Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tales from the Salt City

Bob and I went to Syracuse Stage last evening to see Tales from the Salt City. It's a play, but not really a play, more of an extended interview with "cast" members telling their individual stories. The stories are honed from real life - they "play" themselves - by Ping Chong, the director.

For 1 hour and 33 minutes I sat in rapt attention on the play (for lack of a better word). I know that part of it - a good part - was because I knew so much about what the actors described. I knew the streets, the schools, the times. I knew Syracuse, or at least as much as my own experience alotted.

The main actor was Albert Marshall. We grew up in the same area of the city, at the same time, and graduated from Nottingham High School. I've watched his progress as an actor over the years and seen several shows. He was a dominant presence on the stage as he told his story.

Because he is African-American, his story was different than mine, as he pointed out several times. But it fascinated me that of the extremely minimal details of his childhood he extracted there was the Westcott Cinema. He remembered, as I fondly do, standing in line to go to the movies. When he spoke about high school he praised Mrs. Katzenberger for pushing him into acting. I remember her well for being that special English teacher everyone raved about.

The other stories were equally mesmerizing, but they were stories I didn't know or hadn't guessed. We knew another of the actors, a Cambodian Muslim, through friends. His incredible journey to the person he is now was overwhelming.

The other actors came from Cuba, Mexico, Macedonia, The Sudan (one of the Lost Boys), and the Onondaga Nation. They are all real people telling their real lives as edited by Ping Chong. While at times I had to strain to understand the strongly accented English, the effort was worth it.

Just like my friend Eva's complaints about the United States, these people also missed the ease of social contact they had enjoyed in their homelands. Eva speaks about the cafes of Germany and Mexico where she's lived; people expect to mingle and socialize on a daily basis. It doesn't have to be an occasion that is prepared for weeks in advance. I wish there were some way to bring that richness here.

As the actors brought us up to date on their lives I was sorry to see the end in sight. I remember being a child at Sumner School and hearing about the lives of the many immigrant children in my class. It's as if they all grew up in front of my eyes.

If you are interested in seeing Tales from the Salt City you'll have to hurry - the last performance is November 2nd.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

Let's just say, "Not much has changed!" and go and enjoy the snow that's falling outside my window. You can go and enjoy it - I will when it becomes light and fluffy and December.

There are currently 137 active listings in the Skaneateles area. Last week 8 new ones came on the market; this week we have only one. It's in the town, mid-$300s, and a renovated home. I think listings will slow now for a bit which will drive people to the existing homes and reduce our inventory. Supply and demand!

On the "sold" or "soon to be closed" side there are 10 marked contingent and 10 marked pending. No house moved into this category this past week according to the computer.

Closings year-to-date now number 44, as opposed to 82 at this time last year. One property did close this past week: lake rights, close to the village. It had started on the market in April of 2007, took a break over the winter, and then has been marked sold for a number of months. The issue is the price. It started in the high $700s - and closed in the low $500s. That is a huge difference.

Part of the reason is that pricing waterfront, especially lake rights, is difficult. No two homes are alike. How do you value a few feet of waterfront? In this case, as in others on the lake, the rights are not within easy reach - so do they count? Yes, in the summer and probably not in the winter. So prices are based on what else has sold that could possibly be similar. But each sale is a one-time snapshot - that buyer bought it at a certain time under certain conditions. Those conditions as well as the house are not replicable.

But! Skaneateles has gained in value steadily over the years, "they aren't making any new waterfront," and we have gorgeous homes. Bring in the offers!

Welcome to Skaneateles!

I had lunch at Creekside ( with Intrepid Janet who used to go to broker's opens with me over the summer. Now that she's teaching, I miss seeing her.

As we stood in line she mentioned that she's feeling more at home in Skaneateles. They bought a house last year through me and we became friends. She said now when she moves through the village she sees people she knows and they say hello. It's not just me or her relatives any more.

We took our lunches - I had the curry chicken wrap (so good!) - and went upstairs for a chat. A group of four women were there ahead of us and one gave Janet a lovely greeting. We laughed - "See?" she said.

As we ate she told me that it's often the real estate agent who is the first contact in a new town. Janet and her family have not moved that much, but she says she's been lucky to turn a business relationship into a friendship whenever they have moved.

It struck me how true that is - especially the part about the first contact. People move in for work purposes - men and women take jobs locally so they at least know some people - but their spouses may not. Often it's the agent engaged to find them a home who really sets the tone and provides the first rudimentary social occasions.

Quite a responsibility! I'm glad Janet brought it up and helped me examine this unwritten part of my contract with buyers. I try hard to make the searching pleasant, but I know I will try even harder with her words in mind.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You!

As I was driving home from a closing - a very satisfying closing, I might add - I heard on the news that sales of existing homes rose 5.5% last month. This is the HIGHEST percentage in five years, the reporter said.

