To Live on the Lake

You can spend more than a million dollars just to get a lot in Rocky River.  You can buy a historic estate fro double that in Bratenahl (but brace yourself for heating bills).  You can get it all -- private beach, huge new home -- for $2.5 mi

Liz Marinik spent her childhood summers in an 800-square-foot cottage on Lake Shangri-La in Wisconsin. She remembers, at 6 years old, jumping out of the car as soon as her family arrived and running as fast as she could down the hill to the pier. “I don’t know what I was running for in particular,” she says. “I just knew that I had to get to the water.”

It’s been more than three decades since her father paid $19,500 for that cottage, and Liz has finally found a new piece of paradise — only it’s nearly 20 times bigger than the cottage where she fell in love with the feel of a lake breeze. This spring, she and her husband, Mark, moved into their new 15,000-square-foot lakefront home in Bay Village. It has nine bathrooms, four bedrooms and a walkout basement that, at 5,000 square feet, is about twice as big as an average new home. But those statistics can’t begin to describe what makes the home so unique.

Unlike most of its neighbors on our design-conservative coast, the Mariniks’ home has what Liz describes as a “warm contemporary” feeling. The foyer is covered in panels of aniegre, a reddish-brown tropical wood from Africa. The floors, which are toasty in winter thanks to the home’s radiant heating, are made of café beige marble. A free-floating spiral staircase separates the area from the two-story great room, with its expansive lake views.

The home’s real showstopper is the kitchen. Sure, we’ve not been in every kitchen in Northeast Ohio, but this is the most impressive we’ve seen yet, from old money in Hunting Valley to new in Westlake.

The kitchen is dominated by a rectangular center island 12.5 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, with under-counter cabinets made of stainless steel. It’s topped with golden diamond granite that Liz found in Chicago. A 48-inch round black granite tabletop is cantilevered off the edge, supported by a stainless-steel column. It’s where Liz says her two teenage children eat breakfast, perched on acid-washed stainless-steel stools.

The perimeter countertops house an amazing collection of appliances (see “The Dazzler,” page 91), along with a 70-inch Cheng Design stainless-steel hood over the 48-inch gas cook top. The same aniegre wood seen in the foyer is used for the cabinetry and 8-foot-tall stainless-steel curved doors hide more storage.

The family eats dinner in a 12-foot round space overlooking the lake. Overhead is a triple-stepped soffit, plastered in a warm platinum finish. Underfoot, the circular floor design is a blend of waterjet-cut beige stone, black granite and gold limestone.

A large bar area separates the kitchen from the great room, where everything ugly is hidden in an entertainment unit custom-made in Florida.Liz laughingly calls it their Range Rover, “because that’s about how much it cost.”

The house actually sits on two lots, which brings up the couple’s biggest regret. The venture began the way so many lakefront homes do these days: They bought a house and tore it down. Halfway through the building process, however, the lot next door became available. Rather than risk someone else buying it and obstructing part of the view, the Mariniks made the decision to purchase it. Had this option been available from the start, Liz says they would have built a “totally different” house, capitalizing on the views available from such a wide lot. Instead, they had to settle for putting a tennis court on the second lot and are contemplating one day adding a pool.
Each year, Bay Village Mayor Deborah Sutherland says about seven or eight new homes are built along the lake in her city.

It didn’t used to be that way. “I think the trend was just beginning five years ago,” says Realty One Real Living agent Joan Ellis-Saxton, who found the Mariniks their lot. Of course, there was an occasional home torn down to make way for new construction. But before that, for the most part, she says people just didn’t think of it.

Today, they most definitely do. And prices reflect that. As an example, Ellis-Saxton says a teardown lot just sold in Rocky River for nearly $1.4 million. Just five years ago, an almost identical lot went for $399,000. In River especially, she says, “they’re going through the roof.”
Ellis-Saxton notes that, compared to other parts of the country, living on the water is still a deal. As one man from Chicago incredulously asked, “I can actually be on the water for $2 million?”
Actually, you can do it for less than a quarter million, but we’ll get to that later.

