Dec 04, 2013 by DC
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As a child, I didn't ever go hungry. I didn't ever go to school in old, torn clothes. I had a pair of new shoes every school year, and I vividly remember shoe shopping in the old Geneva Sports store in Lake Geneva, the one that was next to the Prange Way. Neither store exists here today, which is sad in a survival of the fittest sort of way. I had everything a kid could want and then some. At Christmas time, we had presents. Lots and lots of presents. There were stockings for each of us boys, stuffed with random presents and apples and at least one orange. Not those ugly juice oranges either, but those great big glossy oranges, the ones with the extra thick dimpled shell. This was the same every year, and I'm grateful that there never was a year where we didn't have a proper Christmas morning.
Yes, Christmas morning was always right, always pure in a materialistic sort of way, but several years it almost didn't happen. I suppose Christmas can happen without a Christmas tree, but that is true in the way that you can make ice cream without eggs but who does? And if someone does, then why? And if they do, and we understand that, it still doesn't make it right. The Christmas trees of my youth were always real trees. My parents didn't succumb to the cleanliness of a fake tree until long after my bothers and I were grown. The trees were always real, never particularly impressive, and some years they were barely there at all. I remember many years, which may be one year or it may be six years, through this dim of time I cannot remember exactly, but these years found us on Christmas Eve, or the Eve of that day, where there were presents in a heap around the area where the tree would historically go.
The tree was not there yet for only one reason. We weren't crunched for time, as my father was a school teacher and as far as I can tell the primary driving force for becoming a school teacher is to have Christmas break, or Winter Break as it may be known now. We weren't necessarily crunched for cash, though I suppose that was a possibility. No, we didn't have any acceptable reason for not having the tree sooner, aside from the fact that Christmas trees go on sale a day or two before Christmas and my father would intently wait for that to be the case before he tugged and pulled to get his wallet out of his back pocket. Christmas trees were expensive, and if only we could hold off until one of these late dates we could beat the tree vendor and pay just $20 for what would have otherwise been a $30 tree. Victory would be ours, but we would have to suffer the casualty of a Christmas that almost never was.
With that in mind, I took to the woods last Friday, that day after Christmas when people shoot and stab each other for the rights to a discounted television. I was at Countryside Trees
, on North Walworth Road, approximately three miles due West from Pearce's Corn Stand. As my home is on that road, the drive was short. The air was crisp without being particularly cold, the thin blanket of still-white snow lending a Christmasy feel to an otherwise fallish day. The parking lot was full with tree toting revelers, the saws sharp enough, the tree selection enormous. There were pre-cut trees, stacked nicely in a row, with netting on them and price tags dangling from the tidy mesh. This would be too easy, to select a tree and strap it to the car and drive home to display it in the corner of this new room. So we grabbed a saw and we surveyed the land and we set out, bearing west with a slight southerly lean.
All of the trees at this farm are nice enough, but we wanted one that was better, taller, thicker, without being too thick. With this in mind, we walked past tree after tree, short ones and taller ones, all green with needles short and needles long. Something strange happens when searching for the perfect tree- all of the trees begin to look the same. They are all green, all alive, all fine in their own way. We set out intent on sorting through the trees to find the one that looked the most ideal, but after some hiking we decided that it didn't really matter, so I cozied up to the snowy grass and I sawed at the trunk of the tree that we figured would be good enough. It was a tall tree, one of the taller ones, as far as we could tell. The sawing was not difficult, and with a Timber! the tree fell to the ground.
It looked so regal while standing tall, and when it fell it suddenly looked small, uneven, not perfect. We carried it back to the processing center, where they shook the tree with a tree shaker, and then pulled it through some fine plastic mesh that bent the branches upward, like we were making a coniferous sausage. The price for this tree was seventy-three dollars, which isn't cheap for a tree until you consider that tree had been growing for seven or eight or maybe nine years before I ceremoniously hacked off its trunk. The tree cut, bound, and paid for, was now readied for its journey from processing center to the top of my wife's car. Thankfully, Countryside Trees had a special transport in mind.
Newfoundland dogs are apparently good at towing things, so the tree farm teamed up with the Upper Midwest Newfoundland Club and select dogs are available on the weekends to drag trees from the woods to your car. It's a neat thing, especially if you have a seven year old daughter. So we did what any dog loving family would do, and we made a sturdy dog pull our fresh-cut tree to our car. Sadly, the dog was of little help when we needed to lift the tree to the top of the car, but we managed anyway.
