The demand for Skaneateles property is so high, real estate agents are offering to buy homes that are not even for sale.
Even in the middle of a coronavirus-induced economic crisis, people from New York City and Los Angeles are chartering Ben Eberhardt’s boat to shop for multimillion-dollar mansions.
Last summer, he took a group by the former site of Stella Maris retreat center, where the mansion was torn down and the parcel split in two for sale.
“One of them called from the boat and made an offer for $5 million,” Eberhardt said. “Right here on the boat.”
Skaneateles Lake property has always been a hot commodity, but now it’s on fire.
The average home purchase price in the town has increased by 28% over the past year, from $497,100 to $638,000.
The average listing price has increased by 66%, to $2.2 million in the ZIP code that includes Skaneateles, according to records from Realtor.com.
Three of the 10 priciest residential real estate sales in Upstate New York in the last decade were on Skaneateles Lake, state sales records show.
Two were tear-downs and the third is under construction. The lake has become a neighborhood where $5 million can be a starting price, even when there is no building and when buyers know they will have to pay millions more to rebuild to suit their desires.
Prices are up everywhere in Onondaga County – 14% across the county. But there is something extra hot about Skaneateles.
The great pandemic of 2020 forced people to rethink the way they live their lives, the space they cram into, their long work commutes, the family and friends who are too far away.
In Skaneateles, the listing price per square foot is about $200, compared to $1,500 to $2,000 in New York City. The same money buys more room for remote work and school. Yards are big enough for a dog or even a horse.
Many buyers are nostalgic for a place they remember from childhood, even if they only spent a week or two each year at camp, agents say.
“You can travel all over the world and there’s nothing like it,” said Linda Roche, a real estate agent for Howard Hanna who has sold most of the multimillion-dollar properties, sometimes more than once.
On Skaneateles Lake, eagles fly overhead. Sailboats circle in regattas. Old friends gather at the Sherwood Inn.
John Osborne teaches stress management, yoga and meditation after a career in finance, as a founding member of an investment management firm.
He lives in Santa Monica, California, but returns to his hometown of Skaneateles for long writing retreats and family reunions. He wrote about Skaneateles on his blog as the place where his grandfather courted his grandmother almost 100 years ago, the place that fills him up after each visit with energy and a deeper connection to his true self.
Osborne landed a new home in the Lakeview Circle neighborhood, where he will spend summers and consider living year-round in retirement.
“There’s some quality of life that we all experienced growing up here at the lake,” Osborne said. “It was a real community then, people looked out for each other and a lot of us knew each other’s families. It was a very connected, genuine community and, I think, one of the reasons people are moving back again.”
Osborne talked last week from the car while he drove some of his belongings across the country. He is eager to reconnect with friends and get involved in community organizations like the Finger Lakes Land Trust, the John D. Barrow Art Gallery and the YMCA.
He promised the home’s previous owners that he would continue to use their rose gardener, who happens to be the step-father of ABC anchor David Muir. Muir bought a fixer-upper mansion on the other side of the lake for $7 million.
One unknown in this changing scene, Osborne says, is whether the new property owners who don’t have those kinds of connections will try to be part of the community.
“There was a culture and a set of values there when I was growing up,” he said. “People are doing their best to hold onto those.”
The average listing price in Skaneateles has increased from about $600,000 in 2016 to $3 million at the start of this year, according to Realtor.com.
Beth Batlle is the Skaneateles town historian. George Batlle, her husband of 50 years, is the village historian and was the code enforcement officer who inspected some of the elaborate mansions and additions on the west side of the lake.
He sees the number of high-priced homes listed every Sunday in The Post-Standard.
“Oh my gosh, look at us,” he said.
They don’t know yet whether the turnover of neighbors is good or bad for Skaneateles. After all, George Batlle said, he came from Long Island so many years ago and the stores and restaurants need people to spend money.
George Batlle volunteers for the fire department, the ambulance corps and the historical society. He doesn’t see a lot of new lakeside neighbors joining any of those groups.
“I just hope these people who come out here do get involved in the community in one way or another because that’s what community is about, not who has the biggest house,” he said.
Some potential buyers have only heard of Skaneateles through real estate listings.
Websites advertise expansive water views, sunsets, kayaks on the dock, wine cellars and homes with elevators and private underground tunnels to second homes perfect for the au pair.
You can escape your crowded downstate dwelling and land your seaplane outside your summer home. There is also a private airport. The freshwater lake property is cheaper and less crowded than the salt-water Hamptons.
Real estate agent Michael DeRosa said his customers are offering to pay between $20,000 to $150,000 per month to rent luxury homes on the lake. Over Memorial Day weekend, someone called to offer $350,000 to rent a home on West Lake Street for just the month of July, he said.
The potential for rental income is driving up sale prices on some homes, especially on the southern part of the lake, where there are fewer zoning restrictions on rentals, he said.
There is a home at Carlton’s Cliff that uses the lake for water and a holding tank for sewer and has 65 steps to the beach. Anywhere else, those could be seen as disadvantages. But the owner just decided to increase the price to $1.29 million, DeRosa said. It last sold for $889,000 in 2008.
