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Rethinking Home
Homeowners are trading single-family spaces for the comfort and convenience of upscale condos. But the market is tight.

BY NAN BIALEK

May 2019

Eagles Landing at Lac La Belle offers luxurious living and the convenience of a condominium.
Photo courtesy of Stapleton Realty

Luxurious condominiums priced at $500,000 that are located in the heart of downtown Milwaukee and in the idyllic suburbs are rising in popularity, but buyers are finding that there is a limited inventory of those top-of-the-line listings.

The overall condo market “is extremely tight,” says Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors®. Ruzicka says the tightest squeeze is in the under $300,000 category, because baby boomers and millenials are competing for the same properties.

“Above that [price point], it’s slowing down, but not significantly,” he explains. “It’s doing well, it’s just not as hot as the lower end of the market.”

Ruzicka says the lack of inventory is the result of the Great Recession of late 2007 to mid 2009. When the recession hit, condo construction took a deep dive.

“Coming out of the recession in 2012 and 2014, the high end came back faster than the lower end, because a lot of the buyers on the upper end are cash buyers,” he explains.

Many of the buyers at that time were looking for a bargain, such as condos marked down from $1.5 million to $1 million. Real estate really didn’t start emerging from the recession until 2015, when buyers began to relax their zeal for deals.

David Price of Milwaukee Realty, who bills himself as “The Condo Man,” points to the short list of all local condos currently for sale and notes that Milwaukee “really doesn’t have many new condos coming up.” On a recent Friday, only 65 condos, priced from $75,000 to more than $4 million, were active listings throughout the Milwaukee area.

From 2016 through the end of February 2019, 232 condos sold for $500,000 or more in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties, according to Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors® data.

“Now, one of the weird things is developers are building apartments, but not building condos,” says Ruzicka. “It will clear itself up, but it’s going to take some time. You’re almost paying New York prices for apartments around here, $3,000 to $4,000 a month.”

However, Mary Beth Gaspar-Waite, broker and owner of Cornerstone Realtors, says there are plenty of high-end suburban condos available.

Photo courtesy of Greater Milwaukee Association of REALTORS


Photo courtesy of Stefaniak Group Realtors, LLC

“One of my favorites is Eagles Landing at Lac La Belle,” she says. Condos in the 21-unit Oconomowoc development are sold as ‘designer shell,’ so that buyers can choose custom finishes, appliances, lighting and bath fixtures as well as the contractor they hire to install them. Included are decks and railings and stunning views of the lake.

In downtown Milwaukee, jaw-dropping views of Lake Michigan are on top of the high-end buyers’ wish lists. That’s why Price keeps a close eye on the relatively few condos that feature lake views: they are rarely available for more than a week.

Other important amenities include on-site management services, as well as a workout facility, security and maintenance services.

“Those are the basics,” Price notes, but some condo buildings go well beyond essentials. Kilbourn Tower, for example, has a humidor and a wine cellar.

Ruzicka says buyers of luxury condos are looking for kitchens designed for entertaining as well as show-stopping baths. A guest room is also important, especially for downtown condos, and “covered parking is huge, a definite must. As far as landscaping and layout, they want nice landscaping — they just don’t want to shovel,” Ruzicka adds.

This 2-story penthouse in Milwaukee’s 601 Lofts features 6,500 sq. ft. of living space.
Photo courtesy of Corley Real Estate/Greater Milwaukee Association of REALTORS

Common spaces such as a clubhouse, heated pool or fitness area allow condo residents to cultivate a sense of community, according to Gaspar-Waite. The “Glen” developments by Cornerstone Developments (not associated with Cornerstone Realtors) in Pewaukee and Brookfield are an example.

“Each development has its own personality. It is not just about dollars, cents and cabinet design,” she says. “Green space for walking dogs and/or patio space for grilling is key. The most successful developments take the best features of single family layouts and condense them into a semi-detached side-by-side living situation with basements for storage or entertainment.”

Although empty-nest baby boomers are well represented in the pool of buyers of luxury condos, Gaspar-Waite says the market is actually much wider. As the level of stress in everyday life goes up, more people are choosing to make the most of their free time, she explains, and condo life offers more flexibility; somebody else is handling exterior maintenance and care of the property. Developments with larger condos are also finding a market in families with children.

Price notices a trend in people moving to downtown condos: many are young professionals who do not own cars, opting instead to use ride services and other means of transportation. They prefer to walk to restaurants and entertainment venues as well.

“The number of people who don’t have cars has gone up tenfold,” Price says. “It’s a very distinctive trend, especially in the Third Ward.”

Ruzicka notes that many condo developments are located near the Hop. “With the trolley coming online, several thousand apartments and condos are within walking distance [of a stop], so it’s easy to get around downtown,” he says.

Though they do own cars, Carmella Arbogash and her husband, Dennis, were looking for a walkable neighborhood when they sold their three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home in Franklin and purchased a mid-priced, 1,600-square-foot condo in the Riverbridge development on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side.

“We live right on the river, so we have access to the Riverwalk, Lakefront Brewery and Eagle Park Brewery and the Oak Leaf Trail,” Arbogash says. “It’s a really great combo of city living but with urban outdoor opportunities. I love the lifestyle because I’m outside a lot. And it’s just a great community; I love the diversity.”

Whether you are interested in a $3 million penthouse condo or a much more modest condo listing, if you find the one you love, be ready to make your move.

“You hear stories about people missing condos because they don’t have financing lined up,” Price says, “so it’s kind of a fast-flowing salmon stream and you have to be ready once you put your hook in there.”

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This story ran in the May 2019  issue of: