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Lake Geneva Negotiations

Lake Geneva Negotiations

I could have negotiated this deal in 10 minutes if you had put me in a room with him. This is what I hear. I hear it often. This is the refrain of those negotiating pros who buy and sell real estate through a broker. When a deal comes together, I hear this. When a deal falls apart, I hear it then, too. I hear it so much I hear it when I close my eyes and I hear it again when I open them.  That one kid heard dead people, I hear this.

Many buyers and sellers feel that the deals could come together if only they had a chance to handle the deal directly. This might often be the case- that the deal would come together in spite of a broker, not because of one. But this assumes that the deal was an easy one to put together, that neither side needing the convincing that can only come from a market backed perspective. This also assumes that both sides are in a hurry to make a deal, which is generally far from the case.  Consider, some of the best deals I’ve put together have come together only as a result of long enduring negotiations. Time might heal most wounds, but it also bridges many negotiations that might have failed if they were on the clock.

In 2010, I negotiated the purchase side of 1014 South Lakeshore Drive, Fontana. That deal started slowly, as many do, and after a few months of negotiations, we had an accepted contract. Then we negotiated throughout the deal, over another three months, and finally closed on the transaction. What a fantastic deal that was. And many more like it have come about the same way- only through buy side patience, as a seller is worn down through a recognition that his or her property is just not quite as desirable as originally thought.

The problem with this, of course, is that 2010 was a year void of an abundance of buyers and 2016, though the year has started ominously with indices in an funk, has an abundance of such vacation home buyers. Long enduring negotiations only work in the absence of a competing bid. Lately, there have been competing bids.

Two weeks ago I was going to show a listing on Bonnie Brae to a buyer of mine. We set up the showing, we were ready to pounce on a property that was purported to be able to be bought right. We ended up canceling our showing, because the property sold earlier that week to a buyer that had just a bit more motivation, or schedule flexibility, than we did.  A year ago this month I negotiated an offer on a lakefront listing I had on Oriole Lane. That humble, odd home, didn’t sell in 2015, but throughout the year my buyer reaffirmed their earlier offer. The sellers didn’t bite.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, a change in seller sentiment, and our deal was ready to be locked. On Friday, we had a deal in principle, on Saturday, the seller took a bid from another buyer.  I had negotiated patiently with a lakefront buyer for exactly 12 months, and when victory was nearly ours, the property sold to another buyer. Sniped, again.

This week, a deal on an off-water home in Glenwood Springs was apparently nearly complete. A buyer of mine who had seen that home in the summer of 2015, inquired of the property. It was available, I told him, but nearly under contract. He jumped, we offered, we have the property under contract and the other buyer, the one who was patiently working the seller to his favor, is on the outside looking in. This is the trouble with negotiating slowly. It leaves open too many variables beyond the negotiator’s control.

Of course, the most important aspect of any negotiation is in sensing the direction of the market and its response to that particular property. That’s not quite as easy as it might sound. In the case of the Oriole Lane property, I wrongly assumed that time was on my side. I assumed that a property that had languished on the open market for years would not sell in the dead of a Wisconsin winter, on the heels of a volatile week in the markets. I was wrong. So today,  a quick admonition. If you like a property, watch it with me, and we’ll work to strangle the seller together (figuratively, of course). If you love a property, buy it, before someone else does.

The Hunt

The Hunt

How I wish I were a doctor. When you’re a doctor and you travel, you get to tell people what you do. You’re a doctor. That’s what you do. It doesn’t matter what sort of doctor, because if you’re a doctor that’s really all that matters. In the same way that if you’re a mechanic and you work on cars, no one cars that you’re a BMW mechanic, with some credintials abbreviated below where your stitched name adorns your company provided shirt. You might as well be a small town garage mechanic where you specialize in tire changing because you’re not any good at anything else, and you don’t own one of those plug in car doctors that they advertise on television and in trade magazines. Doctors are doctors and mechanics are mechanics and Realtors, well, we’re Realtors.

That’s why when I visit an open house in a far away land, I feel obligated to tell the Realtor that I, too, am a Realtor. I don’t want them thinking I’m a doctor, or something otherwise noble, so I tell them early enough and I remind them often. I’m just a Realtor. But I listen when these other Realtors talk, and I try to learn what it’s like to be a consumer, which is why I only tell the host Realtor that I’m also a Realtor after they’ve given me some information. How else can I learn if I don’t subject myself to the Realtor schtick?

And learn I do. I learned on Sunday that there are three distinct markets on this island, three different places where everyone wants to be. I found that I’m skeptical of this direction. I’m skeptical because I don’t know if this Realtor who just so happened to be holding open this house is any good. How could I know? I see their car, I see their sign, I see their face. I see these things but I have no idea if they’re good or not, and so I ask questions and look for clues. One guy I met on Sunday seemed nice, but I wouldn’t ever work with him. One lady seemed nice, but I wouldn’t work with her either. How could I work with someone whom I had just met on a lark because the day was too cold to do anything else but explore houses I have no intention of buying?

It dawned on me today that what a Realtor needs to do is be present. They just, really, have to be there. This is generally enough. But there should be more to this game, more than just showing up and hoping. The more should be the aptitude that only comes with experience. The knowledge that can only be gleaned from the day to day, from the work that must be done. I traveled an island full of open houses, full of Realtors, full of expectations and hopes and whims and I wonder what it’s all about. Is real estate really this unsophisticated? Is this business really still just this?

At the end of day I decided that, yes, that’s exactly what this business is. That’s why success is fleeting, and that’s why someone else who desires to be present longer can, and will, be as successful as someone who knows why they’re present. Skill in real estate is measured by the ability to be present, to be there when the phone rings on floor and to be there when a buyer in a sports car pulls up to tour houses that he only thought about on the drive up.  From my perspective as a veteran of this game, how can I best express to you, to the buyer that I haven’t yet met, that I am in your best interests?

That’s the question of real estate. Some choose to ask and answer the question in full page newspaper ads, with a smiling or pouty face and a promise of glittery success. Some answer it by simply being, by hoping that if they  exist long enough, they’ll find success. Some, like me, hope to prove worth over time, by being discerning in all things, by pointing out the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, no matter who it might offend. By doing that and mixing it with a track record of unrivaled success.  At the end of this and every day, each approach is the right one. Each approach will have some success. Just like the guy at the open house today who will, after some number of more Sunday’s, sell that house to someone who drove onto the island on a whim. This is real estate, and I don’t have to like it.

The Keg Room Proposal: Another Miss

The Keg Room Proposal: Another Miss

I have not lived in Williams Bay since 1998. Williams Bay, however, is my home town and it is the town that I will name whenever someone asks me where I’m from, no matter where I am when they ask, or where I live at the time. I am from Williams Bay.  Because of this, I’m concerned about Williams Bay, and I wish nothing but the best for it. That’s why I’m once again having to explain what happens when out of town developers invade small communities.

Kane County Shodeen has once again set his sights on development in Walworth County, this time in Williams Bay. It wasn’t enough that he once proposed 4000+ units in Delavan Township, and now has 623 nearly approved near that original proposal site, with 180 more approved in Walworth, and 123 proposed (soon to be denied) near my house in the country. His appetite for development is seemingly insatiable, and now Williams Bay is in the cross hairs.  His development proposal, according to a Lake Geneva Regional News article, is for the Keg Room property on the corner of Geneva Street and Walworth Avenue. For those unaware of that location, it is, quite simply put, the most visible corner in the village.

The plan seeks to cram 31 units (28 small condominiums and up to 3 commercial spaces) on a corner that was previously approved to host just 16 units. The small one and two bedroom condominiums will range in size from 900-1100 square feet. The corner is busy now, with traffic pouring down Walworth to Pier 290, and Geneva Street buzzing past on the North. Everyone who knows this vacant corner knows that it needs to be developed. What I know, as a Williams Bay business owner and a Williams Bay native is that this is the wrong development for our marquee corner.

On a corner in Fontana, The Tracy Group is building a six unit townhouse development (pictured above), and they are absolutely beautiful.  The land that Tracy is building six units on is roughly one half acre. The land that Shodeen wishes to put 31 units on is roughly one half acre. Am I the only one who sees the problem here?  Tracy is putting 6 high end units in Fontana. Shodeen wants to put 31 units in Williams Bay (pictured below, courtesy the Lake Geneva Regional News). Why should Williams Bay deserve anything less than Fontana? Why would Williams Bay seek to approve a development that would render their prime corner a Kane County Special?

Kane County Keg Room Proposal, courtesy the Lake Geneva Regional News

Williams Bay has, for quite some time, wished for a revitalization of their downtown. I helped the cause, building a beautiful cottage style building for my real estate office. I built a small, shingle style property that blends with the surroundings and respects the historical aesthetic of Williams Bay. But I did this because I’m from here, and I care what my hometown looks like.  I want your view, as you drive through my town, to be pleasant. A Chicago developer comes here and sees only dollar signs, and if a 45′ tall building with underground parking and an apartment appearance is perceived to be the best way to make money, then that’s what will be proposed.

It’s back to the question of density and of style and of our intentions with this lovely county we call home. What are we trying to achieve here? Are we trying to grow and grow and by doing so lose our native appeal?  I’m not anti-development on the Keg Room property, I’m anti-this development on the Keg Room property.  I love the village of Williams Bay and always will, and it’s for that reason that I’m forced to fight for its future.  Some will say that the future is development, and it’s best to let it happen. Those are the people who see development in all shapes and density as a positive, and those are not the discerning people who each community needs in order to protect its identity. The lazy response to development is to sigh and approve it, to say it’s inevitable. The responsible approach is to question every aspect of it and if it doesn’t fit with the community, it should be quickly, and effortlessly denied.

I recognize I’m sounding a bit too Erin Brokovichy lately, but unfortunately I have to be this way. I care too much about this lake, this village, and this county, to idly sit by and watch a developer from Chicago change the nature of this place. I sell real estate here because I love it here. I live here because I love it here. I am raising my children here because I hope that they, one day, will recognize what a special place it is. For those reasons I must fight, and I need your help.  I want to keep Walworth rural, and I want to keep Williams Bay’s most important corner free from density.

If the developer wishes to withdraw this plan, I shall wash my eyes with bleach and consider the next plan. If the next plan looks like the Tracy development in Fontana, with 6-10 units in total, I’ll be the biggest proponent of the new plan. Until then, it’s a fight, and I’m far more motivated to defend my community than anyone might have previously guessed.  Please reach out to the Village of Williams Bay officials and tell them we don’t want this development front and center in our quiet beach town.

 

Oh September

Oh September

Without the weather, what would we talk about? When I meet someone new, what would I open the conversation with? If I couldn’t say, what a day! or, cold enough for you? or, it’s freezing out! then what would I say? I’d have to recreate my entire game, based about something new. That’s one heck of an outfit today. Who knew a green shirt and a green sweater could work? But then they’d know I was being insincere, and they’d wonder if I was really the right agent for them. They’d ask me, who was the president when you last combed your hair? Things would fall apart rapidly, and society would ultimately tear apart. The weather, and the way it makes our initial conversations so easy, this is what holds us together.

This summer featured two distinct seasons. First there was faux summer, that being June. The month of June is a month when every self respecting vacation home owner should be at their Lake Geneva home, but it is a month where the weekends are a gamble of epic proportions. Consider the weekends of June. This may be a title of my someday book, if I can ever figure out how to write more than 800 words at a time. The four Fridays of June were four difficult days. Fridays are of paramount importance to the vacation home set, as even though they are the shortest of the weekend days, by virtue of most arriving to the lake when the day is nearly over, it is important because the weather of that day usually sets the tone for the weekend. A sunny, warm Friday makes the transition from city to lake a celebrated event. A cold, dreary Friday makes the drive still important, but the celebration muted.

The four Fridays in June featured high temperatures that averaged 10 degrees below the historical norm. This included one particularly dastardly Friday where the temperature climbed to 62 degrees fahrenheit. The average for that day was 76 degrees. This is an epic fail, and June was both somewhat cold and oft rainy, and that’s why June was terrible and should be forgotten. Also, only 11 of the 30 days that month reached temperates at or above the historical average.

Summer started, rather abruptly, over the Fourth Of July Weekend. Capitalized because. Once summer began, July was pretty nice, and so was August. There were a few cold bits here and there, but nothing lasted and mostly we had generous sunshine and average temperatures. It was a good summer, but it wasn’t a hot summer. Lake Geneva recorded only 1 ninety degree day, though there were several high 80s days, and those are indistinguishable from 90 degree days, especially if I’m wearing a shirt of some sort. Really, looking back, July and August were about right, and days were warm and nights were cool, and all was right with the world so long as your world had you in Lake Geneva with frequency.

September ends today. It ends with a 64 degree sunny day, where the only clouds are puffy and white, littered here and there but certainly not everywhere. September began with this bright sky, and the month continued mostly uninterupted with this perfect weather. There was a wedding weekend in September that required fine September weather. Events were to be held outside, under the open air, without a tent in sight. Lake Geneva was up to the task and delivered a perfect early fall weekend, with sunshine and pleasant temps and a noticeable absence of humidity. The month continued and it continued warm and dry, sunny and full. Last Saturday I sat on a lakeside lawn for some time and thought that if a day could be any more perfect I’d rather not know.

So here’s to September. Here’s to the summer bookend that performed perfectly. Here’s to the month that makes me hate June even more. Now I must think of October, and while I push back against pumpkins and dried corn in September, I welcome them in October. September isn’t the gateway to anything, it’s just the most quiet and predictable month of summer. October is the true gateway, and I’m ready.

South Shore Club Sales

I watch the million dollar shows on television. I used to think I liked those shows, because they portrayed Realtors as being cool and hip, and Realtors have, since the advent of the Realtor, been sufficiently anything but cool or hip. I liked the new Realtor, and I liked that the industry found a way to reshape their image. I don’t really feel that way anymore.

I like the fancy cars and pointy shoes as much as the next guy, and I appreciate snarky comments and faux conflicts, but there’s some damage being done to the industry if you look beyond the pocket squares and excessively gelled hair. While we’ve become accustomed to watching these television agents dance through negotiations and coyly bluff each other over drinks at a fancy bar (the deals always come together), the bragging about setting new records and beating the market has convinced much of middle America that this new game isn’t about facilitating market transactions efficiently and competently, but rather it’s about the gimmickry that can, or in the case of the show, always, leads to beating the market.

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My market beating experience this year just played out last week at the South Shore Club. I saw there the last two sellers, those owners of lot 8 (unbuilt), and lot 7 (built). When I took over the South Shore Club marketing in 2012, these two parcels were for sale. When 2014 faded to 2015, both of these parcels were still for sale. Both properties held the lofty expectations of their owners, and if both parcels had been in Beverly Hills I likely would have sold them both to foreign investors and then tap-danced my way to a champagne lunch. But this is Lake Geneva, which is, if you’ve been dawdling, a small resort town in Wisconsin that caters almost exclusively to the Chicago affluent. It is a beautiful area, but it is to Beverly Hills what I am to an olympic decathlete.

These two properties weren’t catastrophically flawed. They were South Shore Club properties, owning all of the luxurious amenities that every other club property owns. They were on a dead end cul-de-sac, on a street that hosts a total of 8 parcels. In the time since these two properties were listed, nearly every other property on the street sold, and every buyer that bought on the street looked at these two parcels and said no thanks.

It wasn’t that these owners weren’t trying to sell. The vacant lot #8 switched representation a handful of times in an attempt to rouse a buyer through a different narrative, a different set of pictures, a different approach. That failed. The lot 7 owner, whom I was pleased to represent, chopped the price consistently. He re-painted. He removed the furniture. He had a pre-inspection performed (some agents love those now). He took the property off the market and then put it back on. He chopped the price some more. New pictures were taken. A new narrative written. After several years of efforting the properties had several serious looks, several seriously interested, and dozens upon dozens of showings, yet both sat unsold.

When both parcels sold last week, they sold for the reason that Lake Geneva properties ultimately sell. They sold because the prices were cut to a level that the market accepted. They didn’t sell because of pointy shoes or gelled hair. They didn’t sell because the Realtors drove shiny cars. They sold because the market had rendered judgement on them, and in order to find a buyer they both had to sell cheap. I sold lot 8 last week to a buyer of mine for $420k. I sold lot 7 for $1.45MM. These prices were discounted, tremendously, even as the remainder of the market appreciated. Importantly, these two parcels represented the last two available pieces of aged inventory in the South Shore Club. From here on out, any sale in the SSC will be something new to market, and that’s exciting for everyone that has played a role in this development over the past 14 years.

Did these parcels fail to sell years ago because the Realtors were somehow bad? Is it because the Realtors couldn’t manipulate the market to suit the individual needs of their clients? Well, no. Of course not. The properties didn’t sell because beating the market isn’t just something that supposes one side is extremely naive and gullible, it’s also very difficult to do, unless of course we were in Beverly Hills right now.

Lake Geneva Antique Boat Show

Lake Geneva Antique Boat Show

Crain’s Chicago Business has a fun little column that appears on Thursdays. It’s called Ten Things To Do This Weekend. It is a nice list. And it’s good for Chicago area events and businesses, because it supposes that everything there is to do on a weekend should happen in the city or the suburbs. The events are wildly varied but somehow all the same. Come visit a three piece cello band while they play you their greatest hits at some outdoor place in some suburb. That strangely sounds the same to me as a painting class at some university under some tutelage of some artist, who painted some piece that no one has heard of. See, the things are very different but somehow both the same.

The list fails most, because anyone with any sort of sense knows that if you live in the city the weekends are for anything but the city. If you live in the suburbs, and you’re not tethered to your child’s soccer or baseball schedule, you also know that the suburbs are lame and that you should leave them whenever possible. This list is, at the very heart of it, what’s wrong with the thinking of most city and suburban dwelling affluents. Tuesdays you have little choice where you’ll be, but Saturdays? Well, Saturdays you could either make the hour drive from Naperville to Millennium park to witness the first ever Basketweaving While Blindfolded competition, or you could point your car north and drive as fast as possible. I choose North.

And why wouldn’t you? This weekend, like all weekends, there are things to do at Lake Geneva. But this weekend, unlike all of the other weekends, there’s a wood boat show. That’s not really fair, to call this a wood boat show. Because it’s not a show, it’s the show, and if you’re anyone who appreciates fine things, you’ll be here. Note I didn’t say you had to appreciate wood boats. That’s the same reason I don’t think you have to love golf to live on a golf course. It’s nice to look at something that’s beautifully maintained, no matter if it’s a sprawling green golf course or a highly polished wooden watercraft. Nice is nice, and if it’s at Lake Geneva it’s usually nice made nicer.

The show takes place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Abbey Harbor in Fontana. The forecast, as you may have noticed, calls for 75 and sunny on both Saturday and Sunday. The real highlight of the show is the boat tour that happens today, Friday. This tour is mostly missed by the casual boat show attendee, as those patrons visit on Saturday and Sunday, oblivious to the fact that they missed the most important event of the weekend. Then again, if you’re reading this right now you’ve likely already missed the Friday portion and you’re completely and utterly out of luck. But still, come Saturday or Sunday and you’ll enjoy the finest wooden boats in the country as they ply the finest lake in the Midwest.

Street Signs

My oldest friend had a birthday yesterday. He’s not old, he’s my age, but it was his birthday and he is the person who has been my friend longer than any of my other friends, so he’s my oldest friend. We will generally fish on our birthdays, either on the exact day or near the day, but yesterday was a day that neither of us could fish, and so I invited him to lunch. You pick the place, I said, in a generous birthday tone. When he said that we should meet at Manny’s Snack Shack in Twin Lakes, it was too late for me to renege. I had already made it sound like I was available, and though I tried to get him to meet me in Lake Geneva, on this side of that county line, he refused. Manny’s it was.

You’d probably be surprised at how many local agents, Experts, they’d say, have trouble finding their way around Lake Geneva. I’ve had agents who proclaim themselves to be Top, and other things, get lost en route from one place they should know to another place they should know. I don’t get lost at Lake Geneva, because Lake Geneva is in my blood and how can one divorce himself from his own DNA? But as I mentioned on Monday, I am not an expert in all things, though if you saw me throw an axe into a chunk of wood you’d be forgiven for assuming that I was. Twin Lakes is an area near here, but so far away. So I relied on my GPS and set the location. I would drive to the Twin Lakes, which lake of the two I was uncertain.

The route from here to there is not that difficult. I drove East on Highway 50, and when my car told me to, I turned to the south. This was an unnatural turn, one that I only typically make in order to perform a U-turn. The road was unimportant, but it was something like 386000RTW50th Street. I paid little attention, because soon I was to turn on 99820th Avenue 4, before veering slight right onto EWP County Highway. I stayed on that Highway for a bit, then took a sharp right followed by a sharp left. I was leaving the corn fields and arriving into a town. I saw a lake ahead, and while I knew I was on 3860000RTW50th Avenue, the sign ahead beckoned me. Lake Avenue, it said.

Now, if I had just fallen off the turnip truck and I saw this Lake Avenue sign, I might have been convinced. But I am not so green that I can’t see a 386000RTW50th Street when I see one, and while Lake street urged me to consider that it was indeed Lake Street, I knew better. This was a county road, with a hugely long and uninteresting name, masked under the guise of a more friendly vacation home street name. I sat and ate with my friend, and while everyone else thought they were dining near a lake on Lake Street, I sat and wondered how they could be so gullible. At one point I almost stood and asked the patrons to consider their mistake, to understand that they were not dining casually on Lake, but instead they were lined up on 386000RTW50th Street and no one could ever enjoy such a setting. I imagined the name wasn’t Manny’s but Lake Street Diner. How the people would love that name, and they’d eat there in their flip flops and they’d feel at one with the area, at one with the lake, at one with that street. But 386000RTW50th Diner would have gone bankrupt years ago.

