What makes a great lake town? A lovely, inspiring, and beckoning body of water? Check. A cool, relaxing vibe with plenty of splashy and nonsplashy extracurriculars? Check. Affordable and irresistible housing a short hop from the water? Yes, please!
When the mercury starts soaring across the U.S., more folks get the urge to turn fantasies of shore living into reality. And why not? Lakefront housing tends to be less expensive and more accessible to a wider swath of the country than popular ocean beach towns. And—without delving into some kind of tortured Stones vs. Beatles, GOP vs. Dems, or ferret vs. capybara lifestyle debate—lake town living offers quite a few perks of its own.
That’s why the data team at realtor.com® set out on its annual quest to find the best lake towns in America. These are the places where there are plenty of well-priced and available homes, property values are rising (so snagging a home will be a good investment), and there are plenty of fun things to do on or around the water. And then we slathered on our sunscreen.
Do you want to live near a picturesque pond, or within striking distance of one of the majestic Great Lakes? The ambiance is dramatically different, and so are the housing prices.
“If you want to be on a larger body of water, you’re typically going to pay more. … You’ll have more fishing opportunities, boating opportunities, and recreational [and dining] opportunities,” says Jim Billig, president of Sportman’s Connection, which produces fishing lake guidebooks in 12 states. “The smaller lakes … are going to be more affordable.”
To figure out the top spots, we looked at home price appreciation from June 2015 to May 2018*, the percentage of vacation homes, the number of food and recreational establishments per capita, the number of outdoor activities per capita, and the number of realtor.com home listings that mention the word “lake” in more than 900 U.S. metropolitan and micropolitan areas. And we limited our selections to one place per state to ensure geographic diversity, and excluded areas where the median home list prices were above $600,000.
Now get ready to make a splash!
1. Branson, MO
Median home list price**: $217,500
2-year price appreciation: 17.6%
For decades this southern Missouri town has steadily built its rep as a Midwestern country music mecca—it touts itself as “the live music show capital of the world.” But, more stealthily, it has also become one of the nation’s leading lake towns.
There are beaches, a full marina, and scuba diving in the 43,000 sparkling acres of Table Rock Lake, one of the area’s main attractions. Lake Taneycomo, a reservoir less than 10 miles from downtown, is considered one of the best trout fishing lakes in the country due to its unusually cool waters. And the oft-overlooked Bull Shoals Lake, about a two-hour drive east of Branson straddling the Missouri-Arkansas border in the Ozark Mountains, offers plenty of cabins, resorts, and RV parks for those who want to stay on the water.
For those who fall in love with the region, there are plenty of affordably priced homes for those who want to stay year-round or just for the season. Many are condos, although there are some waterfront houses ranging from four-bedrooms in the high $200,000s to the occasional mansion selling for a few million dollars.
Most of local real estate agent J.R. Boushehri‘s clients are baby boomers within a 300-mile radius seeking condos with a view they can stay in a few times a month and then rent out the rest of the time. The condos range anywhere from the mid-$50,000s up to $300,000, says Boushehri of Keller Williams Tri-Lake Realty.
“Whatever price range they’re looking for, there’s something out there,” he says.
2. Baraboo, WI
Median home list price: $234,950
2-year price appreciation: 31.5%
Once known as home to the Ringling Brothers Circus, this south-central Wisconsin town has a high percentage of homes boasting lake views. It’s no small wonder that John Muir, who grew up just north of the city, turned into one of the 20th century’s most famed naturalists.
While the city’s namesake, the Baraboo River, is the most obvious water attraction, there are plenty of lakes here (locals seldom tire of letting you know that Wisconsin has more of ’em than neighboring Minnesota). Devil’s Lake State Park attracts more than 1 million visitors annually who enjoy activities that range from lounging on glacial sand beaches, to rock climbing for all levels.
It’s also home to the International Crane Foundation, which claims to be the only place on the planet where visitors can see all 15 crane species.
“It’s just a beautiful area,” says Al Doering, owner of Baraboo Canoe & Kayak in nearby North Freedom, WI.
