Everyone knows one of those guys whose grandparents bought a vacation home for peanuts when property was cheap. Once a year, you get invitedto the lake house, the slopeside cabinand say the same thing to yourself on the drive back: I wish my family had a place like that. Well, now's your chance. Low prices and record-low mortgage rates make this the best time in generations to buy your dream escape. Not so you can flip itthose games are thankfully overbut to use it, then, someday, hand it down. We asked Larry Olmsted, who writes the Life on Vacation second-home real-estate column for USA Today, to report on ten spots where you can get the best value for your money. Your job is to pick one. Your grandkids will thank you.
This is a quaint town with seemingly perfect summer weather (June to September can see 100 bluebird days in a row, with temps in the eighties and nineties), a 1950s five-and-dime facade, and a hardcore endurance sports scene. Set on the north end of a 30-mile-long lake offering 200-plus miles of protected shoreline, Coeur d'Alene hosts an Ironman, its biggest event all year. Road cyclists from all over come to ride the 112-mile, up-and-down route to Hayden Lake, while mountain bikers head for the extensive trail network in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. "Lance Armstrong told me this was the best mountain biking he had ever seen," said Michael Radovan, a local triathlete and salesman.
NUMBERS: Small homes within walking distance of the lake start at $165K.
INTEL: You can rent your place out for more than double the usual weekly rate during June's Ironman.
ACCESS: Seattle and Portland are five-to-six-hour drives; Spokane is 35 minutes west.
Vacation Homes: Shasta Cascade Region, California
Trinity River, California
California's Class V Trinity River
This vast wilderness playground is perhaps the most overlooked adventure destination in the lower 48. Hard to understand why. The 30,000 square miles contain alpine peaks, serious whitewater, glaciers, and even volcanoes. The main attractions are 14,162-foot Mount Shasta, with excellent skiing and winter mountaineering, and the Klamath River, which has more than 100 miles of navigable rapids as well as exceptional steelhead and trout fishing.
NUMBERS: A cabin on ten wooded acres can be had for $150K. Full-featured homes on 40 acres start around $250K.
INTEL: Siskiyou County has plenty of affordable options within an easy drive of Shasta and the Klamath.
ACCESS: Sacramento (south), Reno, Nevada (east), and Eugene, Oregon (north), are the nearest airports. Each puts you within four hours of the Shasta Cascade region.
Vacation Homes: Ely, Minnesota
The gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which includes thousands of lakes and more than 1,500 miles of canoe routes. The main drag, East Sheridan Street, is lined with outfitters, gear retailers, and eateries. But Ely has a countercultural flair and is famed for its music festivals, wacky Internet radio stations, and eclectic 3,500 residents, including polar explorer Will Steger.
NUMBERS: This is cabin country. Small waterfront places can be had for $200K.
INTEL: Grand Marais, an alternative option three hours east, offers access to both the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior, but prices run about $50K higher than in Ely.
ACCESS: Two hours north of the Duluth airport, four-plus from the Twin Cities.
Vacation Homes: Big Sky, Montana
No, Big Sky is not the billionaire's Montana. OK, so Ted Turner has a ranch in the area, and two exclusive communities, the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks, are also here. But Big Sky itself is a tiny (pop. 2,200), old-school skiers' destination with a base area sporting 1970s condos and nothing remotely resembling a "village." There are never crowds on the slopes, and a $94 combo lift ticket includes access to adjacent resort Moonlight Basin and the largest contiguous ski area in the U.S., with Jackson Holeworthy extreme terrain on Lone Peak. When the snow melts, runoff feeds nearby trout-choked rivers, including the blue-ribbon Gallatin.
NUMBERS: Slopeside condos fetch $100K$300K. Walking-distance condos start at $80K.
INTEL: The best values are on the mountain, but the really cheap stuff is around the nordic center, seven miles east.
ACCESS: One hour southwest of Bozeman.