Tearing down homes on the lake to build bigger and better — a huge trend on the West Side, but less so on the East — is not a new thing. Sutherland’s grandparents, who lived in Lakewood, had a summer cottage — without indoor plumbing — in Bay back when Lake Road was little more than a dirt path.

During the 1940s and ’50s, people began to tear those cottages down to build the homes that are currently being torn down. “Those were considered pretty palatial homes at the time,” Sutherland adds.

But palatial back then meant maybe 3,000 square feet. In 1999, a 20,000-square-foot home went up in Bay. “A lot of old-time residents say we’re potentially losing the small-town character of our town,” Sutherland says. “There are many other people who think it’s renewing our community and is very positive.”

Bay’s City Council did, however, respond to the grumbling. To prevent houses that look too big for their lot, Council passed a law requiring at least 10-foot side setbacks on lots wider than 70 feet.

In Avon Lake, Mayor Rob Berner says he’s heard complaints from residents who fear the view of the lake diminishes with each large home built. The city’s response has been to try and accumulate more land along the lake for parks.

Determining the value of a “teardown” lot depends on four factors, according to Ellis-Saxton: the city in which it’s located, the width of the lot, beach access and the view.

On the West Side, Rocky River land is the most valuable, followed by Bay Village, then Avon Lake, she explains. Rocky River, with its neighborhood feel, has the benefit of being closer to Cleveland. Rocky River Park is within walking distance, as are the stores and restaurants on Lake Road. But because of the curve of the coast, River’s skyline views can’t compare with western Bay or Avon Lake.

Also, compared to Bay and Avon Lake, there simply aren’t that many candidates for teardowns. “The homes that are on the lake are pretty extensive right now,” says Rocky River building commissioner Kevin Beirne. He estimates that, in the past five years, there have only been about seven homes torn down on the lake. In Bay, where the lake is still lined with plenty of more modest homes, about that many are torn down every year. Berner estimates that Avon Lake has anywhere from two to 10 teardowns a year, with the average being about five or six. That range has been pretty steady for some time, he says. The difference is the price of the lot and the value of the house built. “It used to be about $500,000,” he notes. “Now, it’s $5 million.”

Still, Ellis-Saxton says there’s a great divide when it comes to the value of lots in the western suburbs. As an example, she gives prices for the same hypothetical lot with 100 feet of frontage. In River, it would sell for between $1 million and $1.3 million. In Bay, $500,000 to $700,000. In Avon Lake, $425,000 to $500,000. And in Sheffield Lake, where there have been about three teardowns in the last year, $350,000 to $395,000.

While lakefront land in Cleveland proper isn’t as desirable as the suburbs, the consensus seems to be that three factors work together to keep values relatively high: the scarcity of lakefront land; for city officials and aspiring politicians who must live in the city, lakefront land is often their first choice; and tax abatements are offered for new construction.

Lakewood Historical Society executive director Mazie Adams can’t recall any teardowns in her town, except for one situation where a man bought two homes and demolished one so that he could expand the other. “It’s just not why people move to Lakewood,” she notes. “They like the older neighborhood and the older homes.”

Unlike suburbs farther west, most of Lakewood’s coast is lined with homes built from 1890 to 1920. It’s one thing to tear down a 30-year-old ranch in Avon Lake. It’s quite another to destroy a century home. “When people are looking farther out west they see more of an opportunity for changing the landscape,” Adams adds.

But that doesn’t mean Lakewood always appreciated its architectural treasures. In the 1880s to ’90s, there was a “huge boom” in Lakewood with wealthy industrialists building mansions on Lake Avenue that stretched all the way to the lake (at least until Edgewater Drive cut through in 1919). One such home, built by Theodor Kundtz, featured a private bowling alley, a five-story tower and cedar closets large enough to be bedrooms.

The home was sold in 1945 for $60,000, and like most of the great homes along Lake, it was demolished in the 1960s. Today, only one of the original mansions remains — a large white Victorian on the corner of Lake and Nicholson avenues.

A similar situation exists in Bratenahl, where village officials knew of no recent teardowns. There are, however, six new homes under construction, built primarily on new lots created by subdividing larger lots.

