Monthly Archives: December 2005

Useless Statistics
Of all the data the Greenwich Association of Realtors collects, those for “days on market” and “Sales Price to Listing Price ratio” are the most misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but because of how these numbers are calculated. The actual sales price is solid – we are required by the Association rules to accurately report this sum and I’m unaware of any incident of over or under reporting here. But days on market is a figure subject to gaming and a lot of that goes on. If a house is way over-priced and lingers on the market, it is perceived, accurately, as a stale listing and, often inaccurately, as a house to be shunned. So deleting the listing and bringing it back on serves the home seller’s interest, as well as improving the listing broker’s record for how quickly his listings sell. But I can recite many, many instances of houses that sat for years before selling and, when they did, showed up in the statistical calculations as being on the market for just a matter of days, because they’d just been re-listed. Similarly, don’t be mislead by the statistic that shows that the average house sells for 96% of its asking price. That’s actually 96% of the last asking price, which is a self-fulfilling number. A lot of over-priced houses suffer a death by a thousand cuts as their prices are slashed, again and again, until, finally, they find a buyer (whereupon they are hurriedly re-listed and show up as selling after just days on the market, as described above). Of course they sell for 96% of the asking price – but that only reflects that, finally, they found a buyer. Again, I know of many houses that sold for 60%, even 50% of their original asking price and it’s that statistic I’d like to see my Realtor board publish. It would be educational for all of us and might damage a few reputations, which is why it won’t happen.

Riverside Lane Houses
Strazza Construction is building a number (six?) of new houses on the former Finney property next to Hay Day on Riverside Lane. I haven’t been inside them but I’m impressed by their exteriors. The architect has taken the care to reflect, if not mirror exactly, the original Finney house (which is also being renovated) so that the entire complex looks related, in a very nice sense. As nice as the original meadow? Probably not, but I’ve long since abandoned hope for preserving large pieces of land in Riverside and, if they have to be developed, this is not a bad way to go. When I spoke with Mr. Stazza last spring, he told me that he was planning to bring these on in the $2.1- 2.3 million range. If he can stick to that, I think these will be good buys.

Other Developments in Riverside
A reader emailed me to alert me that the Howard Johnson’s motel has been sold to commercial developers. If so, we can probably expect something new going up. I have never joined those residents who oppose every new business on the Post Road – it seems to me that that’s exactly where commercial operations belong – but I do hope our P&Z will be watching this one closely.

Bidding Wars
If you thought that the week before Christmas was quiet, you’re wrong. Bidding wars broke out all over town. Bramble Lane, asking $1.495 went to sealed bids, as did 4 Park Avenue ($1.195) in Old Greenwich, 1 Grove Lane, in Greenwich, and 33 Club Road ($4.0 million). Of all of these, 33 Club Road, my brother Gideon’s listing, perhaps best illustrates the changes in the market. When Gideon last had the listing (he was the third broker) it sat from June, 1994 until July, 1997, when it finally sold for $1.300. Eight years later, it went for well over $4,000,000. I lost the bidding war, by the way but fortunately learned this in time to exchange Gideon’s intended Christmas present for a big lump of coal.

10 Copper Beech
Lyn Stevens finally came up with a buyer for this great house. Greenwich real estate is a funny business; houses that you’d think should sell in a heartbeat sometimes linger, unwanted while inferior houses go in a flash. This was one of those – it sat for 287 days – and neither I, nor other agents I discussed it with, could understand why. The single story house was near town but far enough off North Street for quiet, on more than two acres of beautiful rolling lawn. I’d have moved into the place as is, but if someone had wanted to update it a bit, that would be justified financially. Anyway, too late now, it’s gone. You missed a good one.

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Grove Lane
Not much in the way of new listings this time of year but one that impressed was Renee Gallagher’s at 1 Grove Lane. A neat old Victorian, close to town yet on 1.3 acres, this house was written up a few years ago when its owners repainted it in its original Victorian style, which means multiple colors. It looked great then and still does today. If you have a collection of Stickley furniture and want a beautiful house in which to live with it, this will do nicely. $3,350,000.

High End Condos
They continue to sell, with yet another one at 211 Milbank going to contract – asking price, $4,600,000. Wow.

Low End Condos
I checked out the Greenwich Gate condos on the Port Chester/Greenwich border recently and thought they were pretty nice – granite kitchen counter tops, decent bathrooms, etc. But the developer has already sold out the few two bedroom units available and now has only one bedrooms left. This is ironic because there was a long delay on this project while the builder fought to include moderate income units in his plan. I’m no foe of such housing – Greenwich needs far more of it – but I suspect they fought so hard out of a desire to build more units than zoning would otherwise allow, and for what? The market in Greenwich is for multiple-bedroom units, not single. The developer could have complied with zoning, built fewer, but larger and more expensive units and hit a home run. The builder’s from Stamford and I think he confused the two markets.

