Monthly Archives: February 2008

Historical houses?
36 Mayo Avenue, at the gateway to Belle Haven, recently sold for $10,000,000 plus and the new owners now want to tear it down. The Greenwich Historical Society, naturally, objects, and seeks to “educate” the buyers on the merits of the house, in the hope of persuading them to rehabilitate the mansion rather than raze it. My response is, where were you when this place came on the market five years ago? Houses like this appeal or don’t appeal depending on taste: to me, it’s a large pile of unsightly rocks, a testament to too much money and too little taste belonging to an 1890’s textile merchant. And, although its former owner claims to be torn to pieces by the prospect that it’s destined for the dumpster, I note that he placed no restrictions on its sale; if he had, he’d never have sold it. The place was a dump, I’m sorry to say, and all the old molding and fantastic details did not outweigh the building’s obsolescence. I love old houses, and I’ve championed them in this column for many years, but this particular piece of architecture was ugly from its inception and has only grown uglier over the years. The new owners apparently hoped to resurrect it from ruin until they received cost estimates from their architect and builder and then decided to go for new. As Bruce Robertson, president of the Belle Haven Land Association said (quoted in Greenwich Time)” I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised [that it’s being replaced by a new home]….If done right, this could be a beautiful addition to the community”. This house is “historical” because it’s been here for 120 years, but I’m not at all convinced that it deserves another century. If the Historical Society disagrees, I ask again, where were they when the house sat unsold for so many years? The time to preserve old houses is just before or when they first come on the market. Don’t sit idle while these homes languish on the market and then bemoan their demise after the fact.

Quiet rock
I just heard about this product, and it intrigues me. It’s sheetrock, sort-of, but designed with an interior layer that dissipates sound by converting it to energy (or something). When I worked as a builder during college vacations a long time ago, I know that my boss and his customers worked mightily to insulate powder rooms, kids music rehearsal rooms and whathaveyou from the living areas of the house, usually without effect. Thirty years on, technology appears to advanced and you can now hang a ½” panel that eliminates most sound. Seems a bit pricey – check it out by Googling “Quiet Rock” – but at around $40 a panel, it’s not excessive, considering the total cost of a renovation. I haven’t used it and I don’t know if any of my builder /clients have, but it seems worthy of investigation.

Two Nice Houses
There is nothing more subjective than real estate (see my comments about Mayo Avenue, above) but I really liked two new listings last week, 25 Stony Wylde Lane and 10 Sparrow Drive (off of Parsonage). The former is new construction by Jordan Saper and, I’ll confess, I usually don’t like his projects. That’s my loss, not his, as Mr. Saper designs and sells to the market and his houses sell instantly, at full price, and resell later for even more. He either hired a new architecht for the Stony Wylde project or the lot forced changes, but this house has some nice, quirky rooms jutting off at odd angles and it all feels much more cozy than some of his previous efforts. Again, that’s just my opinion: Mr. Saper builds an incredible house and his sales reflect that quality; if I don’t “get it”, whose fault is that? Anyway, I think almost anyone will like this one. Wilson Alling, New England Land Company, has listed it at $8,475,000.

Bryan Tunney, of Cleveland, Duble & Arnold, has listed a 1900 converted barn on Sparrow Lane for $5,200,000. It was renovated and expanded in 1997 and, considering its condition, its close-to-town location and its acre-and-a-half flat yard, I think it’s a good value. Five bedrooms, a million bucks each, what else do you want? Seriously (and this is serious money) this is a really nice house and it outshines many others in its price range.

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School Vacation
As a parent of school-aged kids I was all for them. As a Realtor, I’m not such a fan, because half the town empties out: good for those of us stuck here in the ice, but bad for people trying to sell their house. Ah well, we’ll get by this week (and next week, when the private school kids, safely segregated from their public school peers, disappear to St. Barts) and the market will resume.