Having eaten enough food to last for days, I drove back, following those confusing directions posted on my car’s display. When I made it back to Lake Geneva, I noticed my surroundings, and the things that we’ve named our routes. Wrigley Drive. Basswood. Snake. Folly and Bonnie Brae. Constance and North Lakeshore. Linden and Glenwood. Ara Glen and Hollybush. These aren’t masked highways at all, these are pure street names, vacation home names, and they provided me with great relief after the journey I had just endured.

I’ve thought often about buying some land in the country, far from here where I might fly fish once in a while. I look for this land somewhat often, and when something pops onto my MLS screen I judge it before clicking on the pictures. I see a street name “HIGHWAY NN”, and I know I can’t buy it. I see COUNTY LINE S and shake my head, that can’t be for me. I can’t buy on such a road when I know that roads like OAKSTAAD and LOVAAS RIDGE exist. How could I tell my friends to go to my house, the one at 39W50RT COUNTY HIGHWAY NN? I want to tell them to take that highway for a bit, when veer right onto HORNBY HOLLOW. I could live in a Hollow, just not on a highway.

Last week, a closing in Lake Como. The property was nice, the price fine, the market something other than what I know. But the street name was interesting, and it further makes my point. Street names matter. The latest Como sale was on URANUS Street. Maybe it’s a road, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If you’re ready for a lake house, I’ll be over here, at 57 West Geneva Street, which sounds so much better than all of the alternatives.

On Markets

When a real estate market is slow, the fundamentals matter. The price per front foot, price per square foot, of the land, not house- this isn’t Beverly Hills- it matters. The prior sales price, the current list price, the expected discount to ask and the all time highs against the current cycle lows. This is the sort of research that matters in a down market. This sort of thing mattered in Lake Geneva, at one time, back in the good old days of 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, back when market context and market forecasting was everything. RIP, days when things mattered.

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Don’t get me wrong, they still matter to me, to those among us who seek value in times good and bad. All of those things will always matter to me, which is why I’ll likely spend the remainder of my working days loving tumultuous market times and tolerating times of hyper lift. It’s easy for Realtors who lack a greater degree of curiosity to see a rising tide and throw everyone into the sea. Leave your fancy math behind and jump into the water! Quickly, we haven’t much time! This is what they say, and this behavior is an insult to my intelligence but mostly to yours.

Delavan Lake this year has performed remarkably well. There have been no fewer than 11 lakefront sales, which is nice, but most impressive is that six of those have closed at or over one million dollars. Nice job, Delavan. I hope that most of those sales occurred in the winter, early spring, or the coming fall. Those are the times when the water rests a bit, and if you weren’t a student of water clarity (I have my PHD) you’d be forgiven for thinking the water is fine there. The sales mostly make sense, and even the outlier that closed last week makes some sense. But this is before you consider the prior sales activity- the peaks at the high and the supposed valleys at the low. Things look fine, until we dig a little.

If we throw out the highest lakefront sale at $1,599,000 and consider the other 10, the average lakefront sale this year printed at 84.4% of the ask. The top sale, the one mentioned prior, closed at full price. That’s 100% for the math-hating-market-hypers. I was about to demonstrate the egregious price per foot difference between this top sale and the others, but Delavan Lake is an odd bird and doesn’t really follow any rough price per foot outline that can be trusted. It’s especially difficult on a lake like Delavan, where some spots you can walk on water due to weed growth, and other spots are more lake like.

That property had closed in the fall of 2008, at what was likely very near the top of the market, for $1.425MM. It sold again in 2012, at what would have been the bottom of the market, for $1.3MM. For perspective, the nearest priced sale to that one, a victorian style Delavan lakefront that sold for $1.44MM this year, had sold for $1.657MM in 2012. Some of the other sales on Delavan this year also sold prior in 2012, and some sold then for less than the recent 2015 sale, while others sold for less. It’s this sort of research that should be done for these sorts of sales.

I am not, as you have noticed, a Delavan Lake expert. I don’t want to be such an expert, and I never will be. I’ll leave that to the agents who are actual experts on that lake, of which there are several. I’ll stick to Geneva, and I’ll do that because this is the market that I know and understand, and this is the market where most pricing makes some level of sense. The two full price off-water sales near Geneva this year, one at $1.475MM and one at $2.2MM aren’t included in that prior statement.

Today, there’s a very serious admonition. Pay attention to the numbers. Pay attention to the market cycles. Pay attention to prior sales, prior failed marketing attempts, and future downside. Just pay attention. If you have an agent that’s not from this market, one that wishes to be part of the market solely because our prices are nice and rich, then suggest to that agent that they keep your best interests in mind and refer you to me. That’s a terrific way to pacify your city agent and gain exposure to some high caliber local knowledge. After all, we can’t be experts in everything, which is why I’ve spent my life trying rather hard to be an expert in all things Lake Geneva and nothing else. Delavan Lake? Why I barely know where it is.

Lake Geneva Market Update

At first blush, it makes no sense. Why, after so many years of a predictable pattern, are homes in excess of $4MM selling so frequently and easily in 2015? The hedge funds had their huge year in 2011, making it reasonable to expect 2012 and 2013 to be high flying years. The same years, the stock market gained and gained, allowing those with large scale equity investments to cash a bit out and buy real estate, if they so properly desired. If this upper bracket buyer was sensitive to interest rates, they’ve had years and years of them. The catalysts have been in place for several years, so why 2015?

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I think it’s private equity. You have Midwestern businesses of varying sizes and industries selling at premium prices. The simple logic goes like this. Mr. and Mrs. Businesspeople own a lake house. Because they’re successful in business and obviously intelligent, well rounded sorts, they own their lake house at Lake Geneva. Their lake house was bought when they ran that business, the one they spent so much time building. They bought that first house with revenue. Private equity found them, negotiated with them, and now our friendly business couple who already loves Lake Geneva just sold their business for many times earnings. They were rich before, revenue rich, but now they’re lump sum rich. Would it be strange to expect them to flip out of a $2MM lakefront and into a $5MM lakefront? Of course not. The lakefront market on Geneva has had a tremendous run at our upper range, and I say we owe it all to private equity.

You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t been writing market updates every day. I haven’t been doing this because the market is hot, and I grow tired of saying that. It’s hot! I say. Everyone else says it, too. They say it with fewer words, sometimes just breathless gestures, othertimes with pictures, but they’re all saying it. The market is hot, it’s active in all segments, and 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year. I think that would be boring to write about three days a week, so I sometimes choose to enlighten you with other meaningless tidbits.

The entry level lakefront has been offering up some tasty deals this year, and up until recently the market has mostly failed to take advantage of the ample inventory. This last week, two entry level homes have gone under contract. One near Abbey Springs, as in not sort of near, but right smack dab on top of it. Listed in the $1.1s, this home was cheap enough and a buyer finally looked past the oddly complicated approach. The other home was another that suffered through a slug of showings and a systematic chopping of the price. This Lake Geneva Highlands lakefront is now pending sale with an ask in the mid $1.3s. Think the market finally caught fire and gobbled these up because they feared they’d never find something quite so good? Think again. The prices came down, and buyers bit.

Other lakefronts under contract include a private listing in Geneva Bay Estates for $2.65MM, my listing on Bonnie Brae for $2.995MM, a lakefront lot in the Elgin Club ($1MM), a shingly thing in Cedar Point in the mid $2s, the bombed out cottage ($879k) shell near George Williams, an old house on the hill in Glenwood Springs in the high $1s, and the large Baywood Heights-ish ranch on Basswood just under $5MM. My listing in the South Shore Club is pending sale, as is the Pickell built home on the hill in Fontana. Expect sales of both within a few weeks. There is an offer on the large Fontana lakefront listed in the mid $4s, so let’s expect that contract is put together. That’s the sort of buyer that would have been better off looking seriously at 1014 South Lakeshore in the $7s, as the all in number for a land buyer in the $4s will likely far exceed $7.

The lake access market is active as well, with buyers reaching back towards off-water homes that lack slips in the $600k range. This isn’t a range I love, unless the house is somehow special. A boring house on a boring lot that lacks a view or a slip in the $500s? I’ll pass, thank you. For all the activity, I still see value in the sub $550k price range. There are some winning properties with slips that can be bought around $500k, and there are some reasonably nice lake access homes in the $300s that look interesting to me.

The lakefront condo market is just okay, with plenty of inventory and plenty of value offered. There’s a pending deal on another Geneva Towers unit, as the developer who wished to transform the condo market there has mostly, by my math, maybe broken even on the effort. Maybe he’s made a fortune, but it looks to this outside as an endeavor that maybe wasn’t worth the effort. Abbey Springs housing is hot, with three single family homes pending sale there priced over $550k, including my listing on Saint Andrews for $765k. Geneva National is similarly active, with loads of interest in the condominiums and single family homes. I have a deal pending on one of my Terrace Court condos, and another contract pending on the GN Saint Andrews.

What to expect this fall? The same. The market is active, deals are plentiful, and buyers have largely pushed aside any concerns over the stock market tumult. If buyers wish to make 2016 a lakeside year, then they’d be wise to begin the process now. Not in January, not in March, but now. Start the hunt. Identify the target. And most importantly, avoid disastrous decisions by letting me be your guide.

Above, my newest listing. An Eastbank townhome with 3300 square feet of brand new luxury. Four bedrooms, four baths, canopied slip, two car garage, lake views, and so much fancy. $1.299MM

Trust

I took my car in to be fixed. The mechanic was nice enough, the dealership shiny and large. Emblems and logos, everywhere. I normally sit in the lounge, where they have a chef that makes sandwiches and soups, one of each per day, as well as some cookies and snacks. I like that lounge. I brought my car in because it made a rattle that I didn’t like, and so I sat in the lounge while the mechanic determined the cause. I wondered if the noise came from the wheel. But it couldn’t come from the wheel because I felt it in my seat when I went over a bump. Maybe it came from the chassis, though a rattly chassis would be much worse than a rattly wheel. I waited. What was taking so long?

The mechanic’s name was Jeff. He had greasy hands and greasy nails, and I thought that there would be no way for him to clean those nails. I thought that some days he must have his hands perfectly clean, and when he does he probably looks at them and makes sure people notice. Like he’s a hand model. But he was under the car, standing there with a flashlight, looking at the various parts and thinking. I know he was doing this because I left my seat in the lounge, threw away the paper plate that my chicken pesto panini was served on, and walked around the parts department to the shop. Then I stood under the car next to Jeff and turned the flashlight on my iPhone and stared at the underside of the car as if I had seen one before.

I had, after all, once almost changed a tire. I had a flat when I was driving to Minnesota, and before calling AAA I had considered changing the tire by myself. I even looked around for the spare tire, but when I realized it was in the trunk, under a bunch of things I had packed for my trip, I decided against the action. I suggested to Jeff that this metal rod might be the culprit, and I reached up and shook it violently. I told him that he needs to consider that the rod is the problem, and that we needed to sit down and have a meeting about it, because I, the person who nearly thought about chaining a tire once, have determined that this is our problem. The tie rod.

Jeff ignored me, even though I shook the tie rod again to remind him that it wiggled when I did so. Jeff said I should leave the shop now, because I “didn’t know what I was talking about”. I told him that this was no way to speak to a customer, and he told me that’s why there are nicer men and women with name tags who work at the computers outside of the shop, the ones who don’t have greasy nails. He said I should leave. I asked about the tie rod. He said it wasn’t the tie rod. I shrugged my shoulders and said it was the tie rod. Then I fired him and took my rattly car down the road to another dealer, where I stood with a mechanic named Brian and shined my iPhone light under the hood with him.

I didn’t really do any of these things. But I do speak with sellers every day, and I am as Jeff, or maybe Brian, and they are me. They tell me that they know better than I do. That the market isn’t really a market, but rather the market behaves in the way that brokers tell it to behave. The suggestion is that if the brokerage community gets together and enforces a strict $5MM minimum list price on all lakefront homes that, in some time, this will be the norm. A 50′ lakefront home will sell for $5MM, and a 200′ lakefront home will sell for $5.5MM. Sellers of unique or otherwise overpriced properties have terrific ideas as to how to accomplish those market defying goals, except that all of their ideas are the equivalent of me, violently shaking that tie rod.

San Francisco Endorsed

There are old maps that were drawn by those important men who lived a long time ago in Nantucket. The maps show these entire United States, and Nantucket encompasses most of the land East of the Mississippi. There are other states and territories on the map, but the map shows Nantucket, large and proud, bigger itself than any other state or territory drawn. This phenomenon occurred because at the time, Nantucket was the center of that particular artists world, and since it was the center, every other geographic location was unimportant and insignificant.

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Lest you think this was purely an old timey phenomenon, if you were to ask someone who lives in San Francisco to draw a map of these Unites States, the map might look somewhat similar in skewed proportion to those Nantucket maps of old. San Francisco would be large, California would be huge. On the other Coast, New York would be gigantic. In the middle, some insignificant states wedged in, the collection of which would barely add up to the size of San Francisco.

Since I am from Wisconsin, and swell with pride at the mere mention of my home state, I would draw my own map. In that map, Wisconsin would make up the entire Midwest, with small allowances made for Chicago, and a small misshapen glove the size of Lake Geneva representing Michigan. The coasts would exist in thin little strips, perhaps the Pacific coast appearing as the size of Fontana, and the Atlantic Coast the size of Williams Bay.

On Friday night, on what was night one of a most epic wedding celebration, I stood near the dance floor, because near is as close to any such floor as I will ever get, and a man who also eschewed the dance walked over to me and we began the sorts of conversation that people have on and near these floors. We shouted at each other, as loudly as possible, while waiving our arms to enhance the communication, and carried on a conversation that likely neither of us clearly heard. He was from San Francisco, and he had never been to Lake Geneva. He asked about the lake, about why it is what it is, and what it is that made this elaborate wedding weekend take place here, of all the other important places that the bride and groom could have chosen.

I yelled back something about the size of the lake, the clarity of the water, the depth. I told him it was near Chicago, but not too near. I told him that it’s just the place to be, and that, was that. There was nothing else I could scream, nothing else that would make sense. He looked bemused, in the way that someone from California would look at someone from Williams Bay, because California is so much more important than Williams Bay and to ever suggest an alternative is to be naive and small minded. We parted ways so I could scream in the ear of someone else.

The next night, at the Lake Geneva Country Club, while the dancing was occurring and while I was watching, this same guy made his way towards me. We screamed at each other to indicate a Hello, and then he shook his head. He didn’t say much this time, and I didn’t scream much back. He just said, I get it now. He had spent 24 hours in Lake Geneva, attending a pre-wedding lakeside dinner. Attending a lakeside wedding before boating to a lakeside reception at a venerable old club. It didn’t take more than that, and a guy from California told a kid from Williams Bay that he had seen all he needed to see, and now he understood.

Ban Photoshop

I admit this morning to being distracted. In front of my office at this moment there is a giant backhoe, digging out random sections of Geneva Street. The bucket first swipes into the earth, pulling up the old street and the shoddy base, into the gravel and then the black dirt. The operator is smooth with this bucket, and he cautiously digs, pivots, and dumps the newly destroyed rubble into a waiting dump truck. This has been going on in this particular hole for the entire morning. I try to look away but I can’t, the hypnotic ease of this demolition keeps interrupting my view. I hope the natural gas lines are clearly marked, otherwise this will be my last entry.

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But every morning I’m distracted, so this isn’t some sort of new occurrence. I’m not distracted when I drive my kids to school, when they either fight loudly or sit quietly, awaiting their daily dose of learning. I’m not distracted when I first sit in this chair and pull it up to this wooden desk. I turn on the computer without any trouble, and every morning after scrolling through emails, I check on the MLS. I look to see what lakefront homes may have been listed. I check out the condos. I look for some land. I look because I need to know what’s happening at every moment of every day. This is when I get distracted.

The images that greet me each morning are getting frightfully cartoonish. The art of real estate photography has come a long way in the last 10 years. Back then, we just took some pictures, loaded them onto a computer, and then loaded them into the MLS. This wasn’t ideal but it worked, and it worked efficiently for quite a long time. Today, the good Realtors (like this one) pay photographers to take pictures for them, knowing that it is in the best interests of our clients to outsource this important task.

The hiring of outside photographers is not the distraction, rather what happens to those innocent photos once they’re loaded into the computer creates my morning discomfort. It’s bad enough that someone, somewhere, thought that what everyone really wants to see is a distorted fish-eye, drone shot photograph of a house. This phenomenon is getting more popular, as agents race to prove that they’re technologically advanced. If I were marketing a 40 acre property and needed to show the width and astounding depth of that parcel, I may entertain the use of drone photography. But it’s getting a bit excessive and odd when drones are used to show unflattering angles of small cottages.

But the fish-eye drone shots aren’t the worst, and they aren’t what throw me off my game very early every morning. It’s the photoshopping. It’s the application of blue to each sky and bright green to every blade of grass. It’s the exposure alterations that make my cones and rods cry for mercy. It’s the camera lens that makes a 12 x 14 den look like a 28 x 40 ball room that insults my intelligence. It’s the twinkly lights in every room, where each shot looks like someone waded through the fog to capture the image. It’s the manipulation of reality that I’m distracted by.

While I am one for limited government involvement in all things, I think the false advertising of such reality altering CGI should be outlawed. Are you turned on by the pictures of homes for sale on Geneva that look as though they are nestled against the azure waters of Eleuthera? Does this manipulation of actual pigments and tones make you want to buy something more than you might otherwise? Far from being an old curmudgeon, I am a young curmudgeon, and now I need a nap, because I just checked the MLS and my retinas ache.

Above, a picture I took of Williams Bay this morning.

Of Loyalty

A marriage can really only work if both parties have some leeway to say things that the other person may not like, without fear of devastating reprisal. For instance. If I told my wife that a certain top makes her shoulders look too big, or she told me that everything I’ve ever tried on makes me look fat, we’d assume that this is okay and won’t necessarily lead to a divorce. We can say these things because there’s some form of engineered commitment here, something greater that will withstand the sort of attacks that come when you take your wife shoe shopping and she doesn’t find the sort of shoes she’s looking for.

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Because of this open-thought policy, marriages are generally more substantial and rigid than casual relationships, the sorts that feature only those immature, early niceties. If I were a single person, and a girl who is not my wife asked me if a certain top made her shoulders look too big, I’d suggest that to think such a thing is pure sacrilege, and that her shoulders are the most perfect example that anyone could ever hope for. In fact, my eyes can see only imperfection in the surrounding world after having finally seen such a set of shoulders. If my pants/shirts/shorts/shoes/hats make me look fat, and I asked her about that, and she weren’t my wife but instead, some lady on the street, she’d tell me to stop being silly, that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, those pants make me look thin, and if I wanted, I could drink Whole Milk and not just two percent.

That’s because initial relationships are heavy on flattery and light on everything else. They are more fun because they are less encumbered with any sort of truth. This preference for superficial fawning is why relationships between people have a tendency to erode, and this same preference is why some of the most outwardly successful real estate relationships are some of the biggest failures. Without any commitment level, there’s only fear of what might be said wrong, which leads to a glossing over of the details and the absence of lasting truth.

Buyers and sellers alike tend to bounce between agents, depending somewhat on competent representation, but mostly on whim and weekend fancy. If a buyer calls me to see houses, I’d like to assume that the buyer is doing so because he or she is remarkably intelligent, and has decided to increase their particular variety of intelligence by combining it with my variety. I’d like to think that a buyer knows my track record, my successes and my failures, and thinks they’d like to partner with someone who has far more of the prior and few of the latter. I’d like to think these things, but the fact is that a buyer might be seeing houses with me because they’re bored, and because their other agent is busy shopping.

A lack of purposeful loyalty is what makes every car dealer ask you what they need to put you in a car TODAY. They don’t ask what you’d like them to keep an eye out for, so that they might call you when that yellow PT Cruiser crosses the auction block in Sometown, Indiana. They ask what they can do to make you drive away in that new car, and they do this because they know if you drive away without that new car, the odds of you ever returning are very low. It’s because of this that they promise the world, promise that the particular variety of car you want is so much better than the other variety that might be available down the road. They tell you what they can when they can because they know you’re not going to come back.

If you’re that car shopper, do you suppose you’ll be getting nothing but the perfect truth from that salesman? If you show up on a Saturday unannounced and drive from dealer to dealer that day, so you think you’ll be getting a single opinion that isn’t entirely and completely self serving, with the dealer being the party served? Of course not. You’ll be hearing mouthfuls of skew, and you’ll be left to decipher fact from fiction later on, when you drive home with the same car you started the day with.

If, however, you develop a relationship with a dealer, that dealer has the leeway to tell you the truth about that yellow PT Cruiser. You shouldn’t buy it, and he’ll tell you that. He’ll tell you that you’d be better off in something different, and while he doesn’t have that something different on the lot at that moment, he’ll get one and he’ll tell you when he has it. The dealer can do this because he’s relatively certain you won’t be running off the buy another car from the neighboring dealer, just because they have a shiny new sign and a guy in an ape outfit spinning a sign.

In the end, this isn’t about the loyalty to that dealer or to your Realtor. It’s about you, the client, being served with accurate assessments of markets, of houses, of what it is that makes the most sense for you. If you’re pin balling between agents, you cannot expect to gain any lasting market insight, and so this isn’t a plea for loyalty for the sake of a business model, this is a plea for loyalty so that you, as the client, can listen to unbiased advice and make the best decision possible. I’d never let you buy a yellow PT Cruiser.

Labor Day Weekend

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Back on Wednesday with all sorts of riveting commentary. For instance, did you know that all the cool people are at Lake Geneva? I spent Saturday aboard a most beautiful boat with those cool people. Then Sunday at the pier of some more cool people, and later Sunday at the same pier for this sunset. Monday? More cool people.

