Monthly Archives: May 2005

13 new listings today, balanced by 19 price reductions. If you needed evidence that the spring rush is over, that should do it.

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May 27

Wrong (again!)

I received a thoughtful communication from Natalie Jarnstadt regarding my
support of killing geese. Ms. Jarnstadt, correctly assuming that my
objection to the fowl was based on my disgust at wading through their
droppings, suggested that the answer lies in a “pooper sweeper” (check my
web site for a link to description and picture). She and her husband have
volunteered to give one to the town. For some reason, that offer has been
rejected, and I’m not sure why. The geese themselves aren’t the problem,
it’s what they leave behind. If the park crews who mow the lawns can also
keep those lawns reasonably clean, everybody, including the geese, could
win.

Hot Hot Hot?

Another newspaper’s real estate writer keeps saying the Greenwich real
estate market is booming. I disagree, especially when you compare spring
market to spring market, rather than twelve months to twelve months. I have
analyzed the sales and contracts for the period January 1-May 18th in 2004
and 2005, respectively. While what passes for the lower end of the market:
$2,000,000-$4,000,000 is perking along at about last year’s pace (one
hundred this year, ninety-seven last) things fall apart after that.

In the 2004 spring market, twenty-eight houses between $5,000,000 and
$7,500,000 found buyers. Only sixteen did so this year – a mere 57% of last
year’s activity. There are sixty-seven houses currently for sale in that
price range and I expect many of the new homes still under construction will
further bloat the inventory.

The high end of the market (above $7,500,000) is faring a bit better this
year than last (eleven vs. eight) but there are sixty-nine such houses still
for sale. If we’re selling off eleven houses each quarter it will take at
least a year and a half to move all these and longer if more come to market.

So if your house is not selling, don’t blame your agent for not performing
in such a “hot” market. There is a lot of competing inventory out there and
not a whole lot of activity. On the other hand, it’s a good time to be a
buyer.

Americana

Do not miss the last vestige of small-town-America in Greenwich, the
Memorial Day parade down Sound Beach Avenue. Little League marchers, Cub
Scouts and Brownies and war veterans, all to the accompaniment of bands. I
hear that our WWII vets are getting a bit long in the tooth for the march
and that this year they’ll ride in classic cars donated for the occasion by
Malcolm Pray. The perfect time to catch up with all those acquaintances for
whom a once-a-year conversation is just about right.

Time Capsule

Speaking of WWII, my daughter Sarah recently unearthed a cache of newspapers
from 1933. Fascinating. Roosevelt had just reopened the banks after the
seven day “Bank Holiday” and depositors were returning with their cash. Beer
(but not yet hard liquor) was returning. My grandfather, John Gilbert, was
appearing with Mae Clark in a movie I never heard of, “Fast Workers”. Of
more interest to adolescents, perhaps, was another film, “King of the
Jungle” that promised ” a naked giant of the jungle loose in New York! He
takes love where he finds it!” I’ll look for that one on video.

Overseas, the Nazis had just won power and banned the old flag of republican
Germany in favor of the pre-war, Imperial flag and the swastika. President
Paul von Hindenburg appointed Dr. Joseph Goebels Minister of Public
Enlightenment and Propaganda. Babe Ruth was “considering” a salary offer of
$55,000 (for perspective, a top of the line Chevrolet is advertised for
$485), Westchester County was being threatened with a barrage of lawsuits if
it persisted in barring “colored people” from Playland and a nine-room brick
colonial with a slate roof and a half-acre yard in White Plains was being
offered by its owner for $26,000. I hope he got it; the classifieds are
mostly advertisements for court-ordered foreclosure sales.

All of which makes me sound like Bernie Yudain (heck he probably wrote half
the stories) but I found it an interesting snapshot of history.

Not in White Plains

And for a bit more than $26,000, even adjusting for inflation, Heather Platt
(Cleveland, Duble & Arnold) has a pretty nifty listing at 535 North Street
for the rather impressive price of $16,500,000. A grand old 1908 mansion set
of five-and-a-half acres (in the two acre zone) of gorgeous lawns and
gardens, the place was completely renovated in 2000. Absolutely top quality
throughout, it would be a fun place to live. It won’t be shown without a
buyer’s pre-qualification, alas, so I’m unlikely to be invited back.