You could buy a tree this week at some roadside tree stand. You could buy one at Home Depot. Or, you could load the family into the car and in the finest Clark Griswold fashion you could drive to the lake, and drive down North Walworth Road. Waive at my house, in the event that I'm watching for you, and go chop down a tree of your own. Then make the dogs drag it to your car, and drive it home. Don't wait until Christmas Eve, either, because I don't think these trees go on sale regardless of the date.
Dec 02, 2013 by DC
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Ernest Shackleton gathered his heaviest jacket, his warmest boots, his toughest gloves and his largest hat. His wife handed him the hot cheese sandwich she had just made for him, then she kissed him goodbye. He gathered his crew, honking in each one of their driveways while their wives handed each of them hot sandwiches and kissed them soft goodbyes. Then he left on his voyage, the one that would find him stranded amongst the ice flows of the Weddell Sea. His 144' long wooden ship was built to withstand these ice flows, with layers and layers of impossibly thick oak and fir forming a bow that was to be capable of breaking through the strongest of winter ice. Instead, his ship sank, and he spent many months riding an ice flow in hopes that it would deliver him back to dry, if frozen, land. He had abandoned his ship in order that he might save himself, and until today most have considered him some sort of hero.
When I left my house last week, I had no heavy winter jacket. I had winter boots on, but Shackleton's were likely better. My gloves were the sort without fingers, engineered to help a fly fisherman in sort of chilly conditions, but of very little use when unevenly matched against an honest winter afternoon. My hat was small, as most tend to be on this head of mine, and my wife had neither kissed me goodbye nor made a parting sandwich for me. On the drive towards the ice, my hands rested on the steering wheel, but they didn't really grip the parts of the steering wheel that are most heated by the heat coils that run through the inside of that wheel. My heated seats had hardly worked at all, my hands were barely warm, and my winter coat was hanging in my closet. That closet was a long ways from where I was, and further from where I was going.
I found my Endurance in the same slip where I had left it some weeks before. It had made the trans-Fontana journey from Williams Bay to the Abbey Harbor, and it had performed admirably. It's hull, not wrapped in oak and fir, but just a thin layer of spun glass and glue, had still plied the waters effectively. On that journey, the lake was mine, spare a few hundred birds of different shapes and sizes. The geese saw me coming and erupted into a great burst of flight and feathers. The seagulls easily avoided my white bow, though I had to steer clear of the little black ducks that run for hundreds of yards before taking to a wobbly flight. When I left the boat in that harbor space, tied off lazily to only one side, I figured I'd be back soon enough.
But then winter blew, and the cold didn't break. Snow gently turned my lawn from green to white, and my fondest memories of a short fall were hidden under this freshly fallen blanket. My boat, too, was being snowed on. Out of my watchful eye, the snow had piled on the bow and covered the deck, it had clung to the instrument panel and whipped around to create a mini-drift somewhere behind the captain's seat but still in front of the single engine. By the time I made it to the harbor and walked onto the shaky wooden walkway, ice had formed around the water line of hull, hanging and building, hanging and building, as if it were a parasite intent on eating that whipped glass and glue, and with it, the entire vessel.
By the time I had hiked the 30 feet from my car to the boat, my hands were already cold. Was this frostbite, I wondered. Would the fingers be saved, or would they have to cut some of my toes off and sew them on in the way that one kid in my fourth grade class had done to him after he held onto a lit firecracker for just a little too long. I pressed on, and upon stepping into the boat I realized that I had become blocked in an ice flow. Escaping the harbor was now to become work. I surveyed my supplies and my provisions.
I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, no tool kit. Shackleton had some bread to eat, and he had tools, and he had some friends along. I was alone, many, many feet from the comforts of my car, stranded on this cold cabin-less boat. The boat was locked inside its slip, with at least 15' of ice blocking the stern of the boat from the open water that teased me with gentle ripples of waves. The wind was pushing up that water, and that was the same wind that cut through my under-performing jacket and stung my cheeks. I fired the engine, and it choked to life sluggishly, like an old man with both emphysema and a slipped disc taking his first step out of bed on a dark winter morning.
The blue smoke rose from the engine, and water that would normally spit aggressively from the engine barely dripped out. I was freezing, the engine was frozen, the ice was growing deeper and thicker before my eyes. It would be dark soon, and the passersby in their cars wouldn't think to come look for me until morning's first light. Even so, with the engine still puffing and gasping, I untied the two lines and made my first charge backwards, into the ice. I imagined the ice would break under the push, but it didn't. The engine smacked against it with a thud that was more violent than I figured it would be. I pushed the throttle forward, got a running backwards start, and smashed the ice again. Nothing. Each breath of the winter air stuck in my lungs like so many tiny needles. I heard Shackleton's laughter in my ears.
