Rick and Nicole Zalewski sold their St. Charles, Ill., home and are having a house built in New Buffalo, Mich. Photo courtesy of Crain’s Detroit Business. 

October 8, 2020: Dennis Rodkin, Crain’s Detroit Business

In the first 2½ years of selling buildable home lots at a woodsy southwest Michigan development called White Pine New Buffalo, Rob Harte sold 11 of the 25 lots.

Then came the pandemic, which among other things has shifted homebuyers’ preferences toward open space and away from congestion. In the first five months after Michigan’s governor lifted a spring pandemic-related prohibition on real estate sales, Harte sold nine lots, or nearly as many as he’d sold between June 2017 and December 2019.

“People are reinventing their lives this year,” said Harte, whose Michigan City, Ind., firm UpperCross Development Group has development projects and a rental management wing. “They’re coming my way.”

Home sales doubled this summer in Lake Forest and the Barrington area, places where big houses and long commutes had been out of style until everybody wanted more space for work and school from home and commuting became a nonissue.

Fueled by a desire for more space for work and school from home and commuting became a nonissue, interest picked up along the crescent of Lake Michigan shoreline in southwest Michigan and northwest Indiana, where quiet, beachy towns lie less than two hours’ drive from Chicago.

“Who would have thought that a pandemic would have pushed us into a real estate boom?” said Ali Fowler, an agent with Seramur Properties, based in Valparaiso, Ind., who focuses on Indiana’s lakefront towns. “We list something, and it’s crazy busy with people who want to see it.”

Nicole and Rick Zalewski had been visiting southwest Michigan for more than a decade and daydreaming of getting a place there for breaks from their full-time life in west suburban St. Charles, Ill.

“We’re not in a position to buy a second home,” Nicole Zalewski said. She’s a yoga instructor and her husband is a corporate executive recruiter. There was a second reason they didn’t move past the daydream stage: They have two school-age daughters “who wouldn’t want to leave all their friends,” she said.

Months of virtual schooling isolated from their friends made the girls “more willing,” Nicole Zalewski said. On a visit to New Buffalo late this summer, she and her husband “thought about what we could do to make living there work” and ultimately bought a lot at White Pine New Buffalo. Their house in St. Charles sold fast, and the family is living in a rental home there for about a year while their New Buffalo house gets built.

In southwest Michigan, home sales were up about 85 percent year over year in both July and August, according to Liz Roch, an @properties agent there, citing data from the Southwest Michigan Association of Realtors.

Data on where buyers come from isn’t available, but Roch says it’s her impression that purchases by Chicago-area people made up at least half the increase. The region also draws from cities in Michigan and Indiana.

In northwest Indiana, sales were up about 48 percent in May through September, compared with a year earlier, according to Mike Conner, an @properties agent in Michigan City, citing Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors data.