Folks who don’t mind not being directly on the water can find all sorts of bargains. There are standalone cottages, cabins, and even four-bedroom houses for under $225,000 that are just a walk or short drive away from Devil’s Lake.
3. Brainerd, MN
Median home list price: $289,950
2-year price appreciation: 18.3%
Why settle for one lake when you can have more than 500? That’s right, there are that many lakes located within 25 miles of Brainerd, making it one of the most attractive destinations in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. There are all kinds of waterfront real estate options, and recreational opportunities ranging from canoeing to water skiing, to world-class tubing (BYOB).
If a private lake isn’t Minnesota nice enough for ya, this central Minnesota town has more on its plate than lutefisk. Brainerd is ranked highly for its number of dining establishments, including a few overlooking the water. And there’s a trio of nearby breweries—Gull Dam, Jack Pine, and Big Axe—within a short drive of town.
Real estate ranges from spacious four-bedroom houses with private docks on the larger, 500-plus-acre lakes that go for about $450,000 to smaller, two-bedroom cabins with shared beach access for about $200,000, says Chad Schwendeman, a local real estate broker at Exit Lakes Realty Premier. Luxury condos on the larger lakes can go for about $500,000.
Most of his clients are second-home buyers coming from the Twin Cities.
“On a Friday, they can head north two hours and they’re at their cabins,” Schwendeman says.
Median home list price: $327,050
2-year price appreciation: 17.8%
Even without accounting for its proximity to Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes, Traverse City—known simply in many parts as “T.C.”—is one of the premier lake recreation destinations. It was ranked one of the best in the state, according to MidwestLiving, and the country, according to personal finance site WalletHub. It’s about four hours east, and worlds away, from Detroit.
Lake lovers here have plenty of home options, including one- or two-bedroom condos near the beach starting around $100,000, or four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes down the street from a lake for about $200,000.
Buyers with money to burn may prefer one of the Traverse City mansions, such as this 8,468-square-foot beauty with views of the water, a movie theater, wine cellar, and heated pool for just under $3 million.
The attractions don’t just revolve around Lake Michigan. The Boardman Lake is an official Blue Ribbon trout fishery (the designation is only for lakes with outstanding water quality, accessibility, and sustainable fish management).
Bonus: In late June and early July, Traverse City hosts the National Cherry Festival, an annual extravaganza that attracts more than a half-million visitors. The area is also home to roughly 30 wineries that have taken advantage of its grape-friendly latitude.
Median home list price: $575,000
2-year price appreciation: 23.4%
The Gardnerville Ranchos metro area is the most expensive lake town on our list—for good reason. The county lines a good portion of Lake Tahoe, a popular destination for the rich, the famous, and just about everyone else. The area is also located on the El Dorado National Forest and boasts sweeping mountain and waterfront views. Bliss.
Recreationally speaking, Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border, is the 800-pound gorilla that drives the region’s economy. It’s said that people come for the skiing but stay for the lake.
The area is particularly appealing to nearby California residents. They can escape high state taxes if they cross Lake Tahoe into Nevada and live in the cheaper state for six months and a day. There are few modest homes to be found (operative word: few). But there are plenty of breathtaking mansions going up, including this $47 million beauty with a guesthouse, stables, and a private pier.
Median home list price: $254,900
2-year price appreciation: 11.4%
When most of us think of a dreamy summer destination with quiet bays, beaches, and nearby islands that require a passport to visit (Canada, eh?), northern Ohio isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Yet Port Clinton, a small town with a population of just under 6,000 , is the epicenter of one of the better kept secrets among fans of lake recreation due to its prime location on one of the Great Lakes.
Located on a peninsula that juts into the western end of Lake Erie, Port Clinton sees its population swell in the high season as visitors descend on the mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, and antique stores in nearby towns. The area offers a half-dozen lakefront parks, as well as the three Bass islands and Kelley’s Island. The latter is a major tourism center served by ferries and a small public airport.
