There are many factors to consider before purchasing or renting a vacation home. Learn what questions to ask and where the prime retreats are located in our region.
What if there was an easy way to escape the weekly grind, and within a couple of hours be at a tranquil retreat free from stress? What if getting there didn’t involve making hurried arrangements because that getaway place was your very own? It’s not as hard as you might think.
Bob Rauland, owner of The Rauland Agency, in Walworth, Wis., has been helping people make that dream happen for 58 years.
“I’m still working because I like to help people,” says Rauland, who lives on the Fontana end of Geneva Lake, about two hours from downtown Chicago.
Ah, the Lake Life
The Lake Geneva area has a resort feel, and it offers many activities, including a lakefront beach and park that all can enjoy. Whether you’re looking for a high-energy environment or a relaxing escape, you’re likely to find a good balance among the communities surrounding Geneva Lake.
As you search for your summertime escape, first determine what area you like best.
“Some people want Fontana (the west side), some want Williams Bay (the north side) and some like the city of Lake Geneva, the east-end area,” Rauland says. “If you’re a boater, you might find less traffic on the Williams Bay and Fontana sides of the lake. Lake Geneva provides museums and a variety of activities for all.”
A big consideration when buying in the Lake Geneva area is homeowners associations and their amenities, which may include beaches and boat launch facilities.
A nice “association lake access property” typically sells for between $325,000 to $500,000, says Rauland. But of course, that’s just an average.
“If you have no budget and can spend $5 million, then you can really find a lot of wonderful places up here,” he says.
Rauland recommends potential buyers enter into an agreement with an agency and allow it to represent their interests. “The buyer agency is able to fairly discuss the pros and cons relative to an association, relative to lake rights and relative to price,” he explains.
If your budget is such that you can’t afford a lakefront home, be patient. Many second homeowners put in the time with a smaller property away from the lake and then upgrade later on. “It won’t have all the bells and whistles like granite countertops and hardwood floors,” Rauland says. “But it’s all about location.”
And there are other considerations to keep in mind.
“In Williams Bay, Lake Geneva or Fontana, you’re going to have municipal water and sewer,” Rauland says. “If you’re not in those areas, you’re going to have private wells and private septic systems. Those can be costly to update or to put in new, depending on what you want.”
The biggest mistake is not considering resale.
“Remember, every buyer someday becomes a seller,” Rauland says. “For some people, that happens sooner than they would like because of finances, health and in some cases, change in family status.”
Buying a home is not unlike dining at a restaurant, Rauland explains. “When you order from a menu, you immediately eliminate certain items based on what’s too expensive and what you don’t like.”
If you’re ready to start looking, you’ll need to determine what your realistic budget is (including decorating or remodeling) and stick to it. While you should be prepared to do some fixing up, remember why it is you’re buying a second home.
“You’re coming here to enjoy your family and to have a good time,” Rauland says. “You’re not coming here to work on your weekend.”
The No-Strings-Attached Retreat
Jason Fischer, general manager of Keefe Vacation Rentals, an arm of the Walworth County-based Keefe Real Estate, manages about 50 rental properties in and around Lake Geneva.
“We’ve been in business for 30 years, and we have a mixed bag of property owners and people who rent from two days to 90 days,” says Fischer.
If you’re considering renting a property, he recommends answering the following questions:
• How many bedrooms and bathrooms are needed?
• How many people will be renting?
• What do you want out of your vacation? (Golfing, swimming, shopping, boating?)
• Do you need a private pier?
In addition, renters need to know if they want the touristy, highly populated area of Lake Geneva or one of the area’s quieter getaway destinations like Lauderdale Lakes, located 19 miles northwest.
If you purchase a vacation home in the area and want to rent it when you’re not there, the state of Wisconsin and local counties require licenses to operate the home as a tourist rooming house. License fees range from $600 to $2,000 per year. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin changed its laws to allow short-term rentals, and ever since then, Fischer says, “vacation rentals have been popping up all over the place.”
Keefe rentals range from two-bedroom condos around $225 per night up to a seven-bedroom, five-bath lakefront home for $2,700 per night.
There’s a simple booking process that involves making a deposit and signing a rental agreement. Cleaning fees cover the full departure cleaning as well as a starter kit of toilet paper, paper towels and other necessities. Bath towels, kitchen towels and bedroom linens are included.
“Renting a vacation rental is avoiding the headache of owning a second piece of property but still getting a chance to enjoy the lake lifestyle for a time each summer,” Fischer says. “You get the privacy, access to a full kitchen, and each house is uniquely decorated and customized.”
Keefe offers rentals in the gated communities of Abbey Springs outside of Fontana, and Geneva National (on Lake Como) outside of Williams Bay. Vacationers love the world-class golf courses and private beaches, Fischer adds. Premier bookings open in the fall and fill quickly.
There and Back in a Jiffy
Outside the Lake Geneva area, there are other communities that offer an easy drive and the feeling of a true getaway.
The private community of Lake Carroll, in northwest Illinois, is about two hours west of O’Hare and was established in the early 1970s.
It’s an idyllic setting for a vacation rental, a second home or a full-time residence, says broker Cyndy Griffin of Fawnridge Realty – the premier real estate agency for Lake Carroll.