House Organizer
I recently met with Ms. Carolina Wurster to discuss her new business venture, organizing houses to prepare them for sale. Wurster is a personal assistant, travel organizer, etc., but thought that many houses in town could use a good organizing and boy is she right. For a modest hourly charge, she’ll plow through a house, eliminating clutter, organizing closets, kids bedrooms and even the refrigerator, tossing out that half-empty jar of anchovies you’ve been saving for the past two years, just in case. The difference between a tidy house and an un-holy mess is tremendous, in my opinion (and I should know, I fall in the latter category) and your house will sell more quickly, for a better price, if potential buyers don’t have to strain to imagine what a room might look like under different circumstances. Your real estate agent might treat you to a few hours of this service or, if she’s as cheap as I am, you can call Wurster direct at (203) 531-0889, or mcwurster@aol.com. The service is also available for buyers – Wurster will show up on moving day or soon thereafter, unpack everything and put it away neatly. A nice home warming-gift.

Grace McCarthy
Grace has recently moved her practice down to Old Greenwich, where she’s happily ensconced in what she calls the Hirshburg Building and what I remember as the location of Fairfield County Trust before they became Union Trust and moved across the street. Anyway, she’s with Prudential Connecticut and likes her new digs. So if you’re loking for her, now you know.

Let It Snow
Because I recently decided to buy out my Honda at the end of its lease I went out and treated it to four new snow tires. The car is a great car most of the year but it came with all season tires which are fine as long as you spend all four seasons in Florida. But put four snows on the thing (not two, as in the past) and it’s a tank. I knew this – the same process worked wonders for our Volvo, but the idea of owning eight tires for one car is always a bit daunting. It was all worth it during our recent snow storm and, in my business, I need to get around. I bought Blizzaks by Bridgestone (from Mavis, in Riverside) based on recommendations of Consumer Reports and the testimony of friends but I imagine almost any brand would be a huge improvement over all seasons.

Speaking of Blizzards
Just in time for Christmas our police force has announced a ticket blizzard on Greenwich Avenue to free up that street from double parkers and the like. Good idea, but I was struck by their admission that most of the tickets they’re handing out are for seatbelt violations. How pulling someone over and blocking the street while you write them up for an unbuckled seat belt will ease traffic escapes me but I learned regular logic when I studied philosophy, not cop logic. A different discipline entirely, it appears.

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Bah, Humbug!
Call me a Grinch, but I’m not at all moved into the Christmas spirit by the sight of these ten foot tall inflatable cartoon characters sprouting on lawns around town. Somehow, the sight of Homer Simpson, dressed as Santa and locked in a make-believe snowball just doesn’t scream out “Merry Christmas”. To me, anyway.
Christmas Pranks of Old
On the other hand, I was watching some friends place a Christmas tree on their dock the other day and was reminded of one of my father’s great pranks, played as a yearly ritual on our neighbor on Gilliam Lane, Joe Ryan. Each year, Joe would carefully dress a small tree entirely in blue lights and, just as carefully, as soon as Joe retired for the night, my father would sneak across the road and replace one of the bulbs with a single red one; gave it sort of a Rudolph look, I suppose. It drove Joe nuts. Because the statute of limitations may not quite have run yet I’ll spare you details of my own Christmas Eve tradition but it involved an inflatable Santa on my Scoutmaster Art Brown’s roof and, first, a pellet rifle and later, when the wise guy started stuffing it with newspaper, a quiver of arrows. Such fun.
Our Hartford Geniuses
As of October, drivers under 18 are forbidden to drive after midnight. Whatever the lame-brained thinking was behind this, its immediate effect has been to cripple Operation Safe Rides, the Red Cross-sponsored program that gave kids a ride home, no questions asked. The drivers are all high school kids and – surprise! – almost all of them are under 18 and thus unable to drive.
Pricing
Two houses that went to contract last week caught my eye: one, originally listed at $775,000 back in July of 2004, finally dropped its price to $699,000 and found a buyer. The other, listed at $959,000 in May of this year, dropped to $799,000 and enjoyed the same happy result. My point, as always, is that the wrong price repels buyers. If your house isn’t worth, say, $959,000, then buyers who can afford that much for a house will purchase one that is worth it and shun yours, while the $799,000 buyer won’t look at it, let alone make an offer, because he feels that he’s wasting his time. So you lose both ways, and your house sits. This applies to all houses in all price ranges and it always has. You just don’t believe it.
20 Sherwood Avenue
This was one of my favorite houses, set back from the road on wonderful grounds. It needed (a lot) of work but it seemed clear to me that it was well worth the effort. Yet it sat, unwanted, from September 10, 2001 – a bad day to list any house, obviously – until last week, when Jean Ruggiero found it a buyer. Someone got a great buy for under $4,000,000.
13 Suburban Avenue
This is a wonderful renovation by one of Sheila White’s (New England Land) clients. The house was a wreck when it sold this past March (for $755,000 in a bidding war that started at $715,000), but the new owner has added new windows, knocked down some walls to free up space, put in new wiring, plumbing, mechanicals, added a slate roof and copper gutters and so on. It’s vacant, so nag your agent and go see it, if only to discover for yourself what you can do to an old house other than knock it down. Or call me – I’m happy to take the time if it spares us one more dumpster. $1,495,000 which, in my opinion, is a great price. This house confirms my belief that the greatest values in town are fixer uppers. You could have bought this house, put in, say, $300,000 in improvements and enjoyed an instant appreciation of $440,000. Wall Street doesn’t return that kind of money. Yes, I could do the same thing but, unlike you, I don’t have any money.
Support Our Troops
Have you noticed that many of those yellow ribbon magnets on cars have faded to white? Unless there’s been a significant change of heart among those drivers and they’ve all become Howard Dean supporters, I think the wrong message is being sent. My suggestion for faded-ribbon displayers is, rather than further enrich Chinese magnet peddlers, check out the website, Soldiersangles.org, which offers a number of ways to help out soldiers, from adopting them as pen pals, to care packages etc. You don’t have to favor the doings in Iraq to care for the kids who are there.

