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Minnesotans working from residence clamor to purchase one at lake

If you’re working from home, you might as well work remotely.

Far-flung getaway homes are a hot commodity this summer as lakeshore buyers seek refuge from the uncertainties of the pandemic — and their offices — in cottages and cabins across the state.

And the competition for those escapes is intense. At a time when lakeshore shopping typically wanes, there’s been an influx of metro-area buyers who are trading summer sports and flying vacations for evening bonfires and morning coffee on the dock. And that’s causing bidding wars in nearly every price range and sight-unseen offers on shorelines that buyers have never walked.

“Owning a cabin or living on the lake full time sounds pretty darn good right now,” said Dave Gooden, co-founder of Lakeplace.com, a real estate brokerage and website that focuses on lakeshore in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Those options, however, are limited this summer, particularly on lakes that are a quick drive to the city and in areas with strong internet access for FaceTime calls and Zoom meetings. In mid-July there were about half as many lakeshore listings as normal in Minnesota and Wisconsin — some 14,000 — on the Lakeplace.com website.

Searches on the site were up 70% in June on the site, and sales increased 25% — a far cry from how the season looked earlier this year, when the unemployment rate was soaring and the stock market crumbling. “We planned for the worst, but hoped for the best,” Gooden said. “We literally had to purchase more file cabinets for our pending-sales files.”

With more people working from home, the concept of spending several weeks — or months — at the lake has become a reality, boosting demand on lakes that are a couple of hours from the Twin Cities. And though lake-home buyers are often in search of solitude and simplicity, properties with decent internet access are also in high demand.

Andrew and Stephanie Clarke had been casually shopping for a $200,000 to $250,000 lake home near his mom’s cabin in Nisswa for more than a year. Both have 9-to-5 office jobs and two kids who are normally busy with traveling sports and theater obligations. But when the pandemic earlier this year confined them to their house in Bloomington, they got serious about finding a getaway place.

“We’ve been cooped up in our house since March,” said Andrew Clarke. “That pushed us over the edge.”

Clarke set up a real estate listing search, but every time he got a hit on a property that met their criteria, including internet access so he could work remotely, it would sell before they could see it.

So in May, when a renovated 1960s year-round cottage on Star Lake hit the market, Clarke immediately drove two hours to see it the day after it was listed. With a shady deck overlooking the lake and updated kitchen and bathrooms, the cabin was perfect for them. The listing agent let them know it would sell quickly, so Andrew called his wife and described it to her.

“It was either make a quick offer or move on,’ ” he said. They offered more than the sellers were asking, and their bid prevailed over six others.

Technology has had another profound impact on the lake-home market this summer: Buyers are able to shop from afar via virtual tours and FaceTime walk-throughs, enabling them to make quick decisions in a fast-moving market.

And that includes out-of-state buyers. T.J. Simon, president-elect of Minnesota Realtors and broker at Wolff Simon Real Estate in Park Rapids, said he’s fielding an unprecedented number of inquiries this summer from out of state, including California, where Big Tech companies are adopting long-term remote-work policies. Google recently told workers that its offices won’t open until at least the middle of next year and that the bulk of its staff might never have to return to its offices.

Twice during June Lindi Mae Carlson sold lake homes near Duluth sight unseen to out-of-town buyers who toured the properties virtually. One was a $349,900 house on Hay Lake near Carlton, which is less than two hours from the Twin Cities. Last week she received a $289,900 offer on a 1,180 square-foot house with views of Lake Superior and “very strong internet and Wi-Fi,” according to listing remarks, just six days after putting it on the market. Two years ago a similar house in the same subdivision sold for $50,000 less and took two months longer to sell.

“Prices are up,” she said. “And sellers are happy.”

Agents say that with more people looking for places where they can work — and play — outside the city, buyers are also hunting for year-round properties that have all the comforts of their homes in the city. And that’s driving demand for some of the most expensive properties.

In the Brainerd Lakes area, sales of lake homes priced at more than $500,000 increased by nearly a third in June, according Sarah Polovitz, a sales agent with Edina Realty.

“We are battling very low inventory with high consumer demand,” she said, noting that in recent weeks several $1 million-plus properties that had been on the market several months suddenly attracted multiple offers.

Polovitz said that because the government shutdown in March shifted the traditional “spring market” back about three months to a time when families are typically enjoying their lake place — not selling — buyers are outpacing sellers. In the Brainerd lakes area, she said, the supply of listings is down by about a fifth.

“Buyers have realized COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon,” she said. “They have shifted their vacation and entertainment dollars to investing in lake homes or cabins where their families and close friends can safely gather.”

A midyear study by the Pew Research Center said that 13% of the people who relocated this year moved to vacation or second homes they already owned. But there’s little evidence yet that Twin Citians are permanently fleeing the metro. During June, home sales in the Twin Cities metro increased 6%, making it the best June in nearly two decades, according to the Minneapolis Area Realtors.

Todd Russell of Minneapolis spent years pining for a getaway of his own on Gull Lake, where in his youth he swam and canoed with friends. He always thought he’d make that purchase closer to retirement, but COVID-19 accelerated the plan. He and just about everyone he deals with as a commercial real estate adviser are working remotely.

So this spring, when the corona­virus temporarily shuttered his St. Paul office, he and his partner got serious about negotiating a deal to buy a $1 million-plus property that had been for sale on the tip of the Pine Beach peninsula. The deal closed in May and after setting up an office, he plans to hunker down for the rest of the summer — or longer.

Still, his decision to buy a lake place and work there as much as he can doesn’t diminish his commitment to the Twin Cities.

“I’m not planning to downsize in the city,” Russell said.

When concerns about social distancing ease, or at least when colder weather sets in, he plans to spend more time in the Twin Cities. Still, he’s planning extended family vacations and holidays at his new lake place, where he has all the comforts of home — and work.

“The pandemic really allowed me to focus on what we truly wanted,” he said. “That forced this decision.”

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