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Upper Bracket Lakefront Update

I rarely play the lottery. That’s not because I once won a huge sum of money via the lottery and now I don’t need to play the lottery, it’s just because I don’t ever win. If the lottery makes the news, and everyone is saying that everyone is buying tickets, then I, too, will buy some tickets. Usually five dollars worth, however many tickets that buys. That’s what I play, and when I do play, after I receive the computer generated combination of numbers, I am quite confident that I will be winning this lottery. I wonder why others even bother playing, given that their purchase will only serve to drive up my winning purse. I appreciate the other ticket buyers, I think, because of this. But when the numbers are drawn I rarely think about checking my paper stub. That’s because I know I’ll never, ever win.

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But between the time that I buy the tickets and the time that the actual winner finds out that he has won, I speculate what I’ll do with my riches. I’ll buy a few houses, in a few different spots. I’ll buy some cars and some watches, and flocks of bald eagles. I’ll give plenty of money away to organizations that deserve some money, and I’ll give at least a taste to my family members. How much I’ll give them depends on how much money is left after I buy all those miniature giraffes.

I think about which house I’ll buy, and I’ve generally decided that if Pat Ryan won’t sell me his house in the woods, I’ll just buy the next big thing out there. Will I care about the price? Very, very little. After all, I received that giant cardboard check and took the lump sum. I’ll find the best house with the best land in the best spot on the lake, and I’ll strike. I’ll buy other houses elsewhere in the country, too, and perhaps one in the Bahamas or Caymans where I’ll keep most of my gold bars. The houses I’ll buy in other places will be houses, but my lakefront masterpiece here will be my home. That’s what I’ll do with my money, when I win that lottery that I hardly ever play.

Aside from me winning the lottery, what else is there to move the epic estates on Geneva Lake? A drive around this lake on a boat will reveal stupendous amounts of wealth, and the cherished, manicured prizes that this wealth brings. There are estates that should be valued in the $20MM range, or higher. There are other estates where the investments into the property total near those numbers, regardless of what the actual market value is. There is tremendous wealth here, and the houses prove that. But are these homes liquid? Are the investments able to be traded as other investments? Are these high end properties conventional investments at all, where the return is measured in dollars and not in quality of life?

The upper bracket market on Geneva operates best through a series of smoke and mirrors. We have existing homes aplenty with valuations over $8MM. We have lots over $10MM and more over $15MM. Some are so impressive that they compete with the finest estates the global real estate market has to offer. Yet, for all the wealth and all the improved real estate, our market is at its best when this inventory never hits the MLS. Our market shows best when a drive around the lake showcases the homes themselves, not the gaudy real estate signs proclaiming FOR SALE on the piers and in the lawns. The market hosts huge properties worth huge sums of money, but the market operates most smoothly when these homes stay off the market.

There is weakness exposed when many marquee lakefronts hit the market during the same year, and that is the case today. We have a long history of success at Lake Geneva, of printing high dollar volume sales and spinning large tracts of land from own rich owner to another. What we do not have is any history that proves the properties priced in the $10MM range are liquid. We have, in the history of Lake Geneva, one sale that has printed over $8MM. That’s the Pritzker purchase of Casa Del Sueno ($9.7MM). That tells me that properties in the $10MM range are indeed liquid, assuming we have billionaires in the market at all times, which, of course, we do not.

So what of the current state of the high end Lake Geneva market? We have plenty of inventory, indeed more so than we have ever had in my lifetime. Yet, for the quality inventory and the overall strength of the lakefront market, we have yet to trade one of these large properties. Why? Is there a problem here? Is the market overheated, and thus the uber-rich are aware of that and are sitting on the sidelines? Is there something fundamentally wrong with Lake Geneva real estate? No, on all counts.

There’s a very simple reason why none of these elite listings have sold, as of yet. That reason, truly and profoundly, is because the upper bracket buyer has not yet presented himself (herself). In an exactingly precise, low volume market like ours, there are marquee buyers for marquee properties. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t have a situation like we have had recently at Alta Vista. A few years ago, a buyer bought a vacant lot for $6MM. Then built a house for untold sums of money, then bought the neighboring lakefront house for $3.8MM (give or take), and tore it down. Then purchased a small off-water home behind his estate for $880k (or thereabouts). This investment is likely approaching $20MM. This is the sort of buyer that buys high end property on Lake Geneva, but this is the sort of buyer that only presents every now and then. This is not a standard issue buyer, and those properties looking for this caliber of client must simply wait for the buyer to appear.

That sounds simple, but it’s actually the key to understanding the high end market on Lake Geneva. If a house is listed at $7MM and it hasn’t sold, what does that tell us? Well, if the house is at all in the price range it should be, and that’s always a big if, and if the broker representing the property is somewhat competent (again, a big if), then what’s the reason that it hasn’t sold? Should we reduce the price, from $7MM to $6.9MM? Will that attract the buyer we seek? Nah, instead we should stay the course and realize that these upper bracket buyers are rare, with an average of one coming to this market per year, and we must simply wait for the timing to be right. If we advertise in China’s top newspaper, will that yield a $7MM buyer for Lake Geneva real estate? Not likely. That $7MM home will sell when a family with a Lake Geneva connection sells their family business for a couple hundred mil and decides that the time is right to put down roots on these shores. Or when a buyer has admired Lake Geneva from afar for years, and then finds the financial ability to make a big splash and enter the market in style. That’s when an upper bracket lakefront sells. In the mean time? Crickets.

Jam

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If you pick a basket full of mulberries, you’re in luck. You have a tremendous basket full of mulberries! Your basket full will look luscious, and the contents will glisten in that sun, and once you walk them from your tree to your counter, some will have started to leak. You’ll have mulberry stains on the inside of your basket, those woven wooden strips matching your own fingers, all stained and purple. On the countertop, it’ll be best if you set this leaky basket directly onto a towel, not onto the marble. The towel should be dark, maybe purple, as a white towel will only soon match those woven strips and your fingers and everyone will be stained.

Or, put the basket in your refrigerator. I’ve done this, often. But mulberries in the refrigerator don’t keep that well, at least not much better than they keep on your countertop, atop the towel. You’ll eat some mulberries, maybe in pancakes and maybe on ice cream and certainly without accompaniment. But that supply is so strong, the basket deceivingly deep, and try as you might, you cannot eat them all. Not one to waste, you seek a method to preserve. But which method is best? Clean and freeze? No. Pulverize and boil with sugar and some hoof-derived-glue? Exactly.

Mulberries are tasty, but they pose problems. When you pick a strawberry, as I picked basket fulls this summer in my smallish but remarkably prolific patch, you can pour them out onto a cutting board and you can nip with your fingers or slice with a knife, and the green umbilical top where that berry was fed easily goes away. The strawberry is tough enough to endure this, but the mulberry is not. The mulberry cannot be approached with a knife, or it’ll ink as a squid, but with delicious purple juice. The body will collapse and that glistening berry that looked so important and proud on that branch and then in that basket will be nothing but a puddle of mulberry paste. The solution is the food processor, which doesn’t discard the small, bendy stems but instead ups the fiber content of the jam and renders those stems indiscernible from the seeds and the fruit and the juice.

When the spring garden was young, it was really nice. There was a lot of freshly tilled dirt, and some meandering rows filled with the seeds that I had bought in the dead of winter. After some time and water, there were sprouts. Tender shoots of young life poking up in those crooked rows. In the spring garden, the rows were identifiable. In the now garden, the fall garden, there is no more discernment. All that is left is a sturdy blanket of weeds and thistles, and some bits of vegetable matter scattered in between. There are a few peppers and some squash, and some pumpkins and a few other things that my wife contends are Brussel Sprouts, but I contend they are nothing of the sort and are, instead, just weeds that cleverly mimic something good and edible. There are also tomatoes.

Much like the mulberries, there are too many tomatoes to eat. So we must preserve those, too. We could blanch and skin and freeze, but that’s not what we have done, nor what we may someday do. We will wash and knife off the tops and any poor looking bits, and we will bake the remainder of the flesh, skin, seeds and all. We’ll slice them in half first, and salt and pepper them, and add a bit of sugar because that makes nearly everything better. We’ll pour on some olive oil, and we’ll bake and we’ll bake, for hours and hours, until those fresh tomatoes have turned to slightly dehydrated fruit, the flavor both intensified and concentrated, the huge pan full of tomatoes having reduced in volume by a half, probably more.

Into the boiled jars they now go, the lids screwed down tightly so that when the jar and the tomato jam cools the vacuum will pull that lid tight. There are several of these jars in my cabinet now, alongside the mulberries and the strawberries and the blackberries and the mixture of the three: The Triple Berry. The tomato supply is running low, so this week I’ll take a few hours and process another 10 jars full, late into the evening my oven will do its work, baking and drying those ripe red fruits until they are ready for their respective jars. I do this with all of these fruits because I want to make these things last. I want to take what I am given and stretch the bounty. I don’t want to waste what I have, and I’d much prefer to eat jarred jam from my own garden come January than jarred jam from the Smucker family garden.

Last weekend, the weather was perfectly ripe. It was beyond ideal, as it is yet again today. This late weather is rare, and it is fleeting, and while it won’t die on the vine it will certainly be pushed away by an ornery cold front, perhaps never again to return except briefly on the heels of a brisk south wind sometime during this next month. Unlike my berries and my garden fruit, there is no preservation method capable of extending this season. This is why we must be gluttons and devour it until we are sick, and once we feel that we cannot take another moment under that warm sun, then we must devour more of it anyway. Sanitized jars cannot contain 77 degree September days, so please bask under these skies while they shine warm, because soon enough they’ll be the sort of memory that we’ll have to talk about together, and debate whether they even happened at all.

Old School

I’m not a big fan of the term “new school”. In the same way, I don’t like “old school”. I mean, I do like the part where Frank shoots himself with that tranquilizer dart, but I don’t like the use of the term outside of that context. Even so, old schools do exist, as do new schools. I, by virtue of my age and my attitude problem, which one bold, yet sheepishly anonymous, commenter has described as “old British humor“, hail from the new school. I suppose he should have spelled that h-u-m-o-u-r, but he didn’t, because his spelling isn’t the best. I see life a bit differently than does my parents’ generation, and that’s, I suppose, exactly how it should be. I also differ in how I practice real estate, and how I view deals. I’m currently assuming my view is the new school, because I’ve long battled against what I perceive to be the old school.

Old school real estate concepts are relatively lame, but one who holds those views cannot really be blamed for adopting that approach. See, real estate school, all 10 weeks of it, or however long it takes to prove that you can, indeed, fog that mirror, is really keen on teaching future Realtors (who mostly then become future mortgage brokers/insurance salesman/ barristas) how to act and how to properly represent their clients. The theory goes, if you represent a seller, you must do everything inside the bounds of law to get that seller the highest possible price. Note I didn’t say inside the bounds of good taste. As an agent of a seller, we are to max that price as best we can, so says The Real Estate Manifesto.

This is the old school. My dad, in his 70 years, has been a fan of this old school. Back when I was impressionable, he tried to impress upon me that we must, at all times, get that seller the best price. If the seller wouldn’t go to a lower price, that didn’t matter because the seller’s wishes are what we must abide. Never mind that the seller is unreasonable, because the seller is the boss, and the boss is always right. Or is he? Questioning that norm would be to go against the old school, and questioning that with rigor is what qualifies for admission to this new school.

I would argue that what is in the best interest of the seller is always different. If a seller inherits a property and is very short on cash, what’s in the best interest of that seller? To hold the property for ions while waiting for a buyer to pay some imagined premium? Or selling quickly, processing the deal to take the cash home to pay the mortgage on the house he calls home? This is an example of where price doesn’t matter as much as expediency, but it may be an extreme case. What about a normal case, what about a seller who has a house that’s not worth the $700k he wants for it, but is worth the $600k that a buyer has just offered him. What if that house is really worth $575k, and the $600k is a fantastic price which would be readily gobbled up if only that $700k price tag hadn’t been haphazardly applied by the seller some months prior?

In that case, is it best to honor the seller’s wishes and beg the buyer to come up? Sure it is, for a bit. What if, after so much begging, the buyer stays firm and doesn’t move upwards in that price because he knows his $600k price is accurate? Should the agent still beg the buyer for more, or should she go back to the seller and beg him to take less? What if, to properly represent a seller, you need to slap the seller a bit and tell him this is his deal and if he doesn’t take it he’ll be forever wishing he did? That’s what I think should be done, because blindly following a subjective list price isn’t representing anyone.

Today, sellers have some form of liquidity. They have confidence, and in many cases, they have far too much of it. If a seller has a mortgage and a high tax bill and a history of a property going unsold, should that seller stick to a subjective number or sell for a quality price to a present buyer? I’d argue until I’m blue in the face that a plump, pretty bird in the hand is still far better tasting and easily more fulfilling than those two that might be in the bush. To represent a seller doesn’t mean to always hope for the next buyer, it means to narrow ones focus on the buyer in the room and pleasantly take their money to your bank.

Abbey This and That

Google tells me this: Since peaking in the early 1800s, use of the word “abbey” has declined steadily and thoroughly. I would assume the television show would have caused a bump in the popularity of the word, but Google tells me that this isn’t necessarily the case. The increase may be very slight, but it’s still nothing compared to the mass Abbey hysteria from centuries ago. I imagine if this was a geographic measurement, Wisconsin would be absolutely off the charts because we love, more than most things in life, the word Abbey. Maybe that’s not fair to the great state of Wisconsin- maybe it’s just a Walworth County thing. But that’s not fair to Walworth County. Maybe it’s just a Fontana thing.

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Abbey Springs, The Abbey Hotel, Abbey Hill, Abbey Villa, Abbey Harbor, Abbey Ridge, Abbey Bridge; you name it, we have an Abbey version of it. Most interesting to me today are the two condominium developments of Abbey Hill and the Abbey Villas. Both of these developments clung to life in the last five years of choppy market seas, and both have come out of this ordeal perhaps better for their experience. Both developments experienced foreclosure trouble, and then they endured the crushing valuation realities that such foreclosures bring. There were high peak values, lots of leveraged owners, followed by a complete absence of liquidity. There were deals to be had in these developments over recent years, and I can still remember the sunny day in 2008 when one of my Abbey Villa clients turned down a $370k offer that I brought him. That unit today? $225k?

With this recent history in mind, both developments have been blessed with a 2014 that has brought some normalcy to their gate-less entries. Both developments experienced high inventory at the bottom of this cycle, and both developments struggled to absorb that glut. 2013 cleared away much of that excess, with 11 Abbey Hill units sold ( $160k- $261k) that year and 9 Villas sold. That’s high volume for these smallish enclaves, particularly so for Abbey Hill. Year To Date there have been 4 Abbey Villa units sell, and 1 Abbey Hill closing. There are at least two Abbey Villas pending sale right now, and my Abbey Hill listing for $299k is freshly pending sale to a nice buyer.

Inventory is normal, but not entirely light. Excepting the pending units, there are 11 Abbey Villas available today priced from $185k for a basic unit to $479k for a unit with a pleasant Harbor view. Abbey Hill has just four units available. Both developments are in Fontana, and both are a bit older now. Which one do I like better? Abbey Hill. That’s because while I appreciate the Abbey Villa setting- close to the lake and the Harbor and the Fontana goings on-I really like the style of the Abbey Hill units. They’re funky without being weird. They’re half vacation condo in Wisconsin and half ski lodge in Aspen. They’re close enough to the lake to walk, but let’s be really honest with each other: We’re driving to the lake. Both are walkable to the Coffee Mill, which I count as a benefit.

There’s little sex appeal to the markets at either development today. There aren’t any catastrophic foreclosures looming, nor are there any strange things happening at association levels. I think either are nice, safe moves today. Abbey Hill might be the better play, but if you’re looking for any sort of rental income, you’ll have to stick with the Abbey Villas. A well appointed unit there can be added to the Abbey Hotel rental program, and there are some high rents to be awarded to owners who are granted inclusion in that program. Need some rental income? Consider the villas. Want to hang out in front of a huge fireplace in a spacious, beamed great room? I’ll see you at the Hill. The Abbey, Hill, of course.

Above, the pending Abbey Hill unit.

The Backyard

My appetite for the written word isn’t as voracious as it should be. Truth is, I read lots. I read lots and lots. But I don’t read too many books, and those I do read I rarely read to their completion. I read magazine articles and newspaper articles and online articles. I read these, and after a few dedicated minutes I have either learned something or I haven’t. There’s no engaging in characters, pretending to care about what happens to this hero or that heroine. There is only brief concentration followed immediately by a judgement. This is why I write in brief snippets, because I care about the reader and their schedule. Oh, and when I do read things I tend to look at the pictures, a lot.

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That’s why I learned everything I needed to learn from a recent Crain’s article simply by studying the two accompany photos. The article was titled “ENDANGERED: THE BACKYARD”. The photo above the headline was of a rather institutional looking arrangement featuring a bluestone patio and outdoor fireplace with a hideous concrete mantle. Behind and above was an elevated “lawn” comprised of synthetic something-or-another, accessed by a stairway. All of this was surrounded by fencing, some wood, some iron, but all serious looking. The introduction of a child and an airborne soccer ball in the next photo did little to make this backyard look friendly and inviting.

And what of that ball? It was kicked all right, directly at the camera person who was likely crouched low to that synthetic turf. The ball probably ended up bounding over the fence and onto the lower patio- the bluestone one with the bad fireplace. Once it hit that patio, it bounced higher still, this time over the iron fence and down to the depths below. What depths? Well, the depths of the neighbors ground level lawn, of course. And that’s the discussion here: What happens when some neighbors raise their lawns and others don’t? We know the answer, even though the article doesn’t identify it. The answer is, of course, that the backyards end up looking like a tetris screen, and in this game there are no winners.

No pricing is discussed in this article, but I’m betting that to create a multi-leveled backyard requires an intense level of funding. Nothing in these photos looks cheap, well except for the views outside of the fancy synthetic backyard. This is an expensive undertaking. I’d like to suggest we try something else here. What if, if we live in Lincoln Park and are the sort that might be tempted to spend fortunes to create a yard where no yard truly wants to be, we took that money and we drove North and a bit West? What if we went to an area where backyards thrive? What if we took that money, and a bit more, and bought a whole yard full of grass. The real kind, with little bugs and photosynthesis and sweet earthy smells. What if we stopped trying so hard to force a yard into existence and just bought one someplace else?

If I lived in the city, be it the Loop city or the Lincoln Park city, I would need to escape it as often as I could. This isn’t just because I’m a lake kid who now resides in the country, this is because I’m a human being and I’m a believer in the fact that human beings need fresh air to breathe and lawns to walk barefoot over. I don’t think a city existence is what we were meant for, because my legs are not particularly strong and even I could kick the heck out of a soccer ball, clearing that wimpy city fence with ease. My son is in soccer now, and his proficiency mirrors mine at his age, which is to say I was pretty bad at soccer at age 11. Even he, with this inherited soccer handicap, could kick that ball over that fence and down the street until it rolled to a wedged stop under some car.

Sometimes, people try to make lake houses what they are not. They buy a small cottage, dripping in small cottage charm. Then they tear it apart, add onto it, put in synthetic this and plasticized that, and they stand back at their creation. What is it, exactly? Is it a lake cottage anymore? Or is it a raised ranch from Schaumburg? It’s hard to tell. That’s why respecting what something already is might be the very best way to approach individual houses. Bought a stately Georgian on a tree lined street? Let’s leave it a stately Georgian. Bought a small cottage in Cedar Point? Let’s leave it that, and respect the original design when remodeling it some. Bought a house in Lincoln Park with a postage stamp backyard? Leave it alone and drive to the lake. We have plenty of backyards for sale. Big, wide, green ones, capable of supporting anything activity your barefooted weekends can throw at it.

Off-Water Upper Bracket Market Update

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A few months ago, or maybe it was only a few weeks ago, a home in Cedar Point sold just a bit under $1.6MM. That’s not really a big deal, because Cedar Point has lots of homes that are worth just under $1.6MM. Maybe not lots, but certainly many, as the entry level lakefronts that were $1.2MM two years ago are all certainly in that $1.5MM+ range now. The home that sold was pretty nice, with a bit of a lake view and only a parkway dividing the home from the lake. It had no slip. Over the last twelve months, 5 lakefront homes- the sort with private piers and private frontage- sold for less than $1.585MM. In other words, Parkway homes for $1.585MM are rare.

How rare? Well, like forever rare. As in, since the beginning of time there hasn’t been a parkway house sold in the MLS for that much money. Even so, if the buyer liked it and wanted to part with some money to own it, who am I to doubt their move? While they’re likely loving life in their new vacation home, it needed to be pointed out that this sale was likely an outlier, and not a trend setter. Though you won’t find any macro trend that suggests $1.5MM off water homes in Cedar Point are hot commodities, there’s definitely momentum for off-water homes in the $1MM+ range.

I’ve long said that if we’re talking one million bucks, and we’re not on the lake, we need to be finding some form of unique arrangement. We need a stellar view, with a stellar house. Or we need a stellar house, with a slip. Or we need a stellar lot, with a slip and maybe a view, and a marginal house- that’ll do just fine. The market will generally prefer lakefront, if the price is the same as the off-water offering. That’s because private frontage provides freedom that cannot be obtained in an association setting, no matter how small or how lax your association. Just as the entry level lakefront market suffered through a period of low prices from 2010 to 2013, so did the off-water market that falls directly below the lakefront price scale. If entry level lakefront must feel the pain, then high end off-water homes must also be stung.

Today, the most economical true lakefront home on the market is a small lakefront for $1.35MM, followed by my listing on Lakeview for $1.685MM. There’s a home in Glenwood Springs in the $1.5s that functions as a lakefront home, but true lakefront isn’t all that debatable. If entry level lakefront is currently in that $1.5-1.6MM range, excepting remarkably small or otherwise compromised properties, it stands to reason that the off-water homes at or over $1MM should be faring pretty well. Right? Of course they are, and it isn’t just our outlier in Cedar Point Park. Currently, there are no fewer than three off-water homes with list prices great than $1MM pending sale right now. That’s a lot, considering the market hasn’t had much time for these sorts of homes over recent years.

One home pending is in the exclusive, gated Glen Fern. That’s a nice property, with a pool and a boatslip, and while the house may need to be de-1990’s-ed, it’s a rare property and it deserves a contract. Listed at $1.485MM, it’s not a steal, but it’s a nice market deal. I’m less thrilled about the other two off-water homes pending in this strata- those at Shore Haven and on LaGrange in Lake Geneva. Both homes are fine, I guess, and both have some views and a slip, so that’s nice. The bigger question is, if the entry level market wasn’t mostly void of modest offerings in the $1.2-$1.4MM range, would any of these homes be pending sale right now? I don’t think so.

The MLS currently offers six lake access homes priced over $1MM. Under $1MM, there are several more in the $900k range. I think the standout in this group is my listing on Main Street in Lake Geneva now listed at $995k. I had a contract on that home that fell through recently, because the buyer may not have wanted to spend weekends poolside, surrounded by elegant luxury. The home doesn’t have a slip, but it is impressive nonetheless. It’s a rare mix of vintage style with high end fit and finish. It should sell now, not just because it’s such an awesome house, but because there’s no easy lakefront for a buyer to stretch towards.

