I’d Love to Live… In Northern Michigan

If you dream of owning a home, cottage or property Up North, the good news is there are many paths to happiness! We have the best insights and fresh thinking from Northern Michigan real estate experts—plus a few savvy homeowners—to help you find your true fit.

On the Water

Frida Waara, Realtor // REMAX 1st Realty, Marquette
“There are five Great Lakes, but only one named Superior. Pay attention to the stability of the shoreline. We have had record storms in the last decade and expect more to come. Does the property need erosion control? You may need to go beyond a home inspection and hire an engineer to review the stability of the shoreline and proximity to your dwelling.” 

Bear Lake // Photo by Mae Stier

Jon Zickert, Lead Realtor
The Jon Zickert Group at Real Estate One, Beulah/Frankfort

“One of Benzie County’s best-kept secrets is Long Lake, an all-sports lake tucked up against Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The blue-green waters are the perfect place to swim, boat, fish, listen to the loons or watch the eagles soar. Or look for Betsie River frontage in Benzie County, and you can literally kayak or canoe right outside your door, as well as hunt, snowmobile and ride your ATV. The Natural Rivers Act protects the natural beauty of the Betsie River and the endless salmon swimming in the river.”

Wally Kidd, Owner // Kidd & Leavy Real Estate, Petoskey
“If you have small children you will most likely gravitate to an inland lake so the kids are never too far from shore. If you’re an avid big boater or sailor, you’ll love what our freshwater “oceans” have to offer. If you’re a kayaker, your options could be something close to town or something as remote and far away from civilization as you’d like. For example, Petoskey’s Bear River offers world-class rapids right downtown.”

Ian Volchoff, Broker
Trophy Class Real Estate, Muskegon/Grand Haven/Cadillac

“If you’re looking for property on a river, pay attention to the fishing regulations. Some rivers end the season right when the fishing seems best. This is to promote a healthy population but can be a surprise when you get a knock on the door from the neighbor or local authorities. Check out the rules on the branches of main rivers, like the south and north branch of the Pere Marquette. They have specific rules for different sections related to the seasonal breeding patterns of salmon and steelhead.”

Jennifer Edson // Key Realty, Traverse City
“Know the definition of riparian rights and know that they don’t apply to the Great Lakes. People can walk the shoreline of the Great Lakes and dock their boats in front of your home if you choose to live on the bay. However, they can’t do so on an inland lake. Know which direction the house sits: Are you getting sunsets, sunrises or any sun at all? Know the property lines, especially where older cottages are prominent because sometimes you can run into family members owning adjoining properties with septic/holding tanks crossing property lines. Check for the type of road the home sits on because private roads do not work for all types of financing. Check for holding tanks vs. septic tanks. Holding tanks will cost more because they require more pump-outs and maintenance.”

Photo by Mae Stier

Suzanne Riley, Owner/Broker
CENTURY 21 Boardwalk, Manistee/Onekama

Manistee County has three ports: Manistee Lake, Portage Lake and Arcadia Lake. Bring your large boats and channel on out from your home or condo to Lake Michigan. We are still a hidden gem: to walk out your door to the sandy beachfront for under $600K seems crazy… but we have it! And views galore of freighters coming in off Lake Michigan into the Big Manistee River, a sight everyone needs to witness at least once.”

Angela Mia DiLorenzo, Broker
Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Michigan, Traverse City

Torch Lake reminds me of the Caribbean because the water is so blue and crystal clear! As the longest and second largest inland lake in the state of Michigan, it gets a lot of attention. As part of the lower Chain of Lakes, it allows for limitless boat trips and is surrounded by quaint small towns like Elk Rapids, Alden and Kewadin.”

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In a Vacation Getaway

Joan O’Neill, Realtor
Crystal Mountain Realty, Thompsonville

“For a vacation home that you’ll also rent out, look for at least three or, better yet, four bedrooms. Families often gather and vacation together. You’ll want to be able to sleep at least two adult couples comfortably, plus multiple kids. Other things to look for? Walkability to resort or downtown amenities, dining and living areas that can seat as many folks as the home can sleep, a closet where you can stash away your personal items when your home is in use by a renter and ample parking for a few SUVs. Look for listings that mention being turn-key, as that usually means that most or all of the furnishings are included. And, homes at resorts with ski facilities also come with the added benefit of a more balanced, year-round income stream.”

Frida Waara, Realtor // REMAX 1st Realty, Marquette
“Make sure your property has a place for the kids to play on a rainy day. A separate family room, screen house, gazebo or even a garage with a pingpong table saves a vacation.”

Frida Waara, Realtor // REMAX 1st Realty, Marquette
“What makes you happy? Find it and live as close to it as you can. If you prefer to walk to restaurants, live in town. If you want to catch fish for dinner, live on the river. ‘Love where you live’ is not just about the floor plan and kitchen counters. Those can all change. What you are buying is everything you CAN’T change: location and neighbors.”

