Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Values Going Up in Luxury Home Markets

Good news for luxury towns such as Greenwich, according to researchers at DataQuick--  the number of homes sold at more than $1 million rose nationally by 37% in the first half of 2013. Last Friday, the Wall St. Journal headed its Mansion section with “the recovery in high-end real estate,” and Bloomberg reports that luxury home prices in the biggest four cities that had fallen nearly 46% during the downturn have now more than doubled.
If the formerly-missing luxury home buyers have been buoyed by record-breaking Wall St. returns, it’s not surprising that they’re now ready to come out of hiding. For some owners of luxury homes in Greenwich, that’s what they’ve been waiting for.
Of course, marketing a luxury home in our town takes a deft hand. Selling any product in the luxury category requires some familiar skills: since the price tags are top-tier, the buyers require service and goods to match. The buyer is someone whose time is at a premium; they are likely well-schooled in discerning quality that goes beneath the surface and who won’t hesitate when it comes to making important decisions.  In short, selling high-end properties requires highly focused, top tier marketing.  Three insights into my marketing approach for these sorts of properties:
Our marketing efforts are targeted, focusing on a very narrow segment of the population. We go where the buyers are, centering on websites and in luxury publications that they frequent. Placement in elite publications enhances a property’s perceived value by association.
When people purchase a luxury property in Greenwich, they aren’t just buying a house, they are reinforcing a lifestyle choice. That means the community should be a prime selling point.  Knowing Greenwich intimately for over 20 years, allows me to speak to it with buyers, which helps more confidently picture life in their new community.
Successful people usually regard themselves as standouts because, well…they are! It’s hard to find the luxury home buyer who wouldn’t choose a distinctive property over one that, even though luxurious, isn’t special in some way. That’s why positioning a property, telling a story about it and creating a feeling is important.

 If you are preparing to sell your Greenwich property, having a realtor who is keyed to the community, has strong relationships within the realtor network and is marketing-driven is critical.   Doing your homework on the front end will make life easier down the road.  If you would like a market assessment of your home, please contact me at

Monday, January 27, 2014

Renovating or Building a Home? An Interview with Hobbs Construction

 Fixed Price vs. Construction Management Fee

An Interview with Scott Hobbs, Hobbs Construction, New Canaan, CT  203-966-0726

RK: Your firm has received national awards for building and are known in our area as an exemplary building firm.  Hobbs has been in the business for over fifty years and you have been part of the company for the 22 of them.  
Let's say you are about to undertake a renovation project or want to build your dream home.  Take us through the first steps of the process.
SH:  Most people come with a list.  Typically, they will sit with the architect and develop that wish list, answering questions from the architect that can give him/her a better sense of what is important, likes and dislikes.  Clients most often give the architect a budget number.  I would say that two things are critical in this first step: 

1.  Be honest about what you want, and can, spend on the project.  Beyond the construction cost, there are likely to be other costs, such as landscaping and decorating.  Be sure you identify all elements of the project and have a contingency, as well.

2.  Think through what your programming priorities are.  Not what others think they should be, but what matter to you. As odd as this might sound, there are many times that I hear homeowners recite things that they want that are reflections of what they think they should want, instead of what they really want.  That's a big mistake.  At the end of a project, you don't want to turn to the architect or builder and say, "I should have spent more for X, and it really didn't matter about Y".  Let's take windows, for example.  When I show you a window, are you the sort of person that says, "Wow, look at that view!" or do you sit there and admire the materials, the construction and the hardware of the window.  That tells you something right away about your priority on windows. 

