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John Lamb, Published April 19 2014

Looking for a lake place? Realtors offer tips for buying

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – With hundreds of lakes less than an hour away, having a place of your own is a popular dream for many in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Buying a lake place can also be an intimidating experience. With more than 400 lakes within a 25-minute drive of Detroit Lakes, finding the right lake, much less the right spot, takes some consideration.

Not all lakes are created equal. South of Detroit Lakes are the prairie lakes of Otter Tail County – which has more than 1,100 lakes, more than any other county in the United States – where the ground is level with big sandy beaches and not a lot of terrain. To the north and east, the space is more forested, and lakes tend to be cleaner because they haven’t felt the effects of agriculture run-off.

We asked a couple of veteran Detroit Lakes-based Realtors what questions potential buyers should be asking when looking for a lake place.

Jack Chivers has been working real estate in the lakes region – Becker, Mahnomen, Clearwater and Otter Tail counties – since 1966, starting his own company, Jack Chivers Realty, in 1985. He lives on Big Detroit.

Dave Schiller of Counselor Reality started developing lake properties 43 years ago and has spent the last 20 as a broker. He lives on Cotton Lake.

What’s the first question people should ask?

Both men say prospective buyers need to ask themselves what they want out of a lake place.

“There is a lake for everybody. You have to decide what you want out of the lake,” Chivers says.

“Do you have little grandkids?” Schiller asks. “If that’s the case, you’ll want to be on a lake with a little more gradual shoreline, more of a walk-in beach, preferably sand so little kids can play on it, as opposed to rugged shoreline with rocks that drop off quicker. That’s not a good beach for little kids. And sooner or later most people are dealing with little kids or grandkids.”

Are some lakes more social than others?

“If they want to be close to the golf course and restaurants and shopping and stuff like that, I would gravitate close to Detroit Lakes and southwest of there (Melissa and Sallie), and also closer to Fargo (Cormorants). But those lakes are considerably higher priced,” Schiller says.

“If they want to get away from the turmoil, Cotton and Pickerel are both within 15 miles from Detroit Lakes. The next tier out would be north and east, Strawberry, Bad Medicine, Juggler, Elbow and Tullibee,” he added.

What do people get too concerned about?

“I can’t say it enough, and people don’t listen: You buy your location. Don’t worry about what’s on it,” Chivers says. “You can tear that down. You can add onto it. But the lot, you always have to be satisfied with that because you can’t change it. They won’t let you change the lake shore and there are major trees you can’t cut down now, so location is everything. Spend the time looking at the location before you look at what the kitchen is like.”

What makes a good fishing lake?

“The real good fishermen don’t tell you where they’re fishing, but the DNR does,” Chivers says.

He points out that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ website, www.dnr.state.mn.us, will post what the fish counts are on lakes.

“The DNR has been saying for the last couple of years that the world-record Muskie is going to come out of Detroit Lakes,” he says. “They net fish every year, so you know they’ve already caught the world’s biggest muskie and put it back in the water.”

“They said the world-record walleye was going to come out of Buffalo Lake, north of here,” Chivers continues. “Obviously they’ve already trapped the world-record walleye up there and put him back in the lake.”

“Over the years, Big Cormorant has had a very good reputation as a walleye lake, but fishermen tell me to be successful, you have to fish Big Corm at night, and not everybody wants to do that.”

Schiller’s take: “Some of these big popular lakes are actually good fishing lakes if you can get out there and fish when it’s a little quieter, a little more peaceful, not midday on the Fourth of July,” he says. “Detroit, Sallie and Melissa are good fishing lakes. Cormorant is an excellent lake … Fishing doesn’t seem to be the driver of where people want to be, except for a few.”

Are there lakes that don’t allow motor boats?

Long Lost Lake in Clear Water County is the only recreationally developed lake with motor restrictions, Schiller says.

How can you tell if the shoreline and lake bottom are sandy or mucky?

“By and large, the best sandy-beach lakes will be on larger lakes with some wind and wave action to create sandy areas,” Schiller says. “If you find a shoreline that is undeveloped and not sandy, it will never be sandy. The DNR will permit the spreading of a sand blanket, but it’s not the recommended thing to do and it is not going to give you a sand beach ever. If it’s soft-bottom, it’s going to stay soft-bottom.”

“Now you can go on Google and look at it from the air. It’s just incredible,” Chivers says. “If you have lily pads and cattails, that’s muck. If you have pencil reeds, that’s sand or light gravel, that’s hard bottom. Muck is a turnoff, but you’ve got to remember, it’s a lake. Fish live in there. If you want really clear water, build a swimming pool. You can control the temperature.”

Is there much lake property left to develop?

“There are very few lakes around now that aren’t developed unless you go up 30 miles to the north, and those lakes aren’t developed for a reason. (Landowners) there don’t want them developed,” Chivers says.

“The most undeveloped lake with quality potential is White Earth Lake,” he says. “It’s one of the deepest lakes. It’s got great, big 6- to 10-foot sturgeon floating on top in the heat of the summer. Whole parts of the lake are undeveloped. There are parts where they take water out of the lake and put it in their cottages, that’s how clear the water is.”

Which lakes have the cleanest water?

“Bad Medicine is as clean as it gets,” Chivers says, adding that some of the early promotional shots for Hamm’s Beer were shot on Bad Medicine. Or as the commercials called it, “the land of sky-blue waters.”

He says lakes that are spring fed and are big enough to see significant wave action are cleaner because it reduces the amount of muck on the floor.

Are there still cottages to buy, or are they all homes?

“Most people buy a cottage with the idea that someday they’ll tear it down and build a really nice year-round home,” Chivers says.

“The trend is definitely to make them into year-round operations,” Schiller adds.

Is there a better or worse time to buy lake property?

“Personally, I like my buyers to come in the fall, because that means they looked around all summer long,” Chivers says. “Now they have an idea what they want.”

He says people will buy all summer long, however.

“Looking when the leaves are down, especially if it’s heavily wooded or lake lots, it makes it easier to see the topography,” Schiller says. “However, weed growth on these lakes doesn’t peak until after July 4, so what looks like a really nice lot in early May or late April may have more emergent weeds in July or August than you may want. But most of these lakes are pretty decent, and as long as you have enough wave and wind action, they’re pretty clean.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533