Lake Geneva Vacation Home Market Update

The thing about real estate, the thing that we’ve discussed at great length, is that the valuations within a market are subjective, but the assessment of performance is not. This is why I can disagree with another agent when it comes to how egregious a particular list or print price may be, but I cannot argue with that agent if he says there were four sales on that street in the prior year. Likewise, if an agent says they’re number one, they should probably be number one. If they run an ad that says they were voted number one by two independent labs, and then the ad shows a picture of the agent with their two dogs, then they should immediately be banned from selling real estate, forever and ever. This is why if a new broker says they’re at the head of the class in the market, they should be at the head of the class in that market. They should be number one if they say they’re number one. Such liberal advertising claims might be something we’re going to have to get used to. We are, after all, just simple country folk, and so insulting our intelligence is just a nice way of telling us that we matter.

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Anyway, about those statistics. The vacation home market at Lake Geneva is super crazy hot. Just look at the ads in the paper, the ads in the magazines, the social media. Hot, hot, hot. Had I been carefully reading the playbook, I would have known to capitalize all three of those h’s, but I haven’t subscribed to that book for years. The market is hot, the buyers motivated, the agents breathless. But this is just the marketing side of real estate, which cannot be confused with the statistical side of real estate, which, in turn, should never be confused with the fiction of ads. You might be able to subjectively claim you’re at the head of the class, but a market cannot subjectively proclaim itself hot, when it’s tepid at best.

The market has buyers today, plenty of them. But as I scan the MLS all day every day, I see particular pockets of activity surrounded by calm. The lake access market priced under $300k is absolutely on fire. That’s true, so if you read that in an ad this weekend, believe it. There are no fewer than seven lake access homes pending sale priced $310k or less. This is an active segment of the market, and if you’re contemplating such a simple vacation home purchase I would encourage you to gather your motivation and act on it. Interest rates are low, prices are stable, and the inventory is somewhat plentiful. The homes that follow that range, those from $310k all the way to $1.4MM, feature exactly two pending properties today. How does that strike you? Super, insanely busy? If I stand under a crystal chandelier with my name in titanic, sparkling letters, will you ignore the statistics and just buy something, please? What if I put a picture of a little girl on my ad, a little girl that’s quite obviously not anywhere near Lake Geneva, and I tell you that you should FaceTime me? Then will you think that two homes pending out of 70 is a performance worthy of a breathless pitch?

The two homes pending in that range include one in Country Club in the upper $400s, and one with a small pier in Glenwood Springs in the mid $700s. Both are fine properties and will be fine sales. There’s a large off-water home in Academy Estates pending for $1.475MM, which is fine, I guess. It’s a very nice house, a long ways from the water, with a slip. That’s not a market that I’d like anyone to bet on, but it is a market that exists in fits and starts and we can all agree that this sale is either a fit or a start. Probably a fit.

The lakefront market, on the heels of an active five year span, is only showing one pending sale. That sale is to a cherished buyer of mine, and that property is the simple lakefront at the end of Shadow Lane listed at $1.55MM. That’ll be a fun story to tell when it closes next month, but for now, it stands out as the only pending lakefront on the MLS. There are others pending, at least two that are off-market, and a third if you count the auction house in the upper $5MMs. Unlike the rest of the vacation home market, the lakefront market continues to lag in 2015 purely because there is not inventory that matches the position of the buyers. We have tremendous inventory over $4MM right now, but only a handful of buyers. We have a swarm of buyers in the $1.8MM to $3.5MM price range, but the inventory is aged or otherwise unimpressive to that buying group. Still, some of these homes will sell this year, that’s a fact that you can stand on, next to the giant letters that spell your name and under a huge crystal chandelier. It’s just that we’d sell a whole lot more lakefronts if we had some new inventory that was priced nicely in that $2-3MM range.

The entry level lakefront market is one that will yield value this summer. I expected entry level to rise this year, and I admit that my projection was wrong. Inventory can nullify any projection of price gain, and the entry level inventory has swelled to a point where we have five or six sellers competing for that entry level buyer. Buyers should pay attention to this jockeying, as some of these entry level offerings are going to sell in the $1.1-$1.25MM range. Those will be solid value propositions in that range, and I do wish that any lakefront buyer seeking an affordable waterfront option would contact me quick-ish. Until then, I’ll be standing here next to this huge chandelier, or maybe I’ll be leaning up against giant gilded letters that spell my name, either way. I’ll be here.

Above, my incredible lake access home in Lake Geneva listed at $995,000. Buyers with tremendous style only, please.

Open House

There was a time in the town when the towns people who had chosen real estate as their profession held houses open, for the public to see. The sales people, with their logos emblazoned on their car doors or at least on the back window of their SUVs, made a plan on most of the Saturdays and some of the Sundays to stick signs in the yards of the homes that they were trying to sell in hopes that passersby would stop, see the home, like the home, then buy the home. This was the intent of the open. There were drinks at these opens, sometimes food, certainly brochures, and the agent with the car and the stickery adornment. At first, the open houses were few, seldom even, as agents fit them in when they could, to appease their sellers who demanded they do something. Who demanded they do anything.

When these open houses were new to the town, the town paid them no mind. Who would want to see the Johnson’s living room, they wondered. And so they went about their weekend business, ignoring the once-in-a-while-open-houses, in fact, viewing them as annoyances. Some people from neighboring cities would come to town on those open days, and they would drive poorly and without knowledge of which streets were one way and which were both ways, without awareness of school zones. They would turn left when they should have only turned right, and when they did turn right they would do so on red, which everyone who was from the town knew was something that only people from the other town would do. The open houses, though despised by the local population, were increasingly popular amongst the be-dazzled Realtors, because they knew they could find people who didn’t know the town, people who didn’t know one Realtor from the other. They knew they were on to something.

After a season or two of these opens, the towns people began to venture out, because the Johnson’s living room had been the buzz at church last Sunday, and why should the tour only be for those from other towns? So they started to make a practice of visiting these houses, when they were open. Saturday morning was for soccer, or baseball, but mostly, soccer. Then, lunch. Sometimes only ice cream. After ice cream, it was open house time, and such a great flood of traffic would arrive at the doors of those agents who parked their tattooed cars in the driveways of those houses. After some outcry, there was a demand that the after soccer ice cream be skipped, and that the Realtors, in exchange for being visited by so many potential clients, should provide lunch and desserts, drinks, too. So the Realtors engaged companies to bring food over, small food for napkin eating. Desserts, sure, but those were just homemade bars with nuts and raisins. The next Sunday, everyone talked about how the house with the raisin bars would not be visited again unless the dessert was changed.

The Realtors, awash in new people who purported to be clients and buried deep in catering bills, decided that it was time to ask visitors to bring a dish to pass, something savory for those whose last name started with any letter between A and M, and something sweet from those who had any other last name that started with another one of those later letters. The towns people grumbled at first, thinking that the open house was merely a chance to accumulate decorating ideas from their neighbors, and to ooh and aah at the splendor of the Miller’s dining room chandelier. But slowly the dish-to-pass idea caught on, and the Saturday pot-luck was a raging town success. Mrs. Huffaker brought her potatoes, and Mrs. Wilderman brought her famous deviled eggs. At church on Sunday, it was decided that the best open house of the weekend was the one at the Sterling house, because they had both the potatoes and the eggs, and the Realtor was there but he wasn’t all “you should buy this”. How best to eat and drink and view the incredible pool table room of the Farrel’s if not without the constant badgering from the host Realtor?

Everyone decided that it would be best if the Realtors were no longer involved in these open houses. The brochures, the name-tags, the cars-with-websites; it was all too much. But the Realtors persisted, and though the people wished them to just leave the houses open and return to the house when the food had run out, the Realtors stayed. Sunday, it was agreed that the Realtors must be selfish, certainly a very un-Christian characteristic, and that they should be chastised by the minister. The minister, having heard the complaints, sided with the townspeople. The Realtors were greedy, and this sin would not be tolerated. The next weekend, there were open houses. The food was plentiful, the drinks flowed, and the homes, without the annoyance of the Realtor and the brochures, was much easier to wander through.

The Realtors were perplexed by this development, and so they called a meeting. The restaurant parking lot was filled with stickered cars, and the waitress had no trouble calling each patron by name, on account of the name tags. The Realtors, after a season of open houses, of providing food and drink and tours and brochures, realized that the homes they had been holding open in August were the same homes they held open in May. It was decided then and there that no further open houses would be scheduled, hosted, or allowed. Open houses, they realized, didn’t help sell a house, they just helped feed the neighbors. The next Sunday at church, the minister heard complaints about how the Realtors had selfishly decided to stop holding open houses, and the minister agreed that selfishness is a sin.

Memorial Day Weekend

There are things that must be remembered on Memorial Day Weekend. First, this is a weekend to remember. Not to remember what it’s like to grill and to boat, nor to remember what it’s like to make a jello desert in the shape and colors of the American flag. No, this is a weekend to remember those who gave far more than I’ll ever give to anything. Here’s to those men and woman who died so that my kids can sleep in their beds at night without a single care in the world.

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The other far less important thing to remember this weekend is that Memorial Day Weekend, try as we might, is not summer. It’s not. It sort of feels like summer, and depending on the direction of the wind and the intensity of the sunshine, it can seem just like summer. But alas, summer it is not. This is a warm up for summer, a weekend where we work through the kinks. A weekend where we practice what it is to spend the summer lakeside. If you’ve made the decision to hand your weekends over to Lake Geneva, then this is a weekend to sharpen your vacation skills. Keep that in mind and a rainy day or two won’t ruin your life.

There was an auction last week, that of a house on the North Shore of Geneva. It was advertised as an estate, but it wasn’t an estate. It was, instead, a very nice house on a nice lot. It sold for $5.35MM, plus a bidder premium, and as a result it will appear as though the auction company worked their magic and beat our little market with their advertising procedure. What actually happened was the house sold for market value, and if the seller had listed the home in the range where it just sold, there could have been a closing a year or two before now. The buyer purchased a very nice house, and in that we can all be pleased. But did the auction really achieve a superior result to a traditional brokerage model? No. How would I have determined the process to have been a market-beating success? If the sales price reflected the prior brokerage list price of $6.495MM.

I closed on a little Willabay condominium yesterday, the first such Willabay closing for me in several years. Willabay is that large condominium complex just to the East of the Williams Bay beach. It borders the Kishwauketoe Conservancy, and so the frogs and herons are the Westerly neighbors. It’s a nice little place, and the two bedroom ground floor unit I just sold for $208,000 backs up to that wooded refuge. It’s also close enough to the lake where a simple peak outside the patio door reveals a very pleasing view of the water. It’s not lakefront, but it’s $208k, with low taxes and low dues, and if you’re wishing to spend your weekends but anywhere in your boring suburban back yard, this is not a bad way to accomplish that goal.

And that brings us back to this weekend. It’s a Holiday, one for remembrance and practice, but it’s a Holiday that, perhaps more than any other, reinforces in each and every one of us a strong desire to spend our weekends doing something different. A block party thrown by your subdivision board is not something different. If you’re confused as to what I mean, consider this quick Memorial Day Weekend litmus test. The answers can only be determined on Tuesday morning, after the weekend has come and gone.

Did you, at any given point between Friday afternoon and Monday night, step inside a shopping mall?
Did you, at any given point between Friday afternoon and Monday night, eat at a Red Lobster, Olive Garden, or Outback Steakhouse?
Did you, at any given point between Friday afternoon and Monday night, mow the lawn at your primary home?
Did you, at any given point between Friday afternoon and Monday night, take a nap in the same bed that you sleep in every weeknight?

If you answered yes to any of the above, your weekend was awful. I can help change that. I might not be a Chicago broker that comes at you with the promise to dazzle you with technology, but I am a Lake Geneva kid who knows everything you’d ever want to know about this lake, and that just might be enough to change your weekends.

Summer Homes For City People

I have never bought something of relative cost without some form of regret. I bought a YETI cooler last year, mostly because I’ve always wanted one. I thought loosely about buying that cooler for months. Then I thought intently about it for weeks. The I tossed and turned restlessly for the days leading up to the fateful purchase. When I finally gave in and bought the cooler, I thought, meh. I probably didn’t need a $400 cooler. I probably shouldn’t have bought it.

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And so it should be no surprise that yesterday, when the delivery truck pulled up and unceremoniously unloaded 15,000 copies of my latest Summer Homes For City People magazine, I was anxious. After reviewing the new issue, I was a bit nonplussed. I mean, sure, it’s way better than any real estate publication ever printed, but still. It isn’t great, and great is how I imagined it would be for the last five months when I worked on the content. It’s out now, this magazine, viewable here by clicking on the cover above or the icon to the right of this post, and able to be grabbed from any place around Lake Geneva that’s worth its salt.

In honor of my deep exhale of relief, I’ll leave you with a re-post from last year’s magazine. It’s May Fly season at the lake, which is somewhat okay but really quite bothersome. I swallowed several of these bugs today, and if you’re up this weekend you’ll likely dine on a few as well. It’s all part of the process, and May Flies are something we must abide. On Friday, we’ll chat about the Memorial Day Weekend and the auction house that printed for a sizable sum at the Tuesday event. For now, May Flies.

The May Fly

I do not know what a June bug is. I don’t know what sort of bug it is, but I think it’s a beetle. I also don’t know if it’s a June bug, as the month would suggest, or if it’s a Joon bug, which is how I think the spelling is of that movie alongside Benny, which also might be Bennie, but who knows. I know certain things about June bugs. I know that they are bugs, and I know that while they likely arrive sometime in June they most certainly do not only exist during the month that I assume to be their namesake. My daughter’s name is May, but she exists the same in May as she does in June, which is to say that she exists solely for the purpose of torturing her brother and making him feel as though she gets special treatment. She does, but not just in May because her name is May.

Mayflies–I know more about these than I do the bugs that may or may not be beetles that come after the flies. Mayflies aren’t really flies at all. They do fly, but they do not buzz against windows and spoil picnics and touch everything in the way that garbage flies do. Perhaps calling them garbage flies is inappropriate, like calling field corn horse corn, but as I recall fruit flies are more like small bugs, or gnats, than they are like flies, so I’ll assume that fruit flies are like gnats and garbage flies are the flies that we think of when we think of flies. Which is often, in summer. Mayflies, they’re a summer bug too, which is back to our point about those flies existing, at least sometimes, outside of May.

This is the time for these bugs. In fact, it might be past the time for these bugs. They were buzzing while I was working, buzzing in great dark clouds over piers and in front lawns and buzzing next to lilacs as they bloomed and made all the world smell like the pages of Glamour magazine. They were in these large schools, roaming about without moving much at all, hovering, really, hanging out in front lawns and near bushes and over piers and over expanses of calm spring waters. These bugs can, at first, seem daunting. There are many of them, but the swarm doesn’t instill fear like a swarm of bees would. And they don’t instill disgust in the way that a mass swarm of flies would, be those flies garbage flies or fruit flies, it doesn’t matter much. They’re still flies, and a whole mess of them would be just miserable.

I’m sure I saw some of these dark schools of Mayflies during their namesake month, but I can’t remember them this year because I didn’t take any time to smell any roses, or to pick any dandelions, or to walk along the shore path near the water where these bugs like to hang out. I haven’t done these things because I haven’t had the time, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see some Mayflies this year. I did. I saw plenty of them, just not the huge swarms of them that I remember seeing during other Mays from other years. I remember one year when they were particularly impressive. I fished off the Loch Vista pier, casting thin line with small hooks looped through the faces of small minnows. I don’t feel good about doing that to those minnows, but I do feel good about watching a small red and white bobber slip under the still surface, and I feel equally as good about reeling in a smallmouth bass before gently unhooking it and releasing it back to its watery home, so the minnow part is unfortunate but I find that its end justifies its means.

I remember one late afternoon, late enough where the sky was dark but the light hadn’t yet faded enough to be considered night, and I was doing that casting and standing and reeling. The buzz from the Mayflies was pronounced–loud even–and I felt great privilege being on that pier in that scene, watching my bobbers. I’d look away at times, just for long enough to see the cloud of Mayflies dip too close to the water so that the wings of the lowest members would dimple the surface and stick together. The bugs that met the water in this way would stay there, glued to the surface of the calm lake, where they’d lay without hope until a small bluegill would ascend from the depths and sip them, implying politeness while still being ruthless. I watched the scene play out, the falling to the water to become a meal, the bobbers dipping under the surface, the smallmouth pulling away as best they could, the night sky growing dim, the Mayflies abuzz.

This is May, and we’re at the lake. The flies are not flies at all, just Mayflies in some quantity. They won’t bite, they won’t bother, and soon enough they’ll be dead and stuck to spiderwebs under the eaves of our homes and the canopies of our piers. They aren’t anything to fear, no more than we’d fear a Joon bug, or a June bug, or the dreaded Juhn bug.

Lake Geneva Club Sells

I like the Lake Geneva Club. I like it better than its neighbors, but I like the neighbors plenty, too. The Lake Geneva Club has always been a nice mix of old and new, rarely pausing from the gentrification that has been a steady there for the past decade. The piers are nicely configured now, the road newish, the tennis court well maintained, the fundamentals well cared for and updated. I’ve sold many homes on this street, and have had many more listed. The street is comfortable without being shabby, it’s quiet without being dull, it’s cute without being a caricature.

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In the fall of 2006, a ranch home came to market. The home was well kept, if boring, and it sat a long enough ways from the lake to not have a view, but not so far that it wasn’t somewhat desirable. The price for this ranchy mediocrity was $829k. It was a lofty price, sure, one that made no sense then just as it wouldn’t make sense now, but I was somewhat to blame for the price, even though the listing was not my own. In August of that year, I sold a cottage in the Lake Geneva Club for $790k, a price that was owed to its location within the club; it was just one home from the lake with rather dazzling views. That sale set in motion a race to capitalize on fleeting momentum, and so when this ranch was listed for $829k there was little doubt that the goal was to crush a home run, rather than to string together a few singles, maybe also a walk, and drive home a run.

That property sat on the market at $829k for some time. Then it was reduced to seven something, the exact number not mattering at all then and certainly not mattering today. Then it was six something, maybe for a while, then five something. When it was five something I took notice on behalf of customers, and I routinely chauffered buyers down that favorite lake access lane of mine, pulling into the large asphalt parking lot and showing the mediocrity that was this ranch. The home had an easy lay out, three bedrooms and two baths, a large double lot, and a boat slip. It was a nice candidate for a renovation, and I often suggested that a $120k remodel would make this boring ranch come alive as an exciting lake cottage. No one listened, and the home sat and sat, even as I tried my best to convince my buyers of the value of finding vacation home satisfaction on this street where it came easily.

From the time that this ranch was first listed until the date last week when it sold, six other MLS listed homes in the LGC came to market and sold. I sold four of those six, yet for some reason listings on the street have recently eluded me. That’s a curious point, as it drives home the real estate agent choosing method most favored by the consumer: List with the lady who’s the sister of the lady who does your mother’s hair, or succumb to the listing pressure of those agents that hawk down expired and For Sale By Owner listings. Either way, six buyers looked at the Lake Geneva Club listings, and six buyers chose anything but the small ranch on the big lot with the three bedrooms.

There was at least one false start, one contract that came together and failed to close. But mostly, nonchalance and a market that looked past this home and towards anything but. Until this spring, when the lake access market between $500k and $750k enjoyed a generous spurt of activity and a buyer was brought to those humble steps of that unassuming ranch. That home finally closed last week, for $500k, making it a quality print for the association and a victory for the seller who finally, mercifully, found his buyer.

Today, there are two homes for sale in the LGC. Both are near the lake, one has a slip of somewhat difficult access. The street, and those available homes, should breath a sigh of satisfied relief. The ranch home that was first listed nearly nine years ago has sold, and there’s another new owner about to realize that their weekends were completely and utterly awful before now.

(This was not my listing and I didn’t bring in the buyer.)

Big Foot Beach Proposal

I do not know why the Maytag family dug out the Ceylon Lagoon, now known simply by the area that surrounds it: Big Foot Beach State Park. I don’t know if they did it because they wanted somewhere to fish when the waves pushed too tall on the big lake, nor do I know if they built it as a sort of fish farm, somewhere they could stock and harvest fish. Whatever the case, we can be certain vanity played a role, but what we cannot wonder about is the source of this small pond: Man.

Conservationist are currently apoplectic over a proposed plan to relocate the city of Lake Geneva boat launch to this lagoon. The plan would move the launch from its current location at the end of Center Street, which is a location that’s been both curious and ridiculous since the dawn of boat trailers. The launch clogs the main thoroughfare of this bustling town, creating both functional and aesthetic struggles for all within range. As part of this launch relocation, South Lakeshore Drive itself would be routed around the East side of the lagoon, allowing for a proper beach where now there is just a thin strip of sandy rocks.

I may be a conservative, but I am thoroughly and entirely supportive of the environment. That said, I do think there are ways that both sides of this debate can find peace. On a national front, environmental groups like Trout Unlimited (whom I am a major supporter of) have stirred up grassroots support against states that seek to sell off their owned lands. The environmentalist groups make a very large leap in the assumptions that cause their angst. If a state sells some of its land, that means the Koch brothers buy it and immediately A. Frack it, B. Pour banned chemicals on it and into the rivers, C. Cut all of the trees down and pave it so their Republican friends can park their fancy cars on it.

This is the stretch, and this is what makes people so upset about the thought of a state selling a tiny fraction of its unnecessarily owned land. Nearly 20% of the land mass that is Wisconsin is owned by some form of government, be it municipal, state, or federal. Wisconsin has joined in this land sale idea, contemplating liquidating some of this massive ownership position. Liberals and their conservation hawks say this is a egregious mistake. They say it’s stealing the future from our children and grandchildren. They say that public lands are a right that must be defended. They say the Koch brothers hate children and squirrels.

