Like many shopping for a lakefront vacation home these days, Duane Nolte is hoping to snag a bargain.
His first effort, however, was received about as enthusiastically as a glass of soured milk.
Nolte recently made a low-ball offer on a waterfront home just outside Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin's Door County. Not only was the offer rejected, it alienated the seller because it was so low.
"He was ticked," said Nolte, an engineer who lives in Wausau, Wis.
The proposal lapsed without a counteroffer, and Nolte considers himself wiser to the realities of the vacation-home market.
"We wanted to get into the game to take advantage of the bad economic times and get a good-value property," Nolte said.
But in a month of house hunting before making the offer, he wasn't finding many bargains in paradise, he said.
"There are people out there who think they can steal properties," said Scott Bader, Nolte's real estate agent. "They can get some good deals, no question, but they're not going to get what they want."
The vacation-home market, though, unquestionably is hurting. Second-home sales nationwide were down about 31 percent in 2008 compared with the year before, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Bader and other agents in vacation-home markets popular with Chicagoans say that prices are down from housing-boom levels, but only to a point. The word "realistic" comes up repeatedly.
"Some people are looking for unrealistic bargains," said Tony Sienkowski, an agent with Century 21 Herget & Plavsic in Lake Geneva, Wis. "Prices are lower, and the deals are probably better, but they're not giving them away."
"We are seeing price reductions," said Bader, broker/owner of Coldwell Banker Door County Horizons in Fish Creek, Wis. "But they're not fire-sale price reductions. They're coming down to realistic values."
Bader and other agents say second homes aren't quite the same animal as the rest of the housing market, and potential buyers need to school themselves on the differences. Sellers too.
For the novice buyer, the substantial asking prices might be startling, agents said.
"It's common in any vacation market to see a 'bump up' in listing prices because there may be so few comparable [past sales] to compare with," Bader said.
"Plus, there may be a lot of sentimental value to the home" that motivates the seller to ask for more money, he said.
And sellers, unless they're in genuine financial distress, usually aren't in a hurry to sell. Listing the vacation home usually is a discretionary move, the agents said.
But then there's the mindset of the buyer: This kind of purchase is a discretionary move for him, too, so he's probably in no rush. Bader said the average time for a house to be on the market in Door County has traditionally been a year, "and that hasn't changed."
And these days, the recession-singed buyer may move extra slowly.
Northbrook resident Steven Zylberman said he's been thinking about buying near Lake Geneva for a couple of years and has casually looked at a few homes for sale. He's taking his time.
"We want to see how things shape up with the economy," he said. "This is not something that's urgent. When we're ready, we'll do it."
Nolte hasn't given up on Door County, but he's stepping back to reassess.
"We're resisting moving up the ladder on price," he said, acknowledging the uncertain economy. "Buying a vacation home could be a risk for us. I could lose my job."
Still, agents in popular vacation locales say they're seeing more buyer interest this summer than last, and they expect to see more seller flexibility on price when summer winds down.
Here's a primer on vacation-home markets frequented by Chicagoans:
The Chain O' Lakes
This network of lakes and connecting waterways sprawls across two counties, just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. It leads a dual existence: Many Chicagoans regard the region as a getaway destination, yet its towns are nonetheless part of the suburban map.
"The Chain is not your tract-housing development," said John Helle, an agent with Lakes Realty Group in Antioch. "Most of the [vacation] properties have been here for a while. You have a lot of remodeled houses, where they started out with a cottage, added a little and then added again."
It's a buyer's market, he said.
"There's a ton of inventory, probably 25 percent more homes for sale than this time last year," Helle said.
"A lot of the price reductions seem to be on properties that have been in the same family for some time. We're finding that with the passing of the parents or grandparents, the house is going to the kids, and the kids are selling."
Helle said prices on waterfront homes vary according to the water quality of the individual lake or channel.
"If you're seeking waterfront and go to Pistakee Lake, those homes are million-dollar houses," he said. "If you're looking for the lower end [in pricing] for lakefront, you could pick up a house for $350,000 to $450,000 at Grass Lake. That area is more shallow, and there's a lot of boat traffic."
Helle said he's finding sellers to be open to negotiation.
"We're seeing, in some cases, from list to acceptance on a contract, where typically it was [a difference of] 10 to 15 percent below the asking price, now it can be 25 percent," he said.
This longtime playground for wealthy Chicagoans in southeastern Wisconsin is 10 miles north of the Illinois state line and 75 miles north of Chicago.
The lake is famous for the mansions that dot its shores, and those homes' values have held fairly steady, according to Sienkowski, who said he's still seeing lakefront teardowns at $1 million.
"Those prices aren't coming down too much because there's only so much of it," he said. "They can cost $2 million, $3 million, $4 million. When you're on the lake, you're on the lake."
It's a different story for homes within walking distance of the water, he said. "A few blocks from the lake, you can get a home for $250,000 to $500,000."
Sienkowski said lakefront homes in the region might be found more affordably at nearby bodies of water, particularly Delavan Lake, Lake Benedict and Silver Lake.
"If you're right on the lake in this area, though, even on the smaller lakes, you're into the $300,000-plus club," he said, "and in some cases they can go up to the millions."
This slender peninsula northeast of Green Bay is rather sparsely populated until Memorial Day, when summer visitors from Chicago and Milwaukee descend. It's often called "the Cape Cod of the Midwest."
Year over year, the number of home sales are down 29 percent in the county; the average price is about $216,000, down from $242,000 last year, Bader said. The condo-construction boom of a few years ago has slowed, and builders have reduced their prices 5 percent to 10 percent, he said.
"For $250,000, you can get a two-bedroom, two-bath condo that's brand new, or you can get a reasonably nice house" within walking distance of the water, he said.
Right on the water starts at about $500,000 and goes up to $4 million, said Bader.
"That whole high-end market, above $750,000, has been quiet," he added.
It's hard to categorize lakefront sales activity now, said Bader. "I've seen some owners willing to negotiate [recently] on waterfront properties, but on others we've seen offers that should have been accepted, but the sellers are holding firm."
This cluster of eight towns in the southwest corner of Michigan is arguably Chicagoans' most popular summer destination. On some weekends, Illinois license plates seem to outnumber those from Michigan.
Yet, if you have your heart set on a house right on the Lake Michigan shore, get out your wallet, said Marcie Ritter, an agent with Lake Living Realty in New Buffalo.
She said that though price reductions are widespread in Harbor Country, lakefront property has been fairly firm, with $2 million prices not uncommon.
In New Buffalo, possibly the most-visited of the Harbor Country towns, houses and condos within walking distance of the beach tend to be priced in the mid-$400,000 range, she said.
"That would be for the public beach, though," she said. "When you get to houses with private, deeded beach rights, you're in the range of $500,000 to $600,000."
Vacation-home short sales, in which a lender agrees to let the homeowner sell the house for less than the value of the mortgage, are as much in evidence here as in the mainstream market, she said. Such sales, obviously, amount to a discount from the original sales price, but Ritter said those sales are reaching a kind of plateau.
"The difference between what they're listed for and what they're closing for is narrowing," she said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times