Monthly Archives: April 2007

Storage Comes to Riverside!
A new, six-story building complex is coming to Pinecrest Road in Riverside. An eclectic combination of (windowless) Nantucket/Shingle-style Georgian-Colonial, the structure will provide room for town residents to place everything they can’t fit into their current homes. “It’s the least I could do for my fellow citizens,” said Franklin “Westy” Bloomer, ruefully surveying the rubble of his former residence. “We thought we were zoning out addicts, not attics, but now, thanks to FAR, no one has space to store a pogo stick. If I won’t admit I was wrong, at least I can say I’m sorry.” Completion date is expected by July 14th.

Okay, that was a joke.
But Mr. Bloomer, the “FAR Czar” (Tom Gorin, you have nothing on me!) has written an angry letter to this paper suggesting that, if I have any ideas on improving FAR regulations, I attend the next FAR meeting, date as-yet unscheduled. Heck, I’ll be there with pencil and pad, ready to report, but I’ve been there before and listened while residents complained about the extraordinary costs incurred trying to comply with the regulations, heard cogent arguments against its present interpretation (why, for instance, should a house of 5,700 sq.ft. be perfect for a one-acre lot yet 5,200 be the maximum allowable size for a two-acre lot?) and even learned of great solutions to the problem of reducing bulk while still permitting homeowners to have the house that they want. Every time, the FAR folks nodded their heads, tugged their beards and proceeded to enact even more stringent regulations. The only answer, I think, is to toss these people off the RTM. Until then, let me leave you with a question: what possible business is it of yours, mine or Franklin Bloomer what people do with the interior of their homes? If someone wants a lighted, walk-out basement or a useable attic, does it concern you, so long as height and set-back requirements are met? I think not; Bloomer thinks so. We’ll agree to disagree, until the next election.

What’s Unsaid
When you see a listing for a waterfront real estate listing that fails to mention, er, taxes, should your hairs prickle? I think so. Recent example, a property in Riverside that neglects to mention a tax bill of $54,000.00. Obviously this little omission would turn up sooner or later, but I prefer to see my numbers up front.

The $5,000,000 – $7,000,000 Market
My clients and I toured a number of houses recently in what used to be considered nosebleed altitudes and saw very little that impressed us. “How much do we have to pay to get quality?” asked my client. The answer, sadly, is far more than $5,000,000. Even considering the high price of land, that’s ridiculous. We saw cheap (and identical – Home Depot must have been holding a yard sale) thermostats, light fixtures, California Closets, and on and on. I suspect (or hope) that a number of builders who have refused to open their wallets to pay for the quality their high prices supposedly demand will get their comeuppance, either when they sell at drastically reduced prices or at the foreclosure.

Realtorease
Saw a listing recently that claimed that the house in question had been built by “a reputed local builder”. Somehow, that doesn’t set my mind at ease.

Nanny Quarters
Back to the recent tour of high-end houses. Again and again, I saw little windowless basement cubicles designated as “nanny quarters” or, just as bad, basement bedrooms with a single tiny window. Here’s the deal – if you want to place a human being in a basement bedroom, you have to provide a window large enough to accommodate a fireman and his (or her – I don’t care who saves me) breathing equipment. I don’t have the exact specs, but figure on something about 5 ½’ X 3 ½’. If a Realtor shows you something smaller and says it’s legal, she’s blowing smoke. You may not care about the safety or comfort of your staff but, given a chance to bring a wrongful death case against a rich, Greenwich mansion owner by an impoverished, hard-working Philippino girl, I’d dust off my law degree in a second. Do the right thing, or someone will do it for you.

“Could Be…”The other thing that annoyed my clients the other day were silly signs proclaiming, “could be wine cellar”, “could be video room”, etc. Build it and charge for it or forget it; don’t price your house as though these amenities are there.

