Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Death of a Salesman

Good seats (hopefully) tonight to the new production of Death of a Salesman - one of my favorites for sure. Saw the Brian Dennehy version in 1999, the last time (I think) the show had a major broadway run.

Monday, March 26, 2012

F20G (Farmhouse 20 Guy) Update #1 – Figuring out the Land

There’s been a lot of activity with FH20 over the past month.

Let’s start with acquiring the land. The play we ran was fairly simple but looking back, we definitely got lucky. This is basically how it worked: (1) I would scour web sites, individual broker listings, and MLS aggregators for land listings I thought looked interesting and fit within my budget. (2) After compiling, culling, cutting, I had a “top 5” or “top 10” list of possible build sites. I sent these to Chuck and he ran them through his various filters. (3) Chuck and/or his contacts would typically know something already about these properties or know someone who knew something about these pieces of land. Many of these properties had been on the market for some time, or they were represented by certain realtors that dominated listings in certain developments or local towns.

I was amazed at the various factors that made plots suboptimal or even unsuitable for building. Tiny road frontage and railroad-car, cookie-cutter layouts. Wetlands or poor drainage. Road noise. We even found an amazing, secluded plot with sweeping views, varying elevation, gorgeous old trees, and an attractive offering price. Perfect, right? Too bad that small creek and gulley that ran alongside the property line meant no direct or easy access given the property lines, and building a “bridge” of sorts might require months or even years for DEC permits and cost tens of thousands of dollars! There is no way anyone could have done this by themselves – even with the help of real estate agents, who might have a whole different set of incentives. It was critical to rely on Chuck’s eyes and ears, many years of experience, and local contacts to whittle things down to possible build sites.

Since I think the farmhouse building and planning parts are a lot more interesting than the land search, I’ll just fast forward and say we’re in contract on a good-sized plot with lake rights in Sullivan County. Chuck even helped negotiate the asking price down to what I’d say is a pretty fair level. Could we have squeezed another thousand or two if we really tried, given this economy? Probably, but what’s the point? The effort, hassle, and bad-blood weren’t worth it at that time... we’d be past the point of diminishing returns. This was the best, most appropriate plot we found for our purposes, and it’s entirely possible I’d still be out there searching if we didn’t find this piece. So we got lucky. I think we found great land and settled on a fair price where both buyer and seller are eager to move forward, and I’m excited to close in the near future and get started on FH20.

Lessons learned:

* Web sites and MLS aggregators are great resources, but I found the best listings were “broker login” listings from their respective MLS. Many times those listings would have exact addresses, maps, clearer photos, tax info, and other details not on public sites. I generally had good success contacting selling agents and asking for these pages; as you can imagine, they all preferred working direct without a buyer’s broker.

* Again, you’ll have to go local for the best info and advice. Chuck has your back.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Barn 5 Movin' On

Barn V is a winner, complimenting a long line of Catskill Farms - Homeowner collaboration winners. It's been a week since my last post - very busy, especially with the early dry spring that has allowed us to accelerate our Springtime playbook.

Brand new look.

Kind of mixes the old fashioned farmhouse with small 2nd floor windows, with a barn, complimenting both without being snarky or cynical or self-righteous.

The land it sits on is nothing to shake a stick at either. 5+ acres a few miles outside of Narrowsburg. Veronica and Bill didn't miss many details on this house with the foundation clad in modern stone, a dining corner of windows and a back deck/porch.

This is the dining room window corner, presently a backdrop to the custom barn doors that will be scattered around the house.

One of the Bedrooms... The tubing coming off the right wall is the air conditioning supply for the 'split units', which are localized lower cost a/c alternatives.

And the Man Shed, Miami style.

Just finished walking F20G's new land, - the boundaries just got marked so it's always exciting to get out there and check it out. 25 acres. And Farm 19 boundaries just got marked so I'm gonna go walk that piece in the morning. My two new pieces of land in Saugerties flew through the planning board in two months and we should be under construction of Barn VI and Arts & Crafts II before long.

4 houses in Ulster County under construction, 7 in Sullivan County.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ranch VI

Ranch VI owners are friends of Ranch V owners, and like many of our latest clients, are coming from a demographic a bit younger than we are. I mean, I used to be that young - early to mid-30's - but I'm not anymore. It's comforting to know that I'm still cool, able to design and build and brand homes that have cross-generational appeal.

Ranch VI is a bigger, badder version of Ranch V. Ranch V is 700 sq ft, 1 bedroom, 1 bath, no basement. Ranch VI takes the idea to the next level, without going crazy with the cost. We added a basement, finished some of it, left plenty of storage space, and just tweaked the first floor enough to make it perfect for these new owners.

Above is the cool ranch with ultra-cool, mid-70's, Berkeley style ranch house. I'm audio reading Steve Jobs' biography at the moment, and they talk about the Ranch houses out there. I'm also reading Keith Richards' autobiography, Life. Just finished a biography on J. Edgar Hoover written in the early 70's when such writings were still frowned upon, and then the audio book The Big Short (I'm a big Michael Lewis fan), and before that a tome on WWII. I read the New Yorker cover to cover most weeks, scan New York Magazine, read Crains and scan another half dozen magazines. Also, there's a cool blog the NYTimes does on the Civil War, daily, since it is the 150 yr anniversary, called DisUnion - it's been going on for more than a year.

