Milwaukee’s housing market is (probably) cresting … right … around … now. But there’s much more to it than that. Here’s what you need to know in all corners of metro residential real estate.
The last few years have been quite a time to own or sell houses in Milwaukee.
From 2012’s post-recession trough to 2018, southeastern Wisconsin home prices rose an average of $55,000, and they surpassed pre-recession levels amid 2017’s banner sales volumes.
But now, after a dip in sales, an uptick in mortgage rates and recessionary headwinds, experts are less sure what the future holds in the Cream City home market.
Currently, millennials are driving up demand in Milwaukee’s hippest neighborhoods and burbs, like Bay View, east Wauwatosa, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay – such that many sub-$300,000 homes receive multiple offers within hours of listing.
Throughout Milwaukee County, experts say thousands more “for sale” signs would need to be planted to satisfy the demand from prospective buyers.
New construction reached its post-recession summit last year, but many of those homes are too pricey for most buyers, thanks to surging land, labor and material costs.
So, inventory is scarce, and there’s little reason to think that will change. But experts think demand may cool off a bit.
That’s partly because mortgage rates are expected to reach 5 percent – a far cry from the high-teens of the early 1980s or even the 1990s low mark of 6.7 percent, but nonetheless a steep climb from the 3.3 percent rates offered at the recession’s nadir.
And then there’s the economy. This summer, the current expansion will turn 10 years old, becoming the longest since World War II.
Marquette professor David Clark consults with the Wisconsin Realtors Association and monitors everything from unemployment to stock prices to – if not the price of tea, at least the growth in China (and other international economies). A downturn is coming, he says, though he doesn’t expect it to happen as soon as 2019. But thanks to regulatory changes, he adds, “we are certainly not in anything resembling the housing price bubble that we saw in 2007.”
Forecasters believe area homes will begin to appreciate about half as rapidly, roughly at the pace of inflation. It may be daunting for some to buy at a peak.
The good news: As ever, Milwaukee has a lot going for it. A low cost of living. An eclectic array of housing styles and cultural influences. The shimmering shores of Lake Michigan. Blue-collar pride and old-world charm. Arts, food, Brewers, Bucks.
There are still deals to be had, and other neighborhoods are being infused with new life as people are priced out elsewhere. In the pages that follow, we’ve highlighted some of the most notable stories and trends facing today’s Milwaukee homebuyers.
Happy hunting. — M.P.
About the data
WALKABILITY scores (1-100) are from walkscore.com.
CRIME data are the number of serious crimes (including assault, homicide, criminal damage, sex offenses, and burglary, robbery and theft, including vehicle theft) per 1,000 residents for various reporting periods from 2017 to 2018. Data as reported by the respective communities or police departments.
SCHOOL data are from US News and World Report. College Readiness Index is based on participation and achievement in college-level AP and IB courses.
MEDIAN HOME PRICES are for 2018 and provided by Metro MLS.
COMMUTE TIME is drive time calculated from roughly the center of the neighborhood or suburb to Downtown Milwaukee (specifically, the Bronze Fonz statue on Wells Street at the Milwaukee River).
West real estate
This neighborhood along Milwaukee’s western city limits is the perfect spot for people who are priced out of Bay View and can’t compete in the cutthroat east Tosa market right next door. It’s up-and-coming because it has the walkability and wealth of restaurants of east Tosa and is close to Washington Park and its branch of the Urban Ecology Center. Its Vliet Street is also rumored to be the next Brady, with restaurants and bars popping up that already have a kind of cult following. Washington Heights is, however, within the city limits – so expect a tax bill some 25 percent higher than in Tosa – and part of the Milwaukee Public Schools’ attendance area, which may turn some young families toward higher-performing schools.
Colleen Sprague, an expert in Washington Heights real estate, told us that homes in the neighborhood tend to be more affordable than those in Tosa – median sale price last year was far short of east Tosa’s – and of the same stock: standard bungalows with plenty of room for kids and a dog.
