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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Got A Drone

Some of the best shots of real estate is from the air, so the the new drone has been a fun addition to my marketing bag of tricks.  Pretty simple to operate, with lots of safety features if you don't get the cheapest one, like collision avoidance, a 'home' button that brings it back home when you push the limits, range et... too far, and a bunch of other stuff.  Should also help get better perspective on land and such as I'm buying it.

Bought it right in time for the peak foilage season up here the Catskills.  The thing about the 'peak', is you get several false peaks, thinking it can't get better than this, but it does, and then there is that one day, or collection of days, where it really is the peak, and then it quickly fades into the avalanche of falling leaves, and then bare trees before you know it.

My first trial run, besides at my house in Milford PA, was up at our project in Kerhonkson NY we just built out. It was 4 homes, sold quick, and the families are loving them now that the world has changed.

Here's a pic of the famous hotel in Milford named the Fauchere.

This is a shot of a farmhouse, looking east towards the Gunks and New Paltz.

A Ranch.

Shot of a barn going up in Cochecton, NY.

The Delaware River.

Another Ranch in Kerhonkson.

And my All-Star Team of cross-disciplinarians.  When you stay as busy as we stay, it's a constant crush of real responsibility across everyone's desktop.  


All the problems of yesterday are receding, 4 months into solving them.  I can tell by my need to write about them, a process I have always found to help me untangle the issue, and identify ways forward.   Now I'm left to solve the 100 regular problems that arise each day.  The bottom-line solution is always the same - dig in, sacrifice everything else, work hard and harder, and solve one layer of the issue at the same - the ol' 'a journey starts with a single step'.  The sacrifice is always real - in this case, waking before 4am, not coaching, keeping my son out of travel leagues, having little energy left over for life other than work.  Each morning I wake now, I slowly can see the extreme nature of the last 4 months, with business doubling, and black swan issues diving from the sky out of nowhere.

Of course, there is another way to - make excuses, fall behind, disappoint vendors/bankers/clients alike, sidetrack your business and lose the momentum which is extremely hard to recapture.  We have been on a forward momentum train for 20 years - some times slower than others, but always moving forward.  It's way too dangerous for survival to be sitting in one place.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Employee Retainage at Catskill Farms

 As most small employers can attest, recruiting and keeping employees is at the heart of any level of success.  We see it among our own team, and we see it among all the teams that support us.  Those who find a way to maintain and retain employees are those companies that grow with us, instead of us outgrowing them.

This little mini-barn just got over 500 reactions on Instagram, which was nearly a record.  I don't think this was the exact photo - the other one had fog - but for some reason really captured the attention of some of  our 6200 followers.

At Catskill Farms, back in 2012, I undertook several initiatives to try and retain employees, and for the most part they've worked well, in whole or part.   It's funny how a small self-made business person like myself would be caricatured to be against government programs of any sort - an Ann Rand "I can do it myself' mantra - but I actually have seen the benefit of some of these programs, both State and Federal.

One of the most recent was a testament to the safety net NY State offers with its layers of taxes on everything we do.  An employee had a serious and disruptive illness in the family and both his wife and he were able to use the Family Leave Act to take 8+ weeks off at a large percentage of their salary being paid.  A real life saver.

While healthcare remains a real mess, I was all for Obamacare though I, as a small business person, was supposed to be the main opposition to the cost and administrative burden, but having lived without healthcare for years, and seeing what a lack of it does to the safety and security of individual families, to me it was a no-brainer, even if it meant more hassle for me.

And 3rd, the 401k Safe Harbor plan for small employers, where we can offer a company match retirement plan has been a huge boon to those who have taken advantage of it (and most everyone does).  I think we as a company have stuffed away over $750,000 in direct contributions from our employees, and the associated match from me.  In an industry where benefits are few and far between, this type of retirement plan is unheard of, and several of my long term employees are approaching 6 figure accounts.