Ranch VI is fun and for the select bunch who go this route, the homes have a lot of design appeal. Modern country ranch, small, on a big piece of land in the woods. It's a nice package (that's what she said).

Just finished the insulation, and from there the sheetrock. Next the wall-coverings and then the trim. And before too long the paint, kitchens, tile and wallah, even the new homeowners.

Here's the big storage space for the mechanicals, bicycles, kayaks, etc...

This basement space is coming in real handy with a media area, and then a bedroom and a bath.

And the big views out in to the Tusten hillside forest outside of Narrowsburg, NY.

We see that happen quite often - one of our homes inspire someone to buy, and while it may not be that home specifically, the concept, aesthetic and process gets them off the bench and into the game - which in today's market, is a serious accomplishment.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


(below is an exchange between a new client in Woodstock and James, and is just to show the process a little better. every home owner has their priorities, and their concerns)

Hey James,

First, thanks so much for your quick responses and patience as we go through all of this. Also, I apologize for the brain dump in this email, but not sure how else to do it as things pop up in our heads.

So based on your feedback, we've landed on the palette reflected in the modified Google SketchUp attached to this email. It's basically a darker version of Dean's cottage with the "rusty look" metal roof we're after. Specifically, it's Cordovan Brown siding, the rusty look metal roof, and white windows and trim. Still thinking of the front door. Is there a particular brand or budget range we should be looking at?

Here are some more general questions/thoughts that have come up as we've been thinking and dreaming...

1. Fireplace...Since we are not getting the double fire place, would it be possible to move the firebox into the exterior chimney and have the fire place more flush with the interior wall, so as to reclaim some of the floor space in the living room?

2. Would it be possible to get a floor outlet in the middle of the living room in front of the fireplace? We imagine setting up a couple of comfy chairs facing the fireplace with a lamp on a table between them.

3. Would it be possible to make the window in the front dormer a little smaller, so that the frame doesn't go all the way to the edges of the dormer?

4. Would it be possible to have the stairs come off the front of the porch instead of off to the side (like they are in cottage 36). Would it make sense with the house's orientation?

5. Looking ahead, we like the idea of the stained wood ceilings on the porch and throughout the interior as well. Like this pic from your website:

6. How much of an additional expense would it be to have the interior stone of the fireplace go all the way to ceiling?

7. I think we'd prefer french doors going from kitchen to back deck, as opposed to sliding.

Thanks James!

Monday, March 12, 2012

"I Can't Stop Looking at Absurdly Small Homes"

Tiny house Article -

Funny, we didn't find much success in homes once we dived below 750 sq ft, but I guess, at least according the the media, the concept is alive and well.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sticking with it

Monday was a real whopper - one of those trite displays that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, in a spectacular and wild fashion.

I know I'm painting a picture of our projects in Stone Ridge, Saugerties, Woodstock and Bearsville as seamless and perfectly executed, and for the most part, they go very well, are managed lightly but with laser precision. But being far from home, when things start to spiral the wrong way, oh lordy can they really deteriorate rapidly.

So, at 7:45am I discover much to my chagrin that the 3 man crew sent from Eldred to Stone Ridge (1.5hr drive) failed to take a generator, and since the power is still not on, that means they drove 1.5 hrs (or 4.5 man hours) and now they can't work. Since Stone Ridge isn't really in the middle of anywhere, there is no local equipment rental shop around each corner - in fact, there is not equipment rental shop anywhere. I especially loved the fact that everyone was trying to solve this problem without me knowing it. The fact that the electric still was not on, and we are 65% finished with Cottage 38, well, that's a whole different challenge when you are building in new areas - new inspectors, new neighbors, new electric companies, etc....

With new areas and new building inspectors I always handle the inspections myself, since a lot of times the conversation and the attitude goes a long way. Nothing worse than having a project side-tracked by a fussy inspector and a amateur person from my team escorting the inspector around the house. I've built 100+ homes, so have done at least 400 inspections, personally - I know how to do it so everyone walks away satisfied. So, at 8:30, while I'm on my way to the inspection 1.5hrs away, I get a call from the same guy, Brian, saying the 'pressure gauges' on the plumbing pipes have been removed prematurely, meaning my plumbing and insulation and fireplace inspections are not going to happen, since there was some miscommunication, or actually lack of communication.

So, can't work due to no electric and a fussy inspector is going to be pissed since I'm wasting his time since we called for an inspector, and then weren't ready. Because it's far away, putting this broken egg back together would take a lot of time and effort and coordination and money. Since I'm a guy into efficiency, really drives me nuts.

I even called my plumber to hussle up there, 1.5 hrs away on a moments notice, to get the pressure back on the pipes (not a easy thing to do). (we put pressure on the pipes, with both ends closed, in order to prove there are no leaks in the piping, before we close up all the walls(.

Then it started to turn. The typically ball-breaking (or very thorough, depending on what side of the coin you like) was accomodating, impressed with our progress and quality and showed some flexibility. My excavator who lives 30 minutes away just happened to be in the area, with a generator, that we could use for the day. And as I was leaving, the electric utility - Central Hudson - arrived to do the final hook up and give us some juice.

A whirlwind of a morning from total collapse to total triumph. And the reason why I relate all this is because that's really an analogy for our business journey as a whole - if you don't stick with it, you never know how close you came to turning the corner and succeeding.

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)