Banner photoYear-round views steal the show at 739 Lakeview Ave., which is on the market for $2.7 million in South Lake Tahoe Calif. Listing agent Theresa Souers says this one is “probably the best buy all around the lake.”

Plenty of Texans go for vacation homes near Lake Tahoe.

“But be prepared that our houses aren’t as big as they’re used to,” real estate agent Theresa Souers adds with a chuckle. “I always tell them that upfront.”

Size doesn’t matter so much, however, when you’re breathing mountain air and pondering a looming, pristine lake that straddles California and Nevada.

Wealthy Californians are known for flocking to little towns on the Nevada side to avoid state income tax and enjoy a lower cost of living. Both options offer unfettered views and a sense of tony, tucked-away escapism, but it’s the area’s unbeatable year-round beauty and perpetual sports — including hiking, snow skiing, and waterskiing — that give Tahoe its biggest advantage over seasonal resort spots.

Serious buyers come because “they like the clean air,” says broker Chris Plastiras, of Lakeshore Realty. “They like the low crime rate, they like the educational system.”

220 Glen Way exterior739 Lakeview: Water and mountain views abound at this South Lake Tahoe property.

Home sales are up 30 to 35 percent this year by Sours’s count, and Plastiras’s company has seen a more than 100-percent increase, from $94 million in total sales to around $225 million.

The numbers aren’t a huge surprise, however; typically, California’s property sales foretell Tahoe’s to some extent.

“If you study the historical trends,” Souers explains, “we follow the Bay Area,” usually with about six-month to yearlong lag.

And guess what? The Bay Area is starting to fly high.

As for Tahoe, “we kind of flattened out around November,” Souers said, “but I don’t think it’s a permanent thing.”

Tahoe-area properties are often carefully regulated, for better or for worse; building permits can be scarce, which keeps neighborhoods quaint but frustrates some homeowners.

220 Glen Way interior(Above and Below): This low-elevation, lodge-style home offers direct access to a tennis and recreation center. 220 Glen Way is listed for $2.2 million in Incline Village, Nev.

739 Lakeview Living Room

“Even if you own [an empty] lot, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be able to build up there,” cautions Dallas resident Joyce Jacobson, whose family has kept a beloved second home in South Lake Tahoe — right on the state line, she says — for more than 20 years. Lake houses seem to hold their value better over time, she figures, but they’re also subject to strict regulations. In some cases, she adds, that means rules about what sort of blinds an occupant can hang from his or her windows. Seriously.

Her husband, Bob, has a funny story about their own vacation getaway, which isn’t on the lake. Seven or eight years ago, he said, Joyce and their grown children began pressuring him to sell.

“I put a real high price on it,” he says with a mischievous laugh — $1.2 million, which was several times what the family paid for it years ago — “thinking, ‘if we do [sell], we’re going to get something good.’”

A prospective buyer popped up immediately.

“They were so depressed,” Jacobson said of his family when they got the news. “They were hardly talking, and just walking around with their heads drooped down.”

Then and there, they changed their minds about leaving.

“Compared to Dallas,” Jacobson muses, “everything’s quiet. You get up in the morning, and the birds are making noise. You hear all these little animals. Last time I was up there, there were like six deer walking on our main street.”

Or maybe it’s the other humans — and myriad human diversions — that make die-hards keep coming back.

“It’s all the recreational spots, with all the skiing and the hiking and the water sports,” says homeowner Leroy Hardy (a relative of mine), whose custom-built Incline Village, Nev., house includes a creek, and is on the market.

“It’s unsurpassed.”

Georgia and Matt2Georgia Fisher is a Dallas expat now living in Reno, Nev., with her fiancé. Her interests include cats, Internet videos of cats, and cats watching Internet videos of cats. While she adores her quaint historic rental in Reno, she tries to escape to Lake Tahoe as often as possible. 

Tahoe Snow

I ran into a friend over the holidays right about the time I was mailing off my water bill, frantically. Seems I had switched from paper to electronic billing, but then the emails never arrived, I got busy, and yes, I faced the holidays with a termination letter from Dallas Water. One of our refrigerators broke down and defrosted because power surges during the ice storm blew the computer panel. Just got the dryer repaired, then the pool heater broke. Our friend has a couple homes he has to maintain, and commiserated: how do you manage to keep up all your homes, I asked?

