Monthly Archives: January 2006

37 Hickory Drive
I think this house is one of the best buys on the market at $849,000. Its owners have kept it in absolutely mint condition: new baths, a new kitchen and updated mechanicals, so it’s in move-in condition, with no hidden costs to meet. Hickory Drive overlooks the Byram River and is, by my measurement, only three miles from the top of Greenwich Avenue and just a few minutes from the Merritt. If your kids have been priced out of the Greenwich market, I suggest you have them look at this home. Helen Maher’s listing, at Prudential Old Greenwich.

4 Orchard Hill
And if your kids aren’t priced out of the market but instead are pocketing hedge fund salaries that make your life-time earnings look like chump change, then perhaps you should steer them to this listing of Mandy Fry’s. It’s a beautiful cape set high up on two and a half acres with really nice views. It’s in great shape – I wouldn’t touch a thing. Five bedrooms, $2,795,000 – maybe your kids will buy it for you.

Ice Storm Anger
First Selectman Jim Lash appeared at last week’s Riverside Association annual meeting to explain, inter alia, the town’s response to the two storms that so disrupted our lives. He mentioned, as is discussed every time something like this happens, that when the electrical network goes down, it does no good to restore “downstream” houses until the problem upstream is corrected. If you do, it just fails again. So, while it is frustrating to sit for two days (as I did) watching a large tree lie across your wires, patience is advised; you’re not being ignored. My personal opinion, perhaps tempered by the fact that we got our power back in two days and did not lose it again when Round Two arrived, is that the town and CL&P did a pretty incredible job repairing the damage. I have spoken with several people who, like me, have lived in town for fifty years, and none of us can remember a hurricane causing so much devastation, all around town. Sometimes, bad things happen and even Greenwich’s wealth can’t spare us that.

At that same meeting Ted Gwartney, Greenwich’s Assessor, bravely showed up to answer questions about the new assessment. I was impressed by both his courage and his demonstrated knowledge. You can like your new assessment or not, but you ought to be reassured that the assessments are not being plucked blindly from a hat. Gwartney pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that the driving force in our market is the value of land; older houses are depreciating rapidly and are less and less a factor in your property’s value. Any house older than, say, fifty years is probably headed for the dumpster and its shelter value is insignificant to the value of the land it sits on. Not surprisingly, the larger a house can be built on a lot, the higher the value, so a non-conforming small lot with a minimal allowable FAR is worth less than an over-sized lot. The Assessor’s office is aware of this, and makes the appropriate adjustment.

One item of note: Gwartney said that his office has already heard around 1,000 informal appeals and, of those who presented significant information (as opposed to a general complaint that a property owner’s taxes were too high), forty percent were granted a reduction (and eighteen houses’ assessments were raised, so be careful here). If you don’t like your assessment, my advice is to forget about your house-its condition isn’t much of a factor-and concentrate on your land. If it’s a tough building site, hilly, rocky, swampy, what have you, you can probably argue that its worth less than a flat building lot next door. And check your FAR – if the tax people are calculating that you have a half-acre of land in the R-12 zone, but a quarter of that land is a long driveway, point out that FAR regulations won’t allow you to include the access strip in your building size. The Assessor might not have picked that up, and it matters.

Beach Card Fees Revisited
It looks like we’re in for a town-wide debate over whether to reduce visitors fees. I’d merely point out that Westport has for years collected ten bucks at the gate for each non-resident car and let joggers and bikers in for free. Their beach is far smaller than ours, is right next to a big city and yet, whenever I’ve visited, seems to be surviving quite nicely. I love our beach, but I think some folks over-rate its attractiveness to non-residents. My advice is, don’t sweat. If the reduced fee causes greater congestion, we can always raise it back. My bet is, we won’t have to.

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Suburban Hell?
The New York Times’ real estate section recently profiled a number of people who, having fled Manhattan for the suburbs, came screaming back to their beloved delis, bagel shops and restaurants. According to the article, they made no friends out here, couldn’t get a decent meal and were stuck in a commuter’s nightmare. While the comments of these unhappy ex-suburbanites were a bit over-wrought, I sympathize with them. The suburbs are geared toward school-aged children and married couples. If you aren’t in both those categories then, ironically, the supposedly anonymous city life can be a lot more fulfilling.

Up, Up and Away!
Another local real estate columnist has cited a 28% annual appreciation rate for Greenwich homes. That’s bad news for the rest of us because when we go to give a price opinion we’ll be smacked in the face with that statistic by the unhappy homeowner, who, after telling us we’re idiots, will then list his home with another agent. Before you decide that your house has appreciated by such an amazing figure, get the facts: several houses that were cited to support this astonishing appreciation were, between original purchase and resale, expanded and completely redone with new kitchens, baths, etc. It is true that the prices for waterfront lots have soared, but ordinary houses are just doing well – not losing value, but not exactly reaching stratospheric heights, either. You can still do very well by improving your house but, when you calculate your gain, be sure to deduct the cost of those improvements. Apples to apples, oranges to oranges – mix them together and you end up with fruit salad, not useful statistics.