CRIME: 16 (2018)
SCHOOLS: Washington High School of Information Technology
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 4.1
- GRADUATION RATE: 47%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $158,000
COMMUTE: 9-13 minutes
The Two Tosas
It’s one suburb with two distinct feels.
The gold standard
Wauwatosa’s Eastern half has one of the hottest housing markets in Milwaukee – and for good reason. Young families, single millennials and baby boomers alike are drawn to its hopping business corridors on North Avenue and in the Wauwatosa Village, great walkability (for metro Milwaukee), and its proximity to the city. Who could say no to a 10-minute commute?
But overwhelming demand and limited supply have made east Tosa an incredibly competitive market. Realtor Beth Jaworski says many buyers are quickly outbid; one home had 14 showings and four offers within a couple of days. That demand, of course, drives up prices. The average home sale price in east Tosa last year was 16 percent higher than its western counterpart.
A big part of that demand comes from young families – especially those with connections to the nearby Froedtert Hospital complex – who value its top-notch schools and vibe that doesn’t feel like a complete retreat to the suburbs. It even offers high-end secluded homes in its Washington Highlands sector, just west of Milwaukee’s Washington Heights.
“East Tosa is the gold standard for real estate in Milwaukee because it can be everything you want at once – an urban environment, a neighborhood with good schools and a hipster’s paradise with thriving local businesses,” says Peter Adams of Shorewest Realtors. — A.M.
SCHOOLS: Tosa East High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 43.5
- GRADUATION RATE: 97%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $266,000
COMMUTE: 12-15 minutes
A rising star
West Tosa’s housing market had been the sluggish yin to east Tosa’s fast-moving yang until recently, when the new Mayfair Collection’s shopping and restaurants heated up interest in the area. New buyers are drawn to its wealth of accessible retailers (hello, Whole Foods!) and proximity to east Tosa’s parks, restaurants and smaller-scale retail.
But unlike east Tosa, where you can walk to most hot spots in the neighborhood, western living requires a car to get around. There’s no centralized downtown area. West Tosa’s residents tend to skew a little older, but it does offer more of the ranch homes younger couples are looking for and quite a few bungalows that can be had at slightly lower prices than similar ones farther east.
Still, finding a house here requires just as much preparation and tenacity. “Whether you’re looking in west or east Tosa, you need to have your preapproval in hand, get into listings as soon as they start showing and make sure you choose to work with an experienced neighborhood expert,” says Colleen Sprague, owner of Wauwatosa-based Firefly Real Estate.
SCHOOLS: Tosa West High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 38.6
- GRADUATION RATE: 96%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $230,000
COMMUTE: 17-20 minutes
Idyllic but Exclusive
This village is like the fairytale version of the burbs seen in John Hughes movies, where most homes are at least 2,000 square feet and the yards are often wooded and sprawling. It is a tight-knit place run on old money and populated by scores of amazing high-end homes.
Two problems for would-be buyers: People tend to stick around Elm Grove for a long time, slowing the pace of the market, and its less-than-luxury properties tend to be ancient and require a lot of remodeling work. Aside from a cute downtown, Elm Grove is not great for pedestrians and is quite removed from the businesses of neighboring Wauwatosa and Brookfield. — A.M.
North real estate
Shorewood and Whitefish Bay:
Offers in Hours
Their realtor had shot them straight: To buy the kind of home they wanted, where they wanted it, would require speed and money.
So last August, when Brent and Melissa Tischler drove past a new for-sale sign in southern Whitefish Bay, they rushed to act ahead of a planned vacation the next morning.
After a showing was hastily arranged that evening, they submitted an offer at 8 p.m., just above asking. By 9:30 p.m., it was accepted. “We’re sitting there and we’re saying, ‘What did we just do?’” Melissa Tischler recalls.
