Monthly Archives: September 2006

The “Visit”I’m writing this just a few hours before the arrival of our President and the excitement here in Old Greenwich is high; helicopters overhead, cops on every corner, motorcycle cops and state troopers behind the firehouse, all parking barricaded, and Secret Service agents with a bomb-sniffing dog checking the entire route, including Tig Smith’s port-a-potty. But my excitement was tempered when I learned that, while the President expected to raise $500,000 at the Franz house in Riverside, Greenwich’s tab for police overtime will be $250,000. Add in the costs of those state troopers, a couple of Presidential jets, a squad of secret service agents, lost income by shop owners who lost their customer parking and just general inconvenience and it seems to me we taxpayers could have effected an economy by sending the RNC a check for, say, $10,000,000 and asking that the President stay home. By the way, it’s sort of amusing that everyone in Riverside knew days in advance that the fundraiser was to be held at Scott Frantz’s place while at least two patrolmen I spoke with did not. Odd sort of security when you don’t tell the protectors what they’re protecting, no?

Back to Real Estate
There is a house in Riverside that was for sale by its owner seemingly forever. Many months, if not more than a year – my memory fades. The owner finally gave up and listed it with Maureen Fox of ReMax. She priced it right (sellers tend to over-price their own homes) and had it under contract in a week. So the poor guy ended up paying a 5% commission he didn’t want to, but he also sold his house, which I assume was the ultimate objective. Sometimes, you do get what you pay for.

And Sometimes You Don’t
I saw the strangest house on the open house tour last week. Hugely expensive new construction it held, to my eye, every architectural mistake one could make. It almost seems to have been built as two, separate wings, with most of the bedrooms contained in a odd, warren-like setting that another agent said reminded her of a dentists’ suite. That’s about right. I’d give further details but then you might identify it and I really don’t want to embarrass the owner. Besides if I’m right, and he never finds a buyer at the price he’s asking, he’ll be embarrassed enough. I think my message here is that, if you’re building spec houses in Greenwich be creative but not too much so: most buyers expect a Colonial with a traditional floor layout and you depart from that at your peril.

Apples to Apples
A house on Nearwater Lane sold in April 2004 for $1,285,000 and just resold this month for $1,560,000. It’s often hard to get a grip on price appreciation because so many houses are renovated between sales but this one, if not untouched by its owners, wasn’t changed dramatically. So $275,000 in a year-and-a-half. Not too shabby.

Husted Lane
A building lot at 56 Husted Lane sold for $3,500,000 in August of 2005 and, after its buyers changed their minds, resold last week for $3,250,000. That’s a haircut but probably more indicative of what happens when you try to flip real estate too quickly. I still think no one’s ever lost money on Greenwich houses when they hold for a reasonable period of years (3-4, say) and the Nearwater Lane example shows that you can sometimes get away sooner, but there’s a risk.

Two Good Riverside Houses
Barbie Jackson (Cleveland, Duble & Arnold) has just listed 45 Breezemont for $1,695,000. This is an impeccably maintained house (I’m friends with the owner and boy is he er, retentive) with a decent yard and a huge basement. The current owners converted one of the original four bedrooms to a master bath, which was a smart move but I suspect there’s plenty of expansion space if you care to add on.
Jim Foote (Greenwich Custom Realty) has listed 25 Bayside Terrace for $1,565,000. I’m no fan of split-levels even if, as this one is, they’re called a “colonial ranch” but this has a huge amount of space and feels very livable. Bayside’s a traffic-free dead end street with some highway noise, compensated for deeded access to the water. I liked this house very much.

You tell me, but our bi-weekly listing book has exceeded its printer’s binding capacity and arrived last Friday as two volumes. I don’t believe that’s happened before. Agents I talk to agree that there are plenty of buyers out there making offers but there’s a big gap between what they’re offering and what sellers are demanding. The sellers have history on their side; the buyers the media. We’ll see.


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Smart Money?
While many would-be buyers of smaller homes are sitting on the
sidelines waiting for the world to end and offer up cheap bargains in
housing, Joe Barberi (Soetheby’s) listed a waterfront parcel on
Meadowbank Road in Old Greenwich for $6.9 million (it has a house on
it, but not for long). That was on Thursday; it was gone by Sunday,
buried under multiple offers. There are two ways to look at this:
either folks who can afford to spend $7,000,000 + for land have so
much money that they don’t care about saving it when the price drops
or these heavy hitters, presumably far more financially savvy than you
and I, aren’t expecting the end of the world and are still buying
Greenwich real estate. I believe it’s the latter.

What a House Should Be
Jane Basham (Ogilvy) has just listed a house on the corner of Wilshire
and Lake Avenue that feels absolutely right, to me. It should – I grew
up in a similar, albeit far less fancy house in Riverside, so the
relatively low ceilings don’t strike me as off-putting. This house has
all the rooms necessary to live and entertain in, great ‘flow” as they
like to say, all new mechanicals, a really nice yard of five acres and
a very private swimming pool. It’s not for everyone – if you’re
feeling a tad insecure about your new wealth and think you need a 40′
entrance foyer to prove your importance, you won’t like this place.
But if you’re comfortable with who you are and what you’ve
accomplished in life, this would be a great place to raise a family.

