Monthly Archives: February 2006

Market Conditions
A bit of a slow down in the past few weeks. Sixty-eight single family houses went to contract between January 1 and February 17 this year, compared to eighty-one in 2005 and ninety-five in 2004. The market is not moribund, by any means, but there are a lot of tire kickers out there. It doesn’t help that the main stream media continues to declare a bursting of the housing bubble; just last week, the New York Times wrote that speculative pre-construction condo buyers are losing their shirts. There is a big difference, I think, between speculators operating in Miami and families buying homes in Greenwich. The Times disagrees but then, we rarely see eye-to-eye on anything.

Renovated and Still Going
I really liked 395 Stanwich (or 53 Rock Maple, take your pick) when it was first listed a year or two ago. It was a 1938 classic in need of some updating but I personally wouldn’t have changed all that much. Ann Benedict (Country Living Associates) bought it and, while sharing my own tastes as to what needed doing, bowed to market demands and added the now-requisite eat-in-kitchen, a huge new master bedroom suite and even baths for each of the bedrooms. No sharing for today’s princes and princesses! But she did a great job of preserving everything that made this house so appealing to begin with: graceful proportions, cedar (I think) moldings and the prettiest living room in town. The house was bumped out a bit, sideways and forwards to accommodate the new kitchen and master bedroom but I didn’t even notice that when I first pulled up. So, beautiful house, terrific grounds with an additional two-acre conservation buffer and a price of $4,950,000. Well worth it, I think.

13 Edgewater Drive
Another example of how to renovate a house. Originally built in 1915, it was expanded 1981 and new owners renovated it last year. It’s still relatively small: 2,600 sq.ft., four bedrooms, two baths, but I think it will perfectly suit the needs of a young family. Walking distance to the school, train or, going the other way, the beach. Susie Schruth (Prudential) has listed it at $1,735,000. If it doesn’t sell for more than that in a bidding war then we’ll know we’re in a downturn. But I’m betting it’s gone in days.

Planning & Zoning
The P&Z is allocated eight staff members, who keep busy reviewing applications, dealing with the public and so forth. Of the eight positions authorized, however, only three are currently filled. This is a huge problem, as you will discover when you go to get a permit for a simple addition. For instance, if your property is within 1,000 feet of the water you will need a Coastal Area Management (CAM) review. In the past, projects within the CAM area but not actually on the water were put through an “administrative review” which meant you filled out a lot of paperwork, the staff read through it to make sure all the proper forms were filled in and you were approved; ten day delay, at worst. Now, because of the staff shortage, that same simple review takes at least two months. And it is not just CAM reviews that are being delayed, everything is. Want to add a deck this summer? Expand your kitchen? Better start applying now, or you’ll be sweeping snow off your unfinished project next January. I don’t hold any personal grudge against Diane Fox, who runs the P&Z, but one of the responsibilities of an administrator is to ensure proper staffing levels. This problem has persisted for a long time and is getting worse, not better. Why? And, assuming Fox is incapable of curing the shortage, why doesn’t one of her superiors step in?

School Vacation
It’s been pure bliss getting around town this week with the schools closed and so many families away. No fighting frenzied, whippet-thin anorexics in Starbucks, no need to dodge SUVs, it’s even been possible to find a parking space. All in all, it feels the way Greenwich did decades ago and I enjoy it. Perhaps we should close the schools permanently.

It May Be Time to Retire When …
One of our older Realtors donned those paper, over-the-shoe booties agents pass out at open houses when the weather’s bad. She toured the house, came down the stairs, searched around the front door and exclaimed, “but I can’t find my shoes!”. In fairness to her, I suspect we all have days like that.

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Renovate or Dumpster Bait?
One of the more frequent questions we agents get asked by our clients is whether it is simpler (and cheaper) to load an existing house into a dumpster and start anew. The answer depends on the house, of course: its design, condition, location on its lot and so forth. If I were to do it again on my own house, I’d scrape the thing rather than make so many compromises in working around the existing layout. But that doesn’t mean, as some builders think, that every house should be torn down. Some, like the Italianate on Riversville Road, were just too beautiful to tear down (not that the builder was deterred- he loaded everything up in a dumpster and has built a boring, conventional house. Idiot).
And regardless of age, some houses can be expanded very nicely with less effort than
starting anew. Some recent projects that caught my eye were 422 Riversville Road, Jan
Miliken’s listing, asking $4,750,000. Totally renovated last year by its owner who works,
I think, as a kitchen designer here in town and obviously has an eye for more than just
kitchens.

Shelly Tretter’s listing at 97 Lockwood Road in Riverside is one of the original Lockwood family’s houses, built in 1828 and renovated and expanded slowly over the years. I think it’s great as is but at $2,025,000 there’s probably room to spend some more if you want to.

John Cooke’s new listing at 4 Kinsman Lane, off Bruce Park, has not been renovated, but it should be. $1,295,000 – add a few hundred thousand and you’d have an excellent house.

