Thursday, February 28, 2008

Not Too Cool

Like my mom said, sometimes I need to 'get off my high horse', and no better way for that to happen than to drive my car off the road into a snow bank.


Here is Mike Fox, from Fox's Service station in White Lake NY to the rescue. Mike runs the local service station up the road with his wife, and he has saved us a few times - when I ran out of gas in my pickup, when I ran out of gas in my dumptruck, when I didn't have a spare tire and got a nail in my tire, when I lost my tire jack, etc...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Value - Can't Touch This

Every once in a while the NY Times or Wall Street Journal or New Old House or Country Living rings us up on the office phone about some story ideas they have. I must not be a good interview because we never end up in print, although I always notice stories a few months later about the exact topics we were talking about, informed by ideas and thoughts I could have sworn were mine -

Seeing the article in the NY Times about new old houses quoting a 'designer' who never built one, or House Beautiful writing an article taken right from our website, or New Old House doing a story on country cottages, etc... ad nauseum. It's kind of irritating, but, as they say, it's lonely at the top (this is joke I would write 'ha ha' but I hate that narrative joke indicator - I guess I could use the ' :) ', but that might be worse).

In the end, it's not important, since the attention to business building and the fundamentals of customer service have enabled us to prosper in the good times, and seemingly accelerate in the down times.

Anyway, today I had a long conversation with Builder magazine, which is a trade magazine along the lines the This Old House, but geared more to the industry vet, than the homeowner. It was a great conversation and actually quite fun to talk to someone with a true design and construction background, as opposed to the editors of some of these publications that made their mark smartly arranging pillows.

I was explaining what is separating us from the crowd presently, and I was going on and on about a lot of things, when we reduced it to what it is - value.

It's easy to see - 5 acres of land, a house, a curvy sexy driveway of a couple of hundred feet, underground electric from the street to the house, a house full of wood, style, accents and detail, a well, a septic, as well as all the costs associated with financing and holding a house (gas, electric, propane, taxes, interest) for under $325k.

I'm no MC Hammer (note the hammer) - but- You Can't Touch This.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Bathrooms

We like to play around with materials and products, and no where do we play around more than in our bathrooms. Old antiques as vanities, old porch ceilings as wainscotting, cool tile, old windows for mirrors and neat fixtures.

We installed this distressed vanity and mirror in Farmhouse 4, a house way up on the hill in North Branch. Michael and Andy bought this house in the summer of 2005.


This unique piece was installed in the guest bathroom at Farmhouse 5, purchased by Paul and Dukhui in October of 2005.






The photo above is the bathroom in Farmhouse 7, owned by Andrew and Robin. This house is located in Barryville, NY. Beadboard wainscotting around the tub and an antique dresser for the vanity. Great to wash their 2 yr old after a day out in the dirt.

A dark dresser, white sink and white pickled floors. The rounded mirror really sets this one off. Frank, Ellen and their 2 children enjoy this beauty in the master bathroom.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"I Never Thought I'd Build"

Snowing like crazy up here today in Sullivan County - from what I've heard, the City is getting some snow too. One of the first good storms we've had all year.

We used to sell finished homes. Well, to be honest, we used to try to sell finished homes. Over the course of the first 3 years, we would buy up some small parcels of land, design a house, build the house, and then market and sell the house. Like an old guy in India said to me - "it's easier to buy then to sell" - , and in our case, it was easier to dream the design and build the house, then it was to find a buyer up here in the middle of nowhere. Because we had less than zero $$$, everyday we owned the house took us closer to the bankruptcy precipice. Well, anyway, those days are over - we are not imminently going out of business (although it is always only one big bad decision away), and we don't have any houses on the shelf anymore. Lisa and I even went so far as to furnish our unsold homes - it's interesting what you can do on a limited budget - actually, almost more interesting than a 'sky's the limit approach'.

