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The 10 Best Lakes to Call Home

The top spots to swim, fish, sail, ski, and relax.
By Dawn McMullan |
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Dave Shafer

The 10 Best Lakes to Call Home

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The lousy economy has been tough on real estate. High unemployment and tight credit have driven down sales volume and prices. This is especially true with second houses on lakes. A discretionary market doesn’t boom when no one has discretionary income.

But then there’s the other side of the equation. If sellers are having trouble, then buyers who’ve kept their powder dry have a good shot. Jason Burnham, who runs the Lakes of Texas Realty website, thinks the market has hit bottom and is on its way back up. “Right now, we’re seeing buyers coming back into the market,” Burnham says. “Some are getting out of the stock market, are a little concerned with what’s going on, and are trying to get their money in order. It’s an excellent time for somebody who’s in the market for lake property because we’ve seen most of the drop in values. We’ve still got sellers who aren’t realistic and absolutely refuse to believe it’s a buyer’s market. But it is.”

Texas has 170 lakes. We’ve narrowed that list to 10, choosing beautiful lakes within a short enough drive from Dallas that they qualify as weekend retreats. Yes, there are closer lakes we didn’t include. But who wants to escape Preston Hollow for, say, Lake Grapevine? Most of the lakes we chose are not owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which prevents property owners from building docks or boathouses. The two lakes on our list that are owned by the Corps—Lake Texoma and Lake o’ the Pines—are worth making an exception for.

When talking to potential clients, Burnham gives them a Lake Property 101 guide, asking them everything from how far they want to drive to how much they like to socialize with neighbors. “They’ve got their city home, and they have different goals for their second home,” Burnham says. “On a regular basis I hear, ‘We live in a highly restricted subdivision in town, and that’s not what I want.’ The nature of people who are coming to the lake, no matter what their background, is they want to relax a little.”

Lake Fork

27,690 acres | 1 hour 45 minutes | No waterfront restrictions

The economy hit Lake Fork hard in 2009, and it hasn’t quite recovered, despite being nationally known as the Big Bass Capital of Texas. “We don’t do business in the subprime, but when 2009 hit and it was a huge blown disaster, I saw a huge dip in business,” says local real estate agent John Jarvis.

About half the properties on Lake Fork are second houses. Lands End is the lake’s premier subdivision, with a golf course, restaurant, bar, and pro shop. Generally, though, prices here are lower than similar lakes closer to Dallas.

Thirty-four of the top 50 largest recorded largemouth bass have been caught here, the largest at 18.18 pounds (caught in 1992). Though largemouth bass get all the headlines, you can also find plenty of catfish, white bass, crappie, and sunfish. They thrive among the timber found within the lake—which makes for tricky boating. The lake’s reputation for great fishing often overshadows its reputation as a recreational lake; huge pockets throughout the lake make for great skiing and tubing.

“The most common thing I hear from people is they’re wanting to get out of Dallas,” Jarvis says. “They want to catch their breath. After that, usually the husband’s an avid fisherman. You can catch fish on any lake, but guys who know anything about bass fishing, those guys want to come to Lake Fork.”

Lake Texoma

74,686 acres | 1 hour 40 minutes | Waterfront restrictions: Yes

You should know that, in 2004, a blue catfish weighing 121.5 pounds was caught here, briefly setting a world record for a rod-and-reel catch (the fish now lives in the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center near Lake Athens).

The river-fed lake is one of the largest reservoirs in the country. Texoma is so big that it seems to have a bit of everything: sandy beaches, the largest variety of fish around (largemouth bass, striped bass, and blue catfish being the most abundant), golf courses, resorts, enough water that it doesn’t feel crowded, calm coves that make for great skiing, and wildlife refuges. The Texoma Lakefest Regatta was the first charity regatta in the United States and currently benefits the Make-a-Wish Foundation of North Texas.