I say the state should sell land, but they should do so in a thoughtful, restricted manner. I don’t like the idea of polluting our waters and land, but I also don’t like the state owning such an incredible percentage of this state. The bipartisan fix? The state owns the land, they slap a conservation easement on the land that prohibits future development, banning land separations, installing fishing/hunting easements on land that has value in that regard, limits timber harvest, limits agricultural use (installing a percentage of the land that would be allowed to be made tillable), and so on and so forth. If a state does this, then offers the land for sale, do you know who would buy it? Hunters, fishers, people that want to own land to walk through. You know, conservationists. This is the solution to the national handwringing over public lands, because it removes land from state stewardship while ensuring that the land is indeed preserved, forever.

The same concept applies to the proposed relocation of the launch into that man-made lagoon. I mention the man-made part because I do think it’s important to note that this was not some natural occurring pond. It was a Maytag made pond. So I agree with parts of this plan, but not all of it. I think the solution takes parts from the current plan and applies some conservationist principle that will help ease the minds of those who share my concern for turtles and fish.

Let’s agree that the downtown Lake Geneva launch is a disaster. It disrupts traffic and is a general nuisance. Let’s move the launch to the lagoon, but instead of making the entirety of the lagoon the boat launch, let’s take a quarter of the lagoon and make it a launch and leave the rest alone. If the Maytags could excavate a giant lagoon with old timey tools, certainly we can divide the lagoon into two with our shiny earth movers. We keep the vast majority of the lagoon as a lagoon, so the fish can turtles can be happy. Also, John Muir would be happy.

Then, we re-route South Lakeshore Drive. There is faux concern over this road being some old indian trail, which is why we must keep it paved. This is madness. To pay homage to the old Indian Trail, we make the shore path in that area dirt, and we put up a sign telling people that they’re now walking on an old Indian Trail. Also an old Indian Trail? The entirety of the shore path.

With the launch installed at the far south end of the current lagoon, and the rest of the lagoon protected by our new earthen divider, we get to expand the beach that used to be a beach. However, we do not make the beach the entirety of the current stretch. We identify the proper location for the beach, and we make it four hundred feet wide, give or take. We plant nature along the shorelines in the other areas, with rocks to help keep the erosion at bay. With a defined beach, a defined lagoon, a defined launch, and a defined new route for the road, we’re onto something.

There is concern about cutting down trees to reroute the road. I share this concern, which is why I was displeased last year when every tree that even remotely resembled an Ash was unceremoniously cut and burned. Let’s re-route the road, and make it a neat little road that winds through a wooded park. This wouldn’t be the first time that a road wound its way through the woods around a lake, sort of like all of the other roads in this area.

Another concern is the vast amounts of asphalt that would be added. Strange no one piped up when Gage Marine paved over their entire lakefront, without any natural border to catch the runoff gasoline and asphalt tar before it dumps into the lake. Strange no one realizes that with the Center Street launch every drop of rain that falls on the massive Cove parking lot runs right into the lake. Strange that for decades the huge blank swath of asphalt at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club ran from road to lake, without any natural border at the water to eliminate contaminants. Let’s not pick and choose our hatred of asphalt, let’s just place it in a better location.

That means the new parking lot to accommodate park patrons and launch lovers will not be constructed near the lake. It will not be a visual eye sore, nor an environmental one. Let’s put the parking lot farther to the southeast end of the property, and let’s make it gravel. Gravel lots aren’t made from tar, so they’re good. And before I forget, let’s realize we have a boat density struggle on Geneva Lake and therefore the launch fees at this new launch should be very high. We’ll make them high under the guise that we have to make them so in order to pay for the launch, but we’ll all know we’ll make them high because of our disdain for day-tripping boaters.

Like all issues that present as a stark contrast between the wishes of business or municipalities against the sign-writing environmentalists, there is compromise. The current Big Foot Beach plan is compromised, and should be modified to make both sides happy. In that, I’ll be happy, too.

Hollybush Sells

There are many reasons to sell your house. For instance, if you live in a small house and you’d really like to live in a big house, you sell the small house and buy the big house. This is super easy to understand. Also, if you live in a big house and you think it’s time to live in a small house, you sell the big and buy the small. If you live near a highway and you think you’d like to live near the country, you sell the highway and buy the country. If you bought an expensive house when you were making lots of money and now you’re not making any money because you decided to sell real estate for a living, you sell the expensive one and buy a cheap one. Things couldn’t be easier to understand.

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But sometimes you sell because you wish to explore new opportunities in new places, and see new things. Sometimes you feel the comfort of the familiar and wish for the discomfort of a challenge. Sometimes things just run their course, which doesn’t mean you no longer love the house you’ve now decided to sell, nor does it mean you dislike the town the house is in or somehow feel less than enamoured with the lovely lake that house is on. Sometimes, it’s just time. That’s why I just sold a lakefront house on Hollybush for a wonderful seller to an equally wonderful buyer.

Rare is a real estate deal that doesn’t feature some form of catastrophe, actual or mostly perceived. If life is in general stressful and somewhat annoying at times, a real estate deal takes all of the stress from regular life and magnifies it into one event. Real estate transactions, put painfully simply, bring out the absolute worst in people. It brings out the greedy and the petty, the irrational and the frantic. It brings out the tendencies that we spend most of our lives trying to suppress. This isn’t to say that everyone is horrible, but it is to say that real estate has a way of making otherwise sane people act otherwise. This is why I celebrate deals where I have the privilege of working with people who are indeed level headed, honest, and trusting. This was the case in the transaction I closed on Monday, and I’m grateful for it.

The house on Hollybush is one that I had been working on listing for quite some time. The home is unique, in a Usonian way, at home and comfortable on the pages of Dwell magazine, perhaps not just tolerated there but outright adored. The style of the home is unique, if dramatic, and while style is personal property is universal. This home was on a level half acre lot, with 96′ of pleasing frontage, and a Westerly exposure that allows that early evening summerly glow to wash over the lawn and flood those massive lakeside windows. This property closed for $2.1MM, and it fits both the market and the eye of the renovation-minded buyer. It was a nice market deal, and I feel lucky to have played a role in matching a motivated buyer with an off-market seller.

But about that seller, and about what these lakefront homes mean to people. Uninitiated lakefront buyers can be callous, seeking only shiny and new, or new and shiny. They can see homes and marvel at the unique nature, but it’s a bemused marvel not an impressed marvel. They see lakefront homes and easily dismiss them based on fit and finish, stoves and refrigerators, the color of the walls or the shape of the bathroom tile. They see houses as houses, and dismiss or at least fail to see just why these homes can be so important in the lives of the sellers. This particular home was owned by the same family for all of its existence, having been built by the father of the seller in the early 1960s. Primary homes have changed, homes were sold to buy traditional condominiums, children were born and raised, grandchildren welcomed and loved, business created and sold, lives were lived. But the steadying force through all of the change in a long life has been this home, this somewhat peculiar ranch home on the southeasterly shore of this great big lake, and that stable nature has affected four generations of this family. This home wasn’t just a home on some lake somewhere, with curtains and curious flooring, it was everything to this family.

There is value in that, and I find myself increasingly understanding of what these homes mean to these families. This is a business, sure, one where we churn homes to make a living and satisfy egos, but these homes take on a different level of importance. To some families lake houses are just lake houses. They matter on the weekends under the summer sun. They matter when property taxes are due. They matter when the well pump breaks on the Saturday before the Fourth of July. They matter when the pier bill comes in $400 more than it was last year. But to some families they matter more, and that’s what makes selling them so much more contemplative. To the buyer of this home, I wish you and your family a similar lifetime of memories, and a fondness that extends beyond the color of the kitchen cabinets. And to the seller, congratulations on a life well lived, and to the next chapter that’s set to begin.

The Flowering Tree

The mighty Oak tree. 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.

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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 right now those trees are ablaze in a hot pink glow, the color radiating from the otherwise green scene. Those trees today don’t just mean something to that landscape, they mean everything.

In fact, everywhere today 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. My aunt owns a home in Williams Bay on the main street. It’s a great little house, and for eleven and a half months of the year that vacation home badly needs a new roof and some painting. For those other two weeks, the perfectly shaped, towering Magnolia blooms and blooms, and then no one cares about the peeling paint or the curling roof. They can’t see past the blossoms, because they just don’t want to.

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.

Lake Geneva Sales

Many years ago, I decided to buck the most important trend in real estate salesmanship. I decided that I didn’t like every single sale. Contrary to current mass email form, I also decided that I wouldn’t do my best to make it seem as though every sale was a sale that I personally handled. If you receive emails with “market updates”, you’ll notice that it looks like your particular agent sold every property they send you. This generally isn’t true, obviously. Either way, I’m a trend bucker, and I think that’s a good thing.

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While I desperately do not like every single sale, I have to tip my hat in the direction that it should be tipped. Buyers buying vacation homes is always good, but buyers who close in the month of May deserve a little extra applause. If you buy a vacation home in June, that’s terrific! Same goes if you buy one in December, it’s still a good idea. But to buy in May is to experience the most immediate form of gratification. Buy in May, and on Memorial Day you’re grilling lakeside, which is the only place to grill, in the event that you have a choice. So May buyers, good job.

There were several sales this week of vacation homes, and they should be discussed. The flipper’s house on Geneva Oaks Trail closed for $1.2MM. I’m guessing the flipper made a couple hundred grand on that deal, which is nice for him. That property is one off the lake, so it’s a nice comp for lakefront homes in the entry level price range. It was a nice enough house, with a nice enough view so long as the lakefront home doesn’t switch from ranch model to colonial.

Two properties in Loramoor sold this week, both off-water homes with slips. The one house was an original carriage house for the estate, so it was old and strange, maybe stranger than old, but certainly a sizable house and an even larger project. $600k was the print price, and I’ll be curious to see what transpires there now that the property has closed. Will the home be torn down? Extensively renovated? Painted and moved into? Who knows? Not me, that’s why I’m guessing. The other house was of a standard type ranch home that had some nicely elevated finishes and a trade price of $655,000. That’s not a bad sale, not at all.

A small ranch in Cedar Point closed for $280k, so that’s nice. The home was sort of close to the lake, with a sort of view, and sort of a back yard, but really just a bit of grass and a fence. It was a market sale, with neither buyer nor seller winning. I’m sure when the buyer walks down to the lake this summer he’ll feel as though he won, but perhaps when he walks back up the significant hill to his new house he’ll feel otherwise. Time will tell.

The market remains active, and I see pockets of value that still exist. Two of the best value segments right now are both on the lakefront. The entry level lakefront market looked, a year ago, as though it was about to take off. Then came a glut of new inventory, and inventory pressures prices, which appear to be soft. I’d expect a few of these entry level offerings to sell right, and buyers would do well to pay attention. The same goes for the larger lakefront land buys, those properties with marginal homes but nice lots priced around $4MM. Expect one or more of those sellers to be willing to deal, and if there’s a buyer out there that wants to build a legacy type vacation home, that buyer should probably email me before he, or she, makes a great big mistake.

George Williams, et al

When I was in High School, Keanu Reeves came to Williams Bay for a few days. I don’t know where he stayed. I do know that he ran through the halls of Yerkes, and then ran across that roof. He was confronted by a police officer, who was shot by some really bad guys in a helicopter. Keanu then ran through the woods and took the controls of a hovercraft, where he successfully used that unwieldy vehicle to outrun and outmaneuver the helicopter. Later, after he used that payphone in Williams Bay and after he ran on the roof and didn’t shoot that cop, he waded through water to hide out in a house that cinematically was on Geneva Lake, but in practice it was not. We all know Geneva doesn’t have a reed-flanked shoreline.

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This was the only movie to be filmed in Williams Bay when I was in High School. I suspect it is the only movie filmed in Williams Bay ever, though I welcome correction on that. Given that I was a teenager and a movie was being filmed just a mile from my home, I wandered onto the set a few times. The set, in this context, was George Williams. The film crew had added some signage to GW to make it look like it was something that it was not, and because I was in high school and Keanu Reeves was in town, I stole one of the signs.

From that day until this day, I have never stolen another item. It really wasn’t thievery, anyway, as the movie had ended and the film crew was rushed off to film the next scene, and they left behind their signage like a conquering army. I still have that sign, but today isn’t about that sign, or about the way the girls in my High School fluttered over the thought of stupid Keanu Reeves setting foot in Williams Bay. Today is about George Williams, and how today it looks nothing like it did then.

I drove into George Williams this morning to look at a house that was just listed on the strange little street that one can only arrive upon after driving through George Williams. There is construction this morning, old buildings being either town down to be replaced, or torn mostly down to be renovated. I drove past rows of buildings, each with names and each in dazzling condition. I drove past finely trimmed and generously mulched beds with flowers and trees, each in their place. I drove past the administrative buildings and past student housing, down around the lakefront building with its ample lakeside porch. I drove around and around, and I was thoroughly and entirely impressed. This isn’t Keanu’s George Williams.

During the 1980s my best friend was Matt Gleason, and he lived at the Conference Point Camp. His parents were the caretakers there, and I can remember watching my first bit of Top Gun at his house, and I can remember my parents calling his parents to tell them that I wasn’t allowed to watch those sorts of racy films. Conference Point Camp at that time was, and remained for quite some time after, a miserable wreck. Buildings were slipping down the high hillside and into the lake, and if they weren’t, it seemed as though they soon would. Paint peeled, wood rotted, trails were untended, grass was crowded by weeds, and generally things were decrepit at best, and dangerous at worst.

Today, Conference Point Camp shines again, or maybe for the first time, I can’t tell. New ownership has given life to this tired old camp, and anyone with eyes should rejoice in this re-birth. Buildings have been, one by one, renovated, cleaned, painted, made right. Wood floors have been sanded of so many generations of filth and stain, and they’ve been made to shine and glow as they once did. The camp has a long ways to go, but what a remarkable transformation they’ve already accomplished.

Covenant Harbor has, in my recent memory, led the way with this sort of stewardship, with their finely painted buildings and wonderfully maintained lakeside landscape. Norman Barr and Holiday Home have been working to clean up their grounds as well, and the Lake Geneva Youth Camp has been spending money as if there is no end to the supply. These camps anchor various points of our collective shoreline, and I, for one, am extremely pleased that they’ve all embraced a desire to improve themselves, and by doing so, improve our view.

Lake Geneva Auction

If you are a seller of real estate, particularly the luxury brand of such, arriving at your wits end is not an uncommon scenario. Luxury real estate, by its very definition, is subjective. It functions well in markets where throngs and throngs of wealthy people live. For instance, Beverly Hills. We’ve been given a window into this luxury real estate world, where television cameras follow pointy-shoe-wearing-slicksters as they launch luxury properties at wealthy buyers. It would be easy to watch this show and take away nothing but the idea that pointy shoes and fancy cars and ample sunshine are, indeed, the three elements to luxury home sales. But look deeper, look to where one of these fresh-faced Realtors meets with a potential seller. Look where the Realtor tells the client that the home is worth $10MM, and the seller wants $14MM, and after some time or no time at all, a buyer (maybe from China) buys the home for $13.8MM. What goes unspoken is that the buyer was completely and entirely screwed, but look- a Ferrari parked on Rodeo Drive!

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Luxury markets love naïveté, in fact, they can’t do much without it. That’s why Lake Geneva is a different sort of market, as it combines lots of wealthy people with an obvious luxury market to pick over, but those wealthy are from the Midwest generally, where a different set of sensibilities often tags along for the ride. Sometimes, this trend is broken, like when a lakefront home sells for a 45% gain when the market doesn’t justify it. That looks like a trend to adjacent owners, but we all know it to be what it really is- an outlier. In the absence of that coastal brand of recklessness, luxury sellers who are unwilling to meet the market where it is often resort to extreme measures to sell.

For instance, sellers will call or email their chosen agents and ask them what’s wrong. Not what’s wrong with the property, mind you, nor what’s wrong with the price, but rather, what’s wrong with the agent. After all, they own luxury real estate, and what they know of such real estate is what they’ve learned from luxury real estate television shows, which take place in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. If the emails and phone calls don’t work, some sellers resort to 10 pm text messages to their agents, which they’ll be surprised to find doesn’t help matters. Once these gyrations take place, and a reduction in price to where the market wants the home is decided against, the wits end has arrived. Up next? Auction.

Luxury real estate auction companies are all different, but they are all the same. They combine sleek websites with large photos with pretty extraordinary advertising budgets. They flood the target market with knowledge of this auction, and they generate interest in what is an otherwise tired market offering. As a side note to sellers who love the advertising and wonder why their traditional broker doesn’t advertise with such gusto, please consider that most of the time the auction house is given an up front payment by the seller, by which they advertise in these fanciful outlets. As a side note to that side note, if any seller of mine, current or future, would like me to advertise daily in the Wall Street Journal, I am more than happy to do so assuming I’ve been paid up front by the seller for such expenses, just like our auction house friends. Anyway, the buzz is generated through seller-paid advertising, and the dates are set in stone. The luxury property will be auctioned, to the highest bidder, no matter the bid. Exciting!

These sorts of auctions have become somewhat common out in the West, or anywhere else in the country that an overpriced, albatross of a property has lingered on the market for too long. The goal of the auction is very, very simple. It’s to liquidate the property. But lest you think the seller is truly interested in liquidating at a rock bottom price, please don’t. The true, unspoken goal of any auction, whether it’s of some ancient pottery or a giant diamond or a house on a ski slope or one on the North shore of Geneva Lake, is to get a buyer to overpay. The function of a market is to test out prices, to present a product to the world in hopes that the product and the price satisfy the intended buyer. The function of an auction is to engage a buyer, or four, and blend large egos with timing that is, at the time of the outcry, of the essence. The seller, having given their property up to the process, expects a buyer to pay more than he or she would have through traditional brokerage channels. That is the goal of the shiny ads. That is the goal of the slick website. That is the goal that is representing an auction seller.

My goal, of course, is to protect a buyer from such nonsense. That’s why any buyer considering the purchase of an auction property in this market would be exceedingly wise to contact me first. To get me in their corner, to advise and direct, yes. But mostly to provide market context that will ensure overpayment does not occur, slick drone video footage or not.

Lake Geneva Market Update

When on a property tour with a buyer, whether the first time out or the fifth, I possess a relatively incredible ability to see the market through the eyes of my client. As I drive I talk, and I look, and when I look I see streets as they do, I see yards as they do, I see ridiculously horrible paint jobs as they do. I also see real estate signs as they do, and while out over recent weeks I’ve been increasingly pained by the perception that there is just oodles of inventory in the Lake Geneva market. It seems as though every street has something for sale, and most streets have nearly everything for sale. It seems, at times, as though it would be easier to point out the homes that aren’t for sale rather than focus on the multitude that are. I drive this way, signs. I turn that way, signs. Signs, signs, apparently everywhere there are signs.

But this is perception, and like a big, bold Chicago brokerage opening shop in Lake Geneva, perception is just, well, it’s just perception and perception is rarely reality. That’s why I know better than to be overwhelmed by inventory, because inventory here, as a point of fact, is actually rather low. Sales are up, remarkably so, and the inventory remains low. This is a positive sign for the market at large, but inventory troubles pressure individual market segments, and when inventory is light and sellers are convinced to sell, that means list prices are up. When list prices go up one of two things will happen. Either the market will agree that it’s reasonable to award a seller a premium, or the market will tighten up, and buyers will hold out against sellers, who are, by the mere implementation of their lofty prices, holding out against buyers. This is why markets either inch up slowly or seize up all together. In Lake Geneva today, we’re somewhere in between.

The lakefront and lake access market has at least 13 single family homes pending sale this morning. That’s a lot of action, and the market should be rather proud of itself. While none of those initial 13 are on the lakefront, there are at least three lakefront homes that aren’t listed on the MLS pending sale. That bit of knowledge is key, as it should show buyers that if they’re working towards finding a lakefront home simply engaging any agent or signing up for some automated listings feed is not enough to keep you at pace with the truly motivated. Of course I’m implying that any lakefront buyer should be working with me, but that does make the assumption that every lakefront buyer is remarkably intelligent. This desire to find un-listed inventory is also what forces some buyers to go it alone, to resist hooking up with a qualified agent, because they think they’ll do better to proceed with their home search on their own. This behavior almost always leads to market mistakes, as private deals struck directly between a buyer and seller assume that both are completely plugged in to the current market conditions, which is rarely, if ever, true. There were two vacation home closings this week. One in Glenwood Springs of a vinyl box for $570k that I sold once a few years ago, and another of a chalet looking house in Country Club Estates that closed for $493k. No further comment is necessary as both home sales made sense.

There are loads of entry level lake access homes pending sale, those in Country Club Estates and Cedar Point Park, and others. This market is understandably active, as buyers seek to capitalize on low interest rates. This capitalizing on low interest rates has been going on for several years now, and while there’s no way to really know when this zero (no) interest rate environment will go away, it’s safe to say we’re closer to its extinction now than we were a month ago. If you’re going to borrow money to pursue vacation home bliss, I’d encourage you to do so sooner rather than later. Price sensitive buyers (should be everyone, by the way) are also interest rate sensitive, which is why if forced to make a decision now I’d admittedly rather overpay by a percentage point or two rather than sign on to a 30 year note and at a rate that’s a percentage or two higher. That’s just math, and it isn’t all that fuzzy.

