A Lake Home of Ones Own


Photo courtesy of The Real Estate Company

North Shore vs. Lake Country: Which is best for you?

The greater Milwaukee area is home to two lake regions: the North Shore, a bluff-heavy shoreline that hugs Lake Michigan and stretches north from Shorewood to Port Washington, and Lake Country, a collection of more than one dozen lakes scattered throughout Waukesha County. “The motivation behind buying a home on [Lake Michigan] in the North Shore is a very different mindset than buying a home on the lake in the western suburbs,” explains Essam Elsafy, a North Shore realtor with Shorewest Realtors. Lake Country buyers are attracted to the lifestyle lake living affords, he continues, while North Shore buyers — and specifically those searching in Shorewood and Whitefish Bay — are driven by the area’s sense of community, proximity to downtown and walkable, connected neighborhoods. 

“Then it’s a question of affluence,” says Elsafy of the North Shore buyer. “... Being on [Lake Michigan] starts at about $1.5 million and goes up to $3 million or higher.” The buyer pool is small and inventory is limited, but demand remains extraordinarily high, he adds. In fact, of the nearly 400 homes that sold in Shorewood and Whitefish Bay in 2018, Elsafy says just seven were on Lake Michigan.

Conversely, Lake Country’s sheer density of lakes provides more opportunity to secure waterfront property. Expect to pay no less than $500,000 for a move-in-ready home with lake frontage in Waukesha County, say Donna Duesing and Mike Ledzian of First Weber Realtors’ The Jeff Lien Team. Lake Country buyers seek either teardown or turnkey properties, they add, and Ledzian says the average list price per square foot for Waukesha County lake homes is $60 to $70 greater than it was one year ago.

Privacy also drives price, adds realtor Bill Minett, founder of The Real Estate Company, Lake and Country Inc., so know that lakes limiting — or, in some cases, denying — public access (i.e., Pine Lake, Beaver Lake and Oconomowoc Lake) will likely have higher
home values. 

Photo courtesy of Regency Builders

 Make a list of priorities, but be flexible 

“Buyers come with this big, beautiful wish list, and it’s kind of a pipe dream, in some ways,” says Duesing, adding that a top priority for buyers is often swimming frontage. Favorite pastimes, such as sailing, water skiing, fishing, boating and more, are considerations too, as are sun exposure, the elevation of the lot and its accessibility to the water, and the home’s commutability to employment-based areas. 

“One of the first questions that I ask someone who is looking for a lake home is, ‘How do you envision yourself using it?’” Minett says, though he notes every buyer’s answer is different. “… [A lake] is an activity center that’s literally in your yard.” Competitive sailor? Both Pewaukee Lake and Lac La Belle offer areas of open water fit to accommodate larger sail boats. Sport fisherman? Nagawicka Lake’s deep, cold waters feature dense pockets of bass, panfish, walleye and Northern pike. Water skiing enthusiast? Seek lakes with unoccupied bays, like Okauchee Lake and Lower Nemahbin Lake. “People pay a huge premium for the right lake,” adds Duesing. 

Buyers who desire waterfront amenities without the maintenance that accompanies owning a lake property may find shared living spaces more attractive, Minett says. He says the idea of a simpler style of lake living — no yard work, the ability to lock the door and leave, affordability, etc. — is appealing to both snowbirds and dual-income couples with busy schedules. 

“People see the value of living on the water without having to do any of the upkeep,” adds Ian McCain, design construction manager of Ansay Development. The company will debut its latest mixed-use development, Newport Shores, in Port Washington this summer, and McCain says interest in the building’s 30 luxury, waterfront condominiums is particularly high among buyers seeking a lifestyle change — one that involves a lakeside setting, but with a walkable, urban environment nearby too. 

Know before you buy — site conditions and more

In Lake Country, where teardowns and major additions and/or renovations are commonplace (and complex), conducting a thorough site analysis of the property is imperative, says Jon Schoenheider, owner of Regency Builders. “Generally we’d meet you at the site and start to get an understanding of what could be,” he explains. “If you wanted to pursue a build on that site, what I typically recommend is a 60-day contingency for the buyer to approve the builder’s analysis.” 

Schoenheider recounts a recent situation in which more than $300,000 on-site condition costs (i.e., existing structure demolition, tree clearing, surface drainage repair, asbestos removal and remediation, and more) were identified before the buyer signed on the dotted line: “We said to the buyer, ‘These are the preliminary plans that we designed prior to that contingency expiring. You’re buying a lot for $1.25 million; you’re paying $350,000 in site condition costs, which gets you to $1.6 million, then add $2.5 million onto it [for construction 

of the new build]. Are you prepared to pay $4.1 million for this new home?’ … We’re very protective of that opening step to make sure the customer understands what they’re buying.”

For North Shore homes set atop the bluffs of Lake Michigan, Schoenheider says buyers should be wary of bluff erosion and remediation. “Almost all transactions that involve a home on [Lake Michigan] have a bluff inspection contingency,” notes Elsafy. “That area experienced erosion many years ago and it’s an extraordinarily expensive problem to repair, so quite often you’ll bring in an engineer as part of your transaction.” An engineering study costs anywhere from $500 to $1,000, he adds. 

Are some lakes easier to build on than others? Unfortunately, no, according to Schoenheider. “I find that every single lot is an extremely unique situation,” he says. “... There’s no one better lake to build on.”

Both Duesing and Ledzian agree that vacant lakeside lots are few and far between, so plan to tear down if building your dream home is in the cards. 

Photo courtesy of First Weber Lien Team

Hire a builder experienced in waterfront property

When selecting a builder or remodeler, Schoenheider suggests asking four questions: Will my builder keep me in budget? How well does my builder communicate with me? Will my builder save me time? Will my builder deliver the quality they promised? “For lake property, you’re not looking for cookie-cutter builders,” Ledzian adds. “You’re really looking for a ... specific style, and that only comes from experience and [a builder’s] network of people.” 

Consider a builder’s experience working directly with the County and local municipalities too. In Lake Country, building codes are regulated by Waukesha County, and Schoenheider says his team typically spends $15,000 in additional engineering costs to support these requirements. “It’s imperative to the County that we’re not grading water onto neighboring property lines,” he continues. “The other thing the County is really wanting to try and stress is the height of the home comparative to where it was before. They don’t want towering structures on our lakes.” The height restriction for a new build is now 42 feet (versus the previously accepted 48 feet), according to Schoenheider, unless the structure is positioned at least 20 feet further back from the lake. “Then you can add 2 feet more in height,” he explains.

A working knowledge of codes and regulations is arguably less necessary for homes on Lake Michigan, where Elsafy says teardowns are much less common given the homes’ universally high list prices. MKE