Realtor Lezlie Rube says the market did slow here, but people haven’t been discounting prices; they’ve merely sat with their houses, waiting for a better economy. The first part of this year feels like a release of pent-up demand, she says. It’s still a buyer’s market, but Rube doesn’t think it will last long.

Though Texoma is a Corps of Engineers lake, docks are a no-no and boat houses must be approved, those built before the Corps took over were grandfathered in. Close to one-third of properties here are second houses, a figure that seems to decrease as technology allows people to work from home—and ditch their city digs for a better view.

Lake Granbury

8,310 acres | 1 hour 30 minutes | No general waterfront restrictions (boat docks are permitted), although some subdivisions do have their own restrictions

Lake Granbury has more than just its water to draw in buyers. The well-known B&B town is a little more than half an hour from Fort Worth, has more than 40 restaurants, an opera house, drive-in movie theater, Barking Rocks winery, and a quaint historic square. Barking Rocks hosts a covered dish event the first Friday of every month (wine included, of course). The square hosts festivals. Residents go dock-hopping. People generally leave their houses and cars unlocked. “It’s that place,” says real estate agent Cathey Briscoe, who can walk to the square from her lakefront home.

That sense of community has kept housing prices stable throughout the recession. The only real slump in the market was 2009, Briscoe says. Even that year, prices didn’t really go down so much as properties stayed on the market longer. Waterfront homes top out at less than $2 million. About 40 percent of properties on Lake Granbury are second houses.

“People fall in love with Granbury and then buy lakefront property,” Briscoe says. She retired from a Fortune 500 company, and her husband, Jack, retired as a president at AT& T before they got into real estate. “It’s the fortysomethings that really come here. They’re looking to get away from the Metroplex but want to be close so they can drive down for the weekend. They get that small-town feel down here that they had when they were kids.”

Eagle Mountain Lake

8,738 acres | 1 hour | No waterfront restrictions

At Eagle Mountain, the Fort Worth Boat Club is where it’s at. The world-renowned sailing club was founded in 1929 by a group of local businessmen who wanted to sail. And so they did—and still do. Members, who have access to the club’s 10 J22s, regularly participate in the annual national and international regattas on Eagle Mountain.

Though the large majority of homeowners are permanent residents, about 20 percent are second homeowners. Sales at Eagle Mountain weren’t great from 2008 to 2010. Average days on market were up, average price per square foot was down, and overall sales were down. Although the midmarket ($400,000 to $800,000) is still slow, the higher end is doing quite well so far this year, says real estate agent Terri Christian. “It seems like the wealthy are really stepping up to the plate because they realize these prices are never going to be this low
again, and they’re never going to be able to borrow money at this rate again,” she says.

The Fort Worth side of the lake is more expensive than the Azle side, where prices are lower and the commute is longer (there is no bridge across the lake). Prices generally range from $400,000 to $2.5 million. If you’d rather fish than sail, crappie and white bass are your most likely catches.

Lake Palestine

25,560 acres | 2 hours | No general waterfront restrictions (boat houses are permitted), although some subdivisions do have their own restrictions

It might be a cliché to say that retirees like nearby hospitals and golf courses. But retirees like nearby hospitals and golf courses. They also like a calm waterway.

“They come here because our lake is never busy, never crowded, even on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day,” says real estate agent Dana Staples, who sells mainly to buyers from Dallas and Fort Worth. “You never feel like you’re going to get run over by a boat or a Jet Ski.”

Retirees like that they aren’t likely to be sideswiped by a Sea-Doo—but they also like knowing that should such an accident occur, Tyler’s medical community is just 12 miles away. One ambulance sits in a parking lot off Highway 155, just off Lake Palestine, and Tyler’s two main hospitals have built medical facilities right along that highway. “Many of the other lakes, although they’re beautiful as well, don’t have the city that’s close by,” Staples says. “People want to know, How long does it take an ambulance to get here?”

