New York's Finger Lakes Region Draws Wine-Loving Homebuyers

If there is anything that will help sell a property or a neighborhood, it's a celebrity. And the Finger Lakes Region of central New York State got a boost when rumors started spreading last month that John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston were looking at a home on Keuka Lake.

Whether Travolta ever expressed interest in the area or not is beside the point -- it has brought attention to an area that many people say is a hidden jewel of the vacation home market.

USA Today
said as much when it featured the region in a spread on second homes last month, calling it best for affordable waterfront ownership. And while it might not seem affordable to the people from upstate New York, the prices for waterfront property along the Finger Lakes can seem downright cheap compared to what people pay along Long Island Sound, the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore.

While there are plenty of waterfront properties in the region priced at $1 million or more, there are also a good number of offerings that can be had for between $100,000 and $200,000.
"The people who are coming from out of state to buy property are often people who grew up here, made a good living somewhere else, and are coming back to retire," says Ron K. Miller, an associate broker with Finger Lakes Realty in Penn Yan, N.Y. That's located near Keuka Lake, one of the more popular-and pricier of the 11 lakes that span about 6,000 square miles in the center of New York State. "Some are buying as an investment," he says. "But others are coming back because they have good memories of the place, and they say, 'I don't want the six-lane highway anymore.'"

Two-lane roads wind between the lakes, which are dotted with wineries (the region boasts more than 100 of them), a plethora of farmers' markets, state parks, and more than 1,000 waterfalls. Also nearby are Cornell University (close to Cayuga Lake) and Watkins Glen race track (close to Seneca Lake).

Miller says that in the past couple of years, he has sold homes or spoken to people who have come from as far away as Tulsa and as nearby as New Jersey to buy homes. He deals mostly with property in the Keuka Lake region, and says that the various lakes offer somewhat different attractions.

"People who are coming up from New Jersey and Pennsylvania might consider Cayuga Lake, because it cuts down on their drive time: three-and-a-half hours instead of four-and-a-half hours to Keuka Lake," he said. And, it's closer to Ithaca, which is a bigger town than Penn Yan."

Joan Voight and her husband, who live in the Northern California town of Healdsburg, have invested in two properties in the city of Corning, located in the southernmost reaches of the Finger Lakes area, about a half-hour's drive from the south end of both Seneca and Keuka lakes.

"It's not just the lakefront properties that are the attraction," says Voight. "It's a beautiful rural setting, and the further you get from the lakes, the lower the prices of the homes." They chose Corning, she says, because she felt the community, which is anchored by multinational corporation Corning Inc., supports a vibrant, sophisticated town. They paid less than $100,000 for each of the properties. One home is divided into two units and is used as a rental property; the other is mainly a vacation home, where they spend several days every couple of months.

Voight compares the area to Northern California's wine country, where elegant wineries, interesting shops and restaurants mingle with breathtaking scenery -- but at a lower cost. "Where a home in the town of Healdsburg might cost $1 million, you could get something on the same size lot for about $100,000," she says. She notes, however, that property taxes in New York State are much more than in California (thanks, Proposition 13), and heavy duty weather means that there is more upkeep on the home. But even with all that factored in, she said, property is a great deal.

And, of course, like the price of homes, everything is relative. One person's extreme weather is another's minor nuisance.

"Winters in the Finger Lakes are not that bad," said Miller. "We are positioned far enough from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario that we don't get all that lake-effect snow. A lot of people don't realize that. Summer is wonderful here, but it's livable all year around."

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