Monthly Archives: February 2007

FAR and House Values
39 Edgewater Drive in Old Greenwich, a long-abandoned structure, has been placed on the market with an asking price of $895,000. The lot is a mere 0.15 of an acre in the R-12 zone yielding a permissible building size, by my calculation, of just over 2,000 feet. That’s a lot smaller than most people demand these days so I’ll be curious to see what happens to the place. Someone will certainly buy it – the question is, for what price? Regardless, I’m sure the neighbors who’ve watched this eyesore deteriorate for years will be glad when it disappears. By the way: while I’m no fan of the floor area ratio regulations, this lot is an argument in favor – it’s just too small to support a mega-mansion. I still think that set back rules and height restrictions would suffice to control what’s to be built here but, for once, FAR may be helpful.

Woodsman, Save that Tree! Or some of them, anyway.
We now have a new advocacy group in town, the Greenwich Tree Conservancy. Most of their goals, such as updating our inventory of town-owned trees and taking better care of them seem worthy but I worry about their push for a new ordinance that will regulate trees on private property (other than trees in danger of toppling over and damaging a neighbor’s property, which are already regulated via our nuisance ordinance). I share most people’s distaste for clear-cutting and, if builders knew better, they’d appreciate that mature trees add to, rather than subtract from a building’s value, but Greenwich, bastion of free enterprise and property rights, seems an odd place to champion yet another diminution of those rights. And I hate to see yet another layer of regulatory approvals added to the building process. When your neighbor wants to add on, I’m sure you’ll appreciate all the delays and hurdles now built into the building process but when you seek to build your own project, you opinion may change. It’s a jungle out there.

Still Crazy After all these years?
Prices of many new listings still seem out of whack to me and to other agents I respect. So much so that it’s become a steady source of conversation on the open house circuit, as in, “did you see that house on X Road? What are they thinking?!” We could all be wrong, of course, and sometimes are, but it won’t help your prospects for selling quickly if those of us who at least try to be professionals think you’ve been smoking dope. We won’t waste our clients’ time showing houses that are hugely over-priced and, by the time a seller accepts reality and drops his price, we’ve long since forgotten about the property and moved on. I point this out so often because (a) it’s true and (b) sellers just don’t seem to get it.

But Wait, There’s More!
Not every seller is nuts. Tamar Lurie has just listed 19 Lakewood Circle South for $7,745,000, a price ordinary mortals might deem a wee bit high but in fact, it’s a terrific value. A number of us who viewed this completely restored 1930’s house thought the owner could have added a couple of million to its asking price. Of course, that would have entailed months of disruption, keeping everything in showroom condition while buyers strolled through at all hours of the day and, eventually, some sort of negotiated price. Instead, the owners priced it just right and they should be able to get through the process fairly quickly and painlessly. “They want to sell it,” Tamar told me, when I complimented her on the price. What a concept.

Hedge Funds and Greenwich
A panel of financial types recently examined the hedge fund industry and determined that no further regulation was required. Our state’s Attorney General, Michael Blumenthal, crowed that this finding opened the door for people like him to do their own regulating. I sympathize with the man – he’s just watched Elliot Spitzer be promoted to Governor on the basis of whacking Wall Street regularly and no doubt wants to follow him upwards – but, while I’m no particular fan of our country’s financial industry, I have more confidence in the judgment of experts, including three Goldman Sachs alumni, than I do in an ambitious lawyer. I’m not worried about losing money in hedge funds – I have no money- but I do worry about an over-zealous politician driving these people from our state. Who else can afford to buy your house?

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How to Win Friends and Influence People
At a public hearing held to discuss what to do with Glenville School: tear it down, rebuild, wait and do nothing, etc., the Parkway PTA school sent a representative down from the Back Country to scold the crowd. Parkway, not Glenville, she argued, should remain open because Parkway parents pay more taxes than Glenville. Properly chastened, the Glenville folks knuckled the tips of their caps and bowed their heads in shame. Or something. Here’s a tip I’ve learned from spending a half century in Greenwich and observing its politics: people with less money than their betters don’t seem to understand that they should get the dirty end of the stick when it comes to town services. Hard to believe, but it’s true and, surprise! They vote. Try another tactic.

Contracts
As of February 12th, 57 singe family residences have gone to contract this year, which seems healthy. Of those, only seven were new construction, indicating that the market for older homes appears to be coming back.

Prices
I cannot figure out what’s going on with sellers these days. Week after week, we’re seeing houses on the broker open house circuit that are millions of dollars too high, and that’s not just my opinion; other experienced agents say the same thing. So what gives? Have sellers lost their collective mind or are agents telling them anything they want to hear to get the listing? Either way, it won’t work – the market is just fine, but you can’t sell a $2,000,000 house for $3,000,000, or a $5,000,000 house for $8,000,000, not matter how attractive your marketing.

