Thursday, November 09, 2006

The third quarter sales statistics are out and they provide some interesting reading (if you lead a very dull life, that is). Sales are down ( -17.8%) for the year (481 vs. 585) and (- 44.6%) this September vs. September 2005 (31 vs.56). Average price is up 11% for the year ($2,716,737 vs. $2,447, 408) and 18% this September. Days on Market were 73 September 2005, 112 September 2006. So, there’s been a significant slowdown, but notice: prices aren’t collapsing nor will they, in my opinion. Many buyers are sitting on the sidelines waiting for what they expect will be bargain basement prices – I think they’ll be disappointed.

Buy a House?
If you’re still awake after reading all those statistics, here are a few more: there are 555 single family homes for sale as of this writing, compared to 488 the same week last year. That’s a 14% increase in inventory but this past August we were facing an inventory 26% greater than the year before so the trend seems to be improving. Those 555 houses range in price, by the way, from $575,000 (123 Henry Street, Byram) to $39,500,000 (65 Meadow Wood Drive, Belle Haven). You should be able to find something you like somewhere between them.

Price it Right
The sales book also revealed an example of the importance of pricing. Two nearly identical houses on Florence Road were sold last quarter. Each was built in 1963 and renovated in 2001, each had 2,202 sq. ft. One was priced at $875,000 and sold 14 days later for $880,000. The other was originally priced at $925,000 and sold 132 days later for $870,000. The lesson here is that stretching to get that last dollar on a sale will make your house look less attractive than its competition and may cause it to sit lifeless on the market. That’s bad, so don’t do it. Look at the statistics above, recognize that we’re in a slow market and price your house accordingly.

If You Want to Get the Big Bucks
You have to put in big bucks. I toured a $5,500,000 house the other day and remembered another builder’s cutting remark: “he built a nice $3,000,000 house but priced it at $5 ½.” I think that’s not quite accurate but certainly there are details that should be in a house this expensive that were not there: custom closets, for instance, instead of pegboard California ones. Trim molding inside those same closets: don’t know what good it does but the top builders do it. Routered trim panels, instead of window frame build ups. This was a perfectly nice house and it sits on a great piece of land but if I were a buyer at that price level, I’d demand more.

160 Bedford Road
I love this house and the eight acres it sits on but it remains unsold. I assume the house’s age (1932) deters buyers but I visited it with an architect and he came up with several great ideas for building new and incorporating the old. With eight acres in the four acre zone, you could finally build that 45,000 sq. ft. house Bitsy and the boys have When I was there last week I didn’t recognize the place with its broad, sweeping views. Turns out that the tornado that swept through town last summer removed 65 trees. Mother nature’s vacuum cleaner” is how the listing agent describes the process.
Overheard on the Golf Course
No, I don’t play golf but my brother Gideon does (why)and says that he heard a builder complain, “you just can’t make a profit in Greenwich if you buy a property from off the Multi List – you’ve got to buy direct.” Now that’s not true, and I can point out many, many profitable land transactions that Realtors were involved in but here’s my point: what the builder was complaining about was he couldn’t get as good a deal if other people knew about the land and competed with him for it. But what’s bad for a builder/buyer is good for an owner/seller so, when a builder knocks on your door you might want to at least consider exposing your home to the full market, rather than accept the builder’s promise that he’s offering you the best possible price. Sometimes they don't, you know.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Real Estate Advertising
Having tried my hand at it myself, I’ll vouch for the difficulty of writing ad copy for houses. One of the best in our business recently ran an ad boasting that “A River Runs Through It”. I think I get the point but it just doesn’t seem like a selling point, unless you want to go trout fishing in your basement.

Mainstream Media
I don’t watch much television but I’m told one of the nightly news shows has been running a week-long set of stories depicting the horrors of our current real estate market. Young couples facing ruinous mortgage payments and foreclosure, sellers unable to sell their houses, give-backs by builders and on and on. I realize that it’s an election year and the traditional media wants very badly for the electorate to believe that the economy has gone to Hell but mortgage rates are low, unemployment is just about non-existent and Wall Street continues to roll in profits. Even Greenwich’s real estate market has succumbed to this media pressure so our inventory has increased 16% - I don’t think that’s the end of the world. Well priced houses still sell quickly: Ginnie Ridenour’s listing at 48 Carrigleah Drive,a waterfront acre in Riverside, came on at $4,995,000 and went to contract (via John Cooke) almost immediately. In the past two weeks, thirty-five houses went to contract, at (asking) prices ranging from $10,000,000 on down. Some of these were dogs that had lingered on the market for years and finally moved only after their owners dropped their prices by huge fractions but, if you couldn’t sell an over-priced house in 2004, your finally selling it for less money in 2006 is evidence that it wasn’t priced properly to begin with. That’s not evidence of a collapsing market: it’s market forces at work.

