Lake Loving – Buying, Selling On Northern Michigan’s “Most Beautiful” Lake

Camille Campbell grew up near Rapid River, spending many summers boating, beaching and making memories on Torch Lake. Today, she sells the Torch Lake cache as one of the many regional realtors specializing in ‘up north’ properties.

Torch Lake, 17 miles northeast of Traverse City, is consistently a highly sought-after locale for seasonal and year-round home buyers. Stretching through much of Antrim County, the 19-mile inland lake parallels West Grand Traverse Bay, surrounded by Elk Lake, Central Lake, Alden, Eastport and Torch Lake Township. It has been lauded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, as well as the longest inland lake in Michigan.

Realtors and residents credit Torch’s appeal to 41.1 miles of shoreline, proximity to Traverse City and Charlevoix, and its reputation for great boating and lifestyle.

“The market is back and it is rocking,” said Campbell, a Century 21 Northland realtor. “There is no more spectacularly stunning location than Torch Lake,” noting its sunrise and sunset views, pristine waters and pathways through the Chain of Lakes watershed.

Long-time summer resident, Barry Godwin of Traverse City, agrees. Godwin began summering on Torch in 1969, shortly after he began working for Shanty Creek (later Shanty/Schuss). He and wife Nancy have been seasonal residents for more than 40 years. He also notes the bonds of friendship forged over summer vacations as well as the shared allegiance of families for their summer getaways.

The emotional attachment often binds generations of families to the lake for generations. All adds to the “cache” that adds sales appeal.

“The Torch Lake buyer isn’t desperate to buy … or interested in other waterfront properties,” Campbell said, noting prospective owners draw from the Midwest, primarily the Great Lakes states, either as current residents or natives who have relocated elsewhere in the U.S. “They know about Torch Lake, want to be there, know there isn’t a lot of turnover and have been watching inventory … sometimes for years. They buy when the right property is available … and sometimes buy sight unseen.”

Kathy Wittbrodt of Wittbrodt Waterside Properties in Elk Rapids has been selling Torch Lake dreams for 18 years.

“Torch Lake has been, historically, the hottest market,” said Wittbrodt, adding that it’s also a barometer of where the rest of the regional real estate market is headed. “It happens first on Torch Lake, whether one direction or the other.”

Wittbrodt said she is seeing a younger group of buyers interested in the area and also said because “water drives the sales,” she also sees interest spike from other parts of the country that are struggling from water issues. When Texas was experiencing a drought, she had buyers from Texas. Now, she’s wondering if there will be an influx from California.

Campbell also noted that a number of new buyers start as seasonal residents, often in their 40s or 50s, with plans to retire and make Torch Lake their full-time home in the future. Most sellers are in their later years.

According to regional sales records, 40 Torch Lake properties including five lots were sold in 2014, with home sales ranging from $310,000 to $1.45 million. Prices for a 3-bedroom, 2-bath cottage on 100 feet of lake frontage are often close to $700,000. Virtually all real estate is sold in 100-foot waterfront parcels. In the rare case that adjacent 100-foot properties are available, the value rises significantly. In 2014, home sales square footage ranged from a low 672 square feet to a high of 5,396, with many averaging about 2,250 square feet.

Early statistics for 2015 indicate another good year with eight homes and one lot already sold during the first quarter and more in the works.

“May is going to be very big for us,” Wittbrodt said, with several closings on tap.

But, “inventory is skimpy, to say the least,” she added, particularly in the $500,000 to $750,000 sweet spot, but said there are a handful of new properties that will be coming on the market this month. The low inventory has also led to more new builds and even speculative building.

Historical sales show consistent interest in the Torch Lake market including volume sales increases of approximately 12 to 38 percent annually since the economic downturns of 2007 and 2008.

The most significant change before and after the recession are the higher number of mid-priced homes. During the preceding five years, 21 to 28 homes sold per year with close to 75 percent priced between $500,000 and $1 million and 15 percent over the $1 million price tag. Between 2004 and 2008, only eight total homes sold below $500,000.

The recession impacted sales, prices and buying trends, with the greatest increase showing at the $500,000 level with 82 homes sold between 2009 and 2014, compared with 90 at the $500,000 to $1 million level and 23 over $1 million for the same time period. Although Torch Lake real estate was less affected than other Michigan regions, property values decreased during the recession before beginning their current ascent.