Monday, December 28, 2009

On The Road - Key West


Lisa and I like to travel and have managed to squeak out quite a few trips over the last 7 years of our partnership - repeated trips to Mexico, Rome, Capri, Berlin, Munich, Warsaw, Lodz, Florence, lots of New England trips, NYC, California and various parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

We like traveling over Christmas, and this year we wanted to keep it simple so we stayed in the States (and considering the air travel hassle of the big northeasterner before we left and the attempted terror attack on Christmas - thank god for that). Key West seemed exotic, fresh, easy and not that far - so that's where we've been since the 22nd.

We took a sailing trip on a old wooden schooner, took long walks all over the Island most mornings and evening, and more or less just took it easy.
Captain Lucas and 1st Mate Mommy.


Been experimenting with photoshop to enhance the photos a little, and the results are above and below. The pic below is of Gen. George Pattons boat "If and When" - never really used because he died in a car wreck before retirement.


And then we went to the aquriam and saw turtles and sharks and sea horses.


Me and Lucas and some Captain Hemmingway look-alike.

And here's Lisa outside the aquriam being molested by the Sponge Monster, which was this grotesque creature made up of thousands of sponges.

Lucas' first trip to Santa - kind of weird being warm and on a pier.

Lucas at our room at the Westin in Downtown Key West - on his big bed, near the pool, with his favorite Baby Einstein.


Big cruise ships ported everyday - Here's a huge one from Disney just outside our hotel.
See Mickey Mouse on the Chimney.
The Westin (or as Lisa remarked, The White Bread).
And here's Lisa doing her best Christmas Story impersonation with her son looking on doubtfully and unconvinced.

Then by plan we switched 2/3 of the way through to the Marriott BeachSide on the other side of the island. View from our window with the First Lady of Catskill Farms presiding.


Photoshoped tricked out ocean photo from the balcony.
Lisa holding Lucas who caught a cold somewhere. It hasn't been spectacular weather, that's for sure - but were not complaining considering it's hovering around 70.

And Lisa with Lucas, sans flash.

God, now that should get Lisa's damn Mom off my back - she's been calling twice a day looking for photos of Lucas - I tried to tell her this is a business blog, but you know how Grandmoms can be.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 Homes and Sales

It's Christmas Day and Lucas, Lisa and I are at the beachside Westin in Key West, just getting ready to hit the pool. We've been waking each morning and taking long walks and I have been mapping the walks extensively, attempting to walk on every street in Key West, much to Lisa's chagrin and embarrassment.

Key West is cool - neat architecture, neat little streets, new money, old money, hobos, buskers, a bar scene, and gay scene, a tourist scene and a couple of cruise ships land and debark thousands of visitors a day.

I had never been before, and can't say I'll be returning every year (say, like we did with Tulum for several years) but it's a neat little place with an interesting vibe. We also don't usually stay at full-on resorts either - but the idea of this jaunt was relaxation because it's been one hell of a busy year.

I love year end reviews set to music that you find on TV this time of year - retrospectives that count backwards the years best stories/pictures/songs/scandals, etc... This year is a real treat to lovers of this sort of programs because there are a lot of end of decade wrap-ups as well, this being the last year of the decade. So, it's really best case scenario - lots of wrap ups set to music and lots of easy living in south Florida.

I thought I would put together one of my own wrap ups as well of houses we built and sold in 2009 - just for fun, I thought I would include 2 from late December 08 as well (since it's my blog, I can do that). One of my goals this vacation is to relabel/recategorize all 400 blog posts from the last 26 months of blogging so they are easy to navigate and people can search my writings, musings, celebrations and rants more easily - and to also make that book planning easier when the publishers come knocking.

2009 was a great year for Catskill Farms, and when I say 'great year for Catskill Farms' I know that that phrase includes a wide range of persons and families - our customers who have purchased from us thus changing their lives for the better immeasurably, a lot of vendors who relied almost exclusively on us, our work to keep them busy and the bills paid, and our staff who in the face of the Great Recession were being rewarded with full time work, incentives, raises and lots of future opportunities.

