Monthly Archives: July 2007

Lowther Point
My friend and colleague here at Raveis, George Lowther, has had his waterfront property in Riverside listed for sale (at $25,000,000) for a long time, and I’ve been laughing at him for just as long. But I recently was back on the property and I confessed to George that I think the market may have caught up with him. This is a spectacular piece of property, with unparalleled views down the Sound to Manhattan, a deep water dock, high bluffs, four plus acres etc. etc. I don’t think its equal exists in Greenwich and if not, then it may very well be worth every penny that George is asking. I know he’s not budging from his price and, if my family had owned this land for 125 years, as George’s has, I’d be just as stubborn. The present house is an 1880 charmer that may well be headed for the dustbin of history but it certainly be updated if desired. It’s the land and its views that provide the real value here, however, and, based on recent sales of inferior waterfront, I wouldn’t be surprised if, at long last, someone recognizes this parcel’s uniqueness.

Internet mortgage loans
Buyers sometimes shun our suggestions about local mortgage brokers and insist on going online to find the cheapest rate. I’ve always thought that was a false economy because rates are pretty much equal all over; it’s about service, not a $5 difference in monthly payments. When something goes wrong, the day before closing, it’s awfully nice to have a local person on hand to straighten things out and, because so much of a local mortgage broker’s business is steered to them by agents (we always recommend at least three, so don’t get the wrong idea here) they have a real incentive to make things right – not so with someone you found on line. And now, I’m hearing about a new problem, involving online brokers lining up financing with banks that aren’t licensed in Connecticut. This little flaw usually surfaces a day or two before the scheduled closing which makes things, …interesting. If you really fell it necessary to use an online service, check with the lender (not the broker, who is probably clueless) and make certain they can lend money in our fair state.

Stinky houses
We all get used to the particular odors of our homes and stop noticing anything unusual but some houses present quite an olfactory challenge to an agent and her clients when first encountered. Stale cigarette smoke is a real deal killer, as are cat pee and mildew. Your listing agent may not tell you for fear of hurting your feelings but try to get an honest opinion and, if there’s a problem, address it, even if it involves ripping out carpets or curing the moisture problem. I know of one house with pet stain odors so bad that the floors had to be completely sanded down and refinished. It was worth it, though: the original odor was so bad I had to conduct the agent open house outdoors. Ugh.

But well priced houses are still selling
Ann Simpson, one of my favorite colleagues even if she does work with Prudential, listed 30 Dawn Harbor Lane for $3,295,000 in March. The house was decent enough but, no offense to the owners, nothing too special. So Ann, wise woman that she is, priced it a few hundred thousand dollars less than a somewhat comparable house down the street had recently sold for. Result? A bidding war, and a final selling price of $3,906,000. As I keep mentioning here, you can’t under-price a house in this market, but you can certainly over-price it.

Savage Kindom
A great new book on the founding of Jamestown by Benjamin Wooley. Very entertaining. And because Old Greenwich was settled almost around the same time, its events and characters seem connected to us up here, hundreds of miles away. A terrific summer history read, if Harry Potter lets you down.

No truth to the rumor
Greenwich’s best referee, Tom Mahoney, has not been indicted for throwing Greenwich Academy girls basketball games nor has he retired on his ill-gotten gains. Instead, the poor guy injured his Achilles’ tendon, which demonstrates the foolishness of playing kids games as an adult.

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Is the bloom off the rose?
In March 2005 my brother Gideon’s listing, asking price of $1,199,000, sold in a bidding war for $1,305,000. The builder/buyer tore it down and cleared the lot, then changed his mind and put it back on the market for $1,395,000. It finally sold last week for $1,215,000, or $90,000 than was originally paid. One transaction does not make a trend, of course, but I do notice builders getting more cautious with what they’ll pay.