10 Audubon Lane
Another agent told me that I had to be certain to view this house because it was so awful. As you might imagine it’s much more fun to write about bad houses than it is good so I scurried over to Bedford Road with gleeful malice in my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I pulled up the driveway and found myself admitting, “not bad”. Things only got worse for me when I entered the house: it’s well built, well laid out and bright and airy. All in all, a very nice house indeed. The only thing that could be held against it, I suppose, is that it’s not a traditional “Colonial” (gasp!) but it’s close enough to that design to be confused for one. Set back off Bedford on a private four acres, asking $4,795,000. Claudia Hirsch of Preferred Properties has the listing.

Real Estate Signs
The Greenwich Board of Realtors is about to crack down on open house signs. It’s early days but the plan may include Realtors paying for the services of a sign confiscator who’d travel around town confiscating signs that violate the law. It’s a start and, with the election about to fade away and with it all the political signs, some improvement is coming. By the way, Bernie Yudain recently posed the same question that’s been plaguing me: has anyone in the history of the world ever switched candidates because of a road sign? I think it’s just a harmless way for parties to put their dumbest, most enthusiastic supporters to work while keeping them from underfoot. It’d be more useful if they prowled Probate Court, looking for dead residents to solicit votes from.

Cookie Cutters
I don’t have many customers in the $10,000,000 range (okay, I don’t have any customers in that range) so I asked a friend who does why every new house on Round Hill and its environs looks identical. Simple: it seems that no trophy wife with a trophy home wants to be shown up, so each must have exactly what her peers have. The builders of these monstrosities know that and build accordingly. Mystery solved. And, just so you’ll know what’s coming, a New Canaan mommy recently told me that the new house I was showing her was inadequate (at 5,400 sq.ft.) because it lacked a second floor playroom for her (only) child. “All the new houses in New Canaan have them”, she informed me and I’m sure she’s right. Look for them in your neighborhood soon.

Friday, March 18, 2005

For What It’s Worth
March 18, 2005
Full Exposure

I’m about to list a very nice house in Riverside whose owner generously offered to let Round Hill Partners hold it as an “exclusive” for thirty days before submitting it to other brokerages in town via the Greenwich Multiple Listing Service. I appreciated the offer—if you sell your own listing you get twice the profit—but I declined because it wouldn’t have been in my client’s best interest.
Valuing a house is an imprecise science; an experienced agent can make a pretty good guess where a particular property should sell based on recent sales of comparable houses and what is currently on the market but the ultimate test comes when the house is put on the MLS and all twenty thousand agents in town can show it to their clients. The market will always correct a mistake in pricing. Too high, and your house will attract no bids. Too low, and any number of people will bid its price to the proper level. And you won’t know that you made a mistake unless and until you expose the house to the entire market.
Some owners understand this. My brother Gideon tells me that recently his firm, Cleveland, Duble & Arnold got a listing because, the owner told them, theirs was the only one out of five firms interviewed who didn’t promise him an “in-house buyer”. The owner wanted the best and highest price for his house and he obviously recognized that the way to achieve this was to offer it to the entire world of buyers.
I am aware of one instance where, after three different firms priced a house in the low-to-mid $4,000,000s, another agent received the listing because he claimed to have a buyer for the property at $5,200,000. He did, too, and the seller profited handsomely, but either the other firms were all wrong or the listing agent sold his own client an over-priced house. Since I wouldn’t trust the agent in question with my pet snake collection I think the latter is more probable, and why would you want to do business with someone like that? If he’ll sell out one client one day, he’s likely to sell you out the next.
In my opinion, the multiple listing service is the best thing to happen to sellers since record low interest rates. While it’s possible that an ‘in-house” buyer will over-pay for your property, in my experience it’s far more likely that you’ll have cheated yourself.

