Sullivan County offers a wide range of lakefront real estate options, from small seasonal summer cottages on postage stamp lakefront lots up to grand Adirondack style lake lodges on 5 or more lakefront acres in upper end gated lake communities like the Chapin Estate or Kenoza Lake. You can spend as little as the low $200’s or as much as $2 million— and almost anywhere in between.
With over two dozen residential lakes (plus some state parks and reservoirs without residential development), there are a lot of lakes to consider, but not necessarily a lot of lakefront homes (or lots) available for purchase at any given time. For many buyers, it’s a matter of narrowing down the type of lake and house you’re looking for, and then waiting for a good property to come on the market. With many lakefront shoppers, our first trip out together focuses on “lake shopping” rather than house shopping, to get a good feel for the lake options, house styles and price points.
Here are some factors to consider to help you identify which lakes might be most appropriate for you to focus on.
Motorboat versus non-motorboat
A strong preference for a lake that permits motorboats versus one that doesn’t permit gasoline powered watercraft is a key factor. At most price points, there are motorboat and non-motorboat options.
Traditional versus “new” lake style
Up until the 1980’s, lakefront property was subdivided and offered for sale as smaller ‘lots’, up to 1/4 acre with 60 to 100 feet of lake frontage. Community and affordability were bigger considerations than privacy. In the 1950’s and 60’s, at many lakes you’d find extended families buying 3 or 4 lake cottages next to each other, where the kids could run back and forth. Most of the lakes in Sullivan are cut on this traditional model. Prices at a more traditional lake range from under $300,000 for a smaller 2 bedroom, 1,000 sq. ft. lakefront cottage, to around $700,000 for a larger 4 or 5 bedroom home.
The 1980’s ushered in a new era of lake development, with far larger lot sizes (5 acres or so) and 200 or more feet of lake frontage. These lake developments promoted privacy, and implemented deed restrictions to maintain a more ‘natural’ setting. Black, Timber, York, Elko and Clearwater on Sand Pond were the first wave of this new style development. Privacy, however, comes at a price — figure a starting point about $450,000 for a modest lakefront home on the smallest of these lakes (Timber) to over $1M for a larger home on Black Lake.
Since 2001, they’ve been joined by the Chapin Estate and Kenoza Lake, carefully planned upscale gated lake developments featuring grander “lodge style” homes. The Chapin Estate covers 2,600 acres fronting on our two largest motorboat lakes, Swinging Bridge Reservoir (1,000 acres) and Toronto Reservoir (800 acres). There are still some lakefront parcels available from the developer in a newer release phase on Swinging Bridge, as well as a number of non-lakefront parcels with lake rights. There are also a few unbuilt resale parcels available. Expect to pay $400,000 and up for a lake fronting parcel, and $75K+ for a non-lake parcel. (Chapin has a few lots that are sort of “in between” — on the wide creek feeding Toronto Reservoir, or on a few of the shallower coves, that offer waterfront access at a somewhat lower price point than the direct lakefront parcels on deep water.) Chapin is now mature enough, that there are some resales — both homes and lots — filtering on to the market. A home fronting one of the lakes will typically run upwards of $1 million, while non-lakefront homes range from $500,000 to $1M. Some of the larger (5,000+ square feet) lakefront houses on prime lots can carry asking prices in the $2 million and up range.
Kenoza Lake is often compared to Chapin, but they’re very, very different. Chapin is “grand” in every sense of the word, from its impressive stone gatehouse to the size of the lakes and the size of its houses. Kenoza Lake is more intimate, with just 15 lakefront parcels. The lake is about 90 acres, non-motorboat and is private with no public access. The location is convenient for those who want easy access to a country village, located halfway between Jeffersonville and the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Kenoza came to market much more recently, so there is a wide selection of lakefront parcels available, ranging in price from the to the mid-$100’s to the mid-$200’s. While many of the houses currently built at Kenoza are in a similar lodge style that’s popular at Chapin, the developer at Kenoza is open to more modern styles. So if your taste runs to Dwell modern, you could possibly build it here, whereas the architectural guidelines at Chapin would dictate more traditional styles.
Some of the more traditional lakes do have a handful of larger, more private lakefront homes. The southern shore of Tennanah Lake has 3 or 4 homes set on 3 to 6 acres. Likewise, the northern finger of Swinging Bridge has a few dozen homes on 5 acre lots, and there are also a few houses with private settings on Devenoge, Highland and Masten. The few houses with private settings on more traditional lakes, however, typically are priced about the same as their “new” lake counterparts.
Lakes here vary greatly in size, from very small to quite large. Some small lakes, less than 10 acres (Indian, Blackberry) are more like large ponds. Our largest lake is Swinging Bridge reservoir, at 1,000 acres, followed by Toronto Reservoir at 800 acres. From there lake size drops down substantially to the 250 to 400 acre range (Yankee, Wanaksink, Wolf, White, Black and Lake Louise Marie). FYI, the reservoir in Central Park is 106 acres. From that 250 to 300 acre size, we have lakes in all shapes and sizes down to Timber at about 40 acres. The inclination among many first time lake lookers is that they want a large, or at least larger, lake. However, larger doesn’t always equate with “best for your purposes.” For example, property along the narrower northern fingers of Swinging Bridge, our largest lake, have shorter lake views than at Timber, one of our smaller lakes. And the property along the northern end of Swinging Bridge is steeper, while at Timber lots have a gentle slope down to the lake and might be more appealing for families with young children looking for easy swimming and fishing.