Like I have said before, the Great Recession provided lots of opportunities for companies that continued generating sales - opportunities to buy services and materials for less, opportunities to find and hire labor that had not been available previously (including asking salaries that exceeded what we could pay), opportunities to buy land cheaply, opportunities to do more with less since our vendors were less busy and were thus able to give us more attention. I just finished reading an article about a computer data storage company whose mantra during the recession was 'not to lay off the programmers' because even though these were the most expensive costs associated with the company, firing too many would have cannibalised the company when the recession let up - so, sure, your operating deficits are higher then they would have been, but when business picked up, you had a full team to take advantage of the new demand instead of limping into the next cycle and the next cycle being half over before the hires were made and trained.

We used the recession to double in size, enlarge and improve our offices, buy vehicles on the cheap, build a new structure for cut rate prices, and start a new soy-based organic insulation business.

We also continued to market the hell out of homes - the first mistake usually made in a decelerating market place is to stop spending money on advertising. Two big mistakes companies are teased into making - firing too many good people where you start eating away at the muscle not just the fat, and scaling back your marketing - so no one knows about you and even if they do, you are just a shadow of what you used to be and even a healthy overdose of viagra can't spur the innovation borne over many years, cut quickly to save a business.

You read so much about small business not having access to credit or loans and that is one place our consistent growth over 5 years has helped us - our bank, Jeff Bank, has seen us borne, take our first steps, grow pubic hair, get turned down at the dance, graduate and get a good job. They know my business inside and out and they are a conservative bank - so to continue to surpass their tough credit criteria is always a check and balance that a lot of companies could have benefited from - it may seem at the time that loose money and lax credit is an easier way to build a business, but actually it creates dangerous incentives to grow to fast, to risk too often, to go for the fences with someone elses money. Thing is, during these booms, it's not usually the first, 2nd or even 3rd gamble that buries the speculator - it's that taste of inordinate profits that turns the conservative risk taker into a free for all speculator.

In the regional marketplace currently, Catskill Farms out markets and out performs nearly every company I know of - we are building 8 homes, which is a huge amount of construction for the winter months, for a recession, for the middle of no where. And since we continued to market our butts off throughout the last two years, we have distanced ourselves from nearly everyone.

Now for the homes -

Back in December, 2008 we sold this 2 bedroom 1 1/2 bath 1300 sq ft cottage (see below) on almost 6 acres off of Crawford Rd to Nick, represented by David K. Nick works for IBM as a researcher and I was always joking him about working on the artificial intelligence program for chess playing named Big Blue. He denied it, but then eventually admitted to pitching in on the new program for a computer playing Jeopardy. Nick ended up buying another 12 acres from me that was surrounding his house so now he has pretty much the cottage kingdom of 17 acres, streams, stone walls, lake view and lots of great land just a few miles from Barryville.

Then Gayle of "standing in the woods with her friend Jamie and saying 'this is a no brainer'" signed up over the summer and worked with us on this 1100 sq ft pretty elegant, little house on 4 acres- a lot of fun working with Gayle and her expensive tile tastes, glass door knobs, big front porch that wraps around and just really nice simple lines inspired by my friend's Amy's house in Cochecton, NY.
Jeanne and Deb were also super educated real estate searchers (our favorite kind) when they selected Catskill Farms to be their builder and designer of their upstate dreams. They picked a house that I had designed a few years earlier and just really nailed it over the deep left center fence with their clean design aesthetic. It's just one of those houses you walk into and say 'wow, I get it'. (actually that's all of our homes).