Bidding Wars

Andy Healy of this office recently listed a prime building site in Havemeyer for $929,000. Not surprisingly, a bidding war broke out and the house went for way above its asking price. My own client didn’t win that war—so much for company loyalty, Andy—but I was impressed, again, with the bidding process now becoming common in town. A seller’s attorney—in this case, Tom Ward—draws up a proposed contract with the price and closing date left blank. Interested bidders pick up the contract and have a few days to consult with their own attorney, make any changes they like, fill in their price and return the signed contract with a deposit check. At an appointed hour, the seller’s attorney opens the contracts and whoever has submitted the best bid wins. The seller signs on and voila—the deal has gone to contract.
I like this procedure because it serves both parties’ interests. Sellers benefit because it weeds out insincere bidders and buyers aren’t tormented by “accepted” offers that then get tossed in favor of a later, higher bid. Another benefit: while bidding wars generate a feeding frenzy that often produces a much higher bid than the original asking price sometimes, when informed that they have submitted the winning bid, buyers get cold feet and decline to proceed. The second highest bidder is then offered the property and he starts thinking, “if the first guy doesn’t want it, why do I?” and so on down the line until that wonderful winning price has sunk below the horizon. The signed contract procedure eliminates this risk and locks the price exactly at it’s frenzied highest point. And that’s good for sellers.

Rock’em Sock’em Robots!

I’m told that fisticuffs broke out at a recent open house between two agents angered over each other’s driving skills, or lack thereof. I’m sorry I missed that because it would have livened up an otherwise dull day spent driving around town touring other people’s houses. We often have policemen at open houses to direct traffic. Now, I suppose, they can add maintaining law and order to their job description. Professional Realtor; an oxymoron of the first order.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Market Conditions

In a word, torrid. Thirty-three houses went to contract last week, including some houses that have lingered for literally years. Bidding wars erupted over houses that the owners couldn’t give away last fall and yes, you Cassandras, prices are up. A bit of advice for the MBA’s and their calculators: it is possible—probable, in fact, that houses won’t continue to appreciate at last year’s rate of 24% but that does not mean you should expect cheaper prices two months from now. Greenwich’s market goes flat from time to time but I see no indication that prices will actually drop. And for heaven’s sake, put aside your analysis charts for a moment and consider that you are not buying a Florida condominium (of which an additional 60,000 are due to be constructed this year) you’re looking for a house for your family. If it appreciates, fine, but there are other considerations here than a simple investment decision. Or there should be.

Smart Pricing

21 Rainbow Drive is a very nice house with an unconventional layout: the kitchen is on the second floor. I don’t know why it was built this way but, once you get over the idea of walking upstairs with your groceries, it’s a bright, sunny space that works. The last time it was on the market in 2001 it sat for 111 days before finally selling for $665,000, $134,000 less than its original asking price. Time and the market march on, of course, and today that same house with a conventional floor plan would probably fetch $1,495,000 or so. So how do you deal with the fact that the kitchen’s upstairs? Offer a discount. Angela Swift has priced this house at $1,149,000, leaving plenty of room in that price for a buyer to flip the layout and still have money left over. What will most likely happen, aside from this house selling quickly, is that the new owners will quickly get used to the floor plan and leave everything the way it is. And live happily in their bargain house.

Other Houses of Note

Debby Gardiner’s new listing at 4 Stanwich Lane is priced at $1,795,000, which seems right to me. A nice older house that could use some updating but the street is great and any money you put into this house will be more than repaid. I like it.
When 10 Tyler Lane in Riverside came on the market last fall I liked its location (dead end street) and its spaciousness very much but questioned whether its price of $3,100,000 was justified in view of the poor quality of the interior trim and doors. I didn’t want to embarrass the owners so I didn’t give its address but they identified their house anyway and pulled it off the market to upgrade those items. They have done so and returned it to the market via Liz Johnson. I saw it last week and it’s vastly improved and very nice. Between the improvements and the market’s advance, I’d guess this will sell quickly.


