Can’t find what you want? Build new!

It’s hard to believe, but out of all the new houses sitting vacant and begging on the market, I’m finding it difficult to locate one that meets one of my client’s criteria: good street, great land, not huge, good family living space. Most of the spec houses are built on marginal land purchased when builders thought buyers would settle for anything. They might have once, they won’t now. And many are simply gargantuan – 13,000 sf and bigger, too big for many buyers’ taste today. If you’re in the same boat, may I suggest that you consider building what you want? Builders are much cheaper than they were, far less busy and materials cost less. It’s a great time to build, if you can find the right land.

228 Round Hill Road

228 Round Hill Road

This is probably the prettiest land I’ve come across recently. 4.6 acres next door to Sabine Farm’s fields, beautiful white pines leading up to it and rolling lawn behind. Just great. The house that sits on it now is a perfectly nice Peter Ogden contemporary, circa 1980. I like it a lot but Ogden designs, once hugely popular in town in the 60s and 70s, are being torn down as fast as they’re discovered. I feel for a man whose life’s work is being extinguished like so many birthday candles but sic transit gloria and all that. It would be a very comfortable place to live in while you work up plans for a replacement.

Asking price is $5.1 million, which isn’t crazy for a Round Hill address and this much land in the RA-2 zone, but now’s the time to negotiate land prices, too. There are other parcels out there but none quite so nice, so convenient to town. This could be an excellent buy (and no, it’s not my listing).

25 Comments

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25 responses to “Can’t find what you want? Build new!

  1. anonymous

    Great, plentiful land like this…and a superbly built 6000 sf house (even at $1000/sf) is likely <$11MM

    Far more impressive outcome than any of the McMansion specs w/similar or far greater (ask) pricing

    • christopherfountain

      I wouldn’t dare vouch for actual dollar figures today but I absolutely agree that a superb, modestly-sized (for Greenwich) house on this land would be a much wiser use of one’s money than most of the spec houses out there. Hey, Walt, if you have any of that FGG money left over, would you send some my way? I’d like to build a house.

  2. Anonymous

    Chris,

    I’m new to the Greenwich market. Can you explain the difference between good and bad land? What’s marginal land? What’s ideal?

    Thank you.

    Anon

    • christopherfountain

      “Ideal” land is, naturally, what a buyer wants and likes. If you want to live in deep woods, a Little House on the Prairie feel is not for you. But marginal is easier to spot – 40 Zaccheus Mead Lane, for instance, is a huge whopper of a house crammed onto a postage stamp -sized yard. The bulk of its 4 acres is either streambed, swamp or steep wooded hillside. That’s probably acceptable for a weekend home in New Hampshire, but not so popular in Greenwich-suburbs. People expect a yard out here. The house started at or around $12 million, is down now in the 7s and still no buyers. There’s a less expensive house on Pecksland Road. Nice renovation, $1 million less than its first price so it’s down around $2 million now, but its backyard is a swamp. Bad idea.
      Greenwich likes yards, generally. 26 Circle Drive went to contract at $2 million or so this week while a similar house, very nicely built and also priced around $2, sits unsold. I credit the difference with the huge back yard on Circle. Obviously the size of a yard will vary with the zoning area, but bigger is better.
      And what’s next to that yard? There’s a spec house on North Street that has the Merritt Parkway behind it and the entrance to the parkway on its side. I’d call that a marginal building lot. How about the street? Birch Lane and Byfield are perfectly nice streets but buyers, so far, have resisted the charms of some $9-$12 million spec houses, probably because of the modest-sized neighboring homes. There’s a spec house going up on North Maple across from the Steeple Church that’s asking $5 million plus. It looks like a beautiful home but (a) it’s on a very busy street, (b) it sits down from the road and (c) the houses directly behind it are in no way of comparable value. That’s a marginal lot, in my opinion.
      If you really want to see the difference, arrange a visit to this Round Hill property and walk the land, then go up the street and look at 14 Baldwin Farms South, currently waiting for the bankers to call in the loan. Baldwin’s builders carved a building site out of rock and swamp. Nice house but you’ll see immediately: marginal land.

  3. Jane

    Wow. Loaded question from anon. Tread lightly.

  4. christopherfountain

    Just before I head for safety, here are some quickie marginal land thoughts:
    Swamps, best house on mediocre street, flag lots, rear lots, no lots (another on S. Baldwin has a pond but no yard – no good), traffic, airplane noise, inconvenient location (way, way up on Riversville Road, for instance), unpopular street (Kings Street, eg), inferior school district (all schools in Greenwich are of equal, outstanding quality – I’m required to say that by law), flood zone, crummy neighborhood (all neighborhoods in Greenwich are of equal, outstanding quality – I’m required to say that by law), etc. etc. Look around, you’ll get the idea, even if builders don’t.