The other pending homes feature a handful in the six hundreds, those of homes with boatslips, and then two other properties that deserve a bit of commentary. One pending sale is in the Lake Geneva Club, and that’s a home that has been for sale for the entirety of my adult life. That’s not fair, as it only seems as though it’s been for sale for that long. This humble ranch, a ways from the lake but not too far, has been listed at many different prices. It’s also been under contract a few times, or at least once. At $529k it offers a basic house in a basic location with a boatslip. That should be enough for the market, and finally it is. That property is pending, making it the only sale pending in the Lake Geneva Club. Long a favorite association of mine, the LGC has had a bit of a difficult time over recent years. There have been some sales, sure, but there has also been inventory that has gone completely and thoroughly stale. The Lake Geneva Club is a wonderful place, but with some slips being in poor locations it’s very important to be aware of slip location and water depth when contemplating the purchase of a home that includes a slip.

Speaking of bad slips, there’s a new listing or two in Shore Haven, as that association has rather elevated inventory at the moment as well. Even so, I like a few of those homes and expect them to sell as we head into the prime selling season. The other home that is of some interest to me is in Geneva Oaks. The home sold as an REO a year or so ago, and after some renovation it came back to market at $1.295MM. There’s a shared pier, which at this price range is okay. There’s also a lake view, so long as the house in front on the water decides to always remain a ranch. This flip will likely yield a decent return for the investor, as Lake Geneva buyers reinforce their very firm, principled stance. That house has shiny appliances and countertops and some flat screen televisions mounted at varying heights in several rooms? SOLD.

Two New Fontana Developments

Fontana is not a large city. It’s not even a small city. It isn’t a town, either. It’s a village. A little, sleepy village. Sure, it has a beautiful lakefront and cobbled stone walkways across its boulevard. The cobbled walkways even cross the highway. Fontana has enjoyed a revitalization over the past 10 years, due largely in part to the renovations at the Abbey Hotel. Those renovations have been consistent and impressive, and this year they have some new fancy entry signs that would make a weary traveler wonder if the hamlet of Fontana was actually the Abbey Village. The street projects, the perennial boulevard, the interesting architecture of the beach house and the facility at Reid Park, it’s all rather intoxicating. Personally, I think Gordy’s should receive the credit for making Fontana matter, as that lakefront scene has improved dramatically over the last twenty years. Still, Fontana.

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Sure the Abbey Harbor was dug out of a water-filtering swamp, one filled with springs and wildlife, and now it’s a gasoline choked boat-swap, but the Abbey Harbor is still a main draw for an increasing number of boaters. This adds to the Fontana appeal, because no other community can offer that fine beach, with those cobbled walks, and those fancy public buildings, and that terrific park, and those lakefront restaurants near that large and continually improving hotel. Developers have noticed that Fontana is a highly desirable area, and they’ve decided it’s time to capitalize on that interest. Abbey Ridge was built of vinyl and new pine 2 x 4s, and sold out immediately. The Abbey Hotel turned condominium and sold out its vast supply of hotel rooms in no time at all- before everyone realized that condo-hotels were horrible creations. Then the Mill Street condominiums competed for the Most Boring Architecture award and sold with relative ease. Fontana has been hot for a while.

The Cliff’s of Fontana was the latest development to attempt to further the Fontana momentum, but buying land at peak prices, going excessively deep on infrastructure costs, and positioning a suburban looking product in a vacation home market has relegated that development to back-row status. Even though it has a front row seat, on the highway. Go figure. That highway, though the sidewalks across it are cobbled, still makes for a very significant divide between the haves and the have nots. That’s why the two new developments coming to Fontana in 2015 both feature locations that are on the lake-side of the highway, and in that, they have a serious advantage over everything (The Cliff’s) on the other side of that dividing artery.

First up is something called the Rowhomes of Fontana. If you think that name sounds suburban, good thinking, because it’s a development brought to us by another developer from Suburbia. The designs feature staunchly suburban looks, which is nice if you’re from the suburbs and want to feel like you’ve traveled some distance to find another suburb. The design bores me,  the prices are in the $400s.  They’ll be built this year near the Post Office in Fontana, which is a lame thing to look at, unless you’re a retired postal worker from the suburbs, in which case, this project will combine two of your passions.

The other property is very near the Rowhomes, but the location is much, much better. The architecture of this development was drawn by Jason Bernard (Lake Geneva Architects), which means the design is delightful and smart, and caters perfectly to the aesthetic that vacation home buyers are seeking. The location is close to Reid Park, which means it’s likely a 2 minute stroll to the Fontana lakefront, and there’s tremendous value in that easy, flat saunter. The development is called Lakeview Terraces, which is a grand attempt at out-milquetoasting the other milquetoasty name down the road. These units are also large and they feature two car garages, so I’m expecting these to be wildly popular. Large units, great location, brand new, architectural appropriate and interesting- what more could a developer present to the market?

Neither property is being marketed by yours truly, which is sad and shameful, but I’m happy to help you with both. The key to each is the overall size of the developments. The handsome development overlooking Reid Park will sell. The Rowhomes will struggle. That’s because suburban developers don’t understand our market, and they likely never will.

Fontana’s Beach House, photo by Matt Mason Photography.

Prisoners

The first person we meet in the movie “Low and Clear” is JT Van Zandt. He has a famous father, but that’s not important. He’s calm, reserved, and he loves to fly fish. This is, after all, a fly fishing movie that promises to explore the relationship between two old friends, JT and a guy named Xeenie. When we meet JT, he’s gliding over saltwater flats in a small boat that he built himself. He’s talking about life, about his girlfriend, about Redfish. He lives in coastal Texas by way of Colorado, where he learned to fly fish and became friends with Xeenie. When we meet Xeenie, he’s the anti JT, and this contrast is on full display as he curses a mighty blue streak at the fish, the wind, the camera crew. Like most movies about fly fishing, it’s supposed to be more about the friendship- the human condition- but it’s always mostly about the flies and the fish.

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The first fish we see in the film is a Redfish, taken by JT in those Texas waters. The fish is bright and bold, and as Midwesterners we know that Redfish are simply carp, but don’t tell that to JT. When he releases the fish, he pauses for a moment and his voiceover says that he can see emotion in the eyes of the fish, and he can hear what it’s telling him. “Trust”, the fish is saying, “trust”. It’s easy to think that, because JT is indeed calm and steadfast, and as he gently releases that saltwater carp it’s obvious that the fish was right to trust him. This is the movie, and I don’t expect you to watch it. I only tell you about it because I, too, have held fish in my hands and had them speak to me. It happened last week a few times, and then again last night.

With my new bike and my undying devotion to fly fishing, I have combined the two into a stealthy form of hobby trespassing. My house is not near Delavan Lake, but it’s closer to Delavan than it is to Geneva, and so on certain nights this spring I’ve loaded a fly rod into a backpack, strapped the pack to my back, and pedaled over to Delavan Lake to fish for panfish in the channels and lagoons that are common on the south and east side of that lake. In the summer, these shallow bays and channels are choked full of weeds and scum, and as such, they are unfishable. During these stagnant summer months the water brews and stales and smells like all things dead and evil, and this is why I wouldn’t ever dare consider pedaling over to throw a fly during any moth that falls after April. But alas, it has been April for a while, and the panfish are gluttonous and fall easily to a presented fly.

If I were to drive in my car over to these fishing spots, I would have to park in a location where my car would not be welcome. I’d have to trespass, or at least park in a way that made my trespassing known. By bike, I can dip and dive into the backwater lagoons, and I can hide behind stacks of shore stations and against brushy shorelines. The bike allows me great freedom to go where I am not permitted, and the anonymity is rather delicious. My fiberglass two weight rod bends with each sip of my fly from a crappie or a bluegill, the small fish turning every way, tugging away from my reach. When the fight is over and I hoist that small fish to my hand, I gently release the hook and let the fish back into the water. It’s for that brief moment when I hold them in my hand that I hear them speak. Take me with you, they say.

The first time I heard this, I wasn’t certain I was understanding. I knew I sensed something in their eyes, but what was it? Was it trust, as JT feels them say? Or was it fear, which wouldn’t be likely given the fact that I’ll never keep and kill a fish on purpose. It seemed to me to be neither, instead, it felt like a simple plea, emanating from the glassy eyes of that small bluegill. Save me, it said. Save me from this channel and this filth and this stagnant water that clogs my gills and dulls my color. Free me from this watery sentence, from these weeds and this surface scum and these stifling summer temperatures. Take me with you, save me, treat me to something different, something pure, something clean, something- anything- other than this.

With newfound sympathy, I turned the fish away, one after another, for so many of these past few nights. In different spots, after stashing my bike against the trees or down into the weeds, I caught these fish of varying makes and models, yet while the location changed and the fish as well, they all looked at me with those eyes that spoke the same words. I’m helpless to help them, you see, because there are so many and it would be so hard to fasten a large enough water tank to my bike. Instead, I’ll just go back again and again, for the next few days or until the weeds choke out the channels, and I’ll play with these fish, hoping to entertain them if only for a while, to take their minds off of their surroundings.

Two Curious Lakefront Sales

There’s a new commercial on television that features a couple about to board a flight. Just before they step on, a guy carrying flowers rushes up towards them. He’s happy to have caught up with the flight-bound couple. We are meant to believe that he’s wishing to tell the woman that he loves her, that she can’t go off with that guy she’s with, that she has to choose him, instead. But this isn’t what happens. The flower carrier tells the couple that, “you got the house”. Everyone is thrilled! They do a huge group hug, and the commercial is over. This is real estate, brought to you by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Why the sharp increase in commercials from this trade group? Well because Zillow is trying to destroy them, that’s why.

The commercial is supposed to show you that Realtors, like me, care. We rush to airports and bring flowers, because we care. We do everything we do because we care. This is the message brought to you by one of, if not the, largest trade organizations in these United States. The problem with the message is that it’s entirely and thoroughly wrong. The message tells the consumer that this dorky flower toting Realtor “got” the house for the buyer. This Realtor, without whom nothing in this transaction would have been possible, saved the day. This is why they all hugged. Because the Realtor made it happen. He got them the house. The message is that the getting is the hard part, and it’s the part you hug over. As a point of fact, the getting is the easy part. Anyone can write a contract, and anyone can buy flowers at the airport convenience store. Anyone can get someone a house. The NAR, with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in income annually, wants the public to believe that the Realtor in the television spot was integral and necessary, because he got the buyer the house.

This, unfortunately, is and has been the message from Realtors to the world. And this message is precisely why Realtors are generally unappreciated and disrespected. If I’m on vacation far away and I meet someone at the pool who requires some conversation of me, I am generally asked what it is that I do for a living. I reply that I’m in real estate, which sounds horrible coming out of my mouth, even though I’ve been in this real estate business for 19 years and have enjoyed at least some level of varying success. When I tell them what I do, I immediately envision their mind snapping to a picture of me driving a Chrysler Sebring convertible that has my name emblazoned on the side. I envision them envisioning me with a name tag on my sport coat, sitting at open houses near the cookie tray. I envision them thinking of me rushing through the airport to tell my customer that they got the house.

The commercial could have been fixed if the agent rushing through the airport were to say this: “I wanted to tell you, we didn’t get the house. Don’t be upset though, because the buyer who did get the house overpaid by 20%, which means they’re suckers and their agent should be ashamed of himself”. If that were the commercial, I would gladly be the actor/agent. If that were the commercial, it would be the first time the real estate industry as a whole actually introduced the world to their importance. The getting of a house isn’t hard, and it doesn’t require an ounce of skill. It requires some general knowledge of a QWERTY keyboard and the ability to remember, or at least write down, one’s username and password. The getting can be done by anyone and doesn’t require a Realtor. It’s the getting at the right price that takes skill, and the failure to promote the actual skill is why Realtors will all end up working in cubicles for Zillow as they process real estate transactions electronically via algorithms.

Along those lines of getting the house, there were two sales this week on the lake. One sale was in Fontana, for a bit under $2.1MM, featuring a shared pier and lakefront easement over the smallish frontage. Nothing further to add. The other sale was on Bonnie Brae, that of the home that sold in 2011 for $2.625MM. The market has appreciated since 2011, as we’ve discussed, but to what extent? Probably 10%. Maybe 15% for some properties, and maybe less than 10% for others. The appreciation that Bonnie Brae just enjoyed? 45%.

I broke the paragraph for emphasis. The buyer certainly “got the house”, but at what cost? Was there anything in the market today that would lead us to believe that we’re up 45%? Was that home, when purchased in 2011, some sort of outstanding value? Well, let’s see what I thought about it in April of 2011 when it sold:

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The pricing strategies aside, the sale doesn’t provide much of a sign for our market moving forward. Some sales are harbingers of things to come, this sale was simply a sale of a nice house on a nice lot at a pretty attractive price.

Sounds like I thought it was okay, but certainly not a steal. I’m not going to bore you with statistics that explain why this sale is an outlier of epic proportions, I’m just going to assume you already understand that. The new price reflects a premium that one buyer thought reasonable, and I suppose it all comes back to the airport Realtor. If all that matters is getting a house, consider the job well done.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Inventory

Because I’m nothing if not community minded, I’ve been hard at work this year trying my best to quench the market’s thirst for new inventory on the lakefront. It’s not easy, this thirst quenching business, but I’m doing my best. That’s why I currently have seven lakefronts for sale, and another one on the way later this week. I do like listing properties, but it’s quite a bit of work. It’s work to convince the seller that their best interests will be served by hiring me. It’s work to have the photographer out to shoot, work to write the narrative (even when it’s poorly written), and it’s work to set the ads in motion. It’s also work that doesn’t pay a penny unless that work yields results, which makes this work unlike most work that exists in the world of work. Still, it’s good work, if you can get it, and if you don’t mind being paid nothing for that work, which I do.

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That’s why I have to sell these places, and sell I will. The newest listing is the one you see up there, and in the image below this paragraph. The house is at 946 Marianne Terrace in the city of Lake Geneva, priced at $2.699MM. The home was listed for a spell last year at $2.975MM, but now it’s on with me and the price is considerably improved. This home was built in 2007 which means it’s newer, and that means it has newer home amenities. There are five bedrooms and four and a half baths. There’s a walkout lower level, a two car garage, and some fancy and shiny bits everywhere you look. The 60′ of frontage is not particularly wide, but it’s more than enough to have a private pier with canopied slip. It’s a terrific lake house, walkable to downtown Geneva, and set up for immediate enjoyment.

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Another new listing, pictured below, is in Williams Bay priced at $2.425MM. This home sold five years ago for $2MM, and then the owner set about doing the work that needed to be done. The result is an older lake home that’s now in terrific condition. The 65′ of level frontage is made even better by the 1.18 acres of wooded depth. There are five bedrooms, two baths, a detached garage, a kids playhouse, and a separate guest house with kitchen and bath. The pier is oversized, the lawn level, the setting wooded. It’s on the north side of Fontana Bay, so there are sunsets and sunrises from this spot. It’s good, and it’s not on the open market, so if you’re reading this you’ve done well to find out what’s going on behind these Lake Geneva scenes.

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N2201 Bonnie Brae Lane was first listed a couple of years ago in the mid $4MMs, which is why I just brought that to market last week for $3.399MM. With 2.72 acres of delicious deciduous depth and 102′ of level frontage, this place isn’t your ordinary lakefront. The owner fell in love with the quirky style of it all, so he hired Chris Hummel to make it bigger and better still. This is a casual house, built for lakeside fun. There’s a 20′ x 40′ in ground pool, three levels of finished space (not including the fourth floor lookout), and of course the tiki hut boathouse at the lakefront. Don’t forget the detached garage with studio above it, all off that fabulous road that is Snake.

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In spite of recent showing activity, my Forest Hills South Shore Club home is still for sale, now priced at $1.675MM. This home is poised to be the most economical home ever sold in the SSC, and it’s ready for immediate occupancy just in time for summer. Lest you forget about 1014 South Lakeshore in Fontana, that home remains on the open market. For that palace I’m seeking the sort of buyer who understands that they’d be purchasing perfection at a price that’s below replacement cost. I’m seeking a buyer who demands the finest everything, but doesn’t want to kill two years of their life dealing with a construction project. I’m seeking a buyer who finds that the best of something really is worth aspiring to, because quite simply, this is the best home available on Geneva today.

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With this inventory, the market should be pleased. If I write to you in six months time and I still have all of this inventory, I will most likely then be interviewing for my next job. Until then, I’ll be at home trying to make that heart, or a flower, or something that resembles anything at all, out of expresso and foam.

Spring

In Some Town, Illinois, a Realtor is walking into his office. He’s done this every day for years, parking in his spot, walking down the sidewalk, up the steps and into the office. He takes his coat off and hangs it on his hook, he only wore the coat today because it was raining, not because he was cold. He walks past the offices, first the large ones with windows where the executives work. Their work is telling him to sell more, to sell bigger homes and more of them, to make more money and higher commissions. He hates the people who work in those glass offices. Past those, past the break room where long ago he learned not to put something that he intended to eat into that communal refrigerator. The cubicles are many, and he remembers the times during boom markets where every desk was filled, and he remembers the lean years where half were empty. Today, they’re filled again, and he’d rather they not be. He’s tired, and the day hasn’t yet begun.

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His desk has looked the same for all of these years, only the computer has made improvements. There are some photos of his wife and kids, three salesman of the year awards, two clippings where he was quoted in the local paper, and a parking ticket that he was supposed to pay by last Friday. His computer screen glows with some life, and he takes pride in knowing his screen was the first screen to be turned on that day. Earlier than secretary’s screen, earlier than hot-shot-Josh with his stupid new Mercedes, earlier than the executives who will be in shortly to tell him to sell more. There are new listings this morning, two on Tulip Drive in the $180s, one on Marigold for $219k, and another on Daisy Lane for $149k. He thinks that these streets should be called the FLOWER STREETS, much like those television show millionaire agents call a clutch of their streets the BIRD STREETS. He doesn’t think that for long, because he thinks he has someone to buy the one on Tulip, so he emails them:

HI RICK AND TINA;

NEW LISTING ON TULIP. WANT TO SEE IT?

BILL

They do want to see it, but the listing came on the market last night and he only saw it this morning, so when Rick’s car is parked at the house later, alongside Josh’s new C-Class, Bill just keeps driving. Home to his wife and home to his kids, home where he doesn’t have to think about his cubicle and his computer and the fact that his sales have been steadily declining for the past four years, quarter over quarter, with a pattern that looks like he was doing it on purpose. Tomorrow will be better, he thinks.

Today, I drove to my office, too. I walked inside and turned on this computer. I delighted in the fact that I don’t have to check on mundane real estate listings, in some mundane town, working some mundane market. I am bursting with optimism this morning, not because I sold anything over the weekend (I didn’t), not because my sales figures are better than last year (not even close), and not because I’m not worried about the Chicago Bully Agents opening up shop in town. No, I’m happy this morning because it’s raining, and it’s warm and the earth smells alive. There are flowers at the end of my driveway and the seeds that I sowed last night in the drizzly rain are undoubtedly awakening even as I type. The grass is greening, and later today I’m going to try to start my lawn mower for the first time this year. Just thinking about pulling the long cord on that old Gravely makes me at once discouraged and giddy. Spring has come to Lake Geneva, and there’s little left to do but bask in its moderate temperatures and intermittent showers.

Spring means more than green grass and daffodils. It means more than seeds taking root and freshly tilled garden plots. It means wild onions are sending their greened tops skyward, and it means I’ll be grabbing them by the handful and delighting in the way their pungent aroma overtakes my car on the drive home. It means morel season is nearly here, and if you’re new to this blog you’ll know I take two things very seriously. Lake Geneva real state and morels. But that’s not fair, because it’s also trout season, and after enduring the misery of throwing wet flies for lethargic trout during the first few weeks of the early season, April and May mean hatches and bugs and dry flies being gently thrown on thin line to enthusiastic wild trout.

Spring means piers and boats, and more of each are hitting the water every day. Saturday meant lunch at Gordy’s for the fist time this year, and I deployed my periwinkle pants for the occasion. Summer pants don’t get worn in winter, nor do they find their way to my legs in the fall. They are summer pants for a reason, and Saturday was summery enough to warrant their debut. The market was active this weekend, too, with showings all around but mostly on lakefronts. There seems to be increasing activity over the last week, and why would I question the catalyst for that activity? It’s spring, and the fever has spread. That fever has me feeling optimistic this morning, and it should have you feeling the same way.

Above, one of many bluegills I caught and released on a fly last night.

Abbey Springs Market Update

For a little while, I considered buying a vacant lot in Abbey Springs. This was when I played golf often, when my game was strong and my vertebra were aligned nicely. I lived in Geneva National for a spell, but golf course living in GN is nothing like golf course living in Abbey Springs. When I lived in GN, if I wished to play a round of golf, or a few holes of golf, I’d have to drive to the clubhouse, check in, rent a cart, wait for my turn at the first tee, and play. I liked doing this, because this was before I had so many more hobbies than I have now, and with no fishing or sailing tugging at my schedule it seemed perfectly reasonable to while away four or five hours with my shirt tucked into belted khakis.

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When this was happening, I longed for the convenience and casual nature of Abbey Springs golf course living. There, you could keep your cart in your garage, and amble on to the course whenever the schedule slotted a wide enough lull. I thought it would be freeing to live this way, without so much scheduling and so many rangers. Offering further enticement was the fact that while I played golf my wife an kids could ride their own cart down to the beach, or over to the clubhouse, or, should I feel family-man-ish, they could join me on the course for a few holes to putt and chip. Such casual inclusion would be frowned upon at Geneva National, but at Abbey Springs things aren’t as formal. I liked the idea quite a bit, but my interest coincided with the peak of the market, so vacant lots were very difficult to come by and when they did present they were priced outside of this Realtor’s pale budget.

Abbey Springs is, by my eye, best known in this market for offering many different varieties of condominium living. They have small condos and large townhomes. They have some condos so small you’d long for the spacious luxury of a Motel6 standard ground level. You’d be forgiven if, after surveying the wide range of the Abbey Springs condominium styles, you assumed the original architects designed the whole lot after an afternoon spent imbibing. There are designs so odd that you’d swear they were built only on a bet. But alas, they were serious and the results were anything but. The styles are unique and varied, and if you’re looking to spend $250k or so and you’d like to be near the lake in an amenity blessed association, Abbey Springs is the answer to your query.