My great grandfather, a builder in New York City in the 1800’s, liked to say that a stairway should be wide enough to swing a coffin in. This bit of wisdom was brought to mind recently when we were obliged to call in a sewer clean out service and discovered that the line trap was located in a crawlspace whose entryway was too narrow to accommodate the router machine. All was well, eventually, but the moral here is that, when building, make sure that you leave adequate access to service all the mechanical and plumbing systems. Another lesson remembered: the very best sewer cleaning service in this area is Kaiser Battistone (not Kaiser Sosa-that’s another story) up in Norwalk. I called them (800-525-6295) late at night, eschewed the emergency number and merely asked that they call back in the morning. They called at 7:30 and had a man at the house by 8:00. The problem was resolved within thirty minutes for a very reasonable (especially considering the alternative) fee. That’s exactly the service they seem to always provide, based on my own previous experience and that of other agents I queried. Good company. Also known as Plumber Rooter.

And Another Item in Bad taste

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at Greenwich Hospital lately as a visitor and have been struck by the absolute atrociousness of the prints on its walls. These things are everywhere: corridors, patients’ rooms, entranceway and they must be hurting the moral of everyone who works or is recovering there. These aren’t “art”, they’re “wall accessories” and are truly dreadful. I’m surprised that an institution that so obviously took pains to build such a splendid new hospital would have used so little care in selecting decorative items. Perhaps some donor can remedy this. Until then, I’ll loan the place my collection of velvet Elvis paintings.

Friday, March 04, 2005

751 North Street

Maureen Crumbine’s had this listing for awhile now and at its current price of $6,500,000 I think it’s probably the best bargain in its price range. Unlike some four acre plots, this one (4.5 acres, in fact) is square, not narrow and long, thereby providing complete privacy from neighbors on either side. The rear is protected from future houses springing up in your backyard because it backs up to the Babcock Property’s 300 acres. That’s the property; the house itself is just as nice and finished beautifully. Great landscaping, top quality finishes inside and a really good price. What’s not to like?

The Highway Differential

Ever wonder how much proximity to the Merritt Parkway takes off a house’s value? I’d say, at least $500,000. At least, that’s what I conclude after viewing Ed Mortimer’s listing at 34 Carrington Drive. This house is huge: six bedrooms, plus a two bedroom cottage, nice high ceilings and high quality new (2000) construction, plus a pool and 3.6 acres. If it were on the other side of the street, I’d place its value at $3.1 million. But it’s not; instead, it backs up to the Merritt. Ed has dealt with this appropriately by pricing the house at $2.6 million and, sooner or later, a buyer will come along who is willing to exchange a bit of noise for the opportunity to live in such a nice house. The irony of this type of situation is that owners who make such a compromise eventually tune out the objection: railroad, highway, whatever and, when it comes time to sell the house, often insist on pricing it as though there were no problem at all. “Highway? What highway? I haven’t heard it for years.” Potential buyers, alas, haven’t acclimatized to the nuisance and they’ll insist on a discount. On a related point, I’m curious to see what those new houses going up on North Street, with their backs to the Merritt, eventually sell for. They look as though they’ll be awfully expensive, and I wonder if they’ll find buyers at the builder’s expected price range.

Public Open House Signs

I unfairly used too broad a brush when I recently condemned “chain store Realtors” for breaking the law governing real estate signs. In fact, only one of the chains does so repeatedly, and that’s Weichert. Every Sunday, their loud yellow signs are posted throughout our neighborhoods and along our highways and Post Road. It’s a cheesy way to advertise a brand name and it’s illegal. So if, like me, you don’t like your neighborhood besmirched, why not call someone, like Diane Fox at the P&Z ,622-7894, or Weichert’s manager, Elsie Pecorin, at 661-5400, and complain?

Frozen Cows?

We had two snow storms while you all were away and I noticed, again, that word of impending snow sends nervous mothers flocking to the supermarkets to stock up on food and, for some reason, endless quantities of milk. Food I understand—the farmers’ crops will be buried and we won’t see their produce until the sun melts the snow cover—but what’s with the milk? People seem to buy it as though the cows won’t be producing again until July. In fact, dear reader, cows are milked every day, twice a day, winter or summer, snow or no snow. They don’t freeze, really. So a day or two’s supply is probably all you need. There is no reason to push one cart ahead of you and tow one behind you, each overflowing with gallons of milk, just because we’re anticipating a bit of snow. Trust me on this.

What is Twenty-three Months, Five Days, Alex?