But hindsight hasn’t brought any regret. They haven’t seen a similar house for sale since.
Whitefish Bay and Shorewood – 4 square miles of eminently walkable neighborhoods north of UW-Milwaukee, between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River – remain two of the metro area’s hottest spots even as agents report a cooling off in other, more far-flung North Shore suburbs.
Experts credit the two villages’ highly rated school systems and a general sense of connected, urban living. Street lamps and sidewalks allow pedestrians to stroll tree-lined streets, taking in the distinct styles of century-old architecture before visiting shops and restaurants along Oakland Avenue and Silver Spring Drive.
Those homes don’t come around often, though, or cheap. At one point in January, there were only five Shorewood houses for sale under $500,000. Last year alone, the two suburbs saw 140 properties sell for more than their original asking price.
“I’ve had buyers that just keep losing in bidding wars,” says local agent Beth Jaworski. “When something nice comes up, like a nice bungalow for $300,000-something, there’s multiple offers … it goes up over asking … it’s gone.”
Seeking a larger house in their Whitefish Bay neighborhood, Michael and Paula Osterhout were outbid when they had a house in their sights last summer. Now, they’re writing letters to owners of off-the-market houses.
“You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot,” says Michael Osterhout, “because if you don’t, someone else is definitely going to get the house.” — M.P.
CRIME: 14 (2017)
SCHOOLS: Whitefish Bay High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 66.9
- GRADUATION RATE: 96%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $425,000
COMMUTE: 16-20 minutes
CRIME: 25 (2017)
SCHOOLS: Shorewood High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 42.6
- GRADUATION RATE: 99%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $395,000
COMMUTE: 16-20 minutes
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $359,000
Just north of Fox Point, Bayside residents enjoy similarly serene neighborhood life with close proximity to the lake and highway, with the added bonus of retail and dining along Brown Deer Road and wildlife viewing at the 185-acre Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $223,000
This collection of neighborhoods straddling Interstate 43 and the Milwaukee River blends many styles of residential homes with county parks, industrial and commercial spaces, and the shops and restaurants at the Bayshore Town Center.
Trend: Betting the Ranch
Suzanne Powers is a top-selling agent on Milwaukee’s North Shore, so when there’s a ranch house for sale, she’s among the first to know.
But since she happens to be in the market for a North Shore ranch of her own, she’s not idly waiting for new sellers. She’s written letters and gone door to door inquiring about ranch houses that aren’t even on the market.
As of February, after months of searching, no luck so far. “It’s a low-inventory time, and ranches are very hard to come by,” Powers says.
Milwaukee-area agents say they’re flying off the market, and when they’re fully updated and/or close-ish to Downtown? Poof.
Most are in the outer suburbs, amid more recent midcentury housing stocks like those of Menomonee Falls, Glendale, Fox Point and Brookfield. Buyers can generally expect to pay between $150,000 and $300,000. — M.P.
South real estate
St. Francis, Cudahy and South Milwaukee:
Refugees from Bay View
They’re part of a trend playing out in the southern metro area: homebuyers seeking refuge from the rising prices and bloodthirsty market of Bay View by looking outside city limits in Cudahy, St. Francis and South Milwaukee.
While St. Francis has seen the most Bay View ex-pats, Realtors think that Cudahy has the most potential as an alternative because of its thriving business corridor. Consider the recent addition of X-Ray Arcade – a spot combining games and an all-ages music venue that would seem right at home along Kinnickinnick Avenue a couple of miles north.
The Radfords caution that buyers coming to Cudahy need to be prepared to spend time working on renovations, as many of the bungalow-style houses were built in the early 1900s and have experienced less-than-stellar upkeep over the years. The couple like that Cudahy, unlike Bay View, has largely retained its blue-collar feel but lament its shortage of younger couples like them. But this could be an advantage for new buyers in all three of these burbs. “Cudahy, St. Francis and South Milwaukee have an aging population, opening up housing stock for newcomers,” says Joan Sliker, a realtor for The Cream City Real Estate Co. “They also have more ranches because they were developed later, which appeals to younger couples and empty-nesters.”
