Sunday, June 29, 2008

Kitten in the Tree

We heard the faint meowing off in the woods, did a quick check in the house to see which cat was there, and then set off to follow the noise. Seeming this was my only day off and seeming like I have been through plenty of animal injury issues with Lisa, I was immediately hoping this was not going to entail the 50 minute drive to the Middletown Emergency animal hospital.

Well, there was no injury, but there was a cat stuck up the tree about 40' high - very far up there with no way down - lots of pathetic crying, I mean, whose fault is it, really? Anyway, I ran to get my camera and heard Lisa screaming in the background 'not everything is a blog post!" That really cracked me up -although in the end I disagree with her.

Here's good old Ruby of prior post fame stuck way on up in a tree.
That's a crazy picture above with super leaf green eyes. The camera zoom makes it appear like the cat is not so high, but that's very deceptive. So what does a builder do in this situation? You probably say 'get a ladder', and that would be totally correct except I don't own a ladder.

Poor Ruby, balancing on a small branch. Best yet, it started to rain. So I don't have a ladder, my main man Juan is in Connecticut, and so Lisa calls up a friend Darryl who owns a small gentleman's farm in Cochecton, and he very kindly came over with his 24' ladder. Problem is, Ruby was 40' in the air.
So Darryl, against my better judgment and wishes, climbed to the top of the ladder and then scaled up another 10' up the tree on branches only 2" thick. So he makes it up there, grabs the cat, I scurry up the ladder, he hands the pine-tree sticky cat off to me, I do the -behind-the-neck cat paralysis move and descend quickly with Darryl right behind me.
Here's our hero in the tree, waving to the breathless crowd (me and Lisa).

This is a true country pic, - with pregnant lisa fighting back tears, our Hero of the story Darryl and the ladder that is twice as big as his truck.
The embarrassing part of the tale is everytime Dr. Darryl asked for something I didn't have it - rope, bag, screw-driver, chainsaw.
Since half my life is about insurance, I immediately ran a few scenarios through my head - whose responsibility and liability would it have been if Darryl wasn't as skilled in tree climbing as he lead us to believe? I don't own the house so it's not my homeowners policy, it wasn't at work so it's the not MY CRAZY EXPENSIVE LIABILITY INSURANCE POLICY, so it must have been the leasor's ultimate responsibility. Who knows? No harm, no foul.
Played golf with my insurance broker over the weekend and he's a big blog follower and since he makes it a habit of separating me from my money, he says he regularly checks the blog with hesitant tepidation, wondering if he's been profiled. He hasn't been, but he should - especially after selling me a construction liability policy that forced me to make a decision between toning down the blog (no more calling bad companies out by name) or excluding the part of the policy that protects me against inadvertent libel with my advertising.
I chose to exclude the coverage - Long live the 1st amendment.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Bird That Stands Out Gets Shot

It's funny how many good sayings don't really have any punch until you find yourself in a situation where the apt saying applies. This ancient Chinese ('the bird that stands out...) saying is making more and more sense to us as a company, and me personally, as we really are beginning to stand out from the crowd - historical housing crisis on one hand while Catskill Farms has a 14 month waiting list and has stopped actively marketing for new homeowners.

I do have to give a little mea culpa to this Sullivan County. I used to be flabbergastedly annoyed and irritated by the lack of skilled and motivated and reliable labor in the area - I still am, but now have an idea the problem is not isolated to this area, but is a problem for anyone trying to grow a business or finish a home improvement problem. For us as a company that is building a lot of homes, our labor supply is always our most tenuous and uncertain variable- has enabled us to excel when we are firing on all cylinders, and letting a lot of people down when we lose part of our team. Recently, an extraordinary situation is occuring where some local yokal carpenters who parted ways with my company are actively soliciting work from the families I introduced them to - this is probably the most disrespectful, screw you action an ex-employee can take (the fact that some homeowners are hiring them is a different topic altogether). But mostly, it's short-sighted, since any carpenter starting his own business would be better off synergizing their new venture with Catskill Farms, instead of competing with it. If there is one thing I know how to do, it's compete - in price, in product, in quality, in service. Probably the inclination of local vendors to 'spite their nose right off of their faces' (thank you John Prine) is the hardest thing to get used to up here.