Calling all hedge fund managers!
Joe Barberi has just listed an incredible old mansion on 77 acres of land for $39,000,000. Out of respect for their privacy, I never disclose sellers’ identities in this column, but it’s safe to assume that the owner is one of our town’s more noted celebrities. This place has everything, including a dungeon. Built in 1926, it was a bit shopworn when the current owner bought it in 1994. He’s brought it back to its original condition and wisely left it at that. The grounds are spectacular, with room, far away, for donkeys and even a flock of chickens but the best feature is the great hall which, with its soaring (40’) vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows gives real meaning to the term, “cathedral ceiling”. 17th Century English paneling abounds, as do fireplaces, including a walk-in fireplace in the great hall with a 6’ claymore sword hanging above the mantle (you’ve probably seen the sword before). The only scary thing about all this is that the listing information includes a copy of a four-lot subdivision plan. I’m a little short of funds this week so cannot personally save one of the last of the “Great Estates” but surely someone on Wall Street has a bit of spare change; I hope so, anyway.

New Construction
Not every teardown need be mourned, especially if the house is replaced by something far nicer. In my entirely subjective opinion, two new homes illustrate this: Mark Van Hoesen ‘s project at 27 Grove Street, in Cos Cob, and Mark O’Brien’s at 9 Binney Lane in Old Greenwich. 27 Grove is a great house on a quiet street in a close-knit, friendly neighborhood. It backs up to a town park, has five bedrooms, is very well built and is priced at $1,999,000 – I think it’s the best value in this price range that I’ve seen in a long time. Mark O’Brien also builds a great house and I think his new one on Binney is his best effort yet. A terrific limestone entrance opens to a five bedroom, airy house with what the trade refers to as “good flow”. Top quality construction, to this eye, with Mark’s usual quirky taste showing up in unexpected places: his choice of color for the onyx flooring in the mudroom, for instance, certainly caught my attention but I finally decided that I liked it. One of the things I admire about Mark is that he’s not afraid to depart from the plain vanilla, build it to sell philosophy that most builders have. I don’t mean to imply that this house is some kind of weird creation, it isn’t; it’s beautiful. The house he built next door sold last month in a bidding war and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one did, too. $4,900,000, asking.

John Bird, R.I.P.
I was sorry to see that my old principal, John Bird has died at 80. Mr. Bird was principal at Eastern when I was causing trouble there and moved to the High School just in time for me to continue to plague him. He was a kind, wise, teacher who even tolerated our shutting down the school during the Kent State protests in 1970 (I don’t remember the date but my pal Mike Horton does and sends me a reminder note each anniversary – May?). His assistant (and my House Master), Doug Mertz, told me in 1971, after he’d miraculously shepherded me to graduation, “Fountain, you’ve done what no other student could do: you’ve driven me out of education – I’m moving to Idaho to grow cherries on my father-in-law’s farm.” I always thought I did Mertz a favor but Mr. Bird was made of sterner stuff and stayed at the school long after I left. Those were turbulent times and I admired Mr. Bird for dealing with us rowdies in a firm but fair manner and allowing us to at least pretend to be intelligent young adults. Great guy.

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Dog Days of Summer
With the Fourth falling on a Wednesday, not a heck of a lot went on last week by way of new listings or broker open houses. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only agent busy with clients looking at houses so if you’re a seller, don’t despair: there are plenty of interested buyers still out there and still in town.

Which reminds me
August is coming and will bring with it a great buyer’s opportunity. Everyone flees town (which is why I stay – it’s like Greenwich in the old days, quiet and uncrowded) and so if you hang around, you’ll find that there very few other buyers and agents prowling the very property you’re interested in. If you move quickly, before Labor Day, you can often grab a decent deal. But see the very next paragraph for the obligatory caveat.