Au Sable // Photo by Courtney Kent

Wally Kidd, Owner
Kidd & Leavy Real Estate, Petoskey

“More and more people are visiting Northwestern Michigan to see what we have to offer. Word has spread to places like Texas, New York and California, and they want to see firsthand what they’ve heard so much about. They’ll come up with extended family and friends and rent a place for a couple of days… and a vast majority of them will return again. Word is spreading about Michigan!” 

Ian Volchoff, Broker
Trophy Class Real Estate, Muskegon/Grand Haven/Cadillac

“Check into homeowner associations before you buy. They may not allow you to proceed with your rental income plans on that lake home investment you just bought. We have a client that makes over $40K per year in vacation rentals. His association on Strawberry Lake near Reed City does not have a clause prohibiting this, so it works great!” 

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In a Historic Home

Frida Waara, Realtor // REMAX 1st Realty, Marquette
Marquette has some dandy east-side historic homes. Ask for a summary on utility costs. That will help you gauge the cost of operating rather than just owning a historic home.” 

Kimberly Bork, Realtor & Partner
Venture Properties, Leland

“Northport Point is a private, charming community located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. It was developed in 1899 as a summer vacation destination for many big-city families from the Midwest and East Coast. Today there are a handful of year-round residents but it is primarily used as a summer retreat. It is made up of 100 homes on a wooded peninsula surrounded by the waters of Grand Traverse Bay. One of the largest cottages on the Point dating back to 1915 once belonged to George and Ellen Dryden—she was the niece of Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman.” 

Suzanne Riley, Owner/Broker
CENTURY 21 Boardwalk, Manistee/Onekama

“After living in Manistee for 25+ years, I’m still finding some gems that pop up for sale! Onekama is home to the historic Portage Point Inn, built in 1903. It has stories of Al Capone and others who traveled in from Chicago to vacation there. Plus Arcadia is the home of Harriet Quimby, the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States. I took flying lessons and soloed a plane here at Manistee’s Blacker Airport, so I have a huge appreciation for this fun fact.”

Rental unit in The Historic Village at Grand Traverse Commons, Traverse City // Reservations: 231.941.1961 or kirkbridehall.com/stay // Left photo courtesy of the Minervini Group. Right photo by Dave Weidner.

Erin Spaulding, Homeowner // Traverse City and Seattle
“I absolutely adored living in the historic Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City. I live in Seattle now but still get to visit my little condo every now and then. You really can’t beat heading down to the coffee shop in your slippers while the rest of the world is in a blizzard. It’s great for renting out to summer visitors and as a place for my husband and I to rest our heads on trips back home. The condo is only 320 square feet, but you have the rest of Building 50 to wander. Surprisingly, it’s not the smallest unit in the Village, but it’s definitely not the largest! I used to help out with the historic tours when I was there… serving as the caboose so people wouldn’t get lost in the underground tunnels.” 

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Away From It All

Nicole Darrow, Associate Broker/Owner
Big Lake Real Estate, Grand Marais

Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior is often compared to an island community and locals cheerfully think of State HWY 77 as our 25-mile-long driveway with nothing but trees, water and a few lucky souls between us and Seney. Most famously, Ernest Hemingway wrote about the Fox River here in his books. It’s more likely one will get turned around and confused in the tag elders here than run into another person, so it’s important to be competent with a compass and have a good sense of direction living up here!” 

Ian Volchoff, Broker
Trophy Class Real Estate, Muskegon, Grand Haven, Cadillac

“ATV quads and side-by-sides, motorcycle and snowmobile getaways are starting to grow in popularity. This is an up-and-coming segment that sees a younger and first-time cabin owner crowd. There is a big effort by townships right now to allow more by-trail access to small-town resources like food, drink, gas and lodging. This means economies that once were in the tank are making a comeback with off-road tourism. A lot of these homes are reasonably priced and offer family fun right from the front door! Start with camping around to see what fits your family. The state just opened 6,300 miles of forest roads for ORV use. Check out Lake, Kalkaska, Otsego and Montmorency counties for small-town feel and easy access.” 

Kristi Charles, homeowner, Interlochen and Ann Arbor
“I owned three houses in Northern Michigan because I couldn’t decide where I wanted to be! I know how that sounds but I bought each of them for between $25K and $46K and worked really hard to fix them up. I tried to talk my husband into moving to Munising, but he wouldn’t go for it. So I sold that and the Mackinaw City house, and we will hold on to our Interlochen cabin forever. We love it there because my husband and I love to bike, ski, snowshoe and walk our dogs all through the state land that surrounds our neighborhood. We love the restaurants, and our neighbors are the best there are!”