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Old Greenwich Waterfront
164 Shore Road, an “antique” (in this market, you can probably read that as “tear-down”) on an acre of direct waterfront has gone to contract. No word on final price but I assume it’s somewhere close to its asking price of $7,900,000. Gosh. I realize that they aren’t making anymore waterfront but prices for the stuff just keep zooming – must have been an okay year for Wall Street, after all. Helen Maher listing, Ellen Moger’s customer

Bigger Lots?
A builder-client of mine recently wondered whether he wouldn’t have made more money leaving a large lot intact and building one large house rather than two smaller ones. Too late now, but I think he might have. The one thing Riverside and Old Greenwich are short of is large yards, mostly because builders have been dividing up the original lots into the smallest lots allowed by zoning. They’ve been doing this since at least 1880 and until now, the market has rewarded them. But recently I’ve noticed owners paying large premiums for big yards. 402 Sound Beach Avenue, for instance, is set far back from the road on two combined lots with neighbors’ backyards affording additional privacy. Priced at $5,850,000 and not scheduled to be completed until August, it’s already under contract. A house on Gilliam Lane was just purchased for more than $6,000,000 by the neighboring homeowner who intends to tear it down and expand his back yard. 164 Shore Road, mentioned above, has more than an acre. A harbinger of all this was the purchase of a house on Indian Head a few years ago. The new owner tore it down and replaced it with a very nice stone garage and a beautiful side yard for his own house. I hope I’m seeing a trend developing in my area of town. At the cost of making houses still less affordable, little, crowded areas like Riverside and Old Greenwich will be considerably improved.

On the other hand
A building lot came on the market a year ago for about $1.1 million and none of my builders would touch it despite my assurance that it would support a new house in the low $3 million range. So it went to an out-of-town buyer who has put up a very nice house and priced it at $6 million, no doubt because of a recent sale around the corner. But bad things happen when you don’t know the town you’re building in and, in this case, sales around the corner are irrelevant. At least in my opinion, this guy is in for an awful disappointment.

Digital Cameras for Realtors
When I started this real estate gig my pal Nancy Fountain presented me with a very nice Canon digital camera, which has proved invaluable for snapping quick pics of new listings to email clients, etc. But, like most “point and shoot” digitals, its lens is too large to take effective shots of interiors (unless I’m photographing one of those Back Country houses with 500’ hallways). No matter how far you back out of the room, you just can’t capture all of it. So when I heard about Kodak’s new (new last year, anyway) V570, with two lenses, telephoto and wide-angle, I was intrigued. This review, from imaging-resources.com (Google for the Kodak model and you’ll find the appropriate link) clinched it:

“Our first thought when we took our first shots with Kodak V570 was that realtors are going to flock to this camera for its innate ability to capture more of a room than any other [camera]. This quick and simple panorama mode makes it even more compelling. (If you’re a realtor, you can stop reading now and just go out and buy a Kodak V570: If you need any convincing, just check out the ultra-wide and panorama samples below.)”

Good enough for me. The camera can now be found on Amazon for less than $200, down from its original price of $400 (ah, technology!).

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Vocabulary
Tom Gorin, head of Cleveland, Duble & Arnold, suggests two new terms for our real estate industry. One is “Farport”, describing what results when a builder is prevented by our Floor Area Ration rules (FAR) from building a real garage: you get a lattice-sided carport, easy prey to thieves and vandals but, by God, it’s not included in FAR calculations because the walls are see-through. Does this (farports, not the term itself) make any sense? I was on the Riverside Association Board of Trustees (or whatever) when that august body voted to support the FAR concept. I thought it was a dumb idea at the time but my fellow members did not. Dumb or not, the concern was restricted to protecting the streetscape from too bulky buildings; no one on the board seemed concerned with what individuals did with the inside of their homes, they just didn’t want to see large houses.