  5. anonymous

    Very helpful summary, CF

    Would rather spend scarce money on good land…hard to ever fix bad land

    And would rather spend bucks on a well-designed/built smaller house with latest technologies (insulation, glass, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, etc) and refined finishes

    Supersized houses seem to almost always suffer from marginal land and/or build quality, no matter cost….not to mention someone else’s sense of aesthetics (or lack thereof)

  6. SizeBuyer

    Now Now CF, let’s not forget…

    The two fine attributes:

    1. Shared driveways
    2. Non-conforming lot sizes

  7. Anonymous

    Wow. Excellent analysis. This is great information. Now I know why it’s best to acquire the services of a buyer’s broker and simply not contact the listing broker directly in the hope of acquiring a property at a lower price and on more favorable terms (i.e., broker’s incentive in not having to split a commission). At the bubble’s peak this was often a very effective strategy when buyers were pressured to make above asking offers on the spot at the first open house. I’ve done this in the past and always failed to take into consideration other important variables. Big mistake.

    As your analysis astutely proves its necessary to acquire the skills and services of a broker who can provide an honest assessment of a prospective property. That extra set of experienced eyes is invaluable in the long run because someday you will decide to sell and future informed buyers will invariably discount your home in the same fashion. This will be especially critical should you find yourself in a challenging market.

    I know some of you might be thinking, “Duhhhh..” but us city dwellers really don’t have a firm grasp of the suburban real estate metrics. I know so many Manhattanites who got burnt on their first suburban home. We have a tendency to focus more on the exterior appearance and physical living space without taking into adequate consideration the critical intangibles with respect to land and surrounding area (as you so aptly described in your response). We often venture to Greenwich and think that all neighborhoods and schools districts are the same. Land quality? Never crossed my mind: “I just want big house!”

    Thank you Chris. You probably saved me a few hundos/mills. I’m still kicking the tires but when I’m ready to pull the trigger, I’ll be sure to call on you.

  8. CRB

    You totally summed up the marginal lot situation in Greenwich. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the houses on the market right now are on marginal lots. No yard, busy street, unusable land or monster house that doesn’t fit the neighborhood. Building is looking better and better. We’ll keep looking….

  9. pulled up in OG

    When the lawn service trucks pull into the neighborhood, EVERY lot is marginal.

  10. Cos Cobber

    wow, anon 7:47 that is an honest assessment of one’s self.

    gee-whiz, wouldn’t the town of greenwich like to have a bus load of indiscriminate manhattanites (citiots?) right about now to soak up some marginal lot spec houses.

  11. Anonymous

    “way way up on riversville road” is not a bad location. It’s just 2 minutes from I-684.

    • christopherfountain

      Riversville Road (and upper Bedford) are great locations with some beautiful houses but if you live up there you’ll probably shop in Armonk, use the Hudson train line and, generally, have a more Bedford-oriented lifestyle than a Greenwich one. I love the area and it wouldn’t bother me to be 15 minutes from the Avenue – I don’t shop there- or from my children’s friends’ houses – my kids are grown – but I would maintain that upper Riversville is “marginal” when it comes to assessing its value – if marginal is too harsh a term, try this: which is worth more, lower Round Hill or upper Riversville?

  12. Realtor1

    Don’t disagree with the lifestyle assesssment on upper Riversville but the land quality and the homes built there is anything but marginal. Some of the prettiest piece of land in Greenwich can be found there, as well as some of the best estates. Although Zaccheus Mead is much desired, that entire area is a mosquito breeding ground. (Of course most of Florida’s great estates are buuilt on swamp land…).

  13. CEA

    “Swamps, best house on mediocre street, flag lots, rear lots, no lots (another on S. Baldwin has a pond but no yard – no good), traffic, airplane noise, inconvenient location (way, way up on Riversville Road, for instance), unpopular street (Kings Street, eg), inferior school district, flood zone, crummy neighborhood ”

    OK – out of curiosity for your readers and myself – which are the most detrimental to lot quality, and which least?

    (it is my opinion that just about all houses have some feature or location that isn’t ideal, save for a very few – maybe 10% of the housing stock; but you know the area far better than I!)

    CEA

    • christopherfountain

      CEA – you’re right – all houses have compromises built in, and the extent of that compromise is so personal that I’d hate to what’s worse. I, for instance, couldn’t stand – could not stand – living next to I-95, yet plenty of people do, as you’ll notice as you drive up that road. On the other hand, I’m not awfully bothered by Merritt noise and, if the price were right, would consider living in a house that was exposed to it. Others wouldn’t. Swamps? I like them, but a family with kids probably wants a big yard for them to play on, if they can afford it. Ponds? One house on S. Baldwin has a pond for its back yard – not a deal breaker for me but the lack of any other yard isn’t helping it sell. 14 S. Baldwin has a tiny back yard and a swamp for a front yard and that didn’t work out, but at the right price, someone will say, “what swamp?”
      Kids in private school or grown up? School district won’t matter until re-sale time. Neighbors peering into your bathroom from their own house? Not for a lot of people, but if you want to live in Old Greenwich, that’s the price you’ll pay.
      All that said, if you tour houses in the same price range, you’ll see a few, if you’re lucky, that are on lots you like and far more that simply won’t support a house in its price range.

