Monthly Archives: April 2006

Poll Numbers
According to Gallop, 7 out of 10 consumers think the housing bubble is soon to burst, but only 4 out of 10 believe that their own neighborhood will decline. Why the discrepancy? Probably because more people actually know something about their own area and ignore scary news stories about “national” conditions, whatever they are. This seems similar to that other recent poll which found that we all think that 90% of the population is fat but only 40% think that we ourselves are.

Zoning and Walls
For years, Paul Pugliese, architect, and principal of Greenwich Land Co., has been a one man band at our P&Z hearings, criticizing their proposals but, far more important, offering solutions to the problems the P&Z (dreams up and) seeks to address. They routinely ignored him so now the Board of Realtors has created a committee, headed by Paul and Sabine Schoenberg, that will, we hope, bring a multitude of voices to join Paul at hearings. Will it work? Who knows, but here’s one of the P&Z’s proposed regulations that ought to stir up some interest: all walls, fences (including split rail and picket) or plantings over three-feet tall must be set back 10’ from any public highway. Now, there are certainly safety issues involved here, and no one should be forced to proceed blindly onto a public highway, but, enforced on neighborhoods like Riverside, Cos Cob, Byram or Old Greenwich, this regulation would, at the least, bifurcate front and side yards, leaving 10’ strips of (taxable) yards outside the province of the owners and yielding 5’-10’ yards inside the fence. That’s a crummy idea that doesn’t even begin to address the perceived problem of sight lines. Some lots should not have fences or hedges on their perimeters – other lots can block out traffic noise with no effect on public safety- so what’s called for here is, I suggest, a lot-by-lot approach, not a sledgehammer rule that hits every front and side yard in town. If you happen to live in a neighborhood of smallish lots – Old Greenwich, Riverside, Cos Cob or Byram, say, take a stroll outside and see how much (or how little) of your front yard will be left if this regulation passes. Then call up the P&Z and register your comments. Or wait for a petition we Realtors have ginned up to come your way, and sign it. We’ll try to take it from there.

New Houses
I drove up Riverside Lane the other day, took note of the many new houses being built and realized that like New Orleans, Greenwich is seeing the complete replacement of its housing stock, albeit piece-by-piece here, compared to the post-Katrina construction wave down there. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, I suppose, but the implications are (a) the town will continue to get more expensive to live in and (b) there are a lot of houses here that are rapidly approaching only their land value. The latter doesn’t necessarily mean your house’s value will depreciate but any increase in value will be limited to whatever rate land appreciates. I’m painting with a hugely overbroad brush here, but, as a generality, I think it works.

And More on New Houses
We have seventy-one new single-family houses on the market right now, fifty-one of which are priced at $3,000,000 or above. Many builders I know are shuffling their feet nervously, wondering whether to proceed with new projects, but I don’t think that statistic is as daunting as it appears. Sixty-six new houses in that price range sold or have gone to contract in the past twelve months and thirty of those went this year. One thing that does give me pause is seeing so much new construction going up that, so far as I know, is not yet on the market. Unless these are all custom jobs, which I doubt, there will be a large new influx of inventory in the next few months, which will render the reassuring statistics cited above, moot..

A Sight I Never Thought to See
I toured a beautiful new house the other day, priced at the top of the price range and was struck by my feeling that the woman’s closet was too small. Not too small for normal people and normal houses – this one could accommodate the belongings of a family of five – but, at this price level, the lady’s closet/dressing area is usually the size of a small house (the guy’s remains tiny, regardless of the size of the house). I believe I’ve been in this business too long if I, an oblivious male, can walk into what is essentially an airplane hangar and think, “gee, this feels a little cramped”.

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Old, New, Cheap

No, not all three at once, sadly, but three nifty houses caught my eye last week, each different from the other and all three real standouts from the usual run of the mill offerings we usually see.

Joan Epand has listed 66 Cat Rock Road for $2,195,000, one acre in the R-2 zone, but how much land do you need? Part of this house was built in 1760 and, while it’s been added onto over the centuries, it’s still a terrific, rabbit-warrenty dwelling that meanders all over the place, from a real tap room to a airy master bedroom and so forth. Its owner is a noted author and screenwriter (“Summer of ‘42”, “The Great Santini”) and this place looks and feels exactly like what a writer’s home should be. Very much not a house for young Biff and Hillary, eager to impress their Wall Street friends with how much house they can by, but for more creative folks, a unique find. Comes with a pool.

6 Cliffdale Road, Diane Carnegie’s new listing, is an exact replica of another old house, again built in 1760 and added onto in the 1800’s. The present owners were three-quarters of the way through a renovation of the existing house in 2001 when it burned down. Undaunted (and armed with a great insurance policy from Chubb) they started anew but rebuilt the original structure, using old oak flooring, for example, and superb moldings. The result is outstanding: every bit of the grace and smooth flow of the original structure but with none of the worries and headaches antique buildings usually bring: termites, powder beetles, sloping floors – you get the picture. It’s set high up on a hill, with wonderful views, a free-form pool, beautiful gardens and lawns, and, as Diane says in her English accent, “garaging for six vehicles”. $5,695,000, this, too is probably not for Biff, but his boss will love it.

