Monthly Archives: August 2005

Never Mind!
I wrote last week about 17 Hendrie Avenue selling for $5,300,000 which, I opined, set a new record for back lots in Riverside. Turns out this newspaper got it wrong and the actual selling price was $3,300,000. I’m a bit chuffed about this because I’ve previously written about the folly of relying on newspaper reporters to accurately transcribe sales figures from the Town Clerk’s day book, then I fell into that exact trap. Of well. At its real price, I think the buyers did very well.

Nice Houses
Two new listings of note last week. Pam Cunconan brought on 74 Valleywood Road in Cos Cob for $1,150,000 and Heather Platt, Cleveland Duble & Arnold, has 66 South Park Avenue in Old Greenwich for $1,650,000. Both are older homes that have been nicely renovated and I think both are well priced. The owners of 74 Valleywood took down walls in the kitchen and perhaps some other rooms to create a light airy house with a welcoming atmosphere as you enter. Three bedrooms and bath on the second floor plus a guest bedroom bath over the detached garage. Nice back yard, all on a street loaded with young families. A good buy.
66 South Park is a real surprise: from the street, it looks like a tiny cape which, since FAR regs won’t allow further expansion, appears to be far too small to accommodate a family. Once inside, however, you’ll discover that the owners have made excellent use of the space and added an eat in kitchen with adjoining family room. It’s very nice and plenty big enough, in my opinion. Fenced back yard that, while small, is perfectly serviceable and besides, South Park’s a dead end, so you can shove the kids outside to play in the street.

Not Everyone’s Away

While it may seem that the entire town has emptied out for these last weeks of summer, there is still a fair amount of real estate activity. Seventeen houses went to contract last week including one multiple bidding war for a house on Riverside Avenue. That’s not a busy week for, say, September but for the dog days of August, it’s reassuring.

Back Country Blues?

There’s a five acre plot of land in the Northwestern Back Country that sold for $2,950,000 in October, 2002. The purchasers must have changed their minds about developing it because, six months later, they put it back on the market for $3,400,000. It didn’t sell and today its asking price is $2,995,000 which probably means you could buy it for less than the sellers paid. Why is that? Did the original buyers overpay, or has the market for land in that area just dried up? I don’t know, but I do know that an awful lot of builders are holding off, for now, on starting big new expensive projects and I think this is an illustration of what happens when they do.

When they Came for my Cell Phone, I was silent

Now that Connecticut has joined New Jersey in uselessly banning hand-held cell phones in cars,I wonder whether it will follow that state in another bit of lunacy: a New Jersey legislator has proposed banning cigarette smoking while driving – a distraction, she claims, worse than cell phones themselves. Pretty soon we’ll have no radios in our cars, no cupholders,and inoperable windows (they let in distracting cool breezes and odors!). It could be worse: the EU has just enacted a law that requires employers of outdoor construction workers to force them to wear shirts and sunblock. Forget the Nanny State; we’re rapidly moving toward a Nanny Universe.

Ethanol

The energy bill just passed by Congress finally eliminates the requirement to add MBTB or ethanol into gasoline. Greenwich Time says that this is because cars no longer need it to burn cleanly but the sad truth is, cars never needed the stuff. Not since fuel injection became standard, and that was before Congress imposed the requirement to begin with. No this was always a sop to corn farmers in Iowa and, as evidence of that, note that, even though we’re no longer required to put ethanol in our gasoline, the same energy bill mandates a doubling of ethanol production, all subsidized by the taxpayer. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with this wonderful product that absorbs moisture and ruins gasoline and uses more energy to produce than it yields, but I doubt Congress does either. Nor does it care.

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The Sky is Falling?

About two weeks ago, the New York Times claimed that the housing market was doomed because the ratio of rents vs. buying price was so skewed. As I understood the argument, rents were so low that it made far more sense to rent rather than buy and that meant that the bubble was about to pop. So today the Times ran another article, this time on the front page, stating that rental prices were rising. Their conclusion? “Evidence that housing boom is ebbing.” I realize that no one at the Times actually reads the damn thing and I understand the Times’ fierce determination to bring down the housing market (and anything else they can grab on to) but really, if they think that declining rents and rising rents both mean the end of the world is near (“women, minorities hardest hit”) then perhaps we should interpret their economic reporting for what it is: “all the bad news we can dream up”. Consistency may well be the hobgoblin of little minds but self-contradictory conclusions are evidence of no mind at all.

