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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Catskills in Time of CoronaVirus - 3-29-2020, Catskills Real Estate

So Says Wesley Clair Mitchell, economist, in his 1913 book, Business Cycles - "In that organic cycle, entrepreneurs who think business conditions will improve become 'centers of infection and start an epidemic of optimism'. That optimism leads to a 'flood tide of prosperity' which washes away caution, creating euphoria that culminates in a crash, which, in turn, clears the way for recovery. Lather, rinse, repeat"
Or said another way, when the tide goes we see who is not wearing shorts. So while the current virus is the cause, the pain is acutely felt since optimism abundant, and business owners were forgetting that all economies have cycles, defined mostly by thinking that either 'this time was different' or that you will be the one that finds the chair when the music stops, like the Bob Dylan song from the early '60's where everyone thinks they will be the one that survives the nuclear holocaust and will be roaming the earth alone.

You know things have changed when you discover your ex-wife trying to smuggle two rolls of toilet paper out of your house disguised as fake boobs while picking up her kid.  Busted, she then shamelessly offered cooking/hosting a modern family Sunday night dinner, which I accepted, for one roll, not two.

And when you go to the grocery store - where the shortages were supposed to be because of the initial run on food goods - but each time you go the shelves are a little more bare.  The journey to the grocery store brings all sorts of thoughts to mind.  1, super interesting what is, and isn't being bought.  I'm glad Campbell's tomato soup, one of my favorite meals with a sandwich since I was 10, seems to be not a widely shared soup fetish, for while the soup area was mostly barren, the tomato soup was fully stocked - so I did what you do in those situations - I bought 3x more than I was going to.

In fact, even though I'm worried about shortages, and only have to feed me, my son and my dog, the scarcity caused an almost instinctual desire to hoard.  Why buy one, when you can buy 3?

Paper products - paper towels and toilet paper - have been gone for weeks.  Are they available on Amazon, I'm not sure?  But I'm self rationing, and trading my stock for valued goods and services.  I probably won't do it, but I could - since i buy the thickest 4ply offered in the marketplace, I could self-separate the layers, reroll them, and sell them off.  I'm sure there would be howls of protest, but a simple replay, beggars can't be choosey, should do the trick.

Interestingly, all this sitting at home has reduced my urge to spend money.  When things are rolling and I'm busy all day, I don't think twice about 1 stop shopping on Amazon, for items large and small.  And it's not really for budgeting reasons, it just seems like slowing down and staying put had an impact on my desire to binge buy, that random consumerism lost its glow for now.  I mean, truth be told, I really don't need much at this point, so it's just gluttonous anyway.

I haven't had a toaster in years - but this time at home has really driven home the point that using the broiler in the oven is a waste of time, and I end up over toasting most things, had an oven fire the other night when I forget to take out the Naan bread while talking to my sister, and I end up burning my hand on the cotton-picking broiler coils which hurts like a son of bitch.

I picked a retro model, with a top heating grill and cool gauge.

Russell Hobbs 2-Slice Retro Style Toaster, Black & Stainless Steel, TR9150BKR

NY State ordered all construction sites to close.  They didn't put a date on it, so I guess it might immediately.  That's an interesting development for sure and we will see what it means this week for small residential projects.  I'm really interested to understand how enforcement will work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Life continues in the Catskills

luckily, and interestingly, construction is considered essential, so we continue apace without sneaking around in the middle of the night, or camping out at the site, both which we were willing to do to keep it moving forward.  We have 3 homes to close in the next 4 weeks, and closed on 2 last week, and I intend to meet the schedule.

Not easy however, with building departments in disarray, the board of health redirecting all their efforts to virus tasks, and the constant fear of new orders about what businesses are permitted.  But, as I predicted and hoped, the strengths of our relationships, the length of our relationships, our credibility across a wide range of municipal, banking, and construction departments, has paid off.  And lest I forget the most important ingredient - our clients, whose strengths as buyers bridge many unexpected issues.  I consider it all a competitive advantage, one that seems relatively unimportant until you need them, and then it's life and death, from a business standpoint.

We needed a septic inspection for a certificate of occupancy, we wanted access our unsecured credit lines, we wanted to close some loans, close some deals, close some houses, and really, it's happening.  We are even getting people to look at our new homes.

Not withstanding the 'good' news on our business front, the pain out there is real.  Out of cash, out of water, out of cash flow, out of work, out of school.

A hiccup on the economic relief package, though it seems to be reconciled now.  I agree with some last minute objections, where unemployment benefits would equal or exceed the actual paycheck, is a really bad idea.  Why would anyone work, or why would any small business fight to keep an employee on if they can make just as much on the dole?

