2022 Closes with 60-Year Celebration of the Door County Board of Realtors

Tad Gilster was 29 years old when he moved to Door County in late 1974 with his wife and two young children. 

“The first house I bought up here was, at the time, about a five-year-old kind of OK chalet – about 1,250 square feet for $40,000 on 10 acres,” he said.

Gilster was working at the shipyard in Sturgeon Bay at the time. Someone suggested he try real estate, and in the spring of 1975, he did. 

Forty-eight years later, that career is still going strong, today at True North Real Estate in Fish Creek. Needless to say, he has institutional knowledge about the real estate market from the time Door County was a sleepy little backwater to the retirement, seasonal and tourist destination it is today.

Tad Gilster

Gilster shared a bit of that knowledge with the Peninsula Pulse on the occasion of the Door County Board of Realtors’ (DCBR) 60-year anniversary, celebrated in December. He recalled his early years when real estate contracts were only a page long and the brokerage community was not particularly cordial, given the competition for scarce resources.

“Most of the original members of the board appeared to dislike each other fairly intensely, and you could see it in a small community where everyone had the same pool of potential clients,” Gilster said. 

Those were also the days when Door County had a defined tourist season, and it lasted for only a few months of the year.

“In terms of the market in Northern Door, one could not quite, but almost, close the doors the week after Labor Day and reopen the week after Memorial Day and hardly miss anything,” Gilster said. “Insurance kept people busy then during the winter.”

Back then, realtors listed a house and sold it themselves.

“It was almost a sign of weakness to have another broker sell your listing,” Gilster said.

During the 1980s, Door County joined the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), which allows listing and selling brokers to see and sell one another’s listings, sharing knowledge and commissions. Today, the MLS is the standard business framework, and as it progressed, so did cooperation.

“Sometimes grudging, but always with at least a smile,” Gilster said. “It made the whole selling experience different. As cooperation became more a part of the market, the old animosities partly evaporated. I think today people get along a whole lot better than they used to.”

It’s a surprise to probably no one that the peninsula’s population has also grown older over the years. Gilster remembers a time when retirees were a summer-cottage crowd rather than the community they are today.

“You bought your cottage, and then used it, and then died, and the kids kept it,” he said, “and that was sort of it. The gradual change that’s extremely apparent now is there is tons of movement within this market.”

Today, Door County’s largest demographic – at 31.1% of the population – are those 65 or older, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The second-largest cohort comprises those between the ages of 50 and 64, who make up 23.4% of the population. This means that 54.5% of everyone who lives on the peninsula is 50 or older today, versus 49.2% who were 50 or older in 2010.

The increasingly older demographic also appears in other real estate trends such as short-term rentals. Clients buy retirement homes before they retire and rent out the places as short-term rentals in the meanwhile.

“‘I may not need this now,’” many buyers say, according to Jeff Isaksen of the Harbour Real Estate Group in Sturgeon Bay and a DCBR past president, “‘but I can buy it now and rent it out until my kids leave and I reach retirement.’”

Today’s Real Estate Market

Mary Kay Shumway

“Crazy” and “friendly” were two of the adjectives that Isaksen and Mary Kay Shumway – of the Kellstrom Ray Agency in Sister Bay and this year’s DCBR president-elect – used to describe today’s market.

The friendly part is how they negotiate competition in a relatively small market. The crazy part describes the postpandemic world that depleted housing and land stock.

“People came up in droves to find a place to self-isolate,” Isaksen said.

Through mid-December of 2022, 348 single-family residential homes had been sold. That’s down from the previous two years, when 493 and 469 single-family residences sold, respectively, in 2021 and 2020. 

Gilster keeps his own statistics for the northern Door County market – the only one he works. He defines it as everything north of Sturgeon Bay, and those statistics tell a micro version of the same macro peninsula story. 

“There’s more challenging availability now than at any point that I’ve seen,” Gilster said. “That speaks directly to housing stock. There aren’t enough houses in Northern Door for everybody who wants to be there.”

A search for single-family homes in January showed 13 homes for sale for $350,000 or less across the entire peninsula, and seven of those were under contract. 

“When I first got in, when I was showing somebody houses, I could show them 15 houses in a day,” Isaksen said. “Now, it would take me a couple months to show them 15 houses.”

Jeff Isaksen

Vacant land is also depleted. Shumway and Isaksen said there’s little available up and down the entire peninsula. Gilster’s statistics for northern Door County show upwards of 400 vacant land listings were available in 2017. 

“At the end of the third quarter [2022], there were 58 north of Sturgeon Bay,” Gilster said. 

That demand has also driven up housing prices. The median price for a single-family home in Door County grew 111% from 2010, when it was $190,250, to the closing of 2022’s median of $401,950, according to DCBR data that Isaksen compiled for the Pulse

Shumway has worked in the industry for 18 years and still loves making dreams come true for people. Yet she also experiences how the dream of owning a piece of the Door has become increasingly unattainable for those who are not affluent – another real estate trend that’s not unique to Door County.

“I just read an article,” Shumway said. “Fifty-seven percent of Gen Z [those who are currently between the ages of 10 and 25] don’t necessarily see American homeownership as the American Dream anymore. I thought, ‘Wow. I hope something changes.’ But it’s something we have to be prepared for.”

Door County Board of Realtors: In Brief

In order for local realtors to put their license under a brokerage, they must become a member of the Door County Board of Realtors (DCBR), the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the National Association of Realtors.
“It’s a triple-pronged thing,” said Mary Kay Shumway of the Kellstrom Ray Agency in Sister Bay, DCBR president-elect.

The National Association of Realtors incorporated in 1908 on the West Coast to level the playing field, offer guidance and create rules on standards of practice among those selling real estate, including conflict resolution. In 1909, the Wisconsin Realtors Association was formed in Green Bay by 209 members, but today it’s located in Madison and has some 17,500 members statewide.

The Door County Board of Realtors formed in 1962 and currently has about 250 members, including all the realtors in Door County and some in Kewaunee County.

Then, as now, the organizations provide clear standards of practice and opportunities for education, networking and government advocacy.

Related Organizations