Bring back the back country?

Huge house on the prairie

There are currently 28 houses built since 1995 (40, 1980 and later) on four – to- ten acres, priced at $4.795 and up. Almost all of those are north of the Merritt in the back country and almost all are on what I’d call marginal and their broker might call less-than-optimal land. These are the product of the break up the estates that once comprised our back country and at least to my eye, aren’t an improvement on what was there.

Fudrucker and I were discussing the fate of these homes and Frankie posited, and I agreed, that the market for a huge house on four acres of so-so land located at the extreme edges of Greenwich is limited now and will probably decline from here. If we’re right, then who will want these things? Maybe, we thought, some super-rich types who’d buy them up on the cheap and reassemble the original estates. After all, four acres of rocks and swamp aren’t much use standing alone, but if that acreage is part of a 100-acre estate, they could add to the privacy of the main house.

An experienced realtor I know predicted almost twenty years ago that the mega-mansions sprouting like deformed mushrooms in the back country would be white elephants in the future. The builders paid no heed because buyers kept snapping them up, but I thought that realtor was right back then and nothing that’s occurred since 2007 makes me think he’s wrong now. Lifestyles are changing, and the idea of a forty-minute cruise to deliver a child to her travel team lacrosse game has lost its appeal; I don’t know why it ever held any appeal in the first place, but that’s another matter. Will that desire to live in the hinterlands return? Not so you could tell from my clients, who typically specify that they won’t consider living north of the Merritt, and not so you could tell from sales up there, which are languishing.

Younger friends of mine tell me stories about their parents who built huge palaces up on our northern border and now that their children have grown and left the nest, are rattling around in 10,000 square feet of builder’s bad taste,  wishing they could move. But they can’t – they aren’t even putting their houses on the market, because there is no market – not for these.

All of which is a gross generalization, of course, but that’s how I see it from down here. If I’m right, it will be interesting to see what happens. I’m rooting for my scenario, the one that puts the large estates back and the MacMansions scraped off the face of the earth. That may not happen, but what else will people do with these unwanted homes?

I suppose that as the town’s population ages we’ll see a demand for more nursing homes. And there’s always the idea of elder hostels floating around. Or, assuming Malloy stays in power, Section 8 housing crammed past our zoning laws – now that would be amusing. Stay tuned.


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29 responses to “Bring back the back country?

  1. InfoDiva

    Couldn’t they be marketed to Manhattan dwellers as second homes? It’s a lot easier to get to backcountry Greenwich than it is to Litchfield.

  2. InfoDiva

    I just wanted to add that I lived up there for a while when my kids were small; I agree that having to drive five miles to get a quart of milk gets old quickly. On the other hand, I could never see the appeal of a house so close to others that you could see and smell what your neighbors were having for dinner. Or, for that matter, a house with a dank, sump-pumped basement–and I hear that there are quite a few of them in Riverside and OG.

    Give me mid-country, “golden-triangle” Greenwich any day.

  3. anonymous

    As a middle aged type who does not necessarily play well with others, I have long thought the solution to my old age living situation would be to get together with four or five long time friends or couples of similar ilk and buy a big old house and create our own elder care commune. One nurse, one cook, one housekeeper, shared four or five ways. Separate and communal living space. Maybe live large and have a couple of locales in our elder commune.. here and say Santa Barbara. Would have to get through zoning etc, but one of those monster family houses might work.

  4. Anonymous

    anon, we haven an acquaintance who did just that out in california. it’s a big private home, converted to what is essentially a retirement “home,” if you will. the costs are somewhat staggering (several k a month at minimum), but if you’re 70+ years old and don’t give a s^$! about leaving your snot-nosed kids and grandkids much money from a lifetime of savings (and let’s say you sell your big paid off home and net a million or two), go ahead and live large. spend it, ’cause you can’t take it with you. besides, obama needs the sales tax revenue.

  5. Anonymous

    Agree with InfoDiva. Assuming equal prices, I would always prefer the privacy afforded some of the lots in the mid and back-country. But everyone’s different. Chris has made the point before: the different neighborhoods are part of what makes Greenwich especially appealing – you can choose what you want and value.

  6. Fred2

    “As a middle aged type who does not n…..”

    I’m sure zoning laws & Obama care will strictly prohibit anything so intelligent.

  7. Reader

    Curious if you think this will apply to Conyers as well. Lots of big houses. A long way from town. An expensive association. But mostly on beautiful land. What do you think?

    • I had dinner at a fund raiser up there recently (as a guest, not a paying customer) and sat next to a very nice older couple who lived in the development. They told me that several large homes were “quietly for sale” – not listed on the MLS – but so far, no takers. Make of that what you will.

  8. Anonymous

    What constitutes the “golden triangle” in GAR speak? Sounds vaguely kinky.

  9. market

    what is market for birch ln?

  10. Chris, Do you think the (admittedly dwindling number of) older large and well proportioned and updated pre-war larger homes in backcountry on 4+ acres have a future? Its sad to see these beauties decline in market value alongside the garish newer McMansions. I have often cruised up Round Hill and Riversville and Bedford Roads dreaming of how great these roads would look without the 1990’s-2000’s spec homes wedged in between the old estate homes!

    • I don’t know, Sunny. I completely agree with your taste but we’re not – I’m not, at any rate – the ones buying these houses and younger people prefer younger homes. Which I understand, but I do wish the new homes could somehow encompass the grace and charm of the homes they’re crowding out. It doesn’t seem impossible but it’s rare to see it done.