The farthest north of this trio, St. Francis, lures buyers with gorgeous parks – and extra green space from the sprawling headquarters of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – as well as lake views and affordable ranch houses. St. Francis’ main downside, says Realtor Peter Adams, is its lack of a business corridor with hip dining and hangout spots.
South Milwaukee offers a more diverse array of housing styles than its neighbors, with on-trend ranches and bungalows along with pockets of bigger homes for those looking for luxury properties. It also appeals to those who wish to be close to nature, as the lakeside Grant Park dominates the city’s eastern edge. — A.M.
CRIME: 22 (2017)
SCHOOLS: Cudahy High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 14.8
- GRADUATION RATE: 91%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $154,950
COMMUTE: 13-16 minutes
CRIME: 18 (2018)
SCHOOLS: St. Francis High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 17.4
- GRADUATION RATE: 90%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $150,000
COMMUTE: 12-15 minutes
CRIME: 21 (2017)
SCHOOLS: South Milwaukee High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 17.6
- GRADUATION RATE: 96%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $164,200
COMMUTE: 19-22 minutes
Bay View: Tipping out of reach
Gentrification is the name of the game in Bay View, its working-class roots overtaken by arty hipsters looking to raise a family outside the burbs and close to trendy businesses. The neighborhood’s popularity has always been based on the success of its businesses, starting with Café Lulu in 2001, says Realtor Peter Adams of Shorewest Realtors. Bay View’s proximity to the lake, wealth of unique and cozy bungalows, farmers markets and festivals, and accessibility to Downtown also draw in buyers, Adams says.
Its surging popularity has begun to price even white-collar people out of the area. And some of those who can afford to remain, like William and Jess Seidel, owners of Bay View establishments Burnhearts and Goodkind, are shifting around. The Seidels specifically purchased a home closer to the neighborhood’s schools and have seen others do the same. William Seidel urges buyers to be tenacious when searching for a home and making an offer – and willing to work hard on remodeling when they land a property.
Those wishing to break into the Bay View market should look at the south and west sides of the neighborhood, Bay View-based Cream City Real Estate’s Joan Sliker says, where houses tend to be cheaper and the market less competitive. There, and in some parts of the east and north, housing entry points can range from $100,000 to as much as $1 million.
Because of its perks, many stay in Bay View for life, making the market even better for sellers and worse for buyers. Patty Pritchard Thompson, president of the Bay View Neighborhood Association, for example, has lived in various Bay View bungalows her entire life and has no intention of leaving soon. And neither do most of her neighbors. “Bay View has always been a great place to live,” Thompson says. “And it gets better every year.” — A.M.
CRIME: 12 (2018)
SCHOOLS: Bay View High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 6.7
- GRADUATION RATE: 53%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $204,250
COMMUTE: 10-12 minutes
Central real estate
Fiserv Forum Area:
Bucking up Downtown
When Fiserv Forum opened last August, it was billed as a revitalizing entertainment mecca for Downtown Milwaukee. Now, with the old Bradley Center in ruins, the new arena is starting to generate results.
“Milwaukee’s Downtown development is just on fire because of the Fiserv Forum,” says Jean Stefaniak, partner with Stefaniak Group Realtors. The neighborhoods surrounding the arena, most notably Westown, but also north to Hillside, and west to Marquette University, are especially attractive to young buyers as well as empty-nesters looking to downsize to condominiums or smaller homes.
Fiserv Forum area
(State Street to North Avenue, Sixth Street to Van Buren Street)
CRIME: 26 (2018)
SCHOOLS: Riverside High School
- COLLEGE READINESS INDEX: 15.5
- GRADUATION RATE: 86%
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $194,900
COMMUTE: 3-6 minutes
There’s more than Fiserv Forum and the Bucks’ recent success driving the excitement. The Shops of Grand Avenue is undergoing extensive revitalization to become a local destination, and a new $89 million renovation for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert hall is set to open in late 2020. The future of the Bradley Center site is not yet set, but the Downtown Neighbors Association hopes the area will be reserved for an urban park.
