Starting the Search
While summer finds many professionals pining away at their desks, dreaming of fresh breezes and sunshine and wishing they were anywhere but in the office, this time of year looks quite different in the world of real estate—especially here in the Midwest with its plethora of lakes and deeply-rooted outdoor sporting culture. Nowadays I rarely spend more than a couple daytime hours in front of my computer (don’t ask me about evenings knee-deep in paperwork!), because most of my summer clients are hot on the prowl for that perfect Northwoods lakefront property.
For me, summer means it’s time to take this office on the road, clocking hours of driving time with my buyers up in lake country with the windows cranked down. Of course, much of that involves grunt work – keeping feet on the ground with practicalities like measurements, pole building stability, foundation and insulation concerns. That’s part of the job, and I have a deep (and somewhat nerdy) interest in those details, anyway, having done the vast majority of my own property maintenance and renovation over the years.
As a cabin owner and family guy myself, though, I also enjoy dreaming right along with my clients about all the “togetherness” potential up there in the woods, splashing in the lake and building memories around the fire pit. Both aspects of a cabin search are equally important—buying a property is about bringing dreams to life, and keeping an eye on the details is what ensures those dreams don’t become living nightmares.
I encourage my buyers to consider lots of factors—I truly believe every single property is the “right fit” for someone, so spending those hours up north really getting to know each family personality is a crucial part of helping connect them with the ideal place, and I tailor my advice for them very closely to their specific situations. However, there are three basic things I advise each buyer to consider, no matter what.
1. Drive Time. Yes, you’ll need to be willing to spend some time on the road to get to your cabin, especially if you live in the metro area, but really crave that “away from it all” feeling. However, even the most beautiful log exterior with the coziest fireplace won’t do you any good if it’s too far out, because you won’t go there often enough to enjoy it. The value won’t justify the expense (and the maintenance headaches of a mostly vacant property). This consideration becomes even more important with children. Can they handle that much road time without frequent meltdowns, or will you spend extra road hours stopping the car to let them stretch their legs (and their tempers)? How about you, or your dad/mom? How much sitting time can your family members’ physical health tolerate before a relaxing trip to the cabin turns into an additional stressor?
To narrow down your cabin search before involving your agent in specific property showings, try taking several drives up north (stay at campgrounds/B&Bs in different areas, maybe) to get a sense for how often you might be able to manage various distances. This will also help you gauge “actual distance” vs theoretical distance—how fast are the roads? How many are paved, or main highways? Does a big lake or farm cut off the straightest route to your destination, adding even more time? An extra ten “city miles” does not equal an extra ten miles in the north country. On the other hand, perhaps a specific property has such a beautiful drive that the extra distance adds to the relaxation, rather than detracting from it. Driving the area is the only way to find out.
2. Lake Characteristics. One recent client found a cute little cabin up on a great lake, and although the distance wasn’t ideal, the photos looked fantastic—nice dock area, pretty view, well-maintained structure. However, when I checked out the satellite map, I saw a different picture. The lake showed a large amount of water vegetation that didn’t show up in the photos (probably seasonal changes), and I noticed their neighbor had had to carve a long pathway for their boat to get through the weeds to the open water. In addition, my research on the lake itself showed a 400-acre mistake on the listing details—it wasn’t nearly as big a lake as my buyers hoped to find.
What types of things does your family want to do on a lake? If you’re just looking for a relaxing view, things like lake vegetation may not affect your list of needs. However, vegetation, lake acreage, depth, clarity, and even types of fish available have a lot of effect on whether you can enjoy tubing on your weekend trips, for instance, whether you will need to buy a different boat, and whether you will need to trailer your boat to a different lake for the right kind of fishing. Be sure to check out whether this lake has issues with aquatic invasive species (AIS), and what types (even details like large populations of Canada geese can cause complications—no one wants to swim in a lake full of swimmer’s itch). Will those specific species (if any) interfere with your future plans on this lake?
You can look up the lake on DNR sites to find out a lot of that information (and I’d encourage you to get really comfortable utilizing those sites both in Minnesota and Wisconsin), but some other details won’t become immediately clear without repeated trips to the area to observe and talk to locals. So many of my buyers find “the perfect cabin,” but it’s on the wrong type of lake for their family needs. Don’t disregard the facts, no matter how perfect that property seems to you. How busy is the lake on weekends? Is it a family atmosphere, or more of a “party lake,” and which of those things fit your plans? Do you value local community more, or is privacy more important to you, and how does this lake measure up in that regard? Just as no two drives are equal, no two lakes are equal, either.
3. Adjustable Features. You may find the perfect location, but the property needs work. It’s important to have an eye for potential, but here’s where you really need to think practically. If your family needs more space, will you be able to add on, or are there building restrictions that might prevent it? Are you planning to tear down that double-wide and replace it with your dream cabin? Some lots are trailer lots only.
How much work does the property need—is it going to need a major remodel simply to be functional? Here’s where distance also plays a factor—how much work will you need to do personally? Will you have enough time to go and work on it, or is it too far for frequent work excursions? Will your family be able to enjoy it in the meantime, if you don’t get around to it for a while? When my family purchased our cabin, we knew we’d want to fix it up over time, and we’ve done a lot to it—new flooring, a lot of clearing, landscaping, etc.—but that hasn’t taken away from our ability to use the property for fun along the way. Is this property in the right condition for that—is it functional enough that your trips CAN be both work and play, or will it end up being just work?
The Stuff of Memories
Especially in a time where so much of our interactions take place through a veil of technology, buying a cabin getaway can be a great way to add to quality of life, de-stressing, experiencing togetherness with family or friends face to face in an unplugged environment – I love my summer cabin tours with buyers because it gets me out of the office, and they’re often looking for the same thing. A carefully-thought-out cabin purchase can help build warm, positive memories for many years to come.
Posted by L. Lathrop for Jim Burns