“It’s almost a full-time job,” he said. “You have these systems — heat, A/C, the pool — and at any given time one or another can go out. That’s why you have multiples.”

This friend keeps an Excel spread sheet of when every bill is due at each home, and lists all the systems — heat, A/C, hot water heaters, pool equipment, appliances, by date and when last repaired. And he never leaves home without it.

There must be an iphone ap for this?

Tahoe Vista sunset

Dallas resident Lisa Harvell has three homes, one in Lake Tahoe, one at Lake Whitney, and one in Dallas.

How does she keep them organized?

I am naturally an organized person, says Lisa. The properties outside of Dallas are very low maintenance. At Lake Whitney, it’s more natural, there’s no grass to mow, and Lake Tahoe is totally rustic.

“All we have used out at the lake is a weed eater,” says Lisa, who works at Timious Real Estate Title & Development.

No Excel tricks for Lisa — “I’m old school,” she says, “I just pay the bills when they come in the mail.”

Do you really use your homes, I asked?

Tahoe Backyard & conservation area Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe

Yes! Lisa and her husband of 44 years go to Lake Whitney, to their two bedroom, two bath log cabin with an awesome porch, almost every weekend in spring and summer. It’s a one and a half hour drive. They hit Lake Tahoe 3 to 4 times a year, flying in to Reno and then driving. That home is also a two bedroom, two bath single family with a great room and huge deck located in Tahoe Vista, population 200, on the north side of the lake.

“As you can tell, I spend half my life on that deck,” she says.

Right now, one son lives in the Tahoe house, which makes upkeep a lot easier.

Does Lisa have any second thoughts about multiple home ownership?

You have to be invested emotionally, she says. She loves being in and around nature, and has no plans to lease her casas.

“I bought them for the love of the area,” she says. “I have a high stress job and need a lot of short trips to decompress.”

Tell us how you manage all your real estate properties, keeping up first, second and third homes… it’s pretty amazing!

Those of us in real estate know that when the housing market plummets,  vacation places plummet the most. Second homes are most often discretionary purchases you wait on until you feel flush with cash.

Well, get ready. Realtors say second-home buyers are returning to the store,  shopping from Cape Cod to Lake Tahoe. As I told you, nationwide vacation home sales rose 7% in 2011 to 502,000 homes, according to the National Association of Realtors. They made up 11% of total sales in 2011, more than they did in 2010.  And NAR’s spokesman Walter Molony, who I hope to see in Denver next week at NAREE, expects continued momentum.

“We’ve heard positive reports from Las Vegas, Telluride, Col., Lake Tahoe, Naples, Fla., and some areas of California,” he told Investor’s Daily. “We’ve been seeing a little bit of unleashing of pent-up demand.”

Well yes, that plus bargain prices.

But while the number of transactions is increasing, vacation home prices are still not generally appreciating. The healthiest segment of the market is, surprise surprise, upper-end properties: the luxury market.

Neal Hanks, an Asheville, N.C. agent says he is seeing significant increases in sales of homes in excess of $500,000 in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I hear the Florida market is even tightening up. No Girls Gone Wild, but firming. The recent death of my brother-in-law has me poking into the Naples market, where they own two homes. In nearby Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, inventory is just 4.7 months, the lowest since 2005.

In Southwest Florida,  broker associate Jennifer Calenda of Michael Saunders & Co., a luxury regional real estate firm affiliated with Ebby Halliday through Luxury Portfolio, says dollar volume sales are up. Prices are not going up, but people are buying about $100,000 over where they were — so folks looking at a $300,000 condo might spring for $400,000. Are people really feeling more flush, more confident, or just sick of depriving themselves?

Some feel people are getting back on their feet, paying off debt, and I think I read that American’s debt levels were decreasing. David Southworth, founder and CEO of Southworth Development, which specializes in upscale vacation-resort communities, says demand is coming back as people get on their feet.

“The second-home market is always a trickle-up type,” he told Investor’s Business Daily. “As the economy gets better that means small business owners start making money again and executives start getting bigger bonuses. And that’s when our customers come back.”