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Greenwich buyers tend to want a lot for their money and who can blame them? Two million dollars is, in most parts of the world, a big chunk of change and you’d think it should buy you at least a small mansion, instead of the average house in town. But it doesn’t, not in Greenwich. If you want 9’ ceilings, marble baths and granite kitchen counters, you’re going to have to pay more, often much more. Especially if you insist on high ceilings because houses just weren’t built that way until a few years ago and, if you’re buying new, you’re going to have to pay for inflated land prices. My advice? Adjust.

Speaking of Land

Growing up in the 60’s, most of my contemporaries lived in pre-war houses, which meant plaster walls, solid wood doors and the like. Then a fellow named Murphy came to town and started building “Murphy Houses” – sheetrock, hollow doors, flimsy quality. We despised them, even as we became friends with the kids who lived in them. But they sold for $27,500 (a plywood sign advertising that fact made a midnight conversion into a bed for my VW Microbus), cheap even then. Today they are still standing, remarkably, and sell for $1.3-1.8 million. It’s not that the houses have improved; they have not, but the price of a Riverside quarter-acre has soared. You should have bought some.

The Tax Man Cometh

I recently represented the estate of a woman whose property was assessed at $1,500,000. Assuming the normal ratio for selling price to assessed value, the house should have theoretically sold for $2.3 million. It did not and, alas went unsold for $1.475. I don’t know whether the late owner refused the assessor access to her home or whether the assessor just blew it but this house was never worth anything close to what the town taxed it for. My point: if you have an elderly relative who is perhaps incapable of dealing with our bureaucracy, keep an eye on her property tax, among other things. This woman was over-taxed for years, and no one noticed.

And the Taxpayer Fleeth

Two of my older friends have just moved their residency to Florida, permanently. Not because they tired of Greenwich, but to avoid our newly re-imposed estate tax. So there are two estates that Connecticut will not get to tax, and two incomes that will also avoid the Commissioner of Revenue Services.

Lawns

This is probably not a logical time of year to discuss lawn maintenance but I saw a truck the other day on the Post Road from an outfit called Natural Lawns and I was curious enough to check them out on the web (nl-amer.com). The company claims its program reduces the use of pesticides 80% and that its fertilizers are “all natural”, whatever that means. It seems to me that nitrogen is nitrogen regardless of whether it’s derived from petrochemicals or crushed lima beans, but in view of the fact that everything we put on our lawns ends up in Long Island Sound, anything we can do to reduce that flow might be a good thing. Certainly, reducing pesticides can’t hurt. They also sell an ice melter, tick controller and mole repellant (three distinct products, I assume). The closest service provider is in New Canaan @ (203) 348-7665 but for you do it yourselfers (if anyone in Greenwich still maintains his own lawn) the web site offers direct shipment of Natural Lawn products. Again, I have not really investigated this company or the merits of its products but the concept appeals to this L.I.S. neighbor.