We have had so much interest in our homes over the last 14 months that we no longer have any finished homes for sale - they get snapped up during the construction process. Again, what used to happen was we would start to build and when the house started to take shape, more people could visually the house, and themselves sitting by the fire, and snap them up.

Then it even progressed past that, to where customers starting buying from houses on the drafting table - and the refrain was always the same ' I never thought I'd be building a house.'

For the most part, our customers are youngish. Professionals in their 30's or 40's, quite busy with their jobs and lives, so the thought of engaging in a building process never entered their mind while searching for that getaway home.

"Building' is a scary endeavor, and has left more than a few participants licking their wounds long afterward. It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, it's expensive, it's full of financial surprises, and it's never done soon enough. Combine that with being 2 hours away from the job site, and the recipe for disaster is apparent.

Catskill Farms has taken the best of the process, eliminated the pitfalls, and created a process that works for our busy demographic. The primary reason it works is because we are honest - we live up to our word, and fulfill our obligation. We also take care of the gray areas - the area that is most annoying for people building homes - 'this isn't included', 'that's not in the contract', etc... We definitely use those phrases, but very hesitantly and only in obvious situations. I'm from Lancaster PA, and even though any businessperson who is around for any length of time has to make hard decisions, for the most part, we shoot straight.

I think the keys to our approach are illuminating (and also a trade secret, but all of our imitators are out of business by now) -

1. We take money out of the process. Most build projects require the homeowner to remit payments 10/20/30 times during the process, so every conversation at the job site is clouded by who charged too much for an extra or is asking for payment when the milestone is only partially reached and/or who is late paying a bill. These discussions and subsequent grandstanding can really delay and disturb progress and schedules. In a Catskill Farms build, money is discussed at the beginning, and at the end when we sell the house. In between there may be some minor upgrades and allowance reconciliation but by no means is it front and center of every discussion. So the process is more fruitfully centered around design and dreams and products and choices rather than the $25,000 owed to the builder but not yet released by the bank.

Of course, we don't survive every process looking perfect, but I am well aware that the new homeowner who went from dream to sleeping in their bedrooms or lounging in front of the fire in less then 5 months really has it a lot better then they even acknowledge or know.

2. We stay on budget. If someone wants a $300k house, and we agree on the big picture specifications, at the end of the job it costs $300k. It's unheard of in building, and the reason it can happen is because, as I mentioned earlier, we just take care of the grey areas. We also give good allowances, so our customers have lots of options for tile, stone, kitchens, paint, siding, roofs, vanities, and faucets without runneth over the budget. In sum, our goal is not to squeeze a few extra pennies or dollars out of the customer. Many times though, we would be well within our rights to do so. Move this, change this, add this, can you do it this way. Why we can do it, with no extra sweat off our backs is because we are a young successful company and feel its worth every extra penny we spend to finish the job quickly, with quality, and add another architecture gem to the Sullivan County landscape and move onto the next one. Only rarely, maybe once, did we have a customer who upgraded something well outside our allowances and refused to pay for it. So lesson learned, it won't happen again, and we moved on.

Just as important is the customers role in the process. Serious attention to what they want to spend, diligent processes to find product either within their allowances or amenable to their cash flow, and making decisions on time, - i.e., knowledge that this is a unique arrangement that takes their serious participation to succeed - or, more simply, it takes 2 to tango.

3. To borrow a term from the industrial revolution, we have vertically integrated, eliminating the middle man everywhere we can (is this supposed to be 'middleperson'?). The architecture cost is 1/4 of hiring an architect, the higher transaction and financial costs of building new are non-existent, most times there is no real estate fee involved since we are doing our own selling, and the weekly change orders and re-designs are done for free each weekend I meet with the homeowners at the house.

