Monthly Archives: October 2005

Gazoomping

A pricey house in Riverside recently came on the market and almost immediately had an accepted offer. The owners then received, and accepted, a still-higher offer and told the first buyers to pound sand. In real estate, of course, buyers and sellers are perfectly free to go back on their word until signed contracts are in hand (although I find it interesting that so many people who do this are from Wall Street where, my father told me, “your word is your bond”). But there is a danger in doing so: buyer’s remorse. Everyone likes to think they’re getting a bargain or, at worst, paying no more than a fair price for something. When a potential buyer in a flush of enthusiasm bids way over an asking price, he then spends his weekend wondering if there’s a “Chump” sign flashing over his head and on Monday, calls his broker to kill the deal. That’s what happened in Riverside and, when the seller went back, hat in hand, to the original buyer, guess who was told to pound sand then? If you want to sell your house to the highest bidder, and who doesn’t? then, if you are lucky enough to have more than one person interested, conduct a bidding war – sealed bids, contracts picked up at your lawyer’s office, whatever. Don’t do it piecemeal, accepting, then discarding a succession of bids. If you do, you’ll anger a lot of buyers who may never come back and you stand a good chance of accepting an offer that, a day or two later, vanishes in a puff of smoke. You’ll be burned, and perhaps appropriately so.

Scum-sucking Bottom Feeders

I received an offer on one of my listings the other day that was so low (1/3 of asking price) that my officer manager burst out laughing when I passed it on. My reply (oh, I do love this job, sometimes) was the following letter: Dear (Ms.X):
A formal reply to your clients’ offer on the above property will be found in next week’s (October 28th) column but, while they are waiting to learn yea or nay (hint: its headline reads, “Scum-sucking Bottom Feeders”) I thought to pass along to them a map of Red Star, Arkansas, population 20. I think that Red Star’s inbred, shallow gene pool might prove a more comfortable atmosphere for them than they’ll find here in Greenwich. Of course, I also admire their threat to rent until the end of the world comes next spring, and I look forward to monitoring their progress in buying a comfortable little place in Conyer’s Farm next May for, say, $450,000. Keep me posted. Best, etc.

Making readers laugh out loud is effect I strive for in my novels; it’s not what you want when you’re bidding on property. Low ball bids of that magnitude are just stupid – they’re the mark of unsophisticated yahoos who, year after year, wander into town determined to find a “real” bargain. It is a complete waste of time dealing with these people, either as a seller or an agent because they never, ever buy. Where do they go? I assume they get sidetracked into one of those “real estate with no money down” schemes out in Oklahoma but I do know this: they don’t find what they want in Greenwich. Want to negotiate a price? Go ahead, it’s the American way, but if you want to be taken seriously, make a serious opening bid.

But Having Said That,

Here’s a note to sellers: price your house right, which means, for today’s market. Interest rates are rising, inventory is growing and buyers are looking more and more like tire kickers. If you wanted last spring’s price for your house, you should have listed it then (and if you did, and it is still unsold, you over-priced it). Prices have flattened and you aren’t going to get your pie-in-the-sky dream price. In short, don’t base your asking price on “what I’d love to get” but on what comparable houses are currently selling for. You will still make a tidy profit, but not necessarily as much as you would have in a stronger market. So don’t be so greedy that you can’t sell your house, eh?

Third Quarter Results

The Greenwich MLS has just sent out the third quarter book. I’ll discuss that data next week (“nothing to see here, move along, move along”) but I did find it amusing to see a number of houses that finally sold at prices ranging as low as half of their original listing price. Of course, the listing agents don’t like to reveal their misjudgment so openly; these houses, some of which were on the market for literally years, are yanked from the MLS and then relisted at a sensible price so that the record will show, say, 15 days on the market, selling for 96% of the list price. Uh huh.

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Eastern Building Glut?

