Monthly Archives: September 2008

Bedtime reading (if you enjoy nightmares)
Reader Craig Vorselen has sent me this link to a Crains New York article on layoffs in the financial industry and this equally cheerful one about foreclosures in NYC. If you don’t like reading phrases like”jobs are evaporating across the financial industry” and “there’s no one left for job seekers to network with anymore” you’d be better off avoiding the first story but if your misery loves company, read away.

For what it’s worth (to coin a phrase) I used to console and counsel fellow lawyers who’d lost their corporate jobs and who wanted to know what it was like flying solo. They liked the bit about being their own boss but always looked crestfallen when I got to the parts like, “you only eat what you kill” and “the staff payroll’s due every week – your salary isn’t”. Most went on to find another job they hated with another corporation. The few who broke free, either of the corporate world or law or both always seemed much happier. So if things look dark, remember that old annoying cliche that so often proves true: for every door that shuts, another one opens. Works for me.

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Amazing wonders in real estate pricing
So there are three houses currently for sale on Old Church Road, a great street very close to town.
149 Old Church is an 1899 house, renovated in 2006, on 1.48 acres and assessed (70%) at $2.336 million. It started in April at $3.795 and has now dropped to $3.200. 5,920 sq.ft.
163 Old Church was built in 1950 and renovated in 2008. It’s on 0.96 acres, assessed at $1,637 million and is currently offered for sale for $3.750.
56 Old Church was built in 1905 and never renovated – a buyer will have to start by gutting it entirely and starting anew. Unspecified square footage but far smaller than either of the first two. Assessed at $1.376, it’s asking $3.750
million.
I have two questions: are these houses on the same street, and did either of the latter two ask what happened with the first one? Inquiring minds want to know.

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What’s happening with Bentleys?
By Amanda Von Stuckle

What with all this fooferall about house prices dropping a teensey bit I decided to vist my pal George Louderkin III, the wonderful salesman who sold me my first luxury car years ago when I cashed out of the internet boom. The man’s a saint, as you can see.
George seemed relaxed, if unoccupied when I stopped by so after the obligatory buss on both cheeks and the air kiss (George is so emotive!) we got down to business.
AVS: So George, how are you doing, and how are my friends handling all this? Are they still buying your cars?
GL III: Absolutely, Amanda, like they’ve never heard of a CDO in their lives.
AVS: That’s great. What about the other salesmen here – same story?
GL III: What other salesmen?
AVS: Gone?
GL III: Like yesterday’s news, baby. Half are selling Fords, the other half went into real estate. Except for Jerry – remember Jerry? He’s out back washing cars.
AVS: But you’re doing okay?
GL III: You bet. especially with this new discount program we got going: 110% off.
AVS: 110%? but that’s –
GL III: You got it, Baby. We pay you to take the sucker away. Ya want an Arnage? Top of the line Bentley. $255,000 retail, so we give you the car and pay you $25,500 for your trouble.
AVS: That’s incredible. Does it come with, you know, tires and a radio?
GL III: Those things’ll cost a little more; say, top out at $350 K.
AVS: So I’d get …
GL III: $35,000. Uh huh.
AVS: How are you going to stay in business this way?
GL III: Volume, Baby, we make it back in volume. And especially if you want a loan.
AVS: Why would I want a loan if you’re paying me to take the car?
GL III: It’s a special deal we got going. We give you a little more, say $50 grand, you sign a promissory note for $100 big ones and we sell it.
AVS: But then I’d owe money …
GL III: Not if no one knows who you are.
AVS: But you know who I am.
GL III: Not if you take out a loan I don’t. Sign the papers – Miss Penelope Strong, I don’t give a f..k, and I never heard of you in my life.
AVS: And this is legal?
GL III: Sure it is, Baby. just ask Hank Paulson.
AVS: Our Treasury Secretary? Is he in town?
GL III: He’s staying up at Dickie Fuld’s place, in the guest cottage. But yeah – call him, see if he sees anything wrong with this. I’m telling ya now, he won’t: who do you think came up with the idea? Goldman Effin Sachs, that’s who.
AVS: That’s great – I’ll take one. You have a convertible?
GL III: You got it. Any choice in color?