George Crossman’s house on 7 West End Court in Old Greenwich lacks garaging for even one vehicle but at $895,000 it’s definitely the best value in town. George built this for himself back in 1989 and he did a very nice job (my law office was around the corner at the time and I’m sure he owes me a huge debt of gratitude for my constant supervision). Three bedrooms, a huge eat-in kitchen with fireplace and a study with an curved ceiling, planked and varnished, that seems as snug and pleasing as a well-crafted ship’s saloon. Go for it. By the way: how whacky is the Greenwich real estate market? I commented to cop who was directing traffic for George’s open house that I’d just seen the last affordable house in Old Greenwich. “You call $900,000 affordable, sir?” he asked. Well in Greenwich, yes. From the perspective of the real world, the policeman was entirely right.

$500,000 too High?
Last Thursday’s open house circuit held three houses (at least) that were each, in my opinion and the opinion of a number of very experienced agents, priced a half-million dollars above what they were worth. That may not be an issue when the asking price is $20,000,000 but when you’re in the $2-3 million class, it is fatal. Time to adjust, owners.

Statistics
No good news here. Bob Fossum, curse him, neglected to do my homework for me this week so I had to search for myself. An on a holiday weekend –tch, tch. In any event, last year 303 houses went to contract between January 1st and April 15th. This year, for the same period, only 262 did (contracts, rather than sales, afford a better view of market activity because sales reflect what went on, say, three moths ago. Contracts show what’s happening now). A drop in sales activity by some 14% is not great news, for sellers, but it does allow buyers to be more choosey, and they are. Price accordingly.

One Owner Who Gets it
Saw a new Riverside listing come on the other day, priced (after deducting commissions and other expenses), to yield about 9% more than the owners paid for it two years ago. That, for the mathematically-challenged, is 4.5% a year. Ouch. Far different than past appreciation rates. My advice? If you’re in the market for new construction, call your agent (or me!) – there are some very nervous builders out there who would be pleased to exchange a large pre-construction discount for the ability to sleep at night.

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Murder!
The recent tragedy on Dairy Road elicited a frantic phone call to a friend and fellow agent from his clients. They were about to make the move from Manhattan but with poor Mr. Kissel’s death all over The New York Times, the wife was frantic with fear and the husband was reconsidering the move. Now really; this reminds me of people who refuse to fly after an airliner goes down even though they are one hundred times more likely to die driving to the airport than they are once in flight. Manhattan had 450 murders last year – Greenwich has what-one every fifteen? But murder at a good address, says Pete Hamill, is a tabloid’s best story and that tribe of reporters was certainly out in force last week.

By the way, over the weekend our First Selectman admitted something that I posited in my forthcoming book, Greenwich Mean Time (coming next month!): because there are so few murders in town, our police aren’t very good at solving them. In fact, in my 51 years in town, I don’t remember a single third-party murder being solved (the State of Connecticut may, or may not have solved the Moxley murder but no thanks to our local force). They say that, if you’re looking for heart surgery, go to a hospital that does lots of them. Similarly, if you want to get away with murder, come to Greenwich!

Over-Priced in the Mid-Country?
I toured a very nice house last week that was priced, at least in my often-erroneous judgment, at least $2,000,000 too high. Great location, so-so yard, and a beautiful house built in 1987 that is already obsolete, in terms of what most of today’s buyers insist on. This house had low ceilings, Formica (gasp!) in the kitchen and baths, and, all in all, a rather dated feel. I hope I’m wrong on this, and that the sellers will find a buyer who appreciates the house exactly as is but at its price range, I fear that buyers will opt for new construction. If so, then this less-than-twenty-year-old house is doomed for the dumpster and should be priced as land. Scary thought, eh?

Market Conditions

I don’t buy into the bursting-bubble theory, at least here in Greenwich, but things have definitely slowed down. Plenty of inventory and even plenty of buyers but in my own experience and the experience of other agents I’ve discussed this with, the buyers have no sense of urgency. A few years ago, if you found a house suitable for your buyers they would snap it up immediately, fearing that if they passed on it the next one they liked would be even more expensive. That’s not the case currently. I don’t see prices dropping, overall, but the pie-in-the-sky priced houses are sitting, and their prices are, slowly dropping. Dropping to a realistic level, not to bargain bin clearance. My advice to buyers is, if you find a house you like, go for it. Make a real bid, even if its below asking price, and get it. As for sellers, this is not the time to reach for the maximum conceivable price. Listen to your Realtor, look at the comparables that have recently sold and those that make up your competition, and price accordingly. What we really seem to be returning to is a normal market. Not a bust, and not the easy seller’s market of 2003.