Out of curiosity, I checked the number of new houses built this year and currently for sale in Riverside and Old Greenwich. Turns out there are fifteen, ranging in price from $1,894,500 (north of the Post Road) to $4,950,000 (Club Road). The Riverside/Old Greenwich market has already absorbed (sold or under contract) fifteen new houses this year with several more, I hear, close to contract. I think builders in the eastern end of town can still feel confident that their projects will find buyers.

Ignorance is Not Bliss
I encountered yet another agent the other day who was surprised to learn that our town is divided into different classes of zones, each with different lot size requirements. The concept of allowable F.A.R., and that its calculation depended on lot size, were also beyond her ken. Never has my maxim that there are no barriers to entry in this business been more vividly illustrated. Look: you are certainly free to go house hunting with your neighbor with the newly-minted real estate license; her kids go on play dates with yours, it’s nice to avoid awkward situations, and she’s probably got great experience as a yoga instructor, but do try to determine whether she also has at least a basic understanding of real estate. Otherwise, you could end up with an under-sized lot with a F.A.R. that won’t let you add a friggin’ tool shed. You may also acquire a viable malpractice suit, but that’s small consolation. If your neighbor/friend insists that you use her services, ask her whether she’s ever sold a house other than her own – that should eliminate half the agents in town. Ask her how many square feet are in an acre (43,560, the average amount of land one man could plow in a day, awhile back- a bovate, on the other hand, is the amount an ox could plow in a year. You’d have to go to Conyer’s Farm to use that measurement). If she passes those tests, ask her to obtain a copy of your plot plan and calculate your property’s FAR. If she manages to return from Town Hall, plan in hand, hire her.

Sandy Shaw

Or you could skip all that nonsense and just use someone like Sandy. An unexpected bonus of moving up the street to this firm is that I get to work with this lady. She seems like she’d be useful in a bar fight, broken beer bottle in hand, covering my back but the only side of her I see is a very funny person with tons of knowledge. She gives me great advice, all the time, and I’m sure she does the same for her clients (and, having profited from her counsel, have I fed her a portion of my commissions in gratitude? Nah, all she gets is this in-print version of a cheap Tee shirt). So far as I know she no longer has children of an age suitable for play dates nor did she teach yoga but if you can overlook those deficiencies, you couldn’t work with a better agent.

Sam and Silo Strike Again
In 1936 (or so) our police chief insisted that the death of a gas station owner was a suicide. He changed that opinion to “murder by an unknown person” after an intrepid local reporter got a hold of the autopsy report and thought to ask how someone could shoot himself in the back seven times with a six-shot revolver. Martha Moxley’s murder was finally solved (or not) by the State Police, not our locals and Matthew Margolis’s murderer remains at large. Observing this sorry trail of ineptitude our state legislature has taken pity and enacted a law creating a crime that even our force can solve: the hands-free cellphone act. Our police are loving it.
After a full day of instruction learning what a cell phone looks like and where on the head the human ear is located our gendarmes rushed out to the street and issued dozens of tickets. “It’s not nearly as difficult as we feared,” gushed a sergeant from the traffic division. “Turns out, the ear is pink and cell phones are silver or black – who knew? – so pow! We’re busting folks right and left.” One poor soul had purchased the now mandatory handsfree gear and showed it to her arresting officer, begging for a warning instead of a ticket. “No way,” the sergeant recounts. “Our guy popped her upside the head a few times for her temerity and issued the summons. If we observe a crime being committed we have a duty to this town to stomp on it, hard. Besides, its fun to finally be able to arrest criminals, eh?”

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Letters that are fun to write

My response to an offer that amounted to one third of a property’s asking price:

Dear [ ]:

A formal reply to your clients’ offer on the above property will be found in next week’s (October 28th) column but, while they are waiting to learn yea or nay (hint: its headline reads, “Scum-sucking Bottom Feeders”) I thought to pass along to them a map of Red Star, Arkansas, population 20. I think that Red Star’s inbred, shallow gene pool might prove a more comfortable atmosphere for them than they’ll find here in Greenwich. Of course, I also admire their plan to rent until the end of the world comes next spring, and I look forward to monitoring their progress in buying a comfortable little place in Conyer’s Farm next May for, say, $450,000. Keep me posted.