The other admission is a bit of resentment due to what Jim Hughson said 'was a true local disdain for any sort of success. The better you do, the more people are looking to do you harm." Well, same thing, I have found this is not a reflex special to this county, or even to the struggling socio-economic group one would think mostly likely to resent a little success.

So it does seem the bird that stands out gets shot at, not necessarily hit, but targeted. Architects selling our intellectual property, associates funding our competition, real estate companies copying our strategies, builders stealing our business plans and designs. At one point, it was all the rage to convince out of town money to buy 20-30 acres, subdivide it, build a few of these new old farmhouses, and count the money all the way to the bank. Trouble is, it didn't work out so cleanly - 3 imitation 'brand new farmhouses' outside Jeffersonville have been for sale for 2 + years, threatening the financial health of the Jersey builder. 3 other 'brand new farmhouses' outside Callicoon NY have bankrupted the builder, and now threatens to seriously harm the viability of a local hard money lender who contributed the financing. In this particular case, many of the subcontractors were never paid because of some fancy legal footwork, so not only are the houses not sold, but dozens of local vendors got stiffed.

I guess the point is not the increased launching of slings and arrows occurs, but rather the understanding and acceptance that this is what happens to the bird that stands out. Local angry realtors posting blogs posts under our names, marketing and development companies taking pages right out of our playbook, ex-employees taking the easy road by going door to door to our customers- the trouble with these efforts is simply that our homeowners get the idea that Catskill Farms is an original design/build company providing neat homes - all the rest are just imitators, some good, some bad, but imitators nevertheless - and the original is always more valuable.

Now with the economy slowing as we are expanding our business means we have access to better labor than before because some of the more publicized developments in the area are giving up their 3+ year efforts at selling some land, most with an alarming lack of success. I guess smart money doesn't guarantee good ROI. Anyway, in an area with a lack of professional expertise we are able to pick up a project manager here, a new framing crew there, etc... I think I have even found a good assistant so after 34 homes I don't need to personally make every damn call and answer every phone call that comes in. Catskill Farms has sold around 30 homes, and build/restored another 10 for homeowners - probably for a total investment value of $15m+ in this local community - and we didn't have shit for office staff - only a bookkeeper and me. This cheapness and lack of overhead probably is the biggest reason we are still in businesss but the crushing workload probably prevented us from delivering the superior post-sale relationship we would have liked to. It's a difficult proposition to wear such varied hats - addressing a faucet leak one minute, financing a $1m project the next minute, arguing with a subcontractor over $45 dollars one minute, spending 1 hour on hold with Verizon in order to upgrade my cell phone the next minute, selling a home the next.

Upon reflection, it's interesting on how we achieved our small measure of success - it wasn't by executing a large 10 yr vision of 45 homes, it wasn't by building an overhead infrastructure to handle 'all the business' in our future, and it most surely wasn't by expecting to be a market leader - it appears that by single-mindedly focusing on each and every home, when we lifted up our heads to catch our breath after a couple of years, there we were, on top of the heap. Remarkably, we weren't even close to being perfect in our execution, I guess we were just better than others. A most unexpected pleasant surprise. And now we hope to enter the marketplace in New Paltz, Woodstock, Rhineback and Red Hook (no calls yet, please).

Well, there's my ramble for this Sunday Morning, for whatever it is worth. Lisa just screamed out 'there's an ant on my toothbrush!', her final words before heading out to her weekly trek to the Callicoon Farmers' Market to pick up our fresh organic local meat and veggies we need for the week.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Green Building

Green, of course, has a lot legs these days. What magazine hasn't focused, highlighted, spotlighted, dissected and discussed green building, green products and a general green mentality?