Franklin Bloomer and his fellow FAR zealots did, and do care, however, with the result that the interior space above garages must now be rendered unusable, garages can’t have walls and houses on two acres in the four acre zone must now be smaller than those in one acre zones. None of this affects bulk or serves streetscape preservation. In fact, the results are so blindingly stupid that the only possible excuse for not amending the FAR, in my opinion, is the refusal of Bloomer et als to admit that they were wrong in the first place. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

More Vocabulary from Tom“Listing wars”, used to explain a ridiculous price on a new listing. Happens when three or four agencies are invited to “price” a house. The first one in probably has a decent grasp of value. The third or fourth, knowing that others have trod where they are about to, shoots the moon and comes up with an absolutely insane price and wins the listing. Of course, the house will never sell for anything close to what the agent proposes but by then, it’s too late.

Maher Avenue
Two great listings on this street, 4 Maher Court (Michelle Klosson listing) asking $3,250,000 and 15 Maher Avenue (Martha Jeffrey) at $2,799,000. Each nicely redone, each with its own distinct charm. An added bonus: you can admire the cars parked along the street by Brunswick students. Nothing lesser than a Lexus, naturally.

7 Middle Way
This Lucas Point home, listed by Ann Simpson, is owned by friends of mine (well, I thought they were friends, until they listed with Ann!) so take my praise with a grain of salt. But really, it’s a wonderful old house. Built in 1889, nicely renovated and updated over the past century and located in one of the best neighborhoods in Greenwich. Lucas Point is a “you get it or you don’t” kind of place; if you get it, and I do, you’ll pay to have a terrific group of neighbors and friends, a private beach, boat yard, and so forth. You don’t get it, you’ll see a crowded area with no privacy and small yards. Testament to its virtues is that folks here either move entirely away, out of town, or just shift around within the Point. No one seems to leave voluntarily. Neat house, three floors, 5,000 + sq. ft., a ½ acre yard, all for $4,450,000. I think that’s a good price.

Lost Art
There’s a great book called, I think, “The Lost Art of Building Stone Walls”. I used it years ago when I was trying, with limited success, to rebuild drywall stonewalls but it’s superfluous now that our Mexican neighbors have figured out how to mortar and shape stone. We do seem to need, however, a new book instructing folks how to build banisters – I am amazed at how many otherwise decent houses have shaky banisters that wobble when gripped and give absolutely no assurance that they’ll prevent one from falling to his death twenty feet below. What gives? After the exterior appearance, the first thing a buyer encounters that suggests the quality of a building is the banister as he ascends the stairs. If that’s a flimsy bit of nonsense I, at least, assume that the rest of the house suffers from the same lack of attention to detail. Crazy, especially when the asked price is $6,000,000 and higher.

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The Best Streets in Town (Published in Greenwich Magazine, April 2007)
Some of smartest people I know in real estate (not as low a barrier as you might think) advised me against taking this assignment because, they warned, I’d be bound to offend hundreds of homeowners who expect their own address to be included among the best streets in town. Offend hundreds of people at once? That’s the kind of challenge I relish, so here goes.

First of all, of course, there is no such thing as “the best street in town”. Individuals and their desires are far too idiosyncratic to allow that kind of ranking. For every desperate striver who would gladly sell his first-born in exchange for a huge house in a prominent location that simply shrieks, “look at me!” there’s another who, like Garbo, wants to be alone. A Back Country house may be perfect for a hedge fund trader who’s chauffeured to work every day but a mother of five who is the chauffeur might prefer a house in crowded Riverside, where her kids can walk to school or their friends’ houses without parental supervision (although these days, observing the nearly-empty bike racks at Riverside School, I wonder if that happens any more). With that caveat, here are some of the streets in town that command a premium.

Field Point Circle
David Ogilvy, speaking of the entire Belle Haven community, says that it “retains the feel of a summer community that just happens to be attached to Greenwich”. Grand old summer-houses with great architecture and all long-since converted to full-time residences. There’s high security and a neighborhood club (as a sailor, I won’t vouch for its harbor but, in this case, that’s a quibble and beside the point). I’d suggest that Field Point Circle should be at or near the top of anyone’s list of best streets in town, even though it’s approached via the Grass Island sewer plant (there are compromises involved in every scrap of Greenwich real estate). While it doesn’t hold the record for the highest sales price achieved (Conyer’s Farm, at $45,000,000 has that distinction) I think, year in and year out, this address holds the most prestige and commands the best prices. One thing of note: my brother Gideon once researched sales in this neighborhood to see if the “international marketing” pitch some firms tout as the way to sell Field Point Circle homes actually worked. Turned out that, out of twelve recent sales, eleven of the buyers were relocating within Greenwich. Sometimes you have to live in town awhile to appreciate or at least understand its high market prices.

