Monthly Archives: March 2006

David Van Hosen Realtor/builder
Van Hosen has completed the second of three houses he’s building on Orchard Street and this one is as nice as the first. All three back up to the Pomerance/Pinetum parks so you can be assured that no one will be building in your back yard. I like that a lot, but here’s a caveat: if you’re one of those people who absolutely can’t stand the thought of strangers wandering around within sight of your house; you know, dangerous folks like ice skaters and picnickers, then this site is probably not for you. Try a graveyard, instead.
For the rest of us, this is a terrific house. I understand that Van Hosen purchased the land for $1.4 million and then engineered a third lot out of the deal. My understanding of most things is always a bit vague so don’t hold me to this but it would explain how the builder could put so much expensive quality into this house and ask only $3.8 million for it. Custom moldings, Brazilian cherry wood and all that are expensive, but it’s the high price of land thatis driving things over the top. He avoided that here.

Church Street
I see very few houses on the weekly circuit that I personally want, mostly because I have no desire to own a 10,000 sq. feet dust collector. But Ira Fenig has just brought on a single family house on Church Street that, had any of my film scripts sold, I’d be in contract on today. Everything used in the construction is first rate, from the beautiful bricks and Federal cornice work outside to exquisite cabinetry and beautiful proportions inside. I don’t get wildly enthusiastic aTV’st plasma tvs because I don’t watch much tv but if you do, it’s all here waiting for you. I liked the elevator, the private rear terrace and even the heated driveway to make sure you can leave your snow shovel behind when you move from the Back Country. This is the perfect house for a down-sizing couple. It has the size and the elegance to continue corporate entertaining, if you must, plenty of room for visiting children and grandchildren but small enough to feel very, very comfortable when it’s just the two of you. $4,995,000 which should make the downtown market sit up and take notice.

Window Smashing Spree
According to Greenwich Time a pack of vandals has been roaming around town smashing car windows. Always infuriating, of course, but what caught my eye was the statement that the level of bad activity was surprising because “school is in session”. Public schools are in session, yes, and presumably those students are too busy writing college applications to devote weekday nights to mayhem but private schools have been closed for two weeks. Assuming that not all of them are sunning on the slopes of Gstaad, isn’t it possible that a few of the little darlings are home, and bored? Bad behavior (and drug use) do not stop at the gates of private schools; just ask a student. And besides, you sent the little troublemaker away to boarding school for a reason, didn’t you? Well he’s back!

Jesus Saves
But Christ Church recyles. I stopped by the other day to watch a guy operating a portable sawmill to convert storm-felled limbs of that great copper beech on the Annex’s front yard into planks. Turns out, the church will use the lumber to build a chair for visiting dignitaries, which I think is a great idea (using the wood for something other than firewood; I have no opinion on visiting dignitaries). Even though these were just limbs, they were large enough to yield beautiful, wide planks. I hate seeing high-quality wood turned into stove fuel; if you lose a tree, you might want to look into selling its wood for lumber. The price is sky-high these days (even if your tree no longer is) and one good log, peeled for veneer, would probably pay for a very nice replacement.

The Easter Egg Hunt
Easter approaches and with it my family’s traditional viewing of the great Easter Egg Hunt, a family video started twenty-plus years ago and added to each year. My favorite scene: my then three-year-old son John, sitting in a dogwood tree, watching in amazement as an egg drops from a higher branch straight into his basket. He looks up and says in a high, excited voice, “Thank you, God”. If I have only one wish for that boy, now twenty-three, it’s that he never loses the sense of gratitude and wonder when good things fall into his life. Even if that higher power is just gravity.

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Private Schools
Admission letters went out two weeks ago, spurring all sorts of activity. Riverside families whose kids got into Brunswick are suddenly interested in the western side of town, New Yorkers whose little darlings didn’t get in are no longer interested in moving out, and so on. Tom Gorin, principle of Cleveland, Duble & Arnold, reminds me that the process works the other way, too: New Yorkers who can’t get their kids into that city’s private kindergartens start looking in towns with good public schools, like Greenwich.

24 West End Avenue
This is an almost new (built 2004) house listed by Francoise Levinson that I admire very much. The lots on West End are long and very narrow, which yield, as in this case, very nice backyards but present a challenge to anyone building on them. In this instance, the builder erected a long narrow house that looks great, both outside and inside. Because he used steel I beams to span large distance, the house is bright, open and should withstand anything a hurricane can throw at it. Three car garage, five bedrooms (four up, one down) and a really attractive finished basement. A block from Old Greenwich so train commuting’s a snap. I liked this house when I watched it going up and it’s just as nice today.$2,750,000.