This house closed at what was becoming an impossible mortage and real estate sales environment - the bank was calling these homeowners' employers the day of closing to ensure that they still had a job - the lending underwriting criteria had swung to the opposite end of the arc, with banks happy to reject and revoke loan guarantees and promises. It's a testament to how qualified our clients are - that we never relied on mortgage tricks to sell our homes. We demanded qualified clients with 20% down and good jobs, just as my bank demanded that I was qualified, so in effect we had created a very high quality pipeline of homebuyers and that made all the difference - because banks were lending to anyone but the best risks.
Dean also found us online and shot me an email late one night asking about our homes. In what is a consistent motiff with our sales success, he received a personal reply from me, an invitation to visit, and before you know it - a sales deal. I think I truly underestimate the value of me (the owner) showing the houses I build. People dig it - and it adds an element of trust/faith into the process that a traditional sales representative can't offer. In fact, our customers understand that I'm busy, and personally showing my homes adds a very time-consuming element to my already overloaded workload. I've probably worked 6.5 days a week for 6 years - 10-14 hrs a day. I plow my own driveways, I sell my own houses, I design and implement all our marketing plans and 199 other details that could be delegated, but only at a cost and a significant loss of 'ear on the track' knowledge that has enabled us to move into niches ahead of the marketplace.

Dean's cottage 13 was debated a bit since we didn't know if we should skip the number 13 like a hotel does with it's elevators - but in the end, Dean (now head of Levi's creative team) said 'if I'm supposed to by Cottage 13, then that's what I am".

Dean's house and interior design has inspired a lot of homeowners since his house was constructed. His clean and pure aesthetic melded perfectly with our clean and pure aesthetic and we created a home that will remain timelessly perfect.
Now, by the time Dean and Albert (see below) closed on their houses, the world had gotten ugly and pessimistic beyond any prediction - and here these guys were - buying homes, living up to their word, deciding to see it through - Since we were a different company last year, and had 5 house deals underway and since I was paying for each of them, if they started to cancel contracts like dominoes, Catskill Farms would not exist anymore. We would have been crushed pretty quickly - but we pulled through, and our customers have been living large in these unique homes they bought when no one was buying homes.

Albert's Farmhouse 10 is simply amazing. 10 acres on top of a hill, private, 1800 sq ft house, music studio barn. The black and white color scheme is one of my favorites. If you look closely you can see the elements that Bethel Farms and Irace Architecture tried to borrow on the cheap - destroying a well-designed home but trying to save a few bucks. This design is a classic, and it's a classic because design purity was paramount - Catskill Farms understands design integrity.
And then we started building this mid-century ranch - in fact, we started building it November 2008, and everyone thought we were nuts - underestimating the severity of the recession. They were wrong - I totally understood the severity of the recession, and by comforting myself with books of history and previous recessions/depressions, thought it was worth the risk to start 3 new homes without preordained buyers.

I mean, this is a hot house. It's unique, it's on a great piece of land, it's basement and future living space is huge, and it was relatively cheap. Erin, a young marketing executive, decided to buy it - it was her first visit, her first tour of real estate. We were just beginning, it was a cold day when she visited and the walls had just gone up. She had the vision.
Just down the street, Johnny and Tina found a 960 sq ft 2 bedroom home with a little stream that worked for them. And Johnny and Tina had been looking for years so when they decided to buy with us, we knew and were further affirmed that small well designed homes have a niche that was ignored by all the smart people. Actually, I don't know if the niche was ignored - it just couldn't be justified with any simple excel machinations that made all the other projects seem so doable.

One of the reasons that Catskill Farms has survived this downturn is because of our ability to hear what the marketplace is saying - never in our 5 year history did we try to shove a new price point down the throats of the lookers - if anything, we identified what the lookers wanted, and then worked like heck to develop a product that fit into budgets that were comfortable for them.

Boy was this like some sort of gift from above - I guess you could call it luck, but I suppose it really wasn't because when I bought the 44 acres and little cottage in March of 2009, no one else was buying land and houses with large parcels - No One. And since we were buying - or willing to entertain the idea of buying when no one was - and since we constantly do our homework based on previous sales so we know absolutely what we can spend on land - this little cottage on 44 acres was close to a deal of a lifetime -

First, the house that Nancy and Richard ended up buying was awesome - the type of house that has been our inspiration since the beginning of our business. 2nd, the land was perfect, all with road frontage and great attributes.
Cottage 21 was the 3rd and final home sale of the 3 we started back in December 2008 - validating our business model, and keeping us completely sold out. Norah and Jeffrey picked up this 1300 sq ft house with built out basement back in August - it came with 6 acres and views of a beautiful pond. The colors of these homes are plays off the primary colors - green, yellow and red. Risky, niche, but not too overboard.

