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Saturday, March 22, 2008

How It Works

Now that families, partners and individuals are sending us deposits to hold their place in our growing queue, we are being forced into maturing as a company, with some sort of standard procedure for buying with us, and a procedure for the ensuing design collaboration with Catskill Farms. With 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 homes planned for the spring and summer, it gets a bit unwieldy to be driving families around in my pickup showing them roofs and siding and floor stains.

So presently we are working on an interactive web page that will highlight all the different options and products we have been using creatively - clapboard siding, roof colors, tile, fireplace stone, paints, salvaged wood planking, kitchens, countertops, flooring, porches, lighting fixtures, toilets, faucets, and so on. It's going to a member's only page that our clients can peruse in bed on Sunday Mornings after or before the NY Times. It should prove to be a great addition to our process.

Even with 4 houses under construction, 5 planned for the spring, 2 planned for the Fall, we are still getting a lot of interest and inquiries each week. For instance unless something changes over the weekend, Gayle is reserving a special 3 acre plot and cottage (I loved her feedback - 'its a no-brainer'), Brian and Adam have sent off a deposit check, Jeanne and Debra have reserved a spot (they said being part of the blog was as big of a factor in the decision making process as was the actual home), Leah and Rob have sent back the contract of sale for Cottage 8 (foundation going in next week), Pablo and Ana have a house under way, Gavin and Emily are waiting for the 1st draft of their plans in a few weeks, and Chris and Vanda are doing some serious due diligence. All of these families have some of the same questions - revolving around how the process and the collaboration actually works.

First and foremost, the process couldn't be more painless, which is directly opposite to the standard construction process where the pain lingers long after the construction project ends (if it ever ends.) In fact, we fully understand our success is directly correlated to how successful we are in making it possible and fun for very busy professionals to enter and engage in a build process with us.

So it works like this -
1. The House - Once a family likes what they see on the web or at a friend's house, they want to know how to get started and reserve a spot in line. The easiest way, and the most affordable way is to fall in love with a house on the website, either that we are presently designing or have already built. All of our homes are completely unique and one of a kind, but we don't always start with a brand new shape. For instance, Cottage 2 and Cottage 6 could not be more different as a final product, but the general outline of the home is similar. Same with Farm 8 and Farm 9, same with Cottage 1 and Cottage 7. By choosing a house displayed on the website, we are halfway home, and considering I have waded through literally 10,000 designs to come up with our 25 favorites -(its amazing how much bad design is out there - for the most part, all of it) - so the designs on the site have been thoroughly vetted for aethestics, ceiling heights, expandability and contractibility, floor plan options, etc...

2. The Budget - Because we are attempting to supply new old houses to a brand new demographic and budget, we have attempted to choose cottage and farmhouse designs that can work as homes as 900 sq ft mini-houses 1300 sq ft cottages, and 1700 sq ft farmhouses. It doesn't always work, but a lot of times we can take a great design and shrink it 200 sq ft and make it work for the family who love the look, or enlarge it a bit to satisfy a growing family. As opposed to the traditional house searches where you run around with a realtor looking at houses priced too high, we begin the process by ascertaining the home design someone likes, and then the budget and subsequent down payment and mortgage they are comfortable with. If someone wants to spend $325k, we have some ideas, $225k we have some ideas, and $425k has lots of options. Lots of our conversations start with 'what can I get for $250k?' Then, 'how about $325k?' Interestingly, more and more buyers are buying less than they can afford and then upgrading along the way with security systems, audio systems, more stone, more landscaping, nicer furniture, and fine appliances - in sum, focusing on the quality of the details, instead of the maximum square footage of the house.

3. The Land - A common question is 'will you build on my land I found?' or 'can I go find some land?' or 'do you have land?' or 'is the land included in the price?' The bottomline to those questions is that it is much safer, cheaper and faster to select a cottage design and land plot from our inventory - at the risk of being immodest, I know good land - I have purchased over 250 acres, and created 30-40 5+ acre building plots. Since I have made the mistakes and learned from them, I parlay those lessons into my daily search for great land priced terrifically. For instance, it's counterintuitive to think that a 4 acre piece of land can be better than a 7 acre piece, all other traits being equal - but it's quite possible since if the 7 acre piece is long and narrow and the 4 acre piece is square, the 4 acre piece will offer more privacy and protection from a neighbor's future plans because it will wider - i.e. - the road frontage will be greater, creating a larger buffer from owner to owner.

Additionally, proximity to a town, proximity to recreation, traffic on the road, quality of the soil, ledgerock, wetness, tree density are all things that a lot of times are not evident to a novice until after a sale is made and after a few interviews with a builder. Being 25 minutes one-way from a quart of milk or a newspaper can get old after the first 6 months, regardless of the beauty of the land. Similarly, looking at land with a realtor will never be a safe way to ascertain the quality of the land - for one, even with everyone shooting straight (rare), most realtors have very little knowledge about the land they are selling - if they have walked the boundaries even once, looking for red flags and detrimental aspects, I would be surprised.