Obviously some of this is the result of foreclosures being sold at rock bottom prices and the correction of pricing, now estimated at 10 per cent. I do see more foreclosures out there from the brokerages who deal with them. Just the signs. And then some sit for a while, so the price can't be that good. And frankly, not so many in Skaneateles. We are still doing all right.

I had another closing on Thursday but in the city. When the home - my listing - was on the market I was overrun at an open house. We had two offers within a matter of weeks. The interest remained high even when it was marked contingent and pended. But this was a home in the low $100,000 range and in excellent condition.

I will state it again: there are bargains out there. Buyers have only to look and not wait. If they wait too long the bargains will cease to be. Investors and risk-takers will buy up the extra inventory and we will be back to business as usual - 75 homes on the market in Skaneateles, not 140. Prices increasing, not decreasing. And those who wanted to wait will pay more.

Warren Buffett gives sage advice on which he has built his fortune. I paraphrase, but it's something like buy when everyone else is fearful, hold back when everyone else is buying. He would say, and has said, that now is the time to jump in to the real estate market. My clients who are closing - and I have several - are thrilled. Some don't pay rent any more into the deep hole and others have moved into homes they have dreamt about for years. My investors just smile.

And the mortgage crunch? Don't believe it! With good credit everything is still possible. One of my recent buyers received a 5.87% fixed rate mortgage (30 years) and - and! - almost $1,000 back at the closing, no money down. While that program may be gone now, there are others out there for the single family home buyer. There's a rate cut coming next week and an election to bring about change. We are on the upswing - it's time for everyone to move!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

I started to get excited when I saw the the number of active listings in the Skaneateles area - 139 - had dropped by one from last week yet there were 8 new listings this past week. How could that be? Certainly one or two could be withdrawn or expired, but more likely they were sold.

The new listings were divided between re-lists (3) and new construction (4). There's also an intriguing brand new home for sale which appears to be near 80 acres that are now on the market for $1,000,000 (give or take a thousand of two.....) Incredible views, I would imagine, and a great opportunity to build.

The number of contingent homes has dropped to 9 and pending ones seemed fairly static, so......

Yes! Four homes were reported as closed this past week. Hooray! Take that, 2007! You only had 2 homes close that same week!

Again, this was simple division: 1 new construction, 1 waterfront, 1 lakerights, and 1 village. I thought it was interesting that the waterfront and the village home both sold within 5% of their listing price, while the others conceded reductions. The new construction came in 10% off the price while the lakerights was 25% down. Both had been on for a while, but then so had the waterfront.

There are now 43 closed for this year as compared to 80 last year up to this moment.

For the past few weeks I've watched a new section of the Sunday Post-Standard that lists the five most expensive properties that close the previous week in Onondaga County. The first week the numbers were dismal - in the $200,000 range. That doesn't sit well when 4 of my listings are above $200,000. The next week was better - the lowest was $300,000, but I also knew that was a transfer of property within a family, not a true marketed sale. This past week added homes in the $500,000 range - and yes, several were the Skaneateles closed properties.

I take from this that there are buyers out there ready, willing and able to buy expensive homes. Or that there are homes beginning to sell elsewhere which allow for sales to take place here. We may have a fantastic finish to the year yet!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

House of the Week

I held my lovely listing, 3802 Knightsbridge Road, open on Tuesday. We had 19 agents come through the house, each one pleased with what they saw.

The owners took a plain old split level with 3 bedrooms and 1 full bath and added and remodeled and added again. There are now 4 bedrooms, 2 full baths and a half bath right where it should be off the kitchen. They put up crown molding to give it a non-60s look as you walk in and got rid of the bluestone planter that was such a cornerstone of these properties. You know immediately you are in a very different home from the original.

They added a HUGE kitchen with stainless steel appliances, built in ovens and a HUGE island. The overhang allows for four stools so the chef of the moment can give demonstrations in cooking (gas and jennaire right on the island!) There's a nook for the computer and patio doors that look onto the deck (of course new!) A mudroom coming in from the garage keeps the floors clean.

Off the kitchen is the master bedroom - also looking out on that new deck and the new HOT TUB, too! Follow through to a walk-in closet - almost enough room but then, there's never enough - and a luxury bath. Two sinks, a shower with seats and pretty tiling, and the great jacuzzi sitting under a window. The day of the broker's open the sun was shining through and the owners had placed a grand vase of flowers on the ledge - truly inviting!

A formal dining room, formal living room are in the front of the home and then upstairs to three bedrooms and a full bath. Go downstairs to the lower level and a family room has been created, large enough for a computer desk, pool table, couch and oversized television. Do the laundry down there, too!