Vacation Homes: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
The Cape has 560 miles of coastline, much of it protected national seashore, and the hundred-plus beaches face the open Atlantic (surfing), windy Nantucket Sound (sailing), and shallow, protected Cape Cod Bay (kayaking). Fishing can be fantastic on all sides, and there's glorious (if flat) road biking. And, yes, there's a lot of mini golf. But the 15 towns on this twisting peninsula offer a much less tacky version of the coastal Americana found from Atlantic City to Myrtle Beach.
NUMBERS: Highly variable depending on location, but you can now find simple ranch homes starting at $250K.
INTEL: Two places to find bargains: inland (prices drop just blocks off the water) and close in to the mainland.
ACCESS: The Cape starts about 60 miles from Boston.
Vacation Homes: Lake Placid Region, New York
The Northeast's best hiking? Check. Sweet road and mountain biking? Check. Alpine and nordic skiing? Check. But you come mostly for the waternot just Placid itself but 3,000 other lakes, plus thousands of miles of rivers and streams (some offering Class V rapids). The town of Lake Placid sits in the middle of six-million-acre Adirondack Park, one of the largest protected public areas in the lower 48. Canoeing and kayaking are huge here, and larger lakes allow motorized watercraft. If your vacation fantasy includes a vintage mahogany runabout, welcome home.
NUMBERS: Waterfront homes on the region's smaller lakes start at $500K, small cottages and in-town condos at $200K.
INTEL: "Prices on surrounding lakes are a third less than Lake Placid," says Robert Politi, town supervisor and a realtor with Merrill L. Thomas.
ACCESS: About two hours from the Albany, New York, and Burlington, Vermont, airports; five hours from New York City.
Vacation Homes: Islamorada, Florida
Not only the best fishing in the Keys, but an honest fishing-and-boating-village aesthetic, with roadside stands that have been pretty much unchanged for decades. You can cast near-shore flats for bonefish and tarpon or troll open waters for wahoo, yellowtail, and mahi-mahi. There's also wilderness kayaking in lush mangrove forests, great windsurfing and kitesurfing, and arguably our best domestic scuba, in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, 20 miles north.
NUMBERS: You can get a maintenance-friendly condo off the water, with strong rental-revenue potential, for less than $150,000.
INTEL: Islamorada is both a village and an island group, not a single key, with four "major" islands. The farther you get from town, the more off the grid you'll feel.
ACCESS: About 90 minutes from Miami's airport, 45 minutes farther to Fort Lauderdale.
Vacation Homes: East Bench of Salt Lake City, Utah
A true metropolitan city with a year-round mountain playground and arguably the best resort powder skiing in the world. But with abundant hedge trimmers and bike-riding paper boys, this isn't everyone's idea of a ski town. Think split-level suburban ranches with big ol' garageswhich is to say it's perfect for families or entourages. The East Bench district starts at the base of Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, eight miles from Alta/Snowbird and just a tad more to Solitude and Brighton. "You're on the slopes in 20 minutes," says Scott Beck, CEO of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, "but instead of hot wings afterwards, there's opera, Jazz games, and gourmet restaurants."
NUMBERS: 45-bedroom homes for $275K$500K. Condos from under $200K.
INTEL: Salt Lake's real-estate slide came late, so the bargain sale is in full swing: East Bench medians are off 612 percent from December 2008.
ACCESS: 20 minutes southeast of Salt Lake City's airport.
Vacation Homes: Southwest Colorado
If your favorite gear includes avalanche beacons or fat tires, this is your place. While the four counties of Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, and San Juan make up a tiny slice of the state, they're packed with some of its best adventures: guided backcountry skiing at Silverton, backcountry ski touring along the San Juan Hut System, and epic mountain biking all over. "My friends in Moab come here to ride," says Chris Strouthopoulos, a Durango resident and an assistant professor at San Juan College, in Farmington, New Mexico. "That says a lot." Second-home options range from modern houses on the periphery of larger towns to true ranches reached by dusty dirt roads. Still, you're never far from outposts like Durango, Telluride, and Montrose.
NUMBERS: Three-bedroom places on 40 to 100 acres start at $500K; rustic homes on smaller lots abound at $200K-plus.
INTEL: The best deals, biggest acreages, and most seclusion are in western Montezuma and Dolores counties, near the Utah state line.
