Leelanau News and Events

How Leelanau County Became A Luxury Real Estate Haven

By Craig Manning | Oct. 16, 2023

One-third: That’s how much of the current residential real estate inventory in Leelanau County is priced at $1 million or more. According to Jonathan Oltersdorf of the Suttons Bay-based Oltersdorf Realty, 43 homes in the county are listed for at least $1 million, with 17 of them priced over $2 million.

What makes Leelanau County such a haven for luxury homes? We chatted with Oltersdorf and two other leading Leelanau real estate experts – Kimberly Bork of Venture Properties and Roger Schaub of Schaub Team Premier Realty – to find out.

The Buyers

It’s clear someone is buying luxury properties in Leelanau County: Per Schaub, his team has taken 29 homes priced at $1 million or more “to the closing table” in the past two calendar years alone. Even amidst trends that have slowed the overall real estate market – inflation, appreciation of home values, rising interest rates, limited inventory – luxury homes are continuing to sell, especially in Leelanau.

So far this year, Oltersdorf says 49 Leelanau homes have sold for $1 million or more. “I think last year at this time, we were at 56,” he adds. “So, things are holding pretty steady. But last year, 50 percent of those sales were cash. As mortgage rates have gone up, the number of luxury sales really hasn’t gone down, but this year, 65 percent of luxury home sales were cash.”

That trend points to who is buying luxury homes in Leelanau: People with deep pockets – many of them coming into the area from even more expensive markets.

“We see a lot of buyers coming from California, and they think our luxury market is cheap,” Schaub says. “Because, comparatively, it is… We talk value a lot with our prospective buyers, and I think they see there is a lot of value here. Because even after all this appreciation in value that our market has seen recently, when you compare homes in Leelanau to buying in Scottsdale, Arizona, or in California, we’re still where the dollar goes farther.”

Schaub, Oltersdorf, and Bork all say a typical Leelanau luxury home buyer is a wealthy person coming from outside the market and looking for a second or third home. Per Schaub, many of those buyers are also thinking about retirement – and eyeing Leelanau as a place to spend it.

Oltersdorf, meanwhile, has witnessed an influx of younger people – particularly those making their fortunes in the tech industry – who are “able to work remotely now” and are looking for ideal spots to raise their families.

It’s not just one-percenters from California flocking to Michigan’s Fresh Coast, though. Bork keeps close track of where out-of-town buyers are coming from, and says she’s also seeing an uptick of luxury buyers from states like Colorado and Texas, as well as midwestern areas like Ohio, Illinois, and downstate Michigan.

The Houses

What exactly does $1 million (or more) buy in Leelanau County? To give a sampling, we asked Schaub, Oltersdorf, and Bork to share some luxury home highlights from their recent listings or sales.

Schaub singles out a $1.85 million farmstead property he currently has for sale on South Lake Leelanau (pictured, upper left). The home itself is a 2,084-square-foot two-story farmhouse with four bedrooms and one bathroom. But the differentiator, he says, is the sprawling 30.5 acres on which the house sits – a potentially attractive option for a buyer drawn to northern Michigan for its wealth of wide-open spaces.

“It's a really unique property; I've really never listed anything like it before,” Schaub says. “It’s a place where the buyer can have great amount of tillable soil, historic barns, a farmhouse, and also 500 feet of gorgeous South Lake Leelanau water frontage.”

Water frontage is Leelanau’s X-factor when it comes to having a thriving luxury real estate market. Schaub says luxury buyers eyeing the county are almost always “targeting either big water or interior lakes.”

“We have buyers that specifically want North Lake Leelanau, or that specifically want sunset views over Lake Michigan,” Schaub says. “I think that’s what separates the luxury market here, is that we have properties that appeal to both the inland lake buyer and the big water buyer.”

That desire for waterfront homes is evident in Bork’s highlight property, a “private harbor house” in Northport she recently sold for $3.05 million (pictured, right). Boasting 14.5 acres of land, 183 feet of frontage on Lake Michigan, and a 7,519-square-foot floorplan with five bedrooms and six-bathrooms, the property is also “one of only five private boat harbors in the state of Michigan.” That’s thanks to a boathouse located under the house itself, which provides easy access to Lake Michigan.

Oltersdorf’s prime listing, meanwhile, is a $2.195 million beach house featuring “breathtaking western-facing sunset water views across Ingalls Bay” (pictured, lower left). That home offers 2,246 square feet of living space and 92 feet of private water frontage. Beyond the beach itself, the house features numerous amenities designed to take advantage of the frontage, including a 1,000+ square-foot back deck overlooking the bay, a screened-in porch positioned to catch breezes off the water, and a great room with cathedral ceilings and huge windows with “panoramic bay views.”

“Nine times out of ten, a luxury buyer wants waterfront,” Bork concludes. “Two years ago, everyone wanted to be on North Lake Leelanau. This year, I’m seeing more asks for Lake Michigan. So, that facet shifts from time to time. Some people want the big lake and the views of the freighters and the islands and the sunsets. Others want the all-sports inland lake that they can play on and have all their water toys. It depends on the lifestyle, but almost everyone wants waterfront.”

The Future

So, what do the next few years hold for Leelanau County’s luxury market?

While efforts are underway elsewhere to bring more affordable housing to the county, our panel of realtors doesn’t expect those evolutions – or any other market forces – to have much impact on the popularity of Leelanau’s higher-end properties.

“I haven't seen any indicators that the luxury market [in Leelanau] is softening,” Schaub says. “The number of cash buyers is a good indicator to watch there. I think two years ago, [Schaub Team] was up at 84 percent cash offers. This year, we’re at 76 percent. So, until we see those cash buyers decline, I think these homes are going to continue selling, and our value appreciations are going to continue.”

Editor's note: This article is an abridged version of a larger story that appears in this week's issue of Northern ExpressPick up your copy on newsstands now.

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