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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guest Blogger - "Farm 20 Guy"

Like I said the other week, I sold 3 houses 2 weekends ago - houses that are yet to be built. One of them is a farmhouse style on 25 acres outside of Barryville. Farm 20 Guy (or F20G) is diggin' us big-time (which is par for the course, - that's not even being immodest for once - if someone is spending coin on a house these days, they are either really diggin' it, or they are getting a great deal, or some combination of the two).

He claims our website is 'one of the best he's been to' in terms of info and such, so that was a compliment, since F20G is probably at hundreds of websites a week, thousands a year. He thought, based on what he has drank from our website, that closely tracking his house design and construction might be interesting for our readers and a good addition to the information we put out there. Since he is pretty prolific, I just thought maybe he should post directly - and he agreed.

Anyone else who would like to document their journey with us can feel free to as well - or a recap, or just a snapshot. Just let me know.

So here we go -

"The Genesis of a Crazy Idea – or is it?

February 29, 2012

(Before we even start, I want to disclose that I’m not a professional writer, not a shill for Chuck or the Catskill Farms, not a builder or real estate professional… none of that. I’m just a new customer and I like to write. I also have learned so much from Chuck’s web site and blog that I figured I should contribute and give back, so future farm builders might learn from my experiences, questions and answers, and struggles.)

The Beginning

My story starts back in Fall 2008. The financial markets were in turmoil and everything seemed like it was falling apart. I recall bumping into a colleague and friend I hadn’t seen in a while walking in the street, mid-day. This was a bit unusual because both of us rarely stepped out of the office during lunch – but here we were, chatting on 49th St. in New York City in the middle of a beautiful day. She was in a daze, almost in tears; she thought she would be out of a job by day’s end, her ATM card had suddenly stopped working or something like that, and going to the bank was futile because there was a mob in the local branch… customers doing God knows what, but probably withdrawing as much cash as they could. Did it even matter? Would that bank even be solvent by week’s end?

Things were not good.

Later that day, a few colleagues and I walked over to the Applebee’s for beers. People make fun of Applebee’s but we loved the place. The bar generally wasn’t crowded like all those shee-shee places, the bartenders and servers were nice, and those chicken fingers and onion rings… mmm. But most importantly, happy hour was cheap. Don’t forget, everyone thought – and it felt like – the world was coming to an end.

In melancholy times, this group of friends and I talked about ridiculous things. At Applebee’s, we played the “how much money do you need to retire?” game. This, of course, was a pretty dumb game because the end result was always the same. If you said a number that was too low for the group, they brutalized and made fun of you. “Cheapskate,” “dumb”, “unrealistic”, and “are you kidding me?” were usually muttered after you blurted out a number deemed too low by the group. If you said a figure that was too high, they brutalized and made fun of you. “Ridiculous”, “princess”, “greedy”, “are you kidding me?” were typically the responses in that situation. You never said the right number, and I guess that was part of the fun. It also got more interesting the more beers the collective group consumed.

We quickly moved on to the “if you can’t do what you currently do, or live where you currently live, what would you do and where would you live?” game. Oh, we had wild answers, like a painter in Italy, pimp in Las Vegas, movie star in California. “Dude, you look like a lizard and you can’t act… and you can barely talk – nobody understands you on the phone, you can’t be a movie star!” When it came to my turn, I wasn’t prepared and hadn’t given it much thought, probably because I was dishing out most of the punishment for everyone else’s answers. I blurted out, “I don’t know, I’d build and live on my eco-farm.”

The group erupted in laughter.

I don’t remember the exact responses, but I’m sure I was ridiculed. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” “You’ve lived in big cities all your life…” (true) “…do you even know what a farm is?” Most people asked what exactly was an eco-farm but I didn’t have a good answer. It was just a silly term I invented on the fly.

But it was the truth. Don’t give me wrong, I love living in New York City with its amazing energy, facilities, close friends, wildly different neighborhoods with restaurants, bars, hoards of people, and adventures… but something inside also yearned for a simpler, slower, more peaceful and natural lifestyle. “If you couldn’t live where you live…”

Catskill Farms

Fast forward about two to three years, and somehow I stumbled onto Chuck’s website. I don’t recall exactly how, but immediately I was hooked. The eco-farm idea had been constantly bubbling in the back of my head, and here’s a turn-key solution that hit many of my initial, uneducated criteria. Under 2.5 hour drive from New York. Plenty of space so you can choose not to see or be seen by neighbors. Green, natural, beautiful. It seemed like this was a master builder and construction manager that “got it”… no McMansions to show off with crazy foyers and huge winding staircases. I know plenty of folks in NJ and Long Island who overbuilt and had ridiculous amounts of unused, wasted space, and it’s a tremendous pain from a maintenance, utilities (heating/cooling), and property tax perspective. No, all I saw from Catskill Farms were highly functional, beautifully constructed, low-maintenance country homes and farms. Perfect.

