Monthly Archives: July 2005

Taxes

There’s a dispute going on in town over who’s property values have increased less – something like the Monty Python routine where the boys argue over who had the worst childhood (“We used to have to live in a corridor!” “Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us!”).

It seems the residents in our Back Country have hired an expert to study their houses’ worth and he’s concluded that they’re being overcharged on their taxes while Chickahominy residents are getting a free (well, reduced, anyway) ride. Needless to say the Chickahominy residents cry foul, and on it goes.

I hate to side with the Back Country folks when it’s coming out of my hide, but the data support them. Year to date, the N.W. corner’s “Assessment Factor” – assessed value compared to sales price, stands at 2.16, lowest of all areas of town except for the N.E. corner, at 2.02. Chickahominy, on the other hand, has a 2.86 factor, second highest in town. Only downtown Greenwich is higher, at 2.88.

All of which is not to say that Chickahominy should pay higher taxes and our wealthiest residents should pay less but any discussion of the issue should at least begin with the agreement that the tax assessor may have been a bit too zealous when valuing the four acre zone in the past.

On the Other Hand

Our town’s tax department has always gone easy on commercial property for some reason. 55 Railroad Avenue, appraised at $40,927,000 just two years ago, sold this year for $97,750,000. 33 Benedict Place, appraised at $30,870,000 in 2001, sold this month for $87,500,000. I’d prefer to see taxes reduced for everyone, but I can’t help pointing out to our appraisers that a building even bigger than and right next door to Unilever, U.S.T.’s headquarters, is currently valued at only $42,100,000. It might be worth dropping by for another look.

New Listings of Note

Laurie Smith has listed 119 Oneida Drive for $3,850,000, which seems just about right for this house and this location. I can’t guarantee that you’ll fall in love with this house but I did, and so did several other Realtors who saw it with me. Built in 1914, renovated in 2003, it’s on an acre of land near the water. And, although I consider Greenwich interior designers to be the group most responsible for the ruination of civilization, this owner, Jane Ellsworth, is herself a decorator and has done a fantastic job to her own house. I wouldn’t change a thing about it and when I’m ready to refurbish my cardboard box, I know who I’ll call. It (this house, not my box) comes with a pool, five bedrooms and a pretty neat carriage house/garage.

Lower down on the price scale is Liz Dagnino’s listing at 21 Bramble Lane, asking $1,695,000. I was stunned when a Bramble Lane house sold for $1,500,000 two years ago; now it seems cheap. This is a raised ranch, which is usually a tough sell but it’s very, very nice inside and, unlike some houses of similar design, this one works really well. Good street, nice house.

Diane Dutcher held an open house at 17 Hendrie Avenue to showcase the work of her client, Nick Barile of York Builders. I’ve admired this builder’s recent projects and this one is just as well made as the others. Nice attention to detail, a judicious use of antique mantles and newell posts to blend a bit of old with the new, all to great effect. Asking price was originally $3,500,000 but the buyers added some extras, like a pool, so I don’t know what the final price will be. Regardless, I think Mr. Barile will have some happy customers.

And Speaking of Interior Designers

It’s astonishing how much money is spent in this town converting otherwise comfortable houses into frigid mansions that no one would dare relax in. I feel sorry for the poor schnook who, having turned over his Platinum Card to the Little Woman, returns home to discover that his house has been festooned with hideously expensive (and just plain hideous) floor-to-ceiling drapes, bad antiques and every gimcrack and geegaw the decorator could unload on him. I remember one “Gentleman’s Study” like this, crammed with old English hunting prints and paintings of dogs who never lifted a leg in the Brooklyn neighborhood the Master of the House grew up in, antique shotguns, and the like. Turns out, the guy didn’t even like being outdoors, let alone traipse over fields behind beaters and gun dogs. Sheesh.