Photo by Dave Weidner

Frida Waara, Realtor // REMAX 1st Realty, Marquette
“In the Upper Peninsula, it’s common to have a ‘camp,’ not a cottage or cabin. These camps are usually small with just the bare necessities. They are often on seasonal roads and may need snowmobile or ski access in the winter. Be prepared to rough it without electricity, running water or flush toilets too. The beauty of off-grid and no plumbing is that you can visit year round and not have to worry about pipes freezing. But it may take some time in January to dig into your camp. Plan to arrive early to warm up camp, and that means the mattress too. You can have a miserable first night trying to rest on a frozen bed. And no worries about bringing water. If you come in snow season you will have plenty right out your front door to melt for coffee and dishes. Just make sure to keep the dog out of your snow pantry.”

John & Elizabeth Kilbourne, Homeowners
Bois Blanc Island and East Grand Rapids
“Over the last 30 years, we have created our Bois Blanc Island Compound which includes a Family House, Boat House, Studio House, Tiny House (a cozy 200 square feet overlooking Lake Huron) and Tractor House (which stores our 1942 Ford 9N Tractor). Bois Blanc Island is northeast of the tip of the mitt in Lake Huron, southeast of Mackinac Island, due north of the city of Cheboygan. We live in East Grand Rapids in the winter but on the island the rest of the year. Our two children, Zoe and Parker, spent nearly all of their summers on the island. For the first 12 summers, we lived in a tent with no electricity, a pitcher-pump well and limited telephone service. Each summer, as finances permitted, we added on: clearing more land, putting in a well, bringing electricity to our lot. In 2001, we built our 800-square-foot Scandinavian cottage. We have built nearly all of the structures by ourselves often using cedar milled on the island. We can go days on the island without seeing another person. The sunrises and sunsets are majestic, and we have experienced the Northern Lights from our beach. We encourage everyone to find their Special Place. Take the risk and create slowly over time as finances permit. You will never regret your decision.”

Kimberly Bork, Realtor & Partner
Venture Properties, Leland

“Most property searching can be done online these days with elaborate virtual tours, however, I always recommend having your agent send several options and then have the out-of-town buyers come physically see the properties and surrounding area. Once they’ve decided on a home, make an offer and head to closing, the closing can be done remotely with a mail-out package. The buyer can then come to town to get the keys at the time of possession or have a property manager do a walk-through on their behalf.” 

Debbie Russell, Owner // Tiny House Resort, Central Lake
“Our full-time home is a 700-square-foot cabin on three acres. We also have two tiny houses we rent, and both are under 300 square feet. One of them we lived in for 3 years. And we are currently building a 160-square-foot tiny house to add to our resort this summer. I love it for the freedom and minimalism. We live in a tiny house in the woods that blossoms into a tiny house resort in the summer.”

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A Great Place to Raise a Family

Lesa Jarski, Broker/Owner
Real Estate One, Gaylord

“One time I was touring a potential buyer relocating from Iowa to Gaylord, and he asked where the nightlife was, so I drove him past the soccer fields! We are known for snow and are a golf MECCA. Otsego Club and Treetops Resort are both close to town. And there’s one thing you can’t get anywhere else: Elk! Elk are abundant east of town, and the City of Gaylord owns Aspen Park where a large herd of elk live. I took my girls there often when they were little. Just sit in the car and watch.”

Ann Porter // Coldwell Banker Schmidt Realtors, Traverse City
“Walkable neighborhoods like Traverse City and Suttons Bay are amazing. Like-aged neighbors can encourage children from a young age to get outside and see their friends. Picking a home that is close to things to do or places to go can also encourage families to spontaneously choose an activity like hiking, walking downtown, grabbing an ice cream cone or sticking their toes in the sand at a nearby park, for quality time together. For outdoor lovers, the best place to raise a family might be on a large parcel of land to explore and build a tree fort!”

Nicole Darrow, Associate Broker/Owner
Big Lake Real Estate, Grand Marais

“I think many people today feel isolated from others even when they are surrounded by many. Come to Grand Marais! You’re not only welcome, but valued. Living in a small town at the end of the road, with Lake Superior in the backyard, makes for a tight-knit community that is welcoming to visitors and new arrivals. We need one another, and that is reflected in our values of getting along and accepting others.”

Lesa Jarski, Associate Broker and Owner // Real Estate One, Gaylord
“Schools are a priority for many, but that’s not as big of a deal now with School of Choice, where families can enroll in school districts outside the county they live in. When talking to families, proximity to schools often comes up. If you live farther out, then you have to be organized and plan ahead. If the kids forget something, it’s not as easy to resolve.”

Photo by Tess Crowley

Virginia (Gini) Pelton // Century 21 Boardwalk, Manistee
Manistee offers good schools, the Armory Project Youth Center, dance, music and theater at the Historic Ramsdell Theatre, Vogue Theatre, and beach and river access all within a mile of any residence in the city limits.”

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Kandace Chapple is a freelance writer in Interlochen.