Taking Control Of A Sellers’ Market

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We are in the thick of a sellers’ market in upstate New York. Good properties at reasonable prices are getting multiple offers within days of being listed. Properties that languished, perhaps because prices were a bit higher than the market would support, are now getting full price offers.

This isn’t anecdotal. This is precisely my experience. And thanks to my experience, I can give you some advice to help you successfully navigate a hyper-competitive market.

First, let’s start with today’s underdogs – the BUYERS.

Yes, inventory is low. It’s not your imagination. There just aren’t enough properties for the sheer number of buyers. It’s a game of musical chairs, and buyers are scrambling for the best chairs. Those left standing, then re-evaluate the chairs that are left, and if they don’t move quickly, someone else sits down while they’re thinking. Another property gone.

Here are five tips to help you get the house you want.

1. Pick an agent. Seriously. Far too many buyers are accustomed to urban areas, where it makes plenty of sense to simply call a listing agent, and never commit to a buyer’s agent. It doesn’t work in rural areas and it’s really a problem in a competitive market. Having your own agent means having someone scouring the new listings for you every day, listings you won’t see on Zillow for a day or more, and giving you a heads up. Your agent can preview for you, even if you can’t get to a showing for a few days. And that early start makes a difference. Finally, a buyer’s agent is YOUR ally in a negotiation. A listing agent would have to act as a dual agent, representing both you and the seller. It can be done, and done well. I’ve done it myself. But in a competitive market, you want someone who represents only you. The cost to you? ZERO. Upstate, sellers pay the listing agent, and the listing agent splits the commission with the buyer’s agent. So why wouldn’t you?

2. Get pre-qualified. If you’re going to need a mortgage, make sure you’ve already applied, and gotten a pre-qual, at the very least, from a local bank. Pre-approvals are even better. But any offer must include a bank pre-qual or proof of funds for a cash sale. If you find the place you want, you’ll be ready to make an offer without delay.

3. Use technology. It saves you time, and helps you zero in on properties that really interest you. Use Google Earth. “Walk” around communities, even down the street in front of the properties you like. Read up on the towns, the schools, the attractions. Be an armchair sleuth. Also, understand that Zillow “estimated values” mean nothing in rural areas. Zillow has no clue. So understand the limitations of the tools you use.

4. Don’t try to outsmart the market. In a seller’s market, an offer with lots of unusual contingencies, or an offer well below asking price, just isn’t worth the effort. And it’s likely to turn off a seller. If you like a property, make a reasonable offer, and listen to your buyer’s agent. If it’s likely to get multiple offers, make an offer that stands out in a good way.

5. The more reasonable you are, the more attractive your offer is. Can you give sellers a little extra time to move out? That might be appealing. Will you refrain from nickel and diming them on every little item in the inspection report? Very attractive. Offer a seller a simple, uncomplicated way to sell, and you’re going to come out on top.

SELLERS – these are for you.

1. Don’t be greedy. Listen to your agent, price your house correctly. And if you get a good, solid offer, work with those buyers. If you get multiple offers, let your agent guide you in the best way to handle them. And if what’s proposed doesn’t sound right to you, ask for alternatives. But don’t make the mistake of getting a full price offer and trying to dangle the buyer along as enticement for more offers. First, that’s really not cool and you’re likely to lose that buyer. Second, you could find yourself having to pay the commission to the agents, who did precisely what you hired them to do, who brought you a ready, willing, and able buyer at your price, which you then refused to accept. That could be expensive.

2. A seller’s market doesn’t mean you don’t have to stage your house. If you want to sell, you want your house to stand out in a crowd. In a good way. So clean up, de-clutter, do all the things you’d do if it was a buyer’s market. It will bring you higher offers, and you’ll sell faster than your lazy competition.

3. Have a plan. If someone wants to buy your house, they want to move in. Know where you’re moving. If the sale is contingent on you finding a home you like, buyers know just how hard that’s going to be for you, and how long they may have to wait for you to move out. If they want a house now, they’re going to find one that’s actually available.

4. Don’t overprice. A seller’s market means houses are moving fast, and there are lots of buyers. It doesn’t mean buyers are suddenly stupid. They still want fair value for money. When they perceive they’ve found it, they’re willing to pay full price, maybe even a bit better. But overpriced homes sit longer. And sell for fair market value in the end. Price it right and then you can be firm. Someone will meet your price.

5. Maintain your systems. Buyers inspect them thoroughly. Get your septic cleaned. Keep the receipt. Test your well water. Service the furnace. Clean the gutters. Touch up the exterior paint. Repair what needs repairing. Your goal is to give an inspector nothing to flag. Inspections make or break a sale. Offers get slashed, buyers even walk away after a bad inspection. You can avoid that.

There’s a lot here, and there’s a lot more. But these are some good basics. Any good realtor knows these, and can offer you even more. Find one. We’re out here, and we’re busy, but we will always make time for clients willing to listen to us.

Real estate, believe it or not, is a service industry. Sales are the result of good service. We know how to help you succeed, and that’s our ultimate goal.

Find out more:  https://www.upstatecountryrealty.com

 

The Catskills Are Calling (Again). Get a local guide.

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No, that picture isn’t “doctored.” That’s what it looks like in upstate New York, and that’s the view a very lucky couple just bought.

They’re part of a movement, a wave of downstaters looking to buy a country home in the new reality of masks, disinfectant, and social distancing.

This happened before, after the attacks in New York City on 9-11. This time, the threat is a virus, and this time, it seems like the Internet is making people reconsider the allure of the metropolitan life.  A little space, a little privacy, a small town, are looking good to folks who once thought country life was far too sleepy to enjoy for more than a few summer weekends. And if they can work from home, why not?

