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Friday, January 30, 2009


Dean at Cottage 13 wrote us a nice email earlier this week --

"It's always great to come up and see the progress- I can't believe it's almost finished- it really is like my Mom said, like walking into a big hug."

Definitely more encouraging than being verbally assaulted by a pair of homeowners with some ill-conceived grievance or another at Town Hall.

With only 10 recorded real estate transactions in Sullivan County above $240k since the beginning of December, Catskill Farms is selling more than 40% homes successfully selling over the past two months. That's pretty amazing - 40% of the homes being sold are being sold by Catskill Farms and our incredibly talented team - from James who takes the heat for everything in the office, to Curtis who takes the heat for everything in the field, to Juan who more or less gets it done at the sites regardless of what it takes, to Deborah the gifted bookkeeper, to Anouk who helps me manage the myriad hurdles of any given day. And then there is me - more or less responsible for all the problems, victories, and failures experienced over the past 5 years, since we built our first new old house in Sullivan County. And there have been some real doozies - some real high victories like selling more homes by far than any other pretender over the past few years with just the advantage of an original good idea, a lot of risk-taking, and a lot of hard work to the extreme other end like over-leveraged parting of our dream homes.

So, since we have been up here we have been taking huge risks - I mean, who did I think I was to try and build some cool houses in the middle of nowhere while living in a little shack without dependable electric or heat, and stray wild animals running in and out unexpectedly and certainly uninvited? Debt up to our eyeballs but our eye on the ball, we pioneered the new old house idea in this region, we pioneered the idea that a country home did not have to be a wreck of a house wrapped in a romantic notion of the fixer upper. We pioneered the idea the the real estate MLS was not the only was to sell a home locally, and then we really opened her up by producing a small, affordable, 2 bedroom 1300 sq ft perfect cottage - against all the conventional wisdom that said 'you need 3 bedrooms', ' you need 2 1/2 baths' , 'you need a bonus room', and 'you definitely need a garage' - always ending with - 'if you ever want to sell these houses.'

50 houses later - 50 houses. In 4 years. In the middle of nowhere. With a deepening recession making it rough since late 2006. Sure, that's when the bad news started dominating the newspapers, way back in 2006 - it seems like it is bad now, but it's all relative and it was just as hairy in late '06 with the first headlines about stalling sales, that continued through 2007, and then just kept getting worse through 2008 - and through it all we kept finding customers (or they kept finding us), we kept getting the construction financing, our customers kept getting their financing, and we just kept getting it done.

We sold 13 homes over the past 10 months and while that may not seem like a lot, it's about 3x more per year then we had been selling - which once again stressed every aspect of the business - legal, engineering, architecture, construction, financing, etc...

Then we pioneered the mini-house - under 1100 - which is proving to be more than enough house for part-timers.

I'm not saying all this to be boastful or a braggart cause lord knows it takes a team to pull this off and I just happen to be captain. But we are selling houses successfully, at prices at the same level as last year, when all acros the country prices and demand are plummetting.

We did three things right - we understood a market opportunity, we successfully reached out and educated that market niche, and we worked like crazy to get the house built. And I guess there is one other thing not to be overlooked - we kept it real, - really real - original, unique, one of a kind. And that is rare in this day and age of the 'easy way' first.

And now to really show off our cojones, we have embarked on the construction of 3 new spec homes - a spec home being a home financed by the developer/builder without a buyer lined up. It's a testament to our credibility as a company that a bank would even lend us the money to do such a foolish thing - but doing foolish things against conventional wisdom has definitely paid the bills for us the past few years.

And then, before we even had a chance to keep the houses under wraps (they were supposed to be top secret) -Erin traveled up from NYC, selecting the first design of our new mid-century ranch series. Hands up cause Erin's in the House.

Introducing the Mid-Century Ranch - once we bring back the Ranch, we are going to attempt an even more challenging task, bringing Michelob back to the mainstream.

Here she is -

The Sketch -

The Reality-

5.7 acres, way up on a hill looking into the hills of PA, 1 mile from Barryville. 975 sq ft, 2 bedrooms, walkout basement, fireplace and big deck. The Ranch.

And Cottage 18, at 900 sq ft, also has 2 bedrooms, a stream, couple of porches and lots of other details that make life sweet.

The sketch -
The House, taken from sketched inspiration to real life house.
Selling for $225k.
And Cottage 21 - modeled after Cottage 8, which got so many rave reviews that we just had to do another iteration. This 1325 sq ft house overlooks a great pond, and will take a real arts and crafts approach to details and finishes.

And it overlooks a pond across the road. Selling for $340k.