If there is a danger to buying land in Sullivan County, it revolves around the fact that it 'seems incredibly cheap' - $60,000 for 5 or 6 acres seems like a deal of a lifetime. But, it's all relative, and Catskill Farms understands the first step in a successful build process is buying land that is priced right. Pay too much and the final house price is higher than it's worth.

So, in sum, as a veteran of the local economy and a frequent land buyer, we know value when we see it, and it's the first step in providing a home and 4+ acres of land for the unheard of prices we are offering them at. It can't be done by accident or without a lot of strategic experience. We find buyers who buy their own land will pay $70,000+ more for the whole land and house process than if they 'go the Catskill Farms way'.

And yes, the land is included in the price of our homes - the land, the home, the wide plank floors, the fireplaces, the country kitchens, the fantastic lighting, the well, the septics, the driveways, and all the money costs during the process. Too paraphrase Gayle again - "it's a lot for the money." Which is the way we like it.

Just the other day, I was showing a beautiful 3 acre piece of land, and we stood there quietly, listening to big winds in the forest blowing the bigs pines and leaf-less birches, oaks and maples. Jamie said it sounded like the ocean - and instead of a lot of fast talking nonsense, we just stood quietly listening to the wind, and the trees, and the leaves.

4. The Collaboration - since this is the fun part, I'll try and explain it as best as I can. The collaboration, in a nutshell, takes the best of my talents, resources and experience and combines them with the best of my clients talents, experience and design aspirations.

It starts with the house and the exterior look and feel. Since I wade through 10,000 designs and fall for a few perfect ones, the prospective buyers for the most part choose one of the 30+ we have underway.

From there Catskill Farms shows off its land available and the client chooses one that suits their fancy.

From there, we pick a spot on the land to place the house, based on things like trees we don't want to lose, privacy, natural terrain highlights, sun movement and things like that.

Then I begin building the house, while the customer starts thinking about roof colors and exterior siding applications and colors. For the most part, our clients start subscribing to every design and build magazine offered from Cottage Living to Dwell to Country Living to New Old House, picking up ideas, consciously and unconsciously, sucking up inspirations and tossing ideas around over fast dinners in the City and while dreaming the night away. So, the direction of the look and feel of the house is communicated to us, and we guide the decision making process to make sure the products being considered are within our allowances and readily available. Once the website client only gallery is open, this process and the available options will be readily available day or night.

Sometimes we play around with the exterior handrails, exposed rafter designs, and foundation stone. Other times we stay traditional with picket fences, neat spindles and baby blue porch ceilings (it's said old farmhouses used blue on the porch ceilings in order to keep the bugs away - I've never gotten to the bottom of this old wives' tale to credibly offer it as solid advice.)

On the interior the fun begins anew - 20 choices for fireplace stone, a visit to the kitchen store where Paul Tison guides us through the many options, a visit to the local tile store in Damascus PA to choose shower/tub tile and maybe some subway tile for the kitchen backsplash. I also forward lots of affordable websites for lighting (like schoolhouse electric, fanworld), catalogues for faucets and sinks, and a lot of times we will visit a few houses to see what the various floor stain options are. Other design directions and options revolve around the Radiators, lighting design, and tv/computer locations.

Of course, the amount of decisions that go into building a house number in the tens of thousands, and our process is proving successful because Catskill Farms understands what we can unilaterally design, and what is important for client to participate in. Our over-riding goal is to create a process that is fun, creative and fast, without overwhelming our busy customers.

What our collaborative process isn't is as important as what it is. It is not a full-on custom home,- we are not locating every electric outlet based on furniture the customer might buy, we don't sweat the small stuff. We don't collaborate on the exact profile and size of crown moulding, how big the bead is in the beadboard, if a 20" or 24" vanity will fit beside this piece of furniture their mother might pass down if she can find it in storage. We don't jump off the nearest bridge if an outlet (one of many) accidently ends up behind a radiator, or the exact location of the legally required smoke detectors. We don't go backwards, 2nd guessing, changing, backtracking losing time.

I feel Catskill Farms' primary job is to guide, to advise, to lead, and most importantly, allow enough leash for the clients to have fun, but not enough to make decisions that don't work together in the end, in the big picture - lots of small decisions made at different times can result in incongruity, and Catskill Farms is ever on the alert for misdirection - and because our clients buy/build with us because they like and trust our taste, our advice and comments and input usually is given proper attention.

Our process is fast, is very creative, and is very affordable. There is an old saying that says any process offers three guiding attributes and only 2 can be successfully achieved per project - speed, quality and price. You can have it fast and cheap but maybe sacrifice quality. You can have a lot of quality and a fair price but you may sacrifice any hope of meeting a schedule. Or you can have fast with great quality but end up paying through the nose.

Catskill Farms is committed to proving this axiom wrong - we want our client's to have it all.