Sort of like Restrained Risque Riskiness.
Then Justen and Jason landed into this mini-cottage back in October, which is a reduced version of Nick's. The idea is to place a small home with lots of detail on a great piece of land and do with affordability. And I would say splitting a monthly mortgage bill of $1000 in two is the epitome of affordability.

It's pretty amazing - a new home, with tons of character, on a great piece of land for $1000 a month.
And Courtney and Bronson picked this lot, and this 960 sq ft mini-cottage and tweaked some great design directions and ended up with a real winner. They closed in early October and were sharing wine with Richard and Nancy by weeks end.

Bryce and Thom - friends of Gayle - decided to follow in her footsteps and purchased a redesigned Cottage 13, adding elements like a wraparound porch, and a new interior layout. They closed in October as well.

Pedro and David visited us one day in August, and within a week had signed up for Cottage 23, a cottage that was inspired by a little farmhouse I used to pass on my way to breakfast in Damascus PA each Sunday. I think when they came up they were just farting around, but by the time they left, they were believers.

What was great about this transaction was that Pedro practices architecture so sometimes they can be real tough customers - but in the end, Pedro could not have been more impressed with our speed, quality, and pricing - and coming from someone who is in the trenches everyday dealing with the same hurdles I do, that was great to hear. I'm sure there are items that could be better, some things that could have been done differently - but as a whole, the process we offered him, the process we offer our wearied New Yorkers, is a serious process run with military precision, a zeal for artistic integrity, and a compassion for what our clients do not need - which, in a nut shell, is more stress and drama.

So, here we are. Taking the stress and drama out of building a home 2 hours away in the middle of no where. That's quite an ambitious goal we have set and aspired to attain.

Here's to 2010 - with some improved economic winds at our back, we should really be kickin' it - We are currently sitting on 6 contracts set to close over the first 6 months of the year, which bodes well by any measure.

PS - just realized I forgot the McInnes home, the Soronen Gothic, and the Petersheim addition and since I'm away I can't post photos but I will upon my return -

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Catskill Farms Dominates Marketplace

My friend Dave keeps a good blog and is kind of heady about stats and numbers and he just posted something that stated 142 sales were reported in Western Sullivan County in 2009.

What's amazing about that is the fact that Catskill Farms sold 12 of those - or 8.5% of all sales in the region were our homes. Now, add another factor, like homes over $235k, and I bet we own 25% of the marketplace.

That's an amazing statistic - so, thank you customers, and thank you Catskill Farms team -

And - by the way, I'm in Key West, waiting for Lucas to wake up so we can check out some hotties on Duval Street (just kiddin' - I only have eyes for one). But I tell you, Lucas will give any puppy a run for its money in terms of chick magnet abilities.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

6 Homes in Contract Going Into Winter

Well, here it is. The end of another year. Just so happens this year goes down in the record books as one of the worst macrolly as the modern world has ever seen and going down microlly (here at Catskill Farms) as just about as far surpassing our even wildest expectations as one could imagine.

It's hard to remember how crazy scary it was. Last year at this time people were taking cash out of the banks, checking to make sure their deposit accounts didn't exceed FDIC insurable limits, banks were closing, Wall Street was stumbling, and for the 5 homes we sold at the height of the panic (between last December and this past February), these people are celebrating their first year's anniversary of owning a country getaway at absurdly low interest rates that make their monthly upstate expense nut seem like child's play.

It was also at the this absolute bottom of mass fear and panic that we started 3 new specs homes (Cottage 18, 50's Ranch and Cottage 21). So, at the height of a real estate panic not seen in 80 years Catskill Farms had 5 homes well under construction and posed to sell, and another 3 set to break ground.