  11. fred

    Wondered what all the whining was about, then looked at a map.

    Living in Greenfield Hill in Fairfield, near the Merritt, it takes me no lie, 8 minutes to get to the train. I thought it would be the same for near the Merritt in Greenwich.

    Then I saw the big loop up in 15.

    So, how long is the drive.

    And, if I guess the prices fall enough up there, you will get the people who live in Fairfield, but always wanted to afford Greenwich to come back down.

    • That big loop is known down here as “Rockefeller’s Loop” because, legend has it, Mr. Rockefeller wouldn’t let the new highway run through his estate. Who argued with a Rockefeller, then – 1930 – or now? Hence the detour. As for drive time to the train, listing agents will swear it’s the same 8 minutes you enjoy in Greenfield Hill. I’d allow 20 minutes, minimum, but then, I don’t have any houses to sell up there.

  12. InfoDiva

    I’ve always thought that the so-called “golden triangle” were the streets from Lake Ave on the west to North Street on the east, and roughly Greenwich Academy to the south and Grahampton to the north. But what do I know? I’ve only lived in town for 30 years; you really should ask someone who has been here a while.

    • If it’s anywhere south of the Merritt, north of I-95 and east of Port Chester, if a realtor has a house there she wants to sell, it’s in the “Golden Triangle”.

  13. I agree that the MacMansions are fast becoming white elephants, and who in their right mind would want either the typical structural mishmash or the commute that you reference. Heating alone is pretty scary. But what about the MacNuggets that builders are putting up all over Old Greenwich? They are designed to look oversized, but really aren’t (eg no attic). I don’t know why I used the word “designed” because they seem to be mini style mishmashes, and a blight on the character of a pretty nice part of Greenwich(even if I have seen my neighbors in their underwear). I like my old house. It is one of the first houses built on the street. Great neighborhood, great location. Worth every penny.

  14. Cos Cobber

    And dont forget Cos Cob’s tin rhombus.

  15. Know Your Place

    Nothing like an impressive back country mansion with all that land to bring out the green-eyed monsters in those who have to live in the servant quarters in other parts of Greenwich.

    • Well that’s the idea, Know, and it explains why we see so many huge houses perched on little scraps from the once-truly-great estates, guarded by gates to keep the riff-raff out and illuminated by night so that that same crowd of the unwashed will see, and marvel at, the importance of the man who lives there. Of course, with his windows shut and the air conditioning on that master of his own tiny universe can’t hear us plebeians snickering at his pretension and his folly, but that’s a feature, not a bug.

  16. Know Your Place

    I’d extend to you an offer to come up and stay for a few days at a back country estate and wager you would never want to return to your current quarters. You’d resent every subsequent day you had to endure back in your squalid conditions.

    • Sorry, but now that Cliff and I are buds I’ve raised my standards for where I hang out. You got Secret Service guys there to protect the house? Do you have a friggin’ BAT CAVE, you loser?
      Go wander around your cheap empty house yourself, wondering how you blew it. Reflection can do wonders for even the dullest dullard.

  17. Fred2

    That’s a thing I found odd about Greenwich. Lots of money, but little architectural style. There were a LOT of multi-million dollar homes that frankly looked like they’d been ripped out of plan book without any reference to the lot, the street, , new england, or frankly any note of an architect sitting down and getting proportions right.

  18. anonymous

    Back to the elder commune idea, to buy into Edge Hill on the Greenwich/Stamford border, or for that matter Casa Dorinda in Montecito (Santa Barbara), the up front costs are half a million to a million and the monthly nut is multiple thousands. Re-purposing some of these back country white elephants for a smaller self chosen self governing group living structures is in the same ballpark. Either option is far more thrifty than carrying one’s own house and elder support staff privately (I did it for my late parents – trust me on this one!). In the UK it is not uncommon to see some of these big old piles, particularly in more suburban areas, converted into three or four discreet condos within the main house and former outbuildings on a preserved communal landscape. “The Columns” on Old Church Road is one such project here in Greenwich.

  19. anonymous

    Here is an expired Zillow listing for a unit at the aforementioned “Columns” 2 Old Church Road…

  20. Anonymous

    Get rid of McMansions??? You’d lose half the housing stock in Olde Greenwich and Riverslide! I say get rid of the Goddam Yuppies.

  21. Guest

    Birch Lane to answer the questioner above is pretty hot.
    It was a street of modest homes but is becoming transformed to a street of large homes – some new and some totally added to and remodeled. It is funny because the street at some points is bordered by non-residential areas – a school, a nursery and at one point a cemetery. Birch Lane is pretty, but many other streets in Greenwich are much prettier. None of this seems to affect the desire of people to buy and build expensive homes on this street.
    Birch Lane is a high premium street for the rebuilt houses. People actually make money on a rebuild or a teardown on Birch Lane. Today these are not builders. They are end users of the homes.
    The reason for this popularity seems to be that It is hard to find a house on a quiet street, no noise, in a good school district, on at least an acre, where you and your kids and walk or ride a bike a long way, and not have to get on a busy street, in Greenwich. Today, it seems that people actually prefer the one acre to two. Two acres seems to be too spread out for the tastes of some people today, and relative values in the Town reflect that. Two acre lots have declined in value relative to a street like Birch Lane over the last few years.
    The price structure on Birch is that the smaller older homes are bargains. You do not pay much for the homes. The rebuilds are $3 million or more. They are expensive.