My girlfriend at the time (now fiancĂ©e) thought I was nuts, but I think she slowly turned and saw the allure. With some trepidation, I filled out on Chuck’s web site and started the conversation. After getting the response, I had the feeling this would be the beginning of a really fruitful and fun project.

Catching Up

Okay, so fast forward again to today, and I’m excited to report that we’re working towards closing on some property in upstate New York. I always knew I wanted more space than less (because it’s always harder to upsize later than downsize), so we found a 20+ acre piece with lake rights. I’m going to leave out many of the gory details and summarize what I’ve learned the past few months:

Go and visit, of course. Web sites and electronic communication are great tools and have come a long way, but there’s no substitute for actually visiting an area or a particular site. You get a “feel” for the area, a sense of the natural surroundings and people, and a much better idea of how you would “fit” into the environment. I cannot describe how amazing it is to actually step foot into one of Chuck’s cottages or farmhouses. They already look great on paper and on the screen, but seeing the structures, observing the details and fixtures, hearing the wood planks on the porch as you walk around… it’s an entirely different experience. Don’t get me wrong, I found online tools very helpful in the initial searches. Use aggregator web sites like Trulia, Realtor, or Zillow to get a sense of land listings, and then zero in to individual realtor sites for further detail (or even the actual MLS public listing, using a local agent’s login credentials). But definitely get out there and check out the counties, towns, and local sites that you think you’ll like. Eat at a local restaurant, have a beer at the bar… it’s not just about a particular potential build site, but the whole package.

You need to go local. We city folks really have no idea what we’re doing (at least I don’t), and we’re going to miss all the small details someone local will immediately notice. Right off the bat, I knew I would need to rely on Chuck’s professional judgment and experience. After all, he’s the one who has built 100+ houses in the upstate area and I’m trying to build exactly one… my first one. Imagine all the expertise, the mistakes, learning experiences, and so forth? Why wouldn’t you want to leverage all of that? Yes, it takes a bit of effort to make the plunge and put yourself in someone else’s hands (the trust element), but I did it very early on and I’m very pleased with that decision. Chuck noticed, for example, several suboptimal things with build sites I thought were the best thing since sliced bread… more on that later. But you’ve got to go with local expertise – because they know!

Line up your incentives with your master builder. Everyone has different incentives, and I think it makes sense to line up your incentives with Chuck, for example, as early as possible. I want the “eco-farm” (just a concept right now), in the best shape, with the most features, at the best price point possible. Chuck presumably wants to continue expanding his wide base of very satisfied customers so he can continue growing… and nothing sells better than word of mouth. The only potential conflict is cost or price, but as long as communication levels as high, it shouldn’t be a problem. (For me, it has not been an issue this far into the project, but I expect down the road we’ll be making some hard decisions to keep things under budget.) Real-estate agents or land brokers have different incentives. I won’t open that can of worms because we could be here all night (for fascinating reads, check out various academic papers available online or “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner.) I suggest doing the land search yourself and only contacting the listing or selling agent towards the end, or letting Chuck make contact to manage the process. For example, we had a situation where an agent was showing us property he wanted to show and sell us – lakefront (ooh, aah!), but smaller and more expensive than I could afford – and not necessarily what or where we wanted to build. I don’t fault the land broker at all, and if anything he’s just doing his job and is very good at it (remember, incentives!); in the end, it pays to go with Chuck to keep things on track. He immediately noticed suboptimal factors like land shape, location, road noise, wet/dry issues, and so forth. Yes, I’d love waterfront as much as the next guy, but if it doesn’t fit within the framework of things, it’s only going to complicate issues, slow you down, and raise your costs. Basically, along with going local, use Chuck as your eyes and ears and the tip of your spear… not only does he know the business, area, and people, but he will not let you down.

Costs and experiences so far:

Breakfasts at Perkins: 2

Miles driven around upstate checking it out: 462

Meetings at Chuck’s headquarters: 2

Costs: $10,000 deposit to Catskill Farms

Next post will hopefully be about the land closing and initial stages of building the farmhouse!

(no F20G is not a paid shill, but I definitely owe him a beer, don' t you think. What's nice about this post and all the high expectations set forth is that I comfortably know, without question, we will deliver F20G exactly what he wants, without a lot of pain, suffering and annoyance. It took me a lot of homes to get here, but we are a company firing on all cylinders on many different levels at this point in time)

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