DeRosa won’t reveal his rental customers, but he said celebrity sightings in recent years have included Bill Murray, Justin Beiber and Tom Cruise.
Then-president Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton brought a national spotlight to the lake, when they stayed there in 1999 and 2000. Their temporary vacation home sold for $3.8 million in 2014 to Jonathan and Louisa Cohlan. He is the CEO of Margaritaville. She is the daughter of Peter and Sally Winkelman, a long-time Skaneateles Lake family.
The house is now valued at about $5 million, according to assessment records.
Roche, real estate agent to the stars, pitches Skaneateles like this: A $5 million home is not all that expensive if you just sold your company and you are used to paying big city prices.
“If you’re coming from New York, Chicago, New Jersey, California, where prices are much higher, we look like a great value,” she said.
The average listing price for May in Southhampton, for example, was $7.3 million; compared to $2.2 million in Skaneateles, according to Realtor.com.
The demand is exciting for Roche and other agents, but the challenge is finding a home for sale.
Only 12 homes went on the market in May in Skaneateles, compared to 20 in May 2019, records show.
People are afraid to part with their homes when they know it will be difficult to buy a new one, especially for retirees who want to downsize to a patio home or condo, Roche said.
Agents say they are working their contact lists, checking in with people whose homes are not even for sale. Residents say brokers have knocked on their doors with offers to buy or rent.
David Smalley said his 94-year-old mother has been approached multiple times by brokers about selling her house in the village.
She tells them to “Go fish.”
Smalley and his partner Susan Barrett have lived all around the world, but have returned to Skaneateles with their hearts set on buying a lakefront property. She is vice president of sales for a digital health startup. He is retired from a career in information technology and accounting. They met last year through Smalley’s mother.
They have been looking for about six months for a home in the $700,000 to $1.1 million range. To win a bid, they know they’ll have to act fast and take risks.
Buyers are offering to pay cash, then get a mortgage.
They skip inspections, against the advice of real estate agents. The most attractive offers come with few contingencies.
That’s difficult when you want to buy a house for less than $1 million. Homes in that price range tend to need work.
Barrett and Smalley visited one open house where the porch was falling off. Some are on slopes with the potential for runoff issues. There’s no time to investigate before the bids close.
“It’s like, wait a minute, I want to spend a week, get an inspector in here and go through the place before I bid on something. The answer is no,” Smalley said. “You just can’t. The time is not there.”
Osborne, of California, said he was lucky. He bought his new $850,000 home before it went on the market through delicate negotiations with a couple who were transitioning to assisted living. They didn’t want to put it on the market and have a lot of people traipsing through.
Other buyers started piling up behind him. He wrote a letter to the family, explaining that he grew up in Skaneateles, his parents were active in the community and he intended to continue that tradition.
He trusted a local friend to go through the home and show it to him on video. He arranged for the owners to stay in the house after the sale so they could take their time with their move.
“The fact that I was able to buy it remotely, for cash with very few contingencies helped me,” he said. “I had to close in 10 days.”
It is hard to identify the new buyers of million-dollar mansions. They often buy properties under anonymous limited liability companies with addresses in Connecticut or New York City. Roche protects their identities, too, when they don’t want to be public.
Even Eberhardt is sometimes asked by some mansion owners not to point out their homes from the boat tour to protect their safety.
Both of the Stella Maris properties were purchased by limited liability companies.
The properties, with no structures, sold for a combined $11.3 million, which together tops the highest sale price ever on the lake. Their value will grow quickly when new homes are built.
The last $11 million purchase, a property historically known as Lakelawn, is now worth $29.4 million after the new owner built a brand new 24,000-square-foot mansion in place of the old one.
There are 368 residential properties worth more than $1 million in Onondaga County’s suburbs. About 92% are in the towns of Skaneateles and Spafford, according to county assessment records.
“It’s almost anything goes right now,” Skaneateles assessor Michael Maxwell said. “The asking price is no longer the asking price. It’s how much everybody else is willing to pay for it.”
The highest price for sale on the lake right now is for the property owned by Pyramid Management executive Bruce Kenan. He put two of his mansions on the market last year for $8.4 million, after making an argument in court that they should be taxed at $2.7 million. (They settled in the middle, at $4.7 million.)
In May, Kenan added a boathouse and another strip of land to bring the property to six acres and the waterfront access to 420 feet.
The new price is $15 million.
If it sells, it will be the biggest sale ever on the lake.
In their first experience with house hunting, Smalley and Barrett went to see a ranch on the Lakelawn, Kenan, Muir side of the lake. The open house was packed. There was an announcement that bids needed to be in by 3 p.m. Sunday, only three days away. After a bidding war, the house sold for about 15% over the listing price, she said.
They quickly learned about the kind of competition they face for the few houses available. They keep jumping on open houses and making sure their friends and neighbors know they want to hear about homes before they are listed for sale.
“What we’re looking for, no one wants to leave,” she said.
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Tell us your story. Are you buying or selling a house in this unusual market? Contact Michelle Breidenbach | firstname.lastname@example.org | 315-470-3186.