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Good Buys

Of the four hundred fifty-three single-family houses currently listed for sale in town, one hundred two of them have been on the market for at least six months. It is these older listings that often offer the best buys because, having been over-priced originally (I don’t say that to be mean, it’s just that the market place has disagreed with the owners’ estimate of their value) they’ve often lowered their asking price below what I would consider a comparable, but newer listing. Here, in no particular order, are some houses I like; I’m not necessarily vouching for their current asking prices, but these are all good houses. Twenty-six Spruce Street, a five bedroom house asking $1,895.00. Great location, nice yard. Fourteen Dorchester, also is Riverside, at $2,125,000. Ten Copper Beech, off of North Street, $2,950,000. I do not understand why this great house didn’t sell long ago. It’s in excellent condition and has a fantastic yard. Perfect for a downsizing couple, entirely adequate as is for a family or add a second floor and have yourself a MacMansion. 160 Bedford Road, $3,950,000. I realize that this far northwestern corner of Greenwich poses difficulties for those who must be close to town, but for a family with kids at any of the schools on King Street, it’s quite convenient. Eight acres of rolling lawn, terrific older house which I originally described as looking exactly like what Katharine Hepburn and Carey Grant would pull up to when leaving New York with Baby the tiger and heading for New England. Still looks that way. And, finally, there is Twenty Interlaken Road, the contemporary on a pond that I recently wrote about. $4,300,000, six acres of land. Excellent buy.

All of the houses listed are well worth your attention, so if you’re a buyer who stepped away from the market last spring, discouraged, perhaps, by the frenzied atmosphere, give your agent a call and go looking; everything’s calmed down and its safe get back in the water.

Not All Good Buys are Old Listings

Even in the dog days of summer, people list houses and a very nice one came on recently. Barbara Cioffari has brought on 47 Owenoke Way in Riverside for $3,295,000, which I think is a very good price for a house as nice as this (disclosure: my family is friends with the owners’ family, but that’s not the basis for my opinion – now if they’d listed it with me ….). A center hall colonial that has been completely renovated and recently expanded, with a nice yard of almost half an acre and within easy walking distance, if anyone does that anymore, to Riverside School, Eastern and the train. I’d be surprised if it’s still available by today’s publication date but hey – it’s summer, and a lot of potential buyers are out of town. You might get lucky.

And in Middle Age Listings

Alaimo Dechantal’s listing at 52 Fairfield Road was priced at $2,800,000 when it was first listed in May. Two months later it’s dropped to $2,495,000, which seems appropriate. A brick center hall colonial, again, also renovated and also on a nice yard of an acre. I didn’t necessarily disagree with its original asking price and I especially like this house at its current one.

Boom Goes Bust!

The New York Times is at it again, with yet another front page story about trouble in the housing market, this time in Denver. I have no doubt that the facts of the story are accurate – at least, they make no mention of Dan Rather’s having been involved in writing the story – but if you look at those facts, you’ll see that they aren’t all that scary. They tell tales of woe of people who didn’t earn as much on their house as they expected, such as a man who purchased a townhouse as a speculative investment and earned only $10,000,000 for his efforts. The basic conclusion of the article is that the market has slowed down, which is hardly surprising; no one I know thinks we’ll see twenty percent increases forever. Despite its headline, the article itself did include one calm observation: “Optimists point to Denver as a model of an adjusting real estate market. ‘I think it’s a good example of when a market softens, what happens,’ said David Lereah, the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, a trade association. “You see double-digit price appreciation go down to 4 percent or even 1 percent, and then it starts coming back to a historical norm of between 4 and 6 percent. That’s very healthy. That’s wonderful. It beats inflation.’
Mr. Lereah might be a flack the Realtors, I suppose, but I agree with his opinion.

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An Imperfect World

I don’t lecture my clients; it’s both patronizing and ineffective. And, as Oscar
Wilde observed,”I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and
besides, the pig likes it.” The rest of you aren’t so lucky, however, so if you happen to be one of my clients who just blew a great house deal in Old Greenwich, stop reading here and come back next week.