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O.K., The Greenwich market is down

Have you considered investing in Nigeria?
But be careful, as the linked website warns,

Lagos Nigeria real estate market is a vast property market where a newcomer can get easily lost and cheated by scammers.
Lagos Nigeria property scammers are everywhere. Lose your guard and you risk losing your hard-earned money.

Fortunately for you, these guys say they’re honest.

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Denver Commercial Real Estate Exec:
This could get ugly.
But there’s this:
“Santora added that Denver is one of the three strongest markets in the country, with the other two being Houston (because of its energy sector employment) and Washington, D.C.”

Hmm – wonder what they grow in Washington, D.C.?

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The stock market’s up today, so far
I suspect that our President isn’t the only one holding his breath.

Update
But the credit market, which powers the world’s economy, is a mess. I think we’re in trouble, Toto.

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Offers I never finish reading

Or wouldn’t if I didn’t need material for this blog. I just received an invitation from a new real estate agency in town to meet someone named “Niurka” – no last name, which doesn’t make me comfortable – to learn “What moves your clients to action”, “Master your state of mind” and “Discover the driving force of your life by grasping the Power of Identity”.
No mention of booze or mushrooms to further enhance this “Powerful Experience” but lucky attendees will have an opportunity to inspect an over-priced condominium that’s been on the market since Noah began nailing wood together to form that boat. I Googled Niurka and found this Wikipedia entry:

Niurka Marcos (born Niurka Melanie Marcos Calle[citation needed] on November 25, 1967 in Havana, Cuba) is a Cuban singer, dancer, actress, and erotic model. She is better known simply as Niurka.

She was a little-known actress in Cuba. Marcos already had a son when she moved to Mexico, whom she left behind to look for a better future.

Niurka had a son, Kiko, in 1991 and a daughter, Romina in 1995. She has not disclosed the father of either child.

In Mexico, she had mild success acting in telenovelas with Televisa, until she met producer Juan Osorio. Marcos and Osorio began dating in 1998. Marcos then became a star in many of Osorio’s productions. They moved in together and had a son, Emilio, in 2002.

Marcos and Osorio were planning to get married in February 2004. Early in January, however, she revealed to the Mexican media, and the Latin American media in the United States, that she had been having an affair with her Velo de Novia co-star Bobby Larios, and that she was leaving Osorio for Larios. The news caused a wide-spread scandal and Marcos has not spared Osorio from public insult, blaming the break-up on, among other things, lack of sexual relations between the two.

“Erotic model”, eh? Maybe I do need another look at that condo.

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This is for real

Children sing for Obama

If your video isn’t working, here’s the actual U-Tube description supplied by the film’s creators:

Sing for Change chronicles a recent Sunday afternoon, when 22 children, ages 5-12, gathered to sing original songs in the belief that their singing would lift up our communities for the coming election. Light, hope, courage and love shine through these nonvoting children who believe that their very best contribution to the Obama campaign is to sing.

Sing for Change was a confluence of hard work, good will, and shared vision. Inspired by ideas raised at a grassroots Obama fundraiser, a music teacher, Kathy Sawada, and the children composed and rehearsed the songs in less than two weeks. Several musicians heard of the effort and volunteered to accompany the children. Parents and older siblings designed and provided the T-Shirts and the banner. There’s a first for everything, but rarely do so many firsts come together at once: for the children and their parents, this is their first performance, first video, first banner, and first involvement with grassroots work on a presidential campaign.

As Sunday approached, a neighbor volunteered a home. Production wizards got wind of the project and offered their help in recording it. The likes of Jeff Zucker, Holly Schiffer, Peter Rosenfeld, Darin Moran, Jean Martin, Andy Blumenthal, and Nick Phoenix rearranged schedules to participate. Holly Schiffer was able to get three High Definition cameras (Panasonic HVX250’s), and an AVID editing facility. When Jeff Zucker went to pick up the camera package, Ted Schilowitz happened to be there and offered a RED camera set up on a Steadi Cam.