RK:  OK, so we have an idea of what we want.  The architect starts developing conceptual ideas around my budget, right? 
SH:  Well, yes and no.  Most architects are passionate about design; budgets and schedules don't get them excited.  While they are usually respectful of budgets, the majority don't approach a design by saying, "Oh, let me design a house that is $400/sq ft."  They just listen to what you want, and then start designing.  The worst thing that can happen is that they design your dream house, only to get it out to bid and find that it is twice the budget.
RK:  That sounds like it potentially can be a waste of time and money, since the architect will have to go back to the drawing board and start cutting and perhaps changing the entire approach.
SH:  Unfortunately, it happens a lot.  That's why I like the idea of a construction management fee approach.  With this approach, the homeowner and architect do their due diligence before the project begins, and bring in a contractor right from the get go.  The decision is based on interviews, recommendations, referrals, reputation, and looking at projects the contractor has done that are similar in scope and materials and getting an idea of what those costs ran.  If you bring in a contractor at the early design phase, they can then be provide continual cost feedback from the earliest stage.  They need little more than conceptuals and basic information on the exteriors, windows and doors, materials for the roof and shell, size, etc. and an understanding of the level of finishes that the homeowner and architect have in mind to provide you with a pricing takeoff.
RK:  That makes a lot of sense but I bet this would make some people nervous not to have a set of plans bid out that they can then compare.
SH:  The majority of our customers actually take the construction management approach.  Think about this.  Labor and materials are about a 50/50 split in construction costs.  Materials are commodities where nobody gets a substantially different price from someone else.  So, if there are pricing differences, they must come from the labor, supervision and contractor profit.  You then have to ask why do labor costs vary?  Are the skill set the same of the laborers for various contractors? Are they insured?  Do they have their proper work papers?  Were background checks completed?  If you are really looking at equally skilled workmen and subs, their costs across a basket of subs (there are roughly 30-40 categories of subcontractors required for a full house project) will be the same.  There just isn't any way around this.  The last two costs are supervision and contractor profit.  The supervisor is the engine of the machine.  Good supervisors run about $100-120/hour and are salaried.  That's the market rate in this area.  No way around that one either.  And profit on a residential construction profit is 10-15% on larger projects, and 15-20% on smaller ones.  Sure, you can probably find a hungry contractor that will take a lower profit percentage, but you want to be sure he has the backing so that if he misbid an item, he isn't suddenly working at a loss on which he cannot afford to make good.  
RK:  Let's say I really just am not ready to tie in with the construction management concept and want to do enough design of my dream house that I can send it out to a number of contractors and get a fixed price.  What's wrong with that?
SH:  That is certainly a viable approach as long as you are prepared to go through some redesign if you find the bids come in too high.  Your architect should give all contractors the same bid set and a guideline as to the categories and way that the bidding should come back.  It's really critical that you see bids side by side, line item by line item.   You should also remember that you are implicitly asking each contractor to come back with as low a price as is humanly possible that just barely can meet the specifications.  Any dollar that they put in that exceeds what is included in the documentation makes it more likely that they will not get the job even though it may have been for something that would have made you happier.  While many people have claimed that the fixed number is not really important to them, our experience has shown that the low bid wins in these circumstances around 95% of the time.

But here's another thing you could do.  You could select a contractor to be involved in the pre-construction phase.  Typically, you would pay an hourly fee for this service.  It both gives you a chance to "test drive" each other as well as get the guidance that is so helpful before to much time and energy is spent on designing.  Depending upon how much time the contractor spends in this process, the dollars spent might be refunded back into the project, if you end up selecting him to build your house.
RK:  Thank you for your time.  As a realtor, I must say that when there is a house that I am showing that is built by Hobbs, there are no questions asked.  Everyone knows that your firm builds a superior home.  Given that, can you share with us one resource that you are consistently impressed by?
SH:  Sure.  Stephen Gamble of Historic Flooring on Lewis St. in Greenwich comes immediately to mind.  Their flooring, stains and finishes for any wood from floors to cabinetry, are in a class of their own.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

This Week's Real Estate Sales in Greenwich, CT Including a Round Hill Road Gem

Despite this week's snowstorm putting a pause in the work week, 11 properties closed -- 9 single family homes and 2 town homes.  The least expensive property to sell was a $610,000 Riverside tudor on Sheephill Rd.  Built in 1928, it is 1,774 sq. ft and sits on .22 acres.  It lasted on the market just 170 days, speaking to the continued strength of Riverside as the fastest growing segment of Greenwich neighborhoods.

A noted sale of the week was one of my favorite homes on Round Hill Road.  90 Round Hill Road is known to many as "The Yellow House", and is just barely seen as you drive up Round Hill, on the left.  This 1938 Federal home was expanded in the mid-2000s and renovated in 2010.  It is that rare combination of gracious living that understands how we live today,  with a large family room off a spacious kitchen.  From the moment you step into , you can feel the soul of this home, which is why I'm always a sucker for pre-war homes.  They speak to you.  At 6,484 sq. ft and on 2.5 acres, the property was introduced to the market at $7.35 million and sold 238 days later for $6.25 million-- 15% off it's List Price.  I suspect it is more a story of motivated sellers than anything else as it certainly is a lovely home in pristine condition.  
This coming week will release my Year End 2013 Real Estate report.  Lots of information by price level and neighborhood as well as an interview with Scott Hobbs (Hobbs Construction), the skinny on what folks want in master bathrooms today (and is His and Hers still a must have?) and the history of Greenwich Avenue.  To get a copy write me at:

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Luxurious Master Bathrooms for Yourself and for Resale

Are His and Her Baths That Important? And Other Master Bath Questions

A Lady's Master Bath showcasing Sherle Wagner fittings and faucets    Interior Design: Ellsworth Ford
A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that 6% of buyers consider His-and-Her baths essential, and 18% insist on a private toilet compartment.  In Greenwich, the His and Hers bathrooms are a feature that are 95% of the time met with great enthusiasm by prospective buyers.
 According to the NAHB study, men's focus is showers, while women want soaking tubs, often with a whirlpool or air bubbling feature.   Some couples are requesting enormous shower areas with two shower heads and multiple body sprays. Whether it's a shower for two or one, steam is a luxury that is not to be beat.  Seats in showers are desirable, for women I suspect it makes for a convenient perch for leg shaving while men seem to be all to happy to use it for a moment (or two or three) rest before the day begins.  The other upgrade of frequent mention in the study is a vanity or makeup area for women. 