Real estate in the area is a real mix, with quite a few reasonably priced condos on the market. Buyers can snag one-bedroom condos right on Lake Erie for under $135,000, while modest beach houses can be found in the mid-$300,000 range. Buyers seeking to splurge can pick up this luxurious, five-bedroom, five-bathroom house on a bluff for $850,000.
Median home list price: $393,750
2-year price appreciation: 24.7%
Located at the far end of the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho’s northern panhandle, Coeur d’Alene is more than a lake town. It’s an outdoor paradise surrounded by mountains, rivers, hiking trails, and abundant wildlife. It’s also a convenient 38-minute drive from Spokane, WA, a major travel hub. That may be why this small town where everyone knows your name and boasts little to no traffic is attracting so many ex-Californians, according to the website Livability.
The cost of living here is slightly higher than the national average (just look at this $3.25 million three-bed, four-bath, waterfront condo with every amenity imaginable), but it’s still considerably cheaper than big Western cities such as Denver, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco.
8. Sonora, CA
Median home list price: $349,200
2-year price appreciation: 16.8%
The gold rush that defined the early days of this Central California town played out long ago. It’s been replaced by geographical gold: Sonora is the closest city to Yosemite, the crown jewel of the national parks system. Although the park is best known for massive granite cliffs like El Capitan, there’s no shortage of lakes inside and outside the park.
Many of Bettis’ clients are from the San Francisco Bay Area, who buy second homes throughout Tuolumne County, where Sonora is located. The environment and climate, which features about 260 days of sunshine a year, have been key in attracting retirees and economic refugees fleeing the high costs of San Francisco, about three hours away.
“You can buy a million-dollar cabin or you can get a little, tiny, 700-square-foot cabin for $200,000,” Bettis says.
Median home list price: $252,500
2-year price appreciation: 24.2%
Neighboring Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge can have their swarms of tourists. Friendly Sevierville, a more under-the-radar vacation spot and hometown of country legend Dolly Parton, will take the anglers and lake fans. (It’s about 30 minutes east of Knoxville.)
“Lakefront real estate in our area is pretty variable,” says Ron Laughlin, a local real estate agent at Century 21 MVP. They range from 2,000-square-foot cabins on the water built in the 1970s on several acres that go for between $300,000 and $350,000 to 5,000-square-foot, more modern homes than can fetch $2 million. “There’s a few real high-baller homes, but not that many.”
Douglas Lake, barely a 20-minute drive from downtown, attracts 1.7 million visitors annually. They are drawn to the lake’s boating and reputation as one of the best lakes in the nation for largemouth bass and crappie fishing.
10. Spirit Lake, IA
Median home list price: $296,900
2-year price appreciation: 3.2%
Those who love to fish may want to hightail it to Spirit Lake. The Northern Iowa region has a well-earned rep as a great place to catch pike and muskellunge. Spirit Lake, which shares a tiny part of its namesake with neighboring Minnesota, is surrounded by a quartet of lakes, including the east and west sides of Lake Okoboji. It’s also home to the Berkley fishing tackle company, launched in 1937 by a 16-year-old paper delivery boy who used backyard chicken feathers and the family dog’s hair to craft hand-tied flies for vacationing anglers.
“We’re a resort town. Memorial Day to Labor Day, that’s when everybody makes hay. The lakes get a tremendous amount of use,” says Aaron Jones, a real estate broker at Re/Max Lakes Realty. “Outside of that time frame, we’re just a small town.”
Most of the buyers are looking for second homes, ranging from $300,000 to well above $5 million, that sit vacant in the off-season. They typically hail from the Midwest within a 300-mile radius of Spirit Lake, Jones says.
“We still have a lot of fishing cabins that were built in the early 1900s. They’re little two-bedroom, one-bath cabins that now can sell for half a million bucks,” Jones says. You just can’t deny the allure of lakefront land.
* To come up with home price appreciation, we looked at home list prices over the 12-month period of June 2015 through May 2016, and compared them with the June 2017 through May 2018 period.
** Median home prices as of June 1, 2018