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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Farm 9 Feedback

A nice note from Mr and Mrs Carr - our first guest blogotorial.

"Home is where the heart is-

The day we found our Catskill Farm property, I was pregnant, we did not know it until our second visit when Chuck and my husband Stephen shook hands on the deal.
It is so interesting to me how both our baby and our home are so inter-connected. They say babies bring luck!

We would come up from the city nearly every weekend (I know every bathroom stop on the way) to collaborate with Chuck and check the progress. It was an incredible process because it was pretty effortless, Chuck got where we were going with everything and helped make our vision come alive. As the weeks and months passed the race was on to see which would come first the baby or the house. They were neck in neck all the way.

Our due date was March 28, but our beautiful daughter Hadley decided to arrive on March 4, funny enough our house closing is hopefully going to be scheduled for
March 28 (I say hopefully because although the building process was as fast as the speed of light, the banks are tending to take more time these days, in a way building the house seemed faster than applying for the mortgage).

We would like to thank Chuck and everyone involved in building our home and we mean everyone! We will spend many years raising our daughter there, tending to the organic vegetable gardens we plan on planting and cherishing all the memories to come.

Our new home will be called Canterbury Farm (It is lovely tradition in England to name your home) named after my husbands beloved family townhouse on Canterbury Road in in London where some of his fondest childhood memories took place.

Cheers to everyone at The Catskill Farms!

Christine, Stephen and Hadley Carr"

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

And we're off!

Turkeys are coming out of hibernation and pecking around again. This batch reminds me of a few vendors I use (not talking about you Mike M.).
Foundation walls of Cottage 8 being stripped of their forms. Just like jello-mold (or a jello shot, speaking of Jello), masons 'form' the concrete walls with aluminum forms wired with rebar and pour the concrete into the forms. After a few days, the forms are removed and wallah, a foundation. Next comes the waterproofing of the foundation, then the footing drains to keep the basement dry, and then we push the dirt back against it. We will only push the dirt 1/2 way up until the wood frame is sitting on the walls to ensure we don't put too much pressure on the new walls.

Mason's old school truck.

Footings for Cottage 7. The foundation will sit on these footings, hence the overused cliches 'you gotta have a good footing' or 'you gotta start with a good foundation'. The 'rebar' sticking up from the footings will be tied together with the foundation walls for extra strength. Foundations take over 28 days or more to reach full strength.

Pretty good weather for March and we are off to the races.

Friday we close on Modern Cottage 3.

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Spring Starts -

Spring is around the corner in Sullivan County NY and we are ready to build some real estate. First we got to put in the driveway with some big trucks and big rocks, cut and burn some big trees, and then dig a big hole in the ground for the new Cottage 8 in Barryville NY. Here's a picture after excavator dug the big hole, and the mason laid his forms for his 10"x20" footings - the foundation of the house.
This is an incredibly early start for us - made possible by good cash-flow, lots of interest in our homes and the availability of good labor now that the economy has slowed.

And just down the street is this rushing river, rushing for no particular reason from Schumacher Pond to the Delaware River.
More pictures and stories of our Catskill Cottages and Farmhouses can be found at our website. - http://www.thecatskillfarms.com/ .

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rookie Move - Top 5

Like I said before, city slickers moving to the country always have a few embarrassing tales to tell - and Lisa and I-cooling it on a Saturday morning, have our share. What's worse about it - all these people we had to call for our needs had similar 'rookie laughs' - a low, knowing laugh of country condescension.

5. Ordering your winter firewood in September - now we know ordering in July ensures a timely delivery.
4. Owning an unspayed country dog and an unspayed country cat and ending up with 5 kittens and 5 puppies at the same time, living at the 600 sq ft RockHouse.
3. Buying a 1977 4 miles per gallon chief cherokee truck.
2. Forgetting to change my city address so all my country real estate tax bills never arrived for 3 years, and coming within 2 months of losing my home at a tax sale.
1. Thinking that local businesses would appreciate your patronage.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chicken Counting

I'm not one to count my chickens before they hatch, but it appears Catskill Farms will be welcoming 3 new families to our waiting list, -houses to start in late spring and early summer.

I guess the trepidation smothering the economy isn't so great to diminish that country livin' wishin'. I know it's not for me, - I'm buying anything I can get my hands on (and convince the local bank to finance).

Spring and Summer and fall schedule -
Cottage 7 starting yesterday. Clearing the woods and installing the driveway. Footings on Tuesday.
Cottage 8 starting tomorrow.
Cottage 9 is being expanded by 500 sq ft, and we are starting that in late April.
Cottage 12 is being eyed up pretty closely, and maybe start that one in April or May if everything comes together.
Cottage 14 got a deal binding for a late summer start.
Lisa and I are building a house - the official Catskill Farm - our final resting place - I can hear the gallery heckling now, but this is a promise.
Gavin and Emily are starting to focus on their new home in the woods and applying to get their ornery children in the local Montessori school.