Each segment of this market is connected to the segment above and below it, which isn’t profound, but it’s surprising how many people fail to see these obvious connections. If the entry level lakefront is light on inventory, those segments above and below it should thrive. That’s exactly what’s happening now around $1MM, so if you’re shopping this range, just make sure you’re buying smart. Your property should have some elevated amenity- be it view, style, slip, or property. If you’d like to cut to the chase and avoid the mistakes around that price mark, just work with me and we’ll avoid them together.

Fall

The boy and his dad. It’s sweet, really. The boy isn’t so much a boy as he is a man, old enough to be one anyway. He’s playing catch with his dad. He’s not really good at throwing the football, but who cares? The dad isn’t either, with his salted and peppered hair and his sweater. The son has a rugby sweater on, one that no one wears when playing rugby but one that I was always told was a rugby sweater. It’s striped, like they’re trying to make the son look younger than his apparent 35 years. They do that on television a lot, the making people look younger, even when they don’t have to. The football is wobbly in each direction, but they are having a lot of fun. Laughing out loud, fun. They’re wearing jeans.

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There are some leaves on the ground, but not piles of them. Those spirals haven’t gotten any tighter. The drug the dad is on is fine, I guess. He’s now at risk for lymphatic seizure, spontaneous digit separation, and he’s very likely going to need a kidney transplant someday soon, but that itching he had on his right ear is gone, so he figures things are looking up. There are risks and rewards, son, and these are the risks for that reward. I think he’s talking about his itchy ear, but I can’t be sure. It’s TV, after all, and no one is particularly sure of anything anymore.

Later, another son and his dad. This time, both are older. They’re fishing, with fly fishing rods. They pull up to the stream side, and they’re laughing and pointing. Pointing and laughing. The dad isn’t well, but he’s happy anyway. See, when he wakes up his left eye no longer tears for a few seconds. Sure he has to contend with complete, catastrophic vision loss, right ear deafness, and he can no longer speak when it rains, but if you’ve ever had a teary left eye upon waking, you know he’s better off now. They amble towards the bank, rods rigged, self-assured smiles galore, sweatshirts over their collars, under their fishing vests.

The stream is swift, but not swift enough to hold many trout. The rod is the fly variety, which is why the red and white bobber that they clipped on makes very little sense. The trees are turning, just a slight bit. They aren’t brown and red, but they aren’t early-summer-green, either. The shoreline is trampled a bit, and it looks like a park of some variety, with regular mowing and trimming. Waders on, flies stuck to their hats, huge grins plastered to their faces, they’re now ready to fish. They fling the bobbered line into the water, as if casting spinning rods to bass. This is all wrong, but the joy that it’s bringing is worth every production error.

The fish they catch is huge! It is. It’s massive. It’s a trout, all right, likely one that fell victim to the bobbered night crawler that was cast with a fly rod in spinning rod style. They net it. The smiles! And that, son, is how you do it. The water moves swiftly by without much concern for the fishermen or their quarry. They’re going to eat that fish. I’d let it go, but they’re going to eat it. Sure the dad, who must be 75, is going to have to blend the fish before drinking it, because Prolavatixam might dry that morning eye up but it has a tendency to cause jaw failure. Still, smiles and sweaters and liquified fish for dinner. There’s little that can compare.

Commercials don’t teach us much, except when they do. When it’s fall, and the weather is perfect, even television people enjoy the outdoors. It’s fall-like right now, even if it isn’t meteorlogical fall, so let’s be like those people on TV and get outside. Oh, and the other thing they’re rarely doing is walking in cities. Get thee to the lake and wear a sweater, because if you’ve taken Spolaxivizatons with any frequency, your life may depend on it.

South Shore Club Heat

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The SSC now has just two developer owned lots left, those at lot 6 and lot 32. Priced at $595k and $649k respectively, they are fair lots and they will sell. If a buyer is contemplating one of those, he or she will be very pleased to know that I just put lot 20 back on the market as a resale. Priced to sell now at $585k, it’s a heck of a lot.

Last night, during the early stages of the Bears game, the stages that found them as inept as any football team has ever been, Paul Lee tweeted. He said “Bears replication of Green Bay strategy of letting the opponents zoom ahead early only to lull them to sleep late working perfectly”. His tweet was wishful thinking, I thought at the time. Later in the game, when it appeared that the Bears were about to, somehow, pull off a stunning, come from behind victory, the sort that Bears fans like me are used to seeing happen against us, never for us, he retweeted his earlier tweet. He was right, after all, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew it.

That’s what I just did up there, with my own words in quotations, again. I didn’t do this to be entirely self indulgent, instead I did it to remind everyone why you’re supposed to work with the agent you’re working with. Because they’re awesome at getting back to you, or particularly joyful and bubbly? Or because they predict future market moves correctly a large percentage of the time, and in doing so they protect you from market mistakes? Obviously. So there are my words, written on August 13th of this year. It’s about the South Shore Club, and I was pretty sure the SSC was about to continue its hot streak until everything else was ashes. That’s exactly what happened.

At the time of that writing, we had those two lots left, and lot 20 had just hit the market. Today, lot 6 is under contract, as is lot 32, and lot 20? Under contract, of course. Now, these deals are contracts and not printed closings, but there’s no reason that all three sales do not close in the coming weeks. Why does that matter? If you’re a lakefront owner, not in the SSC, does that mean anything at all to you? Is the South Shore Club purely of interest to those in the South Shore Club? Of course this matters to everyone, because our markets are not quarantined, and every movement somewhere causes more movement elsewhere. If the South Shore Club is hot, it matters to everyone who owns or might want to own a vacation home here.

The sale of the house up front for $3.591MM. The pending sale of Fairwyn’s spec house on Forest Hill. The lot sales of the past 12 months and the lot sales waiting to print over the next month. All of these things matter. The South Shore Club can, for the first time in its 12 year existence, stand on its own two feet. The market has been established, with ranges operating as they should. For the first time in forever, sellers wishing to sell homes in the SSC within those defined ranges can indeed sell. It’s a wonderful thing, and as the agent who was fortunate to be at the head of the class during these past two years, I feel as a proud, protective parent.

The problem with the SSC, say, three years ago, was quite simple to understand. The built homes had never sold in any established pattern, and the lot sales had sputtered to a stop. The absence of liquidity in the built market caused potential vacant land buyers to balk, which, in turn, caused further stagnation. It was an ugly cycle, and when you mix in rumors of foreclosures (some true, others not), there was no way for the club to get a strong enough foothold to take a solid step forward. If you’d like to trace back all of these recent successes of the club, you can point to one sale that turned this whole thing around. That sale was for $3.575MM, of a listing I had on the lakefront of the club at the very East end. That property sold in May of 2012, and it was quickly followed by another sale that I brokered for $1.8MM. From then on, buyers saw enough liquidity to be emboldened, and confidence drives markets far more efficiently than low interest rates ever could.

Today, there is still inventory in the SSC. The developer lots are all spoken for, which will now allow the remaining few unbuilt, but already sold lots to appreciate in value. There are homes for sale, one of mine at $1.895MM, down from a peak list somewhere north of $3.2MM. There’s a home next to that one on Forest hill for $1.75MM, and both should attract a buyer yet this year. I’m actually surprised that both are still for sale. There is a foreclosure still in the works inside the club, and rather than damaging pricing, as such a foreclosure would have done back in 2010 or 2011, this one will actually help the club. How so? Well, it’ll remove a disinterested owner and install a new, interested owner, and strength in ownership is extremely important in small associations. Things are looking good at that South Shore enclave, and there are many reasons to think things continue to improve and actually start to appreciate. I refuse to say I told you so.

1530 Lakeshore Sells

The problem with being in the real estate business is that if you’re doing it all the time you lose sight of pretty much everything else. I can remember days when I woke up and didn’t immediately think about houses and deals and clients. I can remember nights when I’d dream deep dreams about fantastical things, before the dreams came where I dream mostly about houses and clients and deals. Last night, I had a vivid dream about a client who was yelling at me. These are the dreams of a real estate veteran.

There was a time when I’d sell a lakefront house and I would be so insanely pleased. In fact, the year I would be engaged to my wife I figured I’d spring for the ring if I sold a lakefront house. I did, for around $900k, back in 2000, and then I was engaged. The lakefront sale then was so elusive that I was willing to pin a most important life decision on the completion of one. Today, as part of this new bread of real estate blindness that has afflicted me, I tend to expect these lakefront sales. And I shouldn’t.

Yesterday, I was super happy to represent a buyer in the purchase of his first lake home. There’s joy in every lakefront purchase, for every individual or family that bites off such a move. There’s joy for a family who has spent many of their years wishing for a lakefront home. These families have spent time in associations or condominiums, close to that lake but never on it. When they muster the financial courage to make the leap, it’s a wonderful thing to have a part in the capture of this long deferred dream. But, in the same way, it’s a terrific thing when a family who has had little prior experience with this lake comes to these shores and quickly decides that it’s right for them.

This is the new buyer of 1530 Lakeshore Drive, in the city of Lake Geneva. For $1.53MM, this young family is now the steward of a blue chip piece of lakefront. There were other properties considered, plenty of them. There was another property that held our focus for a very long time, but yesterday’s closing put an end to a couple years of hunting and hope and bitter disappointment. Today, the family begins a new chapter, one that if read properly will be truly transformational. In a good way, not in that governmental campaigny way.

The sweet emotions of the deal aside, and the fact that this sale represented my 26th lakefront transaction side since 2010 (trailing only one agent by only one side for the lakefront lead over that time), there are nuts and bolts and market facts to be considered. $1.53MM for a small piece of lakefront with a nice pier and a very nicely put together house is a pretty good deal, no matter the context. In 2010, when the markets were in very rough shape, this home sold for $1.475MM. To buy that property these improved years later for effectively the same number is a good thing. That tells us we’re in line with the market. Remember, if you’re buying a house now that sold in 2010 you should be buying it for a price that reflects a slight gain for the owner, but not a huge gain, unless the seller’s basis has increased due to renovations.

This sort of property, with 50 feet of level frontage, is a relatively safe place to park money, but is it a future market beater? Can a home like this be fantastically improved to such a point that a future sale will represent a windfall of profits for the owner? I’d say no. I’d say a property like this in a neighborhood like this is always going to be somewhat range bound, and while appreciation fluctuations to the tune of 10-15% may be easily expected, I’d argue that a home like this will always be a $1.5-$1.7MM home. That’s because buyers in the $2MM range either want a super nice house on a small lot, or they want a bad house on a better lot. This house should always be a very nice house on a very simple lot, and in that it should always hold the attention of that entry level market. It’s a safe play, a stable play, but it isn’t a play made with an eye towards a $2MM valuation.

The entry level market inventory is, pure and simple, on the wane. I’ve been saying this for a few years now, and with every sale it’s proving more true. There is limited inventory now, and limited inventory is great for owners and bad for buyers. My modern styled boat house on Lakeview is down to $1.685MM, from a prior ask in the $2.4MM range. Homes that were in this range will ultimately find a buyer, because an entry level buyer is motivated by price first, and by every single other thing second. Expect a few more entry level sales this year, and we’ll continue to see that the market that once thrived in the $1.2-$1.35MM range is now going to thrive in the $1.5-$1.65MM range.

A special thanks to the buyer of this new lakefront home. I’m sorry that you bought a house on September 11th, which was, in hindsight, a day after summer died.

Lake Geneva Happenings

There was a time when I could remember things. Back then, if you were to give me your phone number, I wouldn’t write it down, at least not right away. I would remember your number, and then later, when I needed to call you, I’d just remember it and call you. Things were so easy back then. If I had appointments, I’d remember those, too. If you told me on Thursday that you’d like to meet me on Saturday, I’d see you on Saturday. I didn’t need to write anything down, I simply needed to set a mental reminder and I’d wake up Saturday with you on my mind. In a business sense, of course. This is what it was like back then.

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Today, I have no such memory. I’m not deficient in terms of memorization, but I’m no stand out, either. If you tell me your number, I’ll need to write it down immediately. Not a few minutes later, or a few hours later, but like the exact moment you give it to me I’ll be writing. Same goes with appointments. If you told me on Saturday morning that you’d like to meet me Saturday afternoon, I’d remember that. But I wouldn’t necessarily remember what time we were to meet, so I’d show up at whatever time I remembered, and then I’d be all like, “you’re late”, because I had no idea exactly when our meeting was to be. This is my problem, but judging from appointment miscues on both sides, I’m betting it’s sort of your problem, too.

That’s why I offer you this, today. A September guide to all things happening in Lake Geneva. There are other things, of course, but those other things are lame and boring and we’re not going to even pretend to remember them. For instance, there is a wine party of some sort going on sometime soon, somewhere near here. I don’t drink wine, but I have nonetheless grown tired of all these wine tastings. I feel like they’re overkill at this point, because everyone who likes wine tastes it often enough. Want to taste new wines from exciting new regions!? The liquor store can help.

I am hesitant to broadcast too many events that are fall-centric, because I feel that September is mostly summer and very little fall. I feel that way, but my skin over coming days will feel differently. Perhaps we discuss fall now, at least in a brief snippet. The Elegant Farmer is famous for besting Bobby Flay in an apple pie throw down, but probably because Bobby Flay put some sort of pink peppercorn honey drizzle on his pie. I didn’t see the episode, but he puts pink peppercorn honey on most things, so I’m betting. The apple pie at the Elegant Farmer (East Troy, about 15 minutes north of Lake Geneva) is really quite good, but there’s plenty more to see and eat there. It’s good family fun, but a family is not required to gain entry.

The best orchard news of the year comes from the Royal Oak Farm Orchard. That’s the one I really like, just south of Walworth a few miles. It’s a huge orchard, with a very Royal Oak near the entrance. There’s a lot to do here, mostly walking and eating and picking, but before this year you couldn’t do those things on Sunday. There’s something nice and old fashioned about being closed on Sunday, which is a day for Realtors that falls somewhere in between Thursday and Tuesday, but it doesn’t particularly matter much because every day is the same. The orchard, heretofore closed on Sundays, is now open on them. So, if a September Sunday feels particularly brisk and you wish to eat apples, hit up Royal Oak. Don’t go to the orchard if it’s even remotely hot out, as orchards in the heat are horrible.

September 13th is a good day to visit Flat Iron Park in Lake Geneva. That’s the park that isn’t Library Park. Lake Geneva Country Meats has been improving their operations and offerings at a furious clip, and they are the presenter for the 5th Annual Taste of Lake Geneva. It’s probably worth going to, if you’re around. And why wouldn’t you be? There’s food, probably wine, and the Badger High School Band. That’s maybe a deterrent, but I’m betting the Badger band is pretty good. My son’s band at Faith Christian? Not so much. Oh, and that same morning there’s a TriLock Triathlon in Williams Bay. This is a big deal for Williams Bay, and it’s also a big deal if you’re planning to drive anywhere on that Saturday. The roads will be full of racing sorts, so be careful. I’ll likely finish the Triathlon very early in the morning, just in time to go eat meat at Flat Iron Park.

The best fall weekend to find yourself at Lake Geneva is, without any doubt, the last weekend in September. By then, I can agree it’s fall. The Abbey plays host to the Antique and Classic Boat Show that weekend, and it’s always worth a visit. Not to play spoiler, but there are lots of old boats there. And there’s some food, probably wine, and Haggerty Insurance will be giving away free pens with their logo, but only if you’re there early. It’s a fun event, with a great atmosphere, and the only thing that can and has spoiled the weekend is poor weather. Even in the rain it’s not horrible, mostly because of my one weekend weather rule: Rain in Lake Geneva is vastly superior to rain in Chicago.

Now, before you forget, put those things on your calendar.

Sellers

I spend most of my written capital giving advice to buyers. I tell them when it’s a good time to buy, when it’s the right house to buy, when they should pay attention. I also tell them when someone bought something right, and I tell them when someone bought something so horribly wrong. As an aside, I should tell you that if I say I don’t like something very much, that’s code for “I hate it”. I tell sellers, too, when they should be in the market, when they should pay attention to pricing, and when they should seize selling opportunities. I do all of these things here, often times hidden between lots of rambling.

One thing I rarely discuss is the business of selling, and more precisely, a sellers relationship with their agent. Over the weekend, I found myself in a familiar position. It’s familiar but it isn’t necessarily welcome, as I spend a significant portion of my time talking to would be sellers and talking to already sellers. Already sellers are the sort that have a property for sale with Joe Blow Broker, and they’re looking for a change. They ask me for a meeting, and I oblige, because I’m that sort of fella.

These sellers ask me, in direct ways that they might not feel comfortable asking their already broker, why isn’t their home selling. They ask me what’s wrong. They ask me why, given their granite counters and their new paint in the guest bathroom, their home refuses to sell. It’s the broker, they assume, and they are, many times, simply looking for validation that someone else can do this job better. While it’s true that I’m certain I can represent a buyer’s best interests better than anyone else on this earth, and it’s true that I can best agents in negotiations with alarming consistency, there is one secret about selling a home that I’m going to share with you now: There is no secret.

I’ve spent too much of my life trying to convince people to work with me. It’s exhausting, really. If I must tell you the truth, this business is a race and it’s as competitive as any business ever was. Some listing agents thrive on telling you what they do better, and how they are different. It’s true that narratives are unique to individual agents, and sales skills are extremely wide ranging, with some agents possessing lots of selling skills and most others possessing very, very little of that skill. But hey, that agent’s mom’s hair dresser said they’re tops, so that’s good enough.

Because I’m a bit jaded, and my form of jade encourages brutal honestly, I can tell you the secrets about listing side representation. I’ve already told you, as I told that nice seller over the weekend, that there’s no secret. No proprietary blend that causes instant selling success, no formula that can be universally applied to yield tremendous results. There is, instead, a process to consider. The first insider’s secret is that as long as your agent is proficient, and some form of top producing agent within your market segment, that agent is likely good enough to represent you and your house, and they’ll get it sold. But they don’t call you back within 45 minutes of leaving them a message? Who cares.

See, brutal honesty. The truth about agents is that the successful ones are pulled in many different directions by equally deserving customers. If you want an agent that specializes in hand holding, that agent will likely not be great at actually selling real estate. As a seller, you have a decision to make. Do you want to work with someone who desperately wants to be your friend, on Facebook and in life, or do you want to work with an agent that’s actually really good at selling real estate? They are, generally, not the same person. Do you want an agent that sends you birthday cards or one that sells a ton of real estate?

Outside of the individual sales skills, brokers typically follow very similar paths of advertising and marketing properties. Why do we all do the same thing? Because we know what works, on account of this being our day jobs. So if one agent markets their homes in the Lake Geneva Regional News, and one does not, does that matter to you? Well, maybe check to see which agent sells more real estate in your target market. If the Regional News advertiser sells more, go with them. If they don’t sell more, but they list more, because Realtors advertise in local print to attract sellers and not buyers, then go with the agent who is proven by their results, not the quality of their glamor shot.

Lastly, if you’re a seller, and you want to sell your property, please don’t make your Realtor hate you. While there is cause to believe that beatings may improve morale, I’m here to tell you that they don’t. If I have two sellers that I’m working for, and they have similar properties, it stands to reason that I’d like to sell both of them. I’ll work to sell both of them. But one seller is kind and pleasant and the other is demanding and rude. Which seller do I feel a great obligation to help? The one who insists that they know more about selling real estate than I do, because they once sold a duplex in Schaumburg AND their mother’s home in Boca, or the one who trusts me and knows I’m doing my very best to sell their home? It’s rhetorical, as usual.

All that to say, sellers, do your best to list with an agent who has a proven record of proficiency in your individual market segment. If they don’t call you every Tuesday just because it’s sunny out, don’t worry about it. They don’t give you feedback right after a showing? Then assume there is no interest and the buyer hated your granite counters and your guest bathroom pain. If they don’t send you birthday cards, don’t worry a bit about that. They’ll sell your house, because that’s the goal every single day.

September Schedules

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Boating in the summer isn’t very difficult. Neither is walking down the shore path in the morning in whichever direction offers you coffee. Sitting in a lawn chair, watching the boats and the waves and the gulls; super easy. Driving to the corn stand on a Saturday afternoon is a cinch, as anyone with a car and a license and six dollars can make it to the stand and leave with a dozen golden ears. Waking on a Sunday morning early to fish or to ski, that isn’t all that easy, but it’s really not all that difficult either. Lakeside living in the summer is so many different things, but it isn’t hard.

Early in the summer, these things are not exactly hard, but they aren’t perfectly easy. School runs too late, sports stay too long. Later in summer, it’s the same. School starts too early, sports precede the school earliness and make for volleyball practice on sunny August mornings. That’s for our enduring shame, but the sporting and school cycles are something we must abide. After all, if little Timmy isn’t in pre-pre-season football camp, how on earth is he going to keep up with the kids once it’s just regular old pre-season? To say nothing of early season, which is when he’ll really be behind. Playoff season? Timmy won’t even make the expanded roster. Never mind, really, because your little Timmy is absolutely horrible at football, but his horribleness is ruining your summer, nonetheless.

That’s why early summer and late summer are hard, even if the middle of summer is somewhat lazy, and mostly easy. If late summer is hard, those days in August when the fall sports intrude, imagine how hard September is. There are things happening in September. School things, sports things, all sorts of things. If a Saturday in summer involves a city event that has to be accommodated, then that’s something that we’ll have to make happen. If, however, that Saturday event will be finished by 7 PM, then most times in the summer a family will make their way to the lake immediately after, because Sunday is still Sunday, and Sunday at the lake is so much better than Sunday in Whatever Town, Illinois.

In September, this rush to the lake is not so tangible. There are so many events and scheduling problems, however can we make it to the lake!? I must confess the author of this post is he who has routinely driven 3 hours in one direction in the morning, only to drive those same three hours in the returning direction by evening. I have no problem driving far distances to do something I like to do. I’ve even driven to the UP to fly fish and made the 11 hour round trip fit inside one 18 hour window. I am not afraid of the drive. That’s why if my little Timmy, who is the worst football player in the history of XYZ Junior High, had a game that he won’t play in on a Saturday evening, I’d drive my rear end, and the rear ends of the rest of my family, Loser Timmy included, up to the lake. Because while Timmy is just dreadful on the football field, he’s really great at diving off white piers.

I write today with the intent of shaming those who own here and let a three hour weekend event ground them for the entirety of the weekend. If Friday night means you must go on the town with your neighborhood friends, that’s cool. And if Saturday morning little Kimmy has volleyball practice, that’s fine, too. But then what? When the dinner has been eaten and Kimmy has sufficiently proven just how bad she is at the bumping and the setting and particularly the spiking, then what? Well, then we get into the car and drive the short drive North and we play. We play while we still can. Don’t want to go boating this Sunday because you think 75 isn’t warm enough? How badly we’ll wish we could boat inside 75 degree days once we’re battling to see a thermometer break 20.

Lake homes are a lot of work, they are. But for most, it isn’t the maintenance that bothers them, it’s their own lack of persistence in visiting them. I am not saying that juggling schedules isn’t difficult work, because I know that it is. I am simply saying that if we wish for the reward, we must put in the work. In this case, work is a short drive, and the reward is a September swim.

Above, my son after school on Wednesday. The dive looks similar to the one in a post below, except that it’s a September dive, which makes it better.