Many lakes are organized in a single community structure, where the property was originally subdivided and sold by a single owner, and the lakefront homes are all part of a common homeowners’ association. While these are single ‘developments’, the feel, style and era varies widely. One of our most popular traditional lakes, Wolf Lake, is an organized community that maintains a very rustic style with most of the small lake cottages evoking a very ‘Saranac Lake’ feel. Nearby is Emerald Green, a lake development launched in the 1970’s that has a more polished, “suburban” feel — with paved streets and streetlights. At Wolf Lake, you’re more likely to find cedar shake siding, while at Emerald Green, vinyl siding is popular. Emerald Green offers a full menu of recreational amenities, including a swimming pool, tennis courts, a clubhouse and sport courts. Wolf has a community beach and a rustic clubhouse but no pool or tennis courts. At Wolf, the emphasis is on low key outdoor pursuits, with 1,500 acres of shared land. Emerald Green is more “Superbowl on a plasma screen”, while Wolf is decidedly more “Scrabble” in style.
Styles change, and currently lakes with that “On Golden Pond” rustic mountain lake getaway feel are more popular. That also means, that pound for pound, they’re more expensive. You get more house for your money at Emerald Green than at Wolf.
A related factor is how much “community” you want. Some communities have more of a club feel, and offer a range of common facilities. These include Wolf, Merriewold, Emerald Green, Wanaksink and to some extent, Chapin, with it’s optional-membership lake club. Others have more limited community facilities, often just a community beach / lake access where non-lakefront homeowners can swim, fish and keep a canoe or kayak. These have less of “club” feel, and are also less likely to have organized activties like children’s programs in the summer. Lakes in this category include Black, Devenoge, York and Elko. There are also different hybrids, like Muskoday, Smallwood, White Lake Homes and Yankee with active community associations but not as extensive facilities or organized activities.
The size of the house you’d like — now or with a future expansion — can also drive your lake choice. House sizes can be quite small on many of the traditional lakes. Back in the Ozzie and Harriet era, middle class primary homes often topped out at about 1,500 sq. ft., so a 1,000 sq. ft. lake cottage seemed pretty good sized.
They were typically 2 bedrooms with one bath and a large sleeping porch. When the extended family would pile in for holiday weekends, they’d throw air mattresses on the porch and pitch a pup tent in the yard. At the traditional lakes, a 1,500 sq. ft. house is considered very good sized, and a 2,500+ square footer is pretty rare. Originally, many of these lake cottages were seasonal only. Nobody even thought of coming up in the cold weather. The houses weren’t winterized, some pumped their water directly from the lake, and at others with a well, the pipe from the well to the house was seldom buried below the frost line.
Today’s lakehouse buyers generally want a much larger house suitable for year round use. The common “minimum” size requirement I hear, even at the affordable end of the lakefront market, is for 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and 1,500 sq. ft. Demand for houses starting in this size range is high, but supply is low — particularly at many of the more rustic traditional lakes like Wolf. Also, you can’t assume that if you buy a small 2 bedroom on a lake that you can expand it. Because the houses on most of our lakes have septic systems and wells (rather than community water), those would often need to be expanded for an addition — which often can’t be done because of the small lot sizes and current lake setback and separation requirements for wells and septic.
So what does this all mean? Larger houses are in shorter supply and cost more than their added square footage would justify. The pricing rationale is very similar to larger apartments in Manhattan. 3 or 4 bedroom apartments are typically more expensive per square foot than smaller 1 and 2 bedroom apartments. The same holds generally true for lakefront. The best values overall tend to be in smaller two bedroom cottages.
“Lake Rights” versus “Lakefront”
A non-lakefront house in a lake community with lake rights can be a more affordable option than buying an actual lakefront house, and still provide you with lake access and recreation. With lake rights at most lakes you can also keep a kayak or canoe at the community beach or lake access point. For houses with lake rights to a motorboat lake, there is often (but not always) a provision for boat docking space. However, lake rights houses generally do NOT have a lake view. One option, pricewise, between direct lakefront and a lake rights house, is “split lakefront.” With a split lakefront house, the lakeside part of the property is separated by a small road from the house. Usually the split lakefront is directly across from the house, but occasionally you’ll find a house with a small separate lakefront parcel a bit down the road. Many folks dismiss “splits” out of hand, because they don’t quite fit their “On Golden Pond” image, but they’re quite common, and often the most affordable lakefront options. Lakes with some “splits” include White, Wolf, Loch Ada, Muskoday, Masten, Mohican and the central stretch of Swinging Bridge.