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I received a thoughtful communication from Natalie Jarnstadt regarding my support of killing geese. Ms. Jarnstadt, correctly assuming that my objection to the fowl was based on my disgust at wading through their droppings, suggested that the answer lay in a “poop sweeper” (follow “link”, below, for a picture of same). She and her husband have volunteered to donate one to the town. For some reason, that offer has not been accepted. Seems to me that the town’s off base on this one, as was I – the geese themselves aren’t the problem, and if the park crews who mow the lawns can also keep those lawns reasonably clean, everybody, including the geese, could win.

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May 20, 2005

Fun and Frolics on the Open House Tour

So there we are, three highly trained, professional Realtors, wandering through a spectacular mansion in the Back Country. We enter the library and one of us who is familiar with the house’s construction says, “hey, did you know that there used to be a secret passage behind one of these bookshelves? I wonder if it’s still here?” Well, he poked and prodded and sure enough, there it was: a small deadbolt hidden on the underside of one of the shelves. The bolt is retracted, the panel pushed slightly ajar and “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” an alarm begins shrieking like mad. Almost simultaneously we hear the telephone ringing—security checking in. We shrank to about 5’3” and slunk out of there as quickly as we could: “who, us?” Moral of the story; two, actually, is don’t go pushing open secret panels and, if you’re the listing agent, make certain that you know all the security codes for your clients’ house, especially those they forget to tell you about!

High End Blues?

As of this writing, there are ninety-six houses for sale in town priced at $6,000,000 and above—thirty-seven of which are asking over $10,000,000. By neat coincidence, forty-eight houses in the $6,000,000+ range sold in the past twelve months, indicating a two year supply of mega-mansions. Worse news for the $10,000,000 crowd is that only twelve such houses sold last year, so if you’ve got a whopper on the market, you might want to hold off on calling the movers, for now.

Well, …

I incurred the wrath of a local builder a few weeks back by stating that his $25,000,000 creation didn’t look as appealing as some other mansions I’d seen priced for half as much. I’ve been banned—for life, I assume—from any open houses ever again conducted by that builder and, while that is a sorrow from which I am still struggling to recover, I see that the builder has just whacked $10,000,000 from the building’s price. I’m not great with math, but $15,000,000 seems to be much closer to $12,500,000 than to $25,000,000. Don’t shoot the messenger, fella. By the way, your limestone facing was improperly installed and is now discoloring, badly.

And While We’re Angering People

I was in a newish house in Old Greenwich last week and noticed that its builder had turned it away from what could have been a spectacular view of the water and exposed instead an unnervingly-close view of the neighboring house ten feet away. The odd thing is, I am familiar with seven houses this same builder has erected in the past few years and every single one of them suffers from the same defect. It’s either a form of color blindness or the architect this builder employs must never visit the building sites before setting pen to paper. Truly bizarre.

To Market to Market to Buy a Fat Pig

Seventy-seven new listings came on the market last week, balanced by fifty-two price reductions (one of which promises in its open house listing for next week, “new rice-great food”). The spring market is turning away from sellers and in favor of buyers, as it usually does this time of year.

On and On and On

Paul Larson (Coldwell banker) has just listed 62 Wesskum Wood Road for $2,450,000. I liked this house very much, but it clearly won’t appeal to everyone. The owners have converted what must have been a raised ranch into 4,840 sq. feet of very interesting house. Lots of stairs, leading to four (I think) different levels, all decorated in a very modern, So-Ho industrial look that works beautifully, to my eye. Again; it’s not a conventional cape, but after touring so many nearly-identical houses, it presented a refreshing change. Nice yard, easy walk to Binney Park and the train. Go for it.

Parky Poopers

Speaking of Binney Park, did you know that we close the town’s clamming beds at Tod’s whenever it rains more than half-an-inch? That’s because that much water washes the goose poop off Binney’s lawns and into the pond, where it makes its way downstream to Old Greenwich Harbor and raises the coliform count to unhealthy levels. If it’s a health threat to clammers, why isn’t it a health threat that justifies killing these winged rats? We have been afflicted with a population of permanent resident geese who have made using our parks a disgusting, intolerable proposition. As I suggested a few months back, if a group of feathered hippies were camped at Binney making this kind of mess we’d have shooed them gone long ago. Sauce for the hippies should be sauce for the ganders.