Rising Tides

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There are too many assumptions made in the statement that claims a rising tide lifts all ships. First off, tides are anything but stable. They are predictable, sure, but they aren’t exactly trend setters. High and low, high and low, every day, all the time. There’s nothing steady about a tide except the time it comes and the time it goes. If tides were traders, they’re the options sort, buying and selling, buying and selling, never holding a position for very long. That aside, the biggest issue with that statement is that it assumes we all have decent boats. If your boat is a shiny new Hinckley and my boat has a giant hole in the bottom of it, I’m guessing your boat is going to obey the phrase while my boat seeks to barely maintain some level of neutral buoyancy.

The way I see this market today, is that a you, the buyer, have a very important decision to make. There’s definitely momentum here, a tide that has been washing in over the past three years has finally made its surge. There are buyers out there that feel this, and they are reacting to it. There are other buyers who feel this momentum and push against it, rowing and rowing, wishing not to be carried so high, so quickly. There are other buyers, too, who don’t understand what a tide is and cannot figure out why some people are body surfing it in, and others are rowing out against it. These buyers don’t know what day it is, either, so let’s not be too hard on them.

It would be easy to be a buyer caught up in this tide. If, indeed, a rising tide lifts all ships, then it stands to reason that we might as well buy something- anything- right now, and it’ll all be okay later on. Writing that in that way makes it sound incredibly naive, but in practice, nearly everyone does it. I’ll buy this now because it’ll be worth more later. I went to the Elkhorn Flea Market yesterday for a bit, and that’s likely what everyone there was thinking. If I don’t buy this old piece of metal that was apparently part of some larger metal piece that was really, really important, I’ll have to buy it for more money later. Of course these people are all wrong, but they sure do buy a lot of metal junk. Anyway.

The other sort of buyers resist the tide, and this decision can be fatal. If you swim against the tide for so long, it’s clear that you’ll grow tired, and weary, and sooner or later you’ll give in to the tide and be swept ashore, or worse, pulled to those eternal depths. The problem here is that you can’t hold out forever, and you end up giving in to the market on its terms, not on yours. If you feel the need to fight the consensus, I applaud your efforts, but I know you’re likely making some form of mistake.

The issue here isn’t that we shouldn’t give in to market momentum, but that we can’t count on it carrying us to safety. Why? Well, because houses are boats and some have great big holes in them. If you buy the wrong house at the right time, it’s still the wrong house. Buying the right house at the wrong time is more forgivable, as the right house will always find an audience in any market. Today, it seems to many like the right time, and as it feels that way, they’re going about buying the wrong house. Don’t tell them that, though, because bringing thoughtful insight to a transaction can spoil all those good feelings that mistakes can breed.

As I scan the MLS, I see properties pending that have absolutely no business pending. I see some buyers (not mine) paying prices that would have looked ridiculous in 2006, let alone 2014. Has the market recovered to where we’re beating peak values? I would say, without equivocation, no. If you disagree with me, I’d love to see the statistics that prove your point. If the market is so much better now, which I believe it to be, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be hunting for value. Just because we’re happier now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be smart.

I don’t necessarily blame buyers for their naivete. I understand that narratives are convincing, and if you like a particular house, you are entitled to buy it, no matter the ransom. Today I’d like to urge buyers to be smart, to be wary, to be aware of their surroundings, to scan those hulls for holes. It might feel great to finally buy a Lake Geneva vacation home, but nothing looks as good as lasting value feels.

Lake Geneva Shore Path

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I could never live in a small condo in the city. My brother does this, the city living in the small condo. I don’t really know how he does it either, what with his childhood spent at the lake, which isn’t in the country if you’re from the lake, but if you’re from a small condo in the city it sure is. He lives in a small space, with hundreds of neighbors above and below him, and on the sides, too. The only walls that aren’t common are the ones that face the outside, that face the lake and the park and the city. Those windows are the view that saves that small place, but the living is tight, the hallways narrow, the ceilings somewhat low.

Even at most lakes, it’s tight, too. The lots are tight, the views are narrow, the lots restricted. If you have a weekend house on Any Lake, USA, that’s nice. It probably has a nice lawn, with a metal dock, and a fire pit where you burn sticks, sure, but also the cardboard. If you wish to see the lake, you can jump on your pontoon boat, and float past the weedy shallows, where the reeds crowd and the mill foil creeps, and you can push to deeper water for a ride. You’ll spin around that lake in no time flat, and you’ll return to your narrow lawn. The fire pit is still smoldering, so that’s good.

You can walk to one edge of your lawn, and survey the neighbors property. He has a nice metal dock, too, and his fire pit is sort of like yours except he uses an old oil barrel that his brother cut in half with a torch from his work. It only smelled like oil and fuel for a few weeks, and now it’s just a rusty ring that he burns his trash in, but also some sticks now and again. You can walk to the other side or your lot, looking over that other neighbor’s lawn. His lawn is nicer than yours, and his pier is as well. He doesn’t have a fire pit, because he checked with the township and they told him that it wasn’t allowed. He’s so naive.

This is the extent of your lakeside exploration at this lake. You can walk your property, and look after its edges. You can get in your boat, and ply those green waters. Or, you can go for a walk, the one your wife likes to take, and it’ll force you to follow the roads around and around. The roads are fine, they really are, but they’re dangerous because people rarely follow the speed limit in those parts. It doesn’t matter if they’re safe or not, as they are your only walking option. At this house, on this lake, when you walk and you boat and you sit on your front lawn around the smoky fire pit, you don’t feel particularly trapped.

You don’t feel trapped simply because you don’t know better. You don’t know what a shore path is like. In fact, you don’t understand the concept at all. It would be okay for your neighbor to walk into your front lawn, so long as you were out in that lawn and you were talking about the level of the lake or the other neighbor’s naivete. But you wouldn’t walk through his lakeside lawn and onto the next, and so on and so forth until you ringed the lake. You couldn’t, anyway, because of the fences and the BEWARE OF DOG signs that may or may not be telling any particular truth. The shore path that would allow you to do this isn’t something anyone feels comfortable with, so you’ll just be forced to find contentment in your hemmed in weekend.

It dawned on me yesterday, as I sat lakeside watching the day unfold, that the shore path remains something of utmost importance, but at the same time remains completely and entirely taken for granted. What if we couldn’t get around in this manner? What if, when my family decided to walk to Pier 290 yesterday for lunch, we had to walk away from the lake, up the hills and down the roads and into the parking lot? It sure was a whole lot nicer to walk down a cobbled path of stone and grass, with the lake always at our right, until the way home when it was at our left. When we sat at those fine tables and ate the so-so food in that glorious setting, the lake was never out of view.

When I sell homes here, or at least when I try to, I’m sure to mention the shore path. I can see buyers struggle to understand the importance of it, and instead, just shrug it off as an oddity of the market. I wish this wouldn’t be the case. The shore path is pure magic, and without it we’d all be tucked into our little plots without any freedom to roam.

Rain

This rain is getting to be entirely too much. I’m not a farmer, though if you caught a glimpse of my strawberry patch you might be willing to consider a scenario under which I have, indeed, missed my true calling. I have this garden, with growth everywhere. There are some vegetables in that garden patch, but mostly it’s just grass that I tilled up last fall with the John Deere tractor that I bought to make me feel like a farmer. The garden is growing, my raspberries are, too. The grapes are vining as they should, the apple trees looking like apple trees in every way except the part about the apples.

Truthfully, the garden is only okay. It isn’t great, but it’s enough. Now that the tilling is done, I admit to using my tractor only for superficial things. Like what? Well, like I’ll see a rock in the woods and think that it should be somewhere else, anywhere but there. So I’ll fire up that diesel, and I’ll scoop the rock up with the bucket. It might take me a few tries, but it would take me fewer tries today than it would have last year, back when the tractor was a brighter shade of green. I’ll then drive around with that rock in that bucket, holding it in there like a rare prize, parading around this property until I find a place where that rock should be. Then I’ll dump it there and put the tractor away. This is the sort of farmer that I am.

Since I’m not really a farmer, I don’t view this rain like a farmer might. I think they like it here, but they don’t like it when it’s too much, like it has become in other places. What I know of corn I learned from cliches spoken around my farmer relatives, so I’m pretty sure that corn like rain and humidity and heat. This might not be the case, but the corn is growing inches every day, and I’m assuming they’re growing in that manner because they are, as I would like to believe, happy. This rain, as I don’t need it for my crops and I don’t need it for my water table; it’s just a bit much.

I’m weather immature, and I know it. I fight with the weather at all times. I’m keen to appreciate it when it’s right, when it’s sunny and still, or if I’m looking to sail- when it’s sunny and windy. I curse that same sailor’s wind when I’m trying to keep a fly aloft in a narrow stream, while at the same time thanking it when it blows only enough to keep the pasture bugs off my face. I have a narrow range of weather that I find acceptable, depending, of course, on the season. My summer desires wish for sunny and clear, and should you think that sunny and hazy would suffice, well, then you know very little about the extreme nature of my weather-lust.

While I watch the weather more closely than I should, I have increasingly become okay with it. I think I may have, at this ripe age, made my peace with it. Sure I want it to be sunny and 80 this weekend, who doesn’t? But I can also appreciate the other sort of summer weather that is generally cursed by anyone who doesn’t have crops in rows. Summer rain is unlike fall and spring rain, and rarely do I find a summer thunderstorm to be an unwelcome event. I don’t want a basement-flooding rain, but I do like a rumble of thunder and a steady pitter patter against my windows. If summer weather doesn’t include a thunderstorm or 12, then I’m not interested.

I hope it’s sunny and hot this weekend. I know the water will be blue, but I hope it’s that ethereal shade, the one that only pops when the sky is cloudless and the wind is just so. I hope it’s like that, so you can sit outside on your pier and soak in our sun. But if it’s rainy, and you have to trade your pier for the porch, and the lake washes gray and not blue, I think that’s just fine, too.

West Main Street

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I’ll live my entire life without buying Waterworks tile. I have dabbled with buying a Waterworks faucet or two, but even in that I’ve backed off in the later innings of those financial games. Waterworks tile is beautiful, and it isn’t that I don’t wish to someday have some of it under my feet and on the walls of my someday shower, it’s just that I know myself rather well. I will never, ever, be able or willing to pay the price that this tile commands.

There’s also very little chance that I ever install a pool at my house. I have plenty of room, and several visitors have asked, mostly in jest, where I plan to plant the pool. If I did put in a pool, I’d probably put in some sort of knock-off pool, a rigid plastic form that hides under the water, so as not to reveal its true composition. I’d probably never pay the sort of fees necessary to install a really beautiful pool. Less the pool itself, and more the landscaping and surround work that must accompany such a pool. I’d maybe swing the pool itself, and then put old plastic lawn chairs on top of my gravel surround. These are the reasons you don’t really want to buy a house that I own.

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For the same reasons that I am not a great home seller, this property you see today is owned by a couple who is, indeed, a fantastic home seller. In the world of real estate, it’s often left unconsidered the sort of person a buyer is buying from. We look at the real estate, and we surmise value and we either move forward to acquire it or we move on to the next one, rarely considering who owns the home in question. It goes like this: Would you like to buy a home from a cheapskate who puts tape over the broken things, or would you prefer to buy from the sort of owner who spends much time contemplating which shade of Waterworks tile should be installed on the shower wall of the guest bath? Exactly.

I don’t really need to write all of the ways that this remarkable Lake Geneva vacation home surpasses most every other off-water home in this market. The pictures do a fine job telling this story. I want to call this house a cottage, because it feels sort of like one, but it lacks cottagey deficiencies, which elevates it from pure cottage form to some greater level of home, one with cottage elements and charm, yes, but it has all of that and so much more sophistication that might need to be seen to be understood. The property is part of Lake Geneva Manor, and it’s a very short walk from downtown Lake Geneva. There’s a large stone wall that separates this home from the rest of the world, and once inside that gate you’re treated to a setting that’s more resort like than summer cottage-ish.

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Inside, the home has three bedrooms, three finished living areas, a fireplace, a poolside sunroom, and two kitchens- perfect for preparing poolside fare. The bathrooms have been, as I mentioned, lavishly upgraded. The home itself feels like a finely polished jewel box, with nothing left undone. But the true magic of this home is in the lush landscape, the way that the terraced gardens create a decidedly luxurious oasis. The saltwater pool is accented by a massive outdoor fireplace, and as someone who has sat near that fireplace during an evening party, I can attest to its transformative qualities.

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The home is listed at $1.095MM, and it offers value far below actual cost. If you like the idea of lake access through Geneva Manor, combined with an overwhelmingly charming home, wrapped inside a impeccably landscaped shell, this is for you. If, however, you hate the finer things in life, and you hate pretty things, and you definitely can’t stand high end fit and finish, then I hear Paw Paw lake calling your name.

Southland Sells

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Last summer, on a particularly sunny, remarkably humid day, I walked into that house for the first time. It wasn’t much of a house, and the land was wide but not especially unique, and as is the case most of the time, I knew my target value before I ever saw the second bathroom. I surmised the house was worth around $2MM, perhaps lower than it, and if the seller ended up being lucky, more than that. I was confident in this number, perhaps overly so, and so when I didn’t get the listing I wasn’t all that upset. I figured I’d be right, even if it took some time.

My reasoning was based on several factors, but mostly the existence of a devastating comp just down the road. There was a piece of property for sale, with a similarly bad but strangely better house on it, and the lot was bigger. Much bigger. The comp lot was 143′ across the lakefront, and five acres deep. It was heavily wooded, private, and rather spectacular, even if it was sloped a bit more than most would like. The lot that I speculated would be worth around $2MM was 151′ across the lakeside, but only an acre and a half deep, and even that total is deceiving as the strip of land that amassed much of that acreage was so narrow that you could hardly play a proper game of horseshoes on it.

The owner that didn’t list with me, did so for $2.85MM with someone else. No big deal, I figured. Then, somewhat surprisingly, a buyer bit, and paid $2.35MM for that lot that I had underestimated. The land down the road was still for sale, for $2.475MM, with all that frontage and all that wooded depth. And so I did what any good broker would do, and I went out and introduced several buyers to this piece. In time, a buyer liked the idea, and liked my target price point. The goal was sub-$2MM, and in December when I struck that deal between my buyer and another broker’s seller, the price was $1.925MM.

There were many difficulties with this transaction that finally closed last Friday. There were zoning questions and setback questions and CSM issues and Plat concerns. In time, smart attorneys and patient clients figured it all out, and the $1.925MM print price is a decided win for the buyer that I was pleased to represent. Anytime $1.925MM buys 143 of quality frontage, it’s a buyer win. Throw in 5+ acres of heavily wooded land and you have a dynamic property that will easily support the future value of the newly built home that is sure to sprout from that lakefront in the next couple of years.

So which sale is the right sale and which one is the outlier? Scrap the price per foot numbers in this case, and instead just look to the locations, which are rather similar, and the ability to support future, built value. If, in five year’s time, we look at two new builds and both are beautiful but one finds itself on 5 majestic acres with a long, winding private driveway, and the other finds itself on nary an acre with a shared entrance drive, which one wants to more easily hold a $4MM+ valuation? Surprise, it’s another rhetorical question.

The sale last winter for $2.35MM was a reasonable sale, if a bit more to the seller’s liking than mine. The sale of $1.925 last Friday was a significant deal for my buyer, but in this there is a seller truth as well. The seller of this home bought it nearly 25 years ago for a fraction of the final sales price. Was this lot worth nearly $3MM at the peak of the market? Yes. Was it worth a whole lot less now than it was then? Of course. Did the seller still win, because they had a great tenure at their lake house, made a satchel of money along the way and now gets to move on to their next adventure? Well, obviously.

Lake Geneva Market Update

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I once had a client refer to a million dollars as a stick. Like, a stick. A woody thing that fell or was chopped from a tree. It would have to be small enough to be considered a stick, because anything larger would be a branch. If something fell from a tree and crushed your car, you would never tell someone else that a stick fell and crushed your car. You’d likely veer too far in the other descriptive, and tell that person a tree fell on your car, when it was really just a large branch. For something to be a stick, it would be small enough to hold, to poke with, to roast marshmallows from.

In this vernacular, the stick was a measuring point of a million bucks. We’d look at a house, and we’d talk about the house next door being worth 5 sticks. If we bought for two sticks, put one stick into it, we’d like it to be worth at least three and a half sticks. It’s difficult to know what is, in actuality, a half stick. It’s because sticks can be long or short and they’re still just sticks, so one persons half a stick that has been discarded will likely be the next persons regular old stick. But we’re missing the point about a stick being worth a million dollars.

I’m keen on talking about biting off properties. Not physically, of course, though my current pant size may forgive you for thinking I meant that literally. As with most things on this site, I only meant it figuratively, which is usually the case unless I’m talking about the grave mistake of not driving to Lake Geneva this weekend. That’s likely a soul crushing mistake, and I mean that entirely literally. If we’re looking to bite off properties, and we’re not shy about it, and we have many sticks or just a fraction of a stick to barter with, I’d buy these things:

Entry level lake access buyers would be well served to consider my cute cottage on Sioux Drive in Indian Hills. It’s down to $249k, and while we just had an offer on it that didn’t quite come together, it’s readily available. If you’re sitting in the suburbs this weekend, contemplating the emptiness that is your life, I’d encourage you to take a drive to the lake and hang out for a bit. It’s going to be sunny on Saturday, so do it then. Drive by Sioux, and if you like it, call me. Don’t expect me to run right over to show it to you though, because on weekends, contrary to public opinion, I do have appointments to tend to. If you’d like to spend under a quarter stick, consider Sioux.

I often wonder what I’d buy if I were a lake access buyer who wished to part with just a third to a half stick. I don’t know if I’d go for something nicer, say in Country Club Estates or Cedar Point, or if I’d look to find somewhere that I could sneak into with a boat slip. I say I don’t know what I do just for the theatrics of it all, because I know exactly what I’d do. I’d stretch myself and try to get a slip. If I’m doing this I’d look to my cottage in Glenwood Springs for $489k, or I’d try to tease one of the $500kish listings with a slip down into my comfortable spending range. I’d look for a slip first, proximity a close second, and I’d then consider everything else a distant third.

There’s a lot of decent inventory in the $500k to $1MM range right now, and for this range I would be looking for either a slip, or a view, or tremendous proximity, or some version of all three at once. I would also consider buying a fabulous house, with fabulous finishes, but I’d have to be really wowed by it to abandon my initial aim. I think there’s a house in the Lake Geneva Club that’s prime to be bitten off on the cheap, with minimal sticks required. I still like a listing in Hollybush, for no other reason than Hollybush is exclusive and I like exclusivity in real estate. I also like a couple homes in Glenwood Springs, and if I were up for a project, I’d look that way.

The entry level lakefront market will require the departure of at least one full, and one partial stick. Times were, I could give you one stick, and a quarter of another one, and you’d give me a house. Today, I may have to give you a stick and a half to buy a reasonable lakefront, so this is bad for me, but still good for the way I feel about Fridays. I wouldn’t look to the very entry level lakefronts at this point, because I don’t really like them. Instead, I’d look to some of the aged inventory in the upper one stick range, and I’d work to pull those properties down to where I feel comfortable. I think it’s important to be wary of entry level lakefronts that look interesting based on price, but find themselves in range locked neighborhoods. Don’t know which ones those are? You should ask me.

In the upper reaches of our market, the range that requires more than one and as many as eight sticks, I’d be looking for value that presents in one form or another. If I’m looking for a tear down, I want future value to support my mission. If I’m looking at something that is currently fanciful, I want to buy it for less than replacement cost. That’s a nice marker for value, to buy something for less than it would take to assemble on your own. A nice example is 1014 South Lakeshore. Yes, the price isn’t for the weary, but if you wanted to have the best that Lake Geneva has to offer, and you don’t want to spend ten sticks trying to make it happen on your own, you could give me the better part of eight sticks and you’d be set.

The thing about sticks is that they’re sort of neat. They’re fun to put in a pile, and go out to find more of them and place on that pile. But the other thing about sticks is that they’re sort of boring. You can’t look for too long at a pile of sticks before you get tired of them. Are they still there, in that big stack? Yep. Are they still boring? Yep. So, perhaps it’s time to gather a few of your extra sticks and swap them for something fun.

Sidney Smith

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I cannot profess to ever having a fondness of cartoons. My brothers enjoyed these printed strips, as did my mother. Me? Not really. I didn’t care much for Calvin and Hobbes, even though the aforementioned family members did. It wasn’t my thing. Mr. Boffo, penned by a local cartoonist, didn’t capture any of my interest, either. When the paper arrives on my driveway every Sunday morning, I have interest only in the Real Estate and Sports sections, my wife likes the tabloid and coupon bits, and my son digs through in search of the comics. Even though comics aren’t my thing, apparently I’m in the minority.

Sidney Smith was a cartoonist, which is like saying Michael Jordan was a basketball player. This guy was a big deal, back in that day, and his life can teach us all sorts of lessons. First, and likely most importantly, Sidney made his money in Chicago. Once he made that money, he set up shop in Lake Geneva, in a large 12 room estate on the South Shore of Geneva Lake. If there were no other lessons to learn, this one would be sufficient. In summary: Make Money In Chicago. Buy A Lake House At Lake Geneva. I capitalized all of that to help drive the point home.

This estate was large enough, with a main house, a guest house, a log cabin, and a four car garage. It was said that he was fond of wearing a coonskin cap during his parties, which may be the reason I’m going to be in the market for one such cap later today. He was a rich man, living as a rich man, with no apologies for his success. He had an estate near Chicago, a farm near Harvard, and the lake house. In 1922, he signed a big fat contract for $100k annually, and in 1935 he took a drive to the city to sign a new contract, this one at $150k per year. Mr. Smith was, in fact, living large.

Judging from newspaper reports of the event, we’ll assume he drove to the city on a Saturday morning. Three friends accompanied Mr. Smith on this joyous trek to sign the new contract, and they rolled south in his brand new Rolls Royce. Contract signed, celebratory dinner and drinks presumably imbibed, the four friends drove north late into that Sunday morning, North to Lake Geneva, North to the place where Mr. Smith wanted to be. On Route 14, just outside of Harvard, in those wee hours of that dark morning, Mr. Smith collided head on with another motorist, and with that, there was no more Sidney Smith.

Car crashes are always disquieting, no matter where or when they occur. But especially troubling is this one, that it happened on the way to the lake, on an early Sunday morning. The lesson here should be not to celebrate huge contracts and then drive, but it could also be that we should never, ever find ourselves driving north on a Sunday morning. We drive north on Fridays, and we drive south late on Sundays, or early on Mondays if we have the proper goals.

It isn’t to say that Sidney Smith hasn’t left a legacy, because he has. The statue of his Andy Gump character that once graced his lakeside lawn now stands steadfast in Flat Iron Park, downtown Lake Geneva. He has a road named after him, where he once hosted his parties and donned his coonskin cap. I sold a home on that little lane last Friday, and for $812k a buyer found himself one house off the lake with a shared pier and private boat slip. The home is large, newer, and the property wooded and secluded. It’s a great property, and if the new owner remembers to never drive north in the middle of the night that turns a Saturday to a Sunday, all should be well.

Lake Geneva Vision

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In certain price ranges here for certain sorts of properties, the buyer doesn’t need to possess any real vision. Chances are, if you’d like a nice enough home for around $600k in Country Club Estates, the vision of someone else will suit you just fine. There’s no need to be creative, if that’s your goal and that’s your financial capability. Likewise, if you’d like to bite off a large lakefront estate, and it’s already rather perfect, you needn’t bring much forward thinking to the table. You can simply agree that the current owner’s vision matches yours, and you can be happy that he did the work already so that you don’t have to.