For those still with me, know that in real estate, as in the rest of life, finding a suitable outcome is founded upon compromise. There is no perfect house out there, waiting to be discovered (go back and read Plato for similar sentiments- nothing’s changed in the past 2,300 years). Field Point Circle, considered by many to be the best address in Greenwich, is approached via the Grass Island sewer plant and, when the wind’s from the north, afflicted with the roar of trucks on I-95. Conyer’s Farm will seem ideal until you discover that you forgot the cream and you face either a drive of ten miles or a breakfast of black coffee.

And so it goes, through all price ranges. The house you want will always have something wrong with it: price, layout, yard, neighborhood. The best advice I can give is to lay out your priorities and go for the house that meets most of them. For families with young children, I think neighborhood trumps everything else. Get that right, and whatever else may be wrong with the house itself becomes insignificant. Those who are older and who no longer need to cart their children around to play dates might well prefer no neighborhood at all and instead choose to live in a small cottage down a long, long road away from everyone else. It’s all personal, and you shouldn’t let your agent pressure you into something that doesn’t feel right. But don’t pass up a house just because it doesn’t meet every single one of your criteria to perfection – nothing ever will.

Malpractice

We agents in town often felt we were getting a raw deal on or malpractice insurance. Rates are based on state-wide incidents while in Greenwich we don’t write contracts or engage in much of anything that could even approach what might be the practice of law. We dump all that on the lawyers and let their errors and omissions policies cover things. Accordingly, Greenwich sees very, very few claims for malpractice.

But two recent incidents make me think we may be soon catch up to our peers in the rest of the state, thanks to our FAR regulations. Twice now, I’ve had agents tell me that their two acre listing could accommodate a house of some 7,500 sq. feet. Nice, but inaccurate, because each lot was on a two acre lot in the four acre zone. As I’ve written here before, while logic suggests that one would apply the two acre FAR formula to such a lot, in fact the P&Z insists that the house be smaller than even a one acre lot allows. There’s a big difference in value between a 7,500 sq.ft. house and a 5,400 sq.ft. one; a difference that any expert will happily testify to in a malpractice suit. Personally, I think the FAR is so convoluted-what percentage of the basement is included, how about the garage with half walls, the attic, etc. – that I would never consider stating with certainty what the FAR allows on any particular house. Rough guidelines, sure; but for anything more precise you’ll want an architect to come over with an accurate measuring tape and an up-to-date knowledge of all the FAR rules. Just another expense for our town’s happy homeowners, courtesy of the P&Z.

Time for Price Reductions

I do enjoy representing buyers this time of year, because bargains start appearing, in all price ranges. Lisa Gabriele has knocked $1.2 million (from $9,695,000 to $8,495,000) from her listing at 99 Richmond Hill and, while I don’t have anyone in that price range, it looks pretty attractive at its new price. Nancy Healy’s listing at 2 Sylvan Lane was a very nice house at $2,650,000; it’s now a screaming bargain at $2,300,000.

Of course, this being the silly season, there’s always someone out there who concludes that his house isn’t selling because it’s priced too low, so he jacks it up. A house in Old Greenwich, for instance, just bulked up to $4,295,000 from $3,995,000 and its owner is presumably awaiting a flood of renewed interest. Somehow, I don’t think so. Price cures everything in this market but I have never known a higher price to be part of that process. But good luck, fella, and see you in September.

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Hands Free Cell Phones, Revisited

Several readers (politely) chastised me recently for my statement that banning hands-free cell phones would have no positive effect on highway safety. I referred those readers to a Consumer Report’s article that analyzed other studies and conducted its own and concluded that it was the distraction of talking on the phone, not holding the thing, that caused accidents. If those readers weren’t convinced by that, perhaps they should check out today’s report (link, below) from Australia. New, much bigger study, same result. Ban cell phones entirely (unlikely) or repeal Connecticut’s new law barring handhelds, but please don’t pass meaningless, ineffective laws and pretend that we’re doing something useful.