What is denied though, over and over, and with a straight face, is the fact that green means green (dinero, that is). Implementing green technologies throughout a house will raise the cost of that house 10-20%+, which is a lot of money. For a $300k house, that's over $30k. Now, I don't what's in the wallet of my clients, but I can assure you many of them do not have an extra $30k+ just laying around waiting to be used for some global cause. That's a lot of cashola. Since having some fancy green technology in a home doesn't affect it's appraised value, this $30k is pure cash, no financing.

By accident, Catskill Farms is a leader in the green field, and all of our customers are beneficiaries. We build small and modest homes - even our big homes are only 1700 sq ft, 25% smaller than the size of the average american abode. Be as green as you want, if you build big the impact of the home's footprint begins the green race too far behind to ever catch up. There is nothing greener than limiting the size of a home - less devastation on the immediate building site, less fuels needed to heat and cool, less materials needed to build meaning many things among them less waste to the landfill, etc.... By being modest in our footprint and size requirements, our clients have made an conscious/unconscious choice to lead the green movement.

Truth be told, being green means a few required major efforts and then a lot optional fringe benefits.
1. Build small.
2. Insulate the heck out the house.
3. Seal up small penetrations that can be overlooked during the course of construction
4. Use an electronic heat thermostat set to lower heat when you are not home.
5. Use florescent bulbs.

They are simple items, and the only with a sizable price tag is #2, where foam spray-in insulation is without a doubt better than the traditional batt insulation, at about double the cost.

What I consistently found was my clients weren't focused on all the green hype, mostly because the cost was high and the payback was long. That whole equation has changed now that oil has doubled again. If higher cost insulation was paid back in savings over 6 years when oil was $40 a barrel, now the payback is 2 years, and the savings are from thereafter. Now, that is something people can understand. That's real money - even an investment.

Geothermal and solar panels are also avenues to explore, and although their expense can easily reach $40k, the payback is no longer 15 years, but can now reach as few as 5 years once the government tax incentives are factored in.

As with any super hyped product, it's easy to buy something that has no real value other than the feel-good aspect of the product - however, with energy costs skyrocketing past any expected benchmark, the ROI (return on investment) is rapidly increasing.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cottage 8

Cottage 8 is just turning the corner for the final stretch. All the sheetrock has been hung and finished, all the wood plank ceilings have been installed, the wood plank accent walls, the wide plank floors, the cedar bath on the ground floor. All we got to do is 'trim her out' and then she's ready for paint.

Here's a pic looking up into the loft, with the wood ceilings before they are painted white.

Large rough sawn steps with open stringers leading up to the loft, and one of our signature hand hewn barn posts holding the house up.

The Owners have been experimented with materials and choices that we haven't used before so it's been interesting to see the result. For instance this chimney and foundation was covered with 'shale', creating a layered layed up stone look.

And from the loft, looking out into the living room below. I always like the way the sheetrock looks after it's polished but before it is painted.

And a taste of what this fancy little mini-house is going to look like upon completion. Green roof, cedar shake siding, shale stone on the foundation and front and back porches.

Pretty darn perfect country living in Yulan NY, just 3 miles from the Delaware River.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Catskills Life in Pictures

Little Turkey, looking exactly like the foilage around it. When I saw Mother Turkey and litter crossing the road I stopped the truck and got out to snap a photo - interestingly, Mother Turkey started making all sorts of racket and cackles which I initially thought was an alert to 'get the hang out of here', but what it really meant was for all the 9 chicks to 'freeze', and not to move - which was extremely effective technique since you could barly distinquish them from the surrounding pine needles, leaves, acorns, ferns and branches.

I was in the Narrowsburg area so I thought I would stop by Tusten Farms Lane, the site of our first 3 home project, started in 2003 and finished in September 2004. Heres a good pic of Farm 1, holding her age pretty well. This house was the inspiration for the entire business - modeled after a falling down farmhouse in Fremont Center.