While these two examples are fine, and all, they are obviously cherry picked scenarios. Most of this market requires ample vision, and unfortunately for most, vision is not as common as we’d all like it to be. If we’re looking for a lakefront home, and we’d like to spend $1.75MM, but we can spend $2MM- maybe $2.2MM- we could really use some vision. Times were, back in those darker years of 2010, 2011, and even into 2012, we didn’t need much vision at all. We could look to the past for our clues, and if the rear view mirror showed a much higher peak value, we’d be fine to focus on that and buy without much concern for what came next.

The problem in this particular price range, as I see it today, is that without vision, buyers become followers. Much like the one eyed man leading the blind, this current lakefront scenario shows a seller with vision leading buyers who lack it. If you think this is being done out of some civic duty, some community service, you’d be sorely mistaken. This is a profit play, as most vision tends to be. This is about buying and remodeling entry level lakefront homes, and this is about a trend on Geneva Lake.

If you’re a buyer here, for around two million dollars, the sad truth is that I can’t sell you any private lakefront that is remarkable. I might be able to find you a decent piece of property, with a lame house, or a lame property with a decent house, but there’s usually something lame about what you’re buying. Sweet house, decent lot, super sweet giant municipal boat launch as a neighbor! I’ve been rather clear over these many years, and it’s no secret that I’d prefer to buy location first and figure everything out second. I’d find a spot that holds easy value, and I wouldn’t immediately care about the lack of running water.

Unfortunately, my angle is a rare one. The proof? Buyer’s have been showing a willingness to reward others for their work in a way that this lake isn’t entirely used to. I’ve sold plenty of lakefront homes where the sellers are simply trying to get all, or most, of their overall investment back. Buyers understand this, and if a buyer sees current market value in a break even seller number, then we can expect a sale. But buyers have been shy about providing a premium for other peoples work, until recently.

Case in point is a home on Oak Birch in Williams Bay that just sold for $2.11MM and change. It was a nice house, a remodeled house, that sold last summer for $1.375MM to the developer who spun it these many months and many improvements later. The finishes were nice but not opulent, the style welcome but not necessarily significant. So why does a property sell for this much money when buyers understand there is a mark up on the finished product? Well, that’s because buyers recognize their unwillingness to tackle renovation projects, and they find it reasonable enough to buy a vision that’s already been presented to their present.

If I were a buyer, I’d take clues from this developer’s success. I’d consider lakefront homes in the $1.3-$1.9MM range, and I’d do my best to conjure my own brand of vision. I’d seek value, and I’d hire a contractor and I’d see the work through to its completion. If I bought a house for $1.9MM and put $600k into it in order to have a home with a market value of $2.5MM, this isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about buying a home for $1.6MM, putting $400k into it, and having a home that’s valued at $2.3MM+. I’m talking about creating margin, as there is no finer reward for vision than immediate, lasting equity.

The Natural Pool

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The business of making pools is, well, pretty big business. A rapidly growing segment of the pool market is in so called “natural” pools. The concept of fixing nature is one that has made great recent gains in the minds and psyches of human beings. If you need proof of that statement, consider only the work that is done to “restore habitat”. We, in our supreme self satisfaction, have taken about tearing out old nature to put new nature in. Drive by Kishwauketo sometime. It’s a great land conservancy, for sure, but take close look at the work being done. The work is mostly visible along Highway 67, where once a wooded jungle pushed nearly all the way to the paved road. Now, there are smaller trees, those planted after the larger ones were cut down because they were too this or too that, but mostly too invasive. We are busy correcting nature by destroying it, so that we might save it.

If it all makes sense, then it should make sense to consider the very concept of a natural swimming pool. Crain’s told me, in an article last week, that these swimming pools are all the rage. They were first introduced in Europe, these pools. Then, after some time, the United States decided that we should, no, we must, have them as well. These pools are rather involved, and rather pricey, but the general gist goes like this: You, being a person of some swimmy esteem, desire a swim. And, being this person that you are, have decided that you mustn’t travel to swim, but you must find that swim immediately outside of your back door. You want to swim, darn it, and swim you must.

But you don’t want to swim in a pool full of chemicals and dyes and the like, because you are interested in preservation, not contamination. The pool you desire must be sterile, but not too sterile. Like a hippie who doesn’t wash his jeans, because that’s passe, but who does shower every now and again because he’s concerned about both his perspective on life and his aroma. You wish this pool to be natural looking, natural feeling, and natural, but not too natural. You want turtles, because they do something good for the water. You want some fish, but not too many fish. You want plants, green ones, spindly ones with big leaves, and curvy ones with small leaves. They’re not leaves, really, so much as they are little branches with green on them. You love those plants, so you’re going to buy some and bring those to the shoreline. There isn’t really a shoreline, per se, but there is a bright line of spray paint that the guy from the natural pool company painted last week, so you’ll set the plants near there.

The pool, it’ll be a hole, filled with water. But it won’t get filled until the pool guys, who might as well be pond guys, come to dig a giant hole in your backyard. I’m not sure what shape this pool/pond will be, but it might be a kidney, or some variation on a circle. It won’t be square, that’s for sure. They’ll dig and then they’ll line your natural pool with some plastic sheeting. This may not be natural, but those rocks you’re going to bury that plastic in sure are! They’re from Montana, where lots of rocks are from. If I were a purist, I’d point out that your rocks are invasive, and are threatening both the health and self esteem of our native rocks, but you’re the hippie purist, not me.

The rocks in, it’s time for water. A big truck will bring it, and it will be fresh water. There will be some PH testing, or so you’re told. It’ll make you feel better, if they dip some paper strips in your new pond/pool and the strips turn color. Don’t worry, they say, they all turn green and purple. It’s blue that you don’t want. The pool is filled with water, the rocks submersed, the green plants with the leaves planted. You’re ready for a swim, but they tell you it isn’t yet time. It can take a year or more for your pool to be properly balanced, so you must wait.

It seems to me that you can do this, or you can realize something very simple. There’s a 5400 acre pool here, in between Lake Geneva, Fontana, and Williams Bay. It’s big, it has rocks and green plants and fish and turtles. It’s also super clean, and deep. You can even boat on it! It’s swimmable as of last weekend, and when it freezes in the winter all the fish stay alive. You can call the pool/pond guys, and pay them a handsome ransom to build you a swimmin’ pond, or you can drive to the lake and see the one that the greatest pool builder in history has already built. PH tested, and everything.

Lake Geneva Lakefront Rental

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That many lakefront home buyers are already lake home owners makes a lot of sense. If I have a $4MM home for sale on the lake, I need a buyer to spend one million dollars, four times over. That’s a lot of money, no matter how you slice it. It’s a lot of money to anyone, but particularly to a buyer who hasn’t yet experienced what a Lake Geneva summer truly is. That’s why, if I have a buyer who’s fresh to the scene, it isn’t entirely easy to make that buyer want to spend that much money. Whether or not I know he’ll enjoy the purchase doesn’t matter. However, if I have a buyer who already owns a lakefront home, say, one worth $2MM, then I’m only asking for that buyer to spend one million, two times over. That buyer already knows this lake, he knows what he likes and he knows how this whole thing works. That’s why move-up buyers are incredibly common at the lake.

Let’s now pretend you’re not a move up buyer, but instead, a very green, fresh Lake Geneva looker. You’re not yet a Lake Geneva lover, because that romance takes some time to develop, but you’re intrigued by the possibility of you and a white pier and a pretty boat and a lake. So, you set about considering such an impressive purchase. You look, you get close, you retreat. You think more, you look again, you move in, you retreat. It’s not that you don’t like the idea, and it’s not that you take any offense to blue water surrounded by green trees, it’s just that you’re uncertain at this point how a lake home will fit into your schedule.

There are rentals out there, sure. There are some weekly, some monthly, and some nightly. But most of these are normal homes, or normal condominiums. If you wanted to buy an Abbey Villa, you’re in luck. You can rent those by the night through the Abbey hotel. You needn’t wonder what it would be like to live in one of those, because you can spend $650 or so, per night, and try the condo out. You can put your things in the cupboards, you can walk to the pool, walk to the lake, walk to coffee and dinner. You can do everything as an owner of an Abbey Villa, without committing more than the $650 per. What if an Abbey Villa isn’t your aim?

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There have always been lakefront rentals. Most of them are available between $25k-$50k per month. These are fine houses, but they are not remarkably fancy. Most are older lake houses, great for people that want to have a lawn and a pier, but not so great if you don’t feel like roughing it, cottage style. With this in mind, I bring to you a most robust lakefront rental. Admittedly, this rental isn’t for everyone. It’s available for the month of July, or some version of 30 days in that calendar vicinity, and it’s $80k for the tenure. It’s not cheap, I get that, but it’s beautiful and it’s perfect for a discerning buyer that would like to dip their toes into this market before diving off the end of the pier.

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The home is walking distance to downtown Lake Geneva, and it’s on level frontage. There’s a great pier, and a handful of bedrooms and baths, all done in similar fashion to the rooms you see scattered about this post. The rental is obviously furnished, and a tenant will have the ability to experience instant Lake Geneva summer, from the time the key is first turned. The rental will need to be approved by the owner, as this is not a rental property as much as it is a property that is only available because of a conflict in the owner’s schedule that will not allow him the use of this fabulous manse during this July. His loss is your gain, and there’s simply no better way to introduce yourself to lakefront living than by considering this lakefront rental. Contact me for further details.

Geneva Lakefront Market Update

The lakefront market on Geneva is a strange creation. It is at once a whirlwind of activity, of showings and tours and offers and emails. It is a dizzying flurry, pronounced not only because of the season but certainly exaggerated on account of it. It is a furious rush, this pursuit of relaxation. The market is benevolent and cruel, wild and gentle, frustrating and satisfying, all at the same time depending on your aim. The market is irrational most times, rational select others. The market brings us new offerings and they sell, or they don’t, depending on which buyer defines value in whichever way.

The market is intense, but it is also a slow creature, churning and slogging through days and months and seasons, unaware and unconcerned about where it falls short. It brings us listings that should sell, and sometimes they do. It brings us listings that shouldn’t sell, and sometimes they do. It brings us miserable houses on miserable lots and it finds a miserable sort who thinks that misery is perfection. It brings us perfection and waives it in front of our noses until someone else buys it before we were ready. It does things sane and insane, it plays tricks cruel and clever, it is simple and complicated at once. This lakefront market is many things, but simple is not one of them.

There was a time when I made a fair living picking off entry level lakefront homes on behalf of opportunistic buyers. Many of these homes would trade in the $1.2-$1.4MM range, despite boasting prior, peak values in the $2MM+ category. These entry level homes were bargains, and buyers sought them out with what seemed mostly like ambivalence. Many of these buyers were buyers only because they saw opportunity, not because they saw themselves afloat a shiny boat or relaxing atop a white, wooden pier. They were seeking scalps first, and lifestyle adjustments second. Thankfully, I had a very shiny blade and was not squeamish about doing the necessary work.

Today, those entry level buyers are some of my happiest lakefront clients. They are happy to have secured value, yes, but they’re happy now because of that shiny boat and their white pier. They came to the game solely because they liked to win, and they stayed for the rest because they realized that it’s all rather fun. This sort of buyer is no longer able to be so easily entertained, as the entry level market has dried up in a serious, withering fashion. Entry level homes exist in this same price range, but today they are mostly entry level homes that were entry level homes that will likely always be entry level homes. There is little punching above ones weight in this entry level market, instead there is just a forced ransom to be a lakefront player, and that ransom has gone up.

While the market is exceedingly active, not all segments are being treated evenly. There is no better time to be a trophy hunting buyer, as inventory over $5MM has never been more ample or of a higher quality in my 18 years steering this ship. That the best two of those available giants are my listings should not come as a surprise to you, and if it does, then you haven’t exactly been paying attention. 88 North Lakeshore for $5.95MM is the best piece of land listed for sale on the lake, period. It might be the best piece of land to have been on the market in 10 years or more, excluding those estate sized properties that feel more institutional than residential. 1014 South Lakeshore for $7.95MM combines the rare elements of stellar house, stellar land, stellar lakefront, in a stellar location. That’s a home that will sell, and if I’m a high end, upper bracket buyer, I’m going to find myself at the doorstep of both of these homes, soonish.

The meat and potatoes of our market, those homes priced from $1.8MM to $3.5MM, those are the homes that the market wants to see more of. It isn’t that we don’t have ample inventory here, and it isn’t that several of these properties represent value, it’s just that the market isn’t overly excited with this lot. My modern listing on Valley View was priced over $4.1MM last year, and that’s down to $3.499MM now. It’s modern, it’s fun, and it’s in a great location. I’d take a look at it if I were you, but that’s because I enjoy looking at really cool lakefront homes. I understand if you don’t, not really.

The South Shore Club is absolutely hotter than a pistol at the moment. I just sold another lot, leaving only lot 32 available on the circle. I’d buy that if I were you, but I like upscale things in perfect settings, so maybe that’s just me. A private listing sold there last month for $3.1MM, and there’s a rumored offer that may already be a contract on the home listed for $3.799MM. That leaves only my listing on Forest Hill for $2.149MM (with elevator, in case you were wondering), and the spec home on the same road for $1.749MM. There’s just one home for sale on the circle, priced at $3.199MM. Expect the SSC to continue its rapid rebound, as buyers see value in the incomparable amenities and style of the Club.

There are contracts pending today, lots of them. There’s a contract on two lakefronts that I’m involved in- those at Southland for $2.475MM and Loramoor for $3.195MM. There’s a contract pending on a home on the South Shore near Trinke’s for $1.95MM, a small lakefront on Basswood, and the newly renovated home on Oak Birch listed around $2.2MM is pending as well. That home should help buyers and sellers alike understand what drives this market. Location, location, location is indeed a worthy real estate mantra, but only if you’re a purist. New buyers have replaced that boring, antiquated checklist with a new one: Shiny, New, Fancy.

What to expect moving forward? Expect more sales. Expect sellers who are over-confident today to become less so as we move through summer. Expect one or two of these high end listings to sell, and expect buyers to continue working overtime to make current inventory fit their needs. If you’re an entry level buyer, get motivated. If you’re another other sort of buyer, do the same. New inventory is met with all sorts of interest, so the time to initiate your lakefront hunt is not when a new property hits the market. By then, you’re already in the process of losing this game. Reach out to me today, tell me what you’re looking for and how much you want it to cost, that way, once that new inventory hits, we’ll be ready to pounce.

The Route

The roads in Manitoba are really quite simple. Some of the roads run North and South, while the other roads run East or West. This is the entirety of the civil planning for the whole province. The roads that run in these serious directions can be paved or they can be gravel, but no matter the material the course is always steadfast. This can come in handy if you find yourself lost in Manitoba. If the road you’re on is heading East, maybe West, you simply drive the next mile until you find a road with perpendicular intentions. Turn South, and in some due time you’ll see the bright lights of a border crossing and you’ll know you have been saved.

Not all roads are this sincere. In the days before GPS, I made a habit of trusting roads that I didn’t know well enough. If I was driving and driving and then I found the intersection of County O, I would think that this is a road I remember from another travel, and this is a road that will take me back towards the North, where I belong. County O does indeed run North and South for a while, but after some time it starts to head East and West. Later, it runs Northeast and Southwest. This road is not steady and true like the ones in Manitoba, but it’s roads like this that cause great confusion for many.

Today, some people will pull from their driveways and onto the great interstate system. They’ll drive in various directions, though, admittedly, most of them will bear North. The route to weekend redemption isn’t always as clear as you’d think, and people will spend many hours, no, lifetimes, trying to work out the right route to the right form of bliss. If, later this afternoon, you find yourself driving, inexplicably, South, this is likely because of a routing mistake that had been made with the most noble of intentions quite some time ago. While the route to a better weekend is varying and twisting and somewhat complicated, it’s best to assume you must first head North.

I have clients from Saint Louis in town this weekend, and while they could have turned to the South, to follow the others to those great muddy lakes made so many years ago by dams and floods, they chose to turn North. They will be rewarded by clarity of water and clarity of purpose, and when it’s 82 and sunny tomorrow, that’ll be a bit of a reward as well. It is unclear to some which direction they should head, and so they set about exploring the roads that lead to the South and to the West and many to the East. There is no particular way to know when your chosen route is the wrong one, but if you see that sign up there, it’s a good bet that your car should be pointing the other direction, post haste.

The Transaction

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There was a time, not all that long ago, when I bought old houses and did my best to fix them up. I can’t say that I enjoyed this, but there was some uncontrollable urge to do it anyway. If I liked a location of a house, and I could buy it cheap, there were several times when that’s just what I did. First there was a small house on Clover Street in Williams Bay. I had a contract to buy that decrepit house for $40,000. When it was almost time to close, the seller told me he wanted $46,000. I don’t remember being upset, though I’m sure I was, but I bought the house anyway. I paid $46,000. Some years later, after I spent many dollars and much of my labor on fixing that old house up, I sold the property for around $190k. I don’t remember the six thousand dollars that the seller extorted from me prior to the closing, because it didn’t matter.

Later, I bought a house in Fontana, and then one near Knollwood. The Knollwood house was made of stone, and it may or may not have had a real foundation. All I knew was that the house was stone, and the sand used in the mortar was collected from the beach in town, so there were snails and shells and random bits of living things forever mixed into the walls of that house. On the day of the closing, my lender called. Because of an issue with the condition of the home (it wasn’t livable by any standard), I had to come up with an additional $17,000 towards the down payment. I probably had around $60k in total liquid worth at the time, and though I imagine I was very upset, because I fly off the rational handle better than anyone, I closed on that house and I began doing the work that would need to be done.

I hand dug out a section of the crawl space, just enough so I could install new floor joists. I re-framed the exterior walls of that stone house, and I leveled the entire first floor via shims and strips of wood. A couple of years later, when I sold that home for $270k, or thereabouts, I didn’t recall the $17,000 last minute down payment increase. I didn’t remember it because it didn’t matter. I took the proceeds check and bought a condo to live in while I built a new home in Geneva National.

Two years ago, I saw a For Sale By Owner sign on a dumpy house on North Walworth Road. It was a small house that didn’t look like anyone should be living in it. I called. The owner told me he wasn’t selling it yet, which left me wondering if the For Sale sign wasn’t a bit misplaced. A few weeks later, I closed on the lot. At the closing, the survey that was prepared showed a little barbed-wire fence that looped lazily across the back of the lot. The lot extended about 20′ beyond that fence. The title company didn’t want to insure the property that extended past the fence. I was upset. I argued. I lost. I closed that day, paying $124,000 for a piece of property that may or may not be 10 acres. I closed because I didn’t care about that 20 feet. The lot was 10 acres, more or less, and I knew my value didn’t hinge on that 20′. The value is apparent today, as is my happiness with my property, barbed-wire fence or not.

These are tales that I tell to help prove a point. Perspective is everything in real estate. The minutia can be paralyzing, and any deal without snags and disappointments isn’t much of a deal at all. If we are to have a few grains of salt to make it through a normal day, be sure to bring a satchel of them to any real estate transaction. Can I assume that each of the scenarios above involved people who were purposefully trying to impose on me? Possibly. Can I assume that had I balked at any of those perceived slights that I wouldn’t be where I am today? Most obviously. The key here is to not let the battles of any real estate deal allow you to lose sight of the true goal: Vacation home bliss. It only manifests itself after some trials and a few tribulations, when you’re sitting on a white pier over clear water watching the sun fade over a deep green shoreline. At that time, none of the nonsense that you endured to get to that point matters.

1014 South Lakeshore

All homes generally do one thing well. In the game of real estate, it’s usually that one thing that makes a house valuable, or otherwise desirable to at least one person. A vinyl ranch next to a train track sells because it does, admittedly, have a great back yard. It’s fenced and it’s nice, and there’s a tire swing hanging from the one tree. A studio condo has a kitchen that’s a bedroom that’s a dining room that’s a living room. Did you see the study? That’s the same room, too. But that studio apartment has a view of the lake to the East and the city to the South, so someone finds that view good enough and the condo sells. A run down house on the run down side of town hits the market. There is no flooring, no cabinets, no back yard. But, there is a nearby supply of Drano and a hardware store that sells batteries in bulk, so someone will buy it. All houses, no matter their variety, have something that makes someone want it.

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What then do we do when a house has everything we want? Not just one thing, or two, or seventeen, but every single thing we could ever want? Well, if we’re in the market for that sort of property, we buy it. That’s what’s going to happen with my newest listing, 1014 South Lakeshore Drive, on Fontana’s most desirable shore. This home has so much to offer, it would be impossible, even for this verbose kid, to write them all down. Want a pier with three canopied slips on dead level frontage? Gotcha covered. Want a guest house, with ample garage space for your winter and summer toys- a garage that’s big enough but not so big that people text each other and ask if you’ve seen the size of that garage? No big deal, we have that here, too.

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Lake Geneva offers two distinct sorts of upper bracket homes. We have newer homes, fancy and fluffed. Those are generally available on lots that offer some compromise. Cliff frontage, weird neighboring homes, small lots. Or we offer great lots with older homes. I have one such property available at 88 North Lakeshore Drive for $5.995MM. It’s a huge property, 5+ acres, with huge frontage, 232′, and a tennis court, a pool, a guest house, and on and on. But that home is far from perfect, as age has left at least some mark there. For a buyer seeking a marquee land purchase on a most perfect stretch of shoreline, there is no better value in the market. But what of buyers that don’t want a project? What of a buyer that wants a new home, with the fanciful things that those new homes offer, AND they want the land that suits such a property?

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With a 2.8 acre manicured lot and 165′ of level frontage, 1014 is a lot of things, but it’s easiest to sum up what exactly it is:

It’s lakefront perfection.

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This weekend, I’m showing the home to qualified buyers. The $7.95MM ask represents value far below replacement cost, and there’s literally nothing left to do to this impeccable home except buy it and love it. It’s a beautiful holiday weekend, and here’s the most beautiful holiday house you’ve ever imagined. For more information, email me, or call me if you’d like to hear what my voicemail greeting sounds like (262-745-1993). Here’s to the best Memorial Day weekend of our lifetimes. If you’re in town, look for my new magazine. If the place you’re at doesn’t have my new magazine, pound your fists on their counter and demand it.

Lake Geneva Lake Access Market Update

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If the song is right, and the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, which in turn is connected to the leg bone, then it shouldn’t be such a big surprise to know that each segment of our market is connected to the segment either above, or below it. Markets do not exist in vacuums, and neither do individual segments. That’s why activity in one segment can boost activity in another segment, or an absence of sales in one segment can cause fewer sales in another. Case in point is the housing crisis. In 2009, did we really lose every sort of buyer, for every sort of home? Or did we spend 2009 through 2013 suffering, at least in large part, to a lack of jobs and apathy amongst that buying demographic that gets this whole thing started- the young, previously energetic, entry level buyer?

One key to understanding the Lake Geneva vacation home market is to understand that we do not need legions of new buyers each year. I love introducing a buyer to this market. A buyer who grew up on the East coast, and spent their Chicago existence pining for clear water and northeasterny things. When that buyer comes to Lake Geneva, they feel at home, at peace, and more times than not, they feel like buying. This is a wonderful buyer, but it’s a rare buyer. A decidedly not rare buyer? The sort that has a summer home in Cedar Point, or Country Club, or Indian Hills, who decides that, after a growing love of the lake and a growing wallet, that it’s time to move to the lakefront. The move up buyer is really what fuels Lake Geneva.