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How to Update an Older Home

Marion Nolan has just listed 23 Meadow Lane (off of Zaccheus Mead). Built in 1930, its present owners have revived it beautifully without losing the features that made this house so appealing in the first place. They replaced the shingles with clapboard painted a light mint and kept, it appears the original trim, painted white. Very nice. Inside, they added a screened porch, new kitchen, and, I think, added an addition to accommodate a master bedroom suite with a huge living room beneath it but that’s about it, so far as my eye could tell. New mechanicals were installed, including central air, and the house is ready for another 75 years. Great big back yard, plus conservation land to the south, and a terrific location close to town. Asking $4,200,000, which seems right in the ballpark.

Record Price in Riverside

I recently wrote about 17 Hendrie Avenue in Riverside, stating how well built and well designed it was. At the time, the house, with an original asking price of $3,500,000 was under contract with buyers who, I was told, “added some extras”. Well I guess they did, because it just hit the land records as selling for $5,300,000. That’s a lot of extras. I am not criticizing the price, or the house – it’s a great one – but if that’s the new price for a half-acre back lot in Riverside, all of us who own teardowns just got richer. And, if builders can now expect to fetch that sort of price, we all own tear downs now. So aberration or new price level? Stay tuned.

Update
Never Mind! The newspaper report as to Hendrie’s selling price was, as it so often is, wrong. Actual price was $3,300,000; a very good price for both builder and buyer, but no record.

Why Haven’t You Sold My House?

That’s a common complaint many builders are demanding of their agents these days so in the hope that I can take some of the heat off my friends, here’s the answer: there are too many new houses out there. There are 27 houses currently for sale in the $6 – 7 million range, of which 5 are new construction. That’s not so bad, but when you bump up past $7 million the fun begins: 64 houses for sale in that bracket, 21 of which are new. A total of 31 houses sold last year (August to August) for more than $7 million and only six of those were new. Is that because the huge supply of mega-priced new houses only showed up this year, or because the market tends to prefer older homes? I don’t know, really, and I’m not quite sure how to massage the data to find out but if you’re the sleepless owner of a large spec project, be patient. And see if you can refinance.

On the Other Hand

200 John Street has gone to contract, something several of us wondered if we’d see in our lifetime. Nothing against the house, mind you, it’s just that the market for $12 million houses in the northwest corner of town is pretty slim. The original house at 200 John Street, built in 1790 by one of the Meads, was put on the market in 2000 for $9,840,000.No go. Two years later a new broker priced it as land for $4,000,000 and got rid of it. That house is, of course, long gone, replaced by much more, if you consider 17,000 sq.ft. and a 10-car garage more.

YWCA

Our town is now blessed with several new signs in orange plastic steering folks to the YWCA. And in front of that building the same orange plastic proclaims a new mission statement: Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women. I thought it was all about learning how to swim, but what do I know? More important, did they really have to choose orange plastic as their medium for conveying this message? I realize that the signs are no uglier than the building they identify but that’s about the same as pointing out that, for a fat girl, she doesn’t sweat much.

The Mob in Greenwich

While you all were off in Nantucket, the New York Post reported on the Gambino family’s extortion of the owner of Valbella’s, in Riverside. Sent some Albanian thugs (apparently better at this sort of thing than Italians – how standards have slipped) to hang the poor guy by his heels from his restaurant’s ceiling until he saw the wisdom of paying the Albanians $5,000 a month protection money. The Gambino goons who accompanied the muscle were less demanding, asking merely for a reserved table and free meals. With reasoning like this, how long before the Albanians are running the entire show? In any event, all this explains the long running Saturday night show down there, with huge white stretch limos with NY plates parked in front, drivers waiting, and the (male) gold jewelry crowd in the basement. It might also explain, for those with long memories, the fire that gutted the place way back when it was first scheduled to open. I hope the indictment of 32 of these people will end the restaurant owner’s torment. But not, I hope the Saturday Night visits from Brooklyn – best entertainment in town.