Here's my exercise cabin I built on our property in Milford PA.  Great space for functional fitness.

A new farmhouse in Kerhonkson which will sell in less than 2 weeks.

and a painting from a young swiss painter I bought from my art broker friend Bryan, which just went from my miami beach condo to my Pennsylvania bedroom.  One of my favorites.

And french toast breakfast at the Petersheim Home School.  Frankly, in my opinion, it's amazing it takes 8 hours a day to run through their lessons, because lucas has doubled his learning in half the time.  I guess the inefficiency of educating large numbers defines education.  While I'd never do it, since the socialization is important, and sports and the whole thing, what I'm seeing, viewed only through prism of amount of learning, Lucas is getting a lot more education at home - plus i throw in some primary sex ed, combining art class with sex ed primers, with classic art as tools.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Life in Time of Coronavirus, from Catskill Farms' experience

A couple of observations.

1, because Coronavirus is spelled like the beer, it really facilitates the spelling of it without that dreaded redlined 'check your spelling' indicator.  Much easier than 'h1n1' or other number groupings that challenge us dyslexic people.
2. God, the 'we are in this together', singing from the balconies, feel good nightly news stories, #united, etc... gives me the squirmies.  I've never been much of joiner, and if you aren't practicing these actions as part of your routine, I doubt the sincerity of it now.
3. The amount of car commercials is insane - offer 120 days of payment free purchases with a car you can have delivered straight to your home - ARE YOU INSANE?  I know a lot of people aren't great at math, but delaying payments (with probably a bunch of small print like negative equity accrual) for 120 days does not decrease the eventual cost of the car.

On the front lines, we continue construction at full speed, well-funded with healthy cash flow.  We just sold a new house yesterday and we sell a 2015 Farmhouse resale today (my brokerage firm Lazy Meadows negotiated the sale).  We have 3 other homes more than 80% done under contract that we are focused on.  We of course aren't seeing a ton of new interest, since no one is going anywhere, and the 25% decline in stocks is a real kick in the pants, but less so than you would think for most people.  A metric I'll have to watch is the value of NYC real estate because if it declines 1, the net worth of some of potential clients will decline in proportion, 2, if prices decline some families who rent with buying always out of reach will be able to redirect their upstate budget to a NYC apartment.

On a small business front, I don't see how many of them survive.  I just don't think the President cares enough or is surrounded by enough smart people to engineer a plan that deals with the micro-issues of rent payments, tax holidays, interest payments, employee dislocation, etc...   A broad understanding and compassion for people  and their problems is needed.  Sending people a few thousand dollars is just nothing, since it does nothing for the job creators whose cash flow is strapped in the best of times, and actually does little for the people receiving the money.

We saw some worrying developments - the electric company that serves the hudson valley is not turning on any new electric services (don't want employees together) and the Board of Health is not doing any septic inspections, with all their energies focused on the virus.  Who knows when building departments will shut down.  Fortunately, we are proactively thinking these thru, and have the relationships to find paths that are still open.

Home Depot yesterday -
Signed for an online drawing course through Great Courses.   I tried to have my son take it with me but my god if you ever heard or seen a more reluctant student I just gave up.  He knows how to wear me down, dragging his feet like they are caked in concrete - damn kid. 

All the milk I could find yesterday, which leaves me drinking black coffee this morning - not like the British rationing of WWII, but pain is relative and this is a tough shot across the bow.

For some reason i was telling someone a story yesterday of when I was like 9 and aimed my bb gun at a robin on a tree about 40' away ('never shoot a robin' echoed in my head).  Now mind you, I never hit a thing in my life but I lifted the gun, shot, and to my horror, the bird spiraled to the ground, a clean shot to the head.  Freaking out, I took the dead bird, and put in it the folger's coffee can bird house my younger brother had put in the tree as part of a boy scout project.  Luckily for me, he never refilled the bird house, but it did slowly rot all summer, radiating an odor we all commented on, serving as my Poe's beating heart under the floor boards.

I thought if I would tell the story an analogy to our current situation would come to me, even if it was a stretch, would come to me, but it hasn't.

But now I remember why I was retelling the story - after work I stopped by my ex's house and was throwing football and lacrosse with my son and she was using one of these ball throwing boomerrang sticks to throw ball to our dogs, and she thought it was funny to try and hit me - assured in the knowledge she had never thrown the ball anywhere close to where she has ever aimed - and she ended up hitting me in the thigh, just 6" away from the jewels, at a very high velocity.  It was like getting hit with a paint ball - it hurt. 