What we accomplished in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon embodies the nature of the Obama campaign: its grassroots inspiration, its inclusiveness, its community building. People pitched in quickly for a cause that resonated with them. There were not many conditions: “Think this is a good idea? Want to help? Great. Sunday at 12:00.” At the heart of the project were 22 children and their music. The willingness of all involved to come together for them was a testament to our hope, unity, courage, joy and belief in the future represented by these children.

We are offering the video to everyone, the Obama campaign and all media with high hopes that we can all join together to Sing for Change.

Well worth your time viewing. I find it a disturbing and disgusting example of brain washing tots but hey, you may love it – it’s all about change or at least, a return to the Soviet Union of 1939.

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Shuttered Banks
I’ve just come back from counting the number of banks in town: 3,217 all of which are, as of yesterday, owned by just one large institution. Will it need all these branches? Will it decide that commerce dictates that it maintain 217 offices on Greenwich Avenue? Probably – this is Greenwich, after all, but if not, we’re going to have an awful lot of empty buildings in town. Remember when the oil companies figured out that they didn’t really need gas stations on all four corners of every intersection? Something like that. Marshall Heaven’s going to be busy.

[Editor's note: Attention, Amanda Von Stuckel fans - the above post employs the use of a literary device, satire. The author's purported count of bank offices is not intended to be understood as literally true; he has deliberately over-stated that number to make a point. It is intended to be (mildly) humerous. Thank you for your attention; please turn now to another blog]

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47 Will Merry Lane

Is 80% the new 100?
This house was listed a while ago (April, 2007) for $1.895 million. Today, 1 1/2 years later, it’s been reported as under contract. Last asking price (the actual agreed upon price is probably less) was $1.495. My expert readers will be sure to correct my math on this, but I calculate that as 79% of the original price.

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Interesting, if true
One of my clients tells me that he received a flyer in the mail advertising an auction of a very expensive house we looked at together last year. It’s a spec house whose price has been sinking like a stone so it wouldn’t surprise me but until I can confirm the particulars I won’t mention the address here. If it is going to auction (and even if it is not), I think we’ll see plenty of spec houses on the auctioneer’s block in the coming months. As Drudge would say, “developing ….”

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Angry People
What scares me most about the current fuss is the anger I hear from so many people who should otherwise know better. These folks, fairly sophisticated Greenwich types who made nice livings as Wall Street prospered, are furious at the financial world and are determined to see people punished, regardless of whether that brings down the entire economy. I see the economic pie as expandable so if a Dickie Fuld pockets a kabillion trillion dollars, I don’t see the result as less money for me. But these people do. In their dreams, I suspect that they’d like to see all the money in the country collected in Washington and redistributed “fairly” which really means, to them. Of course in 5 years the wizards, whoever that group proves to be in the next business cycle, will have once again ended up with the majority of that money, but my angry friends don’t see that far. The want retribution now, and the hell with fixing the current problem.

Their Congressmen have returned home for the next two days to get a sense of public opinion. I’m very much afraid that they will act on that opinion and do nothing when they get back to Washington or worse, really screw things up.

On a brighter note, the dollar is way up against the Euro and the Pound. This is probably the perfect time to head out on vacation, preferably to a place without newspapers, and relax.

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I’m not sure how much weight to give to these data

According to the Boston Globe,

the more money a Congressman received from the financial industry, the more likely he was to have voted for yesterday’s bailout bill. Supporters of the bill collected 57% more money, on average. My personal opinion of our government servants is low enough that I don’t really care how much they’re skimming – they’re all in on the game.
Update
The New York Times has pretty much the same story but they claim that Democrats who supported the bill received 88% more money from the financial industry than their Democrat colleagues who opposed it.

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The Wall Street Journal has a bunch of links to articles on What Happens Next. Interesting – go see.

And, courtesy of the same paper, here’s an article on the Case – Shiller Index of Housing Values. The index runs only through July 31, but I haven’t seen any dramatic improvement since that date, at least in Greenwich, so I think you can use the data as a pretty good picture of what’s going on.

