LAKE GENEVA

Driving past the gated entrance and up a long, private lane, the opulence of Royal Oaks—a broad, chateau-like summer mansion along the south shore of Geneva Lake—comes into immediate and sharp focus.

A circular drive splits around a fountain centered in front of the light gray, nine-bedroom estate, offering one approach to the owner’s garage and another to the guests’ garage.

On the walk up to the arched, double front doors, windows topped with sharp gables allow a partial view of the home’s marble foyer and double staircase, where sunlight glints off a crystal chandelier that’s as big around as a child’s wading pool.

And that’s just the front of the home.

The 15,000-square-foot Royal Oaks at 4396 W. Basswood Drive, Lake Geneva is listed for sale for $8.99 million. That cost includes the seven-bedroom, 13 bath home; a guest house; a tennis court; an in-ground swimming pool; and more than three acres, including 214 feet of coveted lakefront viewable from most Royal Oaks rooms.

It’s a home you’ll likely never own, unless you’re a newly-minted Chicago hedge fund tycoon, or you just cashed in big on the recent bitcoin explosion.

But there are others with means. The shoreline homes of the 5,400-acre Geneva Lake for decades have been summertime and year-round havens for the some of the Midwest’s most elite.

Lakefront homes on the resort lake are starting to sell at a clip that’s surprising even to some longtime Lake Geneva luxury real estate brokers.

Williams Bay native David Curry, who operates Geneva Lake Front Realty, said that in the last two years lakefront real estate on Geneva Lake has started to boom—particularly in sales at the far upper end of the luxury home market.

Market heat

Over the last two years, Curry said, the Geneva Lake lakefront market has sold 13 homes with sale prices in excess of $4 million. Two of those homes were sold for more than $7 million. That’s double the number of lakefront homes that sold at those points during the last peak housing market, which was around 2007, Curry said.

Overall, about 30 lakefront homes on Geneva Lake sold last year, and the average price for those homes was $2.8 million, said Margaret Canfield, a Lake Geneva-area broker for real estate firms Lake Geneva & Area real estate and properties.

This year, five more properties along the lakefront are being marketed at prices in excess of $4 million, Curry said. One lakefront estate, the 11,000-square-foot Hillcroft, one of several homes originally built by Chicago’s Wrigley family, is up for sale for $12.5 million, according to local listings.

According to real estate listing website Zillow, the former Wrigley property and the 19 acres it sits on—including a football field-sized swath of lake-frontage—would cost a buyer an estimated standard mortgage payment of $50,000 per month.

The former Wrigley estate, as of late last week, was under contract by a buyer, Curry said. It’s not one of his listings.

Canfield said it’s the first time she’s seen any of Geneva Lake’s lakefront homes hit the market at prices well above $10 million.

“It’s fascinating. There are (lakefront) houses on contract right now for $4 million, $5.9 million, another one for $6.5 million. Once those sell, those comparables, that’s going to keep driving up property (prices) on the lake,” she said.

Curry is the listing broker for the Chicago-area family selling Royal Oaks. He said he has three buyers interested in Royal Oaks right now. Last week, he said, he closed the sale of a spruce log mansion with massive stone fireplaces on Loramoor Drive on Geneva Lake’s south lakefront. Closing price: $5 million.

Curry said he believes a surging stock market in recent months and a new infusion of younger, up-and-coming buyers are a few forces driving the Geneva Lake luxury home market. Developers, he said, are once again building homes on some lots around the lake, and other buyers are snapping up lots along the lakefront to tear down existing homes with plans to build larger, even grander estates there.

Geneva Lake lakefront buyers once were commonly moguls on Chicago’s stock exchange, established elites with large families who sought sprawling vacation homes along Geneva Lake, Curry said. Now, Curry said, he’s equally likely to sell to younger, 30-something hedge fund executives seeking lakefront estates to cut loose and as an investment to park millions of dollars.

New buyers are coming in even as some longtime lakefront residents are attempting to climb the property ladder, selling their properties with the idea of buying bigger, even fancier homes along Geneva Lake.

Curry has sold real estate along Geneva Lake since 1996. When he started, he said, “entry level” lakefront homes, cottages or large ranch-style homes along the lake might have sold for $500,000. Those homes now are selling for $1 million, at least. And when they sell, Curry said, new owners often order major renovations or simply tear down the homes to build new ones.

Some new owners of larger homes sold along the lakeshore might put as much as $1 million into renovations, he said.