Watch out!
I understand that an old practice has reappeared on our real estate scene: listings that are held “in-house” rather than being placed on the MLS. It’s easy to understand why a broker would like this arrangement, as a full loaf is always better than half, but what’s in it for you, the homeowner? Houses in Greenwich sell via the multiple listing exchange. The more exposure your house has to agents, the more likely a buyer will be found, so limiting that exposure to just the agents of one particular brokerage firm only hurts you: I can see no possible advantage. Here’s a suggestion: if a firm makes this pitch ask what’s in it for you? I suppose that, if they’re willing to cut the commission in half, you might want to risk a 30 day trial and see if you can save some money. But if there’s no discount, you’d be a chump to agree.

Eco-Shakes
I heard about these recycled plastic/cellulose substitutes for cedar shingles on NPR not long ago and, after researching them (Google Eco-Shake) and they seem to make sense. By using them you’ll get a product with a 50 year warranty (real cedar has a lifespan of around 20 years), a fire-resistant surface that will probably earn a reduction in your fire insurance costs, fewer problems with mold and fungus and the feel-good effect occasioned by reusing materials that would otherwise end up in a land fill. My guess is that, like the synthetic slate roofing I wrote about last year, the cost of product will probably be about the same but long term, you’ll have a better product. The builder/expert interviewed on NPR said that the finest home builder he knew (and the speaker was editor of Fine Home Building) uses these and “if they’re good enough for him …”. Worth looking into, I think.

Eco-Mommies and our town
Greenwich is all aflutter to end global warming by proposing eliminating plastic bags in supermarkets and converting the town’s fleet to hybrid vehicles. Before we rush around like headless chickens, could we please just take a deep breath and consider this? First, modern landfills are anaerobic – anything placed there, plastic or “recyclable” paper, stays there, forever; it doesn’t decompose. So no gain there. Second, hybrids use, duh, big lead batteries. That lead is mined in Canada, causing a huge toxic mess, shipped to China, converted to batteries and then shipped back here for installation in cars. There may be a net gain to our environment in all this, but I’d like to see some studies proving it.

As for eco-mommies, did you read about them in the New York Times? These are groups of unemployed ladies in Marin County (for now, but you know they’re coming our way soon) who gather in each others’ mansions, sip expensive wine and criticize each other for using wall-to-wall carpeting, paint (?!) and SUVs, all while discussing how to save the planet by switching lightbulbs and eschewing brown paper lunch bags for their kids. A recent study in Japan calculated how much of the US economy would have to be sacrificed if we were to cut our carbon emissions in half by 2050. Turns out, the study calculates it at 88%. The economists who reached this conclusion thought that was just fine (“ I like riding a bicycle”, says one) but I wonder what the ladies of Marin County will think about walking over the Golden Gate Bridge to reach their masseuse? In short, if global warming is as dire as Al Gore says it is, and we care to do something about it, we have to stop growing food, stop driving or flying or heating our homes and revert to a mediaeval standard of living. Good for Breugel, I suppose, bad for us.

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19 Hendrie Lane
This is a very nice house, listed by Mandy Fry (of David Ogilvy Associates) for just $1,295,000. Hendrie Lane is that small, dead end street across from Eastern Middle School. Years ago, we’d cross the train tracks and hike up this street to get to school – an act we’d be arrested for today, I’m sure. The house has three bedrooms, expandable to four, if necessary, but I wouldn’t do that; instead, it’s a great little house for a young couple looking to get into a great area of Riverside at what, in this neck of the woods, passes for a moderate price. Nicely renovated, too.

Zillow.com – still not ready for prime time
My brother Gideon supplied me with some interesting data from Zillow , comparing their estimated value with actual selling prices. The differences indicate that, should rely on this site, you could either seriously under-price your property or be hopelessly optimistic. For instance:
Address Zillow Prediction Actual Price
185 Clapboard Ridge $5,438,000 $9,400,000
55 Perkins $10,944,000 $8,975,000
27 Valleywood $1,463,500 $1,250,000
8 Crawford $1,052,000 $825,000
50 Carriglea $5,072,000 $5,500,000
1 Hobart $4,355,000 $5,500,000
565 Stanwich $8,246,500 $6,901,000

Of all of these, the Stanwich Road property’s value might have been closest to actual value (I know, because I sold it). Fortunately for my buyers, the seller originally priced it at $11,500,000 and, after the house sat idle on the market for over two years, was finally forced to reduce it to a fire sale price just to move it, which is when we swooped in. The point is, Zillow’s computer program just can’t deal with local Greenwich pricing – yet – so don’t bug your agent with calls saying, “but Zillow says”. So far, we Realtors know better than Zillow. But if those geniuses at Google get ahold of the site, watch out. There may indeed be an as-yet undiscovered algorithm that will render folks like me useless.