And since we are talking about keeping it real and how originality is an important ingredient to our success, and originality can't really be faked - how about this piece of literary work from a local competitor builder? http://kenozalake.blogspot.com/ - started about 2 months ago by the group that has been unable to sell much at all over the past 4 years.

Now granted, this blog from Kenoza Lake Estates in Kenoza Lake NY, in the western end of Sullivan County, might have just accidently picked the exact same tones and design for his blog - but I'm afraid it's doubtful - and regrettably, it's not about the blog design, but actually about the value produced and being offered. Words, as they say, are cheap (which with everything I got to say, would still add up to a healthy piggy bank).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cottage 13 (Post-Vegas)

The 2009 International Builders' Show took place last week in Las Vegas, and by all accounts, was a pretty somber affair, considering some estimates predict 50% of all builders - large and small - won't be around when this economy turns around. Ironically, Las Vegas is the foreclosure capital of the Country.

Pretty cool event, with thousands of vendors spread out over a few acres at the Convention Center in Vegas. Coincidently, the Miss America Pagent was being held at our hotel the same days we were there.
Here's a big city shot the night before we left, at Happy Hour, at the Stratsophere, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
Off the top of this very tall building were amusement park rides that cantilevered out into the air, 108 stories up. Definitely learned a lot about myself while free-floating so far high up, and I got to tell you, it's not the type of stories you share voluntarily.

The convention floor.

Now, Cottage 13 is getting closer to finish each and every day, and like I said last week, Dean should be the proud owner within a few weeks, leaving just enough winter to fully appreciate springtime. Here is the drive leading to his wooded homesite.
The front elevation - metal roof, clapboard siding, simple square handrail, nice porch and nice architectural lines.
Side elevation, looking into the fireplace room and the kitchen by the bump out. Some nice ledgestone on the chimney and foundation.
View rounding the back, with the exposed rafter porch roof, which next summer will be transformed into a screened-in porch.

And the final side view. This siding and the stain makes this house appear to be several centuries old, and as far as I am concerned, looks really good.
Another front view, with the sun sinking, temps around 5 degrees.

Going down the stairs....

and 3 handmade barn doors yet to be hung...

and the great looking 4 panel shaker-style interior doors.

big shower heads for big shower...

and curtis and alvin in the kitchen.

typing slow and lower case cause i got my boy in my other arm.
very cold and big storm on the way.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

-10 Degrees and No Electricity

It has been a tough 6 weeks of weather, topped off this past week with temperatures below zero - in fact, quite a bit below zero. The week started out cold, and by Friday night we saw temps at -15 below zero. Making it all the more interesting was the fact that Thursday night (Friday morning) around 3 am the extreme cold caused some sort of malfunction with the local electrical grid and 1800 people lost power.

Now at -10 below, it doesn't take long for temps to start dropping inside the house and 3 or 4 hours into it, even a newly built house starts to cool off rapidly. Of course any time something like this happens I'm worried because at the moment we have 6 houses in various states of construction (ie, vulnerability), plus my home, plus my office, plus the homes of our 45 homeowners.

My family had to evacuate ar0und 5am, since it was getting cold, and NYSEG had missed a few timetables they set for themselves.
Here's me - I'm not dressed like this because I was just outside - it was cold inside!

Luckily my sister in law Julie had given lil' Lucas a pretty snazzy cold weather outfit that came in real handy. Note the faux fur lining around the hood (and his favorite stuffed monkey, courtesy of Cottage 15 owner Gayle).

And our only source of light besides the flash of the camera. This was another one of those moments where Lisa stated that 'not every emergency is a potential blog post." How wrong she is.

Another shot of eskimo Luke. He's got a real crusty eye half the time.

Dad looking out for his family. It's about 5am in this pic, and I had been up since 3 or so, driving around checking on the houses (found cottage 14 homeowners sitting in their car - first night in their house - I snuck up and made my best 'bear noises', to their irritation.)

Now, Albert's barn was what really had me worried because we have radiant heat in there, so the concrete floor is filled with loop after loop of water lines, which create the heat - well, since we just fired her up last week, we hadn't mixed the water with anti-freeze yet, so the whole building was vulnerable. Let me just say, a freezeup in the one of those tubes - some sort of break in the concrete, is an unmitigated disaster. So I hussle up there and to check it out and listen to this - 4 hours after the heat went off, that building did not lose one degree of heat. I guess our attention to greening and efficiency on this building really worked - super hi-tech insulation, radiant heat. When I checked it again at 9am, the painters were in there with short sleeves and bermuda shorts on -the temp still parked at 70. Amazing.
Here's the barn.
And the barn/music studio with the chimney stoned, the wood stained.

Looking up into the sound room.

And then the perfect cottage 13, Dean's house, rounding that last bend to the finish line. We have all our energies focuses here, and should be bringing her home for a closing in less than a month.