Zillow.com
The Wall Street Journal recently compared 1,000 actual sales to Zillow’s estimate of value and came to the same conclusion I did when I conducted my far less scientific survey: the site is generally accurate but, when it’s wrong, it’s way wrong. The Journal cited one house that Zillow said was worth $600,000 – it sold for $2,600,000. Oops! The danger here cuts both ways because buyers pass on great deals when Zillow says a house is worth far less than its true value and sellers insist on pricing a house far above what it’s worth if Zillow says otherwise. Look: it’s a stone throw’s distance from Hamilton Avenue to Belle Haven. Zillow doesn’t recognize that proximity doesn’t necessarily yield a comparable sale. Be careful.

Marketing
Can’t sell your corner lot house for months and months? One Realtor’s decided to change the address to the other street and raise the price $100,000. Seems silly to me – how dumb, exactly, are we supposed to be? – but it kind of makes sense, in a sneaky sort of way. I’ll let you know if it works.

For this we need Republicans?
Governor Rell has proposed raising taxes on Greenwich by another ½%. Already our tiny sliver (less than 2% of 3.4 million residents) pays 10% of all income tax. Rell wants us to pay more. Connecticut is already the third most expensive state in which to do business. In the past two decades we’ve loaded on an estate tax, an income tax, doubled (!) the number of state employees, are looking to add a “millionaire’s tax” (defined as anyone earning $500,000, by the way), and are now proposing to tax internet sales. As a state, we’re tops in the number of young people leaving and job growth is falling off a cliff. We’re third in the nation for spending per pupil, with dismal results, so Rell wants us to be first. Greenwich’s own Livvy Floren describes the Governor’s budget as, “ gutsy and very visionary”. I have a vision, all right; one that doesn’t include Ms. Floren as a state Representative.

Delta’s Not Ready When You Are
My youngest daughter is off to Costa Rica for a semester. Delta gladly sold us a one-way ticket online (return date is uncertain) but, when we dropped her at Kennedy at 5:00 a.m. she was told that Delta will not board any passenger flying one-way from one country to another. Besides the incredible rudeness of the ticket agent and his absolute refusal to even attempt to resolve the problem, further insult was added when Delta would only “cure” things by selling us a second one-way ticket at a huge premium. Absolutely appalling service; next time this airline returns to bankruptcy and its employees whine about losing their jobs, I’ll be cheering, loudly.

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“A Compelling Value”So says Diane Carnegie of Barbara Hindman’s new listing at 16 Barnstable Road (off Stanwich), priced at $2,395,000. While I can’t duplicate her English accent, when Diane says it, it sounds extremely convincing. In fact, even before her pronouncement, I liked it too. This is a 1960’s colonial, renovated in 1987, sitting on two plus acres and complete with five bedrooms, a solarium and all sorts of great living space. If you’re insane, the FAR allows a 9,000 sq.ft. building on the land but I’d leave this house exactly as is. Either way, you’re paying just about land value for property that happens to include a very nice house. As an aside, one of the late Mr. Kessler’s projects, unfinished, stands nearby. This bit of history will be gone soon and, if the foreclosing bank knows its business, it will probably be sold for just about the price of 16 Barnstable, thus proving my point.

And Also Nice
Liz Dagnino’s listing at 31 Stonebrook (nee Hooker) Lane asking $1,495,000. It’s a four bedroom contemporary –gasp! – which means it’s bright, open and comfortable. The current owners have updated and maintained it so that it really is in move-in condition, a phrase that’s frequently misapplied in this business. On two acres, with the nice plus that it’s just around the corner from the Mianus River Park, on of my favorite in-town locations for hiking and X-Country skiing (if it ever snows again). Stonebrook leads to Cognewaugh, perhaps one of the least convenient streets in town, but people who choose it obviously are willing to trade a few minutes of driving time for the privacy and serenity of this area.

Price It, Sell It
Touring the latest batch of new listings coming on the market, I am struck by how far off the mark so many prices are. It’s no wonder that there’s no sense of urgency among buyers: they know that the houses they’re seeing have many months, and hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars to go before they sell. What’s frustrating is that many of these buyers, having been stupefied by seeing so many over-priced wonders, don’t believe their agent when told that a particular house has been well priced. And they lose out thereby. Moral here is to trust your agent. If you don’t, find another agent.