ACCESS: Durango (south) and Montrose (north) both have decent small airports that put you within two hours of most of the region.
Vacation Homes: South Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada
Tahoe offers a rare combination of omnipresent sunshine (three out of four days) and some of the nation's deepest annual snowfalls (40-plus feet). There's also exceptional road and mountain biking and, of course, watersports. The trade-off for buying on the affordable South Shore? A strip of minor-league casinos and no real community spirit. But change is coming. A prime 12-acre lakefront parcel of tacky motels was just razed to make way for a parklike village project, and three LEED-certified residential developments are under way. Meanwhile, California's largest ski resort, Heavenly Mountain, poured half a billion dollars into improvements. "The South Shore is reinventing itself," says realtor Elaine Casteleyn, of Exclusively Lake Tahoe.
NUMBERS: Entry-level homes on the California side begin at $200K. Nevada prices run about 25 percent more, but property taxes are low.
INTEL: There are great deals in Tahoe Keys, a water-centric development with canals leading to the lake.
ACCESS: Sixty miles west of Reno, 3.5 hours east of San Francisco.
Vacation Homes: Buy or Rent?
There's no easy answeruntil now. Respond to these questions honestly and the numbers won't lie.
How many weeks per year will you realistically be there?
Less than three (2)
Three to four (+1)
A season (+4)
Will you rent out your vacation home when not in use?
Of coursethat's why I'm doing this (3)
How long do you see yourself owning this property?
Until I can trade up (3)
Maybe five to ten years (0)
I'm gonna retire there (+4)
It will go to my children (+5)
When spending big money, you:
Break out in hives (2)
Lose a little sleep (0)
Feel like a god! (+3)
Which best describes a dream week at your new pad?
Spending every minute possible outside (1)
Cooking big meals and chilling on the deck (+1)
Planting tomatoes and chopping wood (+2)
Framing out the new barn (+4)
Your favorite outdoor gear:
Fits in your daypack (0)
Requires special handling at the airport (+1)
Barely fits in your garage (+3)
What your score means:
6 or under: You should rent
710: You could go either way
1117: Time to apply for that pre-approved mortgage
18-plus: This is your third home, isn't it?
Vacation Homes: Real Estate Tips
Buyer be wise.
trulia.com and zillow.com: For-sale listing, price estimates, and sales histories, plus community statistics, including population, median prices, and recent activity. (Note: Both can be incredibly useful or frustratingly out of date, depending on location.)
escapehomes.com: Profiles of popular second-home communities, with links to multiple brokers.
realtor.org: Site of the National Association of Realtors; offers a wide range of information and tools.
bankrate.com: Local and national mortgage rates, plus tons of financing advice and information.
mortgagecalculator.org: Reality check, please.
walkscore.com: Ranks individual addresses and communities based on their walkability.
maps.google.com: The "street view" option lets you virtually drive around, though it can be limited in rural areas.
A coach for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in the 1990s, David Baldinger Jr. has also been a realtor in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, since 1993. As a top performer at Steamboat Village Brokers, he sells property in a prime second-home market that's enjoying an $18 million urban-renewal project despite the economic downturn. Here, his prescription for buyers anywhere.
1. Pick Your Spot
Multiple visits is the single most important thing. Get the whole family there in different seasons and weather. Ask yourself, Is it easy to get here? Do I know anyone who owns here? Will I really like it?
2. Pick Your Agent
You want a broker with at least three to five years' local experience who both lists and sells properties, plus multiple references you can talk to. And get someone in your own age group who understands your needs.
3. Know Your Limit
Have a preliminary conversation with a lender. The most disappointing thing is shopping way above your price range without knowing it.
4. Develop Good Taste
Establishing your own criteria is harder than you think. Everyone does research online, but you can't appreciate distances or views or features or neighborhoods until you touch them. In a mountain town, everyone thinks they want ski-in/ski-out, but they end up saying, "You mean if I walk two blocks, I can get a garage?"
5. Go All In
Buy the best house you can afford within your budget. Those are the ones that hold value. Don't buy the "really good deal"; buy the home you like. Chances are the next buyer will like it, too.