When you're ready to make your fantasy a reality


By Mara Severin

Whenever I'm lucky enough to get an invitation to Trygve Erickson's vacation home on Long Lake in Willow, I spend a fleeting moment pretending it's mine. A spacious, lovely house with a deck, a boat dock, and an expansive view of the lake, it's the perfect fantasy. But the journey between fantasy and reality is a long one. And if you're considering buying a second home, you can't afford to take any shortcuts.

The heat is on but nobody's home

The process of buying a second home is no less arduous than the process of buying your first, says Pauline Hofseth of Prudential Jack White/Vista Real Estate. "You need to have a plan," she says. "You need to set goals."

First, she says, you need to ask yourself some difficult questions. Once you've determined that you can afford the financial investment – including a second set of furniture, fixtures, heating bills and home-owner headaches – you need to look at the other resource a second home requires: time. Do you have enough of it?

"There are well over a hundred places on my lake and on any given weekend, two-thirds of them will be empty," says Erickson. "Even on beautiful weekends." His estimate is right on. According to a 2006 study by the National Association of Realtors, two-thirds of all second home owners use it for less than four weeks a year. Fully half use it for only two weeks or less.

So the two-hundred and fifty- thousand-dollar questions are: do you really have time to enjoy a second home? Can you get away from your job often enough to use it? Can your spouse? Is your family as committed to weekend getaways as you are? Can your children bear to give up weekend sleep-overs, sports practice, and ballet classes? Can you maintain your primary residence when you're gone a substantial amount of time?

Setting your sights on the perfect site

If you answered yes to the questions above, now it's time to ask the fun ones. "What are your dreams and desires?" asks Hofseth. Do you dream of catching fish right outside your front door? Are you hoping to have winter-long ski weekends? Do you love water sports? Do you want to entertain lots of guests? Or do you just want some peace and quiet?

Choosing your spot can be a tricky business, says Erickson, whose extensive search for the perfect site included flying over likely lakes in a borrowed airplane. If you want solitude, he says, then a home on a large lake, which attracts recreation addicts and water sports fans, may not be the best place for you. If you want your place to be the entertainment hub for a large circle of friends, you'll need a spot that's easily accessible and not too far out of town.

Ready for a realtor

Now that you know what you want, it's time to find someone who will help you get it. Start by talking to a real-estate agent in your hometown that you've already worked with and that you like and trust, says Hofseth. "Chances are," she says, "they'll have connections and can help you find an agent in the area where you want to buy." When Hofseth is asked to make a referral, she contacts the prospective agent first to see if she thinks it will be a good fit.

Make sure your agent is an expert in the exact kind of real estate you're interested in buying, says Glenda Feeken of ReMax of the Peninsula. If you're looking at a property in an undeveloped area, he or she should be well-versed on septic systems, heating systems and their related costs. "If you want a home on the river," she says, "your agent should be fully knowledgeable about set-backs, codes and regulations."

Love thy neighbors

When you're looking at a property, says Feeken, beware of love at first sight. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the whole neighborhood and with your potential neighbors. A nearby house that hosts a summer-long party might shatter your dream of tranquility. Or, says Feeken, you might have neighbors who collect old cars and (in your mind) spoil the view. "Look at the surrounding area and be happy with what you see now," she says. "If you don't want to drive by it or live next to it, don't buy it."

Erickson advises making several fact-finding trips before you commit to a property. Try to visit at different times of day. "On our lake, the property values don't distinguish between the houses that get the warm sun in the afternoon and those that don't." You don't want to be bundled up in a sweater looking at your sun-bathing neighbors across the lake on the day after you close.

Pay now. Relax later.

So you want to make sure you end up in the perfect vacation home where you can feel relaxed, carefree and spontaneous? Just make sure that you're not relaxed, carefree and spontaneous while you're searching.