Within the last two years, Curry said he sold one empty lakefront lot—he called it “dirt to build on”—for $4 million, and a few lakefront homes built on speculation over the last year have sale prices upward of $4 million.

These trends, Curry expects, will continue as long as the stock market and the general economy stays elevated, or at least on an even keel. That would signal higher and more exclusive prices for homes on Geneva Lake’s historically sought-after lakefront.

Curry said vacation lakes anywhere else in the state might only have one, $8 million lakefront property apiece. On lakes like that, the goal for Realtors might be to find a single, big spender who’ll chase the cache of owning a lake’s biggest and best property, Curry said.

“We really don’t have to do that here. There is certainly more than one of those properties on this lake,” Curry said.

Discerning customers

Although the local market for average-priced homes has heated to the point of bidding wars, with some buyers putting in offers within a few days or hours of viewings, Canfield said that’s not part of the game selling lakefront luxury in the Lake Geneva area.

Lakefront homebuyers Canfield has sold to can afford to be discerning, and they generally are, she said.

Some buyers of the past, she said, would cut a multi-million dollar check for a property. Now, she said, they’re more likely to buy the homes using traditional mortgage lending, because she said even jumbo mortgages for homes $750,000 or more still have interest rates comparable to more modest home loans.

“These buyers tend to be very, very discriminating. They know exactly what they’re looking for, and they’re going to stay within a certain price point. If they can’t find it, they’ll just wait,” Canfield said.

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A property listed for $1.05 million on the north shore of Lake Como has four bedrooms, five bathrooms and a panoramic view of Lake Como.

Million-dollar views

One of Canfield’s listings is a $1.09 million home at the gated Geneva National resort, which is on the north shore of Lake Como. The home is a 6,800-square-foot home that owners David and Bobbi Gutman built in 1996 as a year-round residence.

The home has four bedrooms and one bath and it’s built around a large, central living room with 20-foot-tall windows that offer a panoramic view of Lake Como, a 955-acre lake that’s about a 10-minute drive north of Lake Geneva.

The Gutmans, former Chicagoland residents who both had worked for Motorola, are in their 70s. For them, living in a nearly 7,000-square-foot home on a lakefront has run its course. They put the home on the market a year ago, hoping to sell it so they can downsize to a smaller home.

David Gutman said he’s not a boater, and he’s more interested in playing tennis than golfing, although his expansive lawn along the lakefront is adjacent to a par-5 hole that’s part of the Geneva National golf course.

Gutman said the decision to sell wasn’t tied to dynamics in the current housing market. He pointed out that unlike a mid-market home, there’s no such thing as public, open-house showings for properties like his.

The Gutmans themselves mulled the idea of building the house for months before they pulled the trigger, Gutman said.

“For us, selling it wasn’t really a market-driven thing,” Gutman said. “Nobody’s knocking on your door saying, ‘Show me a large-market house on Geneva National.’”

Bobbi Gutman has amassed a large art collection in the home. The Gutmans suggested some of the artwork, along with large curios such as a 15-foot succulent plant next to the enormous windows, might not make a move.

There’s another thing the Gutmans can’t take: their view of Lake Como.

“Sometimes when it’s a calm day, you look out there and you forget it’s a lake. It just looks like you’ve got 500 acres of yard out there,” he said.

At the Royal Oaks estate on Geneva Lake, Curry showed off some of the home’s internal trappings, which include a gilded, goose-shaped vanity faucet in one of the home’s many bathrooms, and hand-painted, Chinese-style wallpaper in some rooms. The wallpaper is so high-end that a single panel of the paper can cost $1,000 or more, Curry said.

Curry said there’s no way to tell whether such trappings will stay in place after the home is sold, but often, they don’t.

He looked out the window of a kitchen as large as some ranch-style houses, past Royal Oaks’ swimming pool and out over the frozen Geneva Lake, where a few ice fishers moved around like ants in the distance.

In a large living room that seemed to splay out a half a league to the left, a glossy, black grand piano sat silent near an enormous, flickering fireplace.

Around the corner, in the walk-in kitchen pantry, was an unopened bag of plain, old Tostitos corn chips. It was an odd dichotomy, Curry admitted, but he sees different sides of Geneva Lake’s owners in their homes, both the opulence and the humanity.

“They’re just people,” Curry said. “They just happen to have a heck of a lot more money than you or I will ever have.”

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