I scanned the boat for something that could serve as a battering ram, something that I might hit against the ice to crush a path through it. The anchor wasn't heavy enough, and I had no oar. That wouldn't have mattered anyway, as the ice was at least 2" thick, which isn't thick unless you're trying to break through it. I had a small three pound kettle weight, one that I use to weight a mechanism that is engineered to drag deep water fish back to their deep homes, to save their air bladders from the fatal effort of readjusting. It wasn't ideal, but it would work, so I fumbled with the two nuts that held the weight to the fish-saving device, and once those were undone I tied the bell to the end of a rope and walked to the back of the boat where the ice was waiting for me.
I reached over the stern and dropped the weight onto the ice. It hit with a thud, but it didn't break the ice. It had, in fact, barely dented it. I retrieved the weight and dropped it again. Nothing. I retrieved and threw the weight into the air. This time, it dropped and pushed right through the ice, into the cold water below. Had I been Shackleton I would have just sat on that ice flow and waited for someone to save me, but I wasn't about to leave my ship, and so I threw and retrieved, threw and retrieved, again and again, for as much as an hour. The sky shaded darker with each throw.
After many throws the path was clear. I had made my way to open water, and while I encountered some more ice on the way out of the harbor, a forward facing bow rides through ice much easier than does a rear facing stern. I crushed my way out of the harbor and in to the open lake, and I took a celebratory buzz around the lake. With the help of Justin at Gordy's, I tied the boat up to the remaining Gordy's piers and walked back to my car. My phone rang, it was my wife. She wondered where I had been, and what was taking me so long. I imagine Shackleton's wife sent many letters wondering the same.
Nov 27, 2013 by DC
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I have several habits, though I could never be considered a creature of those. I wake up at a specific time each day but not for any reason aside from an overactive thought cloud that rarely stops filling even during sleep. I do put my contacts in right away after a morning shower, and I do drink one cup of coffee at home before leaving for work, but those are the alpha and the omega of my habits. I have some bad habits, like resorting to snark very early on in most situations, at times when it might not be called for. In the 5th grade Mr. Geisel, whose name I likely just spelled wrong, called me out during a basketball game and told me that I had an attitude problem. That was 25 years ago, and I'm pretty sure he was right both then and now.
It would be hard to consider a lack of perspective a habit, as it's more a faulty frame of mind than an oft completed task of tedium like most habits tend to be, but still. I suffer from this affliction in the way that some people on that television show eat drywall, or chew on their cats' hair. Their habits are more disgusting, but mine is likely fatal whereas someone can indeed learn to not munch on so much drywall. On days like today, days when my thoughts turn to what is easily my second favorite Holiday, I reaffirm my pledge to stop being so lacking of this thing called perspective that continually evades me.
Last week, my home was not torn apart by a twisted fist of wind. If you're reading this, I'm betting yours wasn't either. Today, I walked down a polished hallway and grabbed a coat that selfishly cost me more than any six nice coats could have, and then I stepped into my garage and into my car, which started, as it tends to, on the first crank. There were times when we all had cars that we didn't trust, that we didn't know if they'd start when we needed them to. One winter I honestly spent nearly every morning jump starting my car with a battery pack. That winter was a long time ago.
I drove to a temporary office today, one with heat and a view of this lake, this great big blue lake that we all find to be so seriously important to us. I'll work today, in a job that I mostly enjoy, and later today I'll drive home to my wife and children, to my warm house and my dog and I'll make a fire before turning to watch a clear image on a thin television. These are things that happen daily, and these are the things that are repeatedly taken for granted. I wish I could stop doing that.
Thanksgiving is a holiday, true. It is also a frame of mind, a condition of the heart, something we can either choose to adopt or ignore all together. I offer my thanks daily, though I do so without total sincerity. It's more of a, "thanks for this but I'd really like that", sort of thanks. It's admittedly hollow, even though this life that I am so blessed to live is something that far exceeds most of my earlier expectations. I'm living a charmed life and I'm betting that if you're reading this today you are as well. Most people in horrible life situations rarely offer up "Lake Geneva Real Estate" to the Google overlords. So we are blessed, blessed to be breathing another day and to be members of this great society in which we live. We are the lucky ones, and we should probably stop pretending like we aren't.