4. We have created a process we call 'custom-lite' - meaning Catskill Farms and the prospective homeowners collaborate on a design under way, collaborate on the house placement on the land, collaborate lightly on the lighting design, and collaborate more fully on the fun stuff, - tile, fireplace stone, paints, stains, kitchens, counter tops, interior doors and door knobs, faucets, etc... Because Catskill Farms is now the veteran of more than 2 dozen country homes, we have figured out how to tailor our process around the busy lives of our customers so they don't feel like they have another stressful fulltime job. Our clients are talented with a good design sense, and so are we - which makes for unique homes.

5. Mostly, we can pull this off because, while not perfect, we are competent, work hard, stay focused, and through thick and thin have our clients best interests placed ahead of everything else.

6. However, all of this is hogwash without the basic truth of our homes - we are able to build new homes that have a soul - an almost impossible goal. The clients who say 'I never thought I would be building', have looked and searched and dreamed of that old house with memories and generations tatooed in the bones of the structure. Catskill Farms, with the help of some very talented clients, has been producing new construction that feels like it's been there a long time. And when you can do that, there is no reason to buy an old wreck of a house where every weekend is a new problem.

The best compliment we get, and we get it alot, is when someone mistakes our new homes for a 'great renovation'.

Still snowing, 5:34 pm, most of our 70 homeowners probably thinking about picking up their cars and coming up to their getaway.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Farmhouse 8

I remember when we were just getting started and everyone had all sorts of advice, most of it bad. But there was one piece of advice that really still sticks out as terrible, and what made it worse was it came from a NYC PR agency who was courting us. The owner of the agency thought our houses should have names like "Breezewood", or "The Steeple Chase", or "The Arlington", just like all the suburbs around the country, sitting on lanes named "Whispering Lane", or "Evergreen Drive". Luckily, even though I didn't know much, I knew a simple name, like Farmhouse 8, would be more in line with our simple aesthetic and design philosophy - No airs, no exaggeration, no nothing but simple, elegant pieces of art.


Since I've moved, I've been searching high and low for my cd's with all my pictures on it. Just so happens I have this stack of discs, all unnamed, from the last 3 years of business. So I'm trying to sort it all out, and while I haven't found the disc with the pics that I need for my bloggin, I did find the pirated disc of Paris Hilton's adventure from a few years back. I've been looking for that, off and on, for years.


Here's a great picture of Farmhouse #8 in mid-summer bloom.






And then this beauty of the restored farmhouse in Bethel NY that Lisa and I lived in for a few months, before I sold it out from under her.





Truth of the matter is it's half her fault that the Rock House, Swaying Oats, and Lot 45 at Chapin Estate have all sold once we moved in - she's got amazing taste - warm, sophisticated, real - and families can see themselves in the environment she has created. Of course, after we move out with all our stuff, it's a lot of pressure for the new owners to recreate the dream Lisa so perfectly decorated.



This is what the house looked like before I got my hands on it.



Since I've been up here, Catskill Farms has built 20+ new old houses, and fully renovated/restored another 10. What's amazing is that over 70 people live in our homes, scattered around the county - enjoying their weekends, enjoying their investment, enjoying the respite from the accelerated urban lifestyle.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Birthday

So, it was my birthday this past week - and doing some quick math means I am now 38 years old. I have living up here in the sticks for 6+ years, NYC for 4 years, Pittsburgh PA for 5 years, and Lancaster PA for the rest of the years.

Here's a plaque that I found when I was moving this past week marking the day I came into this cruel world.




Saturday, February 16, 2008

Liberated from the Dark Ages

Well, she's gone. Lot 45 at the Top Ridge at Chapin Estate is sold. She was a beauty and I am sure Shannah and Erik and baby boy will enjoy it immensely. If they enjoy it 1/2 as much as Lisa and I did, they will be well on the way. Chapin Estate is a 3000 acre high end project with a couple of lakes, lots of fancy houses, lots of wildlife of all strips and sizes, a snooty salesperson manning the sales office, and lots of hiking trails, biking trails, and all around nature preserve. Pretty neat.


