Ah, summer at the lake - it's the dream of many in the Inland Northwest. A lakefront retreat begins in memory, deep within the real and imagined realms of childhood. If you spent summers at the lake as a child, then you'll want to do the same for your own children. That's Bill Fanning's theory, anyway, and he ought to know - he's been selling waterfront property exclusively in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene area for more than 20 years.
"I think there's a mindset and a philosophy about lake property that's deeply rooted from childhood," says the broker and owner of Tomlinson-Black Waterfront. "It's not an impulse purchase. It's something people plan for and save for."
The good news, according to Fanning, is that waterfront property is more affordable than many people think. As with all real estate decisions, location is key.
"There's an intrinsic clientele with every lake," he says. "Not everyone wants to be on Coeur d'Alene or Hayden. We have 70 lakes within a couple of hours of Spokane. So if you want to be on the water, there's no reason you can't be."
There are still bargains to be found, Fanning says, but those with limited budgets will have to be open to more remote locations. As an example, he points to Deep Lake, north of Colville. "That's just two hours away from Spokane," he says. "Anybody can afford waterfront. It just depends on where you want you want to be."
Despite the poor economy, the sale of waterfront properties is booming. Historically low interest rates help push demand, as does the region's relative affordability. Even the region's premium properties, such as those on Priest Lake and Lake Pend Oreille, seem like bargains to clients moving in from areas with out-of-sight real estate values.
"Our prices still are well below those in the rest of the world," says Ed Ostrom, broker and owner of Windermere/Idaho First Realty in Sandpoint. "We're seeing people coming up from the San Francisco area, from Los Angeles, and Seattle."
Most clients from those areas arrive in North Idaho with plenty of accumulated equity from their city homes. Given the limits on new development and the desirability of waterfront land, demand quickly exceeds supply, driving prices upward. In the Sandpoint area, affordability is a relative term, Ostrom says; middle-income locals are effectively barred from the market.
"The sky's the limit on waterfront properties," he says. "I don't see it stopping. A few years ago, you heard people saying Sandpoint was going to become the new Lake Tahoe, and it was hard to believe. Now our prices are starting to reflect that."
While Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene have achieved a certain cachet, city folk now look at other lakes as well, says Fanning. "The Spokane and Coeur d'Alene area is a quality-of-life location," he explains. "When energy costs are sky-high, the traffic's unbearable, and people get laid off or they retire early, then they want to get out of where they've been. Baby boomers are a fit generation, an active generation, and as we reach retirement, quality of life is important."
Another factor that affects pricing is access to services. Some waterfront sites are more difficult to reach than others; roads may be unimproved, and local stores non-existent. "That's the difference between seasonal and urban waterfront living," Fanning says. "To be considered urban, access to services must be no more than 20 minutes."
If you're in the market for that waterfront retreat, both Fanning and Ostrom advise doing your homework. Beyond the usual research to understand the market, review local regulations and ordinances that affect the waterway you're looking at. Due to its nature as a boundary between land and marine habitats, waterfront property is subject to more environmental safeguards. These can limit what an owner can and cannot do with the property, so be sure to ask lots of questions. Also, water levels fluctuate in many area lakes, turning beach property into mudflats during certain seasons. And don't forget to check the details of water and sewer systems.
A knowledgeable broker can help sort out the details, but it's also important to be flexible when searching for the perfect lake place. "Everyone has that same dream of the white sand beach with a little gingerbread cottage," says Fanning. "Those properties are few and far between, because that's just not the nature of many of our lakes. They're not flat and sandy."
Still, life at the lake can be a dream come true, says Ostrom. "It's a nice environment. When the rest of the nation is down, Sandpoint somehow seems to prosper."