Monthly Archives: January 2008

Not such a bad year
From what I can understand of this year’s statistics, 726 single family homes sold in 2007, compared to 727 in 2006. Average price this year was $2,973,000 and median was $2,100,000, compared to $2,663,000 and $1,940,000 last year. That’s not huge growth, of course, but if you’ve been reading the main stream press, you’d think we should be expecting the house on either side of us to fall to a foreclosure sale. That’s not happening. Still no reason to over-price your house, though, since some buyers are attempting to move here from other, less fortunate areas, and if they’re getting less for their house than they might once have expected, they’re going to have to pay less to buy yours. Don’t be greedy.

Bank Fraud
Some astonishing statistics in a recent New York Times article regarding defaulted mortgages. Twenty percent of loans in trouble turn out to have completely false income and asset information and, of those that contain such phony data, 70% are in trouble. In other words, loan to crooks, and get what you sow. I’ve yet to see anything that makes me feel sorry for the lenders who looked the other way on these loans, notwithstanding Citibank’s predicted write-down of yet another $24 billion in bad loans this week. I refer the reader to the preceding sentence.

Sub-Zero
Not the weather, the appliances. Another columnist picked up on what I’ve written about here previously and asked his own appliance repairman about this brand: they stink. Consumer Reports has repeatedly warned against this brand as being the most expensive and least reliable of kitchen appliances (rivaled only by their own brand of lousy stove, Wolf). If you want a medium-level appliance, go GE. Top-of-the-line, choose GE Monogram. But my builder clients all tell me that buyers insist on Sub-Zero, so that’s what they install. It reminds me of the time my older brother took our horrible home-built mini-bike, sprayed it with metallic paint and affixed Bat Man decals to the gas tank. Sold it for a fortune to some sucker, and a career was born. Do your homework, people!

Life after death?
A southern investment group has bailed out Antares, paying over $200 million for the company’s failed adventure into condominium development at Greenwich Green. To me, this seems like another example of an out-of-towner over-paying for the fabled Greenwich name, but Antares did stick a huge amount of money into these units before going belly-up so perhaps this time it will work. Antares’ residential projects don’t seem to be doing any better than their condos – one, the ridiculously gargantuan 35,000 sq.ft. spec house on Langhorn remains unsold and the latest unit off Taconic sold for half-price- but the commercial re-do in Stamford, is rumored to be on track.Fortunately for the partners, I understand that each of these developments is a separate legal entity so the failure of two won’t necessarily bring down the ship.

Insulation
Back in the early 60’s when fuel oil cost 5 cents a gallon, my father would point out houses that held no snow on their roofs. “No insulation”, he’d growl disapprovingly. Our house, of course, had plenty of insulation and thus held snow on its roof weeks longer than the neighbors. My dad was a cheap Yankee who couldn’t see the wisdom in wasting anything even if it was cheap but these days, you might want to consult a contractor about adding an extra layer of fiberglass. Buyers rarely pay extra for things like insulation and builders build accordingly. If you’re planning to stay where you are for a few years, extra insulation will make you more comfortable and probably pay you back.

Public Works?Last fall, the town planted about 90 small evergreen shrubs in front of what is now the Old Greenwich leaf-collection site on Arch Street (right next door to the pumping station, which until 1968, used to collect raw sewage and dump it straight into Ole’s Creek – we’ve come a long way, I hope). Of those 90, I’d estimate that at least 75 are dead or dying, either from unsuitable soil conditions or improper planting. Either way, it seems an expensive experiment in trying to turn snow plowers into planters. If we don’t have people on the town payroll who know how to do this sort of thing, shouldn’t we consider outsourcing jobs like this to people who do?

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Still in the winter doldrums
Not a heck of a lot going on this week in our real estate market, but that means no catastrophes, either. Decent houses are selling for good prices, badly-priced houses are languishing. Same old story – I wouldn’t panic and sell the homestead for pennies just yet.