And then here, down the lane a bit, is Farmhouse #2, actually the first one that went into contract. Tremendously exciting design, all about simplicity, on a nice 6 acre plot with a huge lake out front.
And then Farmhouse #3 - really classic house, sitting back lazily on 7+ acres. All of these houses were surrounded by a few hundred acres of protected land.

Mother Goose, and her teenage flock, heading out to the pond to escape the guy with the camera.

And over Father's Day, my bro, Dad and wife and 3 of my bro's 4 children came up to visit. Here's Sarah and Marcus playing some sort of make-believe game on the porch.
And here's the oldest, Josh, keeping an eye on his brother and sister while practicing up for a future one on one soccer match against Uncle Chuck.

And here's my Dad and Lisa, talking loudly while everyone was trying to watch TV. Note the teenager on the far end of the couch.

and Uncle Chuck, explaining the finer details of the "Bee Movie" to little Sarah.

It's definitely official. I have gained some weight - I'm calling it sympathy pregnancy weight, and could be just a simple 'taking one for the team' during Lisa's runup to birth.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Truckin' - got my chips cashed in, we're truckin'...

"...You're sick of hangin around and you'd like to travel;
Get tired of travelin and you want to settle down.
I guess they cant revoke your soul for tryin,
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

Sometimes the lights all shinin on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me,
what a long, strange trip its been."

Grateful Dead lyrics from an album long past. Friday nights on WJFF, our local independent hydro-powered cool ass radio station has the 'Dead Hour' every Friday night around summer sundown (it's actually an hour and a half). They also have a once a year 24 hour Dylan bash on his birthday.

Here's cottage 8, moving right along. The outside is just ready to pick up some steam - I wanted to try a new siding crew, and that meant waiting a bit. The inside is nearly done - pictures forthcoming.

Cottage 7 has passed some serious milestones - the inside is trimmed and painted, and within a week we will be doing the floors. Had a site meeting with Pablo and Ana yesterday to discuss some details, but for the most part it's smooth sailing from here. The paint colors are incredibly perfect for the interior of this house. They will be living in the house by the end of August.
Hate to say - but this is about the 6 straight house we brought in on-budget, and ahead of schedule. What's unheard of (on time, on budget) is commonplace for us and our clients at this point. So when people wonder how Catskill Farms is doing it (, it's very easily explained - my team is a bunch of honest overachievers - from the surveyors and engineers to the carpenters, painters and tile men. They take our mission seriously - our mission being, simply, 'to make the country transition easy - to raise the bar of what is possible for those itching to build/live a getaway..' Not 'kinda easy', or 'kinda painless', but really, actually, easy. The Big Easy.

And Cottage 5 looks better and better, with a great paint color, a great columned aesthetic, landscaping and sod growing quickly, and most importantly, a homeowner's caring touch.

Once Catskill Farms is done, the fun has really just begun - making a house a home. Some families do it overnight, some do it over a few months, and some take even more.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tornado at Chapin Estate

In my mind, I pictured thousands, if not tens of thousands, of readers waiting anxiously for this long-awaited post (lisa thinks a baker's dozen, max, including family). Truth being, I have been without phone, cable, internet and even electric since Tuesday night when a quasi-twister came twisting through Bethel leaving quite a bit of devastation in its wake. It wasn't as if whole neighborhoods were flattened and all the mobile homes flying through the air (a true air traffic jam because of all the trailers in the county), but a lot of big trees down and enough electric lines down to cause to real hardship and inconvenience for a lot of people. Lisa, Juan, Amy, Amy's parents and myself were down in Barryville enjoying Taco Tuesday at Cedar Rapids campground and missed the storm of century in favor of bad mexican food (hard to do), but on our way back up 55 East we could tell something had just happened - it seemed like the morning after, - lots of leaves, branches, eerie colors and lingering winds. We got back to Chapin Estate and prayed as we pushed our gate opener, hoping the system was working off a backup system or generator or something. Luckily, it opened and Juan and Lisa high-fived.