Outside it's an acre lot and a corner lot to boot! Part of it is fenced in - the part with the hot tub, deck and the INGROUND POOL (new liner, 2005). It's very attractively landscaped with a slight rise up to the pool. Sitting in the sun of the large deck was wonderful! I could see through to the front door to welcome agents and stay outside as much as possible.

The rest of the land has several trees, the largest spreading its leaves that then swirled with the autumn wind. If you sit in the Adirondack chair under it you look across to the fields and trees. Very pleasant, soothing....a tall glass of iced tea, Newsweek, the late afternoon sun.....

Many of the agents remembered the home before it was remodeled. They were impressed. Four others came from RE/MAX in Fayetteville because they wanted to see it, and they were impressed also.

Check it out if you're in the area - out Onondaga (past my beautiful 11 Onondaga with the carriage house - available!) to New Seneca Turnpike a mile or so to Knightsbridge in Manor Heights. Offered for $289,900.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

Currently there are 140 active listings in the Skaneateles area of the multiple listing service. There were 3 new ones this week: 1 with lake rights, my gorgeous Knightsbridge listing (see House of the Week upcoming), and a village re-list. The latter listing is significant because the original price was 25% higher. The comments under the special instructions are - "time to sell." I guess so. I will remember to keep it in mind as the weeks go by - did the new pricing strategy help?

We do have 4 homes marked as contingent this week. Three are waterfront - no surprises there! - and my lovely Autumn Tree Court. The owners priced it to sell and by golly it did!

Altogether there are now 11 properties in the contingent category and 13 pending. Of the 24, 9 are waterfront and 2 are lakerights.

I read recently in the New Times an article about real estate in the higher priced waterfront towns of Cazenovia and Skaneateles. The agent they interviewed in Caz said buyers were flocking in from out of state because they didn't want their money in the stock market and saw great opportunity in her area. She stated she was on her way to show a $500,000 home and expected mulitple offers on it.

The Skaneateles Realtor said she was experiencing the same phenomenon and that she had sold 4 homes in the past few weeks over $1 million dollars. Wow!

It's odd to me. I have spoken with other agents and home owners in other parts of the country and they say the market has just died. No showings, no sales. People are waiting it out.

I went back and looked at our closings - still 38, none added this past week. Fourteen are waterfront of some kind. We are still in the 35 to 40% range of closings, but definitely increasing the percentage in contingent and pending to 45 to 50%. And this is without seeing those 4 sales that the agent reported.

Yes - money in real estate will stand the test of time, at least in Skaneateles and on the lake. To paraphrase one economist: "It's easier to own property and have it fluctuate in value because the numbers are not as stark." As I watch the Dow, my stomach fluctuates. But I can go home and run the dogs, grab a tomato from the garden, start a fire using wood from our own trees, and enjoy my home without thinking of the loss of equity. If there is any!

There Ought to be a Support Group - or - Cogs

The good news is that I have clients closing on properties. I've had one a week for a bit and I expect two more this week.

The bad news is that it's like giving birth. Everything is a strain.

And, except in one case, it's not the banks. It's the "cogs" as the alternative title suggests. Those cogs just aren't working well. They need some grease, and what that grease is I have no idea.

The banks have for the most part come through. One is giving problems but that's a direct result of the owners not signing the contract quickly before all mortgage issues went haywire this summer. The mortgage people have been spectacular, doing what needs to be done quickly. Maybe they are more attuned to the markets and know speed is necessary.

The cogs are all the people involved in a transaction. The agents start the process and turn it over to attorneys and mortgage handlers. The attorneys order the surveys and the mortgage people order the appraisals. Reports are generated, abstracts are updated, and we go to closing.

But it's breaking down somewhere. A cash deal I had took two months to close while a Nehemiah loan - they still did them until the end of September - is due to close this week after only a month. In both these cases the surveyor was not on the same page as the rest of us and we are stopped. The owners are complaining, the buyers are complaining and I am complaining to the attorneys who refuse to tell me who the surveyors are because I would no doubt complain to them!

And here we sit - all my people who are ready to move, who have worked hard to make it all happen for themselves and their opposite numbers.

Thank goodness it is like childbirth and the pain will be less after closing, but not forgotten.

I don't want to stop writing and leave the impression that it's always the surveyors. It's definitely not - everyone takes turns being the difficult cog. And not all closings go this way - it just seems as if there is an inordinate number of delays recently. I think we all have our eyes on the market. Some, perhaps, more than others.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

So the market may be falling, the bailouts may be increasing, but Skaneateles is looking a bit more reassuring. Where do you put your money when the market is not performing for you? In real estate, my friends!

Currently there are 142 active listings in the Skaneateles area. Five "new" listings came on this past week, but 4 were actually re-lists.