Beach Permits
I am delighted to read that the town is considering dropping the visitors fee (when accompanied by a resident or when riding a bicycle) to a mere buck. Unfortunately, another proposal will raise the cost of a residential beach card to $40 from $25. If that will help cover the substantial costs of maintaining our beaches, fine; I wonder, though, whether revenue will actually decrease because of infrequent resident-visitors deciding not to bother buying a card. Time will tell
67 Pecksland Road
This is a very impressive new listing from David Ogilvy. Originally built in 1930, the present owners have completely rebuilt it, inside and out and made it new again. While it seems, superficially, to be exactly as originally built, everything has been replaced: windows, plaster walls, wiring, the furnace (a super-efficient European brand), pool, and so forth. So, new construction in a classic envelope. It even includes a heated dog house, which should appeal to husbands on the outs with their wife, especially if they remember Hank William’s tune, “Move it on Over”. $8,750,000, if petty things like price matter to you.
69 Cedar Cliffe
Don’t have $9,000,000? Barbie Jackson (Cleveland, Duble & Arnold) has just listed this Riverside house at $5,399,000. Cedar Cliffe is a great street and this is a neat old house (1935) renovated just a few years ago. Five bedrooms, four fireplaces, balconies to take advantage of the water views, and so forth. On an acre of land, with an abutting conservation lot, plus deeded beach rights.
Okay, So You Can’t Afford That
Sandi Klein has 15 Boulder Brook for sale, asking $2,395,000. Boulder Brook’s a close-to-town dead end off of Dingletown and this house, on an acre-and-a-half, is terrific. A somewhat-dated, five bedroom 1955 house, with a slate roof, it could be expanded, updated or just left as is. A good value, I think; Boulder Brook is changing, quickly, into a high-end neighborhood and whatever money you sunk into this house would be well protected.
The Ice Storm
Last weekend’s storm was quite the blow. I went out around midnight to investigate the high winds and discovered a half-inch of ice on everything – never a good portend in a windstorm. That extra weight was further increased when the snow arrived, and by 3:45 A.M. a blizzard was howling. Amazing amounts of snow and the streets were littered with everything from tree limbs, whole trees and even a huge trampoline, blown off of a Hearthstone Drive resident’s property. Power failed sometime during the night and, as of this writing (Monday), has yet to be restored. I was impressed, however, that, sometime between Sunday night at 8:00 and 7:00 Monday morning, a crew managed to remove the huge tree lying across the wires down the street – the temperature dropped to around 10 degrees that night, but they were out there. I assume that that crew’s diligence will soon be followed up by linemen – if not, you can contact me at the Hyatt.

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New York Condos
The New York Times recently reported that new condominiums at the former Plaza Hotel are selling like hotcakes at prices beginning at $9,500,000 for 2,000 square foot units. Now I realize that mid-Manhattan across from Central Park is very much not Milbank Avenue in Greenwich, but still, Greenwich appears to be a relative bargain. For instance, if you’d like a bit more space than is afforded at the Plaza, you could trundle off to 230 Taconic Road and purchase Heather Platt (Cleveland, Duble & Arnold)’s new listing: Hobbs built, four plus acres and 14,000 square feet, not including a restored antique guest house, all for a mere $10,500,000. Go for it.

Or, as an Alternative
Kaye Lewis (who has gone out on her own as Kaye Lewis & Associates) has just listed 14 Sunshine Avenue in Riverside for $975,000. I liked it a lot. Very nice back yard, some renovations on a quiet street. Three of the kids bedrooms are tiny, reflecting the house’s 1921 heritage, I suppose, but the owners have architectural plans available for a large expansion. Most buyers today shun building projects but if your funds are limited, buying and expanding will produce far more house than one that’s already been finished. That’s the case here, I think.

On Second Thought
Two weeks ago I wrote that one of the more meaningless statistics compiled by the Realtor’s board was the “sales to last asking price ratio”. In fact, that ratio (96%, average) does provide some important information because it shows that, contrary to what many sellers believe, an asking price that’s too far above what a house is actually worth will deter buyers. If it didn’t, you’d expect to see a lower average, reflecting say, accepted offers at 70% of the asking price. What happens instead is that houses sit forever, attracting no offers until their price is reduced to an appropriate level. And then they sell. So here’s your choice: place a whopping, ridiculous price tag on your house and see if some sucker comes along (he won’t) or price it within five or six percent of its true value (your agent can help you here, if you’ll listen) and sell the thing quickly.

Days on Market
Linda Hodge, president of our local association, emailed me to point out that the deceit of “days on market” has finally been addressed and calculations of that statistic will now show cumulative days on the market if a property is re-listed by the same firm within 90 days of an expired listing. Will this rule apply to brokers who delete listings before they expire and then re-list them? We’ll see.