There you have it- the worst housing market since the Great Depression is keeping us very busy.

The local Homestead Montessori School in Glen Spey is quite the place - been open since 1973, on 85 acres, where the kids garden, play, draw, plant, play soccer, build things, tend to animals and seem to have a pretty good all around time.

We also have a few closings coming up - Mini House Cottage 5, Farm 9, Cottage 6 and Cottage 3 all in March and April.

Just makes one wonder how often wholly misleading information barrages pervert our daily decision making. Not to beat our own drum (thump thump) but the value of our homes has never been more evident now that smart buyers are dilgently weighing lots of housing options and choosing us.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Details, Details, Details

Farm 9 is finished, and the Baby was born - it was a healthy baby girl. I asked them to name it Chuck, or Chuxxx (my call girl name), but they declined.

Farm 9 is perfect - I took Lisa (my girl) through the other day and she had two comments - tight and classy.
By tight, she meant it was obvious the construction details were attended to, and quality control emphasised. By classy she meant - well, it's obvious what she meant.
Which reminds me of a story a few years back when I was caught off guard when someone on the phone asked me who Lisa was, and since 'girlfriend' seems adolescent and 'significant other' seems too mature (especially for us) - so I said, 'she's my friend'. She overheard me and said -'who's your friend?' As you can imagine, that didn't go over that well, and she still brings it up on occasion to prove some point or another.

The Carr's are obviously students of architecture and interior design and the collaboration between them and Catskill Farms (me) was very successful. We started their house in November and finished up late February - meaning a 4 month construction schedule, even when fighting the elements every single day and night.

Barn beam posts and hand hewn shelving separate the fireplace room from the reading room. The beams from my old barn, and the shelves are from a local mill in Beach Lake, PA. They don't deliver so we have make a road trip in old yeller. We went back and forth quite a bit deciding whether to build built-ins or not. Eventually we decided on this design, and the books will create the partition between the rooms. The deep royal blue 3-lite door was a nice touch.
Down below here is a great sink. We ordered from a company that had great stuff -when it arrived we were a little concerned about the innards quality, but it worked out great and I will definitely use them in the future. The georgian green paint is a little washed out in this picture, but it's hot. 7 foot high beadboard wainscotting with a nice little shelf for baby pictures.

And the downstairs 1/2 bath, with baby blue, wainscotting, 5 panel door and simple farmhouse sink and toilet. Also, dark chestnut wide plank flooring really sets the white off nicely.

And the ole clawfoot, great for washing husband after a day out in the fields or the baby doing baby things.

I think it's safe to say the architectural landscape of Sullivan County real estate has been enhanced once again by Catskill Farms and the new homeowners.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

In the beginning... Part I

The history of Catskill Farms is a 911 story, a story of country living, starting with nothing, business building, living in the sticks.

Here's my first house in Sullivan County. I bought it while still living in NYC for $24,000, and I paid for it with a credit card. I'm not sure what I was thinking because I didn't own a car, and really had no way to get up here.

When I bought this old time shack in Cochecton NY, it was unfinished, with no sheetrock, no electricity, no water, no plumbing. I decided to move up full-time after 911 made city living pretty uncertain. My first winter was spent fixing up the house, storing my food in the outdoors to keep it cool, shitting in the woods, and going to the corner hotel (fosterdale inn) to take a shower for $5 each Saturday.

The Rock House, as we named it, was a shack built at the turn of century, built on 4 acres, and most remarkably, built atop of 2 very large builders. The big rocks actually served as the house foundation, created a cavelike entrance into the basement, and composed the walls of the basement - so the basement was a cave, made of real rocks. The upstairs was about 400 sq ft.

Most people who move to the country have a few 'rookie in the country' stories to tell, and I have more than my share. My very first rookie move was being too cool for school by buying with my limited $$$ a very cool 1977 Chief Cherokee - big motor, big tires, auto windows. Problem was it got 4 miles a gallon, and broke down more than once a week - possibly the two worse combos for a country vehicle.

My next vehicle purchase was almost as inane, as I bought a 1995 ford extended cab pickup in order to start the construction business. Problem is I'm probably the only one rookie enough to buy a 2 wheeldrive truck, that left me stranded and stuck as often as it took me where I needed to go. On the other side, I still own ol yeller - she's got about 190,000 miles on it.

It wasn't until my 3rd try did I get a vehicle that worked - a 1998 Toyota Rav - we still own it, 180,000 miles, 10 years - not the manliest car, but one hell of a work horse.