When our recovery was nascent, we had activity on the lakefront, because the lakefront is king now and forever, and there was activity in the $500k and under lake access market. The middle segment of our market was light on volume, those homes priced from $500k to $1MM. I think the market behaved this way because the entry level lakefront market was yielding straight deals. I sold multiple lakefronts in 2010, 2011, and 2012 that printed for 40% off their prior sales prices. If you were a buyer who wanted to spend $800k but could indeed spend $1.25MM, the odds were you couldn’t resist the value in the entry level lakefront market so you pushed yourself to the lakefront. The opposite is happening today.

The entry level lakefront market has some offerings, but I find them to be mostly boring or impaired, or probably boring and impaired. And ugly. If I’m a buyer who could swing lakefront to $1.25MM, the inventory does nothing to excite me. With low lakefront inventory in that segment, the segment below it should, in theory, benefit. Buyers happily overextend to capture something that they really love, but buyers also gladly dial back their purchase price if there’s nothing worth stretching for. If I’m right in this theory, then the mid-upper end of our lake access market should be hot. And that’s exactly what it is.

There are currently no fewer than eight lake access homes priced from $600k to $1MM pending sale. That’s a lot of volume in that segment, and I think it stems from a both a lack of quality entry level lakefront inventory and increased liquidity in the lower range of the lake access market. If I’m a $800k vacation home owner, it might be normal to see me someday end up on the lakefront. In the same way, a $300k vacation home owner in Cedar Point might find the financial courage to step up to a $700k lake access home with a slip. Ever have a vacation home here without a slip? Ever then upgrade to one with a slip? If yes, you know the lifestyle upgrade that comes with such a promotion.

With this increased activity in the $500k to $1MM market, I think it’s important that we go over our buying criteria in this price range. If I’m a buyer for this sort of property, I’m looking for a few very distinct things. I really would like a slip, but even all slips are not created equal. There is some inventory in this segment plagued by bad slip locations. How do I know this? Um, because I’m smart? As a buyer working with me, you’ll never have to wonder if you’re paying a premium for a dog of a slip. I’ll tell you the slip is lame, and if it’s extra lame then I’ll tell you it’s super, disgustingly lame. Some of these bad slips are under contract, so let’s avoid those mistakes together.

If I don’t have a slip, I want a view. Many people would trade one for the other, and I could live with both scenarios. If I don’t have a slip or a view, then I better have a really, really nice house. Ideally I’d have a slip and a decent house, or a view and a decent house, or if I could find a really nice house with one or the other I think I’d be rather content. If you’re buying a marginal house with no view and no slip and you’re paying a premium, this is sad. How can you guard against making a mistake and buying the right house in the wrong location? Just type dave@genevalakefrontrealty.com and hit send.

Above, my new magazine. Available everywhere cool starting today.

This Weekend

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This is either an extremely exciting week, an extremely busy week, or an extremely depressing week, a soul crushing span of five work days. In the winter, it’s easy to be a city dweller. City dwellers can hunker down, fight through winter, and maybe take a week vacation to somewhere warm. In the winter, we’re inside, and we’re mostly oblivious to the movements of those around us. That’s because in the winter we’d rather not look outside, not after the first few snowfalls, anyway. In the winter, we can draw our shades and scheme, brood, and wonder if where we are is where we should be. When we’re thinking and brooding, with those curtains drawn and our fireplaces crackling and snapping, it isn’t so easy to see that the Johnson’s slipped away on that Friday evening and didn’t return until Sunday afternoon. In the winter, it’s easy to pretend that everyone else is still at home.

This Friday, the blessing of obliviousness is no longer available. This Friday, there will be a great separating of the wheat from the chaff, and I will serve as the great winnower. This Friday, when you drive home from work, so late that the evening sky has grown dim, you’ll probably think everything is fine. You’ll go inside, you’ll say hi to your spouse, if you have kids you’ll try to remember to say hello to them as well, and then you’ll go back to your den and draw the shades, and in this, everything will seem normal. But the great exodus has already occurred, and you missed the great vacation home rapture because your phone was too stuck to your ear, your pedal to far down to the metal, your ambition blinding.

Yes, Friday morning, afternoon, and evening will be the same as they always are. There will be no guilt, no motivator, no feeling of crushing inadequacy. Saturday morning, you’ll awake. It won’t be like when those people in those television commercials awake, either. They wake up to streaming sunshine, with white blankets and white sheets, and make up. When their kids come into their room, they smile and laugh! So much fun to have children jump on the bed in the early morning! But that’s not like your Saturday, because your Saturday is a normal Saturday, like all the Saturdays that came before and most of the ones that will follow. You’ll rise, slowly, and I imagine you’ll put on a robe, because everything I know of city or suburban weekend mornings involve robes and sidewalks with newspapers on them.

When you walk to that paper, things won’t immediately seem out of place. Your grass is still green, your driveway still impeccable. Your hedges are a bit uneven, but you’re planning to call Jimmy this morning to let him know that you’re a lot of things, but you are not blind. He should come to fix those shrubs, and he will. Maybe Monday. In the mean time, you walk the sidewalk. Your paper is there, as it always is, wrapped in a red or blue plastic, the dew on side that faced down for the last hour or so, the hour that passed from when the delivery driver flung it from their window without hardly slowing down. Sometimes, the paper ends up on the lawn, or in the crooked shrubs, but this morning it was right on the sidewalk, right where you like it.

He threw the paper perfectly on your entire block, and the Johnson’s paper is on their sidewalk, too. But their paper is still there, and you overslept a bit, so it’s strange that they haven’t retrieved their paper just yet. You’re confused by this, because the Johnson’s are incredibly concerned about their paper, and they love to read it by morning light in that breakfast room that you can see from your back deck. You brush it off, perhaps they, too, overslept. Perhaps they weren’t feeling well. Perhaps they had a rough night with their kids, especially the one with the earring. You return to your own breakfast room, and read the morning drivel. Things, they seem fine.

You’ve decided the day calls for some gardening, but not hard-core-Amish-gardening. Just some weed pulling, and some snipping with those snippers you got from Restoration Hardware. The ones that came in that waxed canvas bad that says, in white stitching and in such a charming way, G A R D E N. You put on your gardening clothes, which are just like regular clothes except that you don’t mind getting a teensy bit of dirt on them, and you hit the garden. It’s a beautiful day, and the birds are chirping. Are those birds, or distant police sirens? You’re not sure. There’s a football in the Johnson’s back yard, just sitting there. Someone left it there not too long ago. It shouldn’t bother you, after all, it’s their lawn and not yours, but it’s just sitting there, out in the middle of the lawn. Something about it annoys you.

But there’s no one to complain to, because you can’t see any life next door. Was something wrong? Did some household mechanical system malfunction and spew carbon monoxide while the family was asleep? Did they all die? Are they in that house, right now, totally dead? That’s a horrible thought, so you dismiss it. Enough gardening, it’s lunch time.

You like to eat lunch on your deck, because it’s just so nice back there. I mean, it isn’t great, but it’s pretty nice. You like it. Your friends tell you they like it, too. So you eat a sandwich, and you look through the paper again, in case there was something important that happened, something that you missed. The football is still there. Mocking you. Why is it there? In the middle of that yard, with no one throwing it or catching it, or at least thinking about picking it up and putting it back in the mudroom lockers where it belongs. Your sandwich was fine, but admittedly it was not great.

The golf this weekend is boring, Tiger isn’t in the lead, because he’s never in the lead anymore. Phil isn’t either, because he either wins, or is second, or third from last. The broadcast hasn’t shown him all day, so he must be third from last. And that football is still there. Unmoved, untouched, in the middle of Johnson’s perfectly striped lawn. Maybe you should check on the Johnson’s. You’re not prepared to see them all dead in their beds, silent victims of that bird’s nest that clogged the exhaust pipe of that hot water heater? You’re not ready to see that, but someone has to be concerned. If we are not our brother’s keeper, we can at least check to see if our neighbors are dead. Courage gathered, you walk down your sidewalk, and then up theirs. You clear your throat, prepared to demand an answer as to where they have been. You knock. Rap, rap rap. Firm, but not aggressive, anxious but not anxiously.

No answer. Another, rap, rap, rap-rap. They extra knock might do it. Nothing. You have a key to their house, the extra one that you exchanged yours for a few years ago when you finally trusted them enough, and they you. Should you enter? Is this a violation of trust, or a neighborly necessity? You think better of it, and walk back down their sidewalk, and back up yours. The golf is still boring. The birds still chirping, or the sirens still whistling, either way. You can’t watch golf, but when you try to nap you think more of that football and the Johnson’s and less of Phill and his quadruple bogey that they finally showed. Second from last.

Maybe a call is in order. That’s nice, not intrusive. You could leave a voicemail for them, asking if everything is okay and if you’re still on for brunch tomorrow. That would be okay, not too controlling but certainly showing concern. You dial once, every number except the last one. Hang up. Don’t call. Why call? It’s just a Saturday, aren’t they entitled to go to the mall early and return late? Of course they are, but that’s not the point. The point is that paper still on the sidewalk and the football still on the lawn. You call. Ring. Ring. Ring. Voicemail, perfect.

This is the Johnson Family. We’re at the lake house this weekend, so leave a message and we’ll call you back on Tuesday, or try our cell. Happy Summer!

Click.

Why did Mrs. Johnson have to sound so darn cheery? It would have been easier to dial 911.

This Friday, it’s going to get a lot harder to pretend summer weekends spent in the city are fun. This Friday, perhaps you should be coming to the lake, if only to sit in the backseat of my car for a bit, and tour a few homes. This weekend, it’s the first weekend of unofficial summer, and it’s the first weekend in a long time that sitting in the city isn’t going to cut it.

Escanaba Vacation!

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It would be easy to confuse this day with any other that came before it. It’s gray in the sky and cold in the air. It’s wet underfoot. It’s snowing in Northern Illinois. The Cubs are in last place. I put on a light jacket this morning, the sort that I’ve worn almost every day since I put my heavy jacket away, too early. I pulled on my boots, not because I needed them for walking through snow, but because they are shoes that I wear when it’s cold and fallish, and it’s nothing if not cold and fallish. My drive to work was about the same as it usually is, except for a most unwelcome sign of the season. Not the season we’re in, which is somewhere between spring and winter and late fall, but the season to come. It’s almost summer, and I know it because Tim Allen just told me so.

I typically black out when his voice pulses through my speakers, so I rarely pick up the entirety of his content, instead settling for snippets that I absorb while drifting in and out of consciousness. There is a common theme running through these commercials, aimed solely at the ears of Chicagoans and their disposable vacation home or vacation seeking dollars. The theme is not The Cider House Rules. The goal of these commercials is not necessarily to make you want to do any one specific thing, as the copy suggests, instead the goal is to make Michigan sound like an exotic, wild place. I’ve been there, and it isn’t, but that’s not the point. They pull town names that sound far away, like some island that I’ve never heard of in some part of Michigan that I’ll never go. Or some small town with an Indian name that sounds super amazing, but is, in fact, just a place with a few antique shops that open for a couple months in summer. Today, Tim told me about Escanaba. I assume the writers picked that town because it sounds elusive and very unlike anything related to a large City. They thought it would entice a few people to visit, but they hadn’t counted on me having been there many, many times.

I was first introduced to river fishing for brown trout on the Escanaba River. The river, as you guessed, flows into the town of Escanaba before dumping into Lake Michigan. It was four years ago, I think, when I first pulled on my waders and walked through the admittedly wild scene that surrounds this freestone river. I was immediately hooked on fly fishing. The trout were colorful, the effort rewarding, the end of day exhaustion worthwhile. We fished that day until the light failed, and we returned to the hotel in the great town of Escanaba to get cleaned up and head out for dinner. Though it was only late September, the town had the distinct feel of a place that used to be more important.

When fishing, we seek out bars to eat at. Even though I don’t drink, it’s important to finish a day of healthy exercise with some fried this and some fried that. We found one suitable bar in town, and walked in to find that it was just us and a few resident drunks at the counter. The waitress was pleasant, and we ordered the fried bits while asking questions about the town. We asked where everyone was. We asked if it was always this lonely feeling. We asked what had gone wrong here in this town that certainly didn’t feel very alive. She told us that the town was a paper producing town, and that the mills were shutting down, one by one. There were a few still open, she thought, but she figured they’d be closed someday soon, too. She didn’t exactly know.

The next morning, we went to fish by Lake Michigan, in the river, where we might find lake run salmon and steelhead and big, hook-jawed brown trout. Instead of being idyllic, as we had imagined, it was industrial, the river coursing through concrete retaining walls, in and around the town that used to host industry, maybe of the paper variety. We fished for a while, having put in at a bridge that looked accessible. It wasn’t long before we met a friendly angler, who told us that he was fishing further upstream, and that there were fish to be caught there. We walked up to where he was, and sure enough, catching ensued. We fished the day away, and when darkness came, we drove deep into the darkness, home.

We didn’t buy any souvenirs in Escanaba that day. Had we wanted to, I’m not sure there were any to be bought. Billboard advertising worked its magic on us, and we stopped for some pasties before leaving the UP. They were bland and bad, which was a huge disappointment as the place we stopped at offered up The UP’s Best Pastie. Something strange happens when you leave the Upper Peninsula at night. You drive and you drive, from Escanaba towards Wisconsin, in the dark. There are small towns, with small town billboards, but those towns mostly feel like the last person to leave had already turned the lights out. You drive into the darkness, and then you see the lights of a distant town. You drive closer. And closer. Until you come to the bridge and realize that those lights are in Wisconsin.

When you pass into Wisconsin, there are people smiling and laughing. There are lights on and children playing. You feel as though you have switched your television from a black and white movie on AMC to a blockbuster on HBO. There is life and happiness and prosperity. There is also a very long drive left. Mapquest puts Escanaba at 311 miles from Chicago, but that makes it sound somewhat close. It isn’t. Escanaba is every bit of 5 hours from Lake Geneva, which means it’s considerably longer from Chicago. And for what? To go to that bar and have that waitress tell you about the paper mills that may or may not still be there?

While I assure you Escanaba offers nothing for you, I think you should plan a trip. Pack the car. Buy the kids all sorts of treats. Charge the iPads. Gas the family cruiser. Head North. Once you enter into Wisconsin, quickly turn left onto Highway 50 and go straight to Lake Geneva. I can send you pictures of Escanaba, assuming I had my flash turned on.

Abbey Springs Sale

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No one would say that Abbey Springs is an architectural gem. I suppose that’s not entirely true, as people once bought bright blue PT Cruisers and they drove them home, bursting with pride. Someone, somewhere, probably thinks Abbey Springs is a stylish beauty, all those angles and so much brown and gray, thrown into a beautiful woods near the lake with a golf course twisting through. It’s nice, Abbey Springs, but the beauty here isn’t in the introduced bits, it’s in the topography and the trees and the lakefront. Abbey Springs won’t be winning any architectural awards any time soon, but buyers don’t care all that much. It’s not the architecture they love, it’s all the rest of it.

Last week, a buyer of mine closed on a small home on Rolling Green. It’s a nice enough little house, with three bedrooms, two baths, an open and airy great room. There’s even a fireplace, a deck, and a garage. If you drove past it on a weekend afternoon, it wouldn’t be a house you’d notice. The buyer didn’t buy it because he wanted your attention, in fact, he bought it because he wanted comfortable anonymity in a neighborhood where his children would never want for something to do. If the architecture is sub-par, then the amenities are a triple bogey, and in this case, that’s a great thing.

The sale closed at $350k, making it the lowest priced Abbey Springs single family home sale in quite some time. I didn’t go back to look, but there’s nothing this year or last year that sold at that price or better, as $350k in Abbey Springs typically buys you a townhome of some variety, not a single family home. The price was not too far above the ransom you’d have to pay to buy a vacant lot inside those lakeside gates, so after a reasonable remodel we’ll likely have a house that should hold its own in this steadily improving market.

There have been eight sales in Abbey Springs this year, represented by three single family homes and eight traditional condominiums. Inventory is down at Abbey Springs today, with just 24 active homes and condos per the MLS. Two homes and one condo unit are pending sale, meaning Abbey Springs continues its steady pace without any interruption. YTD sales for 2013 numbered just three, though the year managed to finish with 22 MLS sales. 2012 YTD saw eight sales, while 2011 YTD had just five. The undulations are expected, and the reality of Abbey Springs is that a poor quarter here or there doesn’t mean much. There are always buyers who want the amenities that only Abbey Springs can offer, and that’s why the sales just keep plowing forward.

If you owned a place at Abbey Springs over the last decade, and you’re now planning to sell, you’ve absorbed some major infrastructure improvement costs along the way. There’s the new restaurant, the pool, the new clubhouse and updated facilities everywhere you look. There’s a new maintenance building, and some more new this and a bit more new that. There’s lots of new in Abbey Springs, and while the condos and homes generally won’t attract any interest from Architectural Digest, the amenities are both attractive and functional, and new buyers have the wonderful opportunity to use these amenities that someone else just paid for. To buy into Abbey Springs in 2007 was to buy into a coming assessment storm, but to buy now is to buy into a community that has just been fabulously revamped, at the last guys expense.

Abbey Springs hasn’t looked to be very interest rate sensitive, as sales this year outpace sales from last year, even though interest rates are nearly a percent higher now than they were last spring. There’s reason to think that Abbey Springs continues its steady pace, selling enough units to keep things greased, while never swelling their inventory to the point of forcing a slowdown. Geneva National would love to emulate Abbey Springs, but it just can’t pull it together. That’s because Abbey Springs combines first rate golf with country club amenities AND a great big, blue lake. Lots of places have golf courses and pools, but no one else ends their property where Geneva Lake begins.

Rain

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It’s raining again. Sitting in a dark house, with stone walls and large timber framing that reaches from wall to wall, exposed. There’s rain outside, pittering and pattering against the old windows, gentle streams of falling water flowing over and off the porch roof. It’s light out, but not entirely light, dusk maybe. It isn’t dawn, that’s for sure, but it looks like dawn, because our mood is very different at each time, but dusk and dawn always look the same. The hills outside the windows are misty and green, the sky gray, but warm. The fire inside crackles and warms the stone hearth. We have a hot cup of coffee, a thick plaid blanket, and a comfortable chair. Lamp light is nice. It’s raining, gently, rhythmically, necessarily.

This rain is nothing like that rain.

This rain falls in the way that lead pellets fall from the barrel of a just fired 12 gauge. It has been blasted from the sky, repeatedly, sometime straight down, other times sideways, pushed with the wind that howls through these buildings and over these trees. This rain is an angry rain, a cold rain, the sort that feels like it would surely kill us if we were left out in it for too long.

It’s raining today, now, as it did last night, for the length of it. There is rain in the forecast today, too. Then some more tomorrow, and Wednesday and then Thursday and I’m assuming Friday and Saturday and probably Sunday. It’s raining like crazy, and while we switched seasons some time ago we really just turned our white precipitation clear, and we turned those February lows into April lows. It would be easy to look out today, and this blowing rain, and think that we have not come all that far.

But we have. We have turned away winter. We have beaten the snow, the ice, and we have turned mostly brown into mostly green. We are losing the battle this week, but the war has already been won. This is just clearing out the last pockets of resistance, and 43 with wind and clouds has proven a stubborn enemy, yes, but it cannot last either.

There is an alternative to this rain and this cold, and it’s cold and sun. Cold and sunny with gale winds is no more fun than cold and rain with gale winds. In fact, I think cold and rainy is more versatile than cold and sunny. If it’s cold and sunny we’ll feel some forced need to go out and do something under that sun. We’ll rake some remaining leaves, prune some renegade shrubs, caulk this or paint that. Cold and rain doesn’t allow any of that, and I’d prefer a Sunday like the one past, when I didn’t feel any particular need to do anything particularly productive.

If it weren’t for this rain, we wouldn’t have all this green. If it weren’t for these showers we couldn’t have our flowers. Rain is annoying, and the people in this coffee shop this morning have been keen on announcing that each time they hustle in from the damp. They walk in, shaking and scared, as if they have just been thrown down a mountain river and escaped only by clinging to a lifesaving branch until help came. Another one just told the counter girl that it’s really raining outside. As if the windows weren’t clear.

Without rain, we would have drought. Drought in the spring is especially difficult, as it leaves our buds dry and our grass weak. Without spring rain, our lakes that are really just drainage ponds wouldn’t have enough water to make their owners feel content in their bad decision. Without all this rain, we couldn’t wash the last bits of salt from our streets. Without this rain, our corn and soybeans wouldn’t be germinating as they should, which would make commodities traders push their prices high. I like this rain because I like $3.99 boxes of cereal.

So today, let’s just enjoy the rain. Tomorrow, let’s enjoy it, too. Besides, my boat still isn’t in, and without it I have no particular use for sunshine.

Swimming Lesson

It wouldn’t have been that hard to find me. The sun was out, the grass was growing, my orange and white Simplicity lawn tractor had at least fifty cents of Herb’s gas in the tank. I couldn’t be reached by cell phone, because it was 1989 and only drug dealers and my friend Eric’s dad had those. If I wasn’t on Liechty, and I wasn’t at Doc’s eating Williams Bay’s newest delicacy- the egg roll- then I had to be on Elmhurst Street, mowing those lawns. The apartment building counted as just one lawn, with one weekly bill, but it felt like many lawns because of all the sidewalks that broke that wide lawn down into six mini-lawns. That’s where I was, and that’s where my mom found me.

I was late. It was whatever day of the week I had swimming lessons, and I was late. There wasn’t time to ride my lawn mower home, to hitch up the little trailer that bore my name and phone number to the back bumper of that orange tractor. There was no time. I’d have to leave the tractor there, with the trailer next to it, with the blower and the weedwhip and the cans of mixed and regular gas. I jumped into the car.

I spent many hours at the Williams Bay beach. This is where I took a lifetime of swimming lessons under the tutelage of the red swimsuit wearing girls that worked for the Water Safety Patrol. This is where I took lessons, but this isn’t where I learned to swim. I learned to swim and dive at the Loch Vista Club pier. First in the shallows, near the slippery rocks and those slippery steps. Later, I would swim in and around the boats and the buoys, clinging to the underside of stringers and hanging to the top of horses. I learned to swim at that pier, but I learned the strokes at that beach.

I learned other things there, too. I learned that if I ever found myself in the middle of a lake or an ocean, and I had fallen into that water with my clothes on, that I should take off my pants. While treading water, I was to tie each leg into a knot, somewhere between the knee and the cuff. Then, while treading water, pants-less, I was to hold the pants with both hands, by the waist band, and throw those pants over my head and down into the water. The goal here was to capture air in the pants, so that I could float longer in the middle of whatever watery grave I was treading water in. I remember working at this for quite some time, and while I passed the test, I was certain then as am I now: This pant flotation device would never actually work.

This must have been the last year of these lessons, where the wheat is beaten from the chaff, and those of us proficient in tying pants into lifesaving devices went on to greater things while those who couldn’t fell away, destined for nothing, ever. This last year was less swimming and more survival, less lessons and more cruel punishments that were devised by older people and implemented by high school girls with tanned faces, zinced noses, and red swimming suits. Each session featured something different, something more strange than the next. It was like Navy Seal training, without the supervision and protein bars.

