Saturday, November 29, 2008

Old and New Crises

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we got into the mess we're in financially. Basically I know how, but not why it wasn't seen earlier enough for prevention. It was like we woke up one day and "Surprise! Make way for the Depression!"

Paul Krugman's editorial talks about this today from a financial point of view. People did predict it, we heard long and loud about there being a real estate bubble, mortgages couldn't be handled the way they were, and who said we had unlimited natural resources for energy...? Dr. Krugman explained it quite elegantly: "...nobody likes a party pooper."

So if looking back on history didn't help us to stay out of this mess, maybe we shouldn't do it again. Or maybe this time the nay-sayers need to shout it from the rooftops. I just want this slowdown/meltdown to not happen again.

To this end I think we need to look at what we are doing right now and change things for the future. In real estate, houses climbed too rapidly to high prices. Builders built too rapidly and tried to get in under the radar gun of supply and demand. (Go to Vegas - it doesn't work!) The mortgage companies gave out loans left and right. Yes, we got a "no doc" loan to buy this house because we were a retiree (my mother) and two independently employed workers. And we knew we could pay it back once our homes sold - so did Commonfund and we did pay it off.

Solutions as I see it:
1 - Homes need to come down in price, perhaps as much as 10 per cent right now unless they were priced correctly as opposed to optimistically. In Skaneateles there were always the stories of the guy from New Jersey who needed a house and overpaid by $100,000. It had happened and it won't any more. His casual money expenditures went out with Lehman and his kids' college fund.

2 - The builders need to get rid of inventory before they advertise new homes for construction. I would not want to be a builder today.

3 - Mortgages need to return to the 20% down that used to be required. Yes, that means not everyone can buy a house - but our family could have if we had to, and I'll bet many others could, too. It's not as easy to walk away when you have 20% invested.

4a - Homes on the market today need to do everything they can to simply sell. Pricing has to be realistic, and if you can't get $300,000 to "do what you need to do," then you can't do it. Simple. If you said, "I need to get $2,000 for this '85 Escort or I can't buy a new car..." everyone would say "Duh! Then you can't get a new car!" Why pretend?
4b - Fix the homes up. People do not have money for major repairs. They might now, but they don't want to gamble on that rolled roof lasting another two years. They know that something's bound to happen and they'll take their chances on the unknown, but the known problems have to be fixed.
4c - Make it look good. I know lives are busy and it's hard to keep a perfect home (another reason to price to sell) but they must look like the decorator just swept through there. I used to think it wasn't necessary, and frankly it wasn't. Now it is - the competition is too fierce. I remember coming through the village and looking at five homes one weekend with a relocating family. That was it - there were only five! In these times most agents reserve several days for showings if the buyer has to buy. There's so much to see!

So I guess I'm the party pooper. But I don't want a large inventory of unsold homes because I don't know what the next level of this crisis could turn out to be. I want my sellers to move on, to buy or build the house of their dreams, or invest in their children's future.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Convoy Revisited - Thank You, Chamber!

On this grand Thanksgiving Day I want to take time to thank the Skaneateles Chamber of Commerce for their brilliance. Whether the idea came from Sue or Candy or someone else - wow!

On the front page of the local section of today's Post-Standard the headline reads Skaneateles Chamber: See 'Big Truck Parade.' The article begins, "There will be no "Bah! Humbug!" in Skaneateles Friday." I love it!

The reference is to the much-touted convoy of angry truckers who are supposedly driving into the village on Friday at the same time the Dickens' festivities begin. "Just coincidence," said their leader, but whatever. I wrote about this in my blog of November 18th entitled "Convoy." The internet version of the Post-Standard picked it up (seen thanks to a loyal friend who told me about it) and featured it with the article on

The Chamber has decided that instead of a line of women and children holding hands across Genesee Street to block the big bad trucks, we should make friends. So they suggest:

Come early on opening day, so you don't miss the Big Truck parade!

Isn't that just marvelous? The article goes on to suggest where to park in the village. Marketing Skaneateles - and doing it so positively!

I was reminded of the Big Trucks day hosted by the local quarry on 321 at the end of September for years and years that benefits the Skaneateles Nursery School. The kids love climbing in and out - seeing those huge tires and all those levers. It's always a fun day.