Best,

Christopher C. Founta

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October 14, 2005

Shhhhssshh!
A beautiful older house recently came on the market but you won’t read about it here; its owner refuses to place it on the multiple listing service out of fear, I suppose, of allowing us great unwashed to trample through his house. Fair enough; it’s his property and he can do as he wishes, but I think he’s doing himself a disservice. Although it might seem reasonable to assume that only a select handful of agents have the clientele for a high-end house in fact, you never know. I do find it ironic that the property’s owner made his fortune on Wall Street, which flourishes precisely because it disseminates information instantly around the globe. What works in that market also works in the real estate market, but some people don’t get that.

11 Red Coat Lane
I try to get to every open house but I often fail and sometimes, repeatedly. I missed this listing when it came on the market in the spring and somehow never got to see it until last week. A very nice house, it’s a 1974 Colonial, which means (horrors!) 8 foot ceilings, but the current owners have completely redone the kitchen, added a beautiful master bedroom bath, and brought everything else up to date. Six bedrooms, including a very, very nice in-law or nanny suite in the basement (no dungeon here!) two acres, a great big back yard, all for $2,875,000. Originally asking $3,500,000, it is now on its third price reduction. My brother Gideon’s rule of thumb is that, by the time a house hits its third reduction, it is below the actual market value and is a bargain. That certainly holds true in this instance. Go for it.

Speaking of Gideon
He’s just listed 140 Indian Head Road, a beautiful 1936 Greek Revival replica of a southern plantation (Tom Gorin, of the same firm, says, “all it’s missing is Spanish moss”, and he’s right.) Beautifully proportioned – modern architects ought to study it to see how it’s done, since so many of their own efforts fail so miserably-it sits on two plus acres and has a nice pathway down to the harbor. $6,500,000, which I think is just right. The owner is a long-time friend (so how come Gideon got the listing? He’s better looking) who, over the years, would ask, “so, what’s my house worth now?” The answer has increased significantly from the time he first posed the question.

8 Bradbury Place
Richard Bloom has listed this brand new house (off of Lockwood, in Riverside) for $3,295,000. Built by Bill Killeen, it’s top quality and, for new construction, priced very well. Five bedrooms, lots of living space (4,000 sq.ft) on a quiet dead-end within easy walking distance of Riverside and Eastern and the train. I liked it a lot, as did the other agents I toured it with.

A New Low in Realtorese?
Or a new high, take your pick. I picked up a data sheet in a house on upper Sound Beach Avenue the other day and saw that it had “beach rights”. I thought about that for a moment before realizing that the out-of-town broker was referring to Tod’s Point. Sheesh. By that reasoning, even the meanest hovel in the farthest reaches of Round Hill has “beach rights”. But bring your card.

Hooker Lane Update
My brother Anthony writes, “The residents of Hooker Lane are total wimps compared with those of the neighborhood in Fish Lake, WA known as Whorehouse Meadows. The Bureau of Land Management tried to change the name to ‘Naughty Girl Meadows’ a while back but the good people there would have none of it and the name stands.”

Good Writing
Michael Dinan first came to my attention a few years ago when he produced a series of articles for Greenwich Time on the Etchells World Championship held here in town (an Etchells, for you landlubbers, is a beautiful, sleek sailboat designed by Riverside’s own Skip Etchells). Dinan made what can be a rather inaccessible subject clear and exciting, a monumental task for sailboat races which, unless you are participating, can be rather –er, dull. At that time Dinan was a freelancer but his editors at Greenwich Time had the very good sense to bring him aboard permanently and since then he’s carved out his own beat covering the Greenwich waterfront and Long Island Sound. Anything he writes about: the wreck of the Sugar Boat, the new complex going up on River Road, etc. is always well written and always interesting. I’ll confess to reading our town’s daily in a rather hurried fashion, mining it for nut stories like DeLuca Lane and its residents’ battle against terrorism, but I always keep my eye out for Dinan’s byline and, when he’s there, I am rewarded.