In the 22 years of renovating luxury homes and heading an interior design firm,  I've seen master baths come close to becoming "a destination place" in the home-- or at least a place of retreat and relaxation.  In our decorating practice at Ellsworth Ford, master bathrooms receive much attention.  Options we bring up for consideration include radiant heat flooring, music systems and small televisions that connect to the house's overall system, stylish faucets and fixtures, and a wall mounted magnifying mirror for the woman of the house.  Most often, marble is my material of choice for master baths and plumbing fittings include Sherle Wagner, P.E. Guerin, Waterworks, and Lefroy Brooks.

In my real estate practice, I see master bathrooms and bedrooms as being one of the most considered spaces in high end homes, equal to or just behind kitchens and family rooms.

Thinking of renovating or building a new master bath or baths?
A new master bath in a 1980s Georgian.  Interior Design: Ellsworth Ford

1.  The bathroom should be sympathetic to the architecture of your house:  No problem with incorporating desired bells and whistles but don't create a big style disconnect.  For example, if you have a traditional home, the cabinetry doesn't have to be raised or recessed panels, but screaming contemporary is going to fall funny.  
2.  Think through your priorities but also think resell:  A generous sized shower stall, ample storage, double sinks (if you share the master) and a separate toilet compartment should be top of mind.
3.  Strength of shower spray:  The debate is often between rain head or conventional shower head.  What's right for you depends upon your water flow and water pressure, amongst other factors.  Show your plumber the type of head you are considering and ask how it will perform in your particular home.  That said, every shower head performs differently, with the general rule of thumb that the more you spend, the better the head.  Price does, most often, have a relationship with performance.
4.  Air bath vs. whirlpool/jacuzzi?  Is one more sanitary than the other?  The biggest difference is actually in the kind of massage the tub will deliver.  To learn more about the differences:
Fifteen or twenty years ago, the focus on room upgrades was the kitchen.  Today, it seems that the master bath is going through that same sort of rethinking.  Bathrooms used to be thought of as purely functional rooms; today, they are seen as another "living space" of sorts.  

The Yellow Brick Road: Greenwich Avenue

The Yellow Brick Road:  Greenwich Avenue
by intern Charlotte Hawks, Vanderbilt University

Venturing to Greenwich Avenue today guarantees a few things: difficulty finding a parking place, ever-changing stores, a variety of restaurant options from green juices to juicy steaks, and running into people you know.  Throughout its history, Greenwich Avenue has remained a steadfast part of the fabric of Greenwich life.

Greenwich Avenue began as a dirt road called "the road to Piping Point" and was transformed by the introduction of rail transportation in 1848, becoming known simply as Greenwich Avenue.   Less than a decade later, the first commercial building opened on Greenwich Ave.  It's tenants?  A shoe store on the first floor and law offices on the second.   Horse-drawn buggies were the mode of transportation, remaining the main source of transportation until a trolley system was installed in 1901.   Greenwich Ave. was laid with bricks in 1903 and commonly referred to as the "Yellow Brick Road."  Parking spaces were marked in 1928 as the automobile made it's appearance and meters  were added in 1953.  It wasn't until 1970 that Greenwich Avenue became a one-way street due to the high volume of traffic.

Before large corporate retailers such as J.Crew, Baker Furniture and Apple became Avenue staples, the street featured family owned and operated businesses.  Rogers Clothing, Widman Bakery, Grossman's, and Favorite Shoe Store, were just a few of those that many of us still remember.   Betteridge Jewelers is one of the last family owned businesses to operate on the Avenue.  The first major department store came to Greenwich Avenue in 1932 as Franklin Simon & Co., followed by the five and dime store, F.W. Woolworth's in 1964.   Saks Fifth Avenue replaced Woolworth's in 1996. 

But shopping and dining weren't the only reason to come to Greenwich Avenue.  Town government was conducted in what is now the Board of Education building, across from Starbucks.  The late 19th century and early 20th found an auditorium, Ray's Hall, for entertainment (which was on the corner of Lewis and Greenwich Ave.),  the first library (which was located at the current Saks location), Havemeyer School, a bank and even a few inns all on Greenwich Avenue.