Vacation, holidays, sick leave, raises, retirement, etc... all work together to create an environment where my valued employees think twice before jumping ship and chasing a few extra short term dollars per hour.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

New Homes for Sale In Saugerties

 This weekend we are opening the gates again to new clients, which we stopped doing for a while just to ensure an orderly onboarding of a pretty heavy queue of new clients in late spring and early summer.   One of the advantages of being in business a while, is you can accurately gauge your capacity, and not wear rose-colored glasses in what you can realistically produce.  In fact, with the subcontractor and product supply chain stretched thin, you can expect to produce less, or at least have more trouble and hurdles producing the same, and real trouble producing more.

I remember when I started in businesses in 2002, it was just beginning to be the boom times that ultimately lead to the housing crash of 2007/08.  It was tough to assemble a team because everyone was busy, so you had to use the C team (if you are lucky) (and deal with all those scheduling and quality issues inherent in C team product) and pay A team prices.  It's frankly easier to start a business in a recession where employment isn't full and vendors have capacity and interest in new clients.

Kacy, my right arm marketing machine, developed a marketing brochure for my weekend land and house pairings/showings.  Turned out good.

Our new website has been passing all of our content uploading tests with flying colors, and proved adaptable to most every request and tweak we come up with, so that's a real victory.


Amazing moon this morning at 6am.  It was one of those mornings that had a bit of everything - crispness in the air, leaves beginning to turn, sun only faintly stirring, and a gigantic big full moon straight-ahead - 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Wealth We Create

 I'm astounded at the wealth Catskill Farms generates, near and far.  Real estate commissions on our resales, return on investment for our clients, wages to our employees, traffic for our local businesses in a 90 minute radius, tax for schools and towns, interest to banks, premiums to insurance companies, $1m a month to assorted businesses.  This might not be a big deal in the scheme of things, but in our little pond, it's more than a ripple of impact.

It's even more pronounced now, in this pandemic era, with more liquidity and sales in the marketplace.  Money being made all over the place from our homes, our resales, our marketing.  It's eye-popping actually, even for someone like myself who was aware of the fact beforehand.

What causes me to comment is the relisting of one of my homes that I sold for under $460k now being priced at $850k.  Sure, there is a pool, some stonework, etc...  It's a nice abode for sure, but it's shocking to me on how slim our margins are/were  - it's a tough marketplace and navigated it carefully, but now for it's easy for a broad range of real estate related businesses, and frankly, it's a little disorienting.

But not hard to understand for anyone with a basic understanding of economics - stick 500,000+ new people in a marketplace that only had 100 good homes to begin with, and really the real question is, where will prices plateau, since the imbalance is so extreme, and the buyers so motivated.

Farmhouse 12.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Catskill Farms Launches its New Website

 It's hard to quantify the degree to which our website deletion by the morons at Applied Innovations led by Jess Coburn disrupted our business, but 8 weeks later, we finished the heavy lift on a vision and execution of our new website, that can be seen here at www.thecatskillfarms.com.  It turned out great, on many levels, and the idea that it was going to turn out great was by no means assured or guaranteed for a host of reasons.

Nonetheless, it was a huge distraction, and energy suck.  My one colleague has not really worked on anything else for 8 weeks, uploading content, and that effort has been augmented by my own daily macro guidance and micro troubleshooting, and on occasion the other 3 people in the office would pitch in, like last Thursday, where we all pitched in.

Of course, for each minute spent on this, there is an opportunity cost of not spending it on something else, be it a client, a sale, a hire, a problem, a solution, an idea.

What made this even more challenging is the fact we were wholly unprepared for it, and a creative exercise like this is typically layered with a lot of brainstorming, branding conversation, directional ideas, visioning, evaluation of what works and what doesn't on the old site, as well as a process for interviewing and hiring a company to handle said task.

As anyone who knows the digital space at all, there are all types of solutions out there - solutions with their own language, their own terminology, pluses, minuses, drawbacks.

I'm an old hand at hiring, which mostly means I know I'm only going to get it right about 30% of the time.  With office employees, it's a real disruption when I get it wrong, since it's a small office and the investment in anyone new is pretty large, and the weirdness of having someone in our space is always tough on the culture.  With carpenters, I typically just say 'show up, and let's see what you know'.  With subcontractors, even if you hire right, there is bound to be miscommunication with anyone new because we have a lot going on and judgement calls are made daily, some right some wrong.

