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Best Places to Live
From Lac La Belle to Washington Heights, featuring lakefront mansions to fixer-uppers, 20 neighborhoods stand at the vanguard of a resurgent housing market.

Photo courtesy of Johnsen Schmaling Architects

When Jeff and Linda Feist bought their West Milwaukee bungalow in 1990 for about $60,000, they expected to upgrade a few years later. Twenty-three years have gone by, and the house, which today sits in the shadow of Miller Park, is still home to the family of five. But they’re finally looking to change that.

Crunching through the frozen snow in January, the Feists approached a gray colonial on a corner lot in Franklin, just down the road from the Milwaukee County Sports Complex. The house is listed at $228,900 and would be an upgrade, both in square footage – from 1,200 to 1,500 – and bedrooms – from two to three. The house also has charm, a must for Jeff.

The Franklin colonial opens to cathedral ceilings and a stone-outfitted gas fireplace. But it doesn’t get Jeff’s approval. “Dated,” he says. “I’m more or less looking at what I’m going to change right away.” Unconcerned with the purely cosmetic – like the home’s nautical theme – this pragmatic couple wants room to entertain the friends of their three sons, ages 19, 15 and 10. They want to be close to their jobs (Pick ’n Save in Hales Corners, and Kopp’s at 76th and Layton in Greenfield), and they want to continue to send their kids to private school. The Feists are about living within their means, a lifestyle reality many were forced to face when the real estate bubble burst.

But there’s still a large variable for the Feists: their bungalow. “We have an idea what we’ll be able to sell it for,” Jeff says, but “so many homes in our area have sat and sat.” One such home was a 1,300-square-foot bungalow on South 54th Street. Listed for $129,000 in May 2012, it sold for just $88,000 in September after one price reduction and more than 130 days on the market.

Still, the Feists remain optimistic while on the hunt for their new home. The discriminating couple has been looking seriously for a few months, but this one in Franklin won’t be the winner. The Feists’ agent, First Weber’s Colette Petitt, assures them the market will be flooded with new properties come spring. A thaw, of sorts. “Because the market is looking up,” she says, “I’ve been really busy meeting with people who are getting their homes ready that have been waiting for the past couple of years.”

Since the housing market crash in 2008, recovery in the metro area has been slow, but real estate agents are hopeful 2013 might be the year it regains its footing.

Home sales were up in 2012 – 23.6 percent in the city of Milwaukee and 22.7 percent in the five-county metro area excluding the city – though prices continued to stagnate at lower levels. Milwaukee saw a 2 percent decrease in sale price, while the five-county area saw a modest 0.3 percent increase, meaning the average home sold for just $667 more in 2012 than in 2011.

But the key to predicting the market’s future might be  a metric known mostly to real estate insiders: inventory. Measured in months, inventory defines how long the current supply of homes for sale would last given current buying rates. In January 2012, there was a 7.5-month supply of single-family homes in the Milwaukee area. In January 2013, just a 5.1-month supply.

That’s a good sign, says Judy Hearst, regional vice president for Coldwell Banker. Anything under a six-month supply is considered a seller’s market. “Typically, that would move the prices up,” she says, but “our Milwaukee market has not really sustained a large upward pressure for raising prices.” Yet.

The smaller inventory level could indeed raise prices, but it could also entice hesitant sellers to put their homes on the market. “I think sellers are holding off, thinking perhaps they’re going to get more money in the spring market,” says Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent Cathy Cooley. The robust first-time homebuyers market set the stage for homeowners to take the plunge and list their homes this year. They’re more confident they can sell their home and not take a huge loss, says Shorewest’s Renee Koepsel.

Evidence of this “trickle-up effect” is already mounting, she says. In Mukwonago, where Koepsel does most of her business, she saw homes in the $200,000-$250,000 range sell faster in the first part of this year, whereas in 2012, lower-end homes under $200,000 were selling.