Trees were down though, and it was dark and raining hard. Within 100 yards on the private Chapin Trail Road leading into the project, a tree was down, blocking any hope of getting by this tree which was tangled in electric wires, phone wires, and cable wires. We got out of the car to check it out, - do we try and pass, or do we not and where do we go for the night? At this point we weren't sure the extent of the damage throughout the county. About that time a big Hummer - yes some people I guess still drive hummers - arrived with Steve Dubrovsky and Mike Watkins, owners of the Chapin Estate. Oddly, they pulled up to the trees, obviously decided not to chance it, and left quickly without a word into the darkness, leaving me and my pregnant wife wondering the best course of action.

So we ended up driving over to Amy's house and her barn and breakfast, and spending the night there. Even 15 miles away, still no electric - meaning no fan and it was still hot hot hot.

Interestingly, it wasn't too bad being off the grid.

Big tree with big branch broken off. Lots of 'b' s in that sentence - illiteration I think they call it.

Some trees were broken in half, other were twisted out of the ground whole.

The thing about trees is that to remove them are expensive, especially if a homeowner pays a retail weekender price. You have to cut up the tree, haul out the wood, get rid of the stump (one stump and roots can fill an entire truck), and then you have to fill the big hole the tree was rooted in. The eye of the storm seem to have gone right through Lot 45, my old house at Chapin Estate and lots of trees were done on this property. The homeowners called their insurance company and they said, with a straight face, 'did the trees fall on the house? No, well you live in the woods right? Trees fall in the woods right?" Classic - I wish I could say such things to my customers.

Here is a picture below of the electrical lines dangling dangerously. I guess it wasn't that dangerous since Chapin Estate founder offered no guidance just after the storm. Hey, what's a little electricity pulsing through the ground and trees.
It was a bit refreshing to be disconnected from email, phones, fax and electric - although no electric means no water, no refrigerator, no air conditioning. I was using my cell phone a lot and had to charge it up in my truck - so not only am I definitely going to exceed my minutes, but I was spending $4.20 a gallon to charge my phone. We had to pay some bills on Thursday and couldn't access our accounting software to see who we owed what - so we decided to hand write the checks but this entailed a calculator not run on electric so we located a solar calculator but then it was too dark in the house for it to work so Deborah the book-keeper had to keep running outside into the sunshine everytime she needed to calculate something.
The one thing we had going for us was the fact that summer was in full swing meaning it stayed light late. No news, no email, no tv. At least we had some scotch to pass the time. Or, as Lisa offered, at least we had each other. She's sweet like dat.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Weekend of Leisure

This weekend was lots of non-work related fun - and boy was it hot. I guess it was hot everywhere, but you especially notice it up here because usually the nights are so cool. This part of the Catskills, the Sullivan County, lower foothills of the Catskills, region can get hot, but usually the nights cool it down - we can easily see swings from 45 degrees on a June Morning to 90 degrees in the afternoon, back to 45 degrees again. But mid-90's in early June is a bit unexpected, to be sure.

Lisa's pregnant and probably the 2 most common reactions we get to said situation is 'sleep now' and 'oooh, you have to carry through the summer'. We really don't know the true meaning of either of these comments but i'm sure the understanding is imminent.

My customers and clients come to the Catskills for fun, and over the last 4 years one thing I have truely lacked is the time for some unadulterated fun. Don't get me wrong, I like fun and leisure as much as the next guy - in fact, if you can't enjoy some leisure what's the point of all the hard work. I think that's one of the things that drives my company is the pleasure we as a team get from seeing our homeowners get to enjoy their life's accomplishments - a country house, a truck, couple of dogs, a garden, some peace and quiet. It's not like these are grandiose or immodest aspirations - but they do mark a certain place and station in life. A marker of progress when you can take a break and take it all in.