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15 Bayberry Lane

This terrific house (Jackie Hammock listing) is pretty far up into the Back Country but not so far that it’s impossibly inconvenient. It’s an elegant home, described on its listing sheet as “Colonial” in style but it looks more European than Colonial American to me. No matter, it’s beautiful. It sits on “only” four acres, but it’s protected by conservation land and then water company property that stretches all the way to Lake Avenue – no one is ever going to build behind you. The actual four acres consist of lots of rolling lawn, with a putting green and a one-hole golf “course” plus gardens – lots and lots of gardens. Raised vegetable beds that I envy beyond words, huge swaths of beautiful flowers and an assortment of fruit trees (including a fig!), ornamentals and big, old, oaks and maples. The yard is entirely fenced so, unlike my property in Riverside, deer aren’t a problem

That’s just the yard. The house itself is truly special. Great spaces for formal entertaining plus a ground floor master suite, four additional bedrooms upstairs and a servant’s or guest wing (it’s nice enough for either use) with a separate entrance. Everything, including the kitchen, six baths and what they call a conservatory (and what I’d call a high class greenhouse) seems brand new and in excellent condition. The place is filled with books, an item from which today’s young buyers will recoil in horror but, like asbestos, these can be removed by trained experts and replaced with your kid’s golf and lacrosse trophies and your own collection of autographed sports memorabilia. I struggle a bit with placing “value” and “$6,800,000” in the same sentence but no other house that I’m aware of offers so much privacy and luxury for anything like this price.

38 Lockwood Lane

Not quite so nice as Bayberry, but asking $1,875,000, is Dee Webber’s and Bari Taylor’s listing in Riverside. Five bedrooms, a huge amount of open space, light, and a great front porch. I liked it.

Green Hornet Alights in Cos Cob!

Well, not quite, but Mr. Isao Kato, Fjord Fisheries’ sushi chef, has opened a ramen stand behind the store. Open only in the evening on Thursdays through Sundays, from 6-9:30 pm, Kato serves up incredibly tasty bowls of soup served over ramen noodles. Shrimp, fish, vegetable, etc., for approximately $7.50 (price depends on ingredients). One bowl will serve one glutton (that would be me) or two people with normal appetites. Fans of Andy’s Hideaway in St. Bart’s can dine outside on tables with a lovely view of the car park and feel as though they’re back in the Caribbean. Or take your meal home; a treat either way.

And Also in Cos Cob

Construction has finally begun on the new Starbucks. I know that many Cos Cob residents objected to this project and I personally have a few qualms about a company that, by inventing a few phony Italian words, managed to convince America (and the world) to part with three bucks for twelve cents of raw materials, but what the heck: it’s a good cup of coffee (especially the “Americano”, which is watered-down expresso and not bitter like the drip) and the idea of relaxing with a drink while looking over the Mill Pond sounds appealing. Even Cos Cob folks might come to appreciate it.

Kayaks in Cos Cob

Hey – it’s Cos Cob’s week, I guess. In any event, the boys at Sportsman’s Den (869-3234) have just begun stocking Heritage kayaks, seaworthy, rotomolded polyethylene craft that scream to be set loose upon the waters. The model I like best is the “fisherman”, with two rod holders built into the hull. This being Greenwich, I’m sure the store would modify one of the holders to accommodate a martini glass but wouldn’t it be better to have your servant nearby on his own craft, ready to pass along drinks as needed? I hope to buy one (kayak, not servant), but I live on Ole’s Creek, so that’s an easy decision. If you aren’t so fortunate, check with Sportsmen’s Den, which is looking into offering storage and water access, or the Old Greenwich Yacht Club (used to be a boat club, before it got snooty), OGYC.com, or the Mianus River Boat Club, 869-4689. Antidisirregardless, you’re sure to find a way to use one of these neat little boats.

One Final Food Item

The Food Mart sells a juicy, crisp Texas watermelon for $3.99. Whole Foods sells the same melon for $9.99. We’re not talking organic – no special coddling for the Whole Food product: soft futons to lie on, Howard Dean rants read at bedtime, and so forth. No, the melons are identical: sown by machine, laced with insecticide and brought foaming from the garden. Same melons, different prices. Someone’s being shucked here, and I don’t think it’s the corn.

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The Trouble with Google Ads

Google (at least I assume it’s Google) sells ads based on the content of whatever you happen to be reading. But context is everything. If, for instance, you’re reading the story in today’s Greenwich Time about the shipboard murder of a young Greenwich resident (click on link, below) you probably aren’t going to be receptive to an ad for a cruise on the Royal Caribbean.

