They say a rainy day on the lake is better than a sunny day in the city. And with the cool waterfront breezes, fishing and kayaking on demand, early evening tequila on the dock, and a generally life-affirming vibe beckoning, who are we to argue with that logic?
Each year, with the arrival of the dog days of summer, the desire to find a place by the water becomes nothing less than a national obsession. The past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic brought hordes of well-heeled buyers into vacation destinations, bidding up prices and purchasing any and all available real estate.
But this year looks a bit different. With pandemic restrictions easing up—and American life returning to something akin to “normal”—locking in a home on the water is feeling like less of an imperative to some would-be buyers. And with inflation rising, stock and cryptocurrency markets taking a beating, and fears of another recession mounting, plenty of well-off Americans are holding off on buying yet another home.
And that is providing an opening for regular folks with steady jobs who have been saving up for just this opportunity to swoop in.
Even in today’s expensive real estate market, there are still a few places left where homebuyers can find great, affordable lake homes that can serve as Zen-inducing or pulse-pounding retreats (your choice!) for much of the year. And yes, they can be terrific investments, too.
“There has been a steady uptick in the number of people seeking out homes in lake towns over the past few years,” says Glenn S. Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. The company, based in Hoover, AL, has lakefront listings in 34 states.
“We see a trend across all our markets of buyers thinking, ‘Life is short, buy the lake home!’ Many of those seek out the more rural lake towns where homes may be relatively more affordable than at larger lakes or at lakes near cities,” says Phillips.
These lake towns might not be ones with the highest name recognition or bragging rights, but they do offer a host of fun water activities—and the privacy and small-town feel missing from bigger, more populated vacation spots.
To come up with our list of the nation’s most affordable lake towns, we looked at more than 11,000 towns with or on lakes. Then we calculated affordability by analyzing median home list prices year to date through May 2022 for these communities. Each place had to have at least 25 listings. We also factored in the number of restaurants, bars, and entertainment establishments per capita to ensure there was more to do in these places than just lounge by the water.
To ensure geographic diversity, we limited our list to just one city per state.
So, come on in, the water’s fine!
1. Sulphur, OK
Median home list price: $224,000*
With a name like Sulphur, it’s no surprise that the area is famous for its mineral springs. With the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, the Lake of the Arbuckles, and the Artesian Hotel, Casino, and Spa, the small town has a lot to offer.
“With the campsites, the natural spring water, the scenic views around the park, and the lake, it’s just so calming and relaxing,” says Misty Treptow, executive director of the Sulphur Chamber of Commerce.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma’s oldest national park) offers nearly 10,000 acres of camping, hiking, horseback riding, and biking.
The word is getting out. Treptow notes that the town has seen an uptick in the number of visitors to the area, as well as folks who have decided to turn their lake homes into their permanent homes.
“If they already had one home by the lake and they had another home in an expensive city and you had to consolidate, which are you going to choose?” she says
Those interested in a vacation getaway can snag this four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom house located about 1.4 miles from the Guy Sandy boat ramp on Arbuckle Lake for $275,000. The roughly 2,000-square-foot house sits on a third of an acre and has a fenced backyard.
Median home list price: $301,000
Located just south of the Iowa-Minnesota border, Spirit Lake sits on the western shore of East Okoboji Lake, in the Iowa Great Lakes region. The region boasts seven lakes, with the three largest natural bodies of water located in the town proper: Big Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, and East Okoboji Lake. That provides plenty of opportunities for swimming, fishing, boating, and even hiking. (Fun fact: Big Spirit Lake is home to 40 different species of fish.)
It’s also a prized destination for great shopping and local activities—like a top-notch weekly farmers market—and its welcoming community vibe, says Jen Schaben, real estate agent with Stauss Realty in Okoboji.
Spirit Lake also offers a host of museums and local historical sites such as the Dickinson County Heritage Center and the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum. For car buffs, the Okoboji Classic Cars Museum is a must-see.
There has been a lot of new development in the area, as more people from out of state discover the Spirit Lake area, says Schaben. California, Omaha, and Minnesota are among the most popular transplant states.
As for housing, there is something for any price range.
“It just depends on what you’re looking for,” Schaben says. “We have homes that are $100,000 to $250,000, and then we also have $5 million lake homes. There is a wide variety in a very small town.”
For those looking for an affordable lake home, this three-bedroom, three-bathroom ranch is listed for $375,000. It sits on 1.5 acres across from Templar State Park on Big Spirit Lake.
Median home list price: $315,000
Those lucky enough to see a sunset at Lake Kampeska could understand how wildlife artist Terry Redlin was inspired by his surroundings in Watertown.
The bucolic town, tucked between Pelican Lake and Lake Kampeska, offers a plethora of water sports like canoeing and water skiing. In addition to lakeside living, residents also take advantage of the prime fishing, picnic, and camping spots, and a scenic paved trail for bikes and pedestrians that winds through the town and around Lake Kampeska.
“We have four seasons here, and most people like that it switches things up from boating, to snowmobiling, ice fishing, and hunting—the list goes on,” says Jayson Maguire, Realtor and owner of Exit Realty Connection in Watertown.
Maguire says there has been an increase in interest in the area, especially from out-of-state buyers given the area’s lakeside location and tranquil and safe community.
Buyers can find homes like this three-bedroom, two-bathroom lakeside abode, listed for $449,000. The house, which sits on nearly a quarter-acre, offers views of Lake Kampeska from the deck.
4. Winsted, CT
Median home list price: $260,000
Nestled into the scenic foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, this picturesque community is home to Highland Lake, one of the largest lakes in Connecticut and a popular spot for residents to beat the summer heat.