You aren’t necessarily the only buyer
32 Meyer Place in Riverside priced in September at $1,995,000, eventually dropped to $1,795,000. But it recently sold for $1,807,500 in a bidding war. Two (or more) buyers showing up at the same time after a house has sat on the market for a long, long time is more common than many buyers think. It’s not a conspiracy, just a quirk of this business, so if you’re interested in a property and are told that someone else is, too, the listing agent (probably) isn’t lying. In short, if you want to make a bid, don’t assume that you have all the time in the world to do so.

Old Greenwich Sidewalk Sales this week
Not a big whoop for me but it affords the opportunity to comment on a simply awful traffic rule here down east: parking fines. The town permits you to park along those sidewalks for an hour, free. Signs say so. What those signs don’t mention is that the fine for over-staying your welcome is a whopping $55, far higher than the fine for staying too long in metered parking. If that high a fine is necessary to keep the streets clear for shoppers, okay, but where’s the deterrent value if it’s undisclosed? Parking in a handicapped space could cost you $75 and there’s a large notice informing you of that so most people don’t do it (I’m ignoring the moral issue here that you just shouldn’t take a space set aside for the lame). By not warning parkers how much it will cost to stay longer than an hour, the present setup serves only as a revenue gatherer and as a deterrent only to those who get stung. No, I didn’t just get a ticket, but I think the town’s being unfair.

More unfairness
I’m aware of a new house that, having been built exactly according to the plans submitted to and approved by the Building Department, was denied a certificate of occupancy because it’s roof was pitched too steeply, allowing possible use (gasp!) of its pull-down attic for storage. Why, that’s a violation of our floor area ratio rules! The builder had to weaken the rafters by cutting huge notches in each, then adding trusses to support the roof and then providing an engineer’s certificate attesting that the roof would collapse if the trusses came out. His before and will say it again but the purported purpose of our FAR rules is to preserve our streetscape and keep houses from appearing too large from the outside. This house remained exactly the same size after it was weakened – the only difference being that, with trusses added inside, the owner could no longer store things in his attic. I have used this column several times to ask the head of our RTM’s Land Use Committee for the rationale of this obsession with what people do inside their own homes and have received back a bit of angry outrage but no explanation. Maybe he should convene (another) public meeting: not to listen to our objections – that’s been tried, and we were ignored – but to explain why this rule exists. If, as I see it, there is no reason for it, it’s just policy, then perhaps the entire RTM will see the ridiculousness of the situation and tell the Land Use Committee to clean up their act.

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Make way for ducklings
If only. Instead, Brunswick School has plowed under a beautiful playing field (and many huge, old trees) to accommodate a parking lot. It’s their property, and I’m sure Mahr Avenue residents will be glad to see their street cleared of parked cars but the project strikes me as an unfortunate allocation of resources. By the way, and this same observation can be made about Greenwich High School, with somewhat lesser accuracy, but do check out the students’ cars when school is next in session. The teachers drive beaters; the students seem to prefer Lexus SUVs, which seem to be about two years old, which I assume means they’re family cars coming off lease. The kids look so cool behind the wheels of these things, especially when they’re wearing their Che Gueverra T shirts and have gangsta rap pouring out the windows.

On the other hand
If my father had sprung for a Lexus and I had been able to attend Brunswick, I probably wouldn’t have placed Glendower and Hotspur in “The Tempest”, as I did in a recent column. Henry IV part I, of course, which I knew, at one point. Interesting lesson here: when writing the original column I Googled the lines and up came a very authoritative site attributing it to “The Tempest”. I ignored my own doubts in favor of the power of the Internet, which is obviously a dumb thing to do.

Whither diversity?
The Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision regarding school desegregation, bans, I think, considerations of race when assigning students to particular schools (I’m hedging here because I have not read the decision and the commentators are having a wonderful time trying to figure out what it all means). If so, what does that do to Greenwich’s efforts to move kids around town? Perhaps a continued expansion of the magnet schools which is okay, I suppose, but I’ve always wondered: if changing curricula or putting extra resources into a school makes it a “magnet”, why aren’t we doing that for all our schools, now?

