April 17, 2024

Living in Luxury in Leelanau: Million-dollar Homes, Waterfront, and Open Land Drive the Market

A look at the upscale real estate market in Michigan’s wealthiest county
By Craig Manning | Oct. 14, 2023

In June, Leelanau County was ranked as the wealthiest county in the state of Michigan by the financial technology firm SmartAsset. The ranking was based on a “wealth index” that took into account factors like median household incomes, investment income, and median home values.

While Leelanau has a wide income discrepancy that has raised questions about just how “wealthy” the county is as a whole, there is no doubt that it has also become a popular destination for those with extra dollars in their bank accounts. According to local realtors, Leelanau regularly draws retirees, folks looking for their second or third homes, and tech industry moguls seeking an idyllic place to raise their families, among other well-off buyers.

Over time, the county’s real estate market has evolved to serve this subset of one-percenters. According to Jonathan Oltersdorf of the Suttons Bay-based Oltersdorf Realty, there are currently 43 homes on the market in Leelanau County that are priced at $1 million or above, a third of the entire market; 17 of those are listed for over $2 million.

What makes Leelanau County such a haven for luxury homes? What’s the profile of a typical luxury home buyer in the county? What features put a Leelanau home above that $1 million mark? And what does the future hold for this county’s unique real estate market? 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 get the answers.

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 down other segments of the real estate market—inflation, substantial 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: It’s people with deep pockets—many of whom are coming into the market from other even more expensive real estate regions.

“We see a lot of buyers coming from California, and they think our luxury market is cheap,” Schaub says. “Because, comparatively, it is. But it’s also really good product—some of the best in the United States. We talk value a lot with our prospective buyers, and I think they see that 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, or a lot of other luxury markets, we’re still where the dollar goes farther.”

Schaub, Oltersdorf, and Bork are all in agreement that the typical Leelanau luxury home buyer is a wealthy person coming from outside the market and looking for a second or third home where they can spend vacations or summers. In particular, Schaub says he sees a lot of buyers who are thinking about retirement and who see Leelanau as the place where they’d like to spend their post-career golden years.

Oltersdorf, meanwhile, tells Northern Express he’s witnessed an influx of younger people—particularly those who have made their fortunes in the tech industry—who are “able to work remotely now” and are looking for ideal places to raise their families. For those folks, Leelanau tends to land quickly on the radar.

It’s not just Californians who are 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 seen an uptick of luxury buyers from states like Colorado and Texas, as well as from Midwestern areas like Ohio, Illinois, and downstate Michigan. Most notably, Bork says Leelanau has become remarkably popular with buyers from one Ohio city.

“We’re seeing a huge, huge influx of people from Cincinnati,” Bork notes, adding that those Ohio buyers tend to be particularly drawn to Northport.

The Houses

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

Schaub singled out a $1.85 million farmstead property he currently has for sale on South Lake Leelanau. 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 of land on which the house sits—an attractive option for a buyer drawn to northern Michigan for its 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 seems to be Leelanau’s X-factor when it comes to having a thriving luxury real estate market. Schaub says luxury buyers interested in 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. Boasting 14.5 acres of land, 183 feet of frontage on Lake Michigan, and a 7,519-square-foot, five-bed, six-bath floor plan, 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 from the home directly to Lake Michigan.

Oltersdorf’s current prime listing is a $2.195 million beach house featuring “breathtaking western facing sunset water views across Ingalls Bay.” 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 specifically to take advantage of the proximity to water, including a 1,000-square-foot back deck that overlooks the beach, a screened-in porch positioned to catch breezes right off water, and a great room with cathedral ceilings and huge windows that offer “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, for that matter—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. Leelanau is one of the most beautiful places in the Midwest, and maybe in the U.S., and people want to be here.”

Bork, meanwhile, says she is seeing some subtle shifts happening in the Leelanau luxury market—though not so much that she’s expecting a big dip in sales or popularity.

“I still have huge demand [for properties across northern Michigan], and I know buyers are exhausted; they’re tired of being beat up, they’re tired of bidding wars, they’re tired of all that,” Bork says. “And I do see that stuff settling down. For the first time in three or four years, Leland is now a balanced market. There’s five-plus months of inventory there right now, and it’s sitting and not selling right away. That means we’re in a balanced market: it’s not a buyer’s market yet, but it’s not a seller’s market either. So, I don’t see prices going down, but I do see things stabilizing.”

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