“During the past year, investors have been swooping into the market to take advantage of bargain home prices,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun . “Rising rental income easily beat cash sitting in banks as an added inducement.”

The median vacation-home price was $121,300, down 19.1 percent from $150,000 in 2010.

The typical vacation-home buyer was 50 years old, had a median household income of $88,600 and purchased a property that was a median distance of 305 miles from the primary residence; 35 percent of vacation homes were within 100 miles and 37 percent were more than 500 miles. Buyers plan to own their recreational property for a median of 10 years.

Eighty-two percent of vacation-home buyers said the primary reason for buying was to use the property themselves for vacations, or as a family retreat. Thirty percent plan to use the property as a primary residence in the future, while only 22 percent plan to rent to others.

Forty-two percent of vacation homes purchased last year were in the South, 30 percent in the West, 15 percent in the Northeast and 12 percent in the Midwest; Only 1 percent were located outside of the U.S.

They’re not all back. Southworth recently bought some communities on the cheap after the real estate bubble burst: Creighton Farms in Virginia horse country and most recently Willowbend in Cape Cod. Willowbend is doing the best, because of 8 million in metro Boston who can drive there. Most second home owners prefer to drive to their vacation homes, on average about 4 hours, but most often one or two.

Next week, I’ll hear more about Longcove at Cedar Creek Lake east of Dallas: 45 minutes east of Dallas.

The segment doing the best is the high end of the vacation market, this according to Brent Herrington, senior vice president of luxury developer DMB Associates.

“Inventory is much scarcer in the most desirable locations,” he said. “Prices are firming … we’re getting back to a world of multiple offers.”

Those amazing deals in the tops spots of the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Aspen and Vail peaked in hit in 2010-11. If you didn’t do it then, or are not quite in that league, look for the secondary markets — beachfront but not the name-drop locations.

After a few decades of recession, Palm Springs is becoming a hot second home market, beating out Santa Fe, say some realtors. And the developers are there to give buyers what they want: sun and out here, golf.

“We find our buyers appreciate all the things that Palm Springs and Indian Wells has to offer – the relaxed, resort atmosphere, no traffic concerns, friendly service, warm winters, incredible views and an abundance of outdoor activities, “ says Bill Bone, CEO and Founder of Sunrise Company, developer of Toscana, a golf community development in Indian Wells.

There is golf of course but also hiking, biking, farmer’s markets, as well as great shopping, dining, entertainment, the arts and medical facilities.

“Members have so much fun here, they call it “Camp Toscana”, says Bone. “We are very pleased with our sales results this year: have been 34 homes sold at Toscana, more than $59,000,000 in total sales.”

 

Palm Springs is within close proximity to sooo many Cali locales – less than 2 hours from LA, Laguna, San Diego, Palm Springs is brimming with mid century architecture, history and development.

“It appeals to people who really value properties of that era, and the new boutique hotels and restaurants keep things fun and interesting,” say Palm Springs agents Mark Godson and James Dalton Utsey. “The evolution of our downtown strip continues with the Fashion Plaza being rebuilt as a pedestrian friendly shopping and gathering place.”

 

Like many areas in California, Palm Springs was not spared during the housing bust, but values are beginning to inch up. Don’t have to worry about hurricanes here. Look carefully there are deals to be found.

 

Many consumers buy thinking they can rent out the home for cash flow and potential income, and they can. Vacation home rental listings are up at the website HomeAway. It had 433,000 listings in 2009, but 700,0000 listings now, says its vice president, Jon Gray.

Buyers are stirring, multiple offers are being reported, but there are no indications of appreciation. In some areas, prices are still falling. Do not be afraid to make an offer below asking: U.S. vacation home asking prices dropped 1.7% year over year in the 12 months ending in April, as overall listing prices fell 0.2%.

I do not advise buying a vacation home for pure appreciation. Just look for family enjoyment and maybe a place to rent out.

Still, some areas are seeing a tweak upwards when the distressed properties are all sold out. And demographics may be favorable for long term growth in vacation homes, with the average buyer age 50. There are 42 million people 50 to 59, right behind them are 43.5 million 40 to 49. Then there are 40.2 million people 30 to 39. These people grew up with vacation homes as common as swingsets and may follow their parents’ footsteps in buying.