This weekend, let's be thankful, and then next week, when everyone else has put away their appreciative tone, let's be thankful then too. I'm supremely thankful for all of my past, currently, and present clients, as I possess an intense, frightening awareness, that great realtors are not great because they know more about the market than everyone else does. They are generally considered great because consumers trust them and that trust leads to volume success. It's that trust that I desperately want to earn. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and we shall chat again on Monday. I will be working this coming weekend, so if there's a vacation home in your future, we should probably start to pull that future closer to the present.
Nov 25, 2013 by DC
I suppose it's a good thing that so many people are so bad at real estate. Without bad ideas, and bad moves, and horrible, life shattering real estate decisions, our great decisions would go mostly unnoticed. This year at the lake there has been no shortage of bad real estate decisions. Decisions that, when viewed through the foggy lens by which most study real estate, don't look bad at all. Through this common lens they look, in fact, rather good. They look good because they are presented as wonderful lifestyle moves, and, even though your price paid is so much more than it should have been, "just imagine your children running across that grassy lakeside lawn!"
. This is why bad real estate decisions at the lake always look like good ones, until someone like me has to rudely pull back the covers and unveil these market mistakes.
While the mistakes made are many, and they are as varied as a Wisconsin November, an easy one to pin point is the tendency of some buyers to specifically work only with listing agents. This is not the same as finding a listing that you absolutely must have and then calling the listing agent to discuss, because this is normal behavior. The abnormal behavior is possessed by those that intentionally seek out listing agents to work with on those listed properties, and then hop from property to property, agent to agent, seeing lots of things while absorbing lots of opinions and learning absolutely nothing.
I saw this happen over the summer several times. It plays out like this: Buyer calls on house that I have listed. I tell them why it is good, I tell them why it might be bad, and then I tell them that I burned my hand on my stove the night before but that I'm pretty sure I'm going to be okay. I do this because I can't help myself, and I rarely stick to topic in writing, in person, or in life. So I tell them these things, they may laugh or they may cringe, but ultimately they set up a showing to see the house that I have listed, the one they called about. I ask, as is my way, if there is anything else in the market that they'd like to see. My thought in this is that I have a handle on the market that isn't grasped by anyone else, and I think there's a good chance I can help this buyer make a sound buying decision, and help them to fully understand the market as it actually exists, not just as they perceive it.
After my offer to view other things, this sort of buyer declines, and says that they have other things they are planning on seeing. I hear this, and then I quietly and internally mock their move, and then I meet them at the agreed upon time at the singular property that they called me about. They are usually running late, because they just came from another showing, with another listing agent, where they absorbed a hard sales pitch. When they do arrive, they're in a hurry. A big, fat, hurry. They're in a hurry because they have another listing agent waiting at another house, the other house that that other agent has listed, because, you know, this buyer is in the process of outsmarting the market by working only with these magical listing agents. The buyer tours the home, listens to nothing, and rushes away to the next appointment.
This buyer does one of two things. He either buys one of the homes that he hurriedly toured on that day, or he disappears from the market all together. He'll tell his friends and his family that the timing wasn't right to buy a home. He'll tell them that the homes were all lame. Or, worse yet, he'll tell them that Lake Geneva isn't the place for him and that he's planning to start looking at XYZ Lake somewhere else, somewhere anywhere but Lake Geneva. He'll say these things, and he'll act on them, but the simple truth is that this sort of buyer isn't the sort that can make a smart buying decision. Why should the buying decision be smart when the chosen buying process has been filled with stupidity?
These are the sort of buyers that make mistakes, either inside our market, by buying the wrong house in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong sort of lake access, or he makes his mistake in another market. What sort of mistake could be made in another market? That's a leading question, because any purchase decision of any sort in another market is a mistake. This buyer might just be prone to mistakes, but the truth is that if a buyer is looking for a vacation home in this affluent market then that buyer must have, at some point, avoided mistakes in other to become a player in this high octane scene. The buyer isn't unwise, the buyer is just uninformed.
There are other mistakes, loads and loads of them, but this listing agent focus is a most egregious one, and it's incredibly easy to avoid. And what's the best way to avoid this? Just work with me. We'll avoid it together. And then we'll make tremendously intelligent decisions while we laugh amongst ourselves as we watch the others make the bad decisions.
Nov 22, 2013 by David
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.
Nov 20, 2013 by David
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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
Nov 18, 2013 by David
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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.
Nov 15, 2013 by David
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.
Nov 13, 2013 by David
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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.
Nov 11, 2013 by David
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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.