The Avenue was the hub of community life, from parades (one of the greatest being that which marked the end of WWI) to town gatherings.  While the businesses may have changed over the year, the attention to preserving historic buildings and renovating newer ones to a standard that befits the town.

Information from:
1) Clark, William J. Images of America: Greenwich.  Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2002.
2) Richardson, Susan. Greenwich Before 2000: A Chronology of the Town of Greenwich 1640-1999. United Kingdom: The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, 2000.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

2014 Greenwich Real Estate Kicks Off With Two Over $10 Million Sales

Bright Brook Farm, Greenwich CT

Bright Brook Farm's Dutch Barn
Predictions are that 2014 will be a strong year for Greenwich real estate and the second week supports that sentiment.  Thirteen single family homes sold the week ending 1/19/14, with the lowest priced home selling for $1.15 million at 67 Sound Beach Ave.  On the market just 56 days, this 3 bedroom, 2 1/2 bath house is 1,533 sq. ft.

8 homes sold under $4 million, three sold between $4-5 million and two properties sold over $10 million.

45 John St., Bright Brook Farm, features Dutch barns, converted to living space, equestrian facilities, carriage house and a barn.  The main house, an quintessential New England colonial has been renovated.  Set on over 11 acres, the main house is 7,995 sq.ft.  The property sold for $11.92 million.

5 Conyers Farm sold for $11.5 million and is 14,706 sq. ft. set on 12 acres.  This 1994 home and property was purchased in March, 2010 for $6.9 million and extensively renovated and decorated in 2011.

For a complete look at the 2013 market results, by neighborhood and price level, please request my 2013 Year End Newsletter by emailing

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Top Strategies to Get Your House Sold Quickly As Proven in 2013

It's 2014.  Is selling your house on your list of New Year's Resolutions?  If so, read on.

Sold before hitting the market, sold in the first week, sold within 3 months after 3 years on the market with another realtor.  These were all real accomplishments in my real estate practice in 2013.    What was the secret sauce that led to these results?  

Ten of my top strategies for positioning, preparing and introducing your house to the market in the strongest way possible are given below.  

1.  Price It Right:  No way around this.  Analyze the heck out of the market (or rather, have your realtor do that), understand exactly what the competition is, what sales of similar properties were in the last 6 months and objectively look at the findings.  We understand that you think your house is worth "X".  But all that matters-- if you really want to sell it-- is what the market thinks it is worth.
2.  Tackle the Differed Maintenance Projects: Have you been putting off having the exterior of the house painted or getting the HVAC system serviced?  Put on your inspector's hat (or better yet, have your handyman or contractor walk through the house and around the outside with you) and determine what items really should be in working condition or in better shape than they are.  
These things will come up in the building inspection most likely and you will be asked for a credit to get them in shape.  Might as well avoid the haggling and get them taken care of before the house is listed.  Besides, buyers are much more comfortable looking at homes that appear to be well maintained and cared for.
3. Clean Out the Clutter:  Closets, drawers, things in corners of rooms and in bookshelves. It's mentally exhausting to have to look through and around clutter.

4.  Is The Furniture Adding or Detracting?: No matter what a buyer says, like "I can see past the decorating", they are still impacted by what they see.  Have your realtor or a friend with good taste go through each room and move the furniture around to it's best advantage or take it out.  Are the shelves and closets organized?  

The house I sold in 3 months after it had been on the market for three years I had the owner remove all furniture, art and rugs and leave just the master bedroom and family room (with some rejiggering) with furnishings.  

5.  Is Your Home Looking Dated? I always take a good look at the wall colors of homes I am representing.  More than 5 years old and they can make a house look dated.  It doesn't cost much to repaint walls and lighten things up.  
Are the carpets looking old or are they worn? If so, think about removing them and just showing the bare wood (if you have it underneath).

6.  Curb Appeal Counts: Is the landscaping looking manicured?  The driveway and curbing in good condition?  Is the front door peeling or worn?  From the driveway to the front door and all around the house, be sure the first impression is a good one.
7.  Lighten Up:  Look at the curtains or blinds in every room.  Are they keeping out light?  If so, consider pulling them back, raising them as high as possible or removing them so that the natural light is maximized.
8.  No pests nor pets: Not everyone loves pets as much as you do.  Be sure they are removed for every showing.  And while we are talking about four or more legged creatures.  Are there any bugs, bees or other pests that you should have taken care of?
9.  Showtime is Anytime: Have the house in ready to show condition at all times.  That means beds made, bathrooms picked up and the kitchen cleaned.
10.  Pick the Right Agent: No this is not self-serving, it is practical and logical.  An agent that is active in the market, has strong relationships with the realtor community (so she/he can negotiate their way through a deal) and knows the right way to market your house will get the job done.