Farther east, where the big money migrated to places inland such as Hunting Valley and Gates Mills, the market is much different. From Euclid to Madison, only a handful of homes have been bought and torn down in recent years to make way for showier new homes. That doesn’t mean there aren’t new homes, it’s just that they’re most often built on previously vacant land.

What you do see more of on the East Side are new developments of more than one home on the lake — a function of their being more available land at more reasonable prices than the West Side. In fact, there are at least two new housing developments currently under way. The first, The Shores of Edgecliff, is being built in Euclid on 2.83 acres once occupied by an old apartment building that was torn down. The first three homes built, which sit directly on the lake, sold for about $750,000 each. One buyer was from the area, one from Germany and the other from California.

The remaining lots, however, have been slower to sell. Though all have beach access and lake views, the project’s developers, The Coral Co., found that homes priced at $349,000 in Euclid are a difficult sell and are in the process of redesigning the site plan to accommodate more homes — a total of about 14 — at a lower price point of about $290,000.

The second new development is in Willowick. Developed by Willowick Acquisitions Partners, Larimar is planning 100 to 120 homes across from the shopping at Shoregate Town Center. The land, which sat vacant for years, was home to an amusement park that closed in the 1940s, according to city officials.

In Willowick, where the most expensive lakefront home to date was appraised at less than $400,000, Larimar will definitely be charting new waters. Nine single-family homes right on the water are expected to sell for $700,000 to $1 million, while other homes in the development will range from about $300,000 to $500,000. Jane Kaim, the project’s sales manager, says the scarcity of such expensive lakefront homes on the East Side will help, not hurt, her development.

“It’s unique,” she says. “It’s for people who love the water, but don’t want to go to the West Side.”

Another new development, Lake Erie Shores Estates, is slated for Painesville Township, which, due to massive erosion problems and its history as a cottage community, has the lowest appraised homes from Lorain to Madison. In the last 30 years, “dozens of homes” have been lost to erosion, according to Mike Evangelista, Lake County’s supervisor of appraisals. The problem, he says, is now largely under control and he expects property values to rise.

Who Lives There?
Unlike the toniest inland East Side suburbs, which are largely the domain of CEOs and old money, the lakefront is a blend of all sorts of rich people, as well as plenty of more-average folks who got in before prices went up.

From the world of sports, Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas lives in Avon Lake in a 5,560-square-foot home built in 1991 and appraised at about $1.1 million. Just down Lake Road, another NBA center, Calvin Booth of the Washington Wizards, owns an 8,394-square-foot house appraised at $2.1 million (No. 10 on our Top 50 list, page 93). Booth’s wife, Keisha, is originally from the area.

Former Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia bought a house in Bay Village and added on to it before being released by the team. The 4,421-square-foot home sold in May for $1.54 million to new Plain Dealer publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger.

Just a few houses down from the Mariniks, international soccer star Brad Friedel, who plays for the Blackburn Rovers in England, is building a home with Turnbury, a custom-home builder responsible for four lakefront homes in the past few years.

As for the most expensive homes on the lake, the list tends to be dominated by business types. With an appraised value of $4.6 million, the No. 1 home is owned by George and Lora Blaha. While George, who made his money in insurance, did not return a call for this article, Lora had previously described the home to us for an earlier article. The 11,367-square-foot home on Kensington Oval in Rocky River replicates the 17th century French architecture she fell in love with while on a trip to the village of Èze in the South of France. A drive for authenticity inspired Lora and her architect, Anthony Paskevich, to choose distressed timber beams, rough stone floors, salvaged wood and even mortar with bits of seashells mixed in (a detail Lora observed while in France).

The No. 2 slot on the list (appraised at $3,035,900) belongs to Sandy and Chris Haas, the president and founder of All Pro Freight Systems Inc. in Avon. (See “The Palace,” page 95.)
Another heavyweight on the list is Jack Kahl, the founder and former CEO of Manco Inc., now called Henkel Consumer Adhesives, in Avon. In 1998, Kahl paid $1.24 million for two Avon Lake lots. He then built a 9,015-square-foot home appraised at $1,658,000, which puts it at No. 20 on our list.