The risk on a exercise like this one - reinventing a space 10,000 people a month visit, a space that defines who you are, a space that is expensive to create - is fraught with challenges, and I'm happy to report we nailed with not just with the vision but with the hire we selected, Steve, from outside London, who we found on upwork.com, a site a client of mine recommended.

How did we select Steve from outside London with live in girlfriend and baby?  We put out a query on upwork, and I used my finely tuned ear to find a good match.  My colleague Kacy steered me away from some bigger firms who would've wanted to offer more than we needed.

We were trying to update our website, without losing the feel of the site, which is a lot like the feel of our homes - comfy, working, fun, cool, thoughtful, not too fancy, not too showy.  It's an improvement on what we had, my old partner of 20 years, a website that was added onto, patched up, greased up, so often it was like a pair of jeans, or boots, or anything else well-loved, and hard worked.

There's a lot more to this story, from a business vantage, that I hope to get to soon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Catskill Farms Resales flying off the Rack

 Few things prove your legitimacy in my business like the value of your homes when they resell.  And based on what I'm seeing over the last 3 months across 3 counties, not only do our homes hold their value, they are the most sought after product on the market.  The quickness they are being snapped off the market, and the prices that are being paid are hard for me to intellectually accept, having priced homes for 20 years. 

In Rhinebeck, a house we sold for $650k, went full price, within a month, for $950k.

In Woodstock, a 1500 sq ft home we sold 5 years ago new for $385k, is in contract for close to $700k.  Another in Olivebridge, went for $715k, and one I sold for $400k a few years back is now trading in the $700's.

In Sullivan County, on Mail Road, the location of my first 9 house project back in 2004, 3 houses just traded in or near the mid $500's, prices that could never be imagined even 3 months ago. Sullivan is always a treacherous market, illiquid, inelastic pricing, hard to make a buck.  Not now.

Few new homes going up in Callicoon NY.

As a student of economics, I don't think these people are 'overpaying'.  The demand over supply is so lopsided that pricing is on a real upward trajectory.  

As a guy who prices homes 8 months before I monetize them, this has been tricky, so see homes half the size selling for $200k more than my new stuff.  While our April - June stuff might have gotten mispriced a bit, our new stuff we are bringing to the market will be closer to what the market will bear, but to be honest, I don't think I'll shoot the moon like some of these realtors with my resales - I like to leave some $$ on the table for my clients.

Adapting to the new pricing reality is a big bridge for me to cross - I've been pricing homes for 20 years, moving them off the inventory shelves with a bunch of effort.  To see it get this easy is hard to fathom, and gives me nostalgia for the old days when only the best could navigate the Catskills' real estate market of new builds and flips.

I'd post some photos of the above-mentioned homes, but my old website doesn't work.   8 weeks and counting.  Ready to launch the new one - tons of effort but turning out nicely.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Labor Day 2020

 Labor Day, 2020.

It's a cool morning, you could feel the drop of temperature a few weeks ago.  Still hot during the days, with bright sunny days, but the mornings and evenings reflect the temperate nature of our climate and the wild 35 degress to 80 degree swings a fall day can bring in the Catskills.

The thing about problem-solving is the process you use to solve said problems.  Business is, fundamentally, problem-solving (maybe life too, but that's someone else's purview of expertise).  And as I have been writing repeatedly, Catskill Farms has been beset with problems.  Many of these problems are the result of being busy and building a bunch of homes, and while not readily predictable, you know they are coming in one fashion or another.  You might not know when, or what, but you know on any given day, they are a comin'.  With these problems, we have a solid set of professional relationships - banking, insurance, surveying, engineering, trade, supply chain, etc..., we can leverage and deploy quickly in order to remedy and solve.

The other set of problems, the black swan problems, pose more of a hurdle, burden, and risk.   Typically new and unseen before, typically serious, typically disruptive.  Could be key-man/woman employee related, could be pandemic supply chain, regulatory, could be inflation, technology, illness, accident, etc...  Could even be your website of 20 years that has been a friend and partner was deleted by the morons over at Applied Innovations.

