal prospect for the vacation home market that lives and dies with the residents of this great state? The answer, it seems, is no.

Would I prefer Illinois to grow and expand and usher in an era of prosperity, free of the shackles of politicians who find office by fostering resentment between classes? Of course. That would be ideal. But in spite of the current tax climate, Lake Geneva is thriving. Why? Well, it’s because of that negative climate. See, times were, a junior associate might live in Lakeview with his new bride. They’d enjoy their time there, but as they matured and as their incomes grew, they’d look for the upgrade. They’d look to Winnetka, maybe, or Lincoln Park. They’d look to move from that condo and to a single family. Or they’d look to find a bigger residence on a higher floor. Something better. Then, after they made that move and their personal economies continued to grow, they’d move again. A few years later. Or maybe a decade later, still, they’d move. Upward and onward, to something better. In case you weren’t aware, in real estate, something better is generally more expensive. The cycle would continue until the time came to downsize, and retire to a winter spent in Naples.

Today, I see the cycle changing. Buyers see the illiquid suburban manse and they want nothing to do with it. They see the pending property tax burden and they do not want to embrace it. But they are still growing financially and they still long for something else. So instead of purchasing that next house, that bigger condominium, that adjacent unit, they’re taking their housing dollars out of state. They’re still earning at a fabulous clip, but they’re not wanting to reinvest into the Illinois problem. Why go long in illiquid real estate that may or may not be taxed at a rapidly accelerating rate? That’s the question, and they’re answering it by bringing those unspent housing dollars to Lake Geneva. They’re investing them in market where the return will likely be financial but will also be personal. They’re investing in their families. In themselves. They’re keeping their housing footprint reasonable in Illinois and they’re expanding it here. Want to know why our market is thriving in spite of Illinois? This is why.

I expect the trend to continue into the foreseeable future. The cycle will ultimately pause, and at that point we’ll re-ignite the cycle where fear breeds fear, and the weaker hands will be flushed. But until then, and again after that ultimate, some-day-softening what happens? Lake Geneva thrives.

PS. Do I think full time residents are going to leave Illinois for Wisconsin? No, I don’t. If you own a house in Crystal Lake and you pay $10k in property taxes on your $300k home, let’s suppose you rightfully hate that and want to move to Wisconsin. In Lake Geneva, that $300k home will have a $7k tax bill. Your kids are in soccer and you commute to Schaumburg every day for work. Will you uproot your family and your life to save $3k per year? The answer should be, and will be, no. If you said yes, then you’re not thinking clearly.

May Flowers

May Flowers

For all of the moving I’ve done, and all of the land that I’ve called home, I have only owned one prized Oak tree. The trees that typically fall under my temporary ownership are scrub varieties, those Boxelders and its twisted cousins that lack any sort of pedigree. Even the Boxelder at least has a name that people know, and that’s more than can be said for most of the trees that I’ve owned. They’re just trees, the variety that grow tall and skinny or short and curvy, without much to offer while living, and without burning long and hot when dead. At my current home, I do own one singular Oak, and what an impressive tree it is. 

It’s huge, this Oak, big and tall and sturdy. It’s old, so old in fact that I hesitate to guess its age. If you were to guess the age of an old woman, it would be best to err on the side of youth. If the old woman looks 90, guess that she’s not a day over 78. But with an Oak tree, to guess less is to insult its heritage, to insult its will to live and thrive and grow tall and round. But this Oak tree, though I love it and appreciate it, it’s on the margin of my property where it intermingles with small trees of varying makes and models. The majesty of this Oak is obscured by the company it keeps. 

If you drove down South Lakeshore Drive heading from the Fontana lakefront to the East, this is a pleasant drive in May, and in July, and in January. If you made that drive in July, you’d notice some scraggly trees that jut out at odd angles from the Buntrock property, just to the West of Westgate. Those trees in July look like weedy trees, the sort that I would own, and in January they look the same, sans leaves. During any month of the year they blend in to a larger tree line, and they mean absolutely nothing. But that’s not the case in May, because those trees are just about to blaze in a hot pink glow, the color radiating from the otherwise green scene. Those trees in May don’t just mean something to that landscape, they mean everything. 

In fact, everywhere there are trees just like those. No-name trees that burst in pink flowers, and apple trees dressed in white and pink. Pear trees do the same, and crabapples make up for their mostly inedible fruit with their remarkable spring display. Cherry trees, both the ones cultivated for their tart fruit or the ones that grow wildly on the lot lines of properties like mine, they’re magnificent right now. I don’t even need to mention Magnolia trees, because they’re the most beautiful of all. Drive down Geneva Street in Williams Bay later this week and you’ll see two such trees, magnificent and proud, pushing forward those blooms that demand our attention. 

