Looking to buy a home? With a market this hot, you need to be savvy. Whether you’re upsizing, downsizing or considering a new locale, use this as your guide to finding the best deals.
Do you enjoy living within a stroll of that hip new restaurant and Uber-ing it home after the game? Most Milwaukee neighborhoods aren’t completely car dependent – great for New Urbanism fans. But all of that convenience has made the city proper very popular (read: pricey). If you have your heart set on an early 20th-century mansion near the lake, you’ll find it here, but you can expect to pay top dollar. For those seeking a bargain, there are still some to be had, but you may need to expand your search beyond Bay View. On the other hand, if you’re looking to downsize, Bay View may be just the place. Confused? Don’t be. Read on for some clarity.
Upper East Side
Median Single-Family Price: $412,100
The Upper East Side has long been blue-chip territory, filled with homes you won’t find anywhere else. Name a famous Wisconsin architect – such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Russell Barr Williamson – and chances are he’s designed a home around here. “It’s hard to find houses with that architecture,” says Julie Bulgrin, a broker with Gallagher Kies & Company. “The historic, extravagant homes are still there and on the bluffs of Lake Michigan.” Be prepared to invest in maintenance; the housing stock is well-preserved, but old. Framed by Oakland Avenue and the lake, North and Edgewood avenues, its tree-lined streets boast some of the city’s largest lawns. UWM profs and Columbia St. Mary’s docs like the short commute. If you’re seeking small, you might look elsewhere. “It’s not really where people go for condos,” says Bulgrin.
Thirty homes sold in the Upper East Side in 2017 for a combined $13 million and an average price of $154 per square foot.
Median Single-Family Price: $139,000
Reports of the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District’s cash-strapped status might deter families, but this is a great locale for first-time buyers who aren’t raising kids yet. This village, which borders West Allis and Milwaukee, consists mostly of colonials and bungalows. A three-bedroom pad here starts around $150,000, and will put you within a bicycle ride of West Allis’ evolving downtown, which includes a wine bar and farmers market.
Median Single-Family Price: $175,700
Fleeing the suburbs and starting anew in the city has become a mini-trend among those looking to downsize. Kathy Castillo, a Realtor with Keller Williams, and her husband, Willie, did just that, trading their 3,700-square-foot Whitefish Bay home for a 1,500-squarefoot Bay View bungalow in 2016. “My husband was spending a lot of time in this area building a wooden sailboat, and I started coming down here, too. We liked the water and the bike paths,” she says. “We walk everywhere – to restaurants, the Avalon (Theater), shopping. The neighborhood is great … It’s a very friendly vibe.” Bungalows reign here, but there are other styles, too, including Victorians. There are many choices in the $225,000-$275,000 range, but be ready to act fast, as some houses can attract multiple offers within a day or two of hitting the market.
Median Single-Family Price: $168,800
A longtime fave for city employees, Enderis Park is great for those who crave the community feel of the suburbs but still want to be in close proximity to Downtown. This enclave is loaded with affordable four-bedroom Tudors and bungalows, so close to Tosa it’s across the street. Geographic boundaries lie between Center and Burleigh streets and Lisbon Avenue. There’s an active neighborhood association that runs a Christmas-decorating contest and other events, including “summer concerts that bring out hundreds of neighbors who bring picnic suppers to the park to enjoy the music and have a wonderful evening,” says Jean Henning of RE/MAX Realty 100’s Greenfield office. Families with kids, listen up: “There’s a great variety of schools – public, Lutheran and Catholic – all within walking distance,” says Henning.
Luxe Condos: Urbanity at its Finest
Where are the most stylish designer condos in Milwaukee? A current four-bedroom listing at University Club Tower (built in 2007) – the state’s tallest residential building, with some 52 units spanning 36 stories – is asking $4.75 million. “When you think of Miami- and London-style condos,” says David Price, a broker who specializes in condos with Milwaukee Realty Inc., the University Club Tower is a great example. This unit has two terraces and walls of windows – many curved – overlooking Lake Michigan. Another eye-catching listing is at 601 Lofts on East Ogden Avenue. With a home theater, suspended catwalk, 5,000-square-foot terrace and an 11-foot custom waterfall, the two-story penthouse clocking in at 6,500 square feet is poised to attract the uber-wealthy. It’s listing for $2.6 million. Shopping in the Third Ward? Trulia lists the cost per square foot there at $258, compared with the city’s average of $120. “It is the most expensive price per square foot in the city,” says Price. A departure from typical condo design are the Harbor Front and Hansen’s Landing developments on Erie Street, both at the hands of Renner Architects, with timber-beamed ceilings and chef-grade kitchens (granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances). Most units overlook the Milwaukee River, through wall-to-wall windows on one side. Listing prices for both buildings start at $224,000 and go up to $975,000.