As the leader of the Catskill Farms, with my hands and brains and backbone still fully employed on a daily basis driving this machine forward, I've been confronted with both. Interestingly, many of the former used to be unexpected and grouped with the latter, but once you confront and solve a few times, they become annoying, distracting, and sometimes expensive, but still not a complete surprise.  The black swan events, the new problem (which can be bigger in scale as we grow bigger) poses unique challenges because it's new, there is no roadmap for solving, and typically in a small company there isn't bandwidth just laying around waiting to be deployed to solve a new problem, especially a big one.

Now that I'm on the backside of solving literally a half dozen of 'exact same time' big problems that need to be solved now even though you are busier than ever, I remember how I do so, over the years, developed a process, many times subconscious, of working my way through big problems.

1, you have to believe you have the talent to solve them.  2, you have to give yourself the time to digest and acknowledge the true impact of the issue, 3, you have to accurately measure the damage, delay of the issue even if solved quickly, 4, you have to prioritize accurately, 5, you have to communicate to those impacted if required, 6, you have to solve.

It's like an onion inside of an onion inside of an onion.  The collection of issues/problems is one onion, that you have to peel away layer by layer to analyze each respective problem individually.  Then each problem is its own onion which needs to be peeled away and solved, with characteristics and problems unique and individual.  And with each small success with confronting a layer, the confidence and momentum builds that the individual issue can be solved, and leads to the confidence and momentum that the collection of issues can solved.

It's take time, which has to be found, since it's not typically laying around unused.  It takes energy, which is tough since a lot of us are running at full capacity (especially during the pandemic), it takes creativity, which is difficult to summon out of thin air unexpectedly, and it takes risk-tolerance, since the outcome of many proposed solutions are not immediately clear if correct.

Basically, when shit hits the fan, are your instincts and prior lessons learned on point or not?  It's the difference between success and failure, delay and progress, redemptive chaos or ship-sinking rocky shore.

Personally, we've used the peripheral chaos that engulfed us over the last 6 weeks to reinvent several aspects of the business, and most rewardingly, found a few employees who either stepped up and flexed skills we did not know they had, or inserted into our company new persons, contractors, etc... who have turned out to be good folks to know.

All the while not missing a step of home production, and future home planning. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Reward Points

 Catskill Farms spends around $9m a year and probably $1.7m-$2.5m a year is on credit cards with some sort of associated reward point program.  Mind you, I haven't carried a credit card balance in years even though we spend $200k a month on them.  American Airline, Delta, United.  Hotel points from Marriott.  General all-purpose points from Cap One and Chase.  Cash back from Fidelity that goes directly into a brokerage account. It's of significant enough value that it is included in my estate plan.  At any given time it can be 5,000,000 assorted points or more, sitting there waiting to be used, or fought over in the event of my untimely passing.

In some ways, it's like that Johnny Depp movie "Blow" where they have so much cash storing it really becomes a problem.  This isn't cash, but the analogy of ballooning balances is real.  My son lucas and I travel a bit back when that was possible, and the poor kid literally has never seen the economy section of an airplane.  He's flown to the Middle East, Europe on several occasions, California, Florida, - whereever, all in the comfort of warm chocolate chip cookies, great service, fully lounging chairs, and multiple tech options.  He thinks top floor, ocean view is standard, and mentions it in a truly innocent way when it's like 3rd from the top, or heaven forbid, courtyard view.  I haven't ridden in Economy for flights over 2 or 3 hours since 2012.

I say all this because like I don't have enough problems, now I'm worried about airlines going bust and hotels with bargain basement pricing which entails no need for point spendage, all the while we are busier than ever and the spending thus point earning is accelerating.

I mention it because before I started my new book (Midnight's Children, Salmon Rushdie), I was looking around for a place to travel.  I've sort of liked the homebody Chuck of the last 4 months, but there's that too much of a good thing, and I'm getting the bug.  Now, most countries won't have us, most friends won't travel, so I'm left trolling my travel apps knowing in the end, no matter what dates I put in, in the end, I'm not going anywhere.

My son starts 6th grade on Wednesday.  Was supposed to be Monday, but already a hiccup.  Hope it goes well, for the sake of all the kids out there.  I was listening to someone today, don't remember who, and he was just pointing out that what we are going through - it doesn't have historical context yet - but the disruption of what we are going through rivals other national traumatic travails, like a war, or a depression, or a drought.  The stress and anxiety and fear are real, and yet to really be articulated with the lens of history.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Can't make it up....