From the media, both Majic 105.7’s John Lanigan and WKYC Channel 3’s Del Donahoo live in Bay. Donahoo, whose home is appraised at $223,800, lives on Lakeview Drive, a quiet stretch of older homes. His 1,620-square-foot home was built in 1912. Lanigan lives on Lake Road in a 3,212-square-foot home appraised at $563,900.

Another industry well represented on the coast is building. Herman “Bucky” Kopf, a major builder and developer in Avon Lake, lives in a 6,186-square-foot home built in 1977 and appraised at $837,930. Commercial builder Joseph Hammerschmidt lives on Frazier Drive in Rocky River in a 4,723-square-foot home appraised at $1,097,000. Just down the street on a 1-acre lakefront lot, Hammerschmidt built a 6,000-square-foot home with four fireplaces and an elevator. It’s listed at $2.49 million.

Builder David DiBenedetto and his wife, Karen, live in Avon Lake in a 6,700-square-foot home valued at $1,124,000. Karen, the project manager for DiBenedetto Fine Homes, estimates that the company builds about five to 10 homes a year, about half of which are on the lake. She credits her brother-in-law Tony, the company vice president, with cultivating the lakefront market. “He decided that none of the other builders were cornering the market,” she says. “It just snowballed.”

What it Costs to Live There/The Resale Market
For most of us, buying a house for half a million, tearing it down and spending millions more on a new house isn’t really an option. The good news is that, if your primary motivation is simply to be on the water, you do have options.

Of the approximately 50 houses for sale on the lake from Lorain to Madison, about 20 were priced at less than $500,000. The most affordable on the list is a 960-square-foot home on Lakeside Avenue in Lorain priced at $239,900. Sure, it’s small, but you’d be spending most of your time on the deck overlooking the water — at least during the summer.

If you’re an East Sider, your cheapest option is in Lakeline, where $258,000 gets you a 1,263-square-foot home with two baths and two fireplaces.

But what if you want to live in a prime lakefront city like Bay? There, too, you have choices. The cheapest listing in Bay is for $349,000 on Parkside Drive, a quaint stretch of older, but well-tended homes. Granted, it’s only 1,536 square feet, but it’s got three bedrooms, two baths and even a hot tub.

In Avon Lake, the same $439,000 that would buy you a 4,000-square-foot new home inland gets you less than half that — 1,776 square feet on a lot that’s too narrow (50 feet) to have much tear-down potential. Built in 1920, the cedar house has charm. What it doesn’t have is more than a bath and a half.

Say you’re not willing to skimp on size for spectacular sunsets. Your price is going up. For $599,900, you can get a 3,400-square-foot house in Avon Lake built in 1998. For $699,000, you can live in 4,000-square-foot home built in 1922 on Edgewater Drive in Lakewood.

If you want really big, however, you will have to hurdle the million-dollar mark. In Avon Lake, an 8,688-square-foot home built in 1987 is for sale for $2.395 million. Amenities — and there better be plenty at that price — include eight fireplaces, a sauna, six bathrooms, a four-car garage and a pool next to a cabana with two changing rooms. Plus, you have a view of the downtown skyline.

The most expensive home for sale on the lake is a bit of a surprise: a seven-bedroom, 10-bath home in Madison that locals refer to as the “Madison mansion.” Located right next to Madison’s quaint park and boasting a private beach, the house’s owner never lived in it, and there is some mystery over whether he ever intended to live there. Because it’s not yet totally finished, the home hasn’t been appraised, but it’s a good guess that it will become the most expensive property in Madison. It’s for sale for $2.5 million.

As high as some of these numbers may sound, RE/MAX Realtor Lou Barbee offers some perspective: “I can get a fabulous house for $1.5 million here,” she says. “And in Florida, I can’t get a two-bedroom condo. Cleveland probably has the most affordable waterfront property in the country.” In fact, Barbee says she’s dealt with more than one native-Clevelander-turned-New Yorker who’s considered buying a second home on the lake in Cleveland.

So, while the housing market may be a bit stale in general right now, Barbee doesn’t see our coast ultimately looking anything like it does today. She’s not sure how long it will take, but she says she has no doubts that everything that’s less than impressive will be torn down.

“Eventually,” she says, “everything along the waterfront will be magnificent.”

Cleveland Magazine intern Joanne Bello contributed to this story.

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