The 440-acre, 3-mile-long lake features two public beaches and a shoreline dotted with a mix of upscale and affordable permanent and vacation homes. The lake’s crystal-clear waters are the ideal spot for fishing, water-skiing, and swimming.
The village of Winsted offers a downtown filled with antiques stores, restaurants, and small boutiques for those hoping to wile away a lazy afternoon.
Vacation homes are still affordable in Winsted. This two-bedroom condo on Highland Lake, with a shared dock across the street, is for sale for $319,000.
Median home list price: $420,000
Alaska might not be the first place most folks think of when they envision summer lake towns. However, the “Salmon Capital of the World,” as Ketchikan is known, is built up along the waterfront due to its steep and mostly forested terrain. The city sits in a strategic position at the southern tip of the Inside Passage, connecting the Gulf of Alaska to the Puget Sound.
Aside from focusing on the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles, amateur photographers can point their cameras in nearly any direction and capture a gorgeous view of the city’s jaw-dropping natural beauty. There is a thriving and vibrant art and cultural scene that highlights the area’s Alaskan native heritage.
Buyers on a budget, who don’t mind roughing it a bit, can check out this small cabin on Pennock Island for just $79,000.
Median home list price: $279,000
Here is a lake town that visitors and residents can enjoy throughout all four seasons. With world-class skiing nearby, Lake Placid hosted both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.
Located in the Adirondack Mountains and surrounded by rivers famous for fly-fishing, cliffs made for climbing (and jumping), and lakes ideal for a host of water sports, Lake Placid is one of the most sought-after vacation spots in New York.
The quaint village offers restaurants, hotels, resorts, and fun and unique shops along its cute downtown corridor. There is also an active and vibrant local arts scene thanks to the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.
Striking views, a gorgeous landscape, stunning lakes, and affordable housing? Yup.
In fact, for $250,000, homebuyers can buy their own patch of Lake Placid and build their dream home. The 0.67-acre lot is one of the last waterfront building sites in the village of Lake Placid and comes with 295 feet of sandy waterfront. The 1,500-square-foot footprint allows for a second story, allowing the buyer to build a stunning 3,000-square-foot home on the water.
7. Sandusky, OH
Median home list price: $158,000
Even though it has dropped a couple of spots, Sandusky remains a popular vacation spot for Midwesterners looking for lake living at affordable prices.
Once an old port town, Sandusky is now known as a major recreation and entertainment destination. Visitors can easily hop on a ferry for a day of island-hopping, or spend the day at Cedar Point Amusement Park, which bills itself as the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” They can also take a trip to the Merry-Go-Round Museum.
For those looking for a property as close to the water as possible, there are options. For the price-conscious, there is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on Shoreline Drive that is listed for $260,000.
If the sky’s the limit, buyers can check out a four-bedroom, 4.5-bathroom mansion on Cedar Point Road listed for roughly $2.4 million. The unique 1.88-acre, lake-to-bay lot offers views from every window in the 8,800-square-foot home.
8. Ashland, WI
Median home list price: $146,000
Tucked into Chequamegon Bay on the south shore of Lake Superior, Ashland is rich with local history, arts and culture, and natural beauty. There’s also the noteworthy shops and restaurants located in the town’s eight-block business district, which happens to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In between shopping, don’t miss the reason Ashland is called the “Historic Mural Capital of Wisconsin.” Roughly two dozen murals dot the downtown district, depicting the lively history of the former logging town.
It’s easy to spend an entire day outdoors in Ashland, either fishing in the deep waters of Chequamegon Bay, hiking to one of the many nearby waterfalls, or simply counting the different species of birds flying over the bay.
Howebuyers can settle right into this three-bedroom, one-bathroom home just blocks from Lake Superior. Listed at $129,900, this house is close to the lake walk and Ashland’s vibrant downtown.
Median home list price: $248,000
Located at the mouth of the Cheboygan River on Lake Huron, the town offers clear waters and a gorgeous shoreline. There are several nearby lakes: Burt Lake, Long Lake, Mullett Lake, Twin Lakes, and Black Lake. After a full day of work, many residents find themselves on the water or hitting the trails for a hike.
“One of the best things is that we’re far enough from any major metropolitan area that our lakes are not that busy relative to their size,” says Deborah Fullford, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Schmidt Realtors of Indian River.
The former industrial town has pivoted and is cultivating its reputation as a resort town, Fullford says.
People are moving back to the area, either after retirement or because they can work from their lake cottage, she says.
Those looking to move to Cheboygan are finding plenty of affordable homes for sale, including this four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom house listed for $169,900.
10. Lake Ariel, PA
Median home list price: $307,000
Known as a major vacation destination, Lake Ariel is surrounded by the gently rolling hills of the Poconos Mountains. The area surrounding the lake is made up of mostly private homes, but there are several marinas where visitors can rent or launch a boat onto the lake’s clear waters.
For more water activities, locals also visit nearby Lake Henry and Lake Wallenpaupack, both recognized as prime fishing spots.
With a population of roughly 14,500, Lake Ariel is among the quieter, more peaceful lake towns. A majority of the population is seasonal.
Buyers might want to check out the Hideout, a planned residential community with 3,200 single-family homes nestled into the Poconos. The community is home to several private bodies of water: Roamingwood Lake, Deerfield Lake, Brooks Lake, Windermere Lake, Hidden Lake, and Big Springs Pond. The community is well-known for its abundance of vacation rentals and homes for sale.
Even in the gated community, affordable homes can still be found. This five-bedroom, two-bedroom house is listed for $325,000. Situated on nearly a half-acre, this house features a screened porch and is within walking distance of Roamingwood Lake.
* The average of monthly, median list prices for all homes in the city (not just lake houses) from January 2022 through May 2022, using Realtor.com data
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