Floors just finished. Next week the trim, counters, heat, plumbing, and electric.

And then we were supposed to get a few flurries and ended up with 8"-10" of snow on Sunday. It was the perfect snow - when darkness lifted it's curtain, it was snowing heavily - those big, furry, soft, fluffy flakes.
Pretty perfect Sunday in the Catskills. This wild extremes of weather definitely tests our abilities, since everything we try to do is a bit more complicated.

Kicking it and cooling it in the Catskills. Next week James and I go to Vegas for the International Builder's Show.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Seems not everyone got the full extent of my dark, subtle and complex humor/writing on the last blog post. Sure I loved Storm, she was a great dog and we enjoyed having her around, dealing with her eccentricities borne of old age, etc...-

But GEEZ LEWEEZ - Candle in the Wind was HUMOR, people.

Next, I'll be accused of being soft and sensitive. Lord knows that's the last thing I need.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I"m not braggin', but...

...we just had our 3rd closing in 30 days, our 6th in 6 months, and our 13th in the past 12 months. I think it's important for many reasons but mostly it's a great contrast to the day in day out economic blues tune we keep hearing. No one building homes - well, we are. No one, selling homes, - well, we are. No one buying homes, - well, don't tell that to our new homeowners who are definitely intelligent enough to read a newspaper and understand the charts, graphs, pie charts and whatnot of all the pundits who have to make a living someway, somehow.

James, the smart dorky guy who works for me, had a great point - actually, a real eye opener - one day after the latest job report came out with all the headlines screaming 'most jobs lost since the Great Depression' and then went on to quote the number of jobs lost. James simply observed that there are twice as many people alive now, and probably tens of millions of more total jobs in existence. So to quote the number of jobs lost, really has absolutely zero meaning, and it was at that moment that I stopped thinking the news- even the good outlets with reputations - is nothing but circulation panderers, selling their soul on a daily basis to sell some papers and gain some readers. It was kind of liberating - since now I can take in all the news with a grain of salt - be it the Daily News which makes no effort to hide its purpose, to even the large nationals, with their ultra self-seriousness. I mean, it's unforgivable to print nonsense numbers in bold print, without any context. It's like yelling fire in a theater, in an economic climate like this.

So, simply, like I said before, give me freedom from the press so I can go on with my life.

Today, without a hitch, we closed on Cottage 14, a house I found on a lonely road in Cochecton, NY - all dilapidated, with a little old lady living inside. With the help of an architect, we moved this, and raised that, add that, etc... and came up with a fantastic design that Jeanne and Deb liked from the start.

It's sharp, unique, and complete. Here she is from the side (siding to be painted in the spring). Nice little front porch, leading into the mudroom.

And from the back porch, the living room, or the master bedroom - this is the view out into the naked forest and the 5 acres they own.

Jeanne and Deb, the proud homeowners and neighbors of Pablo and Ana and Rob and Leah.

Red chestnut wide plank yellow pine floors.

And then the focus of the house, the kitchen with cathedral ceiling. I like to call it the Sports Bar, since there is lots of counter space, the drinks are close and we wired for a flat screen up above the windows.

And a couple of fans, and a view up the steps to the two bedrooms and full bath.

Looking down, - I can already picture the activities, drinks, snacks, and mostly, someone tying a rubber band around the kitchen sprayer, so when the other person turns on the sink faucet, the sprayer really gets them good (at least that's what we to each other in our house).

The rolling barn door, low boy radiator and two perfectly placed sconces.

The all important mudroom with bluestone floor, little radiator to dry out the gloves and boots after a romp in the snow... I love the color on the walls, the sharp traditional wainscotting, the quarried floor, the barn door, the big crown molding -

Still in the mudroom with the custom made door and hardward, then the super traditional 5 panel door.

A picture of the upstairs bathroom, below -

And some portrait shots -

The Barn door -

The wainscotting and radiator -

The cast iron farm sink, aka apron sink.

So it was a great house. I think we started August, worked hard at it pretty much everyday and here we are- introducing another family to country living in a house that works. Nice work Ladies - it was a real pleasure.
On a sad news front, our adopted dog, Stormy, passed away yesterday. We adopted her after Gib McKean told us his good friend passed on and his dog was just being neglected, tied up outside Bernie's old house. So we took her, and she was a sweet heart - Lisa really nursed her back to health, and I took her for walks at 5:45am before I went to work, and the first thing I did when I came home. She was real regular and never wasted my time.

So, we feel lucky to have had old stormy, and I think she felt pretty lucky too. See ya next time around, old Storm.

Goodbye Storma Jean,
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did
Goodbye Storma Jean