So, I guess the takeaway may be  - be prepared for inadvertent success and it's consequences.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

2 New Homes in Saugerties for sale

Watching the news like never before in these uncertain times.  Glad I decided to go more liquid at the beginning of this year, keeping some powder dry.  Should help us navigate short-term and medium-term disruptions.  I have a lot of confidence in my business expertise, big picture evaluations, and decision-making, so while I hate to see this turmoil, I don't mind pitting my skills against my competitors during times that aren't perfect.  Anyone can look good when all the stars are aligned.  During the last recession, where we continued to build and sell homes, we built a gigantic market share lead that we never lost.  People still talk about how we were the only company selling homes back then.  It's when the depth of your team and relationships are tested most, and I have full confidence in my team, from our banking resources, to our contractors, to our clients, to my strategic and front-running pivots.  You find out who is swimming without trunks when the tide goes out.

Also, having a great sense of business history, business cycles, booms, bust and different types of recoveries, and having the perspective to put today's challenges in an historical perspective helps.  It's scary when you think 'this time is different', since whether it is for the good, or for the bad, there is typically many signals of caution and hope in things that have happened in the past.

There's a depression area story about 2 cereal brands who historically competed head to head - and when things got really bad, both had to make tough decisions about spending.  One company made the hard decision to stop branding and marketing, and the other made the equally tough decision to continue with that expensive expenditure.  Well, the company that continued to invest in its brand made market share gains that they never lost, even 90 years later.  No better time to brand when no one else is - it's cheaper, and there is less noise to compete with your message.

On Pine Lane, in Saugerties on the border with Woodstock, we have built 2 new 810 sq ft modern cabins on 1 acre each.   A new type of offering, meant to provide the Ulster County market with a more affordable option.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Fear. Another Calamity. Catskill Farms' Journey

I've seen a bunch since I've been in business.  Saw the boom in the early 2000's which was frenzied enough to allow some space for a small fry to get in the game, bounce along the learning curve and come out the other side ok.

I saw the contraction of 2007-2013, where we were said to be 'the only company in the USA' still selling homes.  Granted that may have been because our client was a small narrow niche slice of Manhattanites who still had good jobs and their real estate held steady.  No lending, major stock declines, with only Triple AAA rated folks (ie., Catskill Farms' only type of client).

We've seen the 2014-2019 Hudson Valley boomlet, with competitors coming from all directions (albeit with mostly unsustainable products and price points).

And now the next one, which I've been waiting for.  didn't know what it would be, but history instructs us well on the inevitability of business cycles.  For while the symptom of the stock markets woes may be a cough and a sneeze, the root was sugar-high valuations just waiting to be spooked.

So, we are getting more calls, more emails, more urgency, as people plan for the worst, and are looking for the security a little home upstate can provide.

I definitely remember a few calls back when the world was ending 11 years ago today (low point of stock market), with frightened young families on the other end, looking for an upstate home, looking for getaway in case they need to getaway in a hurry if, as rumored, civilization may have been coming to an end as we knew it.

Though, I do have to say losing $500 in a risk free money market account today was a weird consequence of the panic.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Cultural Commentary from the Catskills

I don't know who listens to Dave Ramsey, conservative finance guru, but I like though not aligned with all his preachings.  I'm always amazed at the low financial IQ of most of America - seems to me that would make life very scary.  His anti-debt mantras ring true, though I use debt heavily, but not consumer, mostly business.

I cannot believe Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On' is being used to sell Reese's Peanut Butter cups.  Not sure why there is a rash of great songs being cheaply commercialized, but I'm seeing it more and more and each time it's an eye-popper, jaw-dropper.  "Unchained Melody' for Kentucky Fried chicken - that hurt, and a lot more.  You've always had the crossover, but typically the brands being sold were much more aligned with the artist, ad, etc.., - think Nick Drake's Pink Moon, to promote VW's.

Watched Al Pacino in Scarface last night.  Was trying to watch the new Amazon "Hunter" but wasn't that great, so stayed with Pacino.  As I watched it, it just really reminded me of the mistakes of youth - when I was like 17, dating the daughter of a navy midshipman and father of 3 daughters, and they kindly ask me to pick the movie from Blockbuster to watch, and I choose Scarface.   They were well-mannered enough not to kick me out on my butt, but over the years it has sunk in how inappropriate that movie was on many levels - the sex, language, drugs, etc...  Now that I'm a dad of 50 yrs old, I can really see the error of that choice.   Makes me cringe nearly as bad as watching Bloomberg in his first debate.