From the April 4, 2003 edition of this column:
“I see that an oriental rung company on the Post Road is conducting a grand opening sale. How long before order is restored to the universe and it holds its first going out of business sale?”

Your Name is Destiny

According to Greenwich Time, the new head of the Norwalk Aquarium is a woman named Jennifer Herring.

Watch Your Language

Some time ago a friend of mine spent quite a bit of time with a client who wanted to “buy Leona’s place”. The deal never went anywhere (the property is not for sale, as of now) and the would-be buyer disappeared. Until last week, when he resurfaced in the pages of the Wall Street Journal as the alleged kingpin of a massive securities fraud. It’s obvious that, had my friend dug a little deeper into the reference to “Leona’s place” he’d have learned that the man was referring to Bedford Hills, not Dunnellen Hall, and he’d have saved himself a lot of wasted effort.

Friday, February 25, 2005

New Houses

Janie Galbreath (Round Hill Partners) has just listed 3 Woodside Drive in Milbrook for $4.795. A fabulous house, built in 1930 and completely renovated, from wiring to baths and kitchen without losing any of its original grace. Sited on a huge (for Milbrook) yard of 1.65 acres.

Not in Milbrook but overlooking its golf course, Marshall and Mary Ann Heaven are building a house at 35 Morningside Drive that I thought was very nice. It’s on a half-acre lot and is being built to a top-end level of finishing. Four bedrooms, six thousand square feet of house which includes, I believe, the huge finished basement. It’s been withdrawn from the market but I assume it will return soon.
I also liked Carolyn Anderson’s $859,000 listing at 8 Kent Place in Cos Cob. This is a smallish older house in great shape with a decent yard and nice location (Kent is a dead end off of Orchard). Original doors and moldings from 1928, lots of light and, probably, room to expand on the third floor.

Gary Silberberg (Intriguing Realty) coaxed me into driving over to the west side of town to look at his listing at 8 Seton Lane and I’m glad he did. A confession: fifty years in town, and I’d never seen this particular subdivision. I like it. There is a series of quiet, lightly-trafficked streets, many of which, like Seton, are dead ends. Some of the houses back up to the Byram River and all are modest, but in good condition. 8 Seton Lane is priced at $875,000; if that’s representative of the neighborhood’s pricing then the whole area looks like good starter home territory. Obviously all this is not news to its residents but it was to me.

A Hunting We Will Go

A joke circulated through Wall Street years ago which, because this is a family newspaper, I can only paraphrase: the basic story line involves a bear hunter who keeps returning to the woods despite a worsening infliction of indignities by a bear. On the hunter’s final expedition Mr. Bear sneaks up behind him, taps him on the shoulder and asks, “you didn’t really come here to hunt bears, did you?” I’m reminded of this joke because we Realtors often encounter people who “bid to lose”. These are clients who, time after time, bid enough on a house that they look like serious bidders but always fall just short of submitting a bid large enough to actually buy the place. This quirk of human nature is not restricted to house buying. I observed the same thing when I was a trial lawyer – a case could be settled at a price that screamed out in economic sanity yet one side wouldn’t budge. Always, it was because there was some non-economic issue in play: figure out what that was, and, sometimes, the case could be resolved. Of course, legal cases had an obvious way to end these ambiguities: try the sucker and see what a jury had to say. In real estate, the matter usually dies a slow, whimpering death. The house goes to a higher bidder, the buyer is priced out of the market by rising prices and he disappears. So the moral of all this, I suppose, is that you’ve been trying to buy a house and keep getting shut out, do a bit of internal examination and determine if you’re really bear hunting or just out for a nice stroll in the woods.

Wall Streeters

At the risk of offending my core clientele, the worst offenders of the “bid to lose” game are Wall Streeters who are convinced, all evidence to the contrary, that the market will soon drop and fear that they’ll look like chumps for paying anything close to the asking price. I made a comfortable living for a decade inflicting financial punishment on these people for pushing high-tech stock companies on widows and orphans as “can’t miss” investment opportunities. Had I limited my practice to suing real estate agents who recommended Greenwich real estate as a good investment I’d have starved. Greenwich real estate appreciated 24% last year and has been going steadily up since approximately 1880. So when somebody who thought that companies with no earnings were worth fifty times the market value of General Motors now tells me that he’s too smart to buy Greenwich real estate, I don’t necessarily listen.