Woxtra! Woxtra!
I notice a headline in The National Inquirer announcing that Atlantis has been found. I wonder how many times in that fine newspaper’s history it has found the lost continent only to lose it again. Careless.

Your Name is Destiny
Seen on the Post Road, a panel van emblazoned, “Shock Electric”.

Downtown Parking
Back in the 1960’s my family enjoyed making fun of our neighbor Joe’s long, rambling letters to the editor complaining about the lack of downtown parking and proposing various ways of providing it. We wouldn’t have thought he was so humorous had we known that nothing would be done about parking for the next forty years. The defeat of the latest proposed project, just off Elm Street, astonishes me. I haven’t shopped on Greenwich Avenue for years because of the lack of parking and I realize that the parking shortage will self-correct, eventually: more people will join me in shopping elsewhere and parking spaces will free up. But we, unlike so many New England towns, have a thriving downtown. Why would we jeopardize that when, as Joe pointed out, there are many solutions. All that is required is the will and I’m perplexed that that will is lacking.

Paint that House!
I toured a perfectly nice house in Riverside recently that is not selling and has just had its price reduced by $200,000. I think I know why: it’s empty and has the feel of a long-time rental property that has been neglected by its owners. If those owners had taken the time and gone to the expense to repaint inside and spruce up (not even replace) the bathrooms, I think the house would have sold months ago and the $200,000 price drop would have been unnecessary. Buyers like a house to be in move-in condition – this one looks like a project.

Press Releases
This will come as a shock to most of you, but not every press release is exactly accurate. The Greenwich Time recently ran an article on the sale of 382-84 Greenwich Avenue that quoted one commercial broker, as having represented the seller in the deal. “We advised the owners to take advantage of the historical highs we are seeing … and sell the property in its present condition….I think the result clearly speaks for itself. The owners, I know, are very satisfied….” Well not anymore. Turns out, the owners paid that broker $25,000 to go away and used another firm, Karp Associates Advisors, Inc. to represent them. The commission on a $10,000,000 sale is a tad more than $25,000. But hey, if it works for one guy, maybe it will work for me: I hereby advise each and every one of you to take advantage of the historical highs we are seeing and sell now. There – now I can claim credit for every sale in town and stop the annoying necessity of having to name other agents.

Open Houses
I’ve said this before but here goes again: out of the approximately 1,500 agents in town, you will see the same 100 regularly out at open houses. Not every one of those active agents is a top producer (I serve as an example of that) but every top agent is out there. Cause and effect? I think so. You can’t sell what you don’t know about.

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Dodo birds, Travel Agents and Realtors
The New York Times Magazine section devoted an entire issue to real estate and, in a pleasant departure from recent practice, filled it with interesting articles. The one creating the most buzz among my fellow agents was by the author of “Freakonomics”, in which he predicts that the rise of the internet, which gives what he claims to be full, complete information on every house for sale, will soon put an end to this profession or at least reduce it to a fee-based service: $40 an hour for showing a house, $250 to list it on the MLS, and so forth. Depressing news for some of us if he’s right, and he might be. After all, lawyers in Greenwich used to charge a percentage of a house’s selling price for representing buyers and sellers but switched entirely to fees when our practice was ruled, er, a tad anti-competitive. Lawyers are still around, you’ll have noticed, but we certainly rued the loss of that percentage when, over the years, house prices soared.

But I’m not so sure the author is right. For one thing, services like Zillow.com, which he cites as an accurate source of pricing information, are anything but. They offer out-dated information, missing entire renovations, for instance, and usually are way off on the square footage of a house – I don’t know why. An error in pricing either way could cost a seller a lot of money. Assist to Sell offers to list your house on the MLS, stick a lock-box on your door and then leave you to it. Emanual Kant might have something to say about this because he wrote that, before imposing a system (in his case, moral, in this case, business model) one has to expand things a bit and see what would happen if everyone were to do it. Assist to Sell, so far as I understand its model, requires that there be buyer’s agents to screen customers and escort them through your house. If no one is paid to do that, or gets $40 an hour, same thing, then who is going to be willing to conduct these tours (I read recently that unions have been paying homeless men minimum wage and no health benefits to picket Walmart protesting its low pay but is that really the labor base you want to show your house?)