Housing Stylist
Ann Simpson has listed 19 Shoal Point Lane and has had it “styled” by Christine Irvine, from Darien (655-1771). I have my qualms about the house itself: its architect made an awful lot of compromises to stuff fifty pounds into a paper sack, if you get my drift, but the staging, or styling by Ms. Irvine certainly made it as attractive as it could possibly be. As I understand the process, Irvine will, for a fee, consult with you and recommend everything from repainting to removing clutter to buying, moving or disposing of furniture. If you think your house could use some of this (and it almost certainly does) call her soon because now (January through March) is the time to list your house and depending on what needs to be done, you’ll need a few weeks to get it ready. Of course, if you do go to this expense, please see my previous comments about pricing – there’s no point going to this trouble if you’re going to price the property at an unsellable level.

Effective Ad
Round Hill Partners just ran a full-page ad showing a large number of its recent listings and the days they took to go to contract. Obviously, not all listings sell that quickly and, just as obviously, every firm could probably create a similar ad for their own listings but my point is, few do. Yet isn’t the whole point of this business, to sell your house quickly, at a good price? An advertisement demonstrating prowess at achieving this result is, in my opinion, more impressive than all the gauzy photos in the world.

Mystery House
Some houses languish on the market for reasons that seem inexplicable – their location seems fine, their price seems right and yet they don’t move. Carol Davis’ listing at 26 Spruce Street, in Riverside is just such an orphan. I like it, and I have since it first came on more than a year ago. A decent backyard, a good street, five bedrooms and a price of $1,835. It was a bit too small for my clients who have a blended family but for a couple with two or three small children, I think it’s perfect.

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Goose Busters
I gave my college-aged son, John, a copy of “Backyard Ballistics” for Christmas and together we assembled a four-foot-long “spud gun” – 2” and 3” PVC, a compression chamber with a barbeque sparker inserted in the end. Ram a potato into the barrel, squirt a 5 second (the book recommends no more than 2 seconds, but what fun is that? – blast of hairspray into the compression chamber, screw in the end cap and fire away. Very gratifying results: a loud boom and the potato flies three hundred yards down the creek (don’t try this in your living room). Our local population of nuisance geese do not like it one bit. The women in our life seem to find John’s and my glee in setting it off a bit, er, juvenile, but manly men know different!

18 Simmons Lane
This huge house just sold for $18,500,000, which is impressive. But it sold five-and-a-half years ago for $18,000,000. Deducting what I assume was a five per cent commission, the seller lost $425,000 on the deal. So is this a mark of the dreaded bubble bursting? I doubt it; I think it is more a reflection of how very, very thin the high end of the market is. There just aren’t that many buyers out there for $18,000,000 houses, even in Greenwich. And, if it flopped as an investment, the house provided some very comfortable shelter value – dividing $425,000 by the sixty-six months the seller lived there, the “rental cost” was a mere $6,400 per month.

Not a Creature Was Stirring
Unlike the week preceding it, the Holiday period between Christmas and New Year’s was just about silent (but wasn’t it nice to so effortlessly get around our nearly-empty town?). Five houses went to contract during those ten days (new construction at 96 Husted, asking $7,825,000 led the way), four new houses came on and sixty-seven listings expired or were withdrawn. I wouldn’t worry about the latter category – they’ll all be back soon with brand new listing dates.

Ryan Zimmerman
On Saturday night, December 17th, my daughter Sarah hit black ice on Glenville Road, spun out and, while hitting trees, stone walls and telephone poles, demolished her car. She seemed perplexed when her mother and I told her that we couldn’t care less about the car so long as she was safe. That confusion was resolved, alas, when just a week later her close friend, Ryan Zimmerman, had a similar accident and died as the result. I didn’t know Ryan, but Sarah tells me that he was “the nicest boy from the nicest family in Greenwich”. An A student at the High School, he enlisted in the Marines both to serve his country and to pay for college. Ryan faced the risk of death or dismemberment in the Marines but who knew that he’d die in a car crash in his home town? This is not a lecture on eighteen-year-old driving – we were all there and we will all be parents of kids that age – rather, it’s a reminder to hug our kids, every day, tell them that we love them and pray for their survival. Ryan’s father told me, “we lost a good one.” I’d say that our country did.

Patrolman Mark Zuccerella
It is easy to be annoyed with some of the petty, chip-on-their-shoulder attitudes of some of our local cops and I do wish they’d be a little slower with their citation books when dealing with kids, but just when I think there’s little good to say about them they’ll respond to a real emergency and perform heroically. Mark Zuccerella did just that last week. He was, as I understand it, the first officer on the scene of Ryan Zimmerman’s fatal accident and, seeing the car upside down and in the water and with no way of telling how long the car had been there or whether its driver was still alive, plunged straight into the ice-cold water and attempted to rescue Ryan. Zuccerella suffered hypothermia from his exposure and ended up in the hospital; I am awed by his willingness to put his own life in danger for another. The shame of it all is that the two men sound very much alike, and now will never meet. But hats off to Mark Zuccerella – I’ll think of him next time I’m tempted to criticize his colleagues. Him and, to be fair, the various other cops who have responded so ably to the various crises and tragedies that have cropped up in our family over the years.

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