A boat trip around the lake in July is really terrific. The shoreline and the hills that rise beyond it are deep and green, dark and full of life. Wisconsin flaunts it’s deciduous heritage in July, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t pause to appreciate this landscape. But today, a boat ride around the lake features a dull hint of green, contrast by the bright yellowy-green of the Willows, and accented by the pops of white pedals from the cherries and the apples, the pinks from the crabapples and the purple from lilacs. The steady deep tone of summer is beautiful but unvaried, whereas the pastel tone of May is exciting and colorful, a visual treat to reward us for enduring the months of dull and gray. Summer is where I’d like to spend most of my time, but the flowering trees of May cannot be overlooked. 

The Oak tree in my yard is slowly sending out its leaves. Oaks are like that. They’re old, after all, so they move more slowly and deliberately. Acorns are neat tricks, so tidy and important, but an acorn cannot hold a candle to a scrubby tree that blooms with so much pent up vigor. Here’s to you, miscellaneous flowering trees, for making beautiful my wait for summer.

Photograph courtesy Matt Mason Photography

JoJo’s Pizza Review

JoJo’s Pizza Review

There’s a particular scene in Django Unchained that finds a group of men in the midst of preparing for a raid. The reason for the raid is unimportant. It’s dark, and the group of men are riding horses and wearing masks. The masks have two small eye holes cut into them and nothing else. The men are complaining. They can’t see. They can’t breathe. The complaining is colorful and intense. One man is defending his wife, who made the masks, while another man chides, “well if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!

That’s how I feel about pizza. It’s just a crust, some sauce, cheese and random toppings. There’s not much to it, really. It should be so easy that anyone could make it. My mom makes it, but she’s a good cook. Your mom makes it, and she might not be so good. I make it, my wife makes it, my kids, if given some time, they could make a pizza, too. Someone who doesn’t understand pizza might think this way. When I started this series, I knew pizza was hard to make at home in my wood-fired ovens, but I figured that any restaurant, if given enough time to practice, could master the art of the pie. Each week I’m realizing just how wrong I was.

On Sunday afternoon, I was hungry. This was not unique to last Sunday. This is an affliction that I carry with me every day, no matter the month, the season, the year. I will bring this curse to my grave. I had finished some showings, stopped at Lowes to buy a few bits and pieces needed for my bathroom remodel project, and since I was already in Delavan I decided to round out the Delavan pizza places with JoJo’s. I called on the pizza from the parking lot of Lowes, an extra large pizza called the Favorite Five, to go. The Favorite Five did not contain any mention of olives, proving the intelligence and refined palate of JoJo’s owners. The wait would be about 30 minutes, just enough time to run into Walmart to buy some deodorant and subsequently wait for 10 minutes in Walmart Line Hell while the people in front of me navigated through the futuristic waters of the self check-out.

JoJo’s is a basic restaurant on Highway 50 in the Delavan Inlet. It’s nothing much to look at from the exterior, but pretty much every pizza place in Walworth County, excepting Oak Fire, would be accurately described in the same way. I was early to pick up my pizza, but I wanted to walk inside for the first time to see what this place was all about. I was pleased to see patrons seated at the tables, eating their pizzas. A girl stocked drinks in a glass-front cooler, and I sat down to peruse the local magazines. One such magazine talked about pizzas without actually grading the pizzas, for shame.

Exactly 30 minutes after I placed my order, the pizza was brought out from the kitchen. I appreciated the punctuality. Unlike other pizza places, their extra large pie is an 18″, rather than the typical 16″, so I was excited to have a chance to pack on some extra calories before summer. I paid the tab, $21.40 plus tax and tip (a great price for an 18″ pizza), and retreated to the safety of my car, where the lustily intoxicating smell of a fresh pizza perfumed my interior.

The first thing you notice about this pie is the pepperoni. It’s placed on top of the cheese, like a true pepperoni pizza. The other vegetables of sausage, mushroom, onion, as well as the other meat, sausage, were tucked under the cheese as is a normal tavern style preparation. The flop test was a breeze, as this crust was sturdy but thin, crunchy but soft. It was a relief after the molar cracking episode at Gino’s the week prior. The crust is more like Mama Cimino’s, crunchy but soft, very little chew. Like a Ritz cracker without the buttery sheen. I liked the crust, but it wasn’t necessarily a standout.

The first bite was good. The second bite, too. But something was amiss here. The cheese was fine, the vegetables a bit raw for my taste, but something was off. I ate a few more pieces to see if I could decipher what it was. Perplexed by the delicious looking, yet bland tasting pizza, I drove to a friend’s house for a second opinion. As I sat at a stop light, jamming as much pizza into my mouth as I could before the light turned green, it dawned on me. This pizza had no salt. Once at my friend’s house, I didn’t fill him in on my discovery, but instead asked for his opinion. He couldn’t place it. He said what I was thinking. It’s a fine pizza, but I don’t need to eat it again. A few more pieces and I told him what was missing: salt. He concurred, and with that, the pizza’s fate was sealed.