There is that old adage 'nothing risked nothing gained'. Well, we certainly risked it, and we certainly reaped a fair amount of gain over this past year of panic. We sold 12 unique homes last year into the teeth of the Great Recession - an underfunded little company with a good idea. That's twice the amount of sales from 2008. We doubled in size. I mean the TV guy Jack remarked on more than one occasion that "I might really not have any idea how extraordinary this achievement is". And he's flying around the country scouting builders and locations every day.

So - in sum - We came, we saw, we threw down and gambled, and we conquered.

Remarkably, we now have 6 homes under contract and under construction going into the winter - and here they are.

Cottage 24 was and is a spec home (one I'm building with the hopes someone will come along and buys it) when lo and behold someone came along and bought it. Now granted, the papers aren't signed just yet and tomorrow we have a site meeting, but it's a great house and the Jim and Mark are veteran house searchers - so I think this one is in the bag.

For those more active followers of the blog, these were the guys who started their bidding low, and I had to decline the offer but in the end we found a price that worked for us all (meaning, my asking price). No, seriously, I don't mean to be cocky but we really don't negotiate a whole lot. We have a long track record of sales, successful mortgages and the prices for each size home seem pretty right on for what we are offering and what else there is to choose from out there in the real estate wilderness.

This house is cool - we kind of did a barn cottage with timbers, reclaimed wood. In the fore front that's a chalkboard door.

Kind of not a funny story but I'll tell it anyway - so I'm at Cottage 24 Friday morning spreading the lights out in each room so the electrician can put them up. And I drove my little new Ford Ranger, 5 speed, that I bought for the estimating portion of the new insulation business I started. So, Cottage 24 sits high on a hill, that drains into what used to be Lucky Lake - and there aren't a ton of trees on the properties because the guy before cut a lot of them down. So I am spreading the lights around when I see my truck slowly starting to move down the hill - shock, disbelief - the next part is a blank in my memory, but I guess in a single stride I made my way outside, ran to the accelerating truck, tried to open the passenger door so I could hurdle inside but it was locked, let out a moan as the truck careened away from my down the hill and just as it was picking up 'no-return' speed it hit a 6" tree head on, stopping the truck about 80' from where it began. A little damage to the bumper but that's about it. Can't say I know what I did to deserve that type of bad luck - because frankly, living down the fact that my truck is at the bottom of lucky lake after careening down a mountainside would have been a little hard to live down, even for a guy like me. Well, Merry frickin' Christmas. An early present.

And so, back to business - here's Susan little abode that is just about done - we are painting and tiling. It doesn't take too much effort to back button back to when this house started - it was like 6 weeks ago or something crazy like that.

So, here's the proposition we offer our customers - sign up with us, we will build you a very unique home that you can help design, it will be on a great piece of land, construction will only take 3-4 months, I will pay for the entire house until it's complete, and then you can move in and live happily ever after with a builder who will do his best to iron out any perceived issues or deficiencies.
Not a bad proposition - when considering the alternatives.

And Tony and Laurie styling at the 50's Ranch ReDo - such a great house the first time around and not so bad the second either. A great space - a great unique, styling getaway. Actually, almost too cool for school, if you ask me. "Well, yes, we're going up state to our mid-century getway with 100 mile views." Well, excusssssse me. Latedah.

And Barn #2 for Richard, who deals in fine art insurance. This 1100 sq ft loft like open space with 1 bedroom and 2 baths was inspired by Albert's music studio that we build last winter. Richard found us after reading about us in the NY Post.



Above, with the roof - below, without, just a few days before.

It's cold now up here. I mean September, October and November and even some of December were mild and deceptive - even the beginning of December was warm and we threw the dice hoping to just need 'one more week' and bam - whether changed - a foot of snow, then rain, then ice, and now temps near 15 degrees for more than 10 days. Everyone cold, struggling to get that foundation in, get that foundation backfilled, get the septics in before the ground freezes. We are definitely in emergency mode with the plow trucks out, the heaters one, and minute by minute management of our sites. Last week our metal roof bundle set to be installed on Monday blew off the roof over the weekend during 60 mile per hour winds, the mason had two concrete trucks stuck up to their axles because one day the ground was hard, the next the 35 degree temps made them soft as the bum of the the biggest loser.