Beach Passes, Again
I see that the town’s knickers are knotted again over what to do with beach access by non-residents. I really don’t get the controversy here because, much as we all love and appreciate Tod’s Point, it’s hardly a big tourist draw and, so far as I can tell from attendance figures, we’re just not being swamped by busloads of folks diverting from Jone’s Beach. The real reform called for, in my opinion, is to return to the days of yore when summer renters could obtain a pass at the resident price upon presenting a copy of their lease to Parks & Rec. If you ever care to rent out your own house while you traipse through Europe for a few months, you’ll find that access to the beach by your tenants is a real selling point. Or it used to be. Of course, if you’ve read my book, “Greenwich Mean Time” (you haven’t? Why Not? Just Books! E. Putnam Variety, next to Whole Foods! Amazon!) you’d know that we’re about to cede the Point to a remnant of our original Siwanoy Indians so that they can build a casino and they, of course, will have an admissions policy so liberal that all of this will become mute, dead and buried.

The Island at the Center of the World
I really enjoyed this book by Russell Shorto, chronicling the early history of Manhattan. As the author points out, victors write the history so the Dutch founders of the island were pretty much wiped off the page by the Brits. Now, thanks to a thirty-year effort translating old Dutch to English, a more complete history can be written, which Shorto has done admirably. It’s his contention that Dutch Manhattan, a polyglot society of Jews, Dutch, French Huguenots (my ancestors included), freed slaves and slaves, created a tolerant, boisterous settlement that, far more than the stern Pilgrims to the north, set the tone for modern America. It’s a fascinating read and, reviewing the behavior of those hard-living Huguenots, I was reminded that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Published by Random House with a Vintage paperback edition.

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No More Cops?
I’ll be sorry to see the patrolmen directing Greenwich Avenue traffic disappear, but the logic of such a move seems compelling. Unlike thirty years ago, when the Avenue rolled up its sidewalks at sunset, the new restaurants there now produce almost as much traffic after dark as they do during they day, yet the patrolmen quit at 5 (or so), and then there’s no control at all. And while it’s true that an occasional crime has been thwarted by one of these men and women, even more have gone unnoticed. Remember the guy who cut the window out of Betteridge’s while working fifty feet from a manned intersection? The robbers of Putnam Trust who, having pulled that heist off and in the face of an all-points bulletin, continued down the Avenue to duplicate their crime at People’s? The police say they’d be more effective walking the sidewalks and Jim Lash says we’d save money. It’s probably time to listen to them, even if we’ll all miss those white gloves.

What Are Our Builders Up To?
When I recently suggested to another agent that, unlike Naples, Florida, whose housing market is collapsing, Greenwich doesn’t have speculators, she reminded me that we do: they’re called builders. Some recent open house tours made me appreciate her insight. These guys are building on ever-more-marginal lots: swampland, back lots and rocky little outcrops and pricing their creations at ever-higher levels. I’m not at all sure that there are buyers out there willing to pay $6,000,000, or more, for a mosquito- infested yard, even if the accompanying house comes complete with all the latest and most expensive French appliances. Of course, if the buyers come from the City, perhaps they won’t know about the relationship between swamps and insects. Sell ‘em in the winter, is my advice. (By the way, speaking of the French, did you see the recent article on “Google bombs”, whereby someone with too much time on his hands creates a Google search result with er, an unexpected answer? “George Bush” yields “miserable failure” or did until Google stepped in, and “French military victories” still comes up with, “no such documents meet your search criteria”. Hoo hoo hoo).

Belle Haven
David Ogilvy has just listed 31 Bush Avenue, a six bedroom, 1890 house on almost an acre, with pool. I toured it after a long day of seeing some of those new monstrosities I write about above and told David that it served as a palate-cleanser, which it does. This is what a house should feel like, in my admittedly idiosyncratic opinion. Great, flowing rooms that can accommodate anyone’s entertaining needs and yet still serve as a wonderful family home. There’s lots of old paneling, human-sized ceiling heights, and it’s nicely renovated throughout. I’m not as enthusiastic about its price of $8,850,000 but that is very much just my opinion, and not fact; besides, if you’ve climbed far enough to afford Belle Haven, surely you’ve acquired some negotiating skills along the way. A very, very nice house.

You’ve Received an Offer – Now What?
In what seems to be a rejuvenated market a number of sellers are receiving and accepting offers almost as soon as their house is listed. It can be an agonizing decision – hold on for something better or seal the deal? There’s no one answer, appropriate for every seller and every house but I think there are more would-be sellers who regret turning down an initial offer than there are those who think they sold too soon. Often, after that first offer is declined, another buyer won’t come along for months and usually at a lower price. Hurts.

But accepting an offer doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop showing your house. I’ve been surprised recently to see several houses, with impressive price tags, stop showings within days of being listed. It may be jealousy speaking (I’d have liked to have had a chance to try to sell them to my own clients) but, in my experience, so many things can go wrong between accepting an offer and entering into a signed, contingent-free contract that it seems foolish to pull your house off the market so quickly. Remember that, until a real estate contract has been fully executed by both parties, all the promises and good faith in the world can’t compel the buyer or seller to perform. It’s good to have a back-up.

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