Hot Hipster ‘Hood: Walker’s Point
It’s not just the tapas and farm-to-fork restaurants on South Second Street that make Walker’s Point so desirable. Homes there, too, are a hot ticket – and once they’re on the market, they go fast. Historic in nature, and rich in design, some of the properties need TLC, but the price is often right to budget for those repairs. A move-in-ready 1870 Cream City brick Italianate with a chef-grade kitchen and three bedrooms listed for $265,000 last Labor Day weekend. An offer of $270,000 was accepted within days.
Last fall, Portrait Society Gallery owner Debra Brehmer snapped up a brick duplex at Fourth and Washington streets. The second day it went on the market, Brehmer’s was among five bids. After a second round, it was hers, for the asking price. “It was the art neighborhood, where artists had their studios,” Brehmer recalls about living in Walker’s Point (at Ninth Street and National Avenue) during the 1990s, before moving to Shorewood when her youngest child was 4. “There’s life on the street, neighbors who are always out. There’s a different kind of life there that I respond to,” says Brehmer. Spearheading Walker’s Point’s development and cultural renaissance is Juli Kaufmann of Fix Development, which cleaned up contaminated sites to develop Clock Shadow Creamery and Purple Door Ice Cream in eco-friendly buildings. “Walker’s Point [is] a diverse, quirky, authentic and affordable neighborhood, offering all the great benefits of urban living in an ideal location accessible to everything,” she says. “My hope is that we won’t let this drive to make a profit undermine what has always been great about Walker’s Point.”
With sprawling lawns (especially the farther north you go), upscale shopping centers and, for many places, access to Lake Michigan, North Shore communities from Shorewood on north into Ozaukee County capitalize on charm. It’s a mix of historic homes (from bungalows to mansions) and custom-builds where money is no object. People flock here for the solid schools – read: lots of families in these communities – and to be near the city (even from Cedarburg it’s a quick 30-minute drive).
Median Single-Family Price: $456,873
With a public high school named No. 1 in Wisconsin this year, “the school system is phenomenal,” says Julie Bulgrin of Gallagher Kies & Company. Average price per square foot sold in 2017 was $201, higher than the three previous years ($192 in 2015 and $195 in 2016). Despite the high prices, buyers continue to be drawn here, not only for the schools, but also for the sturdy and architecturally significant houses, low crime rate and close-knit community feel. East Silver Spring Drive evokes an old-fashioned Main Street vibe where new businesses like Pure Barre fitness studio mix with stalwarts like the beloved Winkie’s variety store. Bayshore Town Center’s chain stores are 2 miles west, offering more retail therapy. Much of the housing stock spans Dutch Colonial Revival, Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival. It’s not uncommon to find, when perusing listings, a red-tile Mediterranean-style roof, stucco exterior walls or exquisite interior ironwork.
Last year, Whitefish Bay residents, most of whom are drawn to the dense, walkable neighborhoods, expressed disgust at McMansions popping up – a testament to the community’s love for historic homes. Eight homes were built here in the last year.
Median Single-Family Price: $159,549
Ranches with large yards, plus plenty of condos, are the dominant housing styles in this village of about 12,000 residents. It’s one of the area’s most ethnically diverse suburbs, with about 30 percent African-American residents. “Brown Deer is the perfect place to become a North Shore homeowner,” says Katie Gnau, a broker with Shorewest’s North Shore office. “There are many modestly sized homes with nice yards. Buyers and sellers rave about the proximity to North Shore amenities and good schools with great diversity.” A Wednesday farmers market from June through October serves as a social gathering for locals. According to MLS data, price per square foot during the second half of 2017 averaged between $100 and $125, compared with $150 per square foot in nearby River Hills. But be sure to factor in tax rates ($33.35 per $1,000 of value, the fifth-highest in Wisconsin).