So now they can see the Parade of Big Trucks coming specially (coincidence or not) to Skaneateles to herald the Dickens extravaganza. I would love to see the truckers dressing up (see the Grinch comment on my blog) and little children placing wreaths on the front of the cabs while they sit in gridlock on Genesee Street. Well-supervised children, of course. Maybe Tiny Tim can catch a lift with his crutches in tow, or the drivers receive some roasted chestnuts from a Dickens character. Maybe the drivers can collect toys as they move along Route 20 and into the village for children who will have a less than spectacular Christmas this year due to those gas prices. Maybe it's their children.

Whatever happens, whether the Grinch's heart grows and glows or not, the Chamber is to be praised for setting the stage for Convoy, the New Skaneateles Christmas Tradition.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

Is the glass half full or half empty? The turkey ready for leftovers or not enough to get to Sunday?

We now have (only) 121 active listings in the Skaneateles area. Only three came on this week and all were re-lists of previously attempted sales. A lot or a few?

There were three newly marked contingent sales. One is selling under the price the owners paid for it just a year ago, another at about 3/4 the original list price. The last dropped the list price considerably and found a buyer, but until it closes we don't know what it actually sold for (as in price.)

There are still 3 waterfront homes hanging out marked contingent, waiting for a town approval or mortgage or whatever other contingency is needed.

There are 9 pending properties and none new this week. One needs to be finished, as in new construction, another is a very delayed closing and three are not in Skaneateles schools but in the town and out a ways with lower prices.

Going back to the newly sold (hooray!) contingent properties....While we don't know what they sold for, we do know their assessed values. All three sold well under their assessment - as in $27,000, $53,000, and $57,000. (Ouch!) These are in the 15% - 25% range. People have long complained that assessments are too high in the village and town - I would be surprised if the new owners didn't take their sales sheets to the town for re-assessment at market value, i.e., what they paid for them in todays' market.

This does not apply to waterfront. One of the "properties in waiting" sold in the range of 200% OVER the assessed value.

There were two closings this week - one lake rights and another town, closing above the assessed value and within 3% of the list price. Needless to say, it sold quickly.

We now have 53 closed properties in the Skaneateles area year-to-date. Last year there were 90. However, going back and analyzing the data reveals that in this fall market only 25 closed last year while in 2008 23 have closed. Hmmm....My guess is that the market started to change in June/July of last year so it more nearly represents today's market. Looking at the comparison of last June to September: 34 closings for 2007 as compared to 13 closings in 2008, June to September.

Half eaten? We have been in this slow market for more than 15 months. The good news is that we are surviving and improving, up from our low point. I say there's more for leftovers!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

Interesting stuff I've dug up. Now what does it mean? More later.....

Just the facts: there are currently 122 active listings in the Skaneateles area. Two new ones came on this week, one is a re-list and the other prime village waterfront for under one million. Not so bad!

There are only 3 properties marked contingent and 11 still pending. We now have 51 closed properties year-to-date with 2 new ones this week. One was waterfront in the 2 million dollar range, and the other was a home in the town, but just over the village line. Both showed reductions in the original price, but both had other compensating factors.

To date there are 16 waterfront closings out of the 51. Last year there were 89 closed properties with 19 of them being waterfront. As I've said all along, waterfront is still selling, certainly at a faster rate than non-waterfront.

I decided to look at another factor, in part because I was researching the facts for a conclusion on a home I want to sell. Last year by this time the percentage of closed non-waterfront homes under $300,000 was 58% (n = 41). Under $400,000 it climbed to 76% (n= 53).

Now - wouldn't you think that in difficult economic times and a slow real estate market more people would buy in this range? Not so, say my figures. This year - same period of time - of our 35 non-waterfront properties the number is 16 and the percentage is 45%. Under $400,000 the number is 22 and the percentage is 63%. Statistically significant? I would think so, especially if you consider these are the non-waterfront homes.

In others words, more people are buying pricier homes. My guess related to the type of home being purchased and for what reason. The under $300-$400,000 market generally means homes for families in Skaneateles. The higher priced are reserved for people who want an investment or can afford to take a chance even when the market is soft. They also may be the buyers looking for a deal.

I received a phone call today from an agent with whom I am working a deal to be closed next week I hope. Without any lead from me, she began lamenting the lack of buyers in this price range. I had started the blog last night and had to stop to run to the Syracuse game, so the numbers were fresh in my mind. She works out of an office in another area even - so Skaneateles, you are not alone!

So what does this mean for the home I want to sell in this range? It will be difficult - but it's such a good deal!