Maher Avenue
Other than the Brunswick traffic and the great Halloween invasion, when half the town and all of Westchester descends on the place, this is a great, family neighborhood littered with grand old houses, almost all of which have been renovated. Owners who live here seem to gladly put up with Brunswick (and some actually enjoy the Halloween frenzy) in exchange for living in beautiful houses and having good friends on either side.

Park Avenue/Park Place (Greenwich)
One of my very favorite streets. Big yards, dignified houses of all ages and a really convenient location. Without spending too much time on research (okay, no time on research) houses here seem to sell rapidly and well. You or your agent will have to keep on top of new listings if you want to live here.

Parsonage Road
I only know this street from my bicycling tours but its western half, beginning after the parsonage itself, holds some of the best-looking houses in town. I like it a lot but one potential buyer, eying St. Mary’s graveyard behind and the Nathaniel Witherall down the road protested, “I’ll be living between the dying and the dead!). Aren’t we all. Get over it.

Back Country Roads
Cathy Adams still sounds wistful remembering her commute, pre-real estate days, to IBM via these roads. “I’d drive up Clapboard to Round Hill, cross Porchuck to John Street. When the leaves were turning …”. These are all still nice streets but, to my eye, they’ve lost some of their lush beauty as, one-by-one, the 100-acre estates have been chopped into 4-acre ranchettes and high, towering walls have blocked the views of what were once rolling meadows. It’s your call but, in my opinion, we’ve lost something here.

Quintard, Keofferam
Almost any street in this section of Old Greenwich is a winner. A huge stock of large Victorian summer homes all long-since winterized and updated and, although lot splits are becoming more common, still some very nice, big yards. There’s easy access to Tod’s Point, Old Greenwich School and the train. Riverside native Mary Karlan has lived on Keofferam since 1998 with her nine (!) kids – okay, it’s a blended family – and loves the street: “there are lots of kids, everybody’s really nice and if you like to run at the beach, walk your dog or walk your kids to school, this is the place.”

Club Road/ Gilliam Lane
These parallel Riverside streets present a bit of a quandary. My editors chose Club Road while, no doubt because I grew up on Gilliam, I prefer the latter. Club Road is busier in the summer due to the daily stampede of cars delivering and picking up kids at the Riverside Yacht Club but, for now, the houses are mostly larger and more impressive. I suspect that will change as the tear-down boom continues its sweep through Riverside but you can’t lose on either street.

Up and Coming?
Perhaps Arch Street, right next to Binney Park. This area starts off with some so-so 1960s contemporaries but four new, expensive and good-looking houses have been constructed recently (Peter Fusaro, of Riverside, got the ball rolling with a nice one on the corner of Wesskum Wood that sold for around $2.4 million a few years ago – it’s worth at least $1 million more today) and, as prices climb, you’ll see more such projects. The latest mind-blower was 30 Arch, built by Doran Sabaag two years ago and recently listed for $6,250,000. Several of us thought the sellers would get their price, others, also very experienced agents, thought that someone had sucked a bit too long on the old bong. Turned out we were all wrong and the house went in just two days for, rumor has it, $6,400,000. Mr. Sabaag is one of the best builders currently working in Greenwich and, if anyone’s creation is going to draw a premium, his is, but still – astonishing.