One time, we had to tread water holding a rock over our heads. The rock, looking back, must have weighed ten pounds or so. Maybe less, maybe a lot more. When these sorts of drills took place we had to move to the outer edge of the Western pier, presumably so that the younger children couldn’t see what would happen to them if they stuck with these swimming lessons. Learned the front crawl, check. Learned to float, check. Learned the backstroke, check. Learned to dolphin kick, check. Learned to tread water with just your legs while holding a boulder over your heard under the watchful eye of a tanned, red suited taskmaster? Um, check?

When someone is drowning, they are rarely passive. People only slip quietly under the surface to die in movies and album covers. What actually happens is a horribly frantic death flail, which is why people who try to save drowning people usually end up drowning along with them. Drowning people are straight jerks, and they’ll cling to you and drag you under no matter how large of a rock you can hold over your head. To prepare us for this inevitability, we had to fight off drowning victims. The victim would be the tanned lesson giver. I paid very close attention when she described what was about to happen.

She would be in the water, and one by one, we would have to approach her, drag her to safety, and presumably be rewarded with some sort of victory kiss. The girl promised that she would try her best to drown us, and that we had to use the various moves that we had learned. The moves were like, you grab my arm and I push it away, you grab my neck and I use some evasive maneuver similar to paint-the-fence. I didn’t seem so hard, and whether I went first or I went last I cannot remember, but I can vividly remember my turn.

The girl, with the tan and the red suit, was treading water about 15 feet from the pier. She was fake screaming, fake flailing her arms, creating all sorts of ruckus. I jumped in, using that jump they teach that keeps your head from going under water so as not to lose sight of the victim. I approached her cautiously, not only because she was drowning but because I was 12 and she was 17. I would have been nervous no matter the occasion, if I were bringing a pack of gum to a gas station attendant who was the same age, I would have been just as nervous. This was less a swimming test and more a social one.

When I was close, she lunged. She grabbed me around the back of my head, pulling my face towards her red swim suit. It was fantastic and frightening at once, and though I didn’t really want to, I used a wax on/off movement and deflected her hug. She played along nicely after that, and allowed me to tow her back to the pier, my tow hand dangerously close to her armpit. I had passed the test, and I had enjoyed every minute of it.

Swimming lessons stopped for me that year. I never went on to become a lifeguard. I never rode one of the patrol boats, with wayfarers and a zinc nose. I just went back to the orange and white Simplicity and mowed more lawns. Swimming lessons in pools are fine, but swimming lessons in pools prepare you for a life of swimming in pools. Swimming lessons in the lake are the best, and each beach on Geneva still offers those same swimming lessons from those same red suits. Check watersafetypatrol.org and get your kids signed up this summer. If you have a 12 year old son, chances are he’ll love it, even if he acts like he doesn’t.

All Stars

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I watch a reasonable amount of college basketball. I do not watch it solely because I like the sport of basketball, so you won’t find me making time to watch some game between two teams that I don’t care about. I watch Big Ten basketball because I root for the Big Ten in all things, at all times. I root for Wisconsin first, because I am a Wisconsinite not just by birth, but by increasing admiration of this great state, too. In all levels of basketball, as in all sports and in real estate, there are players of varying skill.

It is easy to watch a game and root for the star players. They are good, after all, and this is why they are the stars. In sports, there is no special consideration for political or otherwise mandated reasons of fairness, there is only consideration of skill, and players are rewarded commensurate to their level. When watching these basketball games, like the one Wisconsin played yesterday against Nebraska, the team, not the movie, it’s easy to forget about the players at the end of the bench. The bench is long, it may be deep, and the player relegated to the very last chair on that bench generally looks like he doesn’t belong. He sits and he sits, and when the star players come from the floor he sometimes offers them high fives, and once in a while they return the gesture. He brings them water, too, because stardom is a thirsty throne, and then I imagine he’s happy when one of those star players says something nice to him in practice. Like, nice shot.

When we do think about this last player on this long bench, we forget one very important thing: He is also a star player. Not on this team, not right now, but on his team in his town, he was everything. He was the big man on his smaller campus, and when the skinny subs on his old team would make a nice shot, he’d sometimes tell them so. Usually, he didn’t, which is why his position at the end of this new bench is so upsetting to him. He kind of understands that he isn’t as good as the other players, but he mostly blames the coach. If coach’d have put me in, we’d have one state. No doubt. No doubt.

The players in the NBA are like this, too, except they were stars at the small town school, and then still stars at a big town school, and now in this biggest of leagues they are just players at the end of the bench. They get water for the players sometimes, but mostly they just think about how they should be playing, and how the coach isn’t all that nice, and how the cheerleaders are pretty. And in this, there is a simple truth about the lakes around Lake Geneva.

They are fine, these lakes. I say bad things about them, but mostly they’re just fine. They have water and shoreline, and houses and trees. To someone who grew up somewhere far away from here, in a land where a lake is a lake is a lake, they are accepted. They are stars in the eyes of some, but only for as long as they are compared to each other. Some are better than the others, but they are all stars on a small town team. They cannot be expected to compete with Geneva Lake on this bigger stage, and so we shouldn’t forget that they’re still fine players. It’s just that they’re not true stars, and so they shouldn’t get so upset when we decline their high five.

Vista Del Lago Sells

When a market is down, I have absolutely no problem kicking it. I also don’t like to make excuses for market segments, as I’d rather try to identify the problems that lead to the market troubles, and then, once those are identified, I’ll kick a bit more. Along those lines, I also have no problem celebrating the successes of certain markets, particularly when those success come on the heals of some heavy duty kicking. Enter Vista Del Lago.

During 2013, there were two sales at Vista Del Lago (per our MLS). Both of those sales were of condominium units far away from the lake, and both sold under $300k. A two handle hadn’t been seen in Vista for many years, so these sales prices were a surprise to some, even to me. The problem, as I saw it, was that the sort of buyer who would generally buy a condo for $280k wouldn’t be able to afford the steep City taxes and the heavy Vista dues. This is likely the usual case, but two buyers last year bucked that concept and bought their own vacation homes at Vista Del Lago anyway.

There was inventory available at Vista during all of 2013, but only the two sold. 2014 has proven to be much kinder to this lakefront association, and in the past week there have been two closings here. One sale printed at $415k, the other at $550k (neither sale was mine). As you’d expect, both units have market stories that are long and varied, and both stories are likely the sorts that no one would rather talk about. Except me, because of the kicking.

The unit that closed at $550k originally came to market in 2009 for $1MM. One Million Dollars. The unit was never worth that, mind you, but that was the price. What followed over the next five years is a classic example of market chasing. The price was dropped, systematically though unevenly, before it finally settled at the $599k asking price that yielded the $550k buyer. The unit was unique, and I admit to liking it quite a bit. The finishes were old, but the layout was unique, the views divine, the slip deep and close. The issue here is the nearly $15k tax bill, combined with $888 monthly dues. The unit I sold at Eastbank a couple weeks ago had a tax bill that was a tad higher, but the unit was much larger, and the development much more exclusive.

The unit that closed at $415k was listed $444,900, and followed a similar, if less dramatic, pricing path. I actually had this unit listed for sale in 2010 for $589k, and obviously failed to sell it at that time. The reductions came after my listing was up, and this price of $415k was a fair market price paid for a three bedroom Vista unit. The taxes on this unit exceed $10k, requiring a buyer that can not only pony up the purchase price but one who can stomach the ongoing monthly expenses. Thankfully for Vista Del Lago, these two units have both found buyers, and in that, we can all be happy.

There’s another unit pending on the lakefront at the moment, that of a three bedroom penthouse at Bay Colony. Listed at $650k, the unit needs updating, but it is a rare unit in a very nice location. Combine that pending sale with these two Vista Del Lago closings and my Eastbank closing from a few weeks back, and the lakefront condo market has started 2014 in a most impressive fashion. Expect sales to continue in the lakefront condo market, as many seller’s prices have finally succumbed to buyer’s expectations.

Another South Shore Club Sale

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I am not in the business of manufacturing. I do not make anything, I do not warehouse anything. I do sell something, and I do so through a network of distributors, better known as real estate agents. They have shinier cars than most distributors, and they have large hair and magnetized decals on their cars, but they are still distributors. Because I’m not in the business of manufacturing some new product I’ve never had to take the temperature of the buying public as it relates to that new product. If I were to make a wooden toy, then produce that wooden toy, then market that wooden toy, I’d find out if the world liked it shortly after my wooden toy hit the shelves.

What if they didn’t like it? It is a nice wooden toy, after all, and all I’m asking is $75.99 for it. Seems reasonable, given all the wooden toy making machines I had to buy. My costs are high, because I have a secretary and some staff, and at least one guy who comes in late at night and sweeps up the sawdust. After a week on the market, I sold four little wooden toys. My projections called for 80,000 sales. So do I keep looking for the right market, or do I adjust my toy to meet the market that I’m already in? Do I advertise more to find the right wooden toy buyer or do I just cut the price to $9.99 so I can sell loads and loads of them?

If we’re in the business of making things, and instead of toys we’re making big stone and slate mansions, and instead of warehousing them in some dirty business park near the airport we warehouse them on a beautifully coiffed parcel of land on the southern shore of Geneva Lake, we’ve already decided what we’re going to do to increase our market share. We’re not going to beg for our position in the market. We’re not going to incentivize our distributors by offering them increased pay. We’re just going to drop our prices until the market deems our product worthy of our sticker.

Another month now past, another South Shore Club sale. This one of a $1.895MM listing at 1599 Lakeside Lane. This was an early Pickell built home, with the sorts of finishes you’d expect but not too many that you didn’t plan on. It is a beautiful home, on a lot that’s close to the lake- to the North of the swimming pool- and I just sold it for $1.875MM (personal property included, actual real estate sales price was $1.725MM).

This home had been listed near $3MM at one point in the history of the SSC, and that price proved to interest no one to the point of check writing. There are detractors now that will say this sale was “too low”. That it was somehow detrimental to the health of the SSC, and that it wasn’t just what the doctor had ordered. That’s what narrow minded, small picture people think, and we’re nothing if not open minded, large framed schemers. That sale takes inventory off the market, removes it from disinterested hands and places it into new, strong, enthusiastic hands. The key to a vibrant community, one that excels in practice as well as in theory, is involved, happy owners. We now have another one in the SSC, and this just the latest in a string of sales over the past 24 months that I’m happy to have played a role in.

There is another sale pending in the SSC as well, another home, this one incredibly beautiful but also closer to the lake and therefore more expensive. Since the times in 2011 when I suggested price ranges for the club that would make market sense, and that would, in turn, propel the club forward, the days and months since have yielded six sales. All of those sales have fit nicely into my targeted price structure, and there’s no reason to think that the following sales will not follow suit. We’ll need to clear aged or troubled inventory before price appreciation can begin, and we’re no more than two sales from exactly that taking place. The South Shore Club is running smoothly, the market is responding accordingly, and there’s little reason to think the future is not exceedingly bright here.

So what’s next? Well, next are the vacant lots. Five in total, all looking for their first non-declarant owner. Price targets are easy now, especially after a 2013 where I sold three vacant SSC lots. Buyers have clear value ranges where their built home should fit, and if a buyer can buy a lot and build in accordance with that pricing vision, then they should be secure in their decision. But this is the financial, and while I’m happy to tell you that everything has been falling into place, the real magic of the club happens this summer, when owners walk over grassy lawns down to their piers, where their boats, and their Lake Geneva summer, await.

Lake Geneva Vacation Home Market Update

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It’s sad when it’s only the 22nd day of the new year and one of my most important predictions has already been proven untrue. The lakefront inventory, I supposed, would be growing by now. In fact, I figured it would have increased earlier than normal, perhaps the first and second week of January rather than the first or second week of February as may be more normal. I thought this inventory would come to market, and that it would come at a premium, but instead, it hasn’t shown up at all. The lakefront inventory is low, and with some new sales, it’s getting lower.

There has been some new inventory to the lakefront market, but this is regurgitated inventory left over from last year. I feared some of it would come back at the same, or higher prices, but I have been pleased to see most of it come on at prices below the failed 2013 ask. The does my soul well, as there is still some decency left in the game of lakefront pricing. While the inventory hasn’t yet arrived, sales are occurring anyway, which may be good news for buyers as existing, aged inventory can create value in a way that brand new, and therefore exciting inventory, cannot.

I have been incredibly blessed in this young year, and have three lakefront sales pending at this moment. I have a deal on the 5.5 acres on Black Point, asking price $2.475MM. I have a deal on the tremendous lakefront on Oak Birch listed at $2.15MM, as that’s one that I’ve been watching closely as a possible value play. As of last week I have a deal on my 1599 Lakeside Lane in the South Shore Club, a property that found a buyer after a substantial price drop of $400k to $1.895MM. Those three lakefront deals of mine are joined by one lakefront condo sale as well. My Eastbank listing is under contract to a delightful buyer of mine at a great value price. It’s been a good month to be a lakefront buyer, on the single family and condominium side.

There are other properties pending on the lakefront as well. The leftover contract from the Birches is still pending sale at $2.15MM, as is a property that I honestly never expected to see sell anywhere near its asking price. The home to the East of the Highlands listed at $2.875MM is one that I figured needed to be closer to $2MM to have a shot at selling, but here it is, pending and waiting for a sale. That proves a very important point that I need continual reminding of- just because I don’t see particular value in a property doesn’t mean that the world sees it the same way. Add those two pending sales back to my three sales, and we have the makings for a very high volume first quarter of the year, in spite of inventory that hasn’t need been added to.

The lake access market has been active too, with four pending sales under $300k. There have been five lake access sales so far in these first three weeks of 2014, all of left over contracts from 2013. The Geneva Oaks REO that I mentioned in my 2013 Foreclosure Review has gone under contract after it came back to market with a $799k asking price. I’m not a fan of that sale near that level, but once again, I’m not the buyer so my opinion isn’t all that important. It’s good to see that property sell, as REO’s that linger on the market create lots of drag.

I continue to expect new lakefront inventory, and that remains the key to pushing our 2014 volume higher. If sellers have their way, inventory will remain low, which will mean prices have to tighten more than they might otherwise. If buyers have their way, inventory will increase, and that new inventory will be priced somewhat in line with 2013 valuations. Expect a slight premium on new inventory, and then expect buyers to pay that premium. If this inventory is to come to market, it will likely do so over the next 30 days. If you’re a buyer waiting for something new and fresh, best let me know. New inventory that initially looks great to the eager eye doesn’t mean it is.

The Shortfalls Of A One Week Vacation

There are times when a one week vacation is exactly what the doctor ordered. These are times when we are especially tired, especially cold, especially bored, or especially interested in being anywhere but where we are. These times, these one week vacations, are needed to break up our routines, to shed some fresh, bright light on what things we should be doing differently. They can allow time for introspection, time for renewal. They can also allow time for us to realize that one week vacations are horrible, horrible things.

If we could go away for a week in the summer, to the sort of lake place that we all wish to go in the summer, that would be really nice. We can book this week, guaranteeing that the pier will be white, that the boat will be gassed, that the front lawn will be green and mowed into stripes, some light and others dark. We cannot, however, guarantee that the weather will be sunny and 80, which is what we want when we’re lakeside in July.

If we go away for a week in the winter, say, to a place like Marco Island where I was last week, this is a wonderful thing. We can cross that Jolly Bridge and see that island and realize that palm trees and finely coifed boulevards are just what we needed to splash a bit of color into our white and brown winter existence. We can guarantee that the condo view will be divine, that the Starbucks will serve hot coffee, that the cups will be white with green just like the cups we left behind in Lake Geneva. What we cannot guarantee, however, is that the weather will be 80 and sunny like we want it to be. Sometimes the weather is 56 and windy, and during those times we’d rather be in Lake Geneva because 23 and snowy is just like 56 and windy, in that neither day makes pool sitting much fun.

When I was a child and I spent two weeks every summer on an up north vacation with my family, my dad would spend much of the time worrying about the weather. Not the weather where we were, but the weather where our house was, where our two week tenants were. He was worried that they wouldn’t enjoy their time. He was worried that, given the large sum of money the rental generated, the people would be stuck in the rain and that they wouldn’t be happy. There was nothing we could do about this, of course, but we all worried anyway because we are nothing if not conscientious landlords.

This is the nature of the short term vacation. This is the placing of all of ones’ vacation eggs in the same tidy basket. This is living 51 weeks with the hope that your one week of vacation is somehow perfect. This is the illusion, and this is not an indictment on Marco Island in the winter or on Lake Geneva in the summer, but instead on the concept of a one week vacation. One week vacations are saddled with huge expectations and rarely do the deliver on the promise of 7 days of pure bliss. This is why we shouldn’t look forward to short term vacations, no matter how extravagant, and we should instead look for a lifestyle change that a vacation home can offer. Lots and lots of mini vacations are so much better than one triumphant week.

If we have a week to spend at Lake Geneva, this is great. What fun! We can rent a boat and hope the sun shines. We can go to dinner and again to breakfast, and then we can swim and boat and tire ourselves out from all the fun. Or, we could pace ourselves in the slow and steady and comfortable way of an easily accessible vacation home. We can drive up on Friday and drive back on Sunday, and we can do that 52 weekends a year if we wish. If we do that for 40 weekends, we just found 80 days of vacation, assuming we also take neither a Monday or a Friday. If we spend a week on a beach somewhere we have 7 days, and those 7 days may well be windy. And cold. And not at all like we imagined.

2013 Lake Geneva Foreclosure Review

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I think I miss those old days. Back when a foreclosure was a rare, mostly unspoken thing, back when no one knew much about the procedure except for hardened, narrow eyed, real estate vultures. Now, sweet retirees and young first time home buyers, we are all vultures. We have seen the turmoil and we have seen the outcome and we recognize the opportunity.

I knew foreclosures weren’t going to disappear in 2013. There was no magical turning of the calendar to eliminate the need for rapid appreciation on the homes owned by those underwater borrowers. Some appreciation was present in 2013, but if you owe $1MM on a house that’s worth $750k, 5% appreciation over 12 months is no life line at all. The foreclosures continued in 2013, the banks continued to stall many of their efforts on larger volume loans, and the thought that a foreclosure could be avoided because of a modified home loan continued as a theory that would never be proved. Lower interest rates likely helped some owners refinance their loans, but it’s safe to assume that these were never in true danger of foreclosure anyway. Re-setting a 6% mortgage down to 5% doesn’t mean all that much to a homeowner with $200k worth of negative equity.

Lake Geneva proved its resiliency in 2013, and the lakefront and lake access ownership group proved once again that it is a financially conservative contingent. As I looked over the 80+ lakefront and lake access sales on and near Geneva Lake, only three presented as traditionally distressed sales. Two were pure REO sales, those at $240k and $465k, and one lakefront was a short sale, at $1.375MM. Further confounding me and bucking the national trend, the lakefront condo market didn’t have a single REO or short sale registered in the MLS. As I’ve said many times before, this strength surprises me as condo ownership entails mandatory monthly assessments that common sense suggests would further damage the finances of a distressed owner.

These are the sold distressed properties from 2013, but more important than these is the overall trend, and some pricing inconsistencies that I’m seeing become commonplace. While many still perceive an REO listing to be pure value, no matter the actual context, I’m noticing REO properties hitting the market at prices that do not look to me like discounted numbers. Case in point, an REO on Geneva Oaks Trail, one home off the lake. That home is priced near $900k, and failed to sell after spending many months on the market during 2013. Times were an REO would hit the market and the underlying investor (Fannie Mae, more often than not) would reduce the property with strategic frequency until that property sold. The trend now seems to be to price the property at, or even above market, and then let the property soak under that big red bobber until some gullible buyer comes by and thinks, “Foreclosure? Must be a deal!”.

The REO home on Ara Glen that sold last June for $465k closed $6k over the ask. Foreclosures have a tendency to do this, and while it’s unknown what printed sales had multiple offer situations, the very style in which banks negotiate can cause a bit of heartburn for the involved buyers. Traditional offers are made, then countered, then countered and countered and countered again, and perhaps sometime later the deal is put together. An REO property is offered on, then the bank says they’d like you to make your highest and best offer. You’re confused, because your real estate experience has conditioned you to expect a written counter, with a clearly stated, written value. With this request from the bank, you then engage in a troublesome game of deciding just how much you’ll pay for this property. You offered, they told you to pay as much as you can, and by-golly that’s what you did. This is why REO sales many times print over ask, not necessarily because the value is rock solid, but because the process encourages overbidding. Remember in 2012 when someone paid $1.86MM for a lakefront REO that was listed at $1.584? Yeah, me too.

2014 will not be the year that foreclosures cease around Lake Geneva. In fact, I have one lakefront REO property coming to market shortly, so there will be at least one lakefront foreclosure sold early this year. I have the short sale still pending at Conference Point, so assuming that closes sometime before I die, we’ll have that short sale to count. I expect there will be some other foreclosure or short sale on the lake this year. I say that without any brewing proof, but still. Look for another two or three off-water foreclosures, as this slow trickle of foreclosures continues for at least another year. If you think I’m wrong, just remember that the presence of increased volume and even slightly increased values cannot save a homeowner who is seriously underwater.

Lake Geneva’s Wintry Week

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There are trout streams in Iowa. They snake through the hills of Iowa’s Driftless, emptying mostly into each other and then into the Mississippi, pushing south and collecting all sorts of debris and filth before pouring into the Gulf. These trout streams run through fields and up against massive limestone cliffs. They run through woods and under bridges, and the pools and runs generally provide adequate cover for resident trout, rainbows and some browns. The water is clear, if turned a bit turquoise from the mineral component there, and a stream in Iowa can, for some, look just like a stream in Wisconsin. Looks, in this case as in most, can be deceiving, as the Wisconsin streams are, in absolute fact, nothing like those in Iowa.

Wisconsin streams are home to wild trout- lots and lots of wild trout. Some stocking exists here, but it is hardly necessary as natural reproduction takes place with ease in most of our classified trout streams. Iowa, on the other hand, has no such luck, and most of the trout found in those waters are the sorts that were raised in a pond, fed pink pellets of dog food, and then released into a stream just in time for Cletus and his friends come and soak a pink pellet under a bobber. These are trout raised in a pond, placed into a stream, caught, and then released into a hot skillet. Iowa streams are synthetic. Wisconsin streams are natural. Wisconsin, as is our habit, wins.

But this is not a post about streams, even if a little fly fishing would do my cold soul well this morning, this post is about Christmas, and the week now past. If this week found you on the road, visiting family in some God-forsaken town somewhere but here, then you have my empathy. If this week found you at home, in the suburbs, gathered with family, then this sounds nice and all, but it didn’t find you here, at the lake, and that is sad but understandable. However, if this week found you on a warm beach somewhere, basking under a potent sun, splashing through warm waters, dining outside without a hint of irony, then you think you have won the week. You think you’ve replaced cold with warmth, hostile weather with tender weather, clouds for sun. I think it’s as you’ve found your way to Iowa, fishing synthetic waters, and you’ve missed out on all things pure and perfect.