I was discussing all this with Valerie Sanantonio, a very bright person who, with Bill Andruss, has just listed a huge house on Wyckham Hill for a reasonable price (more on the house next week) and she pointed out possibly the biggest error in the theory: the idea that sellers and buyers are solely interested in price – they’re not; both groups want service and information, and lots of it. The internet will not warn you about FAR limitations, proposed zoning changes that will effect the use of your house, pre-screen customers, wait at your house for 45 minutes when those same customers run late, call the plumber when a pipe bursts in your vacant house, etc. Of course, I may be just whistling past the graveyard here. If so, I hope the author’s predictions, if they do come true, hold off long enough for me to get my kids through school.

200 Lake Avenue
Debby Huffard has just listed what she calls a single residence and I’d call a town house with party wall, for $2,995,000. Whatever, it’s neat. Originally built in 1889 for the headmistress of Rosemary Hall, it has its own, very private walled back yard and once had, according to June Peters, who knows everything, a tunnel in the basement connecting it to the attached house next door. Restored, nicely finished, close to town. I like it.

Santoro Brothers
These three brothers (Joe, Paul and David) are continuing a construction business started by their father just after WW II. The current project on Valley Road is not dissimilar to the Rosemary Hall house described above. Technically, it’s a condominium but the only common wall is the garage. This end of Valley is a work in progress so to overcome that the brothers have loaded quality, size and top-end appliances into what feels like two, single family homes. Four bedrooms in each, 4,000 sq. ft., two-car garages, walk-out basement, decent yard, all for around $1,500,000. As Joe told me, their business carries their family name and they have no intention of demeaning that. The pride of that statement shows in every inch of this project – A good buy and, as the neighborhood continues to go upscale, which it will, a good investment.

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The Power of the Multi-List
A property in Havemeyer came on the market last week priced, by its Stamford real estate agent, at $739.000. Don’t tell Bud Dealy but Havemeyer land is worth far more than that. Whether the listing agent was clueless about Greenwich values or slyly intended to set off a bidding war is irrelevant because, thanks to the property being exposed to every agent in town, she got that war. The property went via sealed bids two days after being listed and I’m quite sure it sold for far more than its asking price. As I’ve noted before, you simply can’t under-price your house in this market; so long as you put it on the multiple listing service and expose it to everyone, its price will be bid to it’s proper level. Over-pricing, on the other hand, is quite another story.

Not Over-Priced in Riverside
I saw three really nice, well-priced Riverside houses during last week’s snow squall: 10 Knoll Street, 22 Oval Avenue and 9 Willow Road, priced at $2,150,000, $2,195,000 and $2, 695, respectively. (And listed by, in order, Mairead O’Sullivan, Rick Loh and Randy Keleher). The first two houses are almost certainly gone by today and I expect Willow will go quickly too. As an aside, the Oval Avenue house is graced with Thomas Moser furniture in the dining room and master bedroom. I don’t think the furniture is included in the price but a shrewd negotiator ….

Riverside is always an active market and anything remotely well-priced will be snapped up, but there are buyers out there for all areas of town, at all levels. I heard from one friend that when she went to show a new, $10,000,000 listing she learned that hers was the 40th showing of the week. I find it reassuring that there are that many bonus babies wandering around town with huge wads of cash in their hip pockets. Even if they’re still at the tire-kicking stage, their presence should give comfort to every builder of 10,000 sq. ft. starter homes.

Have You Hugged Your realtor Today?
I received the nicest email from a client recently, simply thanking me for my efforts on her family’s behalf. While writing venomous complaint letters is more fun, I’ve learned that there is a particular satisfaction in drafting a complimentary missive, precisely because they’re so rare. So find something your satisfied with (I realize that’s impossible for some of you, but try) and tell someone about it. But please, do keep your hate mail coming here – it’s so much fun learning that one of my darts has hit home.

Selling It
My number one pet hate is, every six years or so, having to subject myself to the intellectual pond scum that poses as car salesmen. They have one script, probably drafted by Henry Ford himself in 1915, and try to persuade me to visualize a new car in my driveway, defer any questions of price to the always-mysteriously absent “manager” and appeal to my ego and what they think is my sense of pride. It’s awful and I can’t stand it so this morning, when offered a chance to attend a sales meeting where I could learn to apply those same techniques to my own clients, I passed. Out – of – towners think that slick sales tactics will fool Greenwichites into buying houses they don’t want or can’t afford. I disagree: anyone who has amassed the wherewithal to buy property here is a lot smarter than I am, so how am I going to trick them? Any good Realtor will tell you, I think, that the key to success is building relationships. You provide solid facts, an honest opinion and information that addresses objections and you’ll do just fine. You can also sleep at night, which is nice. Plus, you save the cost and time of a seven-week course on hucksterism.