Oooh la la! Pastiche Bistro & Wine Bar – formerly in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood – opened in Brown Deer in 2016, bringing escargot, coq au vin and other French delights to this North Shore community.
Median Single-Family Price: $206,424
Now that the kids have fled the coop and you no longer have that soul-sucking work commute, is Kewaskum (pop. 4,004) calling? Many know the area in Washington County for its proximity to Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit – hiking, fishing, skiing and cycling. “Kewaskum is fabulous for retirees and empty-nesters,” says Andrew Kuehl, a broker with Keller Williams Realty’s Kewaskum office. He points to two other outdoor wonders: Sunburst Ski Hill and Hon-E-Kor Country Club for rounds of golf. “There are a number of single-level condos being developed right now that would be perfect. It’s a quiet community, close to Milwaukee,” says Kuehl. Also for sale: open lots, so you can build exactly what you want.
Median Single-Family Price: $306,712
Betsy Wittenberger, a broker with First Weber Realtors in West Bend, has been selling homes in Germantown long enough (25 years, in fact) to spot a trend that hasn’t gone away. “Families that have raised their kids there also are likely to stay because [their children and grandchildren] are likely to settle there, too,” she says, pointing to “great access to the major highways and a short commute to Milwaukee.” Consequently, turnover in this community of around 20,000 is minimal. Homes are almost all of recent construction – a mix of “older” 1970s Colonials and custom properties built in this century listing for half a million dollars – with brick and aluminum siding. While all the big chain restaurants aren’t necessarily a draw, quirky indie businesses are, like Old Town Beer Hall, a mainstay since, get this, the late 1800s. Teens like the skate park in Haupt Strasse (in German, this means Main Street).
In 2015, Money ranked Germantown 37th in the nation on its annual “Best Places to Live” list, citing abundant green space and a Bavarian vibe to Main Street.
Lori Foulke, a broker with Keller Williams Realty’s North Shore office, has crushed on midcentury modern homes for quite a while. She even lives inside one of these low-slung ranches. It’s an aesthetic that gained popularity thanks in part to the hit AMC television drama “Mad Men” about ad-agency employees during the 1960s in New York City. Naturally, selling midcentury modern homes is her specialty. “It’s somewhat unusual in this area to focus on an architectural style,” she says, adding that usually it’s a city or area that’s a listing agent’s specialty. Forty-five percent of Fox Point’s houses are midcentury modern in design (listing for between $265,000 and $419,000, depending on the neighborhood and property’s condition, per Realtor.com), she says, although Bayside and Glendale also play in that market, plus pockets of Wauwatosa, Brookfield, Greendale, Hales Corners and St. Francis. She’s noticed a trend in which Shorewood and Whitefish Bay residents come to Bayside and Fox Point to downsize, liking the lack of stairs.“They’re actually very thoughtfully designed,” she says about midcentury modern ranches, pointing to the floor-to-ceiling windows, support beams woven into the design and open-concept floor plans suited for entertaining.
In search of another style of architecture? Here’s where to look:
Brick bungalows: East Wauwatosa
Cream City brick: Brewers Hill
Polish flats: Riverwest
Tudors: Washington Highlands and Enderis Park
This is where city folks go to hike, shop and get some fresh air. But what’s it like to live in Waukesha County? Historic homes are harder to find – outside of pockets in downtown Waukesha and Delafield, where Victorians dot tree-lined streets – but if you want to build your dream house, the land is calling. Schools here are among the state’s best and, depending on your industry, you might score a job in commercial centers like Brookfield and do away with the icky commute into Milwaukee. Come Memorial Day, affluent Lake Country residents with lake homes (Beaver, Nagawicka, Pewaukee and Okauchee, for example) are in bliss.
Median Single-Family Price: $527,791
Operating under a split personality – it has both a historical downtown and sprawling housing developments farther out – “Delafield has been a highly sought-after suburban location” for about a decade, according to Cindy Fleming, a broker with First Weber Realtors’ Brookfield office. She says buyers like the highly rated school district and the “upscale” housing that features amenities including walk-in closets, master-bedroom suites, soaring great room ceilings and finished lower levels. It’s not hard to drop $600,000-$700,000 on a five-bedroom house less than 15 years old. New retail development (most recently Sierra Trading Post, to scoop up polar fleece for hikes or cross-country skiing at nearby Lapham Peak) adds to the allure. “A wonderful place to raise your family,” Fleming says. “It is located in Lake Country, so water and hiking trails are a draw.”