And Then There are Always the Contemporaries.
I was showing a house to a client not long ago and he shook his head
and sighed, “another quirky home from Chris”. I defended myself – I
like interesting houses, and, while some of my favorites are indeed
quirky, I think most of them are just … interesting. That includes
contemporaries, and one was just listed at 327 Stanwich Road that I
liked very much. It’s set back from the road on a acre, has a nice
pool right off the master bedroom and, even on a rainy day, was bright
and cheerful. A little dated, perhaps, and the grounds could use some
upkeep but at an asking price of $1,999,000, there should be room in
the budget for improvements. It’s priced just about at land value, a
sad commentary on the place in the Greenwich marketplace for
contemporaries, so if you prefer this style of house, here’s one for

To Market to Market to catch a Fat Pig?
Sellers reduced prices on 146 houses the past two weeks (compared with
198 new listings that came on). Some of these price reductions were
significant – from $19,000,000 to $14,000,000, for example – but for
the most part, I still don’t see more going on here than a reality
check. Most of these houses were never going to get their original
asking price so when you see one marked down, that’s not really
evidence of a collapse. Where I do see a weakness is in the lower end
of the market (for those of you who bought homes twenty years ago and
haven’t been keeping up, that would be “starter homes” in the $750,000
– $1,000,000 range). They aren’t selling nearly as quickly as they did
even a year ago and they certainly haven’t appreciated in that year.
For example, I priced a house a year ago last spring at $1.050,000. If
I were to price it now, given what’s currently on the market in that
price range, I think I would stick to the same figure. Why is this end
of the market being hit? The speculation among us agents includes
losing buyers to upper Fairfield – much more house for the money and,
with so many employers moving to the Rt. 7 corridor and above, less of
a penalty for the commute. And, as I’ve mentioned here before,
diminished borrowing power – about 15% this year. That has less
effect, I suspect, on the high-end buyers than it does on young
families just starting out.

That’s Parhee to You, Mon Ami
Have you noticed the now obligatory pronunciation guide governing
newscasters’ names for Third World (oh, excuse me, “developing
nations) cities? While Oslo is still Oslo and, Paris, despite my
headline, is still Paris, it is absolutely mandatory to show
solidarity with the world’s poor by garbling their cities’ names in
the local patois. Thus, when a hurricane approached Mehico recently,
good old Acapulco became “Acapoolco” (which, had the hurricane
actually hit, might have been more accurate, I suppose). Assuming
Italy manages to keep its living standard up we can all still refer to
Rome, but keep an eye out: if Fiat fails and the economy tanks, we may
have to revert to Roma.


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The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!
If you believe our mainstream media, the housing market has collapsed and everyone who wants to buy a house should be sitting on the sidelines, licking their chops, waiting to pick up houses for a faint whisper of their asking price. Don’t be stupid. The Greenwich market is okay, and won’t be going anywhere drastic in the foreseeable future. Proof? Eleven houses went to contract on just one day: Friday, August 26. List prices were all over the place, but started at $8,000,000, and ranged down through the $5.9s, $4.9s. etc. People are buying houses here in town; always have, always will. I’ve seen nothing to indicate a fire sale; rather, unrealistic prices have dropped and when they do, they sell. A house that sees a one million dollar price change may cause you to think that the bottom has fallen out but in fact, even a year ago, when the market was robust, many of us probably thought that the price was crazily out of line. Wall Street is enjoying record earnings, bonuses are huge, houses will sell. No one wants to overpay but, if I had to make a generalization, it’s newcomers who are lobbing ridiculous low-ball bids at houses while long time residents, having seen all the cycles and learned that Greenwich prices don’t fall away to nothing, are buying what they want, at rational prices. What with mad Mullahs in Iran planning a nuclear Holocaust and the prospect of Alcee Hastings, the impeached federal judge (bribery) heading our country’s House Intelligence Committee if the Democrats win this November, folks should be nervous about the future. But if you need a house now, this isn’t a bad time to buy.

Family legend has it that my great grandmother on my mother’s side, a sweet, gentle lady from New Orleans who wouldn’t have dreamed of ever uttering profanity, invariably referred to Northerners as “damnyankees”. Her bitter memories of the Civil War may be eased a bit with the news that Kudzu, “the vine that ate the South”, has appeared in Greenwich. This stuff is just awful, according to a Wall Street Journal article I remember reading long ago. It grows incredibly fast, consumes everything it encounters, resists every attempt to eradicate it and now it’s here. Lucky us; I hope my great grandmother is placated.