Although interest rates showed a slight increase at the beginning of 2013, they still remained low. In early March, 30-year fixed mortgages stood at 3.25 percent. “Interest rates are ridiculously affordable,” says Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors. “That sets the stage for everything else.”

If you look at the numbers, specifically prices and interest rates, he says, “We should be in a boom market.” But mortgage origination – the number of mortgages started – does not reflect the current market conditions. When the first-time homebuyers’ tax credit (which gave $8,000 to qualified buyers) expired in June 2010, mortgage origination “dropped like a rock,” Ruzicka says. Although it’s improved since, it isn’t where it should be. “It’s just not happening yet.”

Real estate agents, however, are optimistic. After a relatively strong 2012, real estate companies are seeing revenue and growth similar to that of the early 2000s. At a Shorewest meeting last fall, a revamped version of a classic TV commercial – in which a man learning to yodel prompts his neighbors to move – was debuted to get agents excited about what’s ahead, a way to get them back in the game, a tipping point. But Ruzicka hasn’t seen proof of this in the numbers. “Hopefully, they know something we don’t.”

The numbers aren’t showing a recovery just yet, but data from the Multiple Listing Service, which documents U.S. real estate sales, provides valuable market insight. So to the numbers we went. Analyzing single-family home data from the last two years (27,882 sales to be exact) in the city of Milwaukee (split into ZIP codes) and 85 other communities in the five-county area, we looked for emerging trends pointing to some of the best places to live. Want the most house for your money? We focused on price per square foot. Searching for the next big neighborhood? Check out average price increases.

We used these parameters and others to scope out the scene, sometimes factoring in several metrics to determine winners. For example, the “If you’re looking for a deal” category took into account days on the market and percentage of list price paid.

In the end, 13 categories emerged, highlighting 20 neighborhoods worthy of extra attention this spring.

So, if you…



Want Lake Views Without the Lake Drive Price Tag

Homes with Lake Michigan views can cost more than $1 million, but taking the search west can produce homes with gorgeous views of some slightly smaller bodies of water. Waterford might be the place to look. Located 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee, Waterford’s waterfront vista features Tichigan and Buena lakes where the Fox River hits its northernmost point.

On a cold February day, Shorewest’s Renata Greeley (who did more than $17 million in home sales last year), points out the town’s marina just off Main Street. As she drives past the Pick ’n Save, she gestures to her face on the shopping carts. “I advertise on there,” she says. Greeley knows the area – and knows it well.

She estimates the median price range for a home in Waterford at $240,000-$250,000; MLS data shows last year’s average at $212,237. Although home prices decreased 8 percent in 2012 and homes sat on the market for an above-average 111 days, homes sold for 94.9 percent of list price.

A lakefront Waterford home with two bedrooms and two full baths was listed for $379,900 in February. The home was being used by a couple from the Chicago area as a vacation property, and the second bedroom upstairs was stuffed to the brim with a bunk bed and futon to accommodate as many guests as possible. But the current owner isn’t leaving the area. “They loved the lake so much,” Greeley says, “they want to buy a bigger house on the lake.”

Have Always Dreamed of the Lake Life

 
Photo by John Kunze
As Shorewest agent Tracy Modjeski circles North Lake Street Port around Lake Park in Port Washington, she stops the car when she sees the lake. “I always stop,” she says. This is the iconic view, and it’s exactly what draws people here. Port Washington boasts the only harbor between Milwaukee and Sheboygan, and though lakefront homes sell for upward of $600,000, the lake life can be had for much less than other shoreline communities. The average sale price of a home in Port Washington in 2012 was just under $170,000. (Compare that to the $300,000-plus average price tags in Shorewood and Whitefish Bay.) Combine that with public lake access, good schools and low taxes, and Port Washington, Modjeski says, is a great place to live.

She would know. Modjeski grew up here, but later moved to Waukesha and Wauwatosa. Once she got married and had a child, she moved back (at the urging of her husband), and now says she “couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

One home on the market this spring captured the appeal: A three-bed, two-bath that’s only blocks from downtown and the beach was listed for just under $200,000. The home featured high ceilings and crown molding, cedar closets and laundry chutes.