Griffin bought property in Lake Carroll 20 years ago, built her home there and has lived in the community year-round for more than 17 years. Griffin sells property in Lake Carroll as well as Apple Canyon Lake, another idyllic retreat to the north.
Vacation homeowners in the area have the benefit of “buzzing out here early in the morning and going back at night with a whole day out on the lake, golf course, or one of the many other amenities offered by Lake Carroll,” Griffin says. “It’s an easy drive from many of the western suburbs and there’s no traffic. Of course, it’s much better to spend the whole weekend or just live here full-time.”
Lake Carroll encompasses about 5,500 acres, its properties varying from 0.25 acre to 8 acres. Potential homeowners can choose from homes on the waterfront, homes with a lake view, homes by the golf course, or homes in the woods. Prices start around $150,000 and go up to $1.2 million.
The gleaming 640-acre lake is the crown jewel and main attraction, and it’s a place where boats, jet skis and other watercraft can be seen all day long in the summer. Lake Carroll also has an 18-hole golf course, an indoor/outdoor aquatic center, ATV trails, hiking trails, ice skating, a ski/tubing hill and campgrounds. There’s a fish hatchery, too, which supplies the stocked lake.
“My three kids and 12 grandchildren come out here all the time,” Griffin says. “Although we are within short drives of many smaller towns and various attractions, most of us just stay at the lake and enjoy what Lake Carroll has to offer. We call it ‘living the Lake Carroll lifestyle.’”
On average, you’ll find about 60 to 70 homes for sale each spring, says Griffin, adding there also are vacant lots for purchase. If you do buy a lot, building a house is not required. Some property owners simply buy them for access to lake amenities.
Located about an hour west of Lake Carroll, Apple Canyon Lake is similar in many ways, but it’s built at a smaller scale and a lower price point. It’s seen as more of a summer home community, though some residents stay year-round.
“Most residents close up their homes for the winter and return in the spring,” says Griffin.
Around Apple Canyon Lake is a 9-hole golf course, outdoor pool, ATV trail and restaurant. The homes are a little bit older and more rustic than Lake Carroll, with a feeling of the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
While you won’t find townhouses or condos in Lake Carroll, there are some available in Apple Canyon Lake, in addition to lake homes, cedar-sided dwellings, ranches and a few higher-priced residences ranging from $150,000 to about $800,000. Outside rentals are allowed.
When shopping for a vacation home, be sure to ask lots of questions and find a real estate agent you can trust who also knows the area, says Griffin. A good broker should be able to answer your questions without hesitation and be willing to get you an answer if they don’t have one.
“I like to make sure my clients are well informed, that they get full exposure to what Lake Carroll has to offer, and I don’t look to hide any facts,” Griffin says. “After all, they’re going to be my neighbors.”
Row, Row, Row Your Boat … Or Cruise at High Speeds
Want to buy a boat to go with the new vacation home? Max Gordon, sales manager at Gage Marine, with locations in Williams Bay and Delavan, grew up with boats and has nearly a decade of experience helping customers find their dream vessel. If you’re thinking of buying a boat, he says, consider the following:
• What type of boating will you be doing? (Cruising, water sports, lounging, etc.)
• How many people will be on it?
• What is your budget?
• What lake will you be using?
• Where will your boat be kept in the summer?
• Who will service your boat?
Gordon and his team like to interview first-time boat shoppers to help them through the process. And, once the purchase is complete, Gordon and his team do a deep dive with the customer on boat usage.
“We certainly take as long as we need for that customer to be comfortable and confident to use their boat themselves,” Gordon says. “If it requires multiple driving lessons, no problem. On delivery day, we go bow to stern, covering every function of the boat.”
The team makes sure each boater has the proper trailer, mooring lines or boat lift.
Gage is a full-service marina offering boat sales, service, storage, pier/boat lift services and first-class deliveries. “We have a cruise line for tours around all of Geneva Lake, in addition to our lakefront location with fuel sales, boat club, ski lessons, private events and our restaurant, Pier 290,” Gordon says.
Gage Marine carries Chris-Craft premium boats and yachts, MasterCraft ski boats, Boston Whaler center consoles, Monterey boats and Bennington pontoons. Customers can always order a custom boat as well. For more information, visit gagemarine.com.
Here are a few additional boat specialists you’ll find around our region.
Located in Lake Geneva, Gordy’s Marine boasts a diverse set of offerings including brands such as Marina, Cobalt, Mastercraft and Everglades, with additional services in storage, boat rental, service/repair, boat clubs, a ski and wakeboard school, and a pro shop specialty retail store. Visit gordysboats.com.
Jerry’s Majestic Marine
This boating specialist offers three locations: a showroom in Walworth, boat and waverunner rentals in Fontana, and a service center in Lake Geneva. In addition to boat sales, this local, family-owned company offers repair and restoration of boats, indoor storage, spring service and weekly washes. Visit jerrysmajestic.com.
5 Star Boat Center
Located on the Chain O’Lakes in Fox Lake, this boating center carries new and used boats at a variety of price points, in addition to boat lift systems and service/repair. A gated marina offers spacious slips and indoor heated storage for boats from 18 feet to 43 feet. Visit patrickenterprises.com.
Located in Fox Lake, this marina offers new and pre-owned boats, winter storage, boat slips, and a service and parts department. Featured brands include Honda Marine, Manitou, Mercury and more. Visit munsonmarine.com.