Greenwich Builders
One problem in writing this column is that, to be objective, I rarely mention my own listings or clients’ projects. When I praise a competitor of a client, therefore, I tend to get heated phone calls, usually late at night. One guy who refrained from that conduct but who nonetheless deserves some credit here is my client Louis Van Leeuwen, of Greenwich Construction (323-3107). Lou’s a Riverside resident who’s been building quality homes here for a long time (I’ve sold a couple of them, and been paid well for that service, just so you know). When, while talking to a prospective buyer of one of those houses, I mentioned that Lou lived just around the corner and always held himself available to correct any problems, the buyer, from California, mentioned that in his home state, by the time you moved into new construction, the builder was 200 miles up the coast and no longer reachable. That potential buyer turned into a satisfied customer, as is right. The highest praise I can give Lou is that several buyers of his spec houses live in them for a few years and then hire him to build them a larger custom house. That’s a nice testimony. Are there other local builders with the same reputation? Of course, and I try to mention them here, on a regular basis, regardless of whether I work with them or not. My advice, though, is to take advantage of the fact that so many of our top builders live in, or near, Greenwich. We’re blessed that we can hire locally and use people who live and die on their reputation. No house is ever perfect at its moment of creation, but it should be comforting to know that you can rely on the fellow around the corner to make things right, rather than pursuer some corporate flunky five states away.

Stanwich School
I have no dog in this fight – my kids are in college and all are graduates of the public school system-but I think the opponents of Stanwich’s expansion proposal are making a serious mistake. There’s a huge demand for private school education among people moving to town and, to the extent we can offer that, our property values rise accordingly. The alternative for this project, 30-40 new MacMansions, will impact the neighborhood even more severely and do nothing to help prices. None of us like change, and so the resistance to it is understandable but change is inevitable and a larger Stanwich School seems, to me, to be far preferable to a huge new subdivision. Get over it.

More Change
The Cos Cob FoodMart switching to a CVS. Who the heck thinks the addition of yet another drug store will be an improvement over a local food store? But the Poricellis’ customers have spoken; they prefer the wider variety and lower prices at the larger supermarkets in town and have made this operation a losing proposition. I find it ironic that Greenwich, which has been blessed above all other towns by capitalism and free markets, tries to mess with that system as much as any other town by restricting what people can do with their property. If there are too many banks coming into town, shouldn’t we trust that the marketplace will cure that? If we don’t need another chain store druggist, surely that will be self-correcting within a few years. In the meantime, there’s no law (yet, thank God) that says the Poricelli family has to go bankrupt to meet the demands of a dwindling few disgruntled would-be customers. I say this with sadness – I like the FoodMart and I’m fully aware of all the good that it’s brought to town. When I was running various non-profit activities, I could always count on generous contributions from the two stores, but again, if we aren’t willing to support them commercially, we have no right to demand that they stay in business for our benefit.

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Retreads
That’s the term used by my colleague, Gary Disher when referring to the huge number of expired and withdrawn listings due to return to the market this month. If your house is among them, know that you’ll need to stand out. I saw today a $4,500 reduction on a million-dollar house; that’s not going to do the trick, if you’re hoping to catch the eye of a buyer. Despite main stream media’s best efforts, the real estate market has not collapsed in this area, but tiny incremental price reductions aren’t sufficient to sell a house. If your original price was a flop, bold strokes are called for.

One suggestion I’ve heard from mortgage brokers is to buy down a potential buyer’s mortgage for a couple of years. A cash payment from the seller to a lender can result in a half-point interest rate drop, often for less than a price reduction. In other words, $45,000 paid now may make your house look a lot more attractive than a $90,000 price reduction. No guarantees in this business, but something worth discussing with your banker.

Lockwood Road, Riverside
Doran Sabag (Soundbeachpartners.com) is one of the very best builders currently working in town. He does fantastic custom work and two of his spec houses, at 41 and 43 Lockwood Road, respectively, are now listed by Margaret Dietz (Coldwell Banker) for $3,750,000 apiece. I can’t vouch for that price in today’s crazy market but the detailing and attention to quality in both these houses certainly makes them worth more than anything else I’ve seen in this price range. You can’t go wrong with this guy: he builds a terrific house and, if you’re looking in Riverside or Old Greenwich, you should certainly make it a point to see these homes. Or hire him to build your dream house anywhere else in town.

The woodpile
Well, we got more wood. Still many logs short of two full cords but I’ll give the dealer credit, he tried to do the right thing (perhaps because he received a visit from Tony Belmont, Greenwich’s official in charge of weights and measures). In any event, I’m not naming the fellow in this column because, in my experience, no one around here delivers an honest cord of firewood which, I repeat, is supposed to measure four by four by eight feet. If you get a half cord, you’re ahead of the game. This would be fine if dealers priced by the half cord but they don’t, so when they promise a cord and deliver half, it stirs my ire. If any readers know of dealers out there who deliver what they promise, let me know: I’d be delighted to give them my patronage and give them free exposure in this column. And there’s a special place in heaven reserved for folks who sell “seasoned” wood that’s a full year old. Wood cut in August is not ready for the fireplace by December, regardless of what some may say.