Still in recovery, Port Washington saw a price decrease of 13 percent last year, and homes sat on the market for an average of 116 days. But that could change. Modjeski says the inventory has been shrinking, which should raise prices. In early March, she estimated only 50 homes on the market.

Want a Walkable Lifestyle

Photo by Marty Josephson
“There’s a big resurgence back to the city itself,” says Suzanne Powers, broker and owner of Powers Realty Group Inc. “People seem to really want a walkable community. Walk Scores are very important to today’s buyer.”

And few areas are as walkable as the city’s 53202 ZIP code, which encompasses  part of the East Side, Downtown and the Historic Third Ward, and reports a Walk Score of 86, “Very Walkable.” The only area to earn a higher score was Burlington, with an 88. But once you leave Burlington’s downtown area, the score plummets – down to 0 in certain areas.

Home prices (separate from the area’s condos) in the 53202 ZIP code fell significantly from 2011 to 2012 – a 31 percent decrease. The area’s homes sold for an average of $310,650 in 2011 and $215,060 in 2012. Home sales, however, were up 92.3 percent in that same time frame. Homes sat on the market for an average of 125 days – above the city average of 89 – and sold for 93.8 percent of list price – below the city average of 95 percent.

In July 2012, a 110-year-old Victorian just north of Brady Street sold for $197,500 after sitting on the market for almost a year. The house, with its three bedrooms and three full bathrooms, scored a 94 on the Walk Score ranking, which makes it a “Walker’s Paradise.” Another home, located where Water turns into Brady, received a Walk Score of 83, making it “Very Walkable.” The 1,800-square-foot two-story sold for $229,900 – at almost 96 percent of the asking price – after 70 days on the market.

Want a Walkable Lifestyle in the ’Burbs

Photo by Westhauser Photography; landscaping by Ginkgo Leaf Studio
Although finding a walkable area in the densely populated city can be easy, how do you get that same feel in the ’burbs? Move to Shorewood or Cedarburg, which boast high Walk Scores – 83 and 86, respectively. Powers says Shorewood’s commitment to redeveloping its business district has had an impact on the prices and inventory of homes. “There are no homes for sale in Shorewood,” she says. “That’s just a testament to Shorewood and the business district and how they’ve done such a great job.” In early March, there were just 32 homes on the market, to be exact.

One of these rarities, a Lake Drive colonial, was listed for $449,900. Its owner, Mary Zingale-Schiro, says she’d put a “small fortune” into the home since buying it five years ago, redoing the kitchen and a three-season room that had Astroturf when the family moved in. The 2,000-square-foot home has four bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms with a two-car attached garage. A sales contract was pending within a month of listing.

To the northwest, Cedarburg is a quaint town of about 11,400 that’s known for its arts community and summer festivals. The concentrated downtown also makes it a walkable community. Listed at $259,900 in mid-February was a three-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom ranch just blocks from the central business district. And that might be its biggest selling point. “I do feel like you’re selling the community as much as a house,” says Buffy Godfrey, the Coldwell Banker real estate agent listing the home.

Are Looking for a Deal

When homes sit on the market, sellers might be more willing to negotiate a lower price with buyers. In West Milwaukee, homes sat on the market for an average of 116 days in 2012 – above the five-county average of 102. And those homes sold for 90.6 percent of the asking price – under the five-county average of 95.3 percent.

The biggest discounts came on luxury properties in locations like Lac La Belle, Chenequa and Oconomowoc Lake, but not all buyers can put down a million dollars on a house – no matter how deep the discount.

In West Milwaukee, however, the average home price in 2012 was just under $70,000 – a 20 percent decrease from 2011. On average, a buyer paid $53 per square foot in 2012. A 1,500-square-foot colonial near Beloit Road and Burnham Street sold for $126,500 in 2012 – just over 90 percent of the list price – after sitting on the market for 174 days.