Fair is Fair

I enjoy poking fun at our town’s police department from time to time—a holdover from a rebellious youth, probably. But we recently had a medical emergency in my household and had to call 911. The responding officer and two EMTs couldn’t have been more competent, reassuring and caring. We’re fortunate to have such high quality people working in town and I am aware of that. But really, arresting a guy for cross-country skiing on a golf course?

Friday, February 18, 2005

211 Orchard Street

I was prepared to dislike this new house, even though its stuccoed exterior is a refreshing departure from the now almost obligatory pseudo-Victorian shingle style, because it seemed to be crammed in next to its neighbor. But once inside, all doubts departed. The house is sited and designed to take full advantage of the Pomerance property behind it, with the rooms all opening up to private, bucolic views of woods and fields. You’ll never notice your neighbors and can pretend they don’t exist. The quality of finish is exceptional (I might ditch the chandeliers, but that’s just a disagreement in taste). Built and listed by David Van Hoesen.

Tear Down or Renovate?

Almost every day sees yet another clawed machine ripping down a house and tossing it in a dumpster. The seeming wastefulness of all this offends my Yankee sense of thrift but, in fact, not many of the houses leaving town as landfill are going to be missed. Their small bedrooms, low ceilings and middling quality were fine in their day, but that day has passed. Having renovated two houses of my own, I don’t believe that there’s money to be saved by remodeling; it can cost more, actually, and you end up with such a mush of compromises that you’ll wish you wiped the slate clean and started from scratch.

But not always. Karp Associates is just about finished renovating 42 Owenoke Way in Riverside and they’ve done a beautiful job. They bumped out the back and added on a bit in front to allow for a new large kitchen and master suite but from the street the house looks almost unchanged. Listing agent Randy Keleher walked me through it the other day and I was impressed by the exceptional quality of the construction and the creative means Karp employed to blend old with new. Did they save money by not dumpstering the original building? Probably not, but Arnold Karp told me he tries to avoid angering neighbors when he can. I didn’t canvass those neighbors but I hope they’re pleased with the results.

Another point: 42 Owenoke is an over-sized lot, which allowed for expansion. Our town’s FAR regulations, I think, encourage tear-downs on smaller lots because there’s just no room to build around the original structure. So if you are one of those residents who objects to what’s going down, I suggest that you direct your comments to the P&Z (which is presently in the process of making up still-more-restrictive rules rather than demonstrating that they’ve learned anything from their FAR fiasco).

Changing Times

The late Tom Watson’s house on Field Point Circle came on the market the other day and, as I toured it, I was struck by the completely different sensibilities this man lived by. Although it sits on two acres of direct waterfront at probably the most prestigious address in Greenwich I’d still describe the house as modest. It’s a low slung, comfortable dwelling but that’s it. Mr. Watson was obviously quite at ease with who he was and with his place in the world and felt no need to shout his importance by building one of the big box homes so popular today. I was very impressed.

And I was impressed, too by the fact that, even though its asking price is $18,250,000, the listing agent, Ken Yorke of Shore & Country told me that his appointment book for showings was already overflowing. There’s a lot of money in this town, if you hadn’t noticed.

The Homestead Inn

Due to good fortune and the generosity of David Ogilvy I had an opportunity to dine at the Homestead Inn the other night with my daughter Sarah. Spending someone else’s money on myself was wonderful—I felt like Dennis Kozlowski buying shower curtains—but the meal itself was even better. The dining room was quietly lit, the service was perfect; completely unobtrusive yet there instantly when, say, a water glass is emptied. The food was every bit as good as I’ve heard and, for the value delivered, I thought fairly priced. Dinner for two, including appetizers but before tip was $112.00 (neither Sarah nor I are desert buffs or drinkers so your results may vary). I had expected a stuffy atmosphere but the entire experience couldn’t have been warmer or more comfortable. So thank you, David.

Crime Wave Halted in its Tracks!

In a startling display of heads-up crime busting Greenwich Police have arrested a New York State man for X-country skiing on the Griff Harris golf course, thereby preventing a non-resident planting ski tracks in the snow. No word of any progress on the string of burglaries hitting Back Country residents but with this dangerous miscreant safely locked away I’m sure the police will be turning their attention up there, any day now.