Aside from the condominiums, however, Abbey Springs functions just like a residential lake access community, except one that has loads of amenities. If you’re looking for a single family home, as is a common hunt for current condominium owners who have outgrown their small space, you’ve generally been faced with two distinct options. You could, as the history goes, buy some older, strange house. If the condominiums are unique, some of the single family homes make those condominiums look downright milquetoast. These older variety single family homes are modern without being modern, and they’re generally in some stage of decay, either obvious or subtle. If the homes are not old and strange, others are older and small, as was one I sold last year on Rolling Green to a lovely young family from Lakeview. These are fine if you’re looking for a single family home in line with condominium pricing (single family in Abbey Springs generally starts around $400k), but what if you want something better? What if you want something newer that isn’t weird?

Well, Abbey Springs has you covered there as well. They do new and bold rather well, and they expect you to cough up some serious dough for such a property. If older or weirdish generally costs $650k or less, then new and fancy will run you $900k or more. Thankfully, I’m about to stand in the gap for you and introduce a new offering to the market that will, without any shadow of any doubt, please the Abbey Springs market with a $765k ask on a quality home on a beautiful golf course lot on a perfect street. Look for this listing in the coming weeks, or, if you’d prefer to be the first one to tour it, just let me know. This home is large, it’s high end, and it’s impeccably maintained, which means it’s everything that Abbey Springs homes in this price range generally are not.

Bike Lake Geneva

I liked it when I was young. Back then, I thought my parents refusal to buy me things was part of some master plan carefully engineered to teach me responsibility. By refusing to buy me the things that my friends parents’ bought them I figured they were showing me that in order to have nice things I’d need to work for them. I thought it was good, noble parenting. Today, as I think about it, the real reason for that refusal was simple, overwhelming, cheapness. This cheapness is why I was forced to buy my own mountain bike, and what a mountain bike it was.

I was in Junior High, and had been routinely canvassing Fontana Outdoor Sports, looking at the shiny bikes of varying makes and models. After months of deliberation, mixed with denials of funding assistance from those cheap parents, I decided on the Nishiki Manitoba. This wasn’t the Giant, or the Trek, or the Specialized, as some of my friends had, but it was a mountain bike, and it was shiny and new and it had all sorts of beefy bits and those knobby tires. It seemed exotic to me, this combination of a word that might be Japanese, maybe Chinese, at the time it didn’t matter. It was a far away land, some place where they new about mountain bikes, and they knew how to make them appeal to 13 year old Wisconsin kids. Adding the Manitoba as the model was exciting as well, because back then Manitoba was as foreign to me as Zimbabwe is now. Little did I know and less did I care that Manitoba was simply a nearby province full of flatness. I would have also had no way of knowing that my future wife would be from Manitoba, but this purchase likely set that event in motion as well.

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The bike was white, with black accents. I would ride it down to Doc’s to buy egg rolls, and one day after leaving Doc’s with an egg roll and a packet full of sweet and sour sauce, I saw Harry Caray leaving Harpoon Willies. I gathered the courage to approach him, and as he stumbled back to his car, with his handlers assisting at each shoulder, I had nothing autograph worthy to offer him except that receipt from that egg roll. CUBS WIN. HOLY COW. HARRY. He wrote over the faint receipt. I kept it for a while, but not for too long because the ink wore thin in the way it does when scratched on a convenience store receipt. The bike was there then, and until I was able to drive a car that bike was everything to me. Where it went I cannot know, but today it’s nowhere to be found.

Some years later after I had met and married that girl from Manitoba, we found ourselves back at Fontana Outdoor Sports, in search of bikes. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, so we deliberated for a short while and left the store that day with two shiny new mountain bikes. Mine was a Raleigh, and hers a Giant. They were very nice bikes. A week later we loaded them into our Jeep and drove to the place in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota where we had met only a few years before, and we rode our new mountain bikes around the dirt and gravel roads. Those bikes were perfect.

Then, a week or two after that, once we had returned to our home at the time, it was apparent that the remodeling project that was underway at said home was going to be too involved, too messy, too dusty, and we needed to leave for a temporary rental. We left, taking our clothes and dog with us, and left the mountain bikes safely stashed in the garage. The roofer whom I had chosen, likely a recent parolee, commented to me one day about how nice those two bikes were. Were they mine? I said they were. Were they new? I said yes. A few days later, my bike was gone. He was, after all, a male, and as such would have no use for a woman sized bike. I drove to his house to inquire as to the whereabouts of my bike, and he knew nothing about it. That day was approximately 12 years ago, and until yesterday that Raleigh was the last bike I had owned.

My newly torn calf muscle doesn’t encourage walking, but I found that pedaling a bicycle on mostly flat terrain didn’t bother that shamed muscle. So I stopped at Wheel and Sprocket and talked to a bearded kid who tried his best to put me into a bike that I had no interest in affording. After some resistance, I agreed to buy a basic Trek bike, something I wouldn’t have done if Mary Burke had won the governorship, but with her safely returned to political exile, I thought it would be nice to buy a Wisconsin bike. I stuffed the bike in the back of my fishing truck and drove home. I pedaled around the driveway, pleased that my calf still wasn’t interfered with, and leaned the bike against the far wall in my garage. I have no roofing projects scheduled, so it should be safe there.

This new biking idea was not born solely out of this leg injury. Instead, I had been thinking about it occasionally when driving past the Kettle Moraine bike trails while en route to and from Rushing Waters Trout Farm. These trails look significant, and they look popular, and on the corner of where the road heads towards the trails there’s a bike shop that looks as though it would be equally at home in Boulder. A year or more ago, my wife went with our children and their friends and they rode the White River Trail, just north of Lake Geneva. The ride was fun, I heard, but the disappointment that ensued once they found out that the small restaurant (Pedal and Cup) at the end of the trail was closed on that day wrecked the journey, at least temporarily. I wasn’t there, because I didn’t have a bike, because the Nishiki was no where to be found and my roofer was riding my Raleigh.

Lake Geneva Market Update

There’s very little in our way now. The ice has been turned back to water, the snow has melted, the streets have been swept clean of their winter dirt. Grass is greening, if slowly, and flowers have begun to flower, at least in yards other than mine. Geese are flying north, Robins are hopping around my yard, and my dogs are riddled with ticks. There are bugs again, lots of bugs flittering and fluttering, and there are people out walking in shorts and sweatshirts. Things have turned now, and while there is rain that we must now endure, the rain is our friend as it works to wash and scrub and bring life. Winter is over, spring is here, and summer is closer than the calendar would lead you to believe.

The market has taken notice, but as I scan the MLS this morning the activity seems scattered. There are just two lake access homes priced under $400k pending sale today. That’s surprising to me. Those two properties include one boring ranch in Cedar Point and a similarly boring ranch in Country Club Estates. I would expect that market to be much stronger at the moment, as prices under $400k have been rather flat over the past 24 months, and it seems to me that this market should be spurred on by low interest rates, and perhaps more so by the impending increase in those low rates. Values in the Chicago suburbs have been faring well, stock market returns have been significant, and overall this is the sort of market segment that should benefit the most from those macro conditions. Alas, the lake access market isn’t as dynamic as I think it should be.

There’s a $435k house in Country Club Estates on a pretty cool lot pending sale to a buyer whom I’m happy to be representing, and then there are two homes pending in Glenwood Springs right now. One is a painted up cottage, cute enough to sell very quickly. The other is a tear down variety on a couple of lots. Both are priced in the upper $400s. The market continues its pace from 2014 for one segment, and three homes are pending in the $600-700s. I’m a fan of the Hollybush property that’s pending at an ask of $725k, as it’s close to the lake and in a quality setting. We’ll see what happens with that one, but I’m guessing it’s a great candidate for a major renovation. There are two homes in Loramoor, both priced in the upper $600s, both pending sale. One is a decent ranch home with slip, the other a spectacularly unique older home, one of the original Loramoor estate structures. It’s a very cool house, and I like it rather seriously. However, it’s an absolute project, and as someone that has tackled some serious projects in my life this home makes me wonder if I’d be up to the task. This, coming from the guy that hand dug a crawl space so I could lay proper stringers before re-flooring. Loramoor is a great spot, but that’s a serious project.

Speaking of Loramoor and serious projects, the massive stable building has come back to market in the mid $1MM’s. That’s the home that was owned by famed cartoonist Joe Martin, and took approximately 77 years to sell. When it sold, the market was relieved. Now, just a short while later, it’s back to market, after enduring some considerable updating. It’s a flip at this point, and we’ll see if there’s a taker for this monstrous structure now that the hard renovation work has been done. It’s one of those unique properties that offers extreme value if the value is being based on the 16,000 square feet, but it also fits oddly into the lake access market purely by the virtue of that massive footage. We’ll see if there’s a taker, and I hope there is, as one property should never have to spend most of its life with its thumb out, begging for someone to stop.

The lakefront market still features only two on-market pending contracts. One for the shared pier house that blinds my tender eyes, the other of the Bonnie Brae house that seeks to set a new market high for this cycle. Both are difficult sales for me to comment on fairly, so we’ll just mention them and move on. There are other pending sales, but they’re off-market. A house at the old Westgate property is pending in the low $3s, and a modest home on modest frontage on the north shore of Fontana is pending under $2MM. I’d consider that one a tear down, so there’s a large price per foot being payed for dirt. Just my opinion, of course. There’s a sale that I have pending on the South Shore priced over $2MM, and that should close within 6 weeks. That deal features a rare combo for me of both a buyer and a seller whom I really enjoy working with.

For these contracts, I continue to see value, but it’s not widespread like it was a few years ago. I’ve written it often, but it bears repeating every so often, just to serve as a reminder to those who enjoy getting ahead of themselves. A market that inspires confidence is a market that encourages mistakes, and I’m seeing plenty of those mistakes being made right now. The lakefront market on Geneva is one that begs compromise, no matter your price point, but buyers must remain vigilant to only buy that which meets most of their criteria. For instance, if you want to be in Fontana, and you want level frontage, that’s a tremendous, lofty goal. If you find that, and the house is a disaster and there’s an active uranium mine in the front yard, perhaps you should consider taking a pass. The same goes for a property that you find to be acceptable, except that it’s priced a billion dollars over the market. This might be a good one to pass on. If you find a property you like and the price is fitting and the house needs a new kitchen and maybe some bathroom work, this is something you buy. You buy the things you cannot change. You buy quality land at a quality market price, and you make the rest work over time.

Speaking of time, I encourage market patience at all times, but if you’re thinking this summer should be spent lakeside, you’re running out of time.

Ice Is Out

I suppose a better person wouldn’t have to do what I have to do. But, alas, it goes something like this:

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Today, we must guess. Not for prize, but for pride. Add a comment to this post if you have a good idea as to when ice-out will be complete. For this post, ice out is considered complete when the area between Gage Marine, Cedar Point, Rainbow Point, and Conference Point has all been turned to water. My guess is April 2, but that’s just because I’m pretty certain that’s when it will actually be.

I wrote that here on March 13th. Yesterday, on the day that I proclaimed to be the day the ice would leave, the ice, indeed, left. You could work with a Realtor who lacks that sort of incredible predictive qualities, but why would you? I know if I had a choice of working with someone who could accurately foresee future events I’d likely work with him, or her. I’m guessing other Realtors will now read this and be upset with me for proclaiming this previously unknown prophetic prowess, as they tend to be upset with me whenever I say things like that, or whenever I say anything at all.

It’s a shortened Easter weekend post today. No opining needed. Have a tremendous Holiday weekend and maybe make sure it includes some Lake Geneva time. One client of mine, when I asked him if he was coming up this weekend, said he couldn’t come up, because he had Easter eggs to hide. As a long time aficionado of the Easter Egg Hunt (EEH) I can attest to the regenerative qualities of a hunt that takes place lakeside, as my mother and father (only my mother, really) hid eggs along the shoreline in our front yard from the time any of us can remember and up to, and including, this coming weekend. We have churches in Lake Geneva, too, all sorts of varieties, so there’s really no excuse that we’ll accept if you choose to stay at home in the boring suburbs or worse, the city.

I’ll be out and about, working and playing, churching and egg hiding. Oh, and remember that braggadocios post from earlier this week about how I had lost some weight? Within hours of writing that I tore the calf muscle in my right leg, so perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything. See you at the lake, the newly opened lake, the one that’s just as big and blue and bright as we all remember it.

Good and Bad

In all things, there is good and bad. Some call this the silver lining, but I’ve never seen, with these two eyes, an actual silver lining on anything. Like if I see a green bush against a blue lake, I don’t see any silver between the blue and the green. If I see a cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky, do I see a silver lining around that cloud, between said cloud and so much sky? Not really. I mean, I suppose I could see it, but I’d rather just see the cloud and the sky, with no lining involved. That’s why I think it’s best to just see good and bad in each thing.

For instance, I recently saw the spring issue of a Lake Geneva real estate publication. The magazine is pretty nice, for once. It’s sort of all around better than it was before. This could bother me, but it doesn’t. Instead, I’ll just applaud the improved look and feel somewhat flattered that the new look is the same as my publication’s old look. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m blushing.

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And about that blushing, I’ve been doing slightly less of it lately. The good news is that I’ve successfully lost 35 pounds. This is good, it’s really quite good. I’m pretty happy about it, but there’s on small catch to the whole thing. I’m still awfully fat, which is bad, though I am less fat, which is good. It’s like having to eat the ol’ 96er and feeling great after having eaten all of it. Then the chef tells you that you must eat the gristle, too. I’ll just keep at it, and hopefully once I lose another 20 pounds I’ll only then be mostly fat, not entirely so.

I have some new listings, which is really great. I have those two new condominiums for sale, which is cool. I also have a new lakefront listing on Bonnie Brae for $3.39MM. I’m happier still to have a different new lakefront listing that’s only available directly to my clients (you should be one), and I have another lakefront coming to market next week. I also have a lakefront deal pending that should close in the next 6 weeks, barring any intervention from non-local appraisers. I have a closing coming up in Country Club Estates, so I’m pleased with that and pleased for the buyers. But for those good things, I also see that I have many lakefront homes for sale and very few under contract. That means I have lots of work to do, and it means I’ll be fired en masse if I don’t get to selling some of these.

My house, it’s really pretty neat. I’m more happy about it now than I have been before, and that’s because I’m finally finishing those unfinished bits. For instance, the living room is pretty big, and it’s cavernous and somewhat annoying. One wall, in particular, is really pretty stark. It’s disappointing, that wall. I either needed to buy a piece of art the size of the American flag that flies outside of any Perkins restaurant, or I needed to build something to make the wall less obvious. So build something I did, and now that there’s something built on that wall, it’s pretty good. But the down side to that upside is that there’s a new television in that thing I built, so now TV noise comes from the main television location and now again from this new television location. This is less than ideal.

The ice, it’s almost gone. This is terrific! But the ice, it’s still there. It’s dying, but it’s been dying for so long that it’s getting annoying. It’s like being called in to see your grandmother because she’s dying. This is horrible, and so you say goodbye. Then, later, at Thanksgiving, your grandma is still alive, and she’s eating most of the green jello, the one with the pineapple bits in it. Later, around Christmas, your grandmother is dying again. So you go see her, and this is again sad. But later, at Easter, your grandmother is there, and she eats not one, but two Cadberry cream eggs and you’re like, what’s with grandma, she’s not even supposed to be here.

Then this morning, my dog came running to the door when I opened it, and he ate a treat and then stretched his big, gangly legs out in front of him so that he might take a nap. This was really a great thing, and a napping dog is a good dog. But the previous two hours where spent with me yelling out the front door, then yelling out the back door, then opening the garage door and yelling out of that door, too. Then, I got in the car and drove away, thinking the dog might follow me and then I could apprehend him. Later, I threw treats out the window, like Napoleon Dynamite feeding Tina. I cursed quite a surprising bit. I paced the house, the long hall suitable for such frustration. Later, after some of these hours had gone by, I called my wife to scold her for being gone visiting her family and making me suffer with this stubborn dog like I was. Then, I thought about shooting a shotgun into the air, thinking the dog might take this as a sign that I was, after all, dead serious. Now, I’m at the office and I’m writing this really pedestrian post, but the good news is that the dog is inside. Gnawing on the corner of the couch.

New Lakefront Condominiums

By now, everyone knows the lakefront market experienced its pricing peak in the middle of 2008. Or at least everyone should know that. What’s lesser known is that by the time the single family market peaked, the condominium market had already begun its descent. Sure, there were a few heavy lakefront condo sales in 2008, but not everyone was convinced of the coming storm at exactly the same time. This is why even as some were running for cover others were marching forward, convinced that prices would increase for ever and ever. The condo market began to feel a bit strange in 2007, as sellers were mostly presenting their properties at exceedingly expensive list prices, and buyers were beginning to balk. Smart sellers cut and ran in 2007 and 2008, but the market is still full of sellers who foolishly held out for more even in those times of excess.

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The Fontana Club is a condominium in Glenwood Springs, right smack dab on Fontana’s southern shore. It’s a rare condominium in a purely residential neighborhood, and it fits in with the surroundings in a way that no other lakefront condo might. Bay Colony is not subtle. Simply by comprehension of the English language you could assume that Geneva Towers is not modest. The Fontana Club is both of those things, and the Fontana Club pricing peaked on a summer day in 2005 when a buyer wandered into a For Sale By Owner open house and struck a deal to pay $635k for a two bedroom condo without a boatslip. The market yawned at the sale, but I knew that the end of the bull run had to be nearing. I was off on my broad-market timing, but the Fontana Club market peaked that day and it’s been resetting, trying to find its balance ever since.

In the spring of 2013, I brought a two bedroom Fontana Club unit to market for $549k. The price was a bit stiff, but don’t forget the $635k from 2005. Lord knows that no owners have forgotten. We danced away the last two seasons at that higher price range, and just last week came back to market at $489k. That price represents a reduction from peak of 23%, which is an awfully nice way to measure the correctness of the current number. These units sold for around $395k way back in 2000, so here’s a seller who has taken impeccable care of his lakefront penthouse, and he’s now trying to give it to the market for a mere penance over what he paid some 15 years ago. It’s a good deal, but only if you’re the sort of person who likes huge lake views and grassy lakeside lawns. If you don’t like those things, Michigan is a-calling.

Not to be outdone by myself, I listed yet another lakefront condo last week. This one is at Vista Del Lago, which is a terrific development if you plan to be an active vacation home owner. If you want to sit and look at the water, Fontana Club is for you. If you want to sit and look at the water in between playing tennis, swimming in the lake in summer and the indoor pool in winter, boating, walking to town, then Vista Del Lago is more your speed. These are several unit styles at Vista. There are two bedroom units in the back of the complex that don’t face the lake. Lame. There are two bedroom units that face the lake, but they’re small. There are three bedroom units which are nice, but they generally have low ceilings and both tall and easily claustrophobic. Which is why when asked over the weekend if I’ve recently watched The Hunt For Red October I quickly declined. Even thinking about submarines makes me feel uncomfortable. Vista also has four bedroom units, big, bold units with lofts and all sorts of space. Of course that’s the one I listed last week, because I care about everyone.

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This $585k unit has the aforementioned four bedrooms, but it has so much more. There’s a fireplace, a huge lakeside balcony, a garage, in-unit laundry, and a top floor location that means that the only foot stomping you’ll hear will be your own. There’s a deep-water boatslip, which is important to note because Vista does have some shallow slips that you’d rather not deal with. Vista is also easily walkable to downtown Lake Geneva, but it isn’t so close that you’re having to put up with all those tourists at your doorstep (you heard me, Geneva Towers). These are the facts about Vista, but the real value here is in both those amenities and the condition of this condominium. The kitchen has been torn out and replaced, the confining wall that blocked the living room from the kitchen has been done away with. The bathrooms are new and fabulous, the flooring new and the paint tasteful. Realtors love to tell you that all the work has been done, and that all you need to do is bring your bathing suit.

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All the work has been done, but bathing suits, so long as you promise to only swim long after dark, are rather optional. You may get in trouble with the association, and you may have to explain yourself at the annual association meeting, but still. Also, you may get fired from your job for indecent exposure, and then you’re going to have one heck of a time getting a new job, but your unemployment can be made less stressful if you’re spending it lakeside. If you’ve been contemplating a lakefront condominium, now you have two options and no more excuses.

Lake Geneva @Brokers

The business of cell phone development is one wherein the initial technology has long ago been pioneered. Cell phones make phone calls, this is what they do. This is why they were invented. With that base technology in place, cell phone manufacturers sought to create better phones, faster, slimmer, sleeker, alas, shinier. They made them to make all sorts of sounds, first chimes and then rings and then submarine sounds and now whistles. They made them play music, to store it and then to stream it, they made them take pictures. They’ve all done basically the same thing for a long, long time now. Which is why the new business of cell phonery is aimed at convincing the public of perceived benefits, long after the real benefits have been cemented and made uniform.

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For instance, want to bump your phone against another phone to share something? We’ve completely got that covered. Want to turn your phone on without actually touching the phone? Check, been there, done that. Want to have a phone that talks back to you when you ask it a question? No big deal, we’ve been doing that for ages. These tweaks along the way do nothing to change the actual cell phone- the call making, the texting, the web surfing- they simply ad gadgetry to make you think that any particular cell phone is somehow better than the others. This is why perception matters, and this is why marketing and advertising are engineered to show consumers that perceived benefits are worth the switch, the upgrade, the cost increase. That’s because perception is more important than actual utility.