And more homes are coming on the market; average home sales increased 47 percent from 2011 to 2012. The least affordable thing about West Milwaukee? Property taxes, which are the highest in the metro area at $30.36 for every $1,000 of property value.

Are Looking to Grow a Family

Although Renee Koepsel saw lower-end homes sell in 2012, she’s seen an uptick in the sale of property in the “second home” market, or buyers upgrading from their starter homes, so far in 2013. “A lot more of the $250,000-$300,000 range is selling now,” she says. “I’m getting a lot of offers. It’s improving for that middle-price-range marketplace.”

Many times, those buyers are looking for space to grow. Mukwonago, with an average home size of more than 2,000 square feet, good schools and lower taxes, is one place to look. “A lot of people move out this way because they can get more land,” she says.

Even with more land, buyers are still getting more home for their money. Buyers paid an average of $235,811 in 2012 – $114 per square foot. That figure is lower than other suburbs with similarly priced and sized homes: Menomonee Falls ($119) and New Berlin ($121).

In the first few weeks of 2013, Koepsel saw 12 new listings and had five accepted offers. “I’ve seen a lot more activity quicker,” she says. Two homes had accepted offers within a week of listing. One of those, a 1,700-square-foot ranch with three bedrooms and two full baths on 3 acres, had a list price of $249,900.

Are Looking to Get into the Luxury Market

Photo by Jadon Good Photography; courtesy of Ascent Building Solutions and Designs Galore.
Coldwell’s Judy Hearst says the entry-level luxury market starts at about $750,000, and two municipalities – Oconomowoc Lake and Lac La Belle – had an average sale price around that mark. Homes in Chenequa, which takes the crown as the highest-priced municipality this year, sold for an average of $1,178,925.

Communities full of luxury properties had some of the lowest percentages of list price paid for homes in 2012. Buyers paid just over 87 cents on the dollar for homes in Oconomowoc Lake. And those homes were listed for an average of 151 days. But buyers are out there. “We’re seeing definite consumer interest,” says Hearst. “Buyers are taking advantage of luxury properties.”

Only 14 homes sold in Oconomowoc Lake in 2012, but that’s actually double the total sold in 2011. Prices, however, took a dive, dropping from $1,346,500 to $784,714 – a 42 percent decrease.

A home on Pabst Court with four bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms was listed at $999,000. After 127 days on the market in 2012, the home sold for just $875,000 – 87.6 percent of the list price.

Even though the average price of a home in Delafield was $457,240, 15 homes there sold for more than $750,000, representing about 10 percent of its market. Homes in that price range tend to cluster around Nagawicka Lake. But buyers might not necessarily get a deal: Homes in Delafield went for an average of 93.7 percent of the list price after 116 days.

Are Looking to Get the Most House for Your Money

A few years ago, Kim Casper sold his Bay View home and moved down to Racine, where he works as the sales director of Shorewest’s Racine office. Why the move? To get more house for the money. “You can definitely get more value in Racine County,” says Amy Karegeannes, a Shorewest agent.

Price per square foot ranged from $9 in the 53206 ZIP code on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side to $191 in Lac La Belle. The lowest price per square foot outside the city of Milwaukee was in Racine, where the average homebuyer paid just $48 per square foot. Karegeannes attributes this to the higher percentage of foreclosure and short sale properties in the city than in other municipalities in Racine County. In 2012, the average sales price of a home in Racine was $62,578 – down just 4 percent from the previous year. A home two miles north of Racine’s city center with five bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms went on the market in 2012 for $109,900. The home sold for $92,000 after just two weeks – for under $34 per square foot.

In the city of Milwaukee, the 53212 ZIP code – home to offbeat Riverwest – had an average price per square foot of $40. A 1,600-square-foot two-story home near Holton and North sold for $38,000 – just $24 per square foot.