I have never been one to fully embrace winter. If you’ve read any post over the past six years, and that post has been written in December, January, February, March, or sometimes, April, then you know this. Winter to me has always been a necessary evil, a weather cycle where we are forced into taking our turn away from the sun. As I grow older, I find I appreciate things more, even while tolerating other things less. Kids fighting in my presence when I’m simply trying to watch my football team lose a very important game? I’m apoplectic. A frigid, windless winter day, with ice and snow glazed branches filtering a cloudless sky? I’m increasingly impressed.

And so it was last week, a winter weak where some stayed in the city and others chose southern heat while I rarely strayed from Walworth County, excepting a shopping trip or two. Last Sunday, we woke to snow. Lots of snow. Seven inches worth by my tape. That snow fell only once ice covered all branches both big and small, and by mid morning on Sunday, the snow was deep, the sky was blue, and all of Lake Geneva had been transformed into an immediate winter wonderland. Monday was similar, clear with a bit of snow in the morning or at night, I cannot remember. Tuesday too, and I spent much of that afternoon chopping firewood and hauling it from the woods and to the house, a necessary exercise fueled by an out of control fire-burning habit. I discovered that I enjoy plowing my driveway with a rusty plow that has been attached to the front of an ATV, and I take the challenge of guessing where the driveway bends left and where it turns right rather seriously.

Christmas Day it was more of the same, but cloudy this time, a welcome cloud cover. My parents’ living room is lakeside, facing East, and nothing causes a more serious headache than spending a winter morning in that house, the glass wall that faces the lake channeling every bright reflection from the water, off the snow, and directly, squarely, into my squinty eyes. Close the blinds, you say? Anyone who chooses to close the blinds of the windows that face this lake cannot be trusted, and my parents are generally the trustworthy sort. So the clouds came, and we welcomed them, and later that afternoon, after some countryside skeet shooting, we returned to the lake for lunch, and caught several Bald Eagles cruising the shoreline, searching for their next meal, be it fish or fowl.

The snow that fell on the prior Sunday was added to by brief snow showers on Christmas day and some more on the day after, and that snow that fell didn’t start to melt until this past Saturday when the temperatures warmed above freezing for the first time in a week or more. With that melting I realized just why this Christmas week was so beautiful, why this winter weather was so welcome. When the snow fell, it stuck, and it lasted. It didn’t melt. It wasn’t muddied on the shoulders and melted in the ditches. It wasn’t sloppy, it wasn’t messy, it wasn’t dirty in any way. It was pure, a white snow that fell white and stayed white, and it lasted the week. Winter, as I saw it last week, has never, ever been better.

You spent the week on a beach? Well, I think that’s unfortunate. Lake Geneva is the place to be in the winter, and while I too will try to escape this icy grip sometime over the next 60 days, I cannot help but feel that I’m up to the challenge that is winter this year. More than being up to it, I think I’m actually starting to like it.

A Housing Investment

For as long as there have been economists, there have been those who tell us that owning a home is a bad investment. This is a popular point of view today, as it was before the bubble, as it was during the bubble, as it was at the depths of the housing recession. All sorts of people have told us that if we wish to protect and grow our money we’d be better off not investing it in housing- everyone from homeowners themselves to minimalist trader types who feel it a better use of their money to rent forever. The newest housing naysayer is Greg McBride, and he’s not unlike the others. He’s wrong too.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Mr. McBride takes an abacus approach to home ownership and complains that after a period of home ownership the appreciation doesn’t actually result in financial gain because of the expenses that you incurred during your ownership tenure. This is the complaint of every housing pessimist. They argue that if a homeowner actually kept a tally of their entire, ongoing investment- the mortgage, taxes, repairs, gas bills, Home Depot visits, etc- it would show just how bad of an investment owning a home actually is. In this, they are right. If you add up your housing costs annually, they’re probably significant. If that money were all dedicated towards pure investment in a 401k, it may indeed, over time, be rather valuable.

Home Deniers use this is the basis for their reasoning, that money spent on housing would be better spent on a true investment, and this is why housing should never, ever, be considered to be a worthwhile investment. Own a house because it is your home, some say, not because you ever hope to make money on it. Others do not allow that benevolent view, and ask that we never own homes because they are flawed investments due to the constant drip, drip, drip of expenses that will, in fact, never end.

I find these views to be troubling for many reasons. Initially they bother me because they encourage renting, which, if finances are not the reason, is a horrible way to live. I’ve spent many months in rentals, and I’ve hated every single experience. I understand that you and your wife rented a small flat when you were first married, and you look back on that time with fondness, but that fondness is because you were deeply in love and excited about all sorts of other things, not because you truly enjoyed cooking dinner six feet from where you slept. If we skip the rental enthusiasts, and instead just look at the words of the McBride types, we’ll see rather plainly what it is they are trying to accomplish.

When McBride tells the world to not view housing as an investment, he is doing so for the betterment of the housing industry. He’s telling us that houses are bad financial investments because he wants to lower the bar. He wants to temper our expectations. He wants us all to see that houses are homes, and nothing more. Homes are where we live, where we mark heights on the door jams, where we sleep and eat and grow. I like viewing houses like that too, and have admitted to my struggle that finds all houses to be, in fact, just houses. Rarely can I consider a house a home, but that’s because I think of a home as a house first, and I always think of a house as an investment. Tempered expectations be damned.

The problems in real estate ownership arise when we fail to first consider the property as an investment, and instead view it only as a place to live, and a place to mess up the door jams. This is why people do the things like they were doing in last Friday’s post, because if we are to view real estate as a bad investment, why not just do whatever it is that we please and accept the fate that McBride says lies in wait? I have owned lots and lots of houses, and admittedly not a single one of them has been a home. I have also sold all of these houses, and have made money on each and every one of them. To the extremists point, if I added up the entire cost of ownership, including loss of return on the invested capital, I would likely have made money only on a few of these and lost money on the rest, but if I had been renting during the same time I would have still had housing expenses, just without any hope of actual appreciation. We must live somewhere, we must spend money to live somewhere, so don’t we want to live somewhere and then someday sell that somewhere and make some money?

I, for one, refuse to lower my expectations. I don’t think you should either. We all will, at some point, buy a home that we love and that home will prove to be a truly poor investment. But love aside, we can and should make housing decisions that will allow us at least some gain. That gain is realized some day in the far distant future when we sell that house that may or may not have become a home, but the gain is made when we strike the deal to buy it.

Geneva Lakefront Condo Market Update

Cars. They get us where we’re going. They haul things where those things need to go. They can wrap the driver in luxury, cradling them in the softest of leather that was culled from the most friendly, tender cows. They can also be utilitarian, big brutes of four wheel non-efficiency that propels the driver over whatever rubble dare rests in its way. They can burn diesel or gas, and some can run on batteries that may or may not burst into flames should you drive over anything but the smoothest of southern roadways. These are cars, and they come in all shapes and sizes, and they are available at all price points, from barely anything at all to many millions of dollars. Some of our most expensive fast cars hurl the driver through time and possibly space, and while wrapped in that ever-soft leather, the occupants are anything but comfortable. Fast cars are terrible riding cars, which proves how we all feel about cars: All that really matters is how cool we look when driving them.

This is why we drive shiny cars, in varying colors. We buy cars because we need to get from A to B and hopefully back again, but we pick the car we pick because we like the way it looks. We like the way other people might think it looks. This applies to all cars except mini-vans, the only vehicle ever bought out of necessity and not some shade of vanity. This is why we are lucky that lakefront condominiums are not cars, instead, they are the exact opposite. If the view towards your car is all that matters, then the view from your lakefront condo is all that matters.

This is because lakefront condominiums on Geneva Lake are mostly hideously ugly. They are. The Fontana Club is attractive, so is Harbor Watch, but the rest? Geneva Towers is considered a shoreline blemish, as are the other two towers on the lake, Bay Colony and Bay Colony South. Fontana Shores is mostly difficult on the eyes, as is Somerset and the entirety of Vista Del Lago. If we had to buy a lakefront condo based on the view from the water, we might never buy one again. Thankfully, we buy these condos not for what they look like on the outside, but from what we get to look at from the inside. The magic of an abhorrently ugly condo building is that the aesthetic means nothing when we’re sitting on a balcony looking at the lake. It means nothing when we wake on a Saturday morning and look out of our bedroom window and see a big blue lake spanning our view, our boat resting near the pier below. Lakefront condominiums will not win any architectural awards, but they can take your weekend and turn it from zero to perfect in the time it takes to walk from the parking lot to your lakeside patio.

To utter words that should not have been uttered even once over the past six years, the lakefront condo market is hot. It isn’t quite residential lakefront hot, but it is a compelling market that should be given some credit for recovering during 2013. Year to date we’ve seen eight lakefront condo sales on Geneva. Nine if you count the harbor front unit that I sold in the Abbey Villas in August. There is another harbor front Villa pending sale now, so ten if we get really aggressive and count that one too. There have been two sales at Fontana Shores (one was mine), two sales at Bay Shore (one was mine), one sale at Bay Colony (mine), another at Bay Colony South, and two at Vista Del Lago. The sales all make sense, with all prices paid being somewhat reasonable and in line with my expectation of the market. Two sales, in particular, stand out.

Vista Del Lago has had two sales this year, both printed under $300k. There are currently five condominiums available there, ranging in asking price from $270k to $599k. The units all have canopied boat slips, access to the indoor swimming pool, the clubhouse, the tennis courts. There are lots of things to do at Vista Del Lago, and I admit to liking the development for certain buyers. In fact, I think the two lakeside units there, listed at $499k and $599k represent some of the best value on Geneva Lake. They also possess striking views, views that I dare label as stunning. The economical unit at Vista Del Lago will explain, in one snapshot, why these units are struggling mightily to attract buyers. The two bedroom unit listed at $270k is nice enough. It has a slip, a fireplace, a pleasant disposition. It also has a tax bill of $8,251 and a monthly assessment of $602. That’s an annual carry, before paying a mortgage or a utility bill, in excess of $15,000.

The sort of buyer seeking a $270k condo at Lake Geneva isn’t the sort of buyer that is planning on $15k for dues and taxes. That’s the issue, and it doesn’t just affect the small two bedroom unit. The very cool unit (floor plan is cool, views are cool, current finishes are rather painful) listed at $599k has a $15k tax bill and annual dues exceeding $10k. For a condo. That doesn’t mean this unit doesn’t represent value, because I think it does, it just means that if we have 100 buyers I’d bet 96 of them would pass on the unit, and perhaps on Vista Del Lago in general, as a result of that mighty dues structure and tax exposure. Vista offers many amenities not commonly found in a lakefront condominium, but buyers are going to really, really want that indoor pool experience if they’re going to pay such a handsome ransom for it.

The two Bay Colony sales this year are welcome transactions, as they give some pricing direction to two condominiums that haven’t had much activity over the last several years. My two bedroom in the north building sold for $445k, the three bedroom in the south building traded for $525k. Both prices will look low to other owners in the building, but both prices looked about right to me. Now the other sellers in those buildings will have the unenviable task of matching new comp prices, which never works out well. As a strategic selling note, it’s always better to set the market, even if the price seems low at the time, rather than be forced to compete with a low printed comp. Case in point is a sale at Eastbank that I’ve been working on. I sold a unit there during the summer of 2012 for $750k. I now have an identical unit in an identical location listed for $775k. The owner who took what they perceived to be a low-ball offer has since moved on, while my seller remains in the market and we remain in search of the next buyer.

With those negative things aside, the condo market is having a tremendous year. There is value out there right now, and offerings at Eastbank, Bay Colony, Fontana Shores, Fontana Club, and Geneva Towers. The attempt by a local developer to turn Geneva Towers into a million dollar sort of building hasn’t worked, and I’m betting even if it does work it won’t work well, or soon. Expect continued activity in the lakefront condo market this winter, as buyers realize that there are deals to be had over these next cold months.

Lake Geneva Vacation Home Market Update

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I was going to write about the Chicago Tribune’s ridiculous attempt at “discovering” the Lake Geneva dining scene, but I’d rather not. It should be enough to mention that they started off the article with a visit to Popeye’s, which is to fine or trendy dining what a 1992 Ford Escort is to remarkable car design. I’m only surprised they didn’t leave Popeye’s and head to McDonalds for desert before stopping at Burger King for a coffee. So, no, this isn’t about that article because my tendencies already veer towards a total elimination of fluffy nonsense, and today I don’t have the patience to consider the flaws of that entire, back page owning article. I suppose any time Lake Geneva receives press I should be happy, and in that, I will be.

Today we need to talk about the market. We need to huddle close, to whisper, to coordinate our offense and plan a path towards victory. The market, this glorious, wonderful, Lake Geneva vacation home market, is one in transition. The buyers who tour on sunny July Saturdays are all but gone, and the buyers that remain are the motivated sorts, the smart sorts, the ones who realize that this time of year is the best time of year to buy here. For this there are many reasons, but chief among them is that winter is coming, and with it the dark days and the cold nights and the soul searching that joylessly accompanies this coming season. Sellers that are still sellers at this late date are not happy, and their disappointment can and generally does create a buying opportunity. I’ve said that many times before, and I plan to keep saying it until everyone listens.

There are buyers in the market, plenty of them, but they are not uniformly dispersed. If another agent tells you the market is so remarkably hot, just remember that they mean whatever segment of the market they are personally busy with. The primary market may be on fire, but as I don’t sell primary homes I wouldn’t know. I don’t pay attention in any detailed way, choosing instead to only focus on the vacation home market. This is a benefit to my buyers and my sellers, as there is no wasted time spent touring other towns and other lakes. The market that I serve is rather active, but again, everything isn’t active at the same time, and that statement remains true on this pleasant November morning.

The lakefront market is, without any question, hot. It is. This is activity that can be attributed to a lucrative year in the financial markets, or activity that might be present because of increased liquidity in the move-up markets, those lake access homes and condominiums that buyers sometimes flee after a spell in order to find true lakefront bliss. These may be the reasons, but the only real reason is that this lake is 5400 acres of pure vacation utopia, and that should, and is, generally enough to warrant the activity. The lakefront inventory has been stable, which is a good thing for sellers and a difficult thing for buyers. The same homes are available, and buyers have picked through them for most of this year. Most of these over-looked homes will still sell, as old inventory is all made new again by the presence of new buyers.

New buyers are everywhere around the lake, and the fact that several of the lakefront sales this year make very little market sense serves as proof. The lakefront market currently owns an intense level of competition, as buyers jockey and stage, waiting for the next edible morsel to hit the MLS. If we are sellers contemplating a sale, this is a fabulous thing. This is the thing that will make our spring market start even earlier than it normally does, and I’m expecting spring inventory to hit the market in early January as opposed to late January. I’m also expecting prices of those new listings to be higher, as brokers and their sellers understand this is an inventory depraved market, and they’ll list accordingly. To sellers currently on the market, it may not be a smart move to pull the listing next week and wait until January to re-list, as has been a historical norm here. With inventory low and buyers plentiful, it’s best to stay in front of them, even if it feels bad to be continually overlooked.

This is the lakefront market, one filled with activity and haste, but this is not how the broad market is behaving. Abbey Springs is hot, great. Geneva National is just okay. The lakefront condo market has some activity, and will end this year with more sales than any year since 2007, terrific. The lake access market, that single family market comprised of various makes and models of off water homes, isn’t feeling the love. Consider that under $900k there are just two homes pending sale, and one of those has been pending for approximately 8 1/2 years, or so it seems. Excepting that Summer Haven listing at $299k, there is one listing pending in Cedar Point Park at $699k. That’s a parkway home, of sorts, and if you question the sales price let me remind you that there’s a Viking stove in the kitchen, and we all know that the buying mantra of location, location, location goes out the window when shiny, high end appliances are present.

Those are the only two lake access homes under $900k pending sale today, per the MLS. If this strikes you as being a few too few, you’re right. If it strikes your agent as being a SUPER HOT market, then this is something we could remedy together. Activity, judging from my own listings, seems to be somewhat solid, but contracts are obviously anything but plentiful. There are some great deals in this market, from a sweet entry level deal in the Loch Vista Club begging to be sold, to a possibly pleasing number on my cottage in the Lake Geneva Club that has both a view and a slip. There are opportunities in this market, but it’s that time of year where a buyer will need actual motivation to find them. This is not July, where buyers look on Saturdays and buy on Sundays. This is November, and even after a summer of incredible activity there is value to be found for those who aren’t afraid to get a little frost on their boots.

So, how’s the market? I suppose that depends on which one you’re talking about.

Above, my pretty great South Shore Club listing on East Lakeside Lane for $2.295MM

Handing Down a Vacation Home

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What a wonderful legacy it is to leave a Lake Geneva vacation home to your heirs. This lake is dotted with such properties, be those large sprawling estates or simple wooden cottages, the end result is the same, the good will intact. To start a tradition is to start something overwhelmingly special, even if those who start the tradition sometimes do so more out of immediate concerns than some long looking generational goal. The generational retreat is a rare item, but I can’t think of a single tangible legacy item that is more revered than a singular residence that has played host to decades upon decades of family memories, the first time for this and the last time for that and so on. While this is such an inspiring ideal, after 17 years and three months in this business I can tell you that such goals generally go the way of my weekly Monday diet initiatives.

The Chicago Tribune did their darnedest to explore this topic yesterday, and I read with some interest this article and another one that was more pointedly Lake Geneva- the dining review. We’ll dissect that odd piece of “journalism” on Wednesday, but for today we’re on “Handing Down A Family Vacation Home”. The article spends many words telling people who may be in the position to some day gift a family vacation home what they should be doing now to ensure a proper transition. They suggest talking with financial planners, attorneys, and the some-day heirs themselves. They tell you to do these things, and they spend a whole page doing it. As is my way, I’ll cut through their words with this cruel dose of real world advice, advice that goes against my very existence: Sell the vacation home before the heirs can destroy it.

That’s harsh, and direct, but in these years of doing these things that I do, I can tell you that there are various actions taken by heirs of lakefront and lake access property here. Many times, these new heirs will sell the property without hesitation. Usually this is what happens. The era of long standing vacation home ownership is mostly over, excepting a few traditionalist strongholds. For the record, I’d like to tell you that I wish every vacation home here could stay in the family forever. But this is wishful and naive thinking, and that’s the sort of thinking that you can find on other real estate blogs, not necessarily this one. What happens, instead, upon the passing of mom and dad, is families tend to follow one of a few paths.

To understand the thought process of families facing this situation, you must first understand the demographics of the likely scenario. If a family purchased a vacation home in the 1950s, and then raised their four children in Arlington Heights with summers spent at that lake home, the odds are heavy that at least two of these four siblings have since moved out of state. Generally speaking, in a Chicago sense, one is out West and one is out East, and perhaps two are left somewhere in the Chicago metro area. The one out West is probably in Colorado, but he might be in California, and there’s a chance now that he’s in Texas. The one out East is either in Florida or New York. This is just the way it is. And so the discussion ensues, what do these four siblings and their families do with this property in Lake Geneva, the one where so many of their fondest childhood memories played out on white piers.

Typically there will be two owners who have no interest in the home, and these will be the out of state siblings. One in Chicago will wish to keep the home, to perpetuate those fine memories and instill the same traditions in their own children and grandchildren, and the other in Chicago will be ambivalent. The property will be valued, the votes tallied, and more times than not the family will come to a collective agreement to sell the home and divide the proceeds. This generally happens over many emails and phone calls, and though not everyone finds the situation ideal, there is an amicable outcome and all parties move on with at least some sadness in their hearts. This is the normal path that an inherited property follows.

There are rare and joyful occasions where the siblings that inherit a childhood vacation home end up keeping that home. They divide the costs evenly, they formally divide up the weeks of the year, or they informally arrive on sunny weekends, all at once and have the sort of fun that can only be had at a lake house. This is an ideal situation, but it is obviously a rare one. It’s rare because these years of experience have taught me that grown siblings rarely agree on anything, be that politics, geography, or communal vacation home living. If all siblings wish to keep a home, and all are financially capable of footing the ownership bill, then we’re all able to celebrate this, and we’re able to mark down another true generational retreat on or near these rocky shores.

These are the scenarios that we wish would happen. These are not the only scenarios. The last scenario finds the family in court, fighting over a lake house that was once the scene of so many happy memories, communicating with siblings via court order instead of Sunday afternoon phone calls. This last option is somewhat common, and I’m saddened by it every time I see it. The fun side of this business is in placing water-depraved families in a lakefront home. How I love that. The real side of this business is in wedging between divorcing spouses, and in attempting to not take sides in sibling battles that ring the epicenter that is a passed down vacation home. The love of money is the root of all evil, we all know this, but love of inherited money that must be split somewhat evenly between heirs that didn’t personally work to gain that money is a special kind of evil.

So what’s the best path for a couple deciding how to leave their vacation home to their children or other heirs? The best path is a clear one, a much discussed one, a legal one. While I am not an attorney, due mostly to my distaste of book learnin’, an attorney should be an integral part of this estate planning. If all parties expressly agree on the path forward, and that path is put in writing with clear instructions, perfect. However, if there’s even a whiff of hesitation by one of the parties, the best option is to sell that home before it has the opportunity to tear your now-adult children apart. Money does strange things to people, and by strange I mean awful, horrible things. Don’t let that happen. Avoid such misery by deciding on the fate of that vacation home long before your own fate has been decided.

Above, my modern home on the South Shore of Geneva. $3.799MM.

Geneva National Market Update

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Earlier this year, I decreed that we should no longer look back at YTD figures from the hellish years of 2009 and 2010. I said that we weren’t going to do this anymore for many reasons. First, it will make agents feel bad. Second, the remembrance of how limited the volume was in those recessionary years is no longer a fundamental component of the current status of the now recovered market. That said, let’s look back anyway, because it’s fun and I am like the Commander in Chief of this blog, except that I really don’t need congressional approval to change laws all willy nilly like. Looking back at these years is like recalling a near death experience. If we’re on a television show and we’re remembering about how some bear almost ate us, but didn’t, we’d certainly cry and gasp for breath as we retold the story. But when we retell the story to our friends while out for a Friday fish fry, we probably laugh and smile because, after all, the bear didn’t eat us. It’s exactly like that. The bear didn’t eat us, even though it ate some of our friends, but we can laugh now anyway.

Geneva National has a tendency, proven through several market cycles, to correct aggressively, unnecessarily, and then to correct that correction in a similarly aggressive, overdone way. Geneva National has no use of the slow and steady, instead preferring to rush up and rush down, always rushing but never finding a way to continue plodding forward. As such, the market activity from year to year is somewhat and entirely unpredictable. What has prompted this discussion today is the sale from this week of a home on Saint Andrews at $1.2MM. Not a typo. One point two million dollars. That’s a big, fat number, and it’s great for GN. I knew the house fairly well, and I would have pegged its value far below that number. But my pegging points don’t matter, as the sale printed at $1.2MM and has created a new cycle high for GN homes. This is a great thing for the market.

And with that sale, I figured a GN update was in order. Today I see 100 homes and condominiums available in GN. I see five pending sales, though a few more may exist. I see some solid value in the single family market here, and I see some possible steals in the condo market. While the broader vacation home market has rebounded nicely, first in terms of volume and now this year in terms of actual pricing, GN has languished. Activity is up in 2013, with 50 YTD sales. Of those 50 sales, just three of those are over $500k. Only one of those was over $586k, that being the brick home on Saint Andrews that, in case you’ve already forgotten, sold for ONE POINT TWO MILLION DOLLARS. Capitalization deployed for emphasis.