Dunellen Hall
When the Queen of Mean died last fall, I guessed that her 40-acre estate might fetch $60,000,0000. David Ogilvy has now placed it on the market for $125,000,000. I would never try to out-guess Mr. Ogilvy on these matters, but I did pick the Giants 21-17 over the Patriots last week. Not quite right, but closer than the experts. Am I on a roll? We’ll see in a year or two, I suppose.

Tree Guys
There are any number of excellent tree service companies working in town but we’ve used Hawthorne Brothers, out of Bedford Hills, for a long time and always received excellent service. Their front man, the fellow who meets with you and prescribes needed work, is Brian Johnson, a burly, bearded graduate of UVM’s Forestry School who spent years working with the U.S. Forestry Service in, I think Alaska. This man knows his trees, and is a pleasure to work with. Logging, ecology, books, philosophy, you name the topic, he’s informed on it. And he cares about trees. Hawthorne isn’t cheap – no tree company down here is – but, under Brian’s guidance, you’ll get the service you need with no unnecessary or harmful cutting added. (203) 531-1831, to reach them.

Are we losing our collective minds?
On primary day last week, the schools closed to protect young students from their parents. In years past, the kids would hold PTA bake sales and witness citizens in action, participating in Democracy. No longer, despite, to the best of my knowledge, not a single untoward incident in the past 100 years. We’ve ratcheted up our fear index so far these days that even simple acts like a local election are undoable. For the record, the only dangerous fellow I saw when voting at Riverside School was WW II hero (and grandfather) Chuck Standard, who gave up being dangerous in 1945.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day
At the suggestion of one of my readers, I thought I’d close with something nice to say about someone: in this case, “Lisa” from Porecelli’s Old Greenwich Food Mart, who scurries around the village at this time of year painting small red hearts on showroom windows, just to add a bit of festive color. Nice gesture so thanks, Lisa. Have a great day.

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The wonders of living in a small town
A bunch of us neighbors want a 200 – yard sidewalk installed here in Riverside between Spring Street and Weston Hill Road, to protect pedestrians walking down a blind curve. A number of other neighbors object to the project and so Lindy Lilien, a doer of the highest order, put out a call for a walk up the hill in question at 8:20 in the morning. Despite less than 15 hours notice, Lindy got about 50 parents and their kids and two of our selectman, Peter Tesei and Lyn Lavery to show up – Peter even brought his 9-month-old daughter, Carolyn, as well as his wife – if the route was as dangerous as we claim, this was daring behavior (Peter Crumbine called in his regrets but no offense taken, since everyone has a life, and this walk was called on almost no notice). Two points: it’s terrific to live in a town where, when a problem is perceived, a call to the local government produces the top officials to come see what you’re talking about; and, because a small town means that you probably know the folks on the other side of an issue, one can call those people and find out what their beef is. In this case, I called the most vocal opponent, my friend George Scott and, while I wouldn’t presume to speak for the gentleman, it seems that he and his fellow opponents agree that the hill in question is indeed dangerous: they object to a wider project, promoted by other people, to install sidewalks on every stretch of Riverside’s streets. I told George that I would side with him in opposing such an ambitious, unnecessary plan and I think a truce has been made: a modest municipal project vs. an over-reaching one. Scott is still concerned with letting “the camel’s nose under the tent” but I think we can agree on this sidewalk. And, as I said, it’s great to live in a town where you can speak personally with your neighbors and politicians and, with luck, achieve a resolution.