Median Single-Family Price: $238,915
Guitar god Les Paul grew up here and a road is named after him (Les Paul Parkway). Today’s residents of this county-seat city (pop. 70,718) get access to live music in a vibrant downtown with not only bars, but also a community theater, antiques shops, and sidewalks and benches lining the banks of the Fox River. Carroll University hosts cultural events, too. It’s also got the county’s most ethnically diverse restaurant scene – a reflection of the city’s substantial Latino population. “Now that the water issues seem to be settled in Waukesha,” says Pat Ginter of RE/Max Realty 100’s Brookfield office, referring to the water rights to Lake Michigan that were granted last year, “I’ve noticed a greater interest in the area.” Luxury condos range from a loft-style, exposed-brick unit a few blocks from downtown listing for $275,000, to a townhouse-style condo farther out for around $300,000, or a three-bedroom home starting at $250,000. All are ideal gateways to the western region.
Twice in the last six years Waukesha has ranked high on national lists of “best places to live” – eighth by 24/7 Wall Street in 2015 and 98th by Money Magazine in 2012.
Median Single-Family Price: $350,048
Located between Madison and Milwaukee – perfect for households with relatives in both cities – this community of just under 16,000 features a growing, walkable downtown along Wisconsin Avenue with fun boutiques selling everything from purses to dog treats and is adjacent to Lake Fowler and Lac La Belle. “Lake living abounds in this community and it offers a wonderful lifestyle and affordable housing,” says Cindy Fleming, a broker with First Weber Realtors’ Brookfield office. A 1950s-era ranch will run you around $235,000 to $275,000 while a downtown two-bedroom, two-bath condo lists for around $275,000 to $280,000. Plus, the 1,500-acre Pabst Farms development, where ground broke last year on 300 new homes, also hosts a Pick ‘n Save and YMCA. The 8-year-old Aurora Medical Center is nearby, in Summit.
Newbies often struggle to pronounce the names of Waukesha County communities that are derived from Potawatomi and other American Indian languages. In Potawatomi, Oconomowoc means “waterfall.”
Median Single-Family Price: $349,506
Brookfield’s housing is diverse. You can score a ranch in the city’s eastern parts for as low as $275,000 or a mansion for a million bucks. Either way, the schools (Elmbrook School District) are good, crime is minimal and shopping rules: Between the two, Brookfield Square and The Corners of Brookfield have retailers to outfit your home and wardrobe. Some might even say it’s an exurb (city outside of a city). It’s also a popular spot for non-Wisconsinites, so keep your ears open for East Coast accents. “Brookfield continues to be attractive to transplants from other areas of the country. Buyers are more likely to find others who have experienced what they are going through,” says Pat Ginter, of RE/MAX Realty 100’s Brookfield office.
Brookfield residents can easily be well-heeled – literally. The year-old Von Maur store in The Corners of Brookfield boasts one of the best designer-shoe collections in our area.
Buy or Build: Pros and Cons
David Clark, an economics professor at Marquette University, says there are four reasons why now is a great time to build: low housing inventory (finding an existing home fulfilling all items on your wish list will be a challenge), plenty of land in rural areas near Milwaukee and historically low mortgage rates (Last December’s 3.9% for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was close to the record low of 3.35% in late 2012). The fourth reason is low inventory, again: Odds are, your current home will sell fast in this market. “The best position someone could be in would be selling their home in an urban area and building a home in a rural area,” Clark says. “One county to really keep an eye on is Walworth.” It’s bordered by Racine, Kenosha and Waukesha counties, all with employment growth and low unemployment rates, he says. In addition, “Menomonee Falls has a lot of inventory of new lots,” says David Belman, president of Belman Homes. Elsewhere, “anything along that I-94 corridor is going to be strong.” He advises to keep an eye out for hidden costs such as finished driveways, window treatments, water softeners and landscaping. But newer homes require less maintenance, so it may all even out. According to ProMatcher cost data, the average cost of new-home construction in the Milwaukee area is $125.35 per square foot.