So, no email, internet, fax, access to my contacts, quickbooks, documents, printers during this harsh week of work and weather. We were moving so finding simple things like a pen, or an empty folder were complicated, and finding more specific things like my safe water test for Cottage 3 so I can get my CO and sell it to Cheri proved impossible.


Although, it is interesting what can be accomplished without this lifelines:
1. Monday we bought and closed on the Bus Garage, that is our future international headquarters (or as Curtis calls it 'the bus barn.'
2. Tuesday we sold and closed on Lot 3 at Highland Farms to a family (Hello Gavin and Emily) who are planning to start building in April.
3.Thursday we bought and closed on 14 acres on Schmacher Pond Road, which we have then turned around and sold to Pablo and Ana, and Leah and Rob. We are starting their houses this spring.
4. Thursday we finished the negotiations for 50 more acres, signed the contract. We also got the contracts back from Cheri for her late March purchase (thank you cheri).
5. Friday we sold and closed on the Farmhouse at Chapin Estate.
6. We also had the keep the business running.


Anyway, there's lots more, but I've lost interest in continuing this numerical list. It's over. It was good. And it was exhausting. I have a lot of lists in my life - "to do lists', 'punchlists', 'vendor lists', 'honey do lists' , etc...


Cottage 8 buyers coming up today to review the plans of their house. First time they will have seen the plans.


It's 6:44am, Saturday, typing away in the backhills of Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Off-Line

For all of you who have been trying to contact us over the last few days - we are offline, off the grid. No phones, no internet, no email and no faxes. We are moving, and when you move in Sullivan County, in the middle of nowhere, nothing goes according to plans.

As I mentioned, we are closing on Lot 45, Chapin Estates this Friday. Since this used to be our home, and my home office, a disruptive move it was. Compounding matters was a crazy week of weather - starting with a rain storm the day we did most of the moving last week, a snow storm this week that quickly turned into water water everywhere when the temperature rose to 40 yesterday. And then last night it was super cold and now everything is a sheet of ice. Of course, Wednesday was the date for my cable and phone relocation but since the weather was treacherous, everything was cancelled.

One thing is for sure - Lot 45 looked good before we moved, but after 62 hours of touch up painting, redoing the hardwood floors, doing about 100 hours of misc. punch list carpentry, this house is looking fine indeed.

One thing that is more than evident as I sit in the Jeffersonville Public Library typing away on my blog - it's truely amazing we can build a house in 3-4 months when moving simple phone and cable lines has taken me over 2+ weeks.

Hopefully back online by Tuesday.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Old Fashioned TV Reception

The way it used to be, at the old farm we are buying- all they need now is the rabbit-ears inside to get great reception on all 3 channels.


We include these antenaes in all of new homes, just so there is no arguing about which channel to watch.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bad Ass Mini Cottage - Done, finito, completo

Here is Mauricio surveying the finished interior of Cottage 5, our first mini-house. It really has everything a man could want - a bathroom, a bedroom, and a large combined kitchen/living room and dining room. It also comes with 2 porches and a full basement. This particular house is on 2 private acres with a stream. It's a couple of miles from Barryville and Eldred.


The black subway tiles set off the white fixtures complimented by the darkly stained wide plank floor.

Hand hewn beams from my old farm frame the front door and Maui. Notice the red carpet rolled out for him (it's actually orange heavy paper to protect the floors).
As I mentioned, the mini-house series has one goal - that is to provide a new old house at a price point that is impossible to find in Sullivan County. For somewhere under $225,000, these homes will be modest in size (under 1000 sq ft) but more than enough space to kick up your heels after a hard week in the city. What's more, I'm thinking with low mortgage rates, low price tags, great land, impeccably stylish homes, and a great warranty - it might just be enough to think you may be dreaming.
But alas, it's true. Catskill Farms is dedicated to expanding the housing choices for people looking for that much needed getaway.
Or, as Leah says, "It's bangin'".