My son is playing lacrosse this year, and I can see why it has historically been the bastion for white rich kids - wow, expensive, with little to no school supplied equipment.  I was a huge baseball player - and quite good - so to see him go to the dark side is difficult, though I encouraged it and look forward to the season.  He's athletic but a bit uncoordinated at times, so this running and throwing and catching should move him forward.  Also have him jumping rope, which is comical, and mostly unsuccessful.

Sold my condo on the Bay in Miami's South Beach last week.  Such a great spot, but such a god-awful Board and building it made the whole experience less than it should have been.  Personal real estate always comes with higher emotional weight and expectations than my business stuff - and I always keep that in mind as we transact business with our clients from day to day.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A typical Friday in the Catskills -

I, Charles Petersheim, have a really good sense of where I need to be when, if only for a minute, during our build processes.  Take a few pictures, send them back via FB private page to the office, tagged about what I’m seeing, though many times the issue I’m pointing out is abundantly clear from the snapshot – especially if it’s the 19th time that year I’ve taken the same picture. Change comes slow.

In an environment where help is in short supply and production schedules are being delayed and disrupted by lack of qualified help, we are in an enviable position, with long term dedicated help, and a few recent strategic additions.  We are fully staffed, adding or competing in the marketplace or scouting or hunting most effectively.

Friday started in Milford, then to Saugerties, then to across the Mighty Hudson to East Chatham, then to Hudson for dinner with friends, then late night back to my new homes in Kerhonkson, where I spent the night in a nearly finished brand new home with my dog and air mattress.  The dog kept trying to nudge her way onto the air mattress.  She loves luxe and comfort.

Waking in the morning.  It's always enlightening and fun to spend a night in a new home, empty, with my dog.

Many times, as a small businessperson, you don’t get what you want.  You get a lot of what you want, but many times it’s a zero-sum game (I think I’m using that phrase right).   You take from one place to give to another, and that’s no more true with time, the scarcest of commodities, especially when divvied up against trip to Stowe, Miami, Big Sky, etc….  No just kidding, back to the point – if Amanda and I spend time on an ad or ad campaign, that’s a job that’s not being pushed forward, product not being ordered, building permits not being filed.  We scouted, vetted and hired 3 new carpenters in the last year -not an easy feat and probably invested $10k in a wide-ranging scouting effort, and adding Kacy in the office, to take the pressure off of Amanda and Breanna regarding the marketing.

But as a creative, that means I’m left with 40 ideas a week that never get acted on, just pent up inside while I manage the operational side.  And that can drive a guy crazy, except it can’t since you have to do what you have to do.  And then there is the question of how is this inability to market impacting the business, with the easy answer as, ‘not much’, since we are, and have been, fully sold out for awhile, though we are going to challenge that with 8+ spec homes coming to market.  As someone who knows his business, a lot of my time is allocated in a circular fashion – employees, banking, land search, operational, marketing, repeat.

As a guy who spent a lot of time working with people I didn’t like just for the sake of the business, and throttling and bottling up most of my creative energies in a trade off of operational necessity, I feel almost ecstatic (I don’t really get ecstatic but if I did it would be of Dionysus type, mad, hungry, freddy mercury out of control ecstatic (for those who are familiar with his ‘don’t stop by now’ ditty)) for our current place of fully operational and staffed across the company that enables me to have some fun, Richard Branson style -  It’s a true reward of the priority setting, patience and self-sacrifice small business entails for many long days and nights, with no real expectation that it will all work out just fine in the end.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

2 Month 50th B-day Celebration winds down

It was the Hanukkah of birthdays, a series of connected days and celebration, but all good things have to come to an end, and the end came with our 7th annual sojourn to Stowe, with the same cast of characters and hanger-oners.  It's a good mountain, about 6 hours away, always easier to get there on Friday (skipping school and work) than on the way back where Thruway 87 starts to get heavy around Albany and is a parking lot by the Woodstock exit.  It really goes to show how many people are upstate, making their way back home, that an interstate can move that slow.  Flip side is the opportunity that upstate has, and always will, provide our little company.

The ladies of the office, Breanna and Amanda, decorated my office space for my birthday, and last year helped clear my car during a storm.

Some people would be shy about posting such equal-opportunity car clearing, but that wouldn't be me.  Amanda started with me in the summers and holidays while she was Fashion Institute of Tech (I was going to write 'in Manhattan', but that just makes me seem show-offy, since everyone who I want to impress already knows where it's at), then came to work full-time after.  Her best friend Breanna came to work with us nearly 2 years ago.  Amanda is getting married to her long-time Beau this May and Breanna and her sit around planning at lunch (Bre's her best woman).  My one wedding gift was buying an office building 10 minutes up the road from Amanda so that shortens her commute to work by 30+ minutes each way.