The morning paper caused a very spirited discussion at the breakfast table. We have to do something to keep warm now that the snow is here, I guess.

On the front page there was an article about a trucking association which is planning a demonstration in Skaneateles on November 28th, the kick-off of our annual Dickens celebration (and shopping spree.) Supposedly 400 trucks will drive down Route 20 and arrive in the middle of the village just in time for the opening ceremonies at the Sherwood Inn.

The protest concerns the Governor's (and others) attempt to ban truck traffic in Skaneateles that is just passing through on its way south or north. The trucks currently jump off the Thruway at Weedsport and careen (my word - guess which side I'm on!) down the back country roads to arrive in Skaneateles at the light on State and Genesee (aka Routes 321 and 20). They turn left, go up to the light at East Lake Road and fly down the lake to Homer where they pick up Route 81 and continue south.

For years the village and town have wanted this practice stopped. These are trucks that do not belong on the small, two-lane roads for miles and miles. It's a safety issue much more than an aesthetic one. I have been on East Lake in the winter and there are freak snowstorms that create white-out conditions. It's hard enough for cars, but with a truck breathing down your back it's even harder. Last year Alex hit a wall of snow on his way up from Manhattan and promptly went off the road. Thank goodness no truck was following!

In the summer the trucks zoom down East Lake past camps close to the road. Kids, dogs, joggers all use the side to play, walk and run. Cars have to back out into the road. I'm amazed there haven't been more accidents.

The article quoted a driver - "Since when do we tell people where they can drive?" To the truckers it's a matter of livelihood. Coming off at Exit 15 and getting on 50 (?) miles down the road saves miles and therefore money in both tolls and gas. Why should they go around and through the city of Syracuse? The entrance to 81 is dangerous as well right at the university with an odd merging system that makes me hold my breath and hope noone hits me every time I drive there.

Bob's point was the libertarian side. How can we tell the drivers no, don't come into our village? Who really has the priority here? The truckers pay more for that Thruway every year than cars. We need them and the goods they bring. If they can save a buck, then we save a buck down the line as consumers.

I sincerely hope that there is a way to compromise. The truckers will meet with Mayor Bob Green to find one, but they may not be well-liked if they disrupt the festivities. But then again, Charles Dickens would have appreciated a fracas. Imagine Scrooge taking on a truck with his cane? Queen Victoria being held hostage? Come to the village on the 28th and see for yourself. And stop in to my open house on Knightsbridge on the 30th, while you're visiting....

Friday, November 14, 2008

House of the Week

The call came in at 8:45. "The house is going to be finished today, furniture and people come tomorrow. If you want to see it, come today!"

The voice belonged to John MacDonald, a builder with his partner, Patrick McCarthy, of spectacular homes. They've done cottages before - concrete walls, specially designed windows, shake siding with their own green clapboard. Lovely homes that live in the trees. In Oswego.

The day of course was cold and blustery with snow in the air. Not the day to drive 40 miles one way, all north. Intrepid Janet had to work, the dogs were unreliable, Bob was at my aunt's finishing a job, but I had to go. Ice or no ice! Neither wind nor rain......the houses they build are that special.

This one was more so, about 5,000 sf of "moreso." I came up the 800 foot drive to a sea of contractors' vans and the rear of the house and wandered in. John said hello and made a dump run, giving me over to Patrick.

The first room I entered was the daughter's room with - I kid you not! - a mote outside the windows (actually basement window wells) but the analogy made sense. The walls were textured, the woodwork phenomenal, the doors - all interior wooden carved doors - were arched. The effect - spectacular. And I hadn't gotten out of the rear bedroom yet!

Down a hall to the kitchen - huge, naturally, and solid and big. Ovens and wine coolers and stone and granite. An arch over the 6 burner Viking stove, stainless steel appliances except for the dishwasher hidden away in a panel. Patrick pulled open a couple drawers in the island and said "Look at this!" I had no idea what I was looking at - I'm not sure he did, either! He didn't even bother trying to explain the steam oven.

Beyond that was a fireplace and den, then another one I think but I'm getting lost. All the richness of detail. I said it was like a castle, and he agreed. That was the intention - a new home that felt like it had been there for years. The carved wood - but not overbearing with light everywhere.

The main room was a great room open to the kitchen, centered by a massive fireplace. The chandelier - copper and filagree - could be lowered to dust or change bulbs. The staircase on the side caught my eye - spindles had been ordered from Italy for it. Above the room it opened into a small balcony overlooking what could be mad revelers or a round table with knights.