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October 7, 2005
Not On My Property, You Don’t!

I see in Greenwich Time that the residents of Deluca Drive, a private road somewhere in Cos Cob, mounted “fierce opposition” to successfully block a plan which would have diverted school children pedestrians from traffic-ridden Cognewaugh and shortened the walk to school by ten minutes (I didn’t realize children still walked to school, but that’s another matter). You can easily see the danger here: the North Mianus kids who would have used the street range from Kindergarten all the way up to Fifth Grade, an age group known to carry drugs, knives and weapons of mass destruction. One genius had the foresight to envision an even greater risk to her safety: “what if,” she wondered, “the next person who comes through has a double stroller?” One shudders at the prospect. So congratulations, Deluca Drive. Keep those kids dodging cars and protect your right to private property!

Another Constituency to Offend

Now that I’ve eliminated any possibility of gaining a listing on Deluca Drive, have you noticed that as gasoline prices spiral ever-higher the drives of Hummers are looking inscreasingly stupid? It’s like observing some dumb fat kid in school sporting a “kick me” sticker on his back. By the time gas hits $5 a gallon, these guys are going to look like complete, drooling idiots.

And Then There Are The Lawyers

As God’s chosen people, we lawyers tend to have large egos (surprise!). Most (some) of us manage to subsume ego gratification in order to get a deal done but I am surprised at the number of lawyers in town who treat real estate agents like dirt. They won’t come to the phone, refuse to return calls and don’t think there’s any purpose in keeping an agent appraised of the status of contract negotiations. This surprises me because it is we agents who send lawyers clients and not the other way around. We pick our referrals on the basis of competence, ability to keep the ego under control and we very much like lawyers who keep us in the loop. Hard as it is for lawyers to believe, we can often hold deals together, even when they’re doing their best to screw things up.

Green (Quarter) Acres

A reader wrote me recently expressing wonderment that anyone would want to live on a tiny lot in Riverside or Old Greenwich when, for the same money, she could enjoy a two acre parcel in the mid-country. A fair question and one that I sometimes ask myself but, because I grew up in Riverside and raised my own kids there, I can (and do) defend the place. It’s true that, priced by the square inch, the two neighborhoods offer probably the most expensive real estate in town, but with those small lots come benefits. Anyone who has spent her day (or, more likely, her nanny’s day) chauffeuring kids from the Back Country to play dates, school, sleepovers and the like might well appreciate the ability to shoosh her kids out the door and let them swarm through the neighborhood with their friends (but not, one hopes, on Deluca Drive). Kids can walk or ride bikes to school- although these days, they all seem to be accompanied by their Mommies, which makes me wonder is wrong with this country-stroll into Old Greenwich or go to the beach, all without parental supervision or bother. So yes, this area of town can seem a bit claustrophobic at times, but for families with children, it’s a pretty nice place to live.

Mansion Fatigue?

Judging from comments of many of my fellow agents, I think many Realtors are fed up with the big, boring houses builders insist on erecting. We aren’t buyers, though, so it’s possible there is still a demand for these things. Certainly, well built large homes like Jay Haverson’s new construction on Dublin Hill are selling, and quickly, but I wonder if potential buyers aren’t beginning to contemplate the huge effort required to maintain a 12,000 sq.ft. house. The furnace rooms alone in these houses look like (I imagine) the command center of a nuclear submarine. Then you have three hundred rooms to clean, five acres of yard to oversee, pools and pumps to break down and fix, etc. When I wondered in print what would happen to all these mansions once their owners grew tired of them one reader replied that, among her age group the joke was they had no fear of a future shortage of nursing homes in town. Heh. Six new houses priced at $7,500000 have sold this year, while 20 remain unsold. I think I’d sleep a lot better if I were building a $3,000,000 – $3,500,000 house in Riverside or Old Greenwich rather than a $9,000,000 house in the Back Country.

