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Susan Tenney loved living within blocks of Lake Minnetonka, where her family spent hours cruising the lake's many bays. After her divorce, Tenney and her two children moved to the town of Long Lake. Although the house had a big yard for the kids to play in, it just wasn't the same.

"I really missed Minnetonka's sparkling water and waves," said Tenney. "I wanted to eventually buy a house right on the lake."

Last summer, the single mom decided to do some house-hunting along the Lake Minnetonka shore. She saw plenty of single-family homes that were too small, needed too much work or were beyond her means.

Then she came across a townhouse on Minnetonka's West Arm Bay. It was generous in size (3,500 square feet on two levels), boasted a wall of windows with a sweeping view of the lake and had a dock where she could moor a boat. Most important, it was within her budget.

The association-maintained townhouse is among a cluster of 24 units in the West Arm Bay complex in Spring Park that share the expenses of lakeshore ownership. Association fees cover home maintenance, yardwork, even putting in and taking out the dock.

For Tenney, who moved in last fall, a multi-unit townhouse "made it possible for us to live on the lake."

Sharing shores and more

Whether they're on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, the St. Croix River in Stillwater or rural Steiger Lake in Victoria, association-maintained townhouses and condos are an increasingly attractive option for people who want to be on the water but don't want the work.

Gregg Larsen, a Coldwell Banker Burnet agent who specializes in lakeshore sales, said multifamily units appeal to empty-nesters, who are downsizing and selling their Twin Cities lake homes or their North Woods cabins.

"It also makes it easy for snowbirds who go to warm climates for the winter to have the ability to lock the door and walk away," added Carson Brooks, an Exit Realty Metro agent.

Cost is another factor. Multiple-unit developments can put lakeshore living within reach of people with more modest incomes. Prices vary by type of home, location and lake proximity, but Larsen said an older, one-bedroom condo in Spring Park Bay in Mound could start as low as $150,000, while a townhouse on St. Albans Bay in downtown Excelsior could go for close to $1 million.

Still, real estate agents acknowledge that living in multi-unit housing isn't for everyone.

"It's not as flexible as your private piece of land," said Larsen, "but the tradeoff is a more carefree lifestyle."

Of course, carefree isn't free. Monthly association fees can range from $200 to $800, and typically cover building and grounds maintenance, some utilities and amenities. In some complexes, however, fees also cover maintenance on swimming pools, exercise rooms, tennis courts and underground parking.

"Some people who have never had an association fee think it's a waste of money," said Brooks. "We do a lot of education, explaining what it covers."

Limited supply

Not all cities welcome multifamily units. Waterfront property is finite and some agents say that townhouse and condo developments have to meet city zoning requirements.

According to Larsen, there aren't many association-maintained homes for sale, especially townhouses, in the Lake Minnetonka area. But in downtown Stillwater, more than 50 riverfront condos are on the market.

Stillwater Mills, a new 95-unit building across the street from the St. Croix River, has 40 units for sale, ranging from $199,000 to $600,000.

"There was an incredible demand from people who wanted to be in Stillwater and close to the river," said Jim Seabold, a Coldwell Banker Burnet agent overseeing sales for Stillwater Mills. "But then the market started to slide and they're moving more slowly."

That demand could pick up again as the market rebounds and retiring baby boomers look for maintenance-free living.

"You can have all the fun stuff without the hassle," Brooks said.

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619