Matt Dorner, economic development director with Milwaukee Downtown, estimates that around 1,000 apartments, many with lofty rents, have been added near the arena over the past two years, with 500 more under construction. Fiserv Forum has sparked increased interest from out-of-state investors who Dorner says otherwise might not have considered Milwaukee. The Five Fifty Ultra Lofts and the 735 West apartments are two of the more recent attempts to meet the high demand.
When it comes to houses, demand seriously outstrips supply across Downtown and all the way north through Harambee and Riverwest, especially for houses under $300,000. The low inventory combined with new development is turning Downtown into one of Milwaukee’s hottest housing markets. “It’s going to be competitive for buyers, but very good for sellers,” Stefaniak says. — A.P.
A Market on the Rise
Sherman Park has had more ups and downs than most Milwaukee neighborhoods – most recently, the 2016 civil unrest following a police shooting – but now it looks to be on the up once again.
“After 2016, a lot of people weren’t buying over there,” says Vickie Kelsall, a real estate broker with Century 21, but Kelsall says that over the past two years, the neighborhood’s bungalows, duplexes and Tudors are selling once again.
One factor in this uptick is new investment, most notably Sherman Phoenix, a community space hosting 27 local businesses that opened last December in a former bank on Fond du Lac Avenue. “We’ve certainly noticed tremendous response,” says Juli Kaufmann, a co-developer of Sherman Phoenix. “We are busy every day.”
Housing prices remain low, partly as a result of the above-average crime rate. A buyer can expect to pay $40,000 to $60,000 for a 1,000- to 1,400-square-foot home that might need some care upon purchase – a paint job, improved flooring and exterior maintenance. On the higher end, a renovated, move-in-ready home will cost between $70,000 and $95,000.
Kelsall notes one particularly significant positive sign for the neighborhood – foreclosures aren’t rising. That means the increase in home sales are actually new residents moving into the growing neighborhood, which remains one of Milwaukee’s most diverse areas. – A.P.
Trend: Millenials in the middle
Each day, more young Milwaukeeans dip their toes into the city’s real estate market, hoping to land affordable, move-in-ready homes in walkable, culturally eclectic neighborhoods with reputable schools, like Bay View, east Tosa or Shorewood.
Trouble is, those homes are swept up in a flash.
Nate and Micha Powers, a 28-year-old electrical engineer and 27-year-old county prosecutor who live in a bungalow near Mitchell International Airport – would like to find a reasonably updated house in trendy Bay View, where Nate grew up and where the couple could walk to beer gardens, the farmers market and the Chill on the Hill concert series. Preferably, for under $250,000.
“But some of them seem kind of expensive for what we wanted,” Micha Powers says, adding that they’re lucky, at least, to have some equity built up, unlike many of their friends. “We all have school loans, and for some of us, it’s almost like another mortgage,” she says
Two in five recent homebuyers have been first-timers, yet local agents say there’s a lack of inventory that checks the boxes for most millennials.
Compounding matters is that many baby boomers put off downsizing while they waited for their home values to bounce back from the recession. Now, they’re interested in retiring to some of the same inner suburbs being sought by young people priced out of trendy neighborhoods like Bay View.
Further limiting millennial options is that many are dual-income households, says Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, “so they don’t have the time to mess around with fixing stuff up.” And yet the neighborhoods they covet are largely made up of older houses.
That’s the case for Nate and Micha Powers, who are up for some DIY but possess little know-how, work long hours and worry that contractors would take advantage of them. “We’re looking for something where we don’t have to put in a ton of work upfront,” Micha says. — M.P.