The amount of baloney I save my clients from is pretty significant.  They really have no idea the brain damage I take on their behalf, protect them from phony contractors, misguided utility advice, long way around simple problems.  After I dropped Caroline Akt from my brokerage, I had to finish up like 8 of her deals, and I'm always amazed at how easy repping real estate is compared to what we do.  I mean, what we do is tough, and half the time clients are upset at a crooked outlet, and other times I broker a simple piece of real estate (as opposed to what we do at Catskill Farms, which is find land, buy it, develop it, design it, drill wells, clear land, pair it with an owner, get it financed, etc... - it's hard), and I'll go broker a simple piece of real estate and people think I'm a hero.  It's just two different universes, in terms of complexity and difficulty, and client expectations.

Here's what greeted me at my small project in Saugerties NY - now mind you, I did what no builder has ever done before, which was write a letter to all 30 homeowners along this street we are building warning them about construction traffic and to be a little more careful with my personal cell phone, and I also posted these signs to keep reminding my team to keep it slow.  So someone scratched in some alt words and now it reads 'Report Chuck, Crimes against Nature".

SERIOUSLY!  7am.  I'm still laughing at the absurdity of it, since whoever wrote clearly owns a home, has cleared trees, etc...  I mean, I've been slapped around enough over the last month, that this was a bit of levity.

And then this - I'm trying to hire a project super for some work in Sullivan County, so this guy responds and I decide to meet him at a project and I can't get a word in edgewise, then he starts talking covid and fake stats, etc... and I say what I think is pretty nicely, "I'm not really interested in talking about that'. and he starts going off about this and that and says "I knew when you wouldn't shake me hand..." storms out of the building, blares out my driveway with a bunch of 'fucks' and 'you' and horn honks, etc... and completes it with this text

"I will blast u in the internet  you asshole, like I already heard 

Fuck u"

Like I said, I protect my clients from a lot of this insanity.  But it's what I navigate to get stuff done.  For nearly 20 years.

Here's a farmhouse in Narrowsburg - in contract.

Mini-barn in Narrowsburg, under contract.

Converted and retrofitted 1931 Community Hall in Phoenixville PA, into a single family residence.

Barn something or another in Saugerties NY, under contract. 

Lot clearing in Saugerties.  Don't ask, Under Contract.

Ranch house in Saugerties, Under Contract.

Ranch in Kerhonkson.  Under Contract.

Lil' Farm in Olivebridge NY.  Contract, under.

Me modeling a rain jacket I borrowed from my electrician and failed to give back and now it was raining so I sent a pic to rub it in just for fun.  I love my Vineyard Vines shorts with a bulldog surfing.  I actually wear them too much.

Dredging a pond and prepping for a house build.  Under contract.

Ranch in Kerhonkson. Under contract.

Farmhouse in Saugerties.  Under contract.

Barn in Kerhonkson, Under Contract.


Actually, maybe the guy has a point.  I am a nature menace.   But really, aren't we all?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Caroline Akt - Dishonest, Disloyal, or just Savvy Business?

 I'm a thinker, I like to toss things around, look at it from several angles, learn, teach, etc...  I think the ability to put the shoe on the other foot accurately gives me a real advantage.  I don't always wear that shoe in order to empathize or accomodate.  Many times the ability allows me find common ground.  Many times the ability allows me to navigate the path I've set more effectively.  But truly, there are few situations anymore where I can't at least predict accurately one of the several paths the other person may take to my actions.

To do so takes several skills - 1, you really do have to self-acknowledge that not all your actions are beneficent and altruistic - some actions as a businessperson, perhaps most, are selfish.  You have to be selfish, for yourself, your clients, your employees, your vendors, etc...  2, you have to acknowledge that priorities among the players of any situation have competing interests, so the ability to navigate your own self-interest while toeing a line of ethical consistency, is important, at least to me. 

Which, hilariously, brings us to Caroline Akt's confusion at my irritation at her actions.   She seems to be of the opposite ilk, having no ability to see her actions from my perspective.  For instance, let's look at her actions, over the last 12 months.