Little Thai Kitchen

A friend (thank you, Peter) tipped me off about this little hole-in-the-wall on St. Roch Avenue and I’m glad he did. It’s reasonable priced (lunch specials are $7-9) comes with cheerful service and the food is delicious. I haven’t tried everything on the menu, but I can recommend the chicken satay, the gang ped yang (that’s duck with curry, pineapple and coconut) and definitely the larb, which is an appetizer of chopped beef with lime, scallions and mint. In fact, I haven’t encountered a bad dish yet. One warning: I like my food spicy and that’s how they serve it, unless specifically instructed otherwise. If your taste buds are more delicate, tell your waiter. The Kitchen serves Thai iced tea and cranberry juice but lacks a liquor license, presumably because its within 100 yards of Hamilton Avenue Elementary School (although the image of a little fourth-grader sidling up to the bar seems a stretch). That’s fine with me but if you wish to bring something stronger, you can. Nice place, and they deliver. Closed Mondays, you can reach them at 622-2972.

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Land Values
I’ve recently noticed a number of what are basically tear-downs come on the market that are priced at $2,000,000 and above. That’s fine for certain addresses: Round Hill Road, for instance, but way too high, I think, for less expensive areas of town like Riverside and Old Greenwich (excluding waterfront, naturally). Think about it: if a builder pays $2,000,000 for a piece of land, he’ll need to get at least $4,500,000 for anything he builds there. Right now, the new construction I’m seeing in the areas I’m talking about are selling for between $3,000,000 and $3,500,000. Builders are great guys, but I doubt they want to build new spec houses for free. So if you’re selling your old, 1954 house on a third of an acre and you think that its worth $2,000,000, think again.

Penthouse Living
Gloria Chin Bestoff recently gave me a tour of her listing at 11 Lafayette Court, a one bedroom penthouse asking $899,000. I liked it. The views are spectacular: Long Island Sound, the New York skyline and during the summer, Gloria tells me, the Playland fireworks. Pretty cool. Everything: appliances, windows, wiring, etc. has been recently upgraded with the exception of the greenhouse – apparently the owner has the right to convert that to an outdoor terrace and was holding off work on the greenhouse while he made up his mind. Personally, I would trade the warmth and great winter-time ambiance of a greenhouse for a terrace, but either way, this is a very nice unit, in a great location. Comes with parking, too.

Private Schools and Real Estate
Real estate activity always slows down when public schools go on break but it seems to me that it really takes a hit when the private schools take vacation. “Seems to me” because I don’t have statistics to show that decline (I’m waiting for Bob Fossum at Shore & Country to do my work for me) but it was very, very quiet a few weeks ago. I’m not at all sure why, because surely not every home buyer sends his or her kids to Brunswick – check out Greenwich High’s parking lot if you disbelieve this; it’s parking lot is jammed with cars most of us would envy and I’ve got to believe that the parents buying those cars for their kids are fully capable of affording a house in town. So what gives? Is it the brokers who flee town with their kids? I don’t have the answer but I’m sure a reader will enlighten me.

So How’s the market?
As of March 31st, inventory is up 20% higher than last year, which is never encouraging news for sellers. There are a lot of buyers out there – I had fifteen showings over the weekend for a newly listed condo at Old Greenwich Gables – but there’s more to choose from, so buyers are being choosey. Still, with the exception of Rick Loh’s listing on Oval Avenue, every house I’ve mentioned recently as a good value has gone to contract (Rick’s listing is a mystery to me – great house). So as always, the way to sell your house is to price it right.

A Rose by any other Name

Those nice condos I wrote about on Valley Road are being built by the Santora brothers, not Santoro. David was nice enough not to mention my lapse, but I do try for at least a semblance of accuracy in this column.

Dolly Powers

So last week a bunch of us Realtors loaded onto a bus and went to Hartford to meet our legislators. This is a once-a-year thing, scheduled long in advance, but only Dolly was there to meet us. Hmmm. Two of our reps were in Greenwich (who knows where the other was?) and it seems more efficient if next year, we just meet them here. In any event, there are lots of bad things in the air up north, including extending the doubling of the conveyance tax, a “trial” buyer’s tax, a lead-paint abatement law that should make affordable housing unaffordable, and so on. In Texas, they used to say that no man’s women or cattle were safe while the legislature was in session. I suspect those Texan legislators have moved east. Dolly was great, by the way. She opposes the idea that all of the state’s woes can and should be cured by raising transaction costs for real estate and was unfamiliar only with one bill, the lead paint abatement plan (which is outside her legislative jurisdiction). When its provisions were explained to her she said, “why that’s just stupid”. I do love a leader who can succinctly summarize a pending bill.

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