Mortgage Follies
I realize that it’s uncharitable to speak harshly of the poor at this time of year, but The New York Times recently ran an article, purportedly to illustrate the plight of ignorant borrowers who need taxpayer relief, that cried out for some kind of reply. The borrower in question “paid” $535,000 for a house in Brooklyn, no money down, no earnings documentation, and a profession as a “home health aid” which I interpret as an unskilled job without a nursing degree. The poor lady was already in arrears on her mortgage when the article was written, months before her mortgage is scheduled to be adjusted upwards. In short, she couldn’t afford to buy the place, even at a discounted mortgage rate – Duh. I figure, she got to stay rent free for two years in a house she couldn’t afford while the lender deservedly will lose its investment in granting this improvident loan. The New York Times, and our government, seem to think we should bail the borrower and the lender out while I ask, why?

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Good by, Foodmart?
I am sorry to see that Food Mart in Cos Cob is soon to be replaced by a CVS. Many folks enjoyed walking to their grocery store; now they can’t. The two Food Marts, this one in Cos Cob, the other in Old Greenwich, have no doubt been hammered by the opening of those two behemoths on the Stamford border, which I’ll admit to patronizing. Still, it’s been nice to have a grocery store in Old Greenwich. I hope, but without much expectation, that the Old Greenwich store will survive. I know it’s progress, but still…

Good Books
What to do with those gift certificates from Just Books (Old Greenwich) or Amazon (somewhere in the US): I’m usually not a fan of what I’d call “women’s’ books” which I define as something Oprah would rave about on TV. But I just finished “The Hearts of Horses” by Molly Gloss, and found it a real winner. It tells the tale of a young woman, cast adrift from her home, who sets out to tame horses in Oregon in the early years of World War I. Unaccustomed to family or friendship, she gradually discovers both, all while working a circuit of farms in a tiny rural community. I know next to nothing about horses or Oregon in 1919 (and not much about girls, for that matter) but this quiet book seems completely reliable on such details. I really enjoyed it – it reminded my “Plainsong”, and some of Frank Mosher’s work so if you like them, try this (I bought a copy for Nancy but by the time this article sees print, she’ll know that).

Then there’s “Dizzy City” by Nicholas Griffin, also set in the beginning of the last century. A young English con man, conscripted into the trenches of Belgium, survives grievous wounds and deserts. He stows away to New York and quickly resumes his previous line of work, only this time, he encounters cons within cons and lots of triple-twists. Great detail of New York life in that period, plenty of plot surprises and good writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

And you can never go wrong with “Red Sky at Morning”, by the late Richard Bradford. I’m not sure that he ever wrote another book but if you’re going to go down with just one story to your credit, this is the one. I suppose it’s a “coming of age” tale, recounting the maturation of a young man from Alabama sent to refuge in New Mexico during World War II, but it’s so much more than that. I first read it at 14 and loved it but reread it when my own kids were approaching that age and it was even better than I remembered. My kids loved it and I think you will, too.

Oh yeah, real estate!
Not much going on at this time of year. Peter Joyce of Prudential CT has supplied me with some statistics confirming this and I’ll address them soon but basically we’re wrapping up some November contracts and otherwise attending to holiday matters. I’m out and about with a couple of buyers but I don’t expect much to happen until the new year. So what will we talk about next week? Well, there are always Peter’s statistics.

The Enery bill
So Congress has passed gas and out came the new energy bill. No more SUVs, billions of dollars spent on ethanol, which will drive the cost of food sky-high and, in a little-known quirk, banning conventional light bulbs. I know, from previous columns, that many of my readers love the new-fangled fluorescent bulbs but they interfere with my AM radio reception, take a long time to brighten and cost a fortune. If they were all that good, don’t you think the marketplace would have seen that they replaced conventional bulbs? My problem with politicians is that they remind me of the yokels in high school who ran the student government. I would never have trusted them with my wallet or my life and now here they are, ensconced in Washington, with an iron-fist on my earnings and dictating my life. What an unpleasant prospect.

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