Tips, Hot Properties & How to Buy a Home in Northern Michigan

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With changing times come changing trends and aspirations. Here’s an inside look at the latest hot Northern Michigan properties, and how to buy now.

Broker Kimberly Bork didn’t know what to expect when she listed the Cherry Basket Farm, a historic Leelanau County farm that has been home to a high-end event/catering operation for more than 15 years. After all, the chef/caterer owners weren’t selling the actual business, just the real estate, which includes two barns, a farmhouse, cherry stand, commercial kitchen and bathrooms along with a special land use permit (that runs with the land) and allows events to be hosted.

“It is one of those amazing one-of-a-kind properties that I thought ‘well, this could go either way, it might take some time to find the right buyer during the uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic’” says Bork, managing broker and owner of Venture Properties, a leader in Northern Michigan real estate sales. Instead, it took just four days—four days, 22 showings and nine offers above the list price.

“Our brokerage is seeing a higher demand for these dream properties where the buyer has a vision for a unique business—events, lodging or a farm,” she says.

That’s just part of the changing literal and figurative landscape for homebuyers in Northern Michigan. Though the traditional cottage buyers from downstate and surrounding areas still drive a lot of demand, there’s been a definitive cultural shift, particularly among high-end buyers, toward chasing very specific ideals for Up North getaways. “It’s a very romantic, very interesting shift,” Bork says. “We’re seeing everything from millionaire millennials prioritizing a better quality of life to families wanting to recreate a simple life for their children, to professionals looking to change gears and take up boutique farming, for example.”

As she sees it, there are a few key trends buyers (and sellers) need to tap in to so they can understand and make the most of the current market. Here’s the intel she shares with Venture Properties clients to help them stay one step ahead.

Real Estate in the Age of Corona

The pandemic and corresponding economic uncertainty haven’t necessarily deterred her buyers, Bork says—and that’s good news for sellers. “We’ve had a definite uptick since corona,” she explains. Chalk it up to people’s shifting priorities, or looking for opportunities for good deals or a renewed flexibility to telecommute and spend more time away from crowded cities somewhere peaceful and inspiring. Even vacant land sales are humming, with clients looking to buy now and build later. “People have a sense of looking for safety and wanting to be somewhere beautiful, even remote, so it makes sense,” Bork says.

Take, for example, a 6-plus acre property with dual frontage on Lake Michigan and a peaceful inland lake. The catch? It was in Northport, a location that many still feel is a bit too far from the action. After many years on the market, it sold in January. “This was the year for it,” Bork says. 

Other properties, like two prime parcels on the Leland River and North Lake Leelanau, also popped off the market after several years on the MLS. “Those appealed to buyers who wanted a slower pace, walk-to-town experience,” she explains.

A Happy Homestead 

Ever since Chip and Joanna sharpened our appetite for modern farmhouse decor, baby goats and whitewashed shiplap, homebuyers have taken a shine to the idea of life on the farm and sought out acreage and farms of their own. And in Northern Michigan, that’s a pretty important shift in the market.   

“Becoming a foodie destination has contributed so much to the allure of this area,” Bork says. “From food trucks to fine dining, especially farm to table. People just love the fresh food experience our region has to offer.”

 This is in stark contrast to recent decades, which have seen the decline of family farms. Demand for farmland had dried up while demand for residential parcels sky-rocketed. As farmers aged out and younger family members opted not to farm or subdivide the land to make it more saleable, many farms shrank or disappeared.

 But that’s all changing.

In addition to the Cherry Basket, Bork references the former Centennial Inn, an 1865 farmhouse that is under contract with back up buyers waiting in the wings, as well as the sale of a 120-acre farm, which managed alpacas and Tibetan yak for more than 20 years. She sees clients from big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC, people who want to do something different or create a bridge business that will take them to retirement.

That idealism? It’s good for business. “When I list properties like this,” Bork admits, “it has been a feeding frenzy, with many showings and tons of interest.” In other words, if you have your heart set on a farmette, be prepared for a bit of a search and be ready to buy at a moment’s notice.

Shifting Demographics

With the aging of Boomers and the location-neutral flexibility for younger generations, certain key changes have surfaced in the market.

One is the availability of legacy properties such as the summer cottages on Northport Point, which require memberships and often stay in families for generations, but sometimes children and grandchildren aren’t able or interested in keeping their property. Bork finds there are plenty of buyers interested in these enclaves, specifically from big cities across the country.

Another is the interest in urban living. In a sort of reverse second-home purchase, older or retired homeowners with lakefront houses are looking for an in-town pied-à-terre to enjoy, especially during the winter. The ability to live without maintenance or shoveling, walk to restaurants, or make a quick dash to Target or the airport has definite appeal, as does avoiding winter driving.

 Younger buyers are all in for urban living too, Bork notes. Many are working high-level jobs and telecommuting, allowing them to live anywhere. Homes located in Traverse City’s Slabtown neighborhood offer a heart-of-downtown experience that affluent Millennials are eating up. With easy access to amenities, the walkable, communal lifestyle in town is a hot ticket, with demand outpacing supply. 

Privacy, and More Privacy

With the success of the Pure Michigan campaign and maybe a touch of urban fatigue, people from cities and locations all over the world are looking for a piece of that Northern Michigan serenity—and that means solitude and privacy, not neighbors huddled on 50-foot stretches of frontage.

So big acreage is back. Bork mentions a 165-plus acre property with a large custom home and barn—a unique property that will take the right buyer. “This year, we have people seriously looking for big acreage homesteads,” Bork says. It seems large parcels are becoming more and more desirable, with buyers thinking of making a family compound, raising livestock or just having a private escape. 

The same holds for lake frontage, with buyers hungry for a couple of acres and the 200 to 300-plus-foot frontage range. Last year, Venture Properties sold the only residential sale recorded in the MLS over $3 million since 2014—a Lake Michigan cottage with 200 feet of frontage.

Other clients are going big by thinking small, looking for metes and bounds land with few restrictions so they can build minimalist, nontraditional or tiny homes out in the beauty of nature. “These lots are surprisingly hard to find,” Bork notes. “And this is where you really need a good realtor to guide you. They have this romantic idea of buying land, but the value of having an agent is in the guidance of getting past that romance to ensure you can actually build on it or enjoy it—what does the township zoning allow, does it have wetlands, does the Michigan Department of Great Lakes and Energy need to get involved, what kind of septic situation are you looking at? We know which questions to ask, and how to get answers to help you make an informed decision.”

5 Tips for Smart Home Buying

Kimberly Bork of Venture Properties shares her best tips for buying smart in the current market.

  1. Be pre-approved. People are looking to finance now because they don’t want to liquidate investments for cash and interest rates are so low. Have the pre-approval letter or proof of funds in hand.
  2. Be ready to buy. When something comes up, you will need to be decisive. Bork has had buyers make offers after Facetime walkthroughs and even a few brave souls buy sight unseen—not recommended, she adds, but understandable in a hot market.
  3. Get educated about potential issues with building on vacant land. High ground-water levels are a particular issue this year and can impact what kind of structure to build and septic system you’ll need.
  4. Ask about high-speed internet. The Northwoods experience doesn’t always yield connectivity, and some locations are on dial-up speeds at best. Be sure you buy somewhere where your needs can be met, especially if you plan to work from home.
  5. If you have children, be sure to research the school district.

By Cara McDonald

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