Which brings us to Stanwich School
Still more friends involved here. I attended a public meeting hosted by the school and, while I sympathize with my friend and project opponent Andy Healy, whose property abuts the school, I think the school has the better of the argument. This project will not impact its neighbors. Another friend, Chris Von Kyserling (freed from his police escort now that Jim Lash has retired) spoke forcefully and well as to the merits of the development, pointing out that, as presently built, the hodge-podge of buildings dumps water on the surrounding properties, looks like hell, and is a detraction to the neighborhood. The new Stanwich School will be a huge improvement, in Chris’s opinion and mine.

Demolition
A proposal soon to be introduced to the RTM will increase the delay in demolitions of 60-year-old buildings from 60 to 180 days. This is stupid. I hate it when developers tear down historic houses – see, eg, my comments re: Dennis Hatch, who demolished an 1852 Italianate home on Riversville Road – but, generally, a 60 year-old house is functionally obsolete and holds no value in today’s market. A six-month waiting period will NOT preserve the house – we have no ordinance that would achieve that – but it will affect the cost of housing. If a builder has to pay interest on, say, $1,500,000 for six months, either the price of his new project will increase or you, the seller, will receive less: simple economics. My advice to anyone who owns an older house is that, if this rule passes, apply immediately for a demolition permit. It’s good for several years and if you can offer your house with a pre-approved demolition permit, you’ll get more money for your house.

You Know your house is over-priced when…
Saw a beautiful new house the other day that was, to my mind, over-priced by $2,000,000. As I left, the lawn guy, a friend of mine, asked me what it was listed at. I told him and he paused, reflected, and said, “Gee, I figured it for $2,000,000 less than that.” I’m taking him with me on my next price opinion.

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Buyer broker suits
A pending law suit in California pits a buyer against her broker, claiming that the broker failed to inform her that she was over-paying for the house. Because anything that starts in California eventually reaches us here in the east, I assume that we will soon be seeing such suits here. No one cared when brokers engaged in “mere puffery” when house prices were raising but now that they’re falling (if not in Greenwich, yet), watch for more of this fun. All of which emphasizes the importance of signing those “broker/buyer” agreements we agents are required to foist on you by Connecticut law. The old rule of agency dictated that agents represented the seller, exclusively, even if we never met the seller and worked exclusively with the buyer. Now, agency law has been changed so that we can have a fiduciary relationship with you. Which means you can sue us for not giving you the very best, most accurate information on the value of a house. This should keep lawyers busy for decades. By the way, you should know that Wall Street resists this trend. There, your stock broker can sell you any amount of worthless garbage and, when you complain, you’ll be told that, just like real estate agents of yore, she was engaging in “mere puffery” and you, you dolt, were foolish to listen to her in the first place. It’s why I love the free enterprise system so much.

New forum for shareholder meetings?
The Greenwich Association of Realtors, for some inexplicable reason, chose to hold their annual meeting at the Glenville Civic center which has almost no parking and a non-functioning PA system. I left after a few minutes since I was unable to hear anything but I was struck by the idea that this would be an ideal place for you corporate chieftains with pesky shareholders to schedule your own meetings. Some moron exceeded his trading authority and lost seven billion dollars? Lose a few billion in the sub-prime market? Got a bit of a budget deficit coming up? Here’s the place to announce it – no one will hear, even if they can find a parking space to attend. I’m not certain of how one goes about reserving this space but call my association and I’m sure they’ll give you the details. Cheap, too.

Realtorese
There’s a house on the market in Old Greenwich whose advertising boasts that it abuts “town property”. True enough, but if that term brings to mind a town park, think again. The property in question actually hosts our local sewage pumping station. I admire the listing agent’s creativity, but, while the prospect of a neighboring park might bring a first time visit, I suspect that any would-be buyer will be a bit cheesed off when he sees what he’s next to. I once ran an ad for a house right on the Merit Parkway claiming that it was “convenient to transportation”, but I was kidding. This guy isn’t, I don’t think.

Riverside
Jane Brash (Coldwell Banker) has just listed 9 Willow Road for $2,595,000. Five very large bedrooms in a tastefully re-done house, on a great street. Not much of a yard, I suppose, but sufficient for its purpose and, again, a great location. Unless the market has really turned belly-up, this house should sell before this column sees print. If so, all credit to Jane for pricing it so intelligently. It remains my contention that there’s nothing wrong with this market that a good price won’t cure.