Only about one-third of the properties are second houses. Prices, which range from $50,000 to $2 million, started increasing in the early 2000s and didn’t look back until 2009, when they leveled out. Last year saw a slight slip in prices, but this year looks stable, Staples says.

The watershed from the Neches River keeps the lake’s level constant. Catfish and striped bass are plentiful, and the Purple Pig Cafe in nearby Flint makes a mean barbecue and coleslaw sandwich.

Lake o’ the Pines

16,919 acres | 3 hours | Waterfront restrictions: Yes

Lake o’ the Pines, as you can probably tell by its name, is in the heart of East Texas’ piney woods. It’s just 10 miles from historic Jefferson, which influences the 19th-century style of some houses on the lake. “It has to be fetching on the outside, or it won’t sell very well,” says real estate agent Duke DeWare. The proximity to high-end restaurants and retail makes city folks feel a bit more at home than they might at more rural lakes.

Years ago, about three-quarters of the properties here were second houses, but starting in the late ’80s, more people moved to Lake o’ the Pines full time, either because they were retiring or because they decided to commute back to jobs in the city. The market here is still a buyer’s friend.

Because the Corps owns the lake, homeowners must have a permit to build docks and can’t build boathouses. But boating and fishing are still popular, with plentiful largemouth bass, channel catfish, and crappie in the lake. Most boat owners just rent space at local marinas. Though that lack of control of your waterfront is a deal breaker for some, DeWare says the restrictions have kept the shoreline lush with trees. “When the Corps of Engineers built it, they did not destroy the trees around the lake shore,” he says. “They have not allowed people to clear in recent years so when you’re on the lake, it’s very pristine. There are so many trees, you don’t even see the houses.”

Possum Kingdom Lake

15,588 acres |2 hours 15 minutes | No general waterfront restrictions (boat houses are permitted), although some subdivisions do have their own restrictions

In April, we all watched as wildfires here consumed thousands of acres. More than 150 houses in some of Possum Kingdom’s toniest neighborhoods went up in flames. Suddenly, Pondera Properties was in the business of providing up-to-the-minute fire updates. Amy Sabbatini, wife of golfer Rory Sabbatini, became its de facto media coordinator.

Hell’s Gate, two 110-foot cliff formations that guard the entrance to a cove on the lake’s southern end, never looked more like its name than when the area around it succumbed to the wildfires. But Possum Kingdom is still one of the more dynamic lakes around. Nature will recover, homeowners will rebuild, and PK will heal.

Realtor Keith Hanssen’s kids go to school in the town of Graham, which has the largest historic town square in Texas. The white bass fishing and views are outstanding, and the cell phone reception, blissfully, is poor. “You’re just far enough away that you’re too far to run back to the office,” Hanssen says, his phone cutting out several times. “And you can blame the ups and downs of the hills for sketchy cell service.”

PK is 62 miles long, with some areas as deep as 150 feet. It used to be known for its scuba diving, but the long-lived Scuba Point Dive Shop has closed, taking with it the area’s public diving reputation. Still, the way the current runs, most of the lake’s sediment falls out on the south side, which makes the rest of the lake unusually clear. For a Texas lake, it’s impressive.

Pre-wildfire, houses here ranged from $25,000 to $4 million. About 90 percent of the properties are second houses. Inventory has been sitting around for a while, sellers are motivated, and, before the fires, good deals were there to be had. Hanssen specializes in The Ranch, PK’s most exclusive community, which attracts a lot of second-home buyers from the Park Cities, Southlake, and other affluent Dallas areas, as well as buyers from both coasts.

Who knows what the market will do now that the fires have been put out? A decreased inventory could hike prices up, while a scarred landscape could drive them down.

Lake Cypress Springs

3,461 acres | 2 hours | No waterfront restrictions (although it is a lease-hold property, meaning the county owns the land, and you lease it for a nominal fee)

A little more than a decade ago, Gary Tipton, president and CEO of Inwood National Bank, was thinking about buying ranch property. When he decided a ranch was more work than he was looking for, he bought a house on Cypress Springs, where the sunsets are stunning and the photo books of memories with his four kids are plentiful.