Soon, a great big, brash, real estate broker from Chicago is coming to Lake Geneva. They’re going to pump up our market with advertising, with slick this and shiny that. They’re going to tout their advantages, which they’ll presumably proclaim to be seller access to the Chicago MLS, access to their network of agents, access to their marketing. There will be precision bits of information, highly detailed statistics engineered to shock and awe, but the goal of the advertising will be to make vacation home owners aware that their brand is now available in Lake Geneva. That’s terrific news for me, because brands don’t sell houses. Agents do.

Another Chicago brokerage came here a couple of years ago. They have a network of Chicago agents, too, and they have some shiny and slick ads and sites. They have had limited success here, even though they can effectively proclaim the same advantages as the new company will bring. They aren’t as big, they aren’t as shiny, and they have only actual letters in their business name. But they have offered the same thing that the new company offers, only they’ve done it for a couple of years. The largest Chicago brokerage is Coldwell Banker. Coldwell isn’t the biggest broker by a little bit of volume, they’re the biggest broker by billions of dollars.

The news of this clunky behemoth’s arrival has spread quickly. They, of course, haven’t said anything yet, but the shenanigans have already begun. There’s to be a new office downtown Lake Geneva, which is likely because they were afraid to come to Williams Bay, which we all know to be the hotbed of real estate things and stuff. They likely wanted to come here but saw my new office and figured they’d choose the path of least resistance and tuck away into Lake Geneva, where they can blend in with the t-shirt shops and cafes. They’re going to take a few agents from Keefe, likely a few from Coldwell, ReMax, and Shorewest. They’ll start their advertising, and the advertising will be all about showing the market that it doesn’t know what it’s been missing. Except that the market has already had and dismissed what they’re offering. Access to Chicago agents and the MLS. It’s likely the largest perceived advantage that means absolutely nothing since the advent of that machine with the strap that wraps around your butt and jiggles all your fat away.

Not one to back down from a fight, I’m preparing a plan to provide even more advantages to my sellers (both perceived and actual), and in doing so will hopefully limit the appeal of this new fat band melting/real estate brokerage. There are things Chicago companies can offer, just as there are things that McDonald’s can offer. There’s a McDonalds in Lake Geneva and another one in Delavan. They sell a ton of breakfast sandwiches. In fact, they sell billions of them. Daddy Maxwells doesn’t sell breakfast sandwiches, not at all. But if I’m hungry and looking to eat breakfast in Lake Geneva, I’m going to head over to Daddy Maxwells. I’ll do so because Daddy Maxwells is Lake Geneva. It’s made in Lake Geneva, just like I am.

Geneva National On Fire

In basketball, the head fake is a pretty important variety of fake. It’s usually best if accompanied by a bit of a shoulder shrug, some elevation of the tops of the shoulders, or maybe a turn of the shoulders, depending on the direction of the head fake. It’s important, because it frees up space, which is what you need in this new game of basketball wherein nearly all of the shots are three pointers. You, with the ball. Your head, in fake position. Your shoulders, faking, too. Your hands, the ball, fake city. You make the move, the fake, and your opponent bites. Then you move aside and shoot a three pointer. My cousin Steph Curry does this very well, and why shouldn’t he? We worked on that together at family gatherings, and he’d know nothing about the head fake if not for me. (those last two sentences are not true)

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Geneva National also knows a thing or two about head fakes. It’s been keen on giving one or two during the early spring of a few of the past years. Sales ramp up, pending contracts rise, and GN looks as though it’s completely and entirely cured of whatever has ailed it. This happened in 2013. Unfortunately, the reason the early activity proved to be purely a head fake is because the volume stalled, prices sagged, and the year ended up being nothing like it started out to be. Last year, in 2014, Geneva National didn’t even bother with the spring head fake. From January 1st through March 25th, 2014 GN only recorded 6 home or condominium sales. Head faking can get tiresome, and GN decided it would rather rest last year than attempt to go through the motions of a continuing recovery. This year, it’s back to its 2013 form, and it’s either mending or faking. It’s too early to tell.

So far in 2015, Geneva National has printed thirteen home sales, four of which were single family and the remainder of the condominium variety. That’s impressive, compared to the miserable performance of the prior year, but what’s really quite attention grabbing is the number of pending sales. I counted 16 pending sales this morning, which is significant. There are just 96 homes and condominiums available in GN as of this morning, and those 16 others pending sale. That makes me really quite happy on behalf of Geneva National, as I continue to believe that there’s no real reason that the properties there should be forced to suffer as they have. We’ve discussed this at length before, but it’s important to remember that GN suffers from a very simple absorption problem, not some fundamental problem with the property itself. Simply put, GN requires lots of sales annually to keep the gears of its market effectively greased, and lots of sales in individual segments is not something that the Lake Geneva market does particularly well.

As a point of fact, there are seven single family homes pending sale in GN, priced from the upper $300s to nearly $1MM. The single family market in GN, especially those homes priced under $600k, provides considerable value in this marketplace, and it’s nice to see the market recognizing that. As to where the GN market is at in terms of this last decade cycle, it’s hard to say. I don’t think it’s keeping pace with the pricing recovery in the broader Lake Geneva vacation home market, which is likely at par with 2005 valuations right now. GN is likely still back at 2003 pricing, and because the prices have stalled in this recovery, plenty of value exists.

One particular pending condominium in GN caught my eye this morning. It’s currently under contract at an asking price of $320k. That home sold in 2010 for $349k. So GN from 2010 to 2015 has, at least in one anecdotal case, lost value. Compare that to the $4MM listing on Bonnie Brae priced at nearly $1.4MM more than it sold for in 2011. That’s the one that’s pending sale now, and we’ll see just how much one buyer and his agent thought the market appreciated since then. Seems to me that Geneva National is not the same as the lakefront market, but it’s interesting to note the printed prices of these other markets and contrast them to the lakefront market. For a reminder, I think the market is up, at least as a broad measure, 10-15% since the market bottom of 2011/12.

Today, let’s celebrate Geneva National and their blazing start to 2015. The inventory is light, but tons of value still exists. If I’m a buyer in GN, I’m avoiding new enclaves of condominiums, because I don’t trust the developers to uphold current pricing in the event that the market softens while inventory still remains. I’d be looking to pick off single family homes that look cheap, and I’d be focusing on built-out condo enclaves, the sort that have a history of sales that would allow me to easily ascertain current value. If Geneva National interests you, I’m pretty sure no one knows it better than I do.

Patience

Of myself, there is very little that I don’t, or that I won’t, share here. I tell you about my struggles and about my successes. I tell you of my disappointments and of my points of pride, and I do this so that you’ll know me and see that I am nothing more than a guy who knows Lake Geneva extraordinarily well, who also happens to want to sell you your own piece of this lake so that you, too, may live the life that I tell you about living. It really isn’t that hard. If I sold you something every second of every day, where would the discernment be? If I lack discernment, how can I claim to be a valuable asset to anyone searching or selling here? If I lack opinions, and I try to make my timing your timing, then how could I consider myself a trusted advisor and not a simple buy-this-NOW salesman? That’s why I tell you about my life, and that’s why I’m telling you about what I’m considering now.

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It is no great secret that I have taken to fly fishing like my dogs take to the shade on a hot summer afternoon. I find peace in this particular pursuit, and I enjoy it so very much. I am not in any danger of becoming my cousin, the one who decided to move to Montana to be a fly fishing guide, because I like Wisconsin far more than I could ever like Montana. Montana is for cigar chomping bankers, the ones who like to put pictures of large, colorful trout on their office walls, designed to foretell their experience and their proficiency. Wisconsin is for someone like me, who enjoys the challenge and skill necessary to work for that success. It requires effort and patience, and solitude- the latter two both being things that I need more of, at least at times. Further, a land purchase in Wisconsin allows me to live in Lake Geneva, to work in Lake Geneva, to do what it is I love to do most of the time while fleeting away some of the time to grab that skinny graphite wand and wait for the dimple of a rising trout.

This is why I’ve been slowly looking for some land in these trout areas. I started looking casually, just peripherally. One eye open to the thought, but mostly only considering such a purchase on a whim, or in moments of fancy that were not held on to for all that long. But more recently the thought has progressed from fancy to actuality, and I have been cruising the MLS not solely for Walworth County, but for this other county as well. What started as a possibility has become a strong desire, and in this I have submitted myself to the same process that my cherished clients have endured, or are currently enduring. It’s our thoughts that drive these moves, and when the thoughts become too much, action follows. It’s the same if you’re looking for a lakefront home on the South Shore or a piece of land with a small stream running through it.

So what would I do with this land? Why would I buy it? Well, I’d do very little with it. I’d treat it as city people treat farm land, perhaps that land that they bought as a hedge or land that they inherited from a prior generation that viewed that land in an entirely different way that would have considered casual ownership a shame. I’m seeking to buy land because they aren’t making more of it. I’m seeking to buy land, not just any land, because I see the scarcity of it all and sense that future values will improve. I’m buying land to stand on, to fish on, to look at, to consider. I’m buying land because I’ve made up my mind that I must have this thing that I really don’t need.

The exercise of doing this has given me lots of insight into the struggles of anyone considering a property purchase at Lake Geneva. The idea starts off as a dream, slowly becomes a reality, and possibly, over some length of time, becomes a tedious nightmare before turning into the sweetest of weekend dreams. I have now felt the formation of location preferences, of pricing sensitivities and insensitivities- that process through which an idea starts off as a $500k lake cottage and ends up being a $2MM lakefront purchase. This happens often, and I understand it, though I am in no danger of pushing my pricing limits for land that isn’t all that usable, in a place that isn’t all that close to here. I see, however, how property acquisitions evolve, and it’s been a valuable lesson. I love owning real estate, which is why I move constantly, but would you have it any other way? Who wants a Realtor who doesn’t enjoy the process of real estate? Not me.

Perhaps most importantly, I have been learning patience. I have been off and on with this hunt for more than a year, and I may be closer now to a purchase than I was then, but who could tell? Am I nearing the finish line in this hunt or just barely beginning the process? Am I about to buy something or about to be forever a looker, intent to wait to find the perfect thing and not, in the mean time, buying the sort-of-perfect-thing? I’m sensing the patience that is required to buy something that you don’t really need, and it has me thinking about my clients again, and moreover, my would be clients. I have been searching, contentedly, for a long time. I have been patient, and as the Realtor for my own interests, I see the immense value in patience.

Perhaps if your agent doesn’t see the value in discernment, and in the value in dreams slightly deferred, maybe that means you should have another agent. Don’t get me wrong, I’d really like you to buy a house from me, like yesterday, as my 2015 volume numbers are a bit miserable, but do I want you to buy a house from me or would I like to help you buy the house for you? Do I want to sell you something, anything, because I need volume and I crave it? Or do I want to help you on your pace, calling out value when it presents, and telling you to jump but understanding if you don’t? The answer has always been obvious, but going through my own purchase exercise I’ve seen the value in dedicated patience, and I’m more committed to it than ever. But, like all matters of real estate that require patience, I cannot know what I should do to help you in your personal search if you don’t tell me what it is you’re looking for.

Two Cedar Point Lakefront Sales

Earlier this year, a famous flame thrower bought a lakefront house in Fontana. The house was large. It was fancy, with a master bedroom suite to die for and the most obvious of fanciful additions- a wine cellar. Not just any wine cellar, but one with some grape leaves and corks used as decoration. The house was up on a hill, with 100′ of lakefront, but that lot wasn’t large, or was it deep, in fact, at 100′ it was barely wide enough at all. $3.8MM was the price for this home, proving that the market doesn’t always care about quality of land in the event that there are grape leaves and corks.

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Last week, a home in Williams Bay sold. Well, two homes sold, both lakefront, both within a stones throw of each other, but only if that Fontana Flame Thrower was doing the chucking. This lot was 114′ wide, and the views from this spot on the easterly side of Cedar Point are really quite special. The views to the westerly side of the point are better, but still. The lot was similar to that Fontana lot, though the property in the Bay is not as steep, and the frontage even wider.

The home was nice enough, a tudor of sorts, if we’re taking to calling something tudor only because it has the exterior of a tudor, that being some stucco and some wood boards that divide up the stucco. It wasn’t fancy, but it was nice, and it was clean, and for $2.125MM it was a nice sale for the buyer and a reasonable price for the seller. Since I’m keen on disliking deals that I wasn’t part of, you’ll know that I mean it from the bottom of my heart when I say that I actually like this sale. I would have liked it a whole lot better sub-$2, but that’s just because I like securing extreme value for my buying customers.

There was a time when I’d argue that a house like this in a location like that would always want to be a house in that same price range. In other words, a house like that for that price is best not tinkered with. My thinking being, if that home undergoes a significant remodel, and the new owner sticks another $500k into that home, is that a good application of funds, relative to the possible future value? I’d generally say no, that such a remodel here should be avoided, but the $3.8MM sale in Fontana earlier this year- a sale that I do not believe to be an outlier- shows that fancy and shiny almost always trumps property, so if the new owner wishes to gild the walls, then gild away.

Down the road a bit, where Circle turns to Lincoln, another lakefront sale printed. $1.3MM for this one, a full price transaction was the result of multiple bids. So did the winner of the bid actually win? I’d say I don’t think so. Yes, that new owner did get on the lake for $1.3MM. That’s always a nice thing. And that buyer just bought a very charming old home, one that I think would do nicely with a lipstick remodel. But $1.3MM buys those things and a shared pier, and in case you forgot how I feel about shared piers, I do not like them, not one bit.

I do not like them with a charming house. I do not like them with a pleasant view. I do not like them for $1.6MM, and I do not like them for $1.3MM. I did not like them at the market peak, and I certainly don’t like them now. I will not like them in a year or two. I’ll never like a shared pier. Ever.

But I was not the buyer of this house, so we’ll chalk this one up to the variety of life dictating somewhat curious purchase decisions. The home likely sold because of that severe drought of quality entry level homes, as I’d bet in the face of considerable competition this home would not have generated such immediate activity. Whether or not I like the sale is a non-issue, as it simply removes another piece of inventory and makes the remainder of the active market that much stronger.

Lakeside Thanksgiving

I think it’s good that we give our Federally mandated Thanks next week. It’s good because I have had harvest decorations up around my house for a month or so, including corn strapped to my front porch, some weeds tied into a clump on my front and my back doors, and some pumpkins scattered here and there. Some of those pumpkins came from my own garden, where it’s always a surprise when something that was purposefully planted actually grows and sends forth its fleshy fruit. Harvest time in that garden is less, “let’s go harvest some pumpkins”, and more, “hey, I accidentally stepped on this pumpkin that was hidden under these weeds- let’s bring it inside and set it on the table“.

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Other pumpkins came from a wheelbarrow. This wasn’t any wheelbarrow, mind you, it was a special wheelbarrow that wasn’t special at all until we loaded hundreds of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds into and on top of it. With the help of a physics minded friend, we made that wheelbarrow into a legend, and fit more pumpkins on it than anyone had ever fit before, and indeed more than anyone will ever fit again. This wasn’t just some sloppy loading of pumpkins into a wheelbarrow, this was science. And science, as we all know, only exists for our pumpkiny exploitation.

But Thanksgiving. Sometime a few weeks ago, there were pumpkins and hung up weeds and corn lashed to posts, but there were also snowmen figurines, some Joy To The World tins, and a statue of Santa fly-fishing. Christmas had forced its way into Thanksgiving, or more accurately, before Thanksgiving. Harvest time has been confused with gift giving, collecting corn from fields had been disguised as coupon collecting. Black Friday was no longer the culmination of so much November shopping restraint, because Black Wednesday and Black Tuesday and Black Monday, they’ve all existed for the better part of this month. Thanksgiving has been usurped.

It’s a weather thing, to be sure, with snow and single digit temperatures and red cups at Starbucks. There are many forces at work here, which is why I stand alone in my defense of Thanksgiving, which has always, up until right now, been my favorite Holiday. I like the look of Thanksgiving, the sepia of the scenery and the still of the woods and waters. I like the cold air that isn’t so terribly cold. I like the ground that crunches under foot, but the sounds of leaf and stale grass crunching, not ice and snow. I like so many things about Thanksgiving, but this year, things are all out of place and I’m weary.

As I think of next week, and of Thanksgiving, I have one bit of advice. If you own a vacation home here, any one of any size, but one with a fireplace, then I think you should spend Thanksgiving in that home. Thanksgiving in the suburbs is fine, but Thanksgiving at the lake is so much better. This shouldn’t really be advice that I even need to give. This advice should be obvious. Family lives in city or suburbs. Family flees on Wednesday, to the lake. Family dines and laughs and throws footballs on Thursday. Family drives on Friday to cut down their Christmas tree, if that’s their bag. Black Friday sales can wait, there are trees to be chopped.

There’s little else I can say on this topic. Thanksgiving at the lake. That’s what you need to do. I’m saying this now so that you have time to plan. How’s the plan go? Like this: Email everyone who will be in attendance for Thanksgiving dinner. Tell them it’s at the lake. Give your address. Tell them to bring desserts and side dishes, depending on which side of the aisle they sat on at your wedding.

The War

It was still warm when everyone told us it would be cold. They said that the cold would come from the north, which is where everyone already knew it came from. It would come early, stay late, and impose its will on all of us for the entirety of the in between. The men who told us this were the weathermen. There are weather women, to be sure, but not nearly as many of them. This is because weather men start weather college with the goal of becoming an anchor. That’s what they all want to be. So they press their suits, two for the price of one at the mall, and they comb their hair tight. They will be anchors, all of them, except that there isn’t room for all of them. The ones with too much personality, too much giggle in their voice and too much slouch in their shoulders, they become the weather men. Stoic posture and a serious smile is the requirement to anchor, but the absence or squishiness of both is what qualifies for weather man. They all smiled and slouched and then said it would be cold.

They said it would be so cold, so early, that many citizens chose to abandon their posts and flee. Cold Dodgers, that’s what we called them, they left for warmer climes, where the cold would reach but not for very long. The cold mass would march towards them, easily conquering this state and the ones around it, and even the ones under it down south, where most had felt they would be safe. Tennessee never stood a chance, as they fell on a Tuesday when the temperature never warmed above freezing, and the snow that fell on Monday stayed all of Tuesday and into Wednesday. Those in the south saw this coming, and they tried to beat it back. They held the state line, and fought it for most of the day, but at nightfall the attack was too relentless, the pressure too steady. They had only light jackets and regular shoes. “I can’t feel my toes!” The screams lasted deep into the night until they were only muffled pleas that sounded less like fighting than resignation.

Timmy was only 19. This wasn’t his time, and in another time, it wouldn’t have been his time at all. He knew the cold. He had visited his grandmother in Minnesota, once. It was Christmas, and while he can’t remember what he opened on that bountiful morning, he does remember walking from his car to the house. It was so cold. He made it half way, and thought of going back. Back to his car, back to the county road and the interstate system. He thought, half way from that car to that house, that he should leave while he still could. But he didn’t. And that night, he didn’t want to fight. His friends said it would be fun. It would be worth it, they said. Everyone was doing it. It was the right thing to do. So he went out that night, and he stayed out that night. He was last seen near a tire fire in the middle of town, huddled next to it but unresponsive. When his friends said they were leaving, that it was too cold, he just mumbled Minnesota. Minnesota.

Those who were in occupied territory did their best to continue as if nothing were wrong. Those who type for a living still typed, with heaters crowded under their desks to warm their legs. Their fingers were still cold, always cold. They blew on them, they stuck them in their pockets, they held them under the desk. Shirley did that on one late afternoon. The irony of it all was that she wasn’t supposed to be there that day. She was supposed to be at home, with her family, making dinner. But she wasn’t. She stayed on that day, because the snow was blowing and the weather man had said in such a cheery way that people should stay off the roads. So she did. She typed, blowing on her fingers, stuffing them in her pockets. When she reached under her desk, she touched the heater and burned the tips clear off of her fingers. She was only 37.

In the Free Territory, men still golfed. They knew what was going on above the line, and they talked about it like they cared. They had family behind that line, family living under that terrible reign. They talked about the war over lunch, on that patio that people down there have taken to calling verandas. They didn’t play golf last Friday morning, because they said it was too cold. They were so cocky just a few days before, certain that the lines would hold somewhere in the Carolinas and Westward to Georgia. They said there were good men there, men fighting along side their brothers, both the ones they knew and others they didn’t. But Friday morning they didn’t play golf because the line broke. It broke like it always did, late into the night on the heels of so much wind. There was no where that was safe. Maybe they’d play again next Friday, but there was no way to know. The weather man said not to count on it, but he was smiling when he said that. He was smiling the whole time.

Aspen Lane Sells

There’s a generally acknowledged acceptance of community. If we haven’t yet moved to a community, be it a town or a subdivision, we search for such a community populated by those who share similar opinions and goals. Diversity of thought is fine, but rarely does someone seek out an environment in which they vehemently disagree with those around them. This is, for instance, why I will never move to Madison. We look for communities where our would-be neighbors have the same hopes and goals as we do, and in most cases, if there is some unity of attitude there is a thriving community. This is why lake access associations are generally successful. Whenever you combine bunches of people in somewhat strict geographic constraints, you do have potential for conflict and strife. But when everyone just wants to swim from a pier and walk down a well-manicured parkway, things tend to work out just fine.

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Lake Geneva is loaded with associations. Some big and others small, some loud and others quiet, all of them clean, fun, and safe. But they are communities, these associations, and if you wish to avoid waving to like-minded neighbors, you might be better served in one of our spread out associations. These rare associations still offer community, with shared piers and lakeside parks, but when the communal high-fiving grows tedious, these associations offer a private respite from all that glad handing. Associations like the Lake Geneva Club, Shore Haven, Sybil Lane, and of course, our co-ops like the Congress Club, Harvard Club, and Belvidere Park, these all require some participation in the idea of community. These are tight associations, where everyone generally gets along, but where waiving and smiling is a requirement of most any summer Saturday. Sometimes, people wish to simply be alone.

