From Lake Geneva to Michigan City to Saugatuck, the “lake house” has been a summer rite of passage for North Shore families for generations.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation earlier this year, the concept of having a second home to “get away to” with just a short drive took on a whole new meaning.
Real estate professionals from Wisconsin to Indiana and Michigan are reporting an unprecedented interest in not only the proverbial weekend cottage, but fully accoutered luxury retreats where families can hunker down and enjoy the great outdoors safely and comfortably.
“When the health crisis started, many of us thought we would have a slowdown due to economic uncertainty, loss of jobs, many people going on unemployment, and the state announcing a Safer at Home order,” says Gina Nocek, a real estate agent with the @properties office in Lake Geneva. “Instead, in Southeast Wisconsin, we experienced a huge rush. Our area opened up much earlier than Illinois so many of our establishments are open for business. The downtown is packed with people walking around. Every day is like a weekend day here. We are a tourist area and the summer season is extremely busy.”
This year, that “summer season” started a few months early—namely in the weeks that COVID-19 put the North Shore and the rest of Illinois in “shelter in place” mode.
“We saw an influx of Illinois residents coming to the area with their children,” she explains. “Many were looking for an escape— someplace safe.”
It’s the same story in all our neighboring states and lakefront communities. Real estate executives at @properties have reported similar trends in Indiana and Michigan, particularly in those towns that are within an easy driving distance from the North Shore.
Whether it’s Dune Acres, Indiana, or South Haven, Michigan, or the very nearby Lake Geneva, homes with lake access are more in demand than ever.
George Schulz, a managing broker with @ properties, says records are being broken in both Michigan and Indiana.
“For both markets, the word ‘retreat’ comes to mind for the post-pandemic world,” he says. “They have become literally that with more people turning their second home to what feels like full-time with working and going to school remotely—with some relocating as well as many moving up their second home purchase to have the ability to get away.”
In Wisconsin, Lake Geneva continues to boom but its neighboring communities are also seeing a boost.
“Lake Geneva has always a North Shore favorite, but it comes with a hefty price tag. Just a few minutes to the east is Twin Lakes with beautiful Lake Marie and Lake Elizabeth, or Powers Lake just outside of town,” explains Savanna Hansen, an @properties agent who partners with her husband, Jake Hansen, at their Lake Geneva office. “These lakes are more affordable than Lake Geneva but still very close to the shopping and restaurants that attract vacationers. If you go even further east you can find great deals on some of the smaller lakes such as Silver Lake, Paddock Lake, and Camp Lake. Depending on the lake activities you’re interested in and your budget, we can find the perfect lake home for any buyer.”
Nocek says the Lake Geneva market has also become very competitive—particularly if you want lakefront views or access. “There are currently 20 lakefront homes on the market and 8 have accepted offers, two are pending, and 14 have already closed,” she explains.
Most telling? The highest pending sale is $13.9 million.
As Donna Brongiel, a realtor at Keefe Real Estate in Lake Geneva, confirms, the oldfashioned lake house has gone glam.
“My clients want the look and feel of a getaway, but don’t want another full-time home to take care of. They are looking for the same high-end quality they are accustomed to, such as high-end ranges,” she explains. “I have a client who bought a lake house and put in custom cabinets with a La Cornue CornFe’ range because she has one at home and loves to cook on it, so albeit she wanted a lodge feel, she also wanted to upgrade the basics to give her the luxury she’s used to.”
Brongiel even has clients who’ve added a “glamping” component to their properties, with luxury outdoor tents for guests—an amenity that is particularly appealing in these times.
“Well there are definitely still true lake cottages in our area, but you will also find much more upgraded homes on the lake as well. In fact, we currently have one listing that was once a small cottage or cabin on the lake which is now a towering beauty with high-end kitchen, beautiful bar, and entertaining space, with custom woodwork throughout,” says Hansen. “Just because you’re at the lake, you don’t need to feel like you’re camping. You can have the same amenities at home with a slightly different view.”
Whether your luxury retreat is on Lake Geneva or Lake Michigan (or any of the other small lakes in the vicinity), the common denominator is that coveted waterfront access.
“Our luxury buyers are looking for a flat lakefront with a pier and boat slip. If they cannot get the type of pier and boat slips available to them, they are looking for boat delivery or access to boats,” says Brongiel. “We’ve also seen the use of concierge boat services—to have someone prep the boat with ice, alcohol, food, snacks, fresh towels, and then remove the cover and button up the boat are some of the services offered.”
A similar concierge approach is used for the care of the properties, utilizing services that help families optimize their quality time outdoors and cut down on the maintenance.
“These are things such as refrigeration stocking and cleaning after they leave, housekeeping after they leave—for not only basic cleaning, but washing of all bedding and towels so when they arrive, they arrive to fresh linens,” Brongiel adds.
One trend all real estate professionals say could be here to stay, long after the pandemic passes, is the sudden shift in how we do our work. If we don’t need to go to our offices anymore, then “home” can be anywhere.
“With remote access a new way of working, many people are willing to accept the occasional long commute,” Nocek explains. “I think many businesses also realize that working from home can be as productive as being in the office so this may be the future of working that allows people to relocate to wherever they want to live.”
“We are definitely seeing more people enjoy time at their second homes now than they did before,” she says. “Many are even working remotely from their second homes on an almost permanent basis.”
One thing that will never change is the appeal is getting away from it all and the charm of escaping into the bucolic lakefront communities we’ve grown to love.
“There is something so special and unique about owning a home on the lake and buyers are looking for a home and emulates their vacation mode,” says Hansen. “Whether it’s high-end and classy or a little rustic and woodsy, finding the home that fits the buyer’s taste is most important.”
Though perhaps Brongiel says it best:
“Nothing is sweeter than seeing kids outside fishing, skateboarding, or playing baseball in the community parks. It gives people a feeling of being ‘whole’ again.”