Start High, Finish Low
There are a number of streets that provide a friendly, close neighborhood experience that approaches or surpasses that offered by Field Point Circle. Fado Lane in Cos Cob, for instance, is a dead end street that gets closed off for neighborhood block parties on a regular basis. Its houses are not going to win any architectural awards but you can get your family into a house here for under $1,000,000. These days, that qualifies as a starter home. And, by way of amends, may I suggest Cary Road which I once described as the worst street in Riverside? (I heard about that, believe me). A tiny, crowded street abutting the Mianus River with, it turns out, and notwithstanding the tone of their letters to me, some of the nicest folks in town. Without the river, it’s not much but the water yields skating, boating, fishing and swimming, all for far less than you’d pay to belong to the Belle Haven Club.

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Pricing!
I was at Starbucks the other Sunday when a man approached me to ask if I wrote ‘that real estate column”. Upon confessing that I did (an admission that always leaves me wondering whether I’m about to be punched in the nose) he thanked me, saying that the one thing he’d taken away from my writing was not to be stupid when pricing a house. So he’d rejected his Realtor’s advice and insisted on a price three hundred thousand dollars less. Result: multiple bids, all over asking price, and a contract in four days. Contrast this result, if you like, with a recent sale where a house came on the market in the spring of 2004 at $8,500,000 and finally went to contract last week at somewhere below (presumably) it’s final price of $6,500,000. I do not suggest that you give your house away but a realistic view of its true value will spare you months or even years of annoyance and inconvenience.

Wood roofs – worth the cost?
There are differing opinions on the value of wood roofs on New England houses. These roofs are traditional and certainly add to a house’s looks, often transforming them from boring capes to seemingly-Revolutionary War-looking cottages, but they require a lot more maintenance than other materials and, with a life span of about twenty-years, they are expensive. My pal Mickey at ARE Restoration (arerestoration.com, 531-0600) isn’t impressed by them, even though he can, and does, do a beautiful job installing them. My personal choice is synthetic look-alikes, either slate or shake, but many Realtors insist upon only the real thing. Your decision; if you’re planning to move in five years, you’re probably better off using wood and leaving the maintenance/replacement issues to the next owner but, if you’re in it for the long run, you might want to check out alternatives.

Beach Cards
I recently had occasion to learn the cost of a summer at Tod’s for a summer rental family. Three kids, two adults and a car will cost them about $1,000.00. That’s a lot, considering that the tax-paying family that’s renting to them will, obviously, be away this summer and not using the beach themselves. The town collects twice, which is nice for the town, but does it deserve to? As I wrote earlier, you may not want to rent your house but if you do, you’ll find these excessive fees to be a deterrent to success, in my opinion. I prefer the old system, which provided beach access to summer renters at the same rate charged to year-round residents. We’re double dipping here, at a miniscule gain for ourselves and at a great cost to residents who wish to rent their houses for a month or two.

Old Greenwich Riverside Community Center
A group of my fellow citizens has announced some pretty grand plans for the replacement of what I knew as the Eckman Center. The building was originally built by Electrolux as a recreational center for its employees but it opened to the public after the workweek. We could bowl there for $0.35 a game which, even then, was pretty cheap. Later, after the town bought the place, the Pearson family (Jones Park, Riverside) in conjunction with First Church, ran “The Sound”, a weekly dance featuring up and coming bands. We (they, but I hung out with Ridley) hired “The Young Rascals” for instance, for $650. The band appeared in knickers, floppy-collared shirts with big bow ties and rocked the place. A week later, their song “Good Loving” broke number one and the “Young” prefix, the knickers, and their $650 fee went the way of history. The building’s a wreck now and certainly could benefit from being replaced, but the proposed $40,000,000 cost, (to be privately raised) seems daunting. Do we really need another indoor pool in town, especially with the YMCA’s current ongoing fiasco? But I wish them well – I have so many fond memories of the place and I think a community center in Eastern Greenwich has much to offer and anything would be an improvement over the current, leaking edifice.

Worst Streets in Town?
I just wrote an article on the best streets in town. It would be fun to write its opposite but judging from my past forays into this subject, my opinion isn’t welcomed. I never called DeLuca Drive the worst street, for instance, just questioned their neighborliness, but the reaction was … strong.

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