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The Bubble, Again

As is its want, the New York Times buried a rather encouraging story about real estate bubbles in its business section. Fear and speculation about housing bubbles receives front page placement; actual facts debunking the original speculation go elsewhere. In any event, the article looks at what’s happening in Australia, which has been enjoying its own real estate boom. Turns out, prices are leveling off. No bursting bubble, no panic, except in the disappointment experienced by the Times editors. There has been a ten percent reduction in the prices of investment (non-owner-occupied) houses but otherwise, they’re seeing a correction down under and not a disaster. As I’ve noted before in this column, Greenwich is not South Florida; we don’t have seventy thousand new condominium units under construction nor do we have speculators standing in line all night to buy, and flip, new units. Greenwich simply doesn’t have the land to support huge new projects that would appeal to speculators and has always been, and will continue to be, a solid place in which to buy a home and house your family. And, as I have also noted, we have market discipline: over-priced houses refuse to sell, and that’s good. My advice: ignore the Time’s front page hysteria (this goes for its articles on all subjects) and prowl the back pages for more substantive, useful news.

Speaking of All the News That’s Fit to Print

The NYT’s Styles section ran this note last week: “An article on May 29 about the latest sex manuals from mainstream publishers included a topic erroneously among the covered subjects. They do not include bestiality.”–correction, New York Times, June 26. Isn’t that a relief!

549 North Street

Shelly Tretter just listed this house for $12,500,000 and I toured it last week. Very impressive. I’m pretty sure it was designed by Alex Kaali-Nagy, one of the few architects working in town who somehow combines the huge size his customers want (15,000 square feet, in this instance) with a sense of proportion and even charm. I don’t know how he does it but a Kaali-Nagy house is never boring and predictable, something that very much cannot be said about most of the big-box monsters afflicting Greenwich. Top of the line finishes throughout, including blue (!) and silver granite in the kitchen- it works, really – and very nice grounds. 549 North is set way off the street down what is in effect is a private lane, so noise isn’t an issue. Worth its price? I’m not (particularly) ashamed to say, who knows? At this price level a buyer expects to get just about exactly what he or she wants so if this house works for them, they’ll buy it. If not, not. But Tretter doesn’t usually stick silly prices on her listings and, when I ran some comparisons on recent sales in the $10,000,000 – $15,000,000 range, I concluded that this house is their equal or better. Not quite in my budget but then, that kind of negative thinking is what keeps me living in my pup tent.

And on Tomac

Joyce Somm has held the listing for 28 Tomac since late April but her previous open houses coincided with one of my own and I only got to see it last week. What a nice house. Built in 1891 and set far back from Tomac on a huge front yard, the house has been renovated over the years without destroying the features that make this house so special. Four bedrooms, three baths and three working fireplaces on a half-acre, asking $3,250,000. My only quibble, and it’s entirely personal, is the pool in the back yard. It seems to have built in the 60’s and, together with its dowdy concrete apron, consumes more of the yard (okay, all of the yard) than I like. T’were me, I’d either scrap the thing entirely or redesign it to free up more lawn. But again, that’s just my taste. A family with lots of kids will probably like the pool exactly the way it is.

Shhsh – Buyers Sleeping!

Only eighteen listings – single family, condos and rentals- went to contract last week, while sixty-seven listings came on and forty-four lowered their prices. Some of that lack of activity is probably attributable to the Fourth of July holiday but, clearly, summer is here. On the other hand, well-priced houses are still being snapped up. Of the seventy-one houses that sold last week, fifteen went to contract within three weeks of being listed.

Moving On

Callers looking for me at Round Hill Partners won’t find me; I have moved up the street to William Raveis’s Milbank Avenue location (869-7800). As for those multiple-office Realtors who so often complained when I described their offices as “chain-store Realtors”, I can only concede that those who laugh last ….

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Don’t Assume

Was at an open house today – a two acre parcel in the four acre zone – and was assured by the listing agent that a new owner could build a 7,500 sq. ft. house on the site. Wrong. Our P&Z punishes under-sized lots severely and in fact you can only build a 5,400 sq.ft. house on this two acre lot – smaller than you’d be permitted in the one acre zone. You can (almost) forgive a real estate agent from making the mistake of applying the 2 acre FAR formula to her listing because logic would suggest that’s exactly what you should do. But logic and FAR are mutually exclusive. Moral is, don’t assume that your agent knows what she’s talking about. The training in this field is, to put it mildly, not particularly rigorous.