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Stamford Value

Sharon Fogarty (Wm. Raveis) has just listed 378 Taconic Road for sale. It’s an amazing house, built in 1929 and completed renovated and redesigned (by Laurie Jones, AIA) inside less than ten years ago. Absolutely beautiful, with four acres of rolling lawn and pool. Eleven thousand square feet (presumably including the finished, walk-out basement and guest house), and a Greenwich address. If it were across the street, in Greenwich, this house would easily command a price between $6,500,000 and $7,000,000. Sharon has priced it at $4,550,000. If (a) your kids are in private school or (b) your children have grown, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t buy this house and pocket the difference. And for those of you who grumble about Greenwich property taxes being spent on our schools, here’s a vivid example of the value your taxes bring. Real estate value; I’m not at all sure we’re getting the full educational benefit of tax dollars, as evidenced below.

Drat!
I heard a wonderful story from a mother of a Country Day student that the school’s dress code required dress shirts from Ralph Lauren of Vineyard Fashions. Sadly, when I checked it out, it turns out to be a false claim made by a young girl seeking high fashion. Too bad; some stories, indeed, are too good to be true.

Here Are Some I Hope Are True

Supposedly, after over a year of promising the students of Old Greenwich School that the front steps would be finished, respectively, by Halloween, Christmas and Easter of last year, the administrators corrected the problem (a quarter-inch discrepancy on treads, I believe) over the summer. So now they’re open but only to fifth graders. Class warfare looms.

Also at Old Greenwich School, I’m told that the children are forbidden to play on the grass because they might trample the roots of trees and kill them. Gee, those trees have survived seventy-five years of such trampling, so what gives now?

And the best story from that school is that of the kindergartner who was told she couldn’t count by tens because that wasn’t on the curriculum until November. I suppose her teacher needed time to brush up on the subject herself.

Doings at Raveis

Gene Ruggerrio has a new listing but doesn’t want me to write about it until I learn how to spell her name.

73 Glenville Road
Jack Marker, on the other hand, probably doesn’t care how I spell his name as long as I say nice things about this house. Which I will. The house sits on an acre of land and has benefited from thirty-years worth of gardening: there are cutting beds, raised vegetable beds and lots of perennials and ground plantings. Inside is just as nice: totally renovated and expanded (4,000 sq.ft., four bedrooms, eat-in kitchen. etc.). It’s priced at just $2,295,000, making it a real bargain, in my opinion.

Staging Your Home?
Saw a very nice house last week up at 944 Lake Avenue.Built by Coggins in 1957 and recently renovated, it’s a modestly-sized (3,720 sq.ft, 5 bedrooms) antique-looking Colonial that seems very comfortable. Most impressive, to me, are the six-acres of grounds, with very old stonewalls and meadows. Great spot for horses. All that said, I was genuinely impressed by the staged apple trees – someone has taken the trouble to affix bright red fake apples to the branches. They certainly outshine their more natural cousins on the same branches but I suspect that, with some judicious attention, you could grow some nice fruit here. $4,500,000, Debbie Hufford, listing agent.

Nanny Dungeons

I am disturbed at the living conditions provided nannies in some of the houses I view. People who can obviously afford better create “nanny rooms” in the basement; airless little cubicles with room for a cot and not much else. If your conscience isn’t bothered by cramming another human being into such a space I’m sure it won’t be troubled that you’re violating the fire code nor, for that matter, will it be stirred if the poor girl is trapped in a fire. But perhaps your wallet might twitch a bit at the prospect of a whopping wrongful death suit – you might have to postpone your next vacation to Montana!

Good Night, Ladies
Hooker Lane is on its way out, to be replaced by “Stonebrook Lane”. I once suggested in this column that the street’s residents just rename it General Hooker Lane, but I suppose this will do. The camp followers of Fighting Joe Hooker, by the way, were not the inspiration for the term, which was used at least fifteen years before the Civil War, but the General’s licentious habits were so brazen that they popularized the meaning, all to the modern-day-residents’ of Hooker Lanes distress.

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