Apartment Conversions
I feel bad for the tenants of Putnam Green and Weavers Hill which were sold last week (for $223,000,000!) and will be converted to condominiums at an average asking price, I read, of $1,000,000. I don’t dispute the right of the new owners to do what they want with their property and the real estate agent in me gloats at the prospect of 464 new condos to sell but it’s sad to contemplate what is about to happen to all those families who’ve rented there. There are almost no three bedroom apartments for rent in Greenwich and certainly not at the prices these have historically rented for so, once again, we’ll see another exodus of young families and old folks shoved out of town.

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Pricing Your House

A reader from Cos Cob recently asked about two houses on the market: one, on a slightly better street, had five bedrooms and a large yard yet is priced $150,000 less than a three bedroom house on a tiny yard. What gives, he asked. A couple of things. One is that asking price and selling price are often not the same, so the discrepancy may not really exist; we’ll know when they sell. Another is, value is in the eye of the buyer. The smaller house was completely renovated this year, and is in beautiful condition. The larger house was renovated five years ago. Someone with one or two kids may not value a fourth and fifth bedroom and may prefer what is in effect a brand new house. If so, she may be willing to pay more to get it. Someone with different needs may prefer the five bedroom house.

But if your house is for sale, listen to the market. Lots of showings but no offers probably means that you’re a little over-priced. No showings at all means you have completely misjudged the value of your house – the real estate agents know it and aren’t wasting their or their clients’ time by even bothering to drive by. That’s bad. Remember, if three different agents give you price opinions within a close range of each other and a fourth agent is, say, 25% higher, it’s probable that the last agent is trying to buy your listing, by which I mean grabbing the listing at a wildly inflated price in the hope that she can get you to lower your sights down the road. That’s going to give you nothing but headaches and frustration.

Swan Update
The swan that I wrote about awhile back is back in the wild. Meredith Sampson took it home, kept it four days and then released it on the Mianus River, where it flew down stream headed, Meredith suspects, back to its home base on Mill Pond. Her guess is that the bird hit power lines and, stunned, fell to earth. Whatever happened, it’s okay now. Meredith, by the way, rescues wild birds out of goodness of her heart. Our family likes to donate a little cash now and then to help cover some of her animals’ expenses. If you’d like to do the same, I’m sure she’d appreciate it. Her address is: Meredith Sampson, 27 Park Avenue, Old Greenwich, CT 06870.

Super-Size Me
I was in a really nice house in Old Stone Bridge the other day but it felt a little small compared to others I’d toured the same day. Upon reflection, I realized that we’ve all inflated the idea of what size a “normal” house should be. The Old Stone Bridge development went up in 1979 and at that time were perfectly acceptably-sized. Twenty-seven years later, we expect 10’ ceilings, five bedrooms (with baths for each) an eat-in kitchen, etc. It’s no wonder prices have gone up – we’ve doubled the size of what we want.

More Numbers
Shore & Country has a pretty neat website, “liveingreenwich.com” where, thanks to Bob Fossum, there are all sorts of interesting statistics on Greenwich real estate: price appreciation over the years, current inventory and so on. Try it, you’ll like it. I do, anyway, because it allows this lazy columnist to effortlessly gather column fodder. For instance, our current inventory of single family houses is 429, a 28% increase from last year. That’s good news for buyers, not so good news for sellers. Available condo’s on the other hand, have dropped 6%: 100, down from 106. One thing the statistics confirm is what you already know: Greenwich real estate has been an excellent investment over time. Perhaps not the same appreciation as Worldcom or Enron enjoyed in their day but then …

Adventures in Home Building

A couple of readers have emailed me wondering whether I had anything to say about the new Victorian Hansel and Gretel house going up on Park Avenue South in Old Greenwich. I have mixed feelings: one the one hand, it’s not my taste; on the other, when so many houses being built today all look the same, it’s nice to see a house reflect its builder’s personality. From a re-sale perspective, this one may be a little too individualistic to sell readily but its owner clearly couldn’t care less and, for that I say, more power to you. Definitely worth a drive by. You don’t need the street number because you’ll know this house when you see it.

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