Monthly Archives: October 2007

Who said the market’s dead?
For most of this year I was, or so I’ve been informed, ahead of my younger brother Gideon in sales. This is as it should be, notwithstanding that he’s been peddling real estate for the past twenty years compared to my mere five. Gideon just blew me out of the water when he negotiated a contract for Lowther Point in Riverside for $20+ million (Gideon, as is appropriate, is close-mouthed as to the identity of the buyer or the agreed upon price). We all want our siblings to do well, of course, but beat us? Ha! If you feel the same way toward your own kid brother, and have $20,000,000 (heck, $10,000,00 will do) to spend on real estate, call me before December 31st.

Cops
I’ve used this column to poke fun at our town’s police force before, but I’m distressed to see that two of our officers have felt it necessary to sue Greenwich to get relief they feel they’re entitled to. Patrolman Sean O’Donnell, who honored my son John and I by sharing coffee with us upon Mr. O’Donnell’s first return from Iraq, has now been redeployed there and claims that he’s been denied promotions otherwise due him because of his absence while serving our country. Lt. Jim Pucci, retired, has sued to recover health benefits he says were promised him after he lost his leg in a horrible service-related accident on I-95. I’ve only met Mr. Pucci once but, when my daughter Kate, at age 3, was in Greenwich Hospital’s ICU recovery unit, she shared that room with the recovering, unconscious Lieutenant and we met the entire Pucci clan. Notwithstanding their relative’s grave condition, the Puccis reached out to Nancy, Kate and me and forever endeared themselves to us. Kate’s now a very healthy 22-year-old, and I’ll admit that I’m biased, but it strikes me that we owe people like Jim Pucci and Sean O’Donnell our best faith. I hope that Jim Lash, also someone I admire, can use his talents to cut through to the truth underlying these lawsuits and resolve them fairly.

Back to real estate
A relatively new house, and one that was never occupied, just sold in Riverside for $558 a sq. ft. Nothing unusual about that but, when it first came on the market two years ago, I noted in this column that its builder was asking $703 per square foot and I compared it to other new construction which was selling for prices in the mid fives. It’s not popular to price houses by the square foot in Greenwich, but I think it’s a viable approach and certainly, this one sat on the market for years before its owner dropped its price down to comparable construction. For another prediction, there’s a new house way out in the Back Country that’s asking $980 a square foot. If my fellow Realtors are right, this one will trade, years from now, for just over half that. I notice that it’s already taken a $1,000,000 price reduction since its first open house; one of many to follow, I suspect.

How to sell your house?
A house that’s sat on the market unsold since January just increased its asking price by $95,000. Usually a dumb move but in this case the sellers have added a nice portico and bumped out the living room, making the exterior much more attractive. But I still question the strategy; they probably won’t recover their extra cost, but can they at least get the house sold, for higher price than if they’d just dropped the price another $100,000? I honestly don’t know, and I’ll be watching the results with keen interest. I’ll let you know the result here – stay tuned.

Advertising?
As a Honda owner, I may be more sensitive to this issue than other brand owners, but I was struck by an ad I heard on the radio for a “local” GM dealer (do you know that Greenwich has neither a Ford nor a Chevrolet dealership?), promising, “the deal you want today, the service you’ll need tomorrow”. I don’t want service tomorrow, nor do I expect to need any, other than an occasional oil change. This guy should change brands or switch ad agencies, in my opinion.

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Foxtons folds
This discount brokerage, imported from England, has collapsed, firing its agents and filing for bankruptcy. It hired real estate agents, giving them a car and health benefits (incentive enough for me to be interested, certainly) but, according to comments on the web, Foxtons used them as telemarketers, calling “for sale by owner” sellers and trying to sign them up. No particular services were offered: the home seller paid extra to list the property on the MLS, extra if a commission was to be offered to a selling agent (and you can be sure we selling agents weren’t about to show a house that paid us nothing), advertising, etc. In fact, I never understood why anyone would pay these folks 3% for doing nothing when they could get an incredible range of services from real agents for just 2% more. We advertise the house, we show the house, pay selling agents half of that 5%, negotiate deals and hold your hand at all hours of the day, seven days a week. Seems cheap to me.

What’s with G Mail?
You know that it’s a slow real estate market when I have the space to complain about my email service, but my Gmail account, Google’s free email service, has apparently been hijacked by spammers. I now receive hundreds of messages a day in my junk mail account alerting me that my messages to any number of unknown persons have been rejected. Since I never sent a single one of those messages, it makes sense that some entity has captured my computer and is using it to send spam. But just try to find a human being at Google to report this security breach to. Gmail’s free: you get what you pay for.