Cypress Springs sits in a heavily wooded area. Towering pines crowd nearly its entire shoreline. To help pay for digging the lake, its developers sold the timber that they had to clear cut, creating a spectacular space for water sports. Many springs feed into the lake, keeping the water level relatively constant even as rainfall fluctuates. It’s a social lake, a winding, almost river-like waterway where you can see people you know next door or on the other side. One red light on the back of your house indicates you’re there; two indicates company is welcome. Close to 90 percent of the properties are second houses, and most of the developed communities are gated.

Realtor Myra Marr, who has lived on the lake for more than three decades, noticed the market changing in 2009. There were fewer buyers, and prices slipped the next year. Things look better this year, especially in the higher-end homes (she thanks the December continuation of Bush-era tax credits for the wealthy).

Former CBS Channel 11 news anchor Tracy Rowlett and his family have a house on Cypress Springs, as do many wealthy Dallasites. But they’re all just regular people at the lake, enjoying the spotted bass and crappie fishing, as well as the burgers and bait at the Walleye Grocery Deli.

Richland Chambers Reservoir

41,356 acres | 1 hour 45 minutes | No waterfront restrictions

Richland chambers is one of the closer lakes to Dallas on our list, yet it’s also one of the more removed in every way that matters. “It’s a very big lake and a very easy commute from the Metroplex,” says real estate agent and resident Jason Burnham. “Richland Chambers has lots of open recreation water, excellent fishing, and very little traffic. Some of our clients have described it as unspoiled from overdevelopment.”

The newest lake in the state, Richland Chambers was created (“impounded” in lake terms) in 1989 and is Texas’ third-largest inland lake. The lake is lightly developed, surrounded by 50 waterfront subdivisions, almost all requiring site-built homes (meaning no mobile homes or campers). About half the properties on the lake are second houses, and prices on the waterfront range from $300,000 to more than $1 million.

Richland Chambers doesn’t just feel like the country; it is the country. The closest town is Kerens, population 1,819. The lake isn’t crowded and has plenty of open land for living and water for boating and water sports. The Texas Legislature adopted a planning and zoning commission specifically for the lake early in its creation, something never before done on a Texas lake. The fish—black and white crappie, catfish, and black and striped bass—are a little crowded. But nobody seems to complain about that.

Lake Athens

1,500 acres | hour 40 minutes | No general waterfront restrictions (boat docks are permitted), although some subdivisions do have their own restrictions

Real estate agent and resident Steve Grant says Lake Athens has an On Golden Pond feel. “The people like the intimacy of this lake,” he says. “They like the fact that you can nearly see from one end to the other. But you can still have good water sports. A lot of parents have children who are 13, 15 years old, and they feel comfortable with their kids being on the lake. A lot of grandparents in Highland Park are buying here because they want a place their family will visit.”

Picture Henry Fonda on a Sea-Doo.

The lake is small, laid-back, sometimes with just a few boats on the water. Grant grew up in Athens and says it really hasn’t changed much. At sunset, homeowners still anchor their barges in the middle of the lake and watch the show. Grant can’t remember the last time he heard about a crime on the lake.

Sure, Lake Fork gets all the fishing headlines. But Lake Athens is home to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, the $16 million facility for piscine genetic research that housed that giant blue catfish (which died last year) caught in Texoma. And all the fish aren’t in the fishery. Your chances of catching a largemouth bass are excellent here—as are your chances of having an excellent black-eyed pea dish. As you surely know, Athens is the black-eyed pea capital of the world.

The springs that feed the lake keep the water level fairly steady. House sales in this economy, however, are a different matter entirely. Sales have been down significantly in recent years but seem to be on the rise, Grant says. Prices range from the low $200,000s to $1.5 million for waterfront property. Higher-end houses are selling better these days than mid-priced properties.

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