Can it be? The dog days of summer 2021 are upon us at last. And while plenty has changed over previous years, one thing remains constant: an overwhelming desire among many Americans to head to the water—and, just maybe, consider what it would take to own a house there.
But in today’s overheated housing market, is the concept of owning your own waterfront home a punishing fantasy or an achievable reality? Well, it all depends on where you look.
Reality check: Most of us are no more likely find ourselves in ostentatious ocean estates in Malibu, the Hamptons, or Bal Harbour than we are to enjoy an eight-minute joyride to the edge of space. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the 99% can’t get in on the waterfront action. For many, lakeside living is the answer.
That’s where the data team at Realtor.com® comes in. We set out on our annual hot-season quest to find the best affordable lake towns in the United States—places with lots of well-priced homes, lovely and fun water scenes, and no shortage of things to do on dry land. Some offer Zen-inducing tranquility, some pulse-pounding action, and others the kind of family-friendly tourist vibe that can optimize rental opportunities.
And all of them are great for those seeking escape in the spring and fall as well—no small consideration these days.
“Lake homes have always been a popular, aspirational home. The events of the past year drove additional interest,” says Glenn S. Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. His company sells lake homes in 33 states. “If you have to socially distance or can work from home, just move to the lake full time.”
His brokerage has seen sales in lake towns surge by 50% this year compared to last year, as people flock to the water. And last year was already nuts!
To find out where house hunters can actually buy a lake home without taking an extra job—or three—Realtor.com looked at the median list prices of more than 2,000 towns located on America’s watering holes from May 2020 through June 2021. Each place had to have at least 50 listings each month to make the cut.
Then we ensured these were the kind of places buyers want to be, by searching for the towns with the most water-based businesses, like marinas, restaurants, and activities, using U.S. Census Bureau data. To keep the list geographically diverse, we limited the list to one lake town per state.
See you on the dock!
1. Sandusky, OH
Median list price: $177,750*
Sandusky has been getting a lot of press over the past few years. Two years ago, USA Today named it the best coastal town in America. Set on the banks of Lake Erie, the popular vacation destination offers a revitalized downtown with good shopping and dining. Families love heading to the rides and entertainment at Cedar Point Amusement Park—the self-proclaimed “roller coaster capital of the world.”
“We have a lot of second-home buyers that come here for their getaway homes,” says real estate agent Jenny Craig of Russell Realty Company. “Homes can vary widely in price: A single-family fixer-upper on the water can go for around $250,000 or into the millions.”
Buyers want to be as close to the water as possible, whether in a condo near the lake—like this one-bedroom asking $160,500—or in a single-family house. This four-bedroom with views of Sandusky Bay is listed at $355,000.
Median list price: $199,950
Anglers from all over the Midwest flock to this rural destination for the awesome catch on manmade Lake Delton, two local rivers, and other, smaller bodies of water that are surrounded with lovely and affordable homes all along their shorelines.
But family members who aren’t into waiting hours (or what can feel like hours) for fish to bite have plenty of other entertainment options throughout the year as well, from wakeboarding and tubing on the water to minigolf and go-karts off it.
“We are right between Minneapolis and Chicago, and it’s a relatively quick trip on the interstate for people from those regions to come and vacation,” says one real estate agent, Kirkland Kettleson of Century 21 Affiliated.
Minneapolis is just over three hours northwest, and Chicago more than three hours northeast.
“We’ve become a year-round vacation destination now because of the resorts, indoor water parks, and other amenities in the area,” he adds.
Those four-season attractions have made the area’s lake homes a hot commodity among second homeowners. Condos on Lake Delton start in the low $100,000s, like this sweet two-bedroom asking $154,900. And while it is possible to find a single-family home on the water that needs a bit of love for under $200,000, the pickings at that price point are slim.
3. Chelan, WA
Median list price: $284,050
There’s a reason Chelan is the go-to second-home destination for Seattlites seeking a more affordable—and infinitely sunnier—summer escape. Just a three-hour drive, the idyllic glacial valley, located across the Cascade Range in the high desert, centers on the crystal-clear waters of Lake Chelan.
The 55-mile-long body of water is ideal for sailing or paddling past historic cabins and sprawling vineyards. And those who get seasick can avoid the water altogether with local wine tastings. Little wonder Lake Chelan is such a popular vacation destination for 12 to 14 weeks per year.
A majority of buyers use their homes here partly as vacation rentals, says Justin Skaar, owner of Coldwell Banker Lake Chelan. That makes it appealing for investors as well as folks who stay there part of the time and rent out for the rest, to help pay off their mortgages.
“It’s a way to feel secure about making payment, so they can float it if the world turns upside down,” he says.
Chelan offers housing options at a wide range of price points. Waterfront condos start in the mid $300,000s, like this one-bedroom listed at $349,000. But those who want access to the water from their backdoors need IPO-level cash; they should expect to fork over six figures for places like this brand-new three-bedroom listed at $1.25 million. (Sorry.)
4. Branson, MO
Median list price: $319,050
One perennial rule of summer: Branson, MO, is always one of the highest-ranking lake towns in the nation—even if it did move down a couple of spots, from No. 2 last year.
While the area boasts multiple lakes, the family-friendly destination offers plenty to do when you need a break from the sun and heat. If Queen Dolly Parton’s Stampede and live country music shows aren’t your thing, check out the Titanic Museum, with 400 pre-Discovery artifacts spread across 20 galleries—which can be enjoyed in the blissful A/C.
