Our Top Criteria for Buying a Lake Home

Key Factors in Our Real Estate Search
Jennifer Lake Pink Pier Dock
image: Allie Provost

Last week, Pinterest unveiled their “Pinterest Predicts 2022” report, a guide to their most anticipated trends for the year. One of the big insights? “Lake it ’til you make it.” The title makes me giggle! Basically, the report shares that consumers will trade in beach vacations for lakeside retreats and also seek out lake homes. Wait, are they reading my mind? Clearly Bob and I ahead of the trend. Haha!

For the past three years, we’ve been searching for a lake home (read more in this real estate blog). Within the post, I discuss the initial challenges that we’ve faced in the search – dealing with all cash offers to this crazy hot real estate market. But today, I thought it would be fun to share more about our lake home criteria. Maybe you’re also on the hunt for a lake home too? In the end, I hope this post helps you in some way.

Our Lake Home Criteria

Confession: we are tough real estate clients. Our laundry list of lake home must-haves and dealbreakers would make Santa blush. 🙂 In fact, out of the thousands of real estate listings across THREE (yes three!) states, our agents can only typically find 1-2 listings that fit our criteria each month. Add pocket listings and FAST deals and it’s rare to see the actual good stuff.

#1 Lake Home Criteria – Budget, Budget, Budget

So what is our biggest lake home criteria? Budget. Sure, it’s fun to look at $39.5 million dollar listings like this one (can you believe it sold in like a week?!). But we want (and need) to keep things reasonable. At the beginning of the process, we sat down to review our finances. We selected a budget range that felt… well… safe and smart. As a couple, we’ve always been fiscally conservative and certainly don’t want to overextend ourselves.

Yes, we’ve been saving for decades for a small lake home. However, we will not deplete our savings to make those dreams come true. In general, we’ve found it helpful to abide by Suze Orman‘s rule that you should always have an emergency reserve. It’s important to stick to that!

Offer Specs

Another great step to streamline the process? We’ve already discussed potential deal specs with our agents. In other words, if we make an offer, what will our terms look like? How much money will we want to put down? What budget will we need for possible renovations and home updates? Do we want a quick close and fast inspections? What kinds of inspections (i.e. radon, mold, etc.). The list goes on and on. If we find our dream place, we want to move fast.

Tour Times

Okay, so this point may seem slightly strange to include, but it’s important. The only times we can tour homes is on weekends. With our full-time jobs, we can’t drop everything and drive three hours to a listing. Throughout this process, we’ve found it helpful to share our schedule of availability with our agents so they’re clear on when and where we can see something. If a property sells before we can see it…it is what it is.

Finland Jennifer Lake

Furthermore, we don’t love large open houses given the pandemic. Therefore, our agents know to schedule one-off tours on Saturdays and Sundays. Many properties require a 24-hour notice to see a place, so our agents try to confirm appointments quickly. Also, I don’t pull punches. 🙂 If we see photos of a home we like, we push the agents to see listings sooner. In this process, we’ve found that both listing agents and current homeowners are more malleable for fast showings if you ask.

Additional Lake Home Criteria

So what are other aspects of our lake home criteria for a possible small second home? Buckle up, folks! 🙂 It’s a long one, lol. Again, I hope sharing this list helps you or anyone who’s also thinking about making a real estate move. Keep in mind, we’ve been searching for years, so our list is pretty crystal clear. Also, I’m leaving out some specifics like bedrooms/baths, sump pump and other requirements to save you from the longest blog post ever.

True Waterfront Property

When searching for a waterfront property on Zillow or Redfin, you’d think it would be as simple as “check this box for lakefront homes.” Who knew that’s not the case? Yes, there’s a box for it… but the results are all over the place. The learnings, friends. The learnings. Phew!

We quickly discovered in this process that we don’t want “lake access” but a true waterfront home. This means our guests can swim off the pier and go boating (pontoon, kayak, etc.). Often, we’ve found that “waterfront homes” listings are misleading. Sometimes they lead to shared piers, ponds, a “10-minute walk to a marina where you have access to a dock”, riverfront properties or homes that are not even on lakes at all. Le sigh. It’s made the process a bit more complicated.

