Keefe Realtor Ryan Simons, a 10-year veteran of the Delavan market whose listings include the Brennan property, said there’s a wealth of history behind many of the area’s luxury residences, from Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes and barns to houses built on the site of former ballrooms that once brought crowds to hear big bands play.
“Another home that was for sale last year was actually in the spot of the Hiawatha, which was a hotel that was right on the water, and then that changed hands and became a bar, which was called the Sea Level, and then the family tore that down and built a home in the footprint that was there,” Simons said.
Like the Brennan property, many of the big estates of years past often have been divided up into parcels, but those smaller lots are still big enough to offer houses ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 square feet or more.
Keefe Realtor Michalene Melges said there’s an “old-school” feel to many of the larger residences, like Sunnyhill Estate, on the west end of Geneva Lake, which she sold in 2013. The previous owners had kept the house in the family since 1929.
“When you’re on those properties, it feels like you’re on Jackie O properties,” Melges said. “The driving force that has people coming back for generations is the legacy.”
Melges, who grew up in Chicago, was a self-described Lake Geneva kid who regularly summered there.
“There are over 900 piers on the lake,” she said. “You tend to know everybody by their pier number.”
She said the area also gained a reputation among yachtsmen. Her father-in-law, Lake Geneva native Harry C. “Buddy” Melges Jr., won Olympic medals in sailing and captured America’s Cup in 1992.
“Sailors that compete around the world, their destination is Lake Geneva,” she said. “You’re competing against the best.”
Melges’ highest Lake Geneva listing in the last 24 months, which recently sold, is a $5.1 million home on Lake Shore Drive in Fontana.
“It is absolutely gorgeous, with a grandiose and sophisticated feel, and every creature feature,” she said.
Melges said Keefe Real Estate averages between 25 to 30 homes sold annually, with 32 homes sold in 2015. It’s a competitive market, even for lots.
“I really think it’s the area,” she said. “It’s not the house, it’s the location.”
Proximity is key, said Simons, who estimates 90 percent of his clients are from suburban Chicago. Drive time of an hour and a half to two hours from their full-time residences means they can get away quickly for the day.
He said another plus is the area offers enough local restaurants and entertainment -- from golf and skiing to live music venues -- and is still close enough to big-city attractions such as the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Florentine Opera Company.
His clients, often buyers in their mid-30s to mid-40s, are dual-wage earners with six-figure incomes and kids.
“They are looking for either a place to start to create some memories with the family or they grew up in the area with the family during the summers and want to be able to pass that on to their children,” he said.
“If you had this same lake two hours north of here, it would still be a nice lake, clean and beautiful,” said Williams Bay resident and Realtor David Curry of Geneva Lakefront Realty. “If it was here but smaller, shallower, not as clean, it would be like any other lake near Chicago. But it’s everything. It’s big, it’s clean, it’s close and it has that generational aspect. It’s well known.”
Yet Curry is finding more of his clients are people with no prior exposure to the area.
“For many buyers now, it’s a move to the Midwest to get a job,” Curry said. “They set up shop in Chicago and presumably become successful. They want to get away on the weekend. They’ve gone to Michigan and seen all that stuff. They’re feeling comfortable here.”
Curry also sees retirement-age buyers who’ve recently sold businesses and are thinking about using the windfall on a vacation home. He said because Midwest businesses are becoming buyout targets for private equities, the number of those homebuyers is growing -- and fueling demand for higher-end lakeside properties.
“There are no international buyers here,” he said. “People might think buyers from South America or China are purchasing homes here. That might happen in Beverly Hills or New York, but that’s not happening in Lake Geneva.”
Curry’s most expensive listing is a $7.9 million 10-year-old home at 1014 South Lake Shore Drive in Fontana.
“It’s 12,000 square feet, high-end everything, on 2.88 acres with 165 feet of frontage,” he said. “You could not buy comparable land and build a house like that. It’s below the replacement costs.”
Although some buyers might use their vacation homes only a handful of times each year, they still have firm ideas of what’s essential to them there.
Instead of the darker wood and brick-front homes that would fit in suburban Schaumburg, the homes that draw multiple bids and go the quickest have what Simons calls “a Nantucket feel” of open-concept rooms with light colors and plenty of windows to let in sunshine.
“In general for a stereotypical lakefront home, people are going to want, number one, level lake frontage, being able to walk right in to the water,” Simons said. “Secondly, they’re going to want a first-floor master suite that looks out on the water. The third thing they’re going to want is a modern kitchen that is in the front of the house so that they see the water from the kitchen as well.
“Ideally they’d also like a walk-out lower level that would have entertainment space there. An important factor is to have two separate entertaining areas for guests and family. So you’ve got Bears fans here, you’ve got Packer fans downstairs. Or if the parents want to go to sleep, the kids still have a place to entertain.”
Often, Simons said, there will be extra amenities, like a pub or second fully-stocked, functioning kitchen on the lower level. Saunas, steam rooms or steam showers and hot tubs -- either indoor or outdoor -- are other added features. Simons said one home had a granite wet bar with its own ice cube maker, kegerator and wine cooler. Another place had a pool complete with a waterfall.
Too often, the floorplan of an older 1920s lakeside home -- kitchen in the back of the house, second-floor master bedroom – fail to match today’s buyers’ demands. What results is either renovation or tearing down the original home to build a new one.
While tear-downs were more popular a decade ago, that’s not happening as much, Simons said. That change reflects more “rational and analytical buyers,” he said.
He points to a client who was selling a lakefront home she and her husband had bought in 2005.
“She said to me, ‘Ryan, I don’t understand it. When we were looking for a home, I walked in this house, turned to my husband and said, “I love it. Let’s get it.” How come nobody will do that to us?’ What happens now is people will say, ‘OK, Ryan, give me what the sales have been on this home for the last three years. Show me what the assessed value is.’ So they’re doing much more analysis before they actually pull the trigger. It’s still emotional, but it’s less of an emotional purchase than it was before.”
Melges agreed, saying today’s luxury property buyers are conservative and analytical, not impulsive.
“They don’t just wing it. They do their homework and profile the property,” she said. “But generally, when someone comes to Lake Geneva the decision has been made. They don’t need to be sold.”
“The quality of finishing and size of houses here, the price per foot, the area checks off every box for buyers,” Curry said. “Rich people like to go where there are other rich people. You don’t want to go to a bumbly little lake. Most lakes in Wisconsin can sell you a $5 million house, but you’ll be the only one there, versus a $5 million house in Lake Geneva where there are 200 other $5 million houses. There’s security in that. You’re not an outlier.”