Upstairs was quiet. A den, a guest bedroom, the master bedroom - everywhere details and texture. I met Dina Pollits McCarthy, Patrick's daugher-in-law, who completed the tour while he went off to work. She graciously showed me through - the bathroom off the den, blue, with the prettiest flooring! - and told me that her husband, Noel, had crafted many of the built-in wood fixtures.

The master bath took my breath away. I love bathrooms. I think they are both essential and lend themselves to creativity. This was no exception. Dina explained that the focal point, a massive jacuzzi double seated tub was situated in the center so the owners could see the stars while they soaked. She demonstrated a screen that could be raised and lowered for privacy that stayed hidden when not in use. I'm sure I'm going to think of that tub in the winter months to come.

There was so much more. The lighting, the furniture, the closets - all massive and chosen by Dina to give a sense of stability and function as well as beauty. She explained those drawers Patrick had pulled out - refrigerated vegetable drawers near the stove for the weekly organic delivery. And yes, you can bake a cake in a steam oven.

Dina was the decorator who had a vision, but as she explained to me the vision came only after speaking with the owners. And they are thrilled, understandably. They are moving in to a gorgeous home that is both a magnificent piece of art and a home.

I walked outside into the winds and the cold, realizing that I hadn't felt one buffet while inside. John told me the house was built to accept wind, solar, and geothermal energy systems. The goal is zero cost eventually when all is in place.

As I drove home I listened to NPR and Talk of the Nation which providentially had a program on real estate. The experts agreed there were two spots in the entire country in which properties increased in value: some odd areas of North Carolina and Upstate New York. But even in the midst of this most dismal economic year, a home such as the one I had just visited could be built with relative certainty that it would hold its value.

To see photos, Dina will soon load them on her website:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

You've heard it all before, but I assure you things are moving again!

I had an open house this weekend. Same house - 3802 Knightsbridge - as a month ago. Turnout was dismal then, but this time I was busy throughout the two hours. And then just as I was packing up a couple showed up and we went off to see another home for comparison's sake. The agent of that home said it had a real offer on it - after almost two years and many reductions. The next day lovely 11 Onondaga was shown twice, and one family was looking because their home had just sold!

There are the same number of listings - 129 - active in the computer for the Skaneateles area as last week. Two fell away somehow and were replaced by (1) a re-list of a waterfront property in the 2M range, now reduced by 10% which seems to be the magic number and (2) a re-list in the mid$300,000s in the town. There were no new "sales" as in contingent sales, and only 1 new closing. This was a village 2 (yes, 2!) bedroom home that sold in the mid-$300,000s within 5% of its list price almost immediately. It was one of those homes that people wait for and when it arrives, they pounce and apparently were able to pounce.

We now have 48 closed single family homes this year as compared with 87 last year. We're doing better percentage-wise - certainly well above the 50% mark where we were through most of the year.

I happened to look at land for sale today. There are 87 pieces of property, most of them building lots, for sale in the Skaneateles area. This year to date 11 have closed. Last year at this time there were 16 closings, thanks in part to Butters Farm.

Around here it's 60 days to closing, we like to say. That's 60 days from the time of purchase offer through inspection through mortgage commitment to closing date. Everything slows around the holidays. Everything meaning attorneys and mortgage people and banks. We Realtors keep going, or at least most of us do. It's always good to start the new year with sales in our pockets - or for me, the bottom drawer.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Skaneateles Real Estate - The Weekly Update

I know this update is a day later than usual, but yesterday was not a usual day. We elected a President. I am still in awe of the process and the numbers that turned out, both voters and in that Chicago Park. We watched MSNBC most of the night, so I don't know what everyone else saw, but Jesse Jackson's face with tears streaming down said it all.

On to real estate, which I firmly believe will pick up now that the election and uncertainty are over. I've had three calls already this Wednesday morning for showings on my listings!

There are currently only - I love saying only - 129 listings in the Skaneateles area marked as active. Last week there were 137 so some have fallen off or been rented or simply withdrawn for the winter. There have been 13 withdrawals this past month which seems high to me.

The 2 new listings are interesting for what they say about the economy and the expectations of the sellers. Both are village re-lists. One came down $20,000 or the 10% I suggested a while back would sell almost all the properties. The original list price last year was about $80,000 higher! Pricing, pricing.... The second re-list went up $10,000. I know people who believe this works. I'll keep an eye on it.