Anyway, Saturday marked the opening of the Woodstock Museum in Bethel NY. For those not familar, Bethel NY (Sullivan County) was the default location of the 1969 concert after the town of Woodstock denied the concert permits at the last minute - so everyone came a little more northwest and half a million people landed in this nowhere's ville.

We all know the rest of the story and legend and about 4 yrs ago the local golden boy Alan Gerry who made his billions in cable tv and selling his life's work to Time Warner dreamed up and ponied up for an outdoor amphitheater on the exact site of the 1969 concert - so you have people like Neil Young coming back 40 years later to play on the same stage. Pretty cool, and very beautifully done.

Now, Mr Gerry has opened up a very well-done musuem dedicated to the memory of the turbulent 1960s. The opening day was Saturday.

To all you sophisticates, these little accomplishments may not seem that impressive, but to anyone who lives here and has seen a lot of dreams come and go, to see a big project get done well, on time, and attractively is terribly exciting. Sullivan County doesn't have many big wins these days.

And then on Sunday, I was invited to the Swan Lake Golf Club for a round of golf with 2 executives with the local bank, The First National Bank of Jeffersonville, and my attorney. It was what they call 'better ball' where a team of 4 plays as a team, using the 'best ball' of each shot.

What has been neat about living up here in the sticks is the return to simplicity - if I have a problem I can call the bank president and he knows who I am - in fact, this bank was the financing source that got the whole show started - they gave me my first $100k I didn't qualify for, and have followed (or sometimes led) the way upwards ever since.

I have often said I would not have been able to build this business as quickly or as solidly if not for the ability to sit down with a small bank and explain some of the reasons why the scary numbers on the finanical data I was submitting while asking for my credit line to triple was not the whole story. Very Frank Capra-esque, to be sure.

Sunday was also the big day for the Callicoon Tractor Parade - an event where all the area tractors drive to downtown Callicoon and then one by one drive by the large crowed of on-lookers. Tractors of all shapes, sizes, ages, makes and models (and the same could be said for the crowd.

Here's pic of owner of Cottage 5 playing with a baby deer he found near his new home -

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cottage 5 and The Bus Barn

Many Sullivan County construction companies are similar to this beast below - taking their good ole time. This big bad boy is crossing Route 55 West in Highland Township, just south of Bethel.

The office is coming along just fine. If you remember I'm converting a pretty mundane school bus garage in Eldred into swanky office space for my staff (pretty easy since I don't have any), and hopefully create some shared office space down below with 5-6 offices, shared copier, high speed internet, ready to go industrial office space. I figure someone will want to work out of nice looking space as opposed to their basement or some crappy badly designed upstairs room in a converted Victorian home.

This photo below will be the headquarters of Catskill Farms in Eldred NY, a place to sell our very fine Sullivan County NY real estate. This space came out nice - very clean, unique with the sheet metal ceiling juxapositioned against old school wainscotting and large crown moulding, accented nicely with some red overhead hanging lights and a sliding barn door and yellow pine floors stained red chestnut.

Networked with Cat5, audio, high speed internet, southern sun, beergarten out back - you get the picture. Work hard, play hard.

If you remember the photo from a few months back, the lumber pile was much higher. Very much higher. Now all that's left are some misc. items. Picking through the pile every morning has turned into a weekly challenge - why buy when we can salvage. I just installed a window I had left over from Farmhouse 2, meaning it was laying around for 3 years. Now that everything is in the same space, it's much easier to use it up.

On the outside of the office space looking up, cool pic of the exterior of the interior office - the goal not only looking good, but now, in just this little space I can show customers different siding choices such as cedar shake (upper), board and batten (lower) as well as beveled siding, wood ceilings and wainscotting.

And beautiful Cottage #5, our first mini house. The owner is really making it a home - which is my favorite thing to see.