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Open House Report
Nothing out there of note, in my opinion. A few retreads, a few new listings with sellers who are a tad optimistic – I’ll stop by in six months and see whether they’ve gotten the message, and that’s about it.

One ray of sunshine: Another agent I know reports that a buyer who had been lingering, offering a really lowball offer and sticking to it, called yesterday, after the market had closed down 770 points, and raised his offer to a very acceptable level. You may choose to believe that that was the only buyer in town and the rest of us just lost him or, like me, you can see it as a sign that there are still buyers out there who have the financial resources to take advantage of a down market. A year ago, this house was worth at least $500,000 more than it was asking yesterday. When the market recovers and I believe it will, given time, the buyer will be able to pocket that difference. Nice work if you can get it.

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From Mark Steyn:
” “As a general proposition, when told by unanimous elites that a particular course of action is urgent and necessary to avoid disaster, there’s a lot to be said for going fishing.”

Courtesy of Instapundit.com

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A reader asks, “Hey Chris, during the good old days 2000-06, did you ever steer a prospective buyer away from a property that based on their income, you thought they couldn’t afford even though the bank was willing to lend it? Just curious if you think realtors should take some blame here.”

The answer is no. As a real estate lawyer, I considered at least part of my role to be a quasi-financial advisor and no one, not even mortgage traders! left any closing I conducted without having spent at least an hour reviewing and receiving an explanation of the loan documents: what the total amount borrowed would be, the monthly payment, the possible increase in that payment, if the loan was a variable rate, etc. Even then, I didn’t inquire into my client’s job security, other financial obligations or his mental stability. With the exception of the last, I considered those matters to be between the borrower and his bank.

And in those days the lenders did inquire into such matters. I didn’t realize that, in later years, in other parts of the country, buyers (often “represented” by a bank’s lawyer, not their own) were spending as little as 15 minutes at closings. In Greenwich, at least, that never happened – to this day, agents foolish enough to show up at the start of a closing will cool their heels for a long, long time while attorneys like Tom Ward or Jeremy Kaye review the docs with their clients. The next time you hear a real estate agent criticizing Fairfield County’s use of attorneys in real estate transactions, you might consider whose interest is being served by those lawyers and why real estate agents might resent their presence.

But as an agent, did I ever caution a buyer against purchasing a house because of doubts about his ability to buy it? Nope. If someone comes to my office and says he can afford a $10 million house I assume that he is financially sophisticated enough to know what he can afford and that any lender who’s going to put out that kind of money is going to thoroughly vet the applicant. That may be naive, especially in light of what’s been revealed about lending practices in the past months, but it’s not my role to screen buyers. I certainly don’t want to waste my time looking at huge mansions with someone not qualified to buy a bicycle but digging into a person’s finances isn’t my job. I did, and do, try my best to get my clients the best house for their money and even some of my high-end clients will attest that they spent more time than they wanted to with me checking out $5 million houses that I thought were great buys when they really wanted a $10 million house (I like to think that they eventually discover that some $10 million houses are no better and worth no more than some $5 million homes on the market).

I have, to my memory, never urged a client to stretch beyond their stated comfort level to buy a house. Again, I consider clients to be financially sophisticated, in Greenwich, anyway, and I’m not ever going to advise them to abandon what their common sense tells them to do.

Finally, remember that, as of now, only 3% of existing mortgages are in default – I suspect the percentage in Greenwich is even lower. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected the collapse of Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers so the folks buying here were well-heeled, well educated people fully capable of making financial decisions without the assistance of what in many cases is a stranger. I suspect that, were I to pry too deeply into the wallet of someone I’d just met the day before, I’d lose a client, pronto. We’re not selling tract houses to illegal immigrants here and I’ve never seen the need to treat my clients as though they were fresh from picking cabbages.

So do we agents share some of the blame? I don’t think so – you, of course, are free to disagree and I’d be glad to receive your thoughts on the subject – I may very well be blinding myself to something obvious so that I can sleep at night.