On Facebook, I made note of my JoJo’s visit, and my astute cousin told me to order the pizza with extra sauce. With that comment I lifted the cheese and toppings layer from the crust and revealed the sin. This pizza had hardly any sauce. Like four tablespoons for the entire 18″ pie. It wasn’t that it lacked salt, it was that it lacked sauce, where the salt should be. A perfectly good pizza rendered average due to nothing more than a light dollop of tomato sauce. As for ordering a pizza with extra sauce, I will not do this, just as I won’t ask the Next Door Pub to cook my pizza well-done. Nor will I ask Culvers to make sure my custard is served cold.

I wanted to like this pizza. It looked terrific. The crust was crunchy and thin, and held up quite well during the ten minute drive from JoJo’s to my friend’s house. But the lack of sauce and salt cannot be forgiven. With a proper dose of sauce and salt I could place this pizza north of 7.0, up near the epicurean leaders. But without the sauce, I must place this pizza where it belongs. Ahead of the bad pies, but below the good ones. I appreciate the effort that JoJo’s brings to their pizza game, as everything showed signs of care and expertise. Even the sauce was good, if only there had been enough of it.

JoJo’s Pizza and Pasta

308 State Highway 50, Delavan

5.3/10

$21.40 for the Five Favorite Extra Large (18″ with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers)

Lake Geneva Market Update

Lake Geneva Market Update

I brought a new property to market a week or so ago, and if you’re looking for a vacation home with transferable boat slip, then you’re in luck. As you hopefully know, certain price ranges come with certain expectations. For instance, a lakefront home priced at $1.4MM doesn’t need to have a garage to be desirable, but a lakefront home priced at $4MM probably should have one. In the same way, a lake access home with a slip priced in the $600s will generally be marked by what it doesn’t have, as much as by what it does have. These homes are often known by their tight yards, lack of garages, lack of remarkable proximity to the water, and overall condition. In short, they’re usually small cottages that leave all but the most motivated buyers unenthusiastic.

N1525 Oak Shores is in, you’ve already guessed it, Oak Shores. This is the boulevard association along that South Shore stretch that also features The Lake Geneva Club, Shore Haven, and Sybil Lane. This Oak Shores home not only has a transferable slip, but it has a large lot with spacious, level front lawn. It has loads of parking via two driveways and an attached garage. And inside the home, it has something else that most of these association homes won’t have: space. This is a four bedroom, three bath home with more than 2700 square feet of above-grade living space. It might need a bit of cosmetic updating, but this is a property you should consider. $649k and it’s yours.

Around the lake, activity abounds. I have a new contract on my Bay Colony condominium listing, you know, the one that everyone knows is likely the nicest standard condo on the lake ($799k). I have a new contract on the $495k condo offering in the Old Boatyard Condominiums, a small association that you likely only know about if you’ve lived there or also lived there. Other lake access activity is through the roof, as buyers are showing a particular fondness for wildly overpaying for off-water homes without slips…

Speaking of overpaying, there’s an interesting angle in the market this year that warrants discussion. The market is, without any doubt, hot. It’s hotter than it was in 2018. And 2018 was hotter than 2017. You could play that game going back all of the way to 2013, in case you’re bored. Because the market is so active, buyers are doing lots of really dumb things. They’re proving that they value immediate fulfillment above lasting value, and they’re once again back to buying homes For Sale By Owner because they think they’re somehow getting a deal by avoiding a dreaded real estate agent. I’ve heard of several off-market FSBO deals this winter and spring, and every deal I’ve heard about has sold for far over the actual market value. This is tremendous for the sellers, but incredibly terrible for the buyers. Do you, a random buyer, think you know this market better than me? If you answered yes, I implore you to buy a For Sale By Owner. You’ll do great! If you’re a buyer who is also smart enough to know that the answer is a resounding No, then why aren’t we working together? Beware the For Sale By Owner. It’s often listed that way because the agents told the owner that the property was worth $X, but the seller wants it to be worth $X + 20%. And you’re going to be the buyer who waltzes up and pays that premium, all because you think you know the market? For deep and lasting shame.

For now, it’s raining at the lake, and I have an office fire burning. But the snow has melted and the rain is warming the soil and soon it’ll be morel season. After that comes lilac season and after that comes Memorial Day. It might be miserable now, but blink a few times and it’ll be summer. As we prepare for that glorious condition, don’t forget that your choice in agent representation matters. Don’t forget that a For Sale By Owner isn’t automatically a deal. Don’t forget that this market has only one top agent (as considered by total individual agent sales from 2010-present, highest average sales price 2010-present). And don’t forget his name is still David Curry.