Thursday, February 7, 2008

Cottage 6 Picks Up Steam

Stone chimney just about done.

Curtis Minor waiting for the next measurement so he can keep the crews going.


The sheetrock and wood mixed office/bedroom taking its final shape





Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Moving Day -

The Mayflower moving truck from Livingston Manor, NY to move us from our house at Lot 45, Chapin Estate. These guys were joking us because they just moved us last year and they claimed we have a lot more stuff this year. I guess maybe he was right because we filled this truck up to the brim.




Kind of a shitty day - lots of ice and mush. The roads at Chapin Estate were slick.



Superstar Mom, our secret weapon. She keeps on ticking long after everyone else is exhausted.

And Lisa, the good sport - on my home office couch in the ground floor of Lot 45, Chapin Estate, pretty tuckered out at the end of the day spent managing the movers. Note the contrast between the vibrant plant and dog tired Lisa.


I'm not really a green thumb kind of guy, and I was amazed how this plant responded to consistent watering.



Good Business

So my insurance guy, who will hopefully be a customer also, reads my construction journal. And so he was reading about the bus garage I am buying, and lo and behold, I get an email asking if I need insurance on it. And I had forgotten all about it so he signed me up on the spot.

That's a smart businessman.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cottage 6 Stonework - Catskills Real Estate

Catskills Real Estate Cottage #6 is moving right along. Here's a pic of the exterior stonework being completed. This stone work will cover the entire chimney, as well as the entire foundation. Not cheap, but very nice looking.
Since we have been having ice storms recently (thank you global warming - it should be snow), it's very treacherous all over the county. I'm not very excited to see these guys work their way off the ground since it's kind of dangerous - but, everyone has to make a living.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dirt Cheap Old Farmhouse - Barryville, NY

140 yr old farmhouse and real estate for sale in Barryville NY. 2 outbuildings.

Nice lines. Old School.

Fire pit made out of stone from the property.

For anyone looking for an old 1800's farmhouse, we have one for sale. This house is included in some land I am buying. I'm half thinking about using it as a guest house for the farmhouse we are building this year, but that may be stretching the wallet a little further than I should - but, then again, that would be nothing new. I think I would part with this perfect old farmhouse for about $235,000, which makes it a steal - but then again again, that's nothing new for our buyers.



A lot of times I caution buyers from buying old houses, because no one knows better than me how hard it is to get things done up here, and from my experience, most 2nd home buyers do not want a life changing over budget aggravating process as the way to start country living. This house is different because it's outdated grandmother ugly inside (painted paneling, bad carpet, crazy bathtub colors like magenta and orange) but fully functioning - meaning the renovation is completely voluntary.
Most importantly though, while this house does not come with a warranty like the rest of our houses, the new owner could count on us to help them through the maintenence a house like this entails.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Carr Farmhouse Moving Along - Catskills Real Estate

Farmhouse #9, tucked away on 4 acres in Barryville, NY, is moving right along. With the siding completed, the house is really taking shape. Lot of porches, lots of windows, lots of privacy, lots of gracious country livin'.
This design was inspired by a 1870's farmhouse in Cochecton NY, owned by my friend Amy. Really classic and simple lines. The Cottage Red siding gives a nod towards Arts & Crafts. The walkout basement with windows gives the owner lots of choices for future use.
This house has over 650 sq ft of exterior covered porch space.


Like I said before, this house should be finishing up in late February. Next week we install the electric switches and lights, then the floor sanding and finishing begins, and from there we install all the toilets, sinks, kitchens, doorknobs and the million other pieces and details that make it perfect.
The race between the birth of a new baby and the completion of the house was garnering a lot of interest, and Vegas was reporting the odds on favorite was the house completion - 3-1 odds for the house, with an over/under of +2. However, since some things are more important than others, we've decided to delay the closing of the house for a few weeks while this family welcomes a new addition.