At a property showing earlier this month on Lake Vermilion near Tower, Minn., real estate agent Lisa Janisch hustled her clients into the lower level of the home as a spring storm blew in.
Shingles sheared from the roof, trees toppled and sheets of ice pushed ashore on the still-partly frozen lake. The house was damaged, but her clients were safe.
Lake home buyers in Minnesota and Wisconsin are facing another challenge that doesn’t pass as quickly as a thunderstorm: There are simply very few homes for sale.
New listings in popular parts of the state for lakeshore buyers have dwindled dramatically. In Aitkin County, there were only 27 listings last month, 29% fewer than last year. In Cook County, the arrowhead on the North Shore, there were just seven listings, less than half the year-ago number.
So what’s a buyer to do?
The first step is identifying the area where you want to spend your weekends and deciding what kind of lake you want to buy on.
Then, find an agent who knows those lakes and is well connected in the area so they’re familiar with what’s on the market and what’s soon to come. In this case, probably best not to hire an agent who specializes only in the metro, even if you’ve worked with them before. Maybe they can provide a referral.
“Do some research and interview a few agents who actually work in the area you are buying into,” said Janisch, who specializes in lake home listings from the Iron Range to the North Shore of Lake Superior. “Finding the right property begins with finding the right agent that you can trust.”
Buyers should be wary of paid referrals from other agents. “It might get you an inexperienced agent who was willing to pay the highest referral fee,” she said.
This year, more than ever, it’s imperative to be the first to know about listings when they’re about to hit the market.
When to shop
Memorial Day is traditionally the time when people start actively shopping for a cabin. It’s when the ice is finally off the lakes and the forests have yet to become unpassable thickets, making it easier to see the contours of the land. People who wait until late summer to shop are often not able to get a sense of seasonal views.
Since the pandemic, however, buyers have been on the hunt year-round. Winter shoppers should know that it’ll be more difficult to evaluate a beach, water quality and the potential for views to be obscured during summer.
“Shopping at different times a year will allow you to see the property in different seasons,” Janisch said.
Dan Pflugshaupt, a broker/owner whose market ranges from Little Falls to Bena, said buyers also need to think about when they want to close on a sale. If it’s important to be unpacked in your new lakeshore home in time for the fishing opener, you’ll need to have a signed purchase in hand by March or early April.
How to shop
It used to be that finding a lake home meant a field trip to the place you want to buy to meet local agents and find local listings. Today, however, the vast majority of all rural real estate agents and their brokers, including those in rural areas, now feed their listings to all the major real estate websites.
There are are a handful of brokerages and websites that specialize in lake homes, cabins and hunting. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, one of the most prominent is Lakeplace.com. It’s not only an aggregator of homes, cabins and other rural properties, it also lists resorts and vacation rentals. And the company operates its own branded offices in some of the most popular lakeshore areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Many real estate agents say the best way to find the hottest listings is to simply stay connected to local agents.
“They often know about properties that are not on the market in any way,” Janisch said. “They have most likely been talking to sellers who might be considering selling but haven’t taken the step yet.”
See it yourself
Because many lakeshore buyers these days lose bidding wars or shop from far away, a growing number are making offers sight unseen, said Pflugshaupt, who’s facilitated more sales than any agent during the last year at Lakeplace.com.
But when it comes to lakeshore properties, pictures are not worth a thousand words, he added.
“The setting, elevation to the lake and lakeshore quality are usually important and cannot be portrayed with pictures,” he said. “They need to be seen in person.”
Most buyers, he said, want a level, sandy shoreline studded with pine trees. And even though a listing description might promise such features, those kinds of properties are few and far between, he said. If you find one, you’re going to pay a premium.
“Level-sand shoreline lot is less than 5% on average of any given lake,” he said. “Make a list of your priorities and your budget. Many times a buyer will need to make compromises on one to get the other.”
The biggest mistake most lakeshore buyers make, Janisch said, is waiting for the absolute perfect property and missing a year or more of making memories.
At the same time, she said, buyers need to be thoughtful about how they want to use the cabin and the lake. And that means carefully considering whether the property will support the lifestyle they imagine.
Pflugshaupt said buyers shouldn’t overlook small lakes. The advantage of smaller lakes, he said, is that often they don’t have a public access, which will reduce the amount of boat traffic and limit the chances that invasive species will get in. He said his family lives on a smaller lake that, even on July 4, is mostly free of boats.
“They are often top-notch fishing lakes with little pressure and are many times very quiet and peaceful,” he said.
Buyers who care about fishing on bigger waters might be better served by getting a second boat to use on that kind of lake. “You can buy a used boat for $6,000,” he said.
- On a budget? It’s still possible to get that cozy cabin on a lake for less than $300,000, but it’s going to be a seasonal cabin on a smaller lake with likely more marginal shoreline. If you’re looking for something a little bit more upscale, but can’t afford the prices they command these days, a growing number of buyers are shopping for properties with shared shoreline. Fractional ownership is also a more affordable option. In those cases, multiple people own a share of the property and agree on a schedule for using it.
- Want to WFC? Since the pandemic, agents say the very first question most buyers ask is whether the property has internet. Signal speed is very important, as well, if you’re planning to work-from-cabin. You can quickly find out more by contacting the local telecommunications provider. In most rural areas, there’s only one.
- Financing your cabin? If you’re getting a mortgage, it’s typically best to check with a local lender who has experience financing other properties in that area. This is especially crucial if it’s a seasonal property that might not be a consideration for most big lenders or metro-area mortgage companies.