The Eagle has Landed
Well, a sick swan, anyway, that collapsed on the center line of the Post Road the other Saturday morning and refused to move. A couple of drivers parked on either side of it to prevent it’s being converted to road kill, so we called Meridith Sampson, Old Greenwich’s only (?) federally certified wild bird rescuer and the police. Meridith arrived to find the bird surrounded by four police cars. No word on the outcome, although Meridith brought the bird home and began feeding it antibiotics, but I think it’s a telling, and nice testimony to our town that we can send out four patrol cars for one bird. We’re still, in many ways, a sleepy town, and I like that.

Perils of Winter Construction
So did you notice that, after spending a week preparing and pouring a sidewalk for the new Cos Cob Starbucks they sent in a machine to dig it all up and do it again? I did, and the curiosity was killing me but I feared that the workers redoing the job might be grumpy so I waited until a cop was dispatched to direct traffic around the second pour and I asked him. Turns out, it rained the afternoon of the first pour, then froze, and the expanding ice popped the whole job out of the ground. Ouch. Whatever the profit margin is for this type of job, it probably isn’t enough to cover doing it twice.

Over-priced houses
A perennial theme of this column is, price your house to sell. Most agents get it; many owners do not. Still, I was shocked to see a house come on the market recently that was at least 25% – $1,000,000 too high. That’s not just my opinion. I asked several other agents for their suggested asking price got the same answer. There are some really nice houses in the threes – all nicer than this one, and I suspect this owner is going to discover that to his sorrow.

Nicely Priced Houses
25 Hendrie Lane, Carlton MacLean’s listing, $1,995,000. Hendrie is a quiet, dead-end street just steps from schools and the train. This is a nice, big house that, at this price, is probably gone already.
A little distance away, Ginnie Ridenour has listed 11 Owenoke Way for $2,195,000. It has been renovated a bit more recently than Hendrie, which may account for the price difference but either house would be a great buy.
A long distance from either of those two houses Walter Durniak has listed 14 Chateau Ridge Drive for $4,795,000. Great views, wonderful yard and in excellent condition. I see this as appealing to either parents with teenagers or grandparents who want a place to stash grandkids on visits because the master bedroom is on the ground floor while four additional bedrooms are on the second and lower floors, respectively. You could host a visiting rock band and never know it.

Mama, Mia, That’sa Spicy Meatball!
From the New York Times: “Correction – a recipe last Wednesday for Super Bowl meatballs misstated the amount of chilies to be used. It is one or two canned chilies, not one or two cans.”

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19 Shannon Lane
Ellen Mosher (Coldwell Banker/Curtis) has just listed this house for $1,395,000. If that’s your price range, hurry over and buy it because I don’t think there’s a better house available. Unprepossessing on the outside, the inside is really nice – tastefully renovated with a lot of useful space. I am not fond of driving Cognewaugh and Shannon is off of that street, but this property directly abuts the Mianus River Park; I’ll trade a little inconvenience for the ability to walk out my backdoor and go hiking. If I owned it I might work on making the exterior a little more interesting but that’s a quibble; this is in move-in condition and, again, a great value for this price.

20 Maher Avenue
One of my favorite in-town streets, this is a very nice family house. It’s an older home updated with a new kitchen/family room, wrap-around porches, six bedrooms and a decent backyard. Lynn Stevens has priced it at $3,250,000, which I think is about right. Of course, what I is irrelevant – the market decides these things, so I’ll be watching with curiosity. Whatever price it fetches, someone will have a great family house on a great street.

Finney Knoll
That’s Riverside Lane to most of us, overlooking Hay Days. Regardless, this new, seven home complex looks like a terrific value. I wrote about its great exterior architecture (by Mark Strazza, brother of the builder, Ralph) a few weeks ago; last week I saw the interior of the first one and was just as impressed. Russ Pruner, principal of the listing broker, Shore & Country, told me that Stazza essential put a $3,000,000 finish into a $1,990,000 house, and it shows. This is a smart move, because the location is not ideal, and you’re going to need some incentive to move in. I don’t believe there’s a house this nice anywhere in town at this price range and, when all seven houses are finished, they will comprise a nice little micro-neighborhood on their own. This particular house is a loss leader, in a way, because the developer intends to raise prices on the others. If you’re in this range of the market, I’d go snap this up.

14 Nawthorne
Lauren Muse’s own house, asking $3,375,000. That’s a fantastic price for this house. So fantastic, in fact, that by the time your read this it is probably already gone in a bidding war. If not, go get it.

The Numbers are Here
Year end sales statistics are out, and they tell an interesting tale. I’m proud to announce that I listed and sold the cheapest house in town last year, 3 West End Court, $475,000 (someone had to do it so I’m glad it was me). I doubt we’ll see another house under $500,000 again. Carolyn Sarsen sold the most expensive, 18 Simmons Lane, for $18,500,000. Hey Carolyn, let’s switch places this year, just for fun! For the full year, almost every category: single family, condo, etc. was up about 11%. Average sales price for single family homes was $2,470,000, median was $1,750,000, compared with 2004’s figures of $2,221,312 and $1,550,000 respectively. Condos, 2005: $812,169 and $675,000; 2004:$733,664 and $606,250. Land didn’t do so well, though. Average was $2,801,625, median was $2,000,000, compared to 2004’s figures of $2,303,573 and $1,945,125.