Proximity to Chicago

For us – the closer to Chicago, the better! 🙂 Both of our families are mostly based in the Midwest, and one of the main reasons why we’re considering a second home is also for them. We hope friends and family will be able to enjoy the small lake cottage as much as we do!

As such, we have not one – but three real estate agents (gah!). And no, we do not deserve praise or an overachiever award for that fact. One is based in Illinois, another in Wisconsin, and the final one is in Michigan. We’ll only be buying one home, but we’ve decided to cast a SUPER wide net with licensed brokers in each state.

Our Illinois real estate agent is our absolute fave (he’s my uncle)! I trust him implicitly, and Illinois is our top choice. He’s truly the best. If you’re searching for a home in Illinois, we give him our highest recommendation. We worked with him to find our primary residence and to sell our last home. Even our real estate lawyer told us how incredible he was to work with (not even knowing he was family at the time).

Granted, Illinois state taxes are way higher than Michigan or Wisconsin, so we aren’t fully sure that’s the route we’ll go (even though we love him).

Finding a real estate agent you trust is critical. Frankly, I could do an entire blog post on those learnings (let me know if you’d be interested in that topic in the comment section).

The Actual Lake

A golden rule in real estate no matter where you’re looking? Location, location, location. Interestingly enough, our search is not for an investment property (i.e. we aren’t looking to make it a place to rent, flip or sell quickly). Instead, we want to be there for decades.

J. Crew Denim Jacket, Nantucket Island

Similar to our real estate search in Chicago, we’ve started to map out the lakes we love in each state. We’ve researched the benefits/drawbacks, comps, etc. What’s the lake quality? How’s the community itself? What are the crime stats? Is it a private or public lake? How many acres is the lake and what’s the average depth? Lastly – what’s the noise level on a typical weekend? Phew! 🙂

Some lakes are calm (think fishing and canoes). Others are loud and a major party on the water (à la Chicago’s infamous “Playpen”). We’re looking for something in between (and more on the chill side of life!).

Square Footage

As mentioned, we aren’t looking for a huge second home. First, our budget won’t allow for that. Moreover, we won’t be hosting giant parties or anything. Instead, we just want something small and charming. Plus, we’d love a reasonable space between us and our neighbors. Since we live in Chicago, a decent sized lot would be a dream. A yard? What is that? Haha! Granted, wide lots can be tricky to find in most lake communities.

Expansion Opportunities

Last but not least, while square footage isn’t a huge factor for us – we’d love to find a place to make our own. Perhaps an opportunity to build-out another bathroom or bedroom or expand the outdoor living spaces? As I said above, we don’t plan to flip this property. We’ll be there for a LONG time.

So why not add value in the process? Plus, after researching lake homes for three years, we know that it’s highly improbable to find a place in our budget that won’t need updating. But that’s where the fun will begin!

Family Room Redesign

Flood Risk 

One of the biggest takeaways from this process? Flood risk. With rising tides (literally) and climate change being a VERY real thing, we need to keep flood factors in mind. Things we’ve been considering? Has the property had a flood? How close is it to the water? Is the property on a flood plain? Is there a reasonable slope between the home and the water?

One helpful tip? Redfin shows flood risk on listings. I love looking at their ratings on listings, and we’ll only make an offer on a property with a flood risk of 1 or lower.

Sunset Views

One of Bob’s must-haves? A sunset view. Me? Well, I’m open depending on the property. 🙂

Lake Home Criteria – In Closing

Are you hunt for a home or second home? If so, please know that I’m sending you SO many good vibes. The process is so stressful! What’s your home criteria? Any of you have a lake home criteria list too? Please let me know any tips or additional things we should be thinking about. Lastly, I’ll be sure to keep you posted as we continue on in the process!

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  1. A
    Annaliese wrote:

    Loving the updates on your search process! Fingers crossed that you both find the dream property soon! You did such a beautiful job decorating your primary home, I can’t wait to see how you decorate this one.

    xoxo A

    Published 1.14.22 · Leave a Reply
  2. J
    Judi Rana wrote:

    My only advice is never fall in love with a place… it can lead to a potential mistake. Consider buying real estate as a business decision! My husband and I have collectively bought and sold 16 properties! We’ve enjoyed them all, but bought and sold at the right time(s).

    Published 1.14.22 · Leave a Reply


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