Looking at those gives a sense of what is happening in Skaneateles. Each was re-listed to give it a "fresh face." The numbers are now going to be different - over the 200,000 mark so each new one will bear a number like ML#201003. It will be readily distinguishabl,e from the old 19....... numbers. There is a category called "history" on the listing, and if the address is in-putted correctly the history will appear. But to the naked, non-trained or non-deciphering eye the listing looks "new."

Usually a re-list accompanies a new price, too. One of the waterfront re-lists came down $30,000; the other came down $100,000! One of the homes in the village came down a small percentage, while the other re-list stayed at the same price. Will this help them sell? Probably - but it will be the price reduction rather than the "new look."

There is one new home marked contingent - a tale unto itself, too. After over two years on the market and a list price dropped to 70% of the original, this waterfront property has sold - but we won't know of course until closing what the final number was. There are 8 properties marked contingent at the present time.

The "P" properties are those that either have a mortgage commitment or don't need a commitment because the transaction is cash - and there are 13 of them. Yes, even with all the issues out there economically, people are still being approved for mortgages.

We added 3 closed properties to the list this week to give us a total of 38 so far this year. They range from a village home under 200K to new construction in the mid-500s. A lake rights property settled in between them in price. The closing price of all three was under the list price.

But we hit a new mark. Up until this week we were at or under 50% of what closed last year during the same period. We are now above that - not much, but any good news is worth spreading.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Declutterization - Part Three

We last left my poor house waiting to be decluttered with the aid of a friend. As things have it, she took a different position and I was left with a full closet and basement and half the garage filled with "stuff." I then went off to a very busy late spring and early summer. Now that I am more at home (as opposed to camp) I see the closet and the basement, etc. and want it gone!

This past weekend I saw an article in the Post-Standard about a woman, Marlene Gallo, who helps to make the clutter go away. She was featured in Bob Niedt's column; the name of her company is Tender Transitions. She sounded more like a grief counselor than what I needed, but I gave her a call anyway.

Marlene and I talked briefly. She will go through everything after understanding what is important and find homes for things. She doesn't do e-bay, but maybe I can learn and I have done Craig's List. Things will go after being gone through - amazing! She works by the hour or by the project.

This is going to be a horrible year for many, many people. As I write the Dow is down 500 points. Jobs are going to be lost, people are going to be hungry and cold. I want those good clothes of mine and my mother's to help, the crocheted blankets to warm someone. I haven't done it yet and I know that I won't alone.

I scheduled an appointment for tomorrow evening. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thoughts on Sean Kirst's Column

On Wednesday, Sean Kirst wrote his column about his family and the effects of the Great Depression. He vividly remembers his parents talking about it, sharing stories, shuddering over the possibility of another catastrophic downturn. And their advice.

My parents were also Depression parents. My mother lived on welfare in Syracuse with her brother and sister while their mother struggled to work in a florist shop and keep food on the table. She gave them music, though, and memories of old-fashioned German Christmases. Their holidays were spent at Onondaga Lake, taking the tram out.

My father never talked about his parents or his strict upbringing in Auburn. He did love his camp on Owasco Lake and mourned its loss. He was in college during the Crash, and then worked as an accountant afterwards.

The effect on him, like Sean's parents and Bob's parents and so many others of their generation was life-molding. My father never bought on credit. He had a small mortgage on the home he bought for my mother in Syracuse (I think it was $5.00/month!) but that was it. Cars, appliances, and even the camp were paid for in cash.

I cannot imagine an economy like that. We've become so accustomed to pulling out the plastic, dredging up money from our homes when we need it, borrowing for multiple cars and convenience. I would like to have an economy like that, though.

I heard Paul O'Neill being interviewed on MSNBC. He proposed that all mortgages be required by law to have a 20% down payment. Interesting. The interviewer suggested that maybe returning to the all cash, no credit days would also help. O'Neill became furious - "That would be terrible for the economy!" he bellowed. No one would be able to buy anything and therefore jobs would be lost, etc.

Sean concluded his column:
As Wall Street trembles, we lose more witnesses to the Great Depression....Now, more than ever, we ought to heed their wisdom.
Our rattled Congress will undoubtedly come up with some maneuver to postpone the crisis at our door. The deeper question is whether we sober up as a nation, whether we stop to wonder why a baby boom generation proud of owning so much stuff remains so wistful about a collective childhood in which we had so little.

I remember saving for the tv set. I remember picnics with my grandparents and cousins at Verona Beach. We took only one major vacation that I can remember - a road trip to Williamsburg, Virginia - I came down with the measles before we got to Binghamton. They broke out on the way home. Once we got the camp, that was it. Any extra cash went into that.

I had a lot, looking back. But the reason I had it was my father's insistence that we never live above our means - or even at our means, I used to think. He paid cash for my college education, saved a ton so that when he was gone my mother would never have to worry about money. And she didn't.

He passed away 29 years ago today.