“We apologize, but this recipe is back in our kitchen for testing.”

Message found on the web when I clicked on “New York State Blue Ribbon Apple Pie Recipe”. Makes you wonder what exactly what went wrong and how many Thanksgiving day deserts were ruined, eh?

Cheap Furniture

I recently noticed a Bob’s Discount Furniture truck making a delivery in Riverside, which surprised me. You know Bob – that cheesy guy who is all over the cable pitching his sawdust and glue furniture. Given the price of housing in Riverside, I was as surprised to see Bob and his cheap goods as I would have been to spot a tiger on someone’s front yard but I suppose that, after scraping up the dough to buy in that part of town, the homeowners might be living on folding camp furniture and sleeping on straw bedding. In which case, Bob’s stuff is a (modest) step up.

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Price It, Sell It

Doug Fainelli’s listing at 25 Shore Acre Drive, which I wrote about last week, had an accepted offer within days. Why did this house sell while yours hasn’t? It was priced right – yours isn’t.

The Market

Not a huge amount of activity recently but we have seen some notable houses go to contract; notable because of their high prices. 147 Round Hill, $12,000,000 (Jean Ruggerio found the buyer), 140 Indian Head Road (my brother Gideon’s listing) $6,500,000 15 Stillman Lane, $5,525,000 (Jan Milligan had the buyer), and 67 Club Road (Jan Milligan’s listing, Barbara Cioffari’s buyer) $4,595,000. And, defying conventional wisdom, a beautiful contemporary at 33 Sherwood, priced at $3,750,000, went to contract in twenty-one days. Contemporaries usually take far longer but I suppose in this case, the right buyers showed up early. Cate Keeney found them. So all this is encouraging, but read on for what I consider to be some daunting news on inventory.

Selling it by the Pound

Or by the square foot, actually. I recently looked at the selling price of all twenty-nine new houses that have sold this year and, dividing that price by the square footage, determined what they sold for per square foot. Tossing out the lowest (Byram, $287) and the highest (Round Hill Road, $1,005) I reached an average of $591. I then looked at the sixty-three newly-built houses that have not sold this year and, because I’m lazy, picked thirty-six at random. Again tossing out the lowest (Sawmill Lane, $433) and the highest (Khakum Wood, $1,030 – when it was originally put on the market it was priced at $1,667 per square foot, and its builder was angered when I suggested that that was a stupid price), and calculated an average asking price of $668. Is that enough of a difference to explain why these houses haven’t sold? I don’t know but, if I had a new house to sell, I might want to calculate its price by square foot and, if the result is wildly out of line with the $591 average, either reduce the price or come up with an excellent explanation for why my product is different. Of course, like all statistics, you should take these with a grain of salt. Doug Fainelli’s listing, mentioned above, was priced at $837 per square foot. Ah, Old Greenwich! The most expensive real estate, per square inch, in town.

What a Difference a Day Makes

In running those numbers I stumbled upon one house that, in July, sold for $629 per square foot. The buyer placed it back on the market three months later priced at $670 per foot. That seems a steep premium to pay for the honor of her brief ownership, but ….

Mega Price Tags

Of the sixty-three new houses built this year that haven’t sold, twenty are priced at over $6,000,000, compared to nine in the $5-5,999,999 range, nine in the $4’s, thirteen in the 3’s and six in the $1-2,999 range. If you add in houses that were built in 2004 and remain unsold, the $6,000,000+ total is increased to twenty-three. So just about half of the un-sold, new house inventory is priced above $5,000,000. I wonder if the bankers are nervous?

Arbor Day

If you buy property near a noise generator like the Merritt Parkway the time to plant trees, shrubs and the like as a noise barrier is when you buy the place, not twenty years later when you are getting ready to sell. It seems, from viewing a number of houses along highways, that the owners quickly grow used to the noise and ignore it. But buyers aren’t used to it, and an effective wall of shrubbery and mature trees will mitigate that perceived drawback.

What Not to Write in a Listing

While reading the “Sold” catalogue for the past quarter I was struck by one listing that proclaimed, “a house that others will clamor for”. It must have been a very faint clamor, because the house took nearly six months to sell. Oops.

Speaking of Noise

If the state proceeds with its plan to replace the Indian Field Road bridge with a bigger better brighter one, the perfect time to sell your house on that street to an unsuspecting out-of-towner is while the bridge is closed. Without the steady flow of I-95 commuters rushing down the street, Indian Field will appear to be a bucolic country lane. Snicker.

Danielle Claroni

It’s Danielle who is the tireless volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club, not her lazy son Daniel (just kidding, Daniel). Anyway, no thanks to my original mistyping, now you know.

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