House hunters who want easy access to entertainment after paddleboarding, kayaking, or boating across 43,000 acres of water will appreciate one of the many waterfront homes on Table Rock Lake.
Buyers can find lakeview condos starting in the $200,000 range, such as this three-bedroom listed at $298,000 a bit farther from town. Closer to town, those similar units near the large body of water go for at least an extra $100,000—if not more—such as this three-bedroom asking $539,000.
5. Ely, MN
Median list price: $237,050
Right near the Canadian border, way up north in Minnesota, secluded Ely offers acres upon acres of pristine lakes and unspoiled forests set on a stunning, glacier-carved landscape. It’s basically the complete opposite of Branson—aside from, you know, the lakes. There are no theme parks or big music shows. And if Dolly has ever spent time here, she didn’t leave much of a trace.
The International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center are probably the most happening spots in town. That makes Ely paradise for lake lovers who really do want to escape from the crowds and aren’t afraid to keep socially distant.
From this $400,000 one-bedroom cabin on a wooded, waterfront acre right near the Trezona Trail to this $599,000 one-bedroom cabin on a 1.25-acre island in Shagawa Lake, Ely is the ideal lake town for folks who want to get away from it all..
Median list price: $179,500
The town of Lake Placid, set on the banks of, you guessed it, Lake Placid, is probably best known as the home of the 1980 (and 1932!) Winter Olympics. The informative museum on the Games and international ski jump, bobsled, and luge training facilities still gets tons of visitors who want to learn more or watch world-class athletes train.
While the area boasts hundreds of hiking trails for all levels of ability, it also offers motorboating, fishing, and, for those seeking some summer adrenaline, whitewater rafting. However, the Adirondack region is also a destination for folks who just want to sunbathe and roast marshmallows over a fire pit.
Although Lake Placid boasts some impressive multimillion-dollar homes on the water, like this $11 million seven-bedroom estate, folks without trust funds can get into the housing market, too. This three-bedroom, single-family house asking $205,000 offers down payment assistance for buyers who earn under a certain income. There’s also this quirky three-bedroom within walking distance to Main Street for $350,000.
Median list price: $375,050
Lake Sara has a bit of everything. It’s quiet and peaceful early in the morning, and bustling with waterskiers and boaters in the afternoon. The 800-acre recreational lake is surrounded by a wooded shoreline, winding road and grassy picnic spots that come right up to the edge of the water. This makes it and the nearby town of Effingham a beloved getaway for families from nearby St. Louis, a drive of about an hour-and-a-half away.
For a home right on the lake, buyers can find nice single-family homes starting in the $200,000-range, such as this waterfront three-bedroom asking $259,000.
But there are also plenty of folks who’d prefer to be right in town, within walking distance to dozens of restaurants, the performance center, and the nearly 30 sculptures spread throughout downtown. It’s possible to get a house in this area for just over $100,000, such as this cute three-bedroom asking $115,000.
Median list price: $371,900
Set in the Ozark Mountains of Northwestern Arkansas, Eureka Springs gets a ton of visitors who want to admire the beautifully preserved architecture of its Historic District. Sights include the Palace Hotel and Bath House, listed on the National Historic Register, as well as the Basin Park Hotel and the supposedly haunted Crescent Hotel. They were all built around the city’s natural springs—hence the name.
The area also has lots to do, from shopping and dining to mountain biking, hiking, fishing, and canoeing on its rivers and lakes. It is also renowned as the most hippie town in the state, offering drum circles, natural food options, and plenty of community art scattered across town.
Buyers who want to get in on the monthly drum circles in Basin Springs Park can find great deals on homes close to downtown, such as this renovated three-bedroom asking $279,000.
Median list price: $459,050
Just an hour-and-a-half by car from Birmingham, Guntersville boasts nearly 1,000 miles of shoreline on more than 69,000 acres of water. That’s a whole lot of space for you to lie out, water-ski, fish, kayak, or do whatever other water-based activity you care to dream up.
But it’s not just the water that makes the area so special and desirable. Known as Alabama’s Lake City, it’s surrounded by older trees, rugged mountains, and has cultural amenities like a regional theater company.
Starting at under $200,000, buyers can find comfortable homes right near the shore, such as this four-bedroom ranch just around the corner from the boat ramp, asking $184,900. But of course, those who want to go all out on their lake home can find secluded properties that cost much more, like this two-bedroom cottage on 180 feet of deep-water shoreline, for $699,500.
10. Marble Falls, TX
Median list price: $559,550
Marble Falls in the Highland Lakes Region is becoming one of the best-known tourist destinations in the central part of the state. Located just an hour from Austin, the town and its surrounding lakes—which are actually dams in the Colorado River—have become an increasingly popular second-home destination. They can play on the lake, ride horses, or follow off-road Jeep trails without losing access to high-speed internet and other city amenities.
“People are realizing they don’t have to be in the city and suburbs, so they can be out there,” says Stephen Bednarski, a real estate agent with Mark Martin and Company. “You get larger lots for the same amount of money, but you still have access to everything you need.”
Buyers can find single-family homes just blocks from the water starting in the $400,000s, like this $419,000, three-bedroom house just outside town.