Are Good with Tools

Just south of Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward is Walker’s Point, known by some as the Fifth Ward. The neighborhood has been getting plenty of attention – and investment – in the past few years. Fix Development finished its green masterpiece, the Clock Shadow Building; the Milwaukee Water Council moved ahead with its International Water Technology Accelerator; and Anodyne Coffee Roasting is moving its roasting facility from Bay View. (Is there a passing of the baton?)

But the home prices in the area have remained low, averaging just $29,284 in the 53204 ZIP code, which encompasses Historic Mitchell Street and Muskego Way as well as Walker’s Point. Prices increased 18 percent from 2011 to 2012, and the number of homes sold increased 27.6 percent. Homes sat on the market for an average of 82 days – lower than the city average of 89 and the five-county average of 102. Moreover, the price per square foot is one of the lowest in the region at just $24.

The 53204 ZIP code also had the highest average home age of any area in the five-county region at 116. Those homes with “good bones” attract investors, says real estate broker Alyssa Moore of Moore Real Estate. In February, she had an 800-square-foot three-bedroom just north of Mitchell Street listed for $62,000. An investor purchased the home a year earlier for just $30,000, fixed it up and was looking to make a nice little profit. Just one example of what a little elbow grease can do.

Are Looking for a First House in the Suburbs

Photo by David Bader
Walking up to a bungalow on North Lefeber Avenue in Wauwatosa, Shorewest agent Tom Forbes notes the home’s traditional windows: original and leaded. “I love typical Milwaukee bungalows,” he says, though his own home is a tri-level on Wauwatosa’s west side.

This home, with its three bedrooms, room to grow and price tag under $200,000 is firmly in what Forbes considers the first-time homebuyer range. From August 2012 to January 2013, 122 homes within that price range sold in Wauwatosa, according to Forbes’ count — 52 of those at or under $150,000.

But that’s not to say there’s nothing but starter homes in Wauwatosa. (See: Washington Highlands, where a buyer “would be lucky to find a home under $250,000,” Forbes says.) But the combination of proximity to the city, good schools and an availability of starter homes makes Wauwatosa attractive for young couples looking to buy their first home. Forbes, a 28-year resident of Wauwatosa, learned the finer details of the area while campaigning door to door for a seat on Wauwatosa’s school board, a seat he held for 12 years.

Homes in the starter price range tend to be clustered near the borders of Wauwatosa – many just west of the city of Milwaukee, Forbes says. The city is divided into an east and a west side. One small – but possibly telling – difference is that on the east side, mail is delivered directly to a home’s front door, but on the west side, mail is delivered to mailboxes on the street. That small detail could be part of the reason many see the east side of the city as more neighborly, Forbes says.

That Lefeber bungalow was listed at $184,900 (down from an original list price of $189,900) and sits just north of North Avenue, a mere mile from the Tosa/Milwaukee border. The home’s attic is partially finished and has the potential to become a large master suite, Forbes says. But in a nod to how prices are still recovering in the market, the home was last re-assessed in 2006 at $214,300 and last sold for $103,000 in 2002.

Are Looking for a Well-Established Neighborhood

In 1936, construction began in Greendale, one of three ready-made towns coming to life as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Decades later, the town has grown, but the “awesome sense of community” remains, says Cathy Cooley, who’s lived and sold homes in the town for more than 35 years.

Greendale was built as a “garden city,” meaning the homes were in walking distance of jobs, shopping and the town center. Today, the center includes shops – like Ferch’s Malt Shoppe and Grille – and other services, like a visitor’s center that welcomes more than 200,000 people a year. The average age of a home in Greendale is 51 years, and Cooley calls prices “stable.” From 2011 to 2012, prices decreased 2 percent.

Cooley is hoping, however, that prices in Greendale will increase. The current low inventory could do it. In early March, there were only 32 active properties (lower than the average of 55-65 homes), many under $200,000.

