Even as summer winds down, Minnesotans are headed to the lake. With their wallets.
Buyers are snapping up waterfront properties at an astounding clip, with sales of these homes outpacing purchases of traditional houses in some areas. It's a dramatic shift for a segment that was clobbered by the recession as would-be buyers put their dreams of a lakefront house on hold. But today's pre-boom prices are giving these buyers a chance to get these homes at quite a bargain.
"People really can have their dream of a lake property again," said Mike Dale, an Edina Realty manager in western Wisconsin. "And they're capable of buying properties on nicer lakes and in nicer areas than they could in the past."
Sales of properties with water views and waterfront access are up more than 60 percent within the 13-county area and are up more than 30 percent in outstate Minnesota, according to data compiled by Edina Realty.
"People aren't just dreaming about that cabin on a lake in this market," said Bob Peltier, president and CEO of Edina Realty Home Services. "They're making their dreams come true."
Agents attribute the increase to low prices, record-low interest rates and a growing confidence that the market has already hit bottom.
Jane and Dennis Bengston, veteran real estate buyers, were surprised at how much house they could buy on a lake in northern Minnesota. The couple had been living in Kansas, but decided to split their time between a Florida condo and a lake home, where they spend their summer days fishing and watching sunsets over a lake.
They started their search on the West Coast, then methodically moved east, evaluating prices and value. They found what they were looking for near Crosslake, where earlier this year they bought a hand-scribed log home that's perched above the pine-studded shores of Big Pine Lake. They bid slightly less than the asking price and paid $440,000. "We understood that prices were picking up," said Jane. "And we think and we hope that we bought towards the bottom."
Like many second-home buyers today, the Bengstons paid cash.
"Anyone who comes here can see why we love it," she said.
The Bengstons found their property through a Minnesota-based website called Lakeplace.com, which operates a brokerage with several offices in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also displays waterfront listings that it collects from the Multiple Listing Service. Company co-founder Dave Gooden said sales have doubled since last year and hits on the site has been off the charts. In July, the site had 300,000 visitors peruse 4 million listings in Minnesota and Wisconsin. "Our agents are crazy busy," Gooden said.
Agents are particularly busy in markets within two hours of the Twin Cities, on highly desirable lakes that were once too expensive for many buyers. In western Wisconsin, for example, waterfront sales alone are up 41 percent according to Mike Dale, the sales manager for Edina Realty's Chippewa Valley and Eau Claire-area offices.
"My agents are complaining because they have too much work to do," he said.
Sales of lower-priced waterfront properties are particularly strong, signaling a return of confidence among more working-class buyers who not long ago had halted all discretionary spending.
Dale said that in 2006 there 21 sales priced below $100,000; this year there were 58. In, 2006 there were 115 sales from $300,000 to $400,000, but only 53 this year.
That doesn't mean there aren't big spenders. Bill Hansen of Bill Hansen Realty says that in the Walker area of north-central Minnesota, his sales are up 57 percent over last year, including a dramatic increase in upper-bracket deals. Hansen said many buyers are taking advantage of fire-sale prices and low mortgage rates to spend more than they might otherwise. He said that last year there wasn't a single sale above $1 million. This year, there have been four, and another is about to close.
Hansen said that while the market has improved dramatically, sellers still outnumber buyers. He thinks it'll take two years for the market to achieve balance, and for buyers to overcome any fears they might have about the general health of the market. "I've seen a wave of accountants and engineers and analytical types buying right now," he said.
Gregg Larsen, a sales agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet who specializes in sales of homes on Lake Minnetonka, says that lakeshore sales in his market are up 63 percent this year, surpassing all previous records.
He said many buyers have delayed their purchase for economic reasons, but just aren't willing to put their dream on hold for another summer. "This is a big toy; it's something that isn't going to be a priority when someone is pulling back on their finances," he said. "But people know that if they want to live on the lake and want to do it when their kids are at a certain age, they have to do it now, or that time will be gone."
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376