Greenwich Adult Day Care
This great organization recently offered a tour of its new facility, the old pump house on the Mianus River. What a transformation. The building, which I haven’t seen since I used to jump off its roof into the Mianus, has been completely renovated and now offers terrific views of the river and the dam, fenced-in terraces, recreation rooms, a cafeteria and even a beauty salon for its clients. As I understand the operation, caregivers of the elderly can arrange for their parent, say, to be picked up at home and brought here during the week to be cared for and entertained, thereby providing a break for the caregiver. Nice concept and a beautiful new location. Many of my friends, including Greg (de la Fontaine) Islan and John Cooper are on the GADC board – nice work that is probably rarely recognized.

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Small Stores
The imminent closing of the Cos Cob Food Mart has caused me to rethink the value of local businesses. We can all order over the internet these days, but at what cost? I recently bought a HD TV from Sean Mecsery, of Cos Cob TV, in business since 1945, and received a great product and great advice at a price not much, if at all, higher than a big box store. If something goes wrong, I can go directly to the owner and set things set right (Sean’s number is 869-2277.

On the same subject, to my great regret, I unloosed on Just Books in Old Greenwich last October, blaming them for not carrying my latest work when Perrot Library did. I was wrong to do so. There is no one who supports authors more than Jenny Lawton and her staff at Just Books, what with author book signings, in-store displays, readings, etc. . My peevishness did a grave disservice both to her and her store. These are the kind of operations we should be supporting, not denigrating, unless we want to move to a new world where all retail is conducted over the internet and our local downtowns are filled with nothing but sterile chain stores designed to draw shoppers from (horrors!) Westchester County and beyond. There used to be a slogan, “support your local sheriff”. We should expand that to include the small business proprietors who make this town so special.

But maybe not real estate developers
Latest real estate hot sheet discloses that Antares is bailing out of its residential development on Cherry Blossom Lane, way up on Taconic near the Bedford border. Asking price is about what they paid for the lots four years ago, and, in my opinion, they’ll be lucky to get anything close to that. At the time of the original sale, I wondered what line of goods they’d been fed to persuade them to buy such over-priced land in such an inconvenient location and apparently Antares had the same thoughts, as they have broken with their original agent and retained someone new to represent them, Ouch.

Small Houses?
I saw a very unusual house the other day in Old Greenwich. It’s a reproduction of a Victorian and its colorful design will appeal to some, but certainly not all, buyers. Inside, it’s obvious that the builder devoted an enormous amount of care in crafting the trimwork, and the detailing is terrific. So I liked it, but I wonder whether Old Greenwich is the right place for this house. To me, Old Greenwich involves children, usually lots of them, and this house lacks any real space for the little darlings to scatter their toys around and hang out, out of earshot of their parents. That’s not to say that this house won’t appeal to empty-nesters, but I suspect that its layout will limit the number of potential buyers. In a similar vein, I wonder what Detroit is going to do with the new gas mileage standards recently imposed by Congress. It would seem that we’re going to end up with a fleet of small, economical cars that will suit folks like me just fine but will be entirely inadequate for families with four kids with car seats. What will they drive? It may be a moot point because, if some of the other proposals being floated around Washington get enacted, we’ll soon have house-size limitations that will convince new parents to stop at one child anyway. Who says China has anything on us?

The Market lives
Last Thursday a 5 acre parcel, with a 1937 house, came on in Deerfield Park at an asking price of $12,000,000. Word is that Brad Hvolbeck had a seller signed up by 11:00 AM the next day. That kind of speed would seem to preclude building inspections and all the other stuff that normally encompasses a sale, and suggests, to me, anyway, that there are buyers out there ready willing and able to spring for the right house at the right price, regardless of the price level. So no, the market isn’t dead, it’s just filled with buyers waiting for what they want, at a price they’re comfortable with. I’m not suggesting that you should be comfortable with a $12,000,000 price, but you might want to work with your agent to present offers within your budget. If you’re turned down, be comforted with the knowledge that there are plenty of other houses that may very well suit your needs.

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