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When they came for my cell phone I was silent

Now that Connecticut has joined New Jersey in uselessly banning hand-held cell phones in cars,I wonder whether it will follow that state in another bit of lunacy: a New Jersey legislator has proposed banning cigarette smoking while driving – a distraction, she claims. Pretty soon we’ll have no radios in our cars, no cupholders,and inoperable windows (they let in distracting cool breezes and odors!). It could be worse: the EU has just enacted a law that requires employers of outdoor construction workers to force them to wear shirts and sunblock (click on the link button below if you think I’m kidding). Forget the Nanny State; we’re rapidly moving toward a Nanny Universe.

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Bad Construction

A year or so ago I toured a bit of new construction that was so badly built I sought out the name of its builder, in order to ensure that I never steered a customer his way. The house sold in a heartbeat, of course, to a young family that will probably be regretting it any day now. In the meantime, our builder moved on to other projects and just last week offered his latest creation to the buying public. Same poor quality, including improper framing, cheap finishes and the like, and the same result: it received multiple offers, all over the asking price. I find this discouraging.

Neighborhood is very important in choosing a house, but it’s not the only element to consider (despite what I implied in a column a few weeks ago). A cheaply built new house ages much faster than a well built one and, three or four years after its purchase, it will begin showing its age. I won’t name specific houses, but there are a number of houses in town which were built in the past six years and which now are in need of renovation. They don’t command anything like the resale value of a better-built house and that hurts you if you’re trying to sell it. So don’t be blinded by flashy details; look instead for the substance that ought be behind those new cabinet doors and whirlpool tubs and, if there’s no there there, skip along to another house.

Speaking of Great Construction

I drove way up North Street the other day to see Brad Hvolbeck’s new $12,750,000 listing house and was impressed. This house is beautifully designed (by Hilton & Vanderhorn) and impressively made. Hand-made bricks that look antique, laid in a Flemish bond (thanks to Mat Matthews for teaching me the proper term), a convex mahogany front door that is easily the best looking door I’ve seen and, inside, a lay out that is perfectly proportioned for human beings. The trim work is amazing, including a room whose measurements were taken from an Italian palace and recreated here in American Walnut. The third floor is entirely devoted to a children’s’ play area, including a small stage and a “bed”, perhaps twenty feet wide, for sleep over parties. Cool. Finished just this year, its owner enjoyed the project so much that he’s already started another one.

New Listings

Some great houses continue to show up on the market, even though everyone’s supposed to be out of town. Jackie Chamandy listed 1 Ford Lane for $2,380,000, which is a very smart price. Great location on a dead end lane, nicely renovated four bedroom house with a decent yard and a front porch that demands an Adirondack chair, an iced tea and a late summer afternoon. My guess is, to do that, you’ll have to become friends with the new owner because I think this will be gone in days.

Amanda Miller has listed 9 Stanwich Road for $2,395,000 and it, too is a very good buy. The current owners had intended to enjoy this renovation for themselves before their plans changed, and it shows. Unlike certain builder/spec renovations currently on the market, this one has no short cuts, no dubious compromises between quality and cost. There are certain builders out there who think that, as long as a property has a Greenwich address, buyers will pay any amount for any piece of junk. It’s not true, and when I see, for instance, a poorly designed renovation offering bad hardware, cheap plastic doors and Home Depot plumbing fixtures for the princely sum of $2,600,000, I’m insulted on behalf of myself and my buyers. We aren’t that dumb. So avoid that problem and go see 9 Stanwich.

Our First Selectman

Greenwich Time reports that First Selectman Jim Lash was out of town for 13 weeks last year. “First Selectman’s Many Travels Under Scrutiny”, the headline blared and I wondered, by whom? So far as I’m concerned, if the town is being well run, either directly by the man or by persons he’s delegated responsibilities to, he can go attend to his private business dealings to his heart’s content. Lash’s Democrat opponent claims that accessibility is an issue, but here’s my experience with that: my brother’s request for a zoning fee refund had been mired in the town’s bureaucracy for over a year before I wrote a polite note to Lash, someone I’ve never met, asking that he look into the problem and, if appropriate, sending a refund on its way. The check arrived five days later. That works for me.

Correction!
Two weeks ago I mentioned a “tiger” appearing with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby”. Baby was a leopard, of course – I can’t believe no reader spotted this.

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