 “The higher price ones are kind of sitting,” Cooley says. But the lower-priced homes are moving well. “A lot of those are first-time buyers that come into the market. They don’t have a house to sell.” Last year, almost three-quarters (77 of 105) of the homes sold were under $200,000, and the average price hovered just over $180,000. The trend seems to be holding. As of early March, the eight homes sold in Greendale in 2013 were all $200,000 or less.

On the market for just two days in 2012, one of the 572 original New Deal homes sold for its asking price of $159,900. With three bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms and stainless steel appliances, the home sits blocks away from the village center at the end of Clover Lane.

Are Looking for the Next Big Neighborhood

Photo by Mark Bertieri/MKE Images
Just four ZIP Codes in southeastern Wisconsin saw an increase in home sale price every quarter last year compared to the previous year: 53110 in Cudahy, 53149 in Mukwonago, 53189 in Waukesha and 53208 in Milwaukee. The 53208 ZIP code – which encompasses the neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Washington Park, Walnut Hill, Midtown, Cold Spring Park, Concordia, Merrill Park, Miller Valley, Martin Drive, Valley Piggsville, Wick Field and Story Hill – saw an increase of more than 10 percent each quarter. And home sales were up 35.4 percent for the year.

Although some neighborhoods in those areas struggle with crime rates, Story Hill and Washington Heights feature homes with charm and neighborhoods with a strong sense of community. First Weber agent Joan Pray* says she was showing a home in Story Hill to a client when a neighbor approached them to welcome the client to the neighborhood – if he chose to buy the house. “The neighborhood is not overly involved, but they are helpful,” she says. In Story Hill, residents can open their windows and hear the sounds of the baseball game from Miller Park. Washington Heights bills itself as “In the City – Out of the Ordinary!” and has an active neighborhood association.

At an average of $48 per square foot and 1,700 square feet, homes in 53208 sat on the market for a median of 63 days. (Several long-standing properties inflate that average to 103.) And the homes have character. The average home is a little less than 100 years old – though some newer constructions exist, including an 1,800-square-foot Washington Heights bungalow built in 2007 that sold for asking price of $146,000 in 2012.

The area also includes several homes that sold for above asking price. One such home on the 4800 block of West Blue Mound Road sold for $142,000 – more than $2,000 above asking. It was on the market for only two weeks. The same goes for Washington Heights. A three-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow just blocks east of the Wauwatosa border sold for 103 percent of the $154,900 asking price after 41 days on the market.

But like in many areas, the home appraisal values haven’t kept up with the market. A three-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom, 1,900-square-foot home in Story Hill received an offer in the $270,000s shortly after going on the market. But when the appraiser valued the home at $235,000 based on comparable properties in the neighborhood, the seller had to settle for just 81 percent of the $289,000 asking price. The bank wouldn’t approve a loan for more than the appraised price.

Are Looking to Downsize

Bruce Nemovitz, a real estate agent who has been helping people downsize for more than three decades, says the baby boomer generation is ready to move. “One of the things holding them back was the recession because they didn’t feel they could sell their homes or get enough for them,” he says. “This year, that’s been changing. The number of properties that are selling are way up.”

And where are they going? “We’re seeing a lot of boomers moving to Waukesha and Ozaukee County because the taxes are so much lower,” Nemovitz says. Property taxes in Milwaukee County average $25.59 on every $1,000 of assessed value. Tax rates for Waukesha and Ozaukee counties come in at $16.62 and $16.51, respectively.

Nemovitz says most people downsizing are looking for less than 2,000 square feet, minimal maintenance and no stairs. The most popular choice, he says, is a side-by-side ranch with an attached garage and a full basement. Driving down Donges Bay Road in Mequon, Nemovitz says, you’ll pass several condo developments. Whitman Place, just off Donges Bay Road, is a perfect example.

Condo sales in the development have really picked up in the last six months, Nemovitz says. Last year alone, more than a dozen condos in the 206-unit development sold, with prices averaging about $250,000.

 
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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