Location is everything
Even for summer homes. My Realtor friends Marshall and Mary Ann Heaven recently bought “Sea Biscuit”, a six bedroom “cottage” in Kennebunkport, just down the street from The Colony and two blocks from the Bush family compound on Walker Point. Because of its siting, Sea Biscuit is ideally suited for President Putin to host a Russian-style dinner for his hosts so the Embassy rented the house for the weekend. As I write this, the Heavens are in The Colony while their house is filled with KGB and various security types, the refrigerators are sealed, filled with a planeload of Russian delicacies flown in from Moscow and an armoured stretch limousine is parked in the front yard. No sightings of Putin or Bush yet but Sunday night should be a memorable one. Beat that, Scott Frantz.

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Oops
A house in central Greenwich just sold for $3.5 million, which struck me as a bit low for such a nice house on such a good road. But it came on the market two years ago asking $4.895 million and I think that just killed it. By the time a buyer finally showed up, the stench of a decaying listing badly affected its price. Do what you like; if you enjoy keeping your home in showing condition for two years and entertaining strangers at all hours of the day, seven days a week, then price your house at whatever you like and go at it. But the market will not reward you for your effort. My advice is, if you aren’t receiving offers, it’s time to dramatically downsize your expectations.

Lawyer’s revenge
The favorite legal case that I ever read involved a New York City landlord who refused to rent to a lawyer because, he reasoned, she’d end up suing him. She promptly proved him right (“you won’t rent to me!”) and a judge eventually ruled that lawyers were not a protected class and could thus be discriminated against. Made sense to me – As a real estate lawyer, I always cautioned my real estate clients to be wary of offers from lawyer/buyers especially, worst case, two married lawyers moving from the city – but I was saddened to learn from the New York Times this week that “occupation” has been added to the list of protected classes for housing discrimination cases in New York City. That category was referred to in the article as a “lawyer’s protection clause” and obviously my former colleagues, after failing to win in court, went off to the City Counsel and got what they wanted there. So far as I know, we can still discriminate against lawyers here in the Nutmeg state and, while some of my best friends are lawyers, if I were a renter or seller and a lawyer wanted my property, I’d be cautious.

Is the sky falling?
I think not, but I have noticed several houses that recently sold for less than was paid a few years ago. Average sale price is still climbing nicely, especially in Riverside and Old Greenwich, but seeing a $50,000 markdown from a three-year-old sales price does concentrate the mind a bit.

On the other hand
Maria Ruggerberg, of this office, had a listing a month or so ago on Owenoke in Riverside. She convinced her sellers to let her place it into the multi-list system (a lot of people just hate having tons of strangers wander through their house) and, just as important, priced it at $2.595 million, a tad below what you might otherwise reach for. Result? It came on the market on a Thursday, it received four full-price offers by Friday and on Monday the sellers’ lawyer had in hand a non-contingent contract for $2,743,000. The deal closed last week, showing that there’s nothing wrong with this market when the price is right and also, the power of exposing your house to the largest number of buyers possible. It didn’t hurt that the house was in great condition and showed beautifully.

Greenwich Schools
I was a bit taken aback recently when I learned that a friend’s kid had been dragooned into “translating” for two classmates who allegedly suffer from “selective mutism”. I’d never heard of such a disability and, struck by the odd coincidence that two unfortunate children in one small class should have the same affliction, I Googled the term.It’s the new PC term for what we called “shy”. Greenwich already has one of the highest percentage of “special ed” students in the country because sophisticated parents have figured out how to game the system and get their kids untimed SATs, tax-payer-provided tutors, and the like, but I wonder if any real good is going on here. I remember my first Moot Court experience, where, faced with arguing a hypothetical legal argument before six robed judges, my mouth dried up and my brain turned to mush. The solution turned out to be not relying on a brighter student to speak for me but to repeat the process a number of times until I could think and speak on my feet. At some point, every kid will have to do the same thing and I’d suggest that process start early.

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