Further thoughts: (updated)
If real estate agents offered financial advice, would buyers listen? Many would not. Check out some of the comments on this blog and you’ll see many contemptuous entries that basically call this author a moron who should opine on real estate and nothing else. To these people, once one becomes a real estate agent all prior experience and training are wiped out. One guy, a lawyer (a group that, according to polls, ranks just above used car salesmen and below real estate agents in public esteem) first insults my education and knowledge and then cautions me to stick to writing about things I know something about, like granite counters. Do you think such a man would listen if I warned him that he was getting in over his head on a purchase? Whether I would tolerate him as a client is another matter, but for now, I’ll stick to advising people on the relative value of houses, and nothing else. What I post on this blog, however, is my business.

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David Stockman at CVS!
By Amanda Von Stuckle
(Editor’s note: Amanda was going to take a long vacation, because her first day of blogging tired her out. The overwhelming positive response to her first appearance convinced us to bring her back at least one more time, just to satisfy those fans clamoring for more. Please keep those comments going – I know Amanda gets quite a chuckle from them.)

So you won’t believe it but I was at CVS on Greenwich Avenue this morning and there was David Stockman - Ronald Regan, Conyer’s Farm, indicted over that Collins & Aikman business, remember? – buying some “womanly items” for (I assume) his adorable wife Jennifer. “David!” I called. “Yoohoo! How’s the trial going?” He must not have heard me so I tried again: “What about your art collection? I heard that you had to sell your de Koonings to pay legal fees – is that true?” He scowled at me now, so I guess he did hear me the first time. He grabbed the box and skedaddled. What do you think: sensitive about the trial, or just his pending impoverishment by those lawyers? When I think of what my own divorce cost me; well, let’s just say that David and I could have a lot to talk about. Maybe next time, over a deelish cuppa cocoa at Versailles!

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Here’s a depressing way to end the evening.
The Wall Street Journal is pessimistic after today’s vote. So am I.

Both he [Bernanke] and Paulson gave the politicians and Main Street too much credit. They have behaved too calmly, and too rationally for the nation to get the message.

Bernanke and Paulson should have made outrageous promises at the hearings and argued there is no way this will cost the taxpayer $700 billion, that the taxpayer will in fact make money. That works much better on the American psyche. America loves buying lottery tickets. Think of the bailout as a lottery ticket with much better odds.

Perhaps the greater failure by Bernanke, Paulson and President Bush was a reluctance to scare the hell out of people. A leader shows gravitas and concern, not panic. But, perhaps, a little panic wouldn’t hurt. Because you get the sense that Main Street is so busy being angry, that it isn’t sufficiently frightened. The public still doesn’t connect their lives to the crisis. But it should.

Because no bailout bill means that:

By the close of the stock market on Monday, the value of Main Street’s IRAs, 401Ks and pension plans will be worth a lot less than on Friday. How much? Hard to say, but a loss of 20% isn’t crazy.

By week’s end, there is a good chance that a raft of large banks will be taken over by federal regulators.

Within two weeks, as the banks hoard cash, the credit lines on most of Main Street’s credit cards will be reduced, foreclosure proceedings accelerated and car-leasing programs suspended.

Within a month, Main Street won’t be able to buy a home, a car or a tractor unless paid for in cash. As the credit markets shutdown, the mortgage, auto and small-business loan markets will nearly disappear. And the economy will grind to a near halt.

Far fetched? Not at all. It is the absence of credit–not too much of it–that causes great economic depressions.

Okay,that’s too gloomy to end with. Try this sober but ultimately reassuring article by another WSJ columnist.

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The Black Knight
Remember him from Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I’m reminded of the poor fellow by this matter of Somolian pirates off the coast of Africa, They’re surrounded by ships and planes from five nations but the First Mate claims they’ll never surrender.
“According to a broadcast on the BBC Somali service, the pirates said that they could see an American destroyer nearby and several military aircraft tracking them, but that they were not afraid.
“They can’t catch us like goats,” said a man who said he was a spokesman for the pirates. “We will fight, and everyone here will die with us.”

“It’s just a scratch”, I suppose.

Update
Here’s a relief:They’re only in it for the money

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