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The Dog Days of Summer

Very little is going on these days as the town slips into its summer somnolence. Fourteen single family homes went to contract last week, twenty-seven new listings appeared and twenty-one houses dropped their prices. There’s no sense of urgency among buyers right now. Nor should there be, much as I hate to admit it (I like to eat all year round); summertime is the perfect season for a leisurely inspection of what’s for sale and careful decision making. If you like a house, it will probably still be available a week or two from now and probably longer.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t be out there looking and, if the price is right, buying. There are a lot of very nice houses currently in inventory and many of them have reduced their prices to near-bargain prices. They will sell, and if you wait until the fall to make offers on them you’ll be disappointed to discover that they’re gone or the sellers, emboldened by the return of the selling season, reject your lowball offer. The market is not collapsing so far as I can see, so if you think that prices will be still lower in September, think again.

And Speaking of Bargains

Martha Jeffrey has listed a six-unit condominium project on William Street that offers some very good value the best of which, I think, is unit 45-B, a brand new townhouse with three bedrooms, attached garage and a huge back yard, all for $1,750,000. Smaller, newly renovated units are asking $1,095,000 and $875,000, respectively. I like their in-town location and I especially like their new, lower prices. Check them out.

Private Property Rights, Diminished

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Kelo case, permitting the City of New London to seize private property from homeowners and hand it over to another group of private individuals in order to generate greater tax income has people on both the left and the right concerned (not the New York Times of course, which welcomed this extension of state power both out its usual desire to see an ever-expanding government and because its own land-grab for new headquarters in New York depends on exactly the Kelso outcome). But for non-knee-jerk thinkers of all political persuasions, the decision is disturbing. The result is a victory for Wal-Mart and other big-box stores; what politician wouldn’t drool at the prospect of replacing tax revenues from a motley collection of, say, car repair joints and run-down houses (or brand new houses-nothing in the majority opinion prevents it) with that of a Wal-Mart? For those of us concerned over the ever-expanding trampling of individual rights by municipal, state and the federal government, these words of Justice Story, writing in 1833 (Commentaries on the Constitution, sec. 1393), still ring true:

“[S] ince the American revolution no state government can be presumed to possess the transcendental sovereignty, to take away vested rights of property; to take the property of A. and transfer it to B. by a mere legislative act. That government can scarcely be deemed to be free, where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon a legislative body, without any restraint.”

The only “restraint” left after the Kelso case is that some eager town-planner must draft a development plan that offers a “better” use of property than its present owner is employing and that, of course, is no restraint at all. Will the Republicans put their flag desecration bill on a back burner and draft a bill repealing this decision? Will the Democrats do anything? Since both parties depend on contributions from large corporations and neither wants to offend municipal and labor unions, don’t hold your breath.

Discrimination at the Beach?

A friend of mine was one of several Black women recently denied permission to conduct an exercise program at Tod’s. She, rightly, took offense and wondered if the denial was based on her skin color. Town officials insist that they prohibit all such groups regardless of the race of the participants and I guess I believe them – we have more stupid rules governing beach behavior than anyone other than a bureaucrat could possibly believe. No swim fins, no unapproved personal floatation jackets, no sunblock under 40 SPF, etc. I fought a similar battle in 1976 when I and a handful of other windsurfers decided to use the western shore of Tod’s as a launching site for our craft. Drove the town crazy. They’d never seen windsurfers and didn’t have any rules governing their use but we were obviously having fun so there had to be something wrong – they harassed us mercilessly. But today, if you drive by that location, you’ll see an officially sanctioned sign, “Windsurfer crossing”. So I hope the exercise folks persevere and get their class; I’d much prefer to think that my town is engaging in its usual stupidity rather than engaging in racist behavior.

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