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Market Troubles

I have analyzed the sales and contracts for the period of Januay1, 2004 – May 18, 2004 and January 1, 2005-May 18, 2005. While what passes for the lower end of the Greenwich Market, $2,000,000-$4,000,000 is perking along at about last year’s pace (100 contracts 2005 vs 93 in 2004), there has been a considerable falloff in the high end market.

In the 2004 spring market, 28 houses priced between $5,000,000 and $7,500,000 found buyers. Only 16 did this year. Sales activity is 57% of last year’s market. There are presently 67 houses being offered to the market at this range. I expect many of the new houses currently under construction and not yet on the market will add to this price range’s inventory, bloating it still further.

The highest end of the market (above $7,500,000) is faring a bit better this year than last (11 vs.8) but there are presently 69 houses on the market asking $7,500,000 and above. If we’re selling off 11 every quarter, it will take at least a year and a half to move all these and longer if more come to market.

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For What It’s Worth

New Houses of Note

Three new houses caught my eye last week. Louise Marasso’s listing at 23 Bote Road (off of lower Stanwich) is a completely renovated/expanded house with an asking price of $2,649,000. I think it’s worth it. Built by Mladen Sango of D.M. Home Improvements here in Greenwich it’s a beautiful house with great curb appeal and careful, finely detailed construction. I hadn’t met Mr. Sango before the broker open house but if this is typical of his work, you couldn’t go wrong using him for your own project. His cell phone # is (203) 570-0193. A very nice house.

Dancy Cassell’s listing at 15 Stillman Lane in Glenville is phenomenal. I toured it with Matt Matthews of this office and Matt, who has built an almost infinite number of top end houses in Conyer’s Farm and around town, thought it was the best new construction he’d seen in years. Good enough for me. $5,525,000 – a price, by the way, that had Matt wondering how Gardner, the builder, could deliver so much quality.

The other new construction I liked was Mark O’Brien’s (Greenwich Land Co.) house at 16 Grant Street in Old Greenwich. Mark has built a number of good houses in town and he’s continued that here. Again, top-finishes, rock solid construction and an intelligent use of space. The walk-out basement is huge, with hardwood flooring and all that sort of thing. $3,300,000, which will astonish long time residents of Grant Street and its adjoining neighbors but there you have it: Old Greenwich is changing.

And Speaking of Which

The Grant Street house has 5,700 sq. ft. of living space. That number includes the enormous basement which doesn’t count against FAR allotage (yet – the P&Z’s trying,though) but, by my calculations, you couldn’t build anything close to its size today, now that the FAR regulations have been reinstated. I’m no fan of huge houses but, to my eye, this house is appropriately sized and sits just fine on its lot. Admittedly, my eye has been reconditioned by all the new, large houses that have been erected in town, but drive by and decide for yourself whether the agony and infliction of economic havoc on Greenwich property owners by our P&Z is worth the pain. I think not.

Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing.

The New York Times recently ran an article about a phenomenon a number of us Realtors have already observed (“us” being Martha Jeffrey and John Horton of my office – I didn’t believe them): kids don’t play outdoors much anymore. Oh, they’re limoed off to their Travel Soccer and semi-professional lacross teams but once practice is over they retreat inside to play videogames or prepare that essay that’s supposed to get them into Harvard. No pick-up games of baseball in the backyard for these kids-it would ruin their form, or something. In any event, the result is that houses are getting larger to accommodate all this indoor activity and yards are getting smaller. It’s a market-driven trend, not some evil conspiracy of builders and real estate agents; buyers don’t want large yards and do want more interior room.

Obviously, all this is a gross generalization and a tad exaggerated but not by all that much. For every buyer I represent who insists on a yard large enough to toss a ball around with his kids there must be five who shrug off a postage stamp sized yard with a comment like, “less yard work to worry about”. So, while I may not personally cheer the movement towards more house at the expense of yard, that’s what’s selling, and that’s why builders do it.

Contrarians

A newly-constructed house in Riverside finally sold last week after more than a year on the market. It was on a challenging street (highway roar) but, in my opinion, it would have sold much sooner and at a much higher price had its builder not departed from the traditional Colonial look in favor of – well, I don’t know what style he was after – Eastern European? It was a great house inside, and seemed well built, but its exterior looked like something that belonged on the Jersey Shore; most buyers who come to Greenwich aren’t interested in that. My advice here: unless you plan to stay in your house for the rest of your life and don’t care what your heirs get for the place, don’t personalize so much that it appeals only to you. How boring, I know, but if you want eclectic, head for Venice, California and buy a houseboat.