And while we’re complaining
A long while back I noted that Greenwich’s radio station, WGCH, had abandoned all local content and had begun broadcasting canned business news originating out of Chicago, of all places. Now they are broadcasting Red Sox games which, as one of two Sox fans in this town, I appreciate, but could there be a more telling sign that this station has completely lost touch with its home base?

Real estate bargains
Yes, this column is really dedicated to real estate, and here are two listing descriptions to prove it. Shelly Tretter’s listing at 50 Richmond Hill Road has been reduced to $5,295,000 – I liked this place at its original price of $6,150,000 and it’s an absolute bargain now. Beautiful house with great architectural details, a great yard, plus pool, guest house etc. There’s nothing not to like about this house and I think it dwarfs its competition, which includes houses asking millions of dollars more.
But if the $5,000,000 market is a bit plebian for your taste, may I suggest Jenny Prottas’ ”Reservoir Farms” on Taconic Road? She’s co-listed it with Steve Archino for something like $19,000,000 and while I won’t vouch for that exact price, this is a wonderful property to use as a benchmark for all the $10,000,000, over-priced trash you’ve been looking at. Eleven acres, stables, riding rink, top-of-the-line house and so forth. If you are able and willing to spend an enormous amount of money for a house, this is the one to compare others against. Go see it.

Disconnect
The paragraph above notwithstanding, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a greater disparity between sellers’ expectations and marketplace values. It’s truly crazy out there: $6,000,000 houses asking $11,000,000, $950,000 values seeking $1,500,000 and so on, through all price ranges. It’s not that the market has collapsed but rather, sellers have wildly inflated ideas about their home’s value. Try going to your stockbroker and telling him, “ I need to get $95 a share for my GE stock – my kid’s starting college this year.” He’ll tell you that GE’s trading in the low $40s and that, regardless of your need, that’s the most you can get for it. And he’s right – why do you think that real estate is any different?

Taxes
Hillary Clinton is proposing at least one new give away a day and her ideas of how to finance her (your) largess ought to alarm you. No tax deduction on second homes (1/2 of Greenwich seems to be owned by New Yorkers using us as a weekend get-away) and a 4% surcharge on the “rich”: people earning $100,000 or more. Hang onto your wallet.

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Ah, waterfront!
A house on Gilliam Lane in Riverside was just listed and is described as belonging to a “waterfront association”. Now I happen to have grown up in the house next door and while it’s true that a brook runs under the house in question, there’s a pedestrian easement down a driveway on Club Road to Cos Cob Harbor (a holdover from farming days when cattle were taken down there to munch on salt hay) and there is a brackish pond at the end of the street where Dorothy Hamill first learned to skate, I never considered any of these features to comprise a waterfront association. But who knows? If Al Gore’s right and the water level rises another 100 feet (it’s a long way down to that pond) maybe this listing will be accurate. Give it a hundred years.

And speaking of centuries
A house on Farwell Lane, in the Back Country, has now been marked down to $6,950,000, a long way from its original asking price of $12,650,000, many brokers and many years ago. It’s not an owner’s reluctance to drop his price that astonishes me but rather the fierce determination to resist such a drop for such a long time. Keeping a house in showing condition is a miserable experience. If the marketplace says that you (or your agent) have made a serious miscalculation on price, why not acknowledge that quickly and get on with life? This house sat unsold through one of the strongest real estate markets in history and is now chasing a falling one – bad move.

Oops!
299 Round Hill Road sold for $3.795 million way back in 2001. It was returned to the market in September 2005 for $5,700,000 and sold last week for $4,060,000 which, after commissions and conveyance taxes, must have yielded a nifty long-term capital loss. Does this say something about the 2001 market or today’s? Don’t know, but it’s not particularly encouraging, either way.

Watch out!
I walk my own clients through each and every paragraph of the standard Greenwich listing agreement, explaining what each term means. This leads to a longer meeting but eliminates any misunderstandings down the road, so it’s time well spent. Two other firms here in town, who shall remain nameless for now based on their promise to discontinue the practice, took another tack for years: they pre-printed a contract that departed from the standard listing agreement and, without alerting their clients, signed them up for what is in effect an automatic six month extension of the contract after its designated termination date. That would seem to be a direct violation of Conn. Gen. Statute Section 20-320 (6) (go Google it, if you wish) but the two firms’ principals deny it. Whatever, they say they’ve discontinued the practice. If that’s untrue, I promise that I’ll name them here. In the meantime, I suggest that you have your lawyer review any contract you’re signing if you have doubts about its provisions and obligations. All contracts are negotiable – just make certain that you know what you’re negotiating.