This is where the YTD statistics get fun. The 50 sales so far this year dwarf the 30 sales at this date during 2012. Geneva National had 37 YTD sales during 2011, and just 25 during 2010. The peak year at GN was likely 2005, with the pricing peak reached sometime during late 2005 and into 2006. YTD sales in GN for 2005? 100. One Hundred. Four times the amount of volume that 2010 generated, and double what we’ve seen this year. GN was a machine back then, routinely and effortlessly putting buyers into homes and condominiums. Even I got into the act, buying a small Fairway unit to live in while I built a home in the Barclay Club. I bought that two bedroom condo in June of 2005 for $147k, and sold it in December of 2006 for $187k. That’s the sort of move that condos were making back then, and what a great time was had by all of us who got in, and then got out. The buy and hold principle has never worked in GN, evidenced by the owners of vacant lots who purchased in the early 1990s and are looking, in many cases, at current values of 50% off those 20 year old prices. That’s not great.

Geneva National is, however, slowly recovering. The danger now will be new construction, as if we can keep builders at bay things will continue to improve. The problem is that builders have a tendency to pounce on any spurt of nascent recovery, and in doing so they pile new inventory onto a market that can barely support its current inventory. This is what happens in GN time and time again, and I’m hopeful that this time builders will hold off for a while longer. That would be really nice, but I’m betting that $1.2MM sale this week already has some builder, somewhere, thinking that there’s now a market for a $1MM spec home in GN. There isn’t.

Above, my super charming Geneva National listing on Edinborough Court at $429k.

Fall Work

I had this impressive stack of firewood delivered last June. My wood guy delivered the cut oak and dropped it in a pile at the top of my gravel driveway. To call it a stack isn’t fair, it was more a twisted mess of wood and sweat, random pieces so big that only a Paul Bunyan swung ax could reduce their size, other pieces barely slivers, easily carried off by a 10 and a 7 year old. This wood was to serve as fuel for my pizza oven, a pizza oven that succeeded in few things except making my face a bit puffier. We worked many hours to split and re-stack that wood, some of it making a temporary home under the pizza oven itself, the rest leaning lazily against the backside of my garage where no one would see it unless they looked.

Sometimes slowly, other times quickly, this wood was consumed by the oven. It takes an inordinate amount of wood to heat a brick pizza oven, and so I fed piece after piece, day after day, week after week, into this greedy nest of fire and smoke. Then, like all new things, the newness wore off. I still fire up the pizza oven now and again, but without any of the rookie zeal that I owned in June and July. The wood stack was thankful for my disinterest, and it held its size and its weight until last month when the wood was repurposed from food cooker into body and soul warmer. The wood is now brought into the house in great quantities, some positioned for a fireplace here, the rest stacked near the fireplace over there. That glorious full cord of wood, because face cords are for sissies, that was once so dark and deciduous and imposing, is losing the battle to my love of the sizzle and the crackle and the intoxicating smell of wood smoke.

Last Sunday, before the Bears game and while other agents were telling you how busy they were, I was in my still gravel driveway, splitting wood. I bought an ax in June, back when the large hunks of wood had to be sectioned into smaller chunks that would burn more easily and more quickly. I split quite a bit of wood in June. By July, I had lost the ax. I was convinced someone stole it. I accused many of the crime. I stared at my bedroom ceiling at night, wondering if the ax was in the hands of a man who stole it and is hiding out in my woods just waiting for the right time. I couldn’t find the ax for the life of me, so I bought another one in August. On the day that I bought the new ax that only perfectly resembled the old ax, my son walked from the woods with the old ax in his hands. He had been using it to “chop things” in the woods. I am either raising a future Renaissance man or your garden variety ax murderer. It’s too early to tell.

While we split wood on this past Sunday morning, I wondered how it would be to split this wood not for sport or for luxury, but for necessity. My son worked for a few minutes, gathering the split wood in his hands and delivering some to the pizza oven and the rest inside, and after ten minutes he announced that he was tired. He wondered aloud how much longer we would be doing this. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that the settlers had to split wood all day, at least one a month. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it seems reasonable to me to schedule one day a month to spend splitting wood. He grumbled. We split some more. I thought of how much I enjoyed splitting wood, how natural it felt to bring in logs and cut them to use for heat, for cooking. I found myself again, as I have so many times over the last two or three years, wishing for a simpler life where splitting wood was the only thing on my agenda for one day a month.

Once the wood was split, there was a garden to be tilled. Not one to “celebrate” Halloween, I did still allow a few pumpkins and some ugly gords to grace the front stoop. Following the lead from the farmers, I threw those vegetables onto the garden ground, and mercilessly tilled them into the soil. I did the same with a few dozen ears of sweet corn that hadn’t been shucked and had, instead, been left outside as some sort of peace offering to any visitors who happened to be hungry enough to eat month old corn. I tilled the corn in to the garden too. Then I blew off the patio and I surveyed my yard. A year ago that yard was nothing but a mound of mud. Six months ago that yard was nothing but a recently cut hay field, scattered with some seed. On that Sunday, the yard looked strangely like a yard, the patio looked much like a patio, and my garden looked like a patch of dirt that could indeed support life. I had come a long ways.

But something didn’t feel right. I was as the rich man who toils for goods but still finds no peace. I looked over the property, felt secure in its readiness for the coming winter, and still felt empty. What was I missing? What was this fall urge that I was not fulfilling? I knew that I needed a chainsaw, and I have needed one for quite some time. I haven’t bought one because I’m waiting for some people to buy lake houses, but I have already located and acknowledged the hole in my soul that is waiting to be filled with as shiny, orange chainsaw. No, that wasn’t it. The wood was split and stacked, the garden tilled, the grass cut short for the last time, the patio blown off, the driveway dragged with a box scraper to make it mimic a true driveway, but something was missing. I had been slowly caulking open joints around window trim that I never caulked in the spring, but that still wasn’t it. I was missing something, I felt empty. I searched my brain and my eyes searched my surroundings for some clue.

My property smelled like fall, like fresh split oak and freshly cut grass. The breeze was soft, the temperature surprisingly acceptable to my skin. I walked the drive, kicking some rogue pieces of gravel that looked more like giant chunks of lime rock. I knew the siding wasn’t on the front shed yet, but that couldn’t be helped today, and that wouldn’t fill this emptiness anyway. I looked across the street, where some neighbors that I’ve never met played in their lawn. Two of them were kicking a soccer ball. They looked like younger people, kids maybe. Two older people had something in their hands, working from one side of the lawn in unison, swinging their arms back and forth and back again. It was a dance, of sorts, choreographed by necessity. I couldn’t tell what they were doing.

I walked closer, but not so close as to invite conversation, because I do that for a living and don’t do it for the same reason that dentists don’t walk around their house on Sunday drilling on strangers’ teeth. At once I saw what they were doing, and I identified the hole in my fall routine. They were raking leaves, many, many leaves. Great piles of leaves. Elsewhere on the property, there was smoke rising from a pile. They were raking and burning and laughing and kids played soccer. I had done so many things this fall, but I hadn’t raked a single leaf, and I had burned so many oak trees this fall but I hadn’t burned a single oak leaf. I found the hole, and it looked a lot like a pile of leaves and it smelled a lot like a smoldering fire.

Fall is for gathering, and for hunting, and for preparing. But it’s also for raking and for burning, and while most yard chores are just that- chores- burning a pile of freshly rakes leaves on a November Sunday is something we should all make time for. If you live in a great city or a small suburb, and burning those leaves is banned, then I invite you to the lake. We have plenty of leaves here, plenty of matches, and plenty of time left to burn. Since I have a glaring absence of trees in my lawn areas, I plan to import some leaves from my woods. I’ll rake those leaves onto a tarp, drag the tarp into a safe place, and then burn those leaves if for no other reason than I always have, and I probably always will.

The Geneva Lake Pier

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On a cloudless day, the summer sort that make even the most ornery people feel like considering a smile, there is little reason to walk onto a pier and romanticize those boards. Piers played a central and starring role in my childhood. The impact of that fondness finds me when I’m sitting on a beach somewhere warm, feeling the sand and for a while enjoying it before wishing I had something sturdy and wooden to stand on, to lie on, to jump from. When sitting on a sandy towel, when spitting sand out of my mouth, when scratching it out of my hair and when plucking it from my eyes, I simply long for the cleanliness of a wooden white pier.

That pier went in the icy cold water late this year, later than we would have preferred it too. It was April, or May, and for some in was June. Installing a pier in June is to take a season that only feels eternal to those without piers and make it even shorter. Proper piers find their water in April, and by the end of May when the first foot traffic arrives, the gleaming white has erased any sins from the prior year. This glistening white won’t last long, as boaters will boat and swimmers will swim, little children will curl their toes around the outside edge of that end stringer and they’ll make their first jump. Then they’ll clasp their hands over their heads and bend towards the water in an attempt at their first dive. And your Aunt Edna is going to pull that metal footed chair just a little closer so she can hear your conversation just a little better. The scratch she leaves will linger until the following April, or May. Or June.

Friends will visit, and like many boating friends they will pull up to the pier aggressively and with a might bow thump the pier will shake. Crayfish will shoot from their rocky homes inside those wooden cribs, and bass will dart to avoid the danger. The bow will mostly catch the sturdy plastic bumper, but enough boat will catch enough pier to flake off a tight grained chunk of Douglas Fir. That fir will splash to the water, where it will float and bob and push from shore to shore until the sharp lines have worn smooth. Then someone will find it the next fall, rubbed smooth and paintless, and they’ll put it on the coffee table next to a stack of books that no one reads in a jar of similar finds.

Families will convene, children will splash, boats will come and then boats will go. As sure as the sun rises every morning, the view from that lakefront window will frame that pier with the same unwavering style. But soon enough that pier will be dismembered, board by board, a routine that the pier man knows well but one that is rarely witnessed in person by those pier owners. First, the boats will leave, then the canopies will be pulled from their frame, wrapped tightly and driven back to be stored in Jimmy’s shop. The canopy frame, some wood and some metal, will be hoisted from the uprights and set on the lawn, followed by the pier planks and the stringers and then the horses. The tremendous structure that hosted so many fun days of summer will now be arranged on a lakeside lawn, still in full view of those front facing windows, but now lacking any appeal, either visual or utilitarian.

These piers separate us here. They make us different. There are piers elsewhere, sure. There are metal piers with old car tires hanging from those thin metal posts, with wooden or metal or plastic walkways as narrow as a bedroom hall in an hold cottage. These piers will be cranked from the water now, or they have been cranked a while ago, likely on a sunny October, or September afternoon, at a time when the homeowner had a friend up to help. These piers will be pulled from their shallow homes, weeds still clinging to their uprights. These piers are nothing like our piers. In fact, these piers shouldn’t be called piers at all. They should be called docks, because in the way that we cannot call ponds lakes we cannot call docks piers.

There are other piers too- big, giant, immovable ones. The sorts that stick out into salty water or inland oceans. These are piers that stand high above the water, so high above that to dive from one into the water may take a moment or two to first gather courage. These are piers that hold big boats, yachts. These are piers with heavy planks, or poured concrete walkways that float on giant rollers to allow for the mood of the tide. These are piers that men cast large fishing lures from, or these are piers that others dangle cut up fish or squid or shrimp from, hoping something large and toothy will be hungry and near. These are piers that serve purposes, but they are more of a necessary structure to perform heavy duty moorings than they are whimsical structures that capture our summer splashing.

Our piers are nothing like those piers, and this is just one of the many things that makes us different in a way that should be spelled b-e-t-t-e-r. In November, with snow approaching and winter narrowing its focus, we can now look to these once majestic, shining piers and find them in haphazard piles on front lawns. We can see these piers now and ignore them. Or, we can choose to remember all the great things that happened on those piers over the past seven months. Once we’re done remembering, we can shift to forecasting, and think of how wonderful it’ll feel to put our bare feet on that warm white pier again. Patience, that’s the thing we need now.

Lake Geneva Odds and Ends

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There are many things in the works today, and not one of them is deserving of an entire post, so consider this an odds and ends update of sorts, which is to imply that my normal fragmented snippets of thought are somehow better than this. They probably aren’t, but still. The items in need of mention today include, but are not limited to, the following: Moratorium on inaccurate superlatives. Moratorium on excessive use of Photoshop. New temporary office with a view. New permanent office with a fireplace. Lakefront condo market possibly on fire. We begin.

Last Thursday evening, in the mostly pouring rain, I moved the last remnants out of my office at 49 West Geneva Street in Williams Bay. The office had been my business home for the last eight years, maybe more, maybe less, and it was a fine little office. On the heels of building a new home earlier this year, the office seemed rather inadequate. It seemed rather plain. It was a bit cold in the winter and a bit confining in the summer. Which is why today, Edward Jones is tearing the building up, refinishing and upgrading the interior so that it can become the new home base of one of their wealth management members. My new office, at 57 West Geneva Street, Williams Bay, will be right next door to the old one, on the patch of grass between the Library and my old parking lot.

Construction will hopefully begin next week on this new building, and it should be a tedious, time consuming, possibly redeeming experience. If I must confess as to the primary reason for this movement, it has a lot to do with fire. In the summer, I treat my office as a launching point for my day, and a necessary operations center that I play tag with for the remainder of a summer afternoon. I am in and out, incessantly. In the winter, however, I am more prone to office work, to sitting and typing or to sitting and talking. Occasionally, I’ll stand and talk too. In the winter, on those cold and snowy days, I like to be warm. The fireplaces in my new home beckon, and if I am to fight that call and commit to a full day of winter office work, then it’s obvious that I need a fireplace. And so it goes, an entire office project shamelessly undertaken so that I might reach the singular goal of having a fireplace in my office. People have done more for less. Oh, and I may open up the office to the consideration of adding new agents, but that’s no promise.

My temporary office is in this lakefront office on the lobby level of the Bella Vista Hotel in Lake Geneva. While this is not the official temporary office, this is the office that I’ll spend the next five or so months working from. The views could not be better. I’ll get to watch this fall turn to winter, and I’ll have a front row seat at watching the ice up, the progression of fishermen onto that ice, and the ice-centric activities that follow. It should be a fun spot, and I’ll be here nearly every morning and then on and off again all day. Should you wish to stop in and see me, just walk into the hotel and down the stairs towards the lakefront lobby area. I’m on the south side of the building, up front.

Advertising is a necessary evil of real estate, and it is no secret that the language used preys on the simplistic desires of many consumers. In real estate, we stack hyperbole upon hyperbole, and we rarely admit that we’ve generally created an untidy mountain of inaccurate superlatives. I try desperately not to do this, but my restraint is not shared by my competition. If a view is to be described as stunning, I should truly be stunned. Weak in the knees, stunned. Draw dropping, drool inducing stunnery. This is never the case. A stunning view is a captivating one, which should never be confused with a sliver of a view or a peak of a view or a stand on your tippy toes and crane your neck as far to the left as possible view. Stunning views that are not stunning shouldn’t ever be called stunning. I say this, and I do that, but until consumers stop lapping up misplaced adjectives expect those adjectives to flow at an ever increasing rate. This is why every house is AMAZING, and STUNNING, and yes, that small closet with the broom in it is indeed SPACIOUS. It makes me tired.

The same goes with Photoshop, and this is becoming an unchecked epidemic. I beg you to do me a favor. If you find yourself on a real estate website, and the hosts pictures portray Geneva Lake as though it were a small atoll in the middle of an azure sea, please hit CONTROL/ALT/DELETE, and then repent before returning to my site. Wide angle lenses are just as bad, and if a room appears on the interweb to be approximately 75′ wide by 130′ deep, chances are it really isn’t. Chances are it’s 14′ x 17′, and the agent is working overtime to make you think that home is something it isn’t. There should be truth in pictures, and as my photographer friends often proclaim in the form of a question, “that photo tells the story, doesn’t it?“. Geneva Lake is a beautiful shade of blue, and today as I see it through these large office windows I see nothing in need of adjusting. I will adjust contrast a touch in order to make a photo look more dynamic, but the color hue should never be adjusted. It needn’t be. If we sold real estate on other lakes, we’d have no choice but to inject a badly needed dose of blue into our greenish-brown lake, but this is Geneva gosh darnit, and we have all the color we can handle.

Lastly, the condo market on Geneva is mostly on fire. It’s a bit shocking, really, and there are deals happening with a frequency that hasn’t been seen since the early 2000s. The Abbey Villa has had two harborfront units sell in the last 90 days, Fontana Shores has a pending sale, after the closing I had there in August. Bay Colony South has a deal pending, and I have a closing today on a Bay Colony unit- the first sale there in several years. Bay Shore has had two sales in the past two weeks. There is momentum here, and if I told you what the two best deals on the lake are, as of this morning, I’d direct you to my two bedroom at Fontana Shores listed in the mid $300ks, and then I’d direct you over to my four bedroom lakefront unit at Eastbank, complete with canopied boat slip and two car attached garage, listed at $775k. That unit was probably worth around $1.2MM at the peak, so this ultimate sales price will represent an incredible value. Yes, these are my listings, but that isn’t what makes me aware of the value they possess. The market dictates the value, and I’m just the sherpa.

Enjoy your weekend, and with any luck I’ll see you at the lake.

The Hunt

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A rain soaked morning with leaves pressed tight against the road, against the grass, against the tires of the truck that pulled from that road and onto that grass. Two hunters, one young and the other old, step onto the wet grass, grass that cannot be confused with being a lawn but is, instead, the grass on the side of that wet road that winds through that farmer’s field. The field, only half harvested, runs from the road and to that tree line, it runs fluid and fast, but today it runs only so far before it disappears into the misty damp of a November morning.

They know that this is the field that offers at least some flicker of hope on this otherwise dim morning. This field is the one that they drove past time and time again, first in spring and then in summer, and most recently in a fall that has turned quickly from early to late. The had sat in that truck that parked on that grass so many times that a clear two part rut gave away their favorite spot. They had binoculars out, focusing on the distant tree line, back when the sky was clear and the air was warm, back on mornings where they knew there was at least one deer that warranted their devotion. They sat and watched, and they made great plans.

Today was that day, and they knew it. The drizzle would not deter them. The cold would not last. The entire day was theirs, but with any luck they wouldn’t need all of it. No, with any luck they’d catch that majestic deer quietly sifting through the leaves, eating the corn that the combine had left behind. Before that discovery might be made, there was work to be done at that truck and on that wet grass. The rain steadied. They put their boots on, they pulled on their coats and zipped them tight. They moved with purpose, but it was a calm and steady purpose, the way one imagines an athlete prepares when the cameras are not yet on them. They pulled their bows from the back of their truck, each bow a cunning design capable of lethal efficiency, each tension pulled just right, each sight made true through hours spent launching arrows into stuffed backyard targets.

They didn’t slam the truck doors, because to do so would be to give away their position, the position that they had worked so hard to quietly secure. They softly shut those doors, and they walked into the field and into that gray dawn, sidestepping the stubby remnants of freshly cut stalks, careful not to walk the open field, which would mean to lose any sneaky advantage, and careful not to walk right down the rows of the still-standing corn, the corn that rubs and brushes against jackets and pants and causes a commotion that wouldn’t be acceptable on this important morning.

After they walked some distance they disappeared into the gray haze, with a brown treeline in the distance and a field the colors of an old fall in the foreground. They slipped into that mist, and if they found their quarry I wouldn’t know. I just drove past, and will spend the fall doing just that- driving past those that are spending their days in the fields and the woods, looking for something to fill their freezer to last the long, hard winter to come. I have long envied these sorts, but I have never joined in the hunt for reasons that might be cast as wimpish concerns.

I reenact similar scenes, traipsing over sepia fields and climbing into gray, damp morning portraits. I do this with my own version of gear, those being dry waders and a pair of stiff boots, but my bow or my gun has been replaced with a long, sensitive wisp of graphite. My arrows, hooks. My bullets of yarn and hair and tightly wound thread. I do not begrudge the hunter his hunt, but aside from hunted morels that I greedily devour, I do not have it in me to take home and fry my target. A trout can be released, a bass can be freed to swim again and again, but I have yet to find a way that I can capture a deer in the midst of a hunt and return it to the wild. If hunting were a catch and release game, I would gladly take to the fields during this cool November.

I do not begrudge the hunter his hunt, and while I envy his dedication and the setting in which he exercises his tradition, it isn’t for me. What is for me is to appreciate the hunt, and to remind everyone that as November is for hunting, it’s best to avoid the woods and fields for a while. This is the hunters’ time, and we should let them have it.

Geneva Lakefront Market Update

Sam Zell, facilitator of many great real estate deals and at least one very, very bad newspaper deal, recently spoke of the real estate market. He told the interviewer that the current market is one for savvy investors, not one suited for novices. It’s a market on the mend, and the mend is what makes the climate that much more difficult to find value. This is a market made for the intelligent, but one that is being overrun by the eager. This is a market that isn’t as easy to navigate as the world seems to think.

There are deals at Lake Geneva pending sale today, and there is one deal that closed yesterday. Yesterday’s news is of the boathouse in Lake Geneva Manor that was listed for $3.495MM and sold for $3.345MM after barely a week on the market. The good news for the market is that the sale was cash, and the price per foot metric was high, at nearly $32,000 per front foot. With that, I suppose there is no bad news, unless you’re a careful buyer intent on learning the market before plunging into these watery depths. If you’re the sort that likes to saver the newspaper with a cup of bold coffee, this is not your market. This is the Twitter market, with the hunt, the negotiation, and the closing all taking place in no more than 140 characters.

There are other deals pending too, plenty of them. A basic house on the hill in Cedar Point is under contract with a $1.4MM list. There’s a property in Glenwood Springs pending around $2.2MM, and another one pending in the Birches for $2.15MM. I spoke of that sale before, so I won’t speak of it again. The nearly $3MM home on just 80ish feet of frontage in Fontana is pending with an ask of $2.995MM. There is a deal pending on a lakefront in Geneva Bay Estates, the same home that I had a contract on earlier this summer for a buyer that chose to back out at a very late stage. These are just the pending properties that I’m aware of, and there very well may be others.

There are more buyers in the market today than I believe were active at any time even at the peak. This activity is fantastic, but I can say without any equivocation that many of these deals do not make a whole ton of sense. I find it difficult to separate the deal from the lifestyle purchase, at least at certain times. If a property is everything that a buyer wished a vacation home could be, and that property seems to me to be overpriced of poorly located, perhaps that isn’t any of my business. Just like the buyer building a new home on the substandard parcel immediately adjacent the Linn Pier boat launch. If that isn’t something I’d ever recommend from a value play, that doesn’t make it a bad play for everyone.

When I see buyers who have little knowledge of the market buy the only lakefront home they tour, I cannot help but cringe. Sam Zell cringes with me, as this market that feels warm and fuzzy is still fraught with poorly priced inventory. I have many buyers in the lakefront market today, most of whom are waiting patiently for the right property to present at the right valuation. These are the buyers that study a market and wait for as long as they need wait. These are the buyers that appreciate a thoughtful pursuit, a patient approach, and intelligent guidance. These are the buyers that are currently being beat to the punch by the cheerleaders who see one thing and jump, for fear of missing a rapidly rising tide. Or so they’re told.

I’ve said it a hundred times, but it remains more true today than it has at any time since 2006: If a property presents and that property is a match on so many of your buying criteria, it’s best to pursue that property with some haste, as someone else is likely en route to the same door. There are deals in this market, and those deals continue to be overlooked by the frothed up masses.