Getting Away Without Going Too Far

Posted by Tracie Rozhon — May 2, 2006

Getting Away Without Going Too Far      By TRACIE ROZHONOriginally Published on April 28, 2006 in The New York Times

ON April Fool's Day, The South Whidbey Record published a spoof issue, with an article heralding the sale of all of Langley, Whidbey Island's most visited town, to Disney for $32 million. Some of the many vacation-home buyers roaming the town — with its Main Street of movie-set-ready shops in pastel colors — probably believed it.This house, on the market in Marblehead, Mass., is just 16 miles from Boston but seems a century away in time. The town, long a yachting destination, is attracting vacation-home owners who stay on land.Homes on Whidbey Island, Wash., in Puget Sound are popular with Seattle residents. The southern end of Whidbey Island, with its laid-back ambience and hypnotic water views 58 minutes from downtown Seattle (including ferry ride), seems almost too good to be true — and you won't even run through a tank of gas getting there. Likewise, Lake Lanier, a speedy 40 minutes northeast of Atlanta, is full of house hunters trying to put their deposits down. Marblehead, Mass., a short hop northeast of Boston, features the charming cheek-by-jowl antiques houses seen on Nantucket — without the Cape Cod traffic.

Sales of weekend and vacation homes (as well as investment and retirement homes) in resort areas close to major cities are booming, real estate specialists say. San Franciscans increasingly seek respite in the Napa Valley. Houstonians find places in Galveston. Homeowners in Minneapolis are combing the banks of Lake Minnetonka for properties. Among the reasons cited are the relative ease of travel, the ability to visit more frequently and, especially these days, the rising cost of gasoline.

Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, said that second-home purchases less than 100 miles from a primary home have risen significantly in just three years, to 47 percent of all second-home purchases in 2005, up from 33 percent in 2002.

In fact, "more than one-third of recent second-home purchases are within 25 miles," Mr. Molony added. "We're hearing about more and more people who keep a condo in the city and spend their quality time — whether or not they call it vacation, weekend or dual — at their second houses."

As Kevin L'Armee, a Chicago artist, put it: "If you lived in Chicago and bought a vacation house in Aspen, the way people used to, how many times a year would you really use it? You'd have to rent it out most of the year, and you'd be worried sick about who was in it and what they were doing. You'd have to pay somebody a fortune to manage it — and you'd still worry."

Mr. L'Armee is looking for a weekend house in Lake Geneva, Wis., just over the state line, about 80 miles away.

He isn't the only one seeking a getaway that's essentially just around the corner. Diana Arnold, a semiretired schoolteacher from suburban Seattle who teaches only on Monday, Tuesday and every other Wednesday, is another. Her second home, on Whidbey Island — bought in January — is much more than an occasional respite from the rat race in Seattle, where she owns a condominium and loves the many exhibitions and performances in the city.

Her charming three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom contemporary, with a view of the Saratoga Passage in Puget Sound, is 50 minutes "door to door" from her condo, she said, and cost $412,000. "Of course, I would rather have bought right on the water," she said, gazing out at the water from her deck. "But I couldn't have afforded it."

The south end of Whidbey Island — one of a number of islands in Puget Sound — has remained raffish in parts, but that may be changing. These days, there are almost no houses on the market for less than $300,000; a one-room beach house with a rock garden leading right to the passage, with the Cascade Mountains in the distance, is priced at $595,000.

"I had a Microsoft guy give a million dollars for a beach house," said Todd M. Bitts, an agent for Coldwell Banker/Tara Properties on Whidbey. "And he called me and asked me if I could give him the names of a couple of asphalt companies for his driveway. I said no — I knew only one, and people out here didn't generally asphalt their driveways. He said he didn't want to get dings on his Porsche!" (Seems as if Aspen has come to Whidbey.)

There is more of a range of prices in Lake Lanier, Ga., where a small pink two-bedroom confection with lake views is being offered at $154,000. But for those who want a splurge, there is the lakefront mansion, with five fireplaces, for $5,295,000.

Randall D. Fox, an agent with Keller Williams Realty Premier in Atlanta, said that although the lake is around 60 miles away, "everybody makes it in 35 to 40 minutes; if you're on the Interstate you stay with the traffic flow — and we all go 80, 90 miles an hour."

"The lake area is full of marinas," he said, "and people have every kind of house — they even live on houseboats. Because Atlanta is such a dense city — four million people — they have to get away, and Florida is more than four hours away by car, so they go north to the lake."