Here's a pic from winter 2002, with the one room shack, during dinner. The table and a futon pad was the only furniture in the house. We heated the house with the wood stove. In the background, I found that big picture window in a salvage yard in Lancaster PA, removed from an old church. Note the 2x4 beside the dining table holding the house up.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Cottage 6 - The MacDaddy Cottage

Like I mentioned, Cottage 6 has a extra few bells and whistles. Stonework up the chimney chase and around the foundation, board and batton siding, salvaged replaned barn siding for the interior flooring and window/door trim, tripped out audio system, pimped out media dark room in the basement, and most interestly, the dual heat lamp in the bath (we've received additional heat lamp requests since first mentioned). Also, on the porches we are building an open pergola (I know, I hate that word too) rafter system on the front porch (no roof, just rafters for vines to twine about and intermingle with the moonlight), and on the wraparound porch around back we are designing and building an old-school farmhouse exposed rafter system where when you look up you see the planking of the roof. Easier photographed than written, so photos to follow.

Between the ice storms, freezing rain and artic temps, we started to tackle the siding.

Tah Dah - roll 'em - and here'sssss, the stained glass window we salvaged from that yard in Scranton Pa, hauled overland 100 miles to barryville ny, cleaned it, restored it, and then installed it.

King David, gloried in the afternoon south sun.

Going down the staircase, rimmed with 120 yr old hand hewn barn posts.
Not to steal Leah's thunder, but this house is 'banging'.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Drut in Dubai

On occasion, Catskill Farms will build a house from a design brought to us by a prospective customer, as opposed to one of our turn of the century inspired catskill farmhouses or cottages. Benoist, who is totally French, brought us a design for a 2400 sq ft modern industrial home with 30 ft high ceilings, a large clerestory, polished concrete floors. His home was on 35 acres in Barryville NY.

Benoist is an art dealer of mid-century French antiques, and this photo he sent me is from his latest antiques roadshow that took him to Dubai. He claims he's not wearing anything underneath this mid-eastern garb.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Good time to buy a house?

It's scary out there - gas at $103 per barrel, a bag of groceries shocking, war, the dollar falling off a cliff, stock market tanking -

Why buy a house in the county? Because not all 'return on investment' is measured through dollar and cents - how does one quantify peace of mind, respite from the urban chaos, and introducing a child to open space and fresh air?

Sure, when the herd all moves in one direction it's easy to jump on board - it's more difficult to move against the crowd, to be contrarian in one's approach (warren buffett comes to mind). Whether it be tulips, tech stocks or real estate, fads come and fads go.

But, in the end, attempting to time things perfectly is a true recipe for disappointment. Life is about living - and waiting for the perfect time and sure thing is bound to be fraught with second guessing.

A childhood is short, clean snow a wonder, firewood and kindling collection a fascinating diversion, big fires in the fireplace, quiet winter dinners, a book, a paint brush, a potter's wheel, a writer's silent enjoyment of the sounds of a house and the trees moving, a cook's patient preparation. A stressed out loud concrete existence is surely in need of some country balance.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Hard Work at Farmhouse #9

Nobody said construction was for the weak - and last week proved the point pretty succinctly (I just want to put it out there that this blog has no spell ck). Besides being butt ass cold, a couple of snow storms blew through.

So there was ice ice ice everywhere - thick ice on the driveways, steps, porches, walkways, etc... and this was the final week of construction at Farmhouse #9, meaning the radiators were being delivered, the clawfoot tubs were being delivered, and lots of other delicate and expensive items.

Not only did all these assorted vehicles need to make it the 1/4 mile up the private lane/driveway to the house, but we then had to carry these items over icebergs to get them in the house.
For example, here's the smiley clawfoot tub delivery guy unloading the 500 lb clawfoot tub. From here we have to uncrate it (4000 screws per inch protecting the tub), and with six men, coordinate our journey across the ice, up the porch steps, into the house, up the stairs, cattywhompass into the master bedroom, and finally remove the door of the master bath to get it inside.

From here we had to cut open the ceiling of the downstairs pantry so the plumbers could get behind the tub to put it together.
Happy Bathing.
This picture of the living room of Farmhouse #9 in Barryville NY shows us unpacking and organizing all the faucets, sinks, toilets, etc... that will go into the house.

And here's Juan and JJ carrying in a 400 lb brand spanking new old school radiator.

Construction is a hardball sport - and the men who work for us know that everyday brings a test of mind over matter, of man over nature.
The men you see pictured in our various photographs are the creme of the crop, having made cut after cut as I have culled the ranks, hired, fired, and rearranged the business, always looking for that perfect alchemy of talent, loyalty, hardwork and attitude. Most people don't make it, and many times, after they see how hard we work, have no desire to try to make it.
This hard driving slave like mentality benefits one person - our customer. And when you are building custom designed and crafted pieces of art for under $400,000, there is no room for inefficiency, waste, duplication or laziness.