That’s where other associations enter into the mix. I sold a home on Sidney Smith Lane earlier this year. For a little more than $800k, my client purchased a big home on a big wooded lot. His boat slip is at the end of a private drive, and if he wishes for community he can find it on that white pier. At the end of a pier day, he can retire to his property, to his woods and his long driveway, to be with his family without any interruption from passersby. I have a sale pending in Alta Vista, another association with the sort of supreme privacy that can only be offered by large platted lots. Other associations with lake access that match this similar description include Oak Glenn, the very private, very small association located off of Aspen Lane, in between Knollwood and Cedar Point Park. This little enclave has a handful of homes, a nice pier, and privacy galore. That’s why someone just bought the only available offering there for $498k. Large lot, lots of trees, close proximity to the lake, slip, two car garage. $498k? $498k.

This little chalet came to market in early 2013 for $599k. It wasn’t a bad deal at $599k, to be very fair. It was a simple house, sure, with a spiral staircase and a low basement ceiling, but it was a decent house that wasn’t entirely too old. The home sat on the market for all of 2013, then for nearly all of 2014. If a buyer were considering the Lake Geneva Club, similar dollars would have bought them a small two bedroom house built in the 1930s on a tiny lot, without a basement. The spiral staircase and low basement ceiling at this Aspen Lane cottage really, really hurt this property. I’d argue that these two factors are the only reasons you need to consider if you’re wondering why this home didn’t sell sooner, and for more money. I’d also argue that if this home were on a crawl space, without the spiral or the low basement ceiling, this home would have sold. If Germans still love David Hasselhof, then Midwesterners still hate spiral staircases and super low basement ceilings.

This sale brings up some questions about the market, but it answers more. The sale shows that the market is always going to think $500k for a house with a slip is a good idea. It also shows that buyers who are afraid of work generally miss the best values. There have been some sales this year of homes in less than stellar locations, priced around $1MM. If you gave me a $500k build budget, I could build you a spectacular vacation home on this Aspen lot, and if I wanted to be off-water for $1MM, I’d rather be on Aspen Lane than almost anywhere else around this lake. I’d also be willing to put $130k into this Aspen home, and have it be a more desirable finished product than any other available lake access home priced in the $600s. True value presents in many forms, but its easiest to find here when it’s disguised as a spiral staircase and a low basement ceiling.

Abbey Hill Sells

A few short years ago, there was a fire. Abbey Hill, the wooden alpine-styled condominiums on the hill near the stop and sock, suffered a casualty. The cause of the fire wasn’t necessarily known, though foul play was not a consideration, and when the smoke cleared the building that housed four condominiums at 850 Hillside was no more. I had a unit for sale there at the time, and my lockbox burned with the rest of it. My insurance company doubted my insistence that the lockbox had a key in it and one hundred thousand dollars cash, but still.

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That building was rebuilt, and owners had the chance to rebuild their old interiors. It might have been fun, it was certainly an annoyance, but when all was said and done Abbey Hill had one brand new building. A unit in that new building sold early this year, a bit north of $260k, and my sellers turned builders were once again sellers. $299k was the price to buy a two bedroom unit with a transitional third bedroom/den, attached garage, fireplace, and all that new. It was an aggressive price, sure, but if someone wished for a new unit at Abbey Hill they could either buy ours or head to the beach and pound the ground.

That unit sold this week for $295k. The sellers weren’t all that interested in selling, because Abbey Hill is a most pleasant place to watch the Fontana goings on. The buyers are young, as many of our buyers tend to be these days, and they felt the appeal of a new unit in an established setting to be too much to resist. I’m happy for them for their new vacation home, just as I am happy for my sellers that now move on to whatever is next.

Abbey Hill has gone through some gyrations over recent years. The bottom of this last cycle inflicted some serious damage at this condominium complex, but buyers have returned in a very big way. There are no lake rights at this hill. Lake rights. Those are magical words here, as the market has been primed for generations to seek private, exclusive access to that beautiful big body of water. It’s hard to break with that history, to consider something that doesn’t have access to be a vacation home setting, but Abbey Hill has successfully positioned itself as just that: The rare association to not have any specific access that still feels and functions like a vacation home community.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Abbey Hill. I like the style of the units, which I earlier described as Alpine styled even though that has nothing to do with anything. The spaces are unique without being strange, the square footage ample without being large. It’s a wonderful hybrid development, and it’s approachable in terms of acquisition cost and ownership cost, and that’s why so many people are drawn to it. Fontana is always desirable, and if you don’t like the high amenity, high fee setting of Abbey Springs, trade a spring for a hill and you’ll accomplish very much the same thing.

Six units have sold here in the past 12 months, priced from the very low $160k to this sale at $295k. There are just three units for sale today, and if I’m a vacation home buyer seeking something economical, I’m heading straight to Abbey Hill. That’s not true. First, I’d head to my office, which seems strange for me to do but in this scenario I’m being you. You should head to me. I’ll be here, at this office. But only sometimes, so you should probably call first.

North Shore Sells

When that one guy went to Alaska to live, he chose a spot with straight trees. Had he been truly rugged, he would have chosen a plot with crooked trees, like the boxelders and walnuts and mulberries that plague my land. It’s not all that difficult to chop down a straight little tree, strip it of its straight little bark, and put a notch into its straight little end. I could do that time and time again, and then some more, until I had something that looked like a cabin. What I’m having a hard time doing, however, is building something with my crooked trees. They’re lame. The old timey tools I bought have suffered some casualties- the wooden mallet broke in two while driving a dull hatchet into the unruly end grain of a crooked tree. The twisty-auger-drill is dull and unable to drill through anything. I have adjustments to make, mostly in finding straight trees and sharp tools, and mallets that don’t break. If this were real, I would have frozen to death by now.

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Alas, the civilized world that exists outside of my crooked tree line has printed a new lakefront deal. $1.5MM for the lakefront on the North Shore of Fontana, with 100′ of cliff like frontage both in front of, and behind the house. The sale is important for our market, as it proves that any property, at any time, will sell if the price is low enough and the adjacent inventory light enough. This property was not my listing, and while I brought many of my customers to those old concrete steps, I didn’t provide this buyer, either. This is not sustainable, the not listing and not selling of these lakefronts, but with a little help from my friends, we can avoid these sorts of embarrassments in the future. Onto the sale.

To describe this location as “North Shore Drive, Fontana”, is to give the location far too much credit. It’s off of North Shore Drive, sure, but it is a goat trail that parts with the paved road and extends towards the lake, following the cliff just long enough to provide access to eight or nine lakefront homes. If we were in a holler, walking this route in our boots and waders, with our fly rods and our fishing hats on, this would not be a difficult walk. But here, in this pristine place, this road is an anomaly. There’s a rumor that says these owners that access their lakefront homes via this route keep the road sketchy on purpose. The rumor goes that they don’t want to encourage tourist traffic, those wandering souls that dip and dive down any paved road, posted or otherwise. If this is why the road is as narrow and difficult as it is, then fine. If it’s this way for another reason, that other reason isn’t any good.

This lane is a mix of improved, over improved, under improved, and “what does improved mean?”. There are large homes, beautiful in nature and in practice, and there are others that remain mostly untouched by gentrification. The home that just sold for $1.5MM was on the untouched side, with very little improved here over the course of time. That vintage nature held much of the appeal, at least for me, as old homes that have not been butchered by some style-depraved decades are rare and should be celebrated. This home was that home, rare, possibly celebrated, but that slope. Front yard slopes are a fact of our hilly life. Homes perch, yards fall, the lake licks the shore far below. But back yard slopes that do not allow a convenient paved route to the home and garage are few and far between. This home was that few, and it was that far between, and the route to the house was troubled first by that goat trail then by an extreme twist and slope that led your car to these old steps. Steps. Lots of steps.

This home originally came to market in early 2012 for $2.195MM. That price, to be fair, wasn’t the worst price I’ve seen. It wasn’t a great price, either, and to understand that you must remember that January of 2012 was very close to our market bottom. Sales were rampant, yes, but prices were down. Two million dollars for this home wasn’t acceptable then, nor was any lower iteration of that number from that date until the summer of 2014.

Finally settling at $1.7MM, I knew this home was going to sell right. I wanted it to sell in the $1.4s, and had any one of the customers that I brought here thought the reward would be worth the work, I would have sold this in that range. $1.5MM is a fine sale price, but I sure would have loved this sale a whole lot more at $1.45MM. Even so, $1.5MM for 100′ of frontage on the north side of Fontana is a good enough win for me.

This sale continues the trend here, of moving these entry level lakefront homes, and slowly but surely removing them from the entry level market. This home will now either get demolished or remodeled, but whatever the avenue chosen, it will no longer be a $1.5MM home. Another one down, even fewer left. If you’re an entry level buyer, I’d like to work with you. I’d also like you to realize that every sale in this range is one less property that’s ever going to be available to you.

November Markets

I recognize that from time to time, or all the time, I sound like a broken record. I say the same things over and over again, disguised with different words and hidden inside different sentence structures, but mostly, the same. I do this because the writing that appears here three days a week is nothing more than the thoughts that are circling my own brain, and while I am many things I would argue that consistent is among the most noble of my adjectives. My real estate thoughts are based on very simple, very conservative ideas. Buy real estate because you love it, yes, but also buy it because it’s the right property at the right time. I admire those who go so deep into real estate that they guarantee their future monetary loss, but I don’t think that’s something we should all entertain. I also believe that location is more important than anything else, which is why I have long excelled at selling bad little cottages in terrific locations. Viking ranges can be added to good locations, but good locations cannot be added to badly located Viking ranges. This is how I think.

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I also think seasonally, and when the seasons change, so does my thinking. To write in May is to write of so much hope for what is about to come. To write in July is to celebrate the present, to look forward to the continuation of the divine months of summer. To write in November, as I proved last week, can be to write about either a whimsical love of harvest time, or to worry about our impending wintery doom. Alas, if I were writing from Hayward this morning, I doubt I would have anything pleasant to say about this early November sky. Likewise, if I gave up on seasons and moved Florida full time, you wouldn’t find me writing much about the weather. Climate consistency doesn’t encourage much written romance, it only encourages sun burns. So today, on this November morning, where the sky is as gray as I think it should be, I’ll write yet again about market timing. I wouldn’t have to keep writing about it if everyone would just listen.

While our Lake Geneva real estate market is impressively active, and contracts are as abundant as the grain in our granaries, there is a very easy truth to understand about this time of year. For those under contract pending a sale, well done. Winter is a fabulous season to try your new Lake Geneva vacation home on for size, and it’s also a great time to set about doing the improvements and the adjustments necessary to make that new house a suitable home by the time summer arrives. For other buyers, those who have yet to identify something they love, or something that they feel is priced well enough to possibly earn their affection, this should be a time of active hunting. Not of passive hunting, the sort that waits for some fresh meat to be laid upon your doorstep, but of active, face-painted, rifle toting, traipsing through the marsh and the woods, hunting. This is the time to find the weak members of our inventory herd, and apply very little mercy.

This time has not come just yet, mind you, but it’s coming. The market will remain active all winter, barring any economic disasters that tend to spook our buyers, but there is still a small sweet spot for those looking to bag a trophy. And, like the seasonal considerations of weather that I love and weather that I don’t love, this is the same advice that I’ve been giving for ions: Late November and early to mid December is the time to pour over aged inventory, to scrutinize it, to reconsider it, and to make an attempt at stealing it. I realize I’m not mixing metaphors, between stealing and hunting, but if this isn’t your first time visiting this site you’ll know that mixing metaphors is my middle moniker.

There are benefits and detriments to late season trophy hunting, and those are somewhat obvious. The benefit is that you’ll possibly be securing tremendous value. The detriment is that you’ll have to consider properties that you’ve already dismissed. That’s because new inventory, whether it’s November inventory or December inventory, won’t be subject to the same sort of motivation that may exist in aged inventory. See that lakefront over there? The one that’s been for sale for a year? That’s the one that might sell cheap if you lob in a December 5th bid. The new listing that just hit last Tuesday, that one isn’t something you should take aim at, because new inventory won’t be served with a similar side of seller motivation. I know I’ve written about this often, but I’ve also written about how much I like white piers.

Lake Geneva’s Dark Sky

I readily admit that I do not understand space. I can’t fathom what it is, how large it is, and the concept that there is no end to what I see when I look skyward on the darkest of nights is a concept that I find truly mind boggling. Apparently, I’m not alone in this wonder, as our inaccurate friends at Zillow have now told us that communities where the skies are especially dark are especially desirable. So called Dark Sky Communities like to boast that they are dark. It’s a sign of progress that we now view darkness as a positive, as so much of our ancestors lives were spent trying so desperately to get out of the dark. Now, prosperity dictates that we engage the dark, and the more affluent your dark sky community, the darker your sky.

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The folks at Zillow told the folks at the Wall Street Journal that the best luxury spot for dark sky viewing is Stinson, California. Stinson, it seems, is awfully dark at night. I’ve never been there, so while I’d like to take their word for it, one commenter keenly points out that the typical fog in Stinson would make the dark sky claim somewhat suspect. He’s a commenter on a website, which means he can’t be wrong. The great hamlet of Stinson has long attracted dark sky aficionados, which is why in 1895 they built a giant telescope there.

The telescope was to be the largest refractory telescope in the world, and even though the namesake of this giant telescope was a shady character with a penchant for dishonest dealings, the telescope was built. Mounted inside an 18′ telescope was a 40″ lens. It was as big as big could be, without making the lens so big that it would be ineffective at capturing far away objects, like, say, stars. Stinson was so proud of their scope!

Except that scope wasn’t built in Stinson, because who would want to build a giant telescope in Stinson? Not Mr. Yerkes, and that’s why he built it in Lake Geneva. The sky was dark, and winters cold and clear, and the proximity to civilization appealing. The observatory is still there, of course, and it’s still looking skyward. It’s a really nice telescope.

Lake Geneva, for some reason other than coastal bias, wasn’t included in the Zillow Dark Sky list. It’s outside of California, and not in the mountains of Colorado, nor is it on the Eastern seaboard, so it didn’t get any respect in the dark sky study. That doesn’t really matter, because unlike unmeaningful towns in morally corrupt states, Lake Geneva is a star. Would we have a giant telescope if this were not true?

So Stinson. It’s nice that you have some designation. We don’t have that designation, and that’s for our shame. But we have a giant telescope so big that even ol’ Albert Einstein came to take a gander through its lens. Did Al Einstein hang out in Stinson looking at the sky? Of course not. Stinson, when you get a telescope as big as ours, let us know.

Lake Geneva, dark sky certified since Chief Big Foot looked out of his tent and said “I’m not going out there, it’s too dark”.

November

If given a choice, most people would not say that they prefer November. There’s not much to November. In the progression, August is summer. It is filled with all sorts of special, the waters and the woods, the festivals and so much green. September, most would argue to be fall, but I argue that it’s summer, mostly. Some years summer, others years fall, it has no particular allegiance. It’s like March, a pivotal month that can swing to either side without any concern for our feelings. October, that’s fall. No doubt about it. Fall. The leaves are brilliant, the water still boat worthy, the temperatures vacillating between warm and cool, other times cold. It’s a great month, October. I think everyone can agree on that. Rauner supporters and Quinn supporters, some love bankruptcy and some don’t, but everyone loves October.

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November doesn’t inspire any romance. It doesn’t have any long breaks to celebrate it, like summer indulges. It doesn’t boast warmth and it doesn’t dress up in winter whites. It’s just a month, in between the month that we all love and the month that signals the start of winter. Winter, that’s a season that inspires much discussion. It’s a season we all love to loathe, but it’s a season with December magic. With holidays and football and sweaters and hot chocolate. You know who drinks hot chocolate in the summer? Communists. Of the several winter months, December is the only one that generates affection. If you moved to a warm weather climate, after being raised in the Midwest, we’re all so happy for you. But while you’re roasting under a December summer sun, you cannot tell me that you don’t miss the winters of your December youth. I think that’s a dirty secret, or at least an open lie, of those that move to the south to live their full time lives. They must pretend to not miss winter, and while they may indeed not miss any of January, they certainly miss December.

But November. It’s in between full on fall and full on, cheery, young winter. People sing about summer, and Paul Simon sang about spring and fall, but only Axl Rose sang about November. In doing so, he gave it no fair shake. There is no justice in telling everyone about cold November rain. There’s cold rain now, but there’s cold rain in October, too. June has miserable cold rain, as does May and April and, if we’re lucky, June. I’ve seen cold rain in August and felt it in July. December can offer up cold rain. November is nothing if not a month that falls between the first cold rain of the year and the last, so there’s no reason to think that November and cold rain go hand in hand, except for that memorable tune.

I see November today, and I like what I see. I see fields of grain, some standing and some mowed to the ground. I see combines driving at night, their lights bobbing through the fields, methodically, as if guided by GPS and piloted by farmers that are busily tucking their kids into bed via FaceTime. I see corn spilled on the county roads, spilled because the yields are so high, saving some of the pain caused by the prices that are so low. I see pumpkins in fields, strewn about, passed over by the pickers as being less than perfect, not exactly round, too green on one side or yellow on another. I see fields of grass, some bent and others upright, clumps here and there, providing hiding spots for fall deer and pheasants, for grouse and for turkeys. I can see into the woods now, with the leaves out of my way, and I see dimension in forests that in August showed only a dark green hedge. I see November, and I like it.

I used to see this month as a slow death, as a transition between what I loved and what I hated. I used to feel lost in this month, when I couldn’t boat nor fish nor stroll with sandaled feet. I used to hate the tease of open water that’s too cold to enjoy. I used to wish for it to be winter or fall, but always preferred summer. Now, I wish only for today. I wish for 50 degree days when the wind doesn’t blow. I wish for 48 degree afternoons when the rain comes, and blows hard and straight, or falls soft and distant. I don’t really mind any of this November weather. Warmth is unexpected, so it’s celebrated when it shows. Cold is expected, so it’s met with acceptance when it arrives, but a frosty field on a sunny November day is a view that I’d vote for any time it was on the ballot. October is so showy, I love it for the vibrance. December is filled with anticipation, for that first snow and that first wreath and for children’s faces on Christmas morning. But November is right now, and whether it’s raining or it’s sunny, whether it’s warm or it’s frigid, it fits my eye more now than it ever has before.

Lakefront Condo Market Update

Times were, a condo buyer was a condo buyer. They wanted a condo because they liked the idea of having someone to handle their maintenance for them, and they weren’t looking for anything but a condo. If they were looking for a condo on Geneva, they liked that they’d have a nice lake view, perhaps a boat slip, and maybe a pool or a tennis court or some other amenity. This is what they wanted, and they looked at condos until they found the condo they liked. Life was so simple back then.

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When the market sputtered, all segments of our vacation home market were thrown into some level of chaos. The condo market looked like it might suffer some serious foreclosure trouble, and one astute young man who writes a real estate blog speculated that lakefront condo foreclosures may become common. The theory was that condo buyers were often leveraged, and many condos sold at peak valuations. Throw in complete illiquidity, high monthly fees, somewhat high taxes, and you would have the makings of a mini-foreclosure boom. That was the theory, but that didn’t happen. Very few foreclosures occurred on the lakefront, but the market suffered nonetheless.

When buyers returned, they were no longer true condo buyers. Most were price range buyers, seeking out something to buy in a specific price range- say $500k. If you’re a $500k buyer, you have options here. You can buy a condo on the water, yes, with a lake view and maybe a slip and perhaps a pool, or you could buy a classic cottage, with a slip and no view, or maybe just a nice home off the lake a ways with no slip and no view, but a super shiny kitchen. Post-apocalypse buyers were rarely focused solely on condominiums, instead opting to explore all of their housing options, condo or otherwise. This open minded approach hurt the condo market.

There are macro forces at work that have also hurt the condo market. Our buyer at Lake Geneva can be anyone, but increasingly our buyers are young city dwellers. If you live in the city, in a condo or a narrow brownstone, you’re looking to get to the lake to escape congestion. Because of that, this buyer rarely looks at condominiums. They opt for cottages with yards, for those sort of single lane associations with community and freedom, like Shore Haven, or the Lake Geneva Club, or the Loch Vista Club. They aren’t looking for condominiums.

Another issue with the condo market is that the condo model has proven, time and time again, to be broken. Condominiums operate on the theory that every owner pays a little to the association every month, and when a repair is needed the association has the money to make that repair. It’s a nice idea, really, but perhaps it’s a bit naive. The way condos typically work is an association takes your monthly money, spends it on whatever, and then when the roof needs replacing they levy a special assessment to pay for the roof. The model is broken, and when you combine that with the demographic shift in our buyer base, you have the makings for a very slow lakefront condo market.

The good news, after all of that bad news, is that the condo market has finally recovered. There have been 10 lakefront condo sales YTD, and that’s a lot. At this time in 2013 we had only sold 3 lakefront condo units, so our volume this year speaks for itself. The inventory has also dwindled, with only 14 lakefront condos on the market today. There are units pending at Bay Colony (two have sold there this year), and one at Fontana Shores. Fontana Shores is probably the best value on the lake right now, as those units are able to be bought in the low $300s and while the building may not be much to look at, the views from those units are among the best on the lake.

Prices have fallen in these lakefront condominiums, but they really haven’t fallen as much as the broad vacation home market. I’d guess prices are about 20% off the peak, which is about right, the important difference being the lakefront condo market never plummeted to a 40% discount from peak in the same way that the single family market did. With the two units pending, I’d expect another two sales of other units yet this year, bringing the 2014 total volume to 14. That’s peak market volume, so perhaps the lakefront condo market isn’t really dead at all.