Fowl, Not Swine

That was Pintail Lane I referred to last week, not Pigtail. I have it correct on my computer, so I’m not taking the heat on this one. The house on Swan Terrace, by the way, never made it to open house and was gone within days. Builder or homeowner? Don’t know, yet.[update, 5/13 - home owner]

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For What It’s Worth – Friday, May 6
A Turning Tide?

No guaranteed wisdom here (readers will have long since discovered that for themselves) but I was doing some calculations recently regarding a new listing and concluded that end-users may be beginning to gain an advantage over builders. 9 Swan Terrace, the house in question, is a terrific-looking house sitting high on a site at the end of a dead end. It’s an over-sized lot which would permit something like 6,900 square feet of house. But it makes no commercial sense to build that sized house. At, say $300 a sq.foot, a builder would have $2,070,000 just in construction costs. Add the asking price of $1,299,000 and you’re up to $3,370,000 before you’ve even begun looking for your profit. You’d have to get well over $4,000,000 for the finished product to make the project worth your time and Swan terrace, for all it’s charm, is almost certainly not ready to support that kind of price.

18 Pintail, a very nice house (6,568 sq.ft.) just one street over, sold instantly last fall for its full asking price of $2,850,000, and, adjusting for inflation in the housing market, I’d place a new house on Swan Terrace at around $3,100,000, today – a tad higher six months from now, when construction would be finished. Now, a builder can probably cut his costs down from $300 a square foot but at some point the loss in quality will affect the sales price, so there’s a bottom here.
So what will happen with Swan? I haven’t been inside it as of this writing but if it’s in decent shape (and it looks to be, from the outside) I think a young family will snap it up at its asking price. If it isn’t, then the builders will have an opportunity at a lower price. But for the first time in a long time, I think land values have climbed higher than the existing market for new homes can justify; good news for families looking for homes, bad news for the trades.

And To Make that Point

I just reviewed what’s currently for sale in the new construction market. There are Sixty-one new houses for sale. Nine are priced from $1,100,000 (Byram) to $3,000,000. Twenty-four are between $3,000,000—$4,999,999 and twenty-eight range from $5,000,000 – $22,500,000 (asking, anyway). New construction in Riverside and Old Greenwich seems to be in the $3,500,000 area, while the higher end properties are mostly in the mid and back country. That’s a lot of inventory. And, with the average house in Riverside and Old Greenwich now selling for $2,000,000, either new construction in those neighborhoods is going to slow or we’ll soon be seeing new houses there with asking prices of $5,500,000. I don’t think there’s a market for those.

The “Ad”

The rather parochial world of real estate agents was abuzz last week over a brokerage firm’s ad praising itself at the expense of all others. Personally, I think that a quiet advertisement in the classifieds seeking a copy editor would have been more judicious than spreading a deep, desperate need for such help across two pages of print.

Whatever. The real point is this: as everyone in this financially-sophisticated town already knows, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Our real estate firms tend to limit themselves to use of statistics. But statistics are not always what they appear. For instance, and to quote Bishop Berkeley’s famous conundrum, if a woodsman fells a tree in a forest and receives no pay, has he made a sound? Put another way, if a $12,000,000 house is purchased by a relocation company and the listing agency receives nothing, has it really “sold’ anything? Or if an agent sells her $7,000,000 home directly and neither charges nor collects a commission, has the brokerage firm where she parks her license received anything of value? Should these selling prices be added to the firm’s “sold” statistic? Twice? (the listing firm is also shown as the selling firm so as to be credited with both sides of the non-paying transaction).

What about time on market? If a house is initially priced at $8,500,000 and lingers on the market for years before finally selling for $4,000,000, should its time on market be described as four years, or the mere thirty-nine days from its last re-listing? Or how about statistics of “asking to selling price” ratios, which are often cited by firms when pitching their services. Typically, these show a great ratio of around 95%, but that’s because they’re using the last asking price, not the original. If they did, there are a lot of houses out there that would show a ratio of less than 50%.

I am not singling out one particular firm here. There’s a lot of funny stuff submitted to our MLS board by a lot of individuals, all in name of gaming the statistics. It’s a very competitive market down here in the trenches and people do what they think they have to do to gain an edge. I merely mean to suggest that you take all these numbers with a large helping of salt.

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