Oh, nuts!
Have you noticed the bumper crop of acorns this year? From what I can glean from the Internet, the phenomenon extends at least as far as Minneapolis but certainly here in Riverside the things are falling from every oak tree in record amounts. I don’t know why but if you’re raising pigs, now’s the time to release them into the neighborhood and let them feed on free mast.

Good Lord
Did you catch the story of the would-be physician, a Harvard student (naturally) who sued for, and received, extra time to take her medical boards because she’s breast-feeding her baby? This woman is already getting an extra day to take the exam to accommodate her dyslexia and ADD conditions, now this. Would you want someone like her treating you in an emergency? “Ah, sorry, I read your charts backwards and I’m nursing – come back tomorrow and let’s see if I remember you”.

Book Sighting
Perrott Library is now stocking copies of my book, “Greenwich Mean Time”. Just Books, for some reason, no longer carries it but you can buy your own copy at Amazon, an institution I shifted my allegiance to after my local bookstore shifted theirs.

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Another one bites the dust
Rumors that the Antares project at Putnam Green was in deep trouble have swirled through the real estate community for months but publishing unsubstantiated rumors (as opposed to opinions that are just plain wrong) can cause nasty libel suits, so you didn’t read them here. But now that the news has broken, I’ll give my opinion that failure couldn’t have happened to a more deserving entity. From the start, Antares has exhibited a brazen arrogance unusual even for Greenwich. As you may recall, Putnam Green and its sister development, Weaver Hill, were modestly- priced rental units on the western side of town. Antares bought them for $223,000,000 two years ago (at which time I did mention in this column that, when someone’s eager to sell, you might want to ask why) and almost immediately set about evicting the tenants, many of whom had lived there for years. They set impossibly high “buy-in” prices and imposed a take-it-or-leave-it deadline that many tenants, if their letters to me were representative, found oppressive. So having antagonized the very people most likely to be interested in living in that side of town, Antares set about trying to peddle the units to strangers. Not many bit and now the financing’s been yanked, workers pulled off the site and all sales cancelled. This is the same group that “accidentally” destroyed wetlands off of Langhorne Lane while building a cluster of high end houses and I suspect that neighbors of that bit of vandalism will lose no more sleep over the fate of this company than will the displaced tenants of Putnam Green. In my opinion, of course.

Is there any encouraging real estate news?
Not on the national level, that’s for sure, but I wouldn’t panic here in Greenwich, yet. Some houses are selling: sixteen went to contract in the past two weeks, at (asking) prices ranging from $8.5 million (waterfront land) to $760,000, so some buyers are out there. On the other hand, 106 new listings came on, which is normal for this time of year but we’d obviously like to see a better balance between those figures. I’ve laughed at buyers over the years who insist that they’ll wait until prices come down and end up paying more, or never buying in town. For the first time in a long time, I’m not laughing; they just might be right.

But, just to prove I’m often wrong
A new listing on Lake Avenue came on last week priced at $6,200,000. Nice location set far back from the road and wonderful grounds but the house was built in 1965 and, to my eye, looked dated. I figured it would sit six months on the market before its price more accurately reflected my opinion – ha! Gone in just a few days via Ellen Mosher. It’s hard, sometimes, to screen out personal opinions from objective judgment. In this instance, I knew the taste of my clients looking in that price range, knew they wouldn’t like it and, since I didn’t have any other buyers for the property, mentally discounted its price accordingly. That’s a dumb way to price real estate and I try hard not to do it; sometimes I fail.

Making lemonade
The National Association of Realtors is running an ad proclaiming that it’s a buyers’ market because “there’s more choice than ever”. Uh, yeah – that might also be what we refer to as a glut of inventory, but whatever.

Making lemons
A bunch of us agents traveled to the far reaches of Greenwich’s northern border to see a new house that was priced at, for that area, a pretty startling sum. No a bad house but nothing special, no “wow” factor so, considering that and its location, several of us independently concluded that the ultimate selling price would be half of what the builder is asking. We could be wrong – see above – but that’s a pretty large discrepancy between what we see as reality and what the builder is dreaming. At least if we’re wrong it will only cost us a foregone sale. If the builder has mis-guessed his project’s drawing power, he’d better hope he has a more understanding lender than Antares did.

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