Following a national trend, Mr. Fox said, many of his second-home buyers are baby boomers. Many of the older homes around the lake are "generational, passed down to the grandchildren," he said. "The new buyers want houses that they, too, can pass down to future generations."

Prices are going up fast. "Within the last year, a 3.5-acre lakefront tract went for $800,000," said Janet Bond, an Atlanta broker. "Five years ago, it would have gone for probably half that, $400,000."

Marblehead, a long-time yachtsmen's hangout only about 16 miles from Boston, has also begun to attract a new type of vacation-home buyer: men and women who may not know a yawl from a ketch from a kayak. To these people, Marblehead represents a convivial place where strangers are welcome at the Barnacle, which serves fried whole belly clams seven days a week, and at a variety of watering holes.

"Marblehead is known as a destination community — people know about Marblehead," said Steven White, a salesman for Carlson GMAC Real Estate. "The centerpiece of Marblehead is the harbor. People don't just pass through Marblehead — it's the tip of a peninsula. To get there you have to be bound for there."

While Mr. White insisted that his town is "still very much a blue-collar town," he said that blue-collar workers are not buying vacation houses there.

Some houses may sell for under $300,000, but the houses the vacation buyers want overlook the water — and are priced accordingly. Spectacular waterfront houses in the Marblehead Neck section — where Peter Lynch, the former Fidelity Investments executive, has a rambling contemporary — usually fetch $3 million to $4 million. Substantial houses with water views — no actual water frontage — often sell for $1 million to $2 million. Prices have appreciated 8 to 12 percent in the last year, agents say.

Some condominiums there, in a 1970's development called Glover Landing, start — for a rear, ground-floor unit — at $439,000, and rise to $1 million for the direct water views. The units range from 1,200 to 1,700 square feet.

The trip from Boston takes 35 minutes "in the best of cases, 50 minutes in the worst," Mr. White said.

It can take longer than that to get to Whidbey Island on a Friday night.

"Anybody who can gets here Thursday night," said Mollie Swope, an agent at Windermere Real Estate, speaking of Whidbey Island. "They say that the ferry lines are now even longer on Thursday night than they are on Friday." The ferry costs $9.90 for a car and two people, and takes less than a half hour.

On nights close to the weekend, the ferry becomes something of a party boat with friends embracings and strangers meeting as they share Naugahyde banquettes near the boat's snack bar. As the ferry prepared to embark one recent misty evening, the dock was crowded with travelers, their ancient Jeeps filled with paper grocery bags and spotted dogs with wagging tails.

Despite the fun, some worry that all these new residents may bring the usual issues of too much development in essentially fragile surroundings.

IN Marblehead, the existing zoning regulations — and a historic designation — have restrained development in the already densely built downtown, said Rebecca Curran, the town planner.

But Ms. Curran said she was worried about overdevelopment in the rest of the town. Apparently, so are a lot of other citizens: on May 1, a law that would limit the footprint size of any new construction will be put to a vote, she said.

"Our present zoning was enacted in the 1950's, when the average house was three bedrooms and one bath," she said. "Now they want four bedrooms and three baths and a family room. In Marblehead right now, you can build a 7,000-square-foot house on a 10,000-square-foot lot."

Lake Lanier was created by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950's by flooding the then-derelict town of Lanier. The area around it "is so big you can go for miles without meeting anybody," said Mr. Fox, the Atlanta agent, who recently bought his own second home about a half hour north of the lake, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The same is true, to an extent, on Whidbey, where, for example, a coffee-roasting plant off a dirt road is virtually unknown to most tourists but offers divine coffee in its snack shop — if you can find it. But Patricia Powell, the executive director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, worries about other parts of the island, like Bush Point and Cultus Bay, where houses are being squeezed onto hillsides that seem as crowded as a rush-hour subway car.

Buyers are not deterred. One lot sold last August for $150,000 in the crowded Cultus Bay section, with views of the Olympic Mountains and the bay. The woman who bought it is spending about $300,000 to build a 1,400-square-foot house on the property, Ms. Swope said. If the woman were to sell the house now, Ms. Swope said, it would bring about $550,000 — a potential profit of $100,000 in less than a year.

According to Mr. Bitts, her friend and competitor, there used to be about 125 real estate agents on the island. In the last few years, he said, that number has risen to 180.

Ms. Swope said that when her friends from the Texas suburbs visited recently, "they were amazed to see there were still trailers here."

"But I told them not to worry," she said. "They'll be gone soon."

She paused. "For better or worse."

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