There are 8 single family homes listed as contingent and I just put one of them into the pending column to add to the 11 that were already there. Close within a month? Mine will, but I can't speak for the others. Some have extremely delayed closings into the late spring, I do know that.

There was one new closure - lake rights, wouldn't you know it! The sale came in within 5% of the list price and was a fairly rapid sale. There are now 45 closings this year as compared to laster year's 84 at this time. Either this year is gaining, or the slowdown started about this time in 2007. That would make us a year into it and coming out. Hooray!

Did you see the comment I published on the last update? One of the blog's avid readers suggested that 10 feet of waterfront sold for $300,000. Amazing! Skaneateles has a lot of money and more money is coming in every day. My guess is that this 10 feet improves someone's property and it's worth it to buy privacy. Let's hope that we don't get to the point where every last inch is developed and privacy becomes a rarity. Frankly, the village homes and waterfront can't be found anywhere else - but then, I'm a mite partial.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Wild Boars ("or do you mean wild bars?")

Last year I wrote about the wild boars that roamed the southeast end of Skaneateles Lake. It was hard to believe that these great monsters could be out there in the hills.

On Friday, I believe, one was shot and killed, his picture in the Sports section of the Syracuse Post-Standard. All 270 pounds of him!

And he was taken not on the south end of the lake, but on the west side just two miles from the village. No! Yes!

The farmer chased him down Hencoop (there are a couple lovely homes for sale on the road, by the way...) and finally did him in with his third shot. Hencoop!

These piggies grow to be 400 pounds. Since they're wild, I bet they don't like to be harassed. The DEC requests politely that you don't harass these babies because they are trying to catch them and relocate them. Relocate where? And who is out there making their lives miserable?

We have a friend who thinks he saw one crossing Franklin Street Road where it intersects with County Line. It wasn't a dog, it wasn't a deer, and it rumbled.

So here's my question: What do you do if you confront one? I am picturing myself out in the woods wearing my fluorescent orange. The pig thinks I'm a day-glo pumpkin and decides to investigate. Boo - all 85 pounds of him in his fluorescent orange vest - and Koko in her SU orange sweater are with me. We're unarmed (duh!) except for Boo's lead which I use to keep him from visiting his French bulldog girlfriend named Alex on our way home. I digress.....

So there we are, on the hill above the cornfield, and this boar wants to make our acquaintance. What do I do? What would Boo do? Koko's too old to see or hear it, so she would probably miss everything.

I had two dogs in Seattle years ago. They started barking furiously one Sunday afternoon, then stopped as suddenly and slunk away. I looked out the window. A wolf had gotten loose from the Woodland Park Zoo and was wandering down the street with an entourage behind her, waiting for the sedative to take effect. My dogs wanted nothing to do with her, as if they recognized this was no ordinary canine. I digress again....

So someone tell me, please! I know my blog is linked to and their blogs. Maybe someone reading this will know. What should we do - besides run like hell! There are tree stands in the woods - do I climb one with Koko and leave Boo to fend for himself? Scream - cry - charge the pig? Help!

Another sighting was on the border between Skaneateles and Elbridge - just over the hill. I think I need to know, and soon!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Happy Halloween!

What a wonderful day! I left the house at 10:30 to make the rounds wearing gloves and my favorite fall coat. I bought the coat years ago in Saratoga, waiting until the price dropped so I could afford it.

I remembered another fall day when I wore it. Alex was 7 and we had gone overboard on Halloween that year. He wanted to be Garfield, so together we created a papier mache head and tiger costume for him. It was grand!

I was teaching in an alternative high school and one of my students decided I didn't seem scary enough for Halloween so she teased my long hair and then sprayed it to stand up straight. Why not? It was the spirit of the day that mattered.

I went to help out at Alex's school with the parade and party. A camera crew was there from the station in Albany and they loved Alex, following him around all afternoon. Of course in the parade the oversized Garfield head fell off and he uttered a word they promptly cut out of the news segment. Another time he fell - couldn't see in that giant head either - and I helped him up, pretty coat and scary hair and all!

We still have the tape and Alex plays it for newcomers in his life. The Garfield head, quite battered and buffeted, resides on the top shelf of my closet. It's memories like this that come back on these gorgeous fall days. I'm glad I'm not teaching any more; instead of being in a classroom I went down the lake to see a family with a beautiful camp. But I miss having my own small boy on Halloween.