Speaking of Revenge
When CVS first showed up in town, it bought out and closed down almost all the local pharmacies so as to eliminate competition. Riverside Pharmacy’s owners were told, basically, “we buy you out or we beat you out” so Tony and Marshall sold out and retired. I resented losing two guys who’d known me since I was an infant and when Walgreen’s opened I happily shifted my business there, instead of to CVS. But there’s
always been a problem: Walgreen’s computer database already has a Chris Fountain in its records, an undoubtedly fine, upstanding citizen of Bridgeport. Prescriptions meant for me are assigned to him, doing neither of us any good. I have always been able to correct the confusion before but recently, on the eve of a vacation (you’ll notice the sparcity of real estate news in this column – sorry) I showed up to pick up an order and was told, “sorry, you’re the wrong Chris Fountain”. “No I’m not”, said I, “I’ve given you the name of my doctor (Jeff Weinberger, and if you aren’t using him as your GP you’re missing out on a great one), the drug in question, and the dosage. How would I know all that if I were the wrong patient?” I received the same short shrift from the clerk/pharmacist that the gentleman ahead of me received when his Walgreen discount card was declared inoperative: “You have a problem, call the customer service line. Next!” I don’t blame the clerk’s rude refusal to acknowledge his company’s mistake, and his refusal to even attempt to resolve the problem, on him as much as I do his employer, who understaffs the store and creates the pressure that incubates such behavior (but I have always wondered why, if someone can’t stand people, he or she accepts a customer service job; tax attorneys are notorious for their lack of people skills and we always kept them chained in the back, doing their magic while never letting them meet clients). What’s the solution? None; the days of friendly pharmacists who know who you are long past, but when I return from vacation I’ll have Dr. Weinberger call in a new prescription to CVS and go there. And Walgreen’s will never know why it lost a customer.


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King Merritt Acres
Another agent and I recently discussed this development’s prospects. He predicted that new construction could sell for the low $3’s, which I thought was optimistic. It’s an interesting area because it is one of the few places left to find one acre lots. Some of those lots are too swampy or too close to the Merritt or King Street (whence came the name), but others have flat lawns and sit far enough away from the major roads to enjoy quiet. The current housing stock is being renovated or torn down and some impressive new houses are going up. Prices have soared in recent years, up $1,600,000. Steve Archino recently listed a great house on North Stonehedge for $1,439,000 and watched it sell in a bidding war for $1,500,000 (Steve: now will you quit complaining that I never say anything nice about you?). But will King Merritt support a price in the low 3’s? A new house has just come on and its fate will test my agent friend’s perspicacity.

Nina Robinson has listed 11 Hettiefred Road for $3,375,000. This 4,000 sq. ft. house has a great yard, a huge unfinished basement that has a fireplace and is already plumbed, good quality construction, etc. If anything can sell in this neck of town for the low $3’s, this is probably the one. But on a price-point comparison, similar houses, albeit on far less land, can be found in Riverside. For a family with children at Brunswick or Sacred Heart, this could be a very desirable location. For those who enjoy Tod’s Point, it’s a long way away. As always, it’s the buyers who will decide what this house sells for, not some pontificator. I wish Nina well and I’m sure that every resident of King Merritt who is even considering selling their own house is cheering her on.

Old Greenwich Acres
Another location in town with one acre lots is Hillcrest Park in Old Greenwich. This development has always suffered a bit, in my opinion, for its location north of the Post Road but, now that sewers and public utilities have gone in, it’s getting a lot of favorable attention as buyers focus on the large lots its houses sit on. There are some great old 1890’s buildings here plus a mixture of both regrettable ranches and some nicely renovated 1960’s colonials. The most recent land sale, an undeveloped acre on Hillcrest Lane, was listed last year for $1,350,000 and sold for $1,621,000. A new house is going up on the site. Bill Fossum’s listing at 12 Norton Lane was one of those renovated colonials I mentioned. At $2,395,000 he received several offers and it’s gone to contract. As of this writing, there are two houses for sale in Hillcrest Park, 73 Hillcrest Road, asking $2,349,000 and 9 Hillcrest Lane, $2,595,000. Each is different from the other, each is very nice.

Buyer/Seller Disconnect
Judging from my own experience and that of other agents, there seems to be a large gap between what buyers and sellers expect these days. Buyers, alarmed by screaming headlines in the press, think that prices are going to plunge and if they’re making any offers at all (many are waiting for the coming crash) they come in at truly ridiculous levels. Sellers, as a generality, don’t believe anything untoward is happening and are sticking to prices that might well have worked a year ago but won’t work now. My advice, for whatever it’s worth (I remind you of this column’s title) is that both parties should get real. Yes, the market has slowed (“Existing home sales drop to 2003 levels!” scream the headlines. Third best year, ever, in Greenwich? 2003) but no, we’re not entering a depression. Greenwich prices rarely dip – they do stop appreciating, occasionally, for a brief period, but if you think that you’re going to buy a million dollar house in Greenwich for seven hundred thousand dollars, don’t call your movers just yet. And if you’ve priced your house at a 10% appreciation rate for every year you’ve owned it, you’re not going anywhere soon, either.

Greenwich Mean Time
My latest novel is finally available. East Putnam Variety (next to Starbucks/Whole Foods) has copies and so, soon, will Just Books. If you don’t want to support a local business, you can always enrich A tale of fake Indians who invade Tod’s Point and try to build a casino, it’s loaded with cameo appearances by noted Realtors, corrupt politicians and all my friends. I tried to offend everyone but if I neglected someone, let me know.

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