  • Her goal is to be her own broker as soon as possible - 
    • Which means - 
      • She has to be an agent under a broker for an absolute minimum of 2 years.
      • She has to achieve 4000 transaction points, defined by the State, of successfully completing xxx amount of transactions
      • She has to take her broker's class
      • She has to pass her broker's exam
      • She needs her federal tax ID
      • And she needs a building/space of some sort.
So, it's easy to see, from my perspective, how completing each of these tasks took an immense amount of work and concentration, and since we talked nearly every day, it also took a lot of deception, not to mention the all-consuming exercise and goals inherent therein.

I mean, basically, in order to stay with my agency, get her 4000 points, leverage my wide-ranging marketing programs to build her book of business, get her points, get her 2 years in, she was operating like a spy, where every action had an ulterior motive, not for a week, or month, but possibly for 2 years.  And I considered ourselves friends.

But let's take it one step further.  Her proposal, with a straight face, was that she would represent both her new business clients, as well as mine, divining some new alchemist way of figuring out whose marketing brought which client in the door.  It was, at that point, a real eye-opener for me, that I took this person and turned her into a real estate starlet in 2 years.  She might have fucked me in the end, but that in no way diminishes the skill of taking her from point A to point B successfully, quickly.  My thought, under my daily guidance, is she is one of the best agents in SuCo.  I don't believe its as true when she is out there on her own, making judgment calls about clients, marketing, and deals.

I've done it a lot.  Here in Sullivan County.  Land of the uninspired labor force.  Scouted, hired, managed, grew, cultivated, harvested many seeds of talent into fully viable crops of production, helping to build my business, and helping them have a real life, with savings, and retirement, and vacation, and stability.  It's no small feat, and I fail at it more than I succeed, but when I win with a hire, it's worth 100 fails.

Now, lets be straight here, I'm no marshmellow - I get it, and wish anyone in business well, since it's not easy, but my point here, of this post, is to demonstrate a blind spot that threatens a lot of businesspeople's chances of success - this won't be the last time she has to see a situation from another's perspective to navigate a situation, and judging from this and many others in her past, it's a bridge too far.

Basically, my takeaway, and it's nothing new, is you have to be able to clearly see the other viewpoint, if for no other reason, so you can successfully navigate your course with the current, around it, over it, through it.  Misguided navigation is the real threat here, more so than the actual issue resolution.

When you get right down to it, Lazy Meadows Realty is not a great source of my yearly income.  It's like an annuity - pays regularly.  I'm always amazed at how hard it actually is to make real money as a real estate salesperson/broker.  And the business makes perfect sense for me because so many people come to Catskill Farms through its marketing that we can't service because it's not a great fit, so we flip them to an agency that can be more wide-ranging with its services instead of just turning them away.

But like all issues that come across my desk (or more accurately, slap me across my face in case I wasn't paying attention), it needs to be solved.  One way to solve it, since we are so busy, is to just let Lazy Meadows lay dormant until I have more bandwidth.  It is still a great tool for me to market my properties and allows me to participate in the MLS.  But no, that's not our plan.  I pivoted, in the midst of the chaos, and was lucky to lasso Sir Richard Dalton into the mix as our new agent du jour.  What's fun about that is Richard and his wife Angie were my very first new home clients back in 2003, a home they still own and now reside in full time I believe.  So I discard from my life an excavator's wife of unsound moral bearings and weird world views and replace it with a sophisticated relationship of 15 years.  That's progress, and what I meant by yesterday's post about finding a new lane in the fog of chaos.

As a small business person, my life has lacked clarity, certainty, for 20 years, so I'm comfortable with unsound ground and hopping across the rocks of a swiftly moving current.  I forget most times that most people are not at all comfortable with uncertainly many times less.  I think of all the insight I have into things, this fundamental daily existence variance, where I underestimate just how stable and clear and well-planned most people's lives are, is probably my biggest blind spot, since I've never had it, and now that I'm getting it, it almost feels like I'm cheating.

So '"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  

(I dont know why when i post from web it acts all funny with highlighted text blocks, etc...)