As a pretty savvy small business employer who is a pretty good talent scout who takes chances on people as well as a veteran of making a lot of bets on people who don't work out, the risks of hiring a friend of possibly my most valued employee were clear, but outweighed by our never-quenched thirst for talent, especially professional/office talent.

Whenever I see a new idea in the Catskills, perfectly branded, optimistic with a fine game plan that may even on occasion identify a real opportunity niche, I just pity the fool, since I know the first and primary obstacle this person or couple will face is the inability to staff up to meet the demand of a growing business - it's a tremendous skill, the challenge never fades, and unless you were brought up speaking the language of the average Hudson Valley employee, all the cajoling, incentivizing, motivating benefits come to naught, held against you, used against you.  My ability to team build, against the odds, is one of the secrets of the success.  We just keep growing, and we keep finding people who meet our criteria, or can learn or be trained.

I like an underdog, so my best guys are guys I've found when life wasn't working out perfectly, gave them a shot, rewarded them without coodling or cuddling them, and tried to find real ways to make their lives better, mostly through  work they can be proud of, organized job sites and pay/benefit packages that can't be matched, pay packages derived not from the highest priced homes in the area, but homes that have easy to see value to people for 2 decades now.

Speaking of UnderDogs, here's Lulu.  She's so smart she knows when to get off the chair - UPS no treats, stay on chair, Fed Ex, treats, meet them at the door and follow into truck.  I think there's even a story where she forgot to get out of the truck and Fed Ex redelivered her 30 minutes later.

Back to the point of the story, hiring Amanda's friend Breanna - the real risk would be that Breanna wouldn't work out, and it would somehow impact Amanda's desire to work for us, or that the balance of power would change and the employer-employee relationship would be altered for the worst.

A big gamble, just the way I like them, comfortable with expecting and counting on unexpected outcomes.  Rolling the die, spinning the wheel, matching wits and scrambling out of pickles of my own and others making.  A writer's ability to evaluate a situation, meaning from a unique viewpoint, with blindspots for sure, but the unique vantage providing unique and untried paths to problem-solving.

Anyway, I guess this is tangent Tuesday, cause I keep going off on them. It all worked out - 2 of the smartest hardest working people I know - Amanda and Breanna - and since they are doing real jobs for a real busy business, with real financial and project management complexity, put in a position to test their intelligence and ability to learn in real time with real consequences.  And that's a big difference than most bright young people, where you have to put in a ton of time just to get the shot at having real responsibility.  Not at Catskill Farms.  You have to be awesome, or the day of your departure is already cast.  Problem is, most people don't know when they aren't awesome, but no worries, I do.

And obligatory house construction photos, since this isn't an 'eat my shorts I'm in Stowe and work with cool young women' blog.

One of our favorite farmhouse designs, 73.46 % finished, in Kerhonkson NY.

And another fav, in Narrowsburg NY.  Both houses under contract, spoken for, reserved, don't bother calling about them type of situation.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Winter Saturday in The Catskills - Work hard play hard.

Mid-Winter hike up Ashokan Highpoint outside of West Shokan yesterday, with long time hiking pal Brian, the long time editor of Chronogram and related media properties.

Seems like an analogy worth remarking on, where you journey out on a lonely road to reach some far off goal only to find it all fogged in upon arrival.  Translation, among others, is to enjoy the journey, for the destination is only a piece of the goal.  I know, pretty hunking picture of me and the dogs.  This view is typically gigantic over the Catskills.

We literally have a to going on -

  • 2 homes in Saugerties for sale and under construction under $350k
  • 4 homes in Kerhonkson, 2 reserved, two for sale.
  • 2 homes reserved and under construction in Narrowsburg
  • 4 homes for sale and just beginning construction outside of Callicoon.
  • 4 new lots in Kerhonkson
  • 3 new lots in Narrowsburg
  • 8 new lots pending in Saugerties
  • At least 5 deals pending through Lazy Meadows, our real estate brokerage
  • And possibly 3 to 4 deal pendings with clients for above mentioned properties.
  • Moving the office
  • Selling the rental in Miami Beach.
  • 4 lot subdivision in Phoenixville Pa.
This is a barn house with a finished basement which is about 1/2 way done.  Reserved.

A new Ranch going up, for sale, in Kerhonkson.

Finished the night with a martini at the Kingsley in Kingston, and then some mexican at the Armadillo, in the Rondout.