This time of year tests the mettle of a construction company's experience, without a doubt.

And here is Daniel's 800 sq ft Micro Cottage 3.

Sans roof, and roofed - sitting on 5 acres on Tuthill Road, near the edge of a gentle cliff. This is a lot of house and land for this little package and I love it.
And Farmhouse #12, loosely modeled after Farmhouse 6, with a much more shaker bent to it. This 2400 sq ft will house John, Wendy and their 3 children (2 currently baking). See, now there is no reason why I would say something like that except that I am a flawed individual.

John is a real student of the simple nature of architecture and he's pretty clear about the aesthical direction of the exterior, and we studied a lot of faccias, and soffits, and roof lines to make it all come together.

Below is the big foundation and big future basement - the 2400 sq ft home is sitting on 7+acres.

So, since it seems like Cottage 24 is going to be snapped up like the last christmas tree in town, we went ahead and started Cottage 25 - which is a 1300 sq ft new design I'm really diggin'.

So, before long, over on a road named Tuthill, that intersects with Hallock, where I bought 44 acres and a cottage at the depth of the panic, we have now built and finished and sold 3 homes, renovated and sold the cottage, and have 3 homes under contract that are under construction.

And the demographics play out like this = 2 gay couples, 2 single men, 1 couple pre-wedding, and family of 3 soon to be five, and Nancy and Richard the two veteran world traveler teacher naturalists. Now that's diversity. All appreciating good architecture, good value, good country air and a clean weekend break from the urban pressures

And this unique monstrosity - it was one of those builder's colonials that some genius thought was a good idea to build up here during the boom on spec - but between running out of money and host of other privations, it didn't work out and I kept driving by it and while it was ugly as is there are a lot of designs and inspirations we've had that we've had to have some vision and see behind the sagging porch, peeling paint, bad addition, grandma's tightie whities hanging out front - so the more I looked at it, the more I thought maybe it could work for us - add a fireplace there, add some wood clapboard, change out all the terrible doors, retrim, rewood, - the house was around 90% complete, we've torn out enough to take it back to 75% complete, and now we will add a bunch of Catskill Farms brushstrokes to bring it alive. In the end, it will be a bigger house at a pretty affordable price tag.

And my 5 -bay garage going up, little by little. It's been brutal for these guys - ever since they started it's been around 15 degrees, handling cold steel, sitting on cold steel, moving cold steel. They get there at 7 and work till dark. Definitely A for effort.

So, that's a lot of construction. And since our business model entails me paying for everything until the day of closing and turning the house over to the new owners - let's just say I got a lot of skin in the game, all the time. And a big thanks to Jeff Bank for financing my end of things and not being feint of heart at my monthly gambles and Ulster Savings for helping out a lot of our customers. These small banks are an interesting breed - my relationship with Jeff Bank something out of a small town Frank Capra movie (except for the time when I had no money and the bank's attorney decided to litigate against me while I was trying to protect a bank asset - too long and sordid and confounding of a story for this interminable post and possibly too revealing of the area for even this layered blog). Oh well, you got take it with a grain of salt or there is no surviving up here - and we are surviving just fine - sometimes wholly intact, sometimes partially, but we are still out there kicking ass and designing great affordable homes.

Amen and Hallelujah.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our New 5-Bay Macked Out Garage

Well, we got a big insulation truck, a couple of pickups, a dumptruck/sander/plow truck and we got ourselves a tractor- so what better way to keep them safe and warm than to build them a little shelter.


This picture down below is the frost walls and footings that will serve as the foundation of this 2500 sq ft barn.



Here is the plumbing and heating team placing the radiant heat in the slab to keep the chill off everything.


And here's the steel structure frame going up - I think it would probably be lot easier on the builders if it wasn't so damn cold and windy.


And here you can start to see the outline of the 5 garage doors. I own 2.8 acres at my offices here in Eldred NY. We have our main offices (1 room, 3 people, a dog and lots of people stopping by all the time) in the building that used to be the Eldred School Bus repair garage.


So, besides building 8 homes, we have this project going on. And on Monday we meet with the TV people again.