Of particular interest, perhaps, is to compare the last quarters of the two years, to see where we started and where we ended up. In 2005’s last quarter, 181 single family houses sold with the average and median prices of $2,912,952 and $2,070,000. In 2004, 215 houses sold, at $2,344,949 and $1,495,000. On average (the figure varies wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood), single families sold for 2.16 of their assessment this past quarter, compared to 2.1 in the same quarter in 2004. For the full year of 2005, that same factor was 2.24 this year, 2.09 last.

In 2005’s last quarter, 25 houses sold in the $3 – $4 million range, compared to 19 in 2004. $2 – $3 million, the numbers are identical: 33 in each quarter. Greater than $5 million, 21 this past quarter, 19 in 2004.

So the price appreciation is reassuring; the 15% drop in the number of single families sold (12% drop for the year, 865 vs. 978) is probably not ominous because 2004 saw the largest number of homes sold in town, ever. We’re probably just regressing to the norm, but it’s obvious (or seems to be) that, as the prices increase, fewer families can afford them. I’ll be watching this year’s quarterly reports to see if this trend continues or whether Wall Street continues to generate new young billionaires (bless their little hearts) to take the place of normal folks.

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Estate Taxes
The New York Times ran an interesting article recently on Qualified Personal Resident Trusts, or “QPRTS”. Basically, they work like this: when your spouse dies, you, assuming you hold the property in joint tenancy, get the house at a stepped up basis – that is, not what you originally paid for the house but its value at the time of your spouse’s death. Place the house in a ten year (or longer) QPERT, and keep living. At the end of ten years, title to the house passes to your children but you can continue to live there, paying rent, if you wish to pass more income downstream, or not. Your children benefit because their gift is valued at the present value of the house at the time you placed it in trust. The present value of a $2,000,000 house is far less than $2,000,000 (the IRS does the math so I don’t have to). When you die, your kids pay capital gains tax (15%) instead of inheritance tax (46%) if they sell – the Times reporter points out that for vacation homes, selling is probably not desired anyway. Best of all, everyone escapes paying taxes on the appreciation over the past ten years. I am certainly not an estate lawyer but, with the federal government and now Connecticut chomping at the bit to get at your assets, it seems sensible to consult such a lawyer and see if QPRT makes sense for you.

Synthetic Roofing
Have you seen the new “slate roofing” that’s made from recycled rubber tires? I have, but didn’t realize it until it was pointed out to me. I saw the product discussed a few years ago when “This Old House” used it for one of their projects and now I’ve done some research on the web to check it out. Pretty neat. Antique slate is used to make molds for the rubber ones which emerge looking exactly like their parents (up to seven different molds are employed so that, when randomly installed, the appearance of genuine slate is maintained). The manufacturers price the stuff at close to the price of real slate (which, according to a 2005 article I read, was $500 per square – 100 square feet- in Massachusetts). Asphalt shingles are less $200 per square. But, the synthetics look better than asphalt, come with a fifty year guarantee (and a hundred year life expectancy) and weigh about a quarter of what real slate does, so your builder doesn’t have to add extra reinforcement. Because they are so light, can be cut with a razor knife and installed with a pneumatic gun, This Old House estimates that, installed, the synthetic slate would run between $700 and $900 a square while real slate will cost $1,300 to $1,500. The same people are now making roof shingles that look like wood – same fifty year guarantee vs. ten to fifteen years for wood. I like the idea of keeping tires and old plastic hose out of landfills and, if the product serves as well or better than what it replaces, and costs half the price, how can you lose?

18 Old Wagon Road
Here’s a bargain, I think. This new construction by a really good local builder (and listed by Ellen Roth) is asking $2,195,000. A similar house by the same builder using exactly the same high-level finishes recently sold on Winthrop for around $3,100,000. Obviously, Winthrop is not Havemeyer, but then, not everyone can afford a $3,000,000 house. This one has all the luxuries you’d expect in new construction: huge eat-in-kitchen with top of the line appliances, master suite, beautiful (and expensive) trim, finished basement and so on. I like it a lot and I think it’s a good value right now. As prices in Havemeyer continue to climb, this house will look like a really good buy in retrospect.

15 Shoal Lane
Ann Simpson’s new listing on Shoal Point Lane is right on my favorite body of water, Ole’s Creek. The creek forms a “creek neighborhood” on both sides – Riverside and Old Greenwich. We fish off each other’s docks, chat up each other from kayaks and canoes and the kids swarm from yard to yard. It’s a short row or paddle to Long Island Sound, as long as you do such rowing within a couple hours of high tide. Visitors might be appalled that the water disappears twice a day but we residents know that that’s when blue herons, egrets and all sorts of other wading birds appear; I find low tide to be at least as interesting as high. Ann’s listing is in the heart of that neighborhood and if you’d like to join us here on the water, you know who to call.

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