  14. anonymous

    Perhaps most efficient to have a vision for one’s ideal setting and home (vs own lifestyle) and be able to discuss w/a savvy realtor like CF and a well-regarded local architect (who is familiar w/local issues) to quickly screen pieces of land for buildability, both technically and aesthetically

    Many (at least on SF Peninsula) who choose to build >$10MM houses also hire a project manager, effectively a COO employed by the homeowner, to supervise the architect and contractors throughout the process….esp to make sure pricing, quality and timing are maintained within budget

    Not cheap, but arguably far more efficient value for one’s money (and time) than 99+% of the $10MM+ McMansions out there….

  15. Anonymous

    Speaking of the ability to use one’s backyard, how big of a mosquito problem does Greenwich have? Do you have the Asian Tiger Mosquito (fast attacking black mosquito with white stripes – very predatory)? Are certain parts of Greenwich more problematic/susceptible then others? Do Greenwich mosquitoes nest more around swamps or ponds? If a problem what is the town doing about it?

    I ask because some of my suburban friends have huge problems with the Asian Tiger Mosquito, to the point where their backyards are non-functional for most of the summer.

    Please share your thoughts? I’m looking in Greenwich but I’m very concerned about living too close to swamp land, ponds and lakes.

    • christopherfountain

      Well we have a slight problem each spring with mosquitos until the yellow jackets swarm and sting them to death. Then we have another problem ….
      Nah, just kidding! Mosquitos? I suppose we do have them, but nothing like the Arctic Circle, Maine or a few other spots I can think of (Florida comes to mind). No Asian Tigers or whatever here. We’ve got some damn plague that knocks off birds now and then but I can’t say I’ve ever been bothered by it nor do I know anyone who has. The first few ministers of what is now the First Congregational Church are reported as having died of malaria but that was in the 1600s and hasn’t been a problem in a copule of 100 years (DDT helped). Back Country types are probably right to be worried about Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks, but again, I spend a lot of time in the woods and haven’t succumbed yet.
      You want nasty, biting insects? I suggest Bangor Maine in May. Or New Hampshire. Down here, it seems the insects can’t afford the rent.
      But we are, if not country, not urban either, so we have trees, grass, swamps and creeks. Insects like that sort of stuff. A liitle bug repellant (I recommend pure 100% Deet but hysterical mommies may prefer it diluted – your choice- Deet poisoning or Lyme Disease or Asian Tiger flu) and Bob’s your uncle. No worries, mate, and all that.
      Of course, I also ride my bicycle without a helmet, so you should take my lack of concern with a grain of salt. If you don’t like salt, you could always light a cigarette and keep the little buggers away by staying in a cloud of smoke!

  16. Anonymous

    Consider yourselves lucky. Google “Asian Tiger Mosquitoes”. They are a huge problem in NYC. They are bigger than your average mosquito. They are black with white stripes. They attack and sting repeatedly. They are very difficult to kill – fast as hell. They even sting through clothes. Swat at them and they simply outmaneuver you and continue the attack; by then you have about six new ones on the hunt. Simply relentless. My backyard is infested due to still water in my neighbor’s yard. After 10 minutes in my yard, you’ll have about 20 bites. Nothing stops them. Not bug repellent spray. Not citronella candles. Horrific. I’m selling my Manhattan townhouse and moving to either Westchester or Greenwich/New Canaan area just to get away from them.

    • christopherfountain

      Asian Tiger Mosquitos, eh? Well I don’t want to sound gloomy, but if the critters can survive in New York I’d think they’ll love Greenwich. Bummer.

  17. Wish I'd done this

    For the Anonymous who is new to the Greenwich market:

    In parts of town with properties of 1 or 2 or more acres, many two-lane roads that have an attractive “country lane” look to them are actually very heavily travelled, and do not have continuous paths or shoulders next to them. If you’re eyeballing a house in a country lane-type location, give the immediate area a tryout or two by jogging or biking or dog-walking at the times you would normally want to do so, for example, or taking the perspective of a child (if you have or plan to have any) who wants to roam the neighborhood by foot or bike. If we’d done this we wouldn’t have chosen a house that had a Currier & Ives setting but where we were essentially prisoners of our own yard.

  18. Anonymous

    Thank you. Extremely helpful.