Bedroom communities rimming Lake Michigan and bordering Racine County often appeal to families with connections in Racine or Kenosha counties – or even Chicago. Mitchell International Airport in southern Milwaukee is a quick jaunt for frequent travelers. With Foxconn’s Mount Pleasant factory slated to open in 2020, and Amazon opening a facility three years ago in Pleasant Prairie, this area is padding the job market. Pretty much any kind of property you desire – from Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonians (rare, yes, but they do come on the market now and then) to brick bungalows – is here, with Oak Creek and Franklin leading the pack in new-home construction.
Median Single-Family Price: $289,862
Once a swath of open land, Franklin is now a vibrant city but still holds onto its pastoral heritage with 627-acre Whitnall Park, Milwaukee County’s largest public green space. Angela Kallay, of Benefit Realty, specializes in this city of 36,000 residents. “You may find a home for $200,000 or $1 million,” she says. Two-bedroom condos are king here for singles but families can “go big” with a 3,000-plus-square-foot home with three to six bedrooms built less than 20 years ago. Sweet-spot price? Somewhere between $300,000 and $450,000. “The school district typically tops the list” of assets, Kallay says, along with “great walking and biking trails, and community activities including The Rock, which offers everything from baseball to snowboarding.”
Median Single-Family Price: $136,030
Close to Bay View’s restaurants and nightlife, but much quieter, Cudahy is a magnet for young couples buying their first home. Hugging Lake Michigan, a new wave of folks (many first-time buyers with young kids) are moving into bungalows, ranches and condos. “The newly renovated downtown area includes many local businesses,” says Mark Nicholson of Nicholson Realty, “such as gift shops, bakeries and a state-of-the-art library.” Access is key, including Mitchell International Airport and I-794 heading north to Downtown Milwaukee for a night out at the theater, dining or museums. “Cudahy is a fantastic community to live in and raise a family, especially with the excellent school system and wonderful city services.” Locals enjoy picturesque strolls on Lake Drive – where a lake-view home here will cost a fraction of what you’d pay on the Upper East Side of Milwaukee – or through Sheridan Park (“with a pool for summer swimming,” says Nicholson) plus a huge Fourth of July parade and summer farmers market. Large yards are also de rigueur: “Most properties are situated on half-acre lots,” he says.
Median Single-Family Price: $199,474
Our lone Racine County community (pop. 10,668) is here for a reason: location. Maybe kids and grandkids work in the city (or Waukesha or Racine counties) and you want to be near them – but not in the city. “The community offers a slower pace of life but with all the fun activities we still want,” says broker Therese Farrell, of Coldwell Banker Real Estate One in Kenosha, adding that 61 percent of residents are homeowners. Ranging from one-bedroom condos listing between $120,000 and $170,000, to three-bedroom brick ranches hovering around $200,000, there’s lots of downsizing options that won’t break the bank – and are near $400,000 to $500,000 houses. “People are drawn to this area because it is located between two metropolitan cities but maintains its unique, small-town charm,” says Farrell. That includes ChocolateFest every Memorial Day weekend. And while retired people might not be applying for the 10,000 jobs expected to be created at Foxconn in Mount Pleasant – an easy half-hour commute east – it’s going to add more amenities. “The real-estate community is actually anticipating a housing-market boost,” says Farrell. “More families will be in a place to purchase a home and not just rent.”
“From 2010-2017 there has been an increase (in Burlington) of around 100 housing units, meaning more homes were built in this area, [whether] homes, condos or apartments,” says Therese Farrell, of Coldwell Banker Real Estate One in Kenosha.
Median Single-Family Price: $252,323
This is where you’re going to find that less-than-25-year-old home for under $300,000 – on a large lot with a 2.5-car garage – as a place for your family to stay put throughout their schooling. Subdivisions filled with four-plus-bedroom homes (mostly Colonial and custom) are the norm. “Oak Creek is becoming known as the ‘Brookfield of the east,’” says Angela Kallay of Benefit Realty. Realtor Andrew Pain, of Knight Realty/Keller Williams, who sells in this area often, also notes that the median income has increased almost $20,000 since 2000. A new high school and growing town center (including the library and city offices) reflect that economic growth. “Homes are being listed in the $200,000 range. It’s a fair amount of new buildings, but there are also lots for those who want to build.”
Once Swedish retailer IKEA opens in Oak Creek in May, locals will have convenient access to Billy bookcases and Poäng chairs – the retailer’s two most popular items.