Is it cheaper to buy upstate? Of course it is. But do not be fooled into thinking it’s cheap. Prices have been slowly rising and now that the demand outstrips the supply of available properties, there are bidding wars.  The days of livable fixer uppers below $50K are gone, at least within three hours of the city. But for $150K to $300K you can buy something pretty terrific, and still have high speed Internet.

That’s the other thing that’s changed – Internet has reached many areas that once only got dish service. Spectrum offers broadband in many rural areas in Delaware and Otsego County, and smaller companies like Delhi Telephone, Margaretville Telephone and OEConnect are running fiber optic lines. They may not be cheap, but they’re fast and they’re local.

If you’re considering a move upstate, please also consider this advice: get a buyer’s agent.

It doesn’t cost you anything. Upstate, unless you sign an exclusive buyer’s agent agreement (and most people don’t), the seller of the property you buy pays your agent at closing. But does it add value for you? Yes.

You get a local expert. Not a friend who just moved to the area, but someone who can tell you about communities and services, and even the arts and culture in a region. You get an advocate — someone who will give you frank feedback about properties that interest you, who understands what you are looking for and will guide you toward the properties that best fit your picture of the perfect place.

You’ll have someone who will offer you list of local service providers, from lawyers to inspectors, as well as plumbers, contractors, etc.

And you’ll get a savvy negotiator who will work to get you the right place at the right price.

I work for sellers, and I work for buyers. And I’ve worked for both — that’s called dual agency and it can work beautifully. But if you’re looking at multiple properties, you need an agent.

It’ll save you headaches, anxiety, and money. And it won’t cost you a dime.

Real Estate In a Time of Pandemic

New York became the epicenter of a global pandemic, and real estate in New York came to a screaming halt. Briefly.

Realtors were told to stay home. To avoid in-person contact. Even forbidden to solicit new business.

Strictly speaking for only myself, it was okay. I felt safer that way.

And then the Empire State Development Corporation, the state’s “let’s grow” division, notified us that real estate was an “essential” business, and we should get back to work.

But, they amended, we should stay home. And we shouldn’t do any showings.

Excuse me? That’s got a lot of us banging our heads on our desks.

I don’t know how this will work out yet. None of us do. But there have been a lot of questions, a lot of angry emails (some of them came from me) and a lot of differences of opinion.

Here’s what I know: my sellers aren’t keen to show their homes if they live in them. In fact, they will not do it. Yes, we have virtual tours. It’s not the same and we all know it.

Yes, there are a few rare buyers willing to buy a property they haven’t seen. There are inspectors still willing to inspection, appraisers still appraising. Banks are apparently still approving mortgages and lawyers are working, but everything is on a virus-aware timeline.

There are new clients asking me to list their homes. If the house is empty, I can see a way to do it without compromising my health, their health, or the health of our families. If the house is occupied, I honestly can’t.

I’m disappointed that the state (yes, Andrew Cuomo, I mean you) somehow was too blind to understand that real estate simply cannot function in isolation.

I have no income from real estate and I don’t anticipate any anytime soon. That hurts. But I, personally, think being dead or making people I live with sick would be a lot worse.

We will get through this, most of us. Business will resume. But let’s do it safely. Let’s be smart.

Greed never makes wise decisions, nor does desperation.

My clients would rather wait and be safe. My clients are very, very smart.

 

I love you, sweetie, but I’ve got a date with the Gov.

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I admit it. I’ve been meeting with Andrew Cuomo every day for several days now. He’s not like I thought he was. It’s one of the best hours of my day.

I’m his age. I’m not some starry-eyed kid. It’s not easy to impress me.

I knew his dad, in fact. A sharp man, and a funny one. An intellect. A kind man, too. But he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly.

I was a young reporter back then. I’d been warned about Governor Mario Cuomo by my producer.

“Don’t ask him stupid questions. He’ll eviscerate you if you do. But don’t be scared, either. Know your stuff, ask a good question, and he’ll treat you with respect.”

That’s how it worked. And (I’m sorry, Andy) until lately, I just didn’t see that the son had as much of the father in him as he does.

But this emergency, this unprecedented health crisis at a time when there is absolutely no leadership, no skill, and no honesty in the White House, has given Andrew Cuomo an opportunity to shine like he has never shone before.

“The control freak we need right now,” one publication gushed.

“Help, I think I’m in love with Andrew Cuomo,” another writer cried.

I get it. I’m crushing on him a little myself, though it’s in a far more dignified, “Well, how refreshing” kind of way.

I am grateful to have a very part time journalism job with a small local newspaper, which is a gift while real estate is temporarily at a standstill. And, because I’ve been doing news for a long time, I’ve taken on the job of watching the governor’s daily press briefings, done live and with an aplomb that would have made his father proud, and reporting on what’s said there.

He’s been everything I could hope for in a leader.

Andrew Cuomo is organized, he’s on top of things, he’s competent. He’s not afraid to admit what he doesn’t know, and he looks to his team to answer questions he’s not sure he knows the answers to. As he speaks, a stream of comments from viewers scrolls beside the internet feed.

“He just fact checked himself in real time!” one viewer wrote.

“I never liked him before, but if I woke up tomorrow and he was president I’d be fine with it,” another wrote.

I’m not so far gone that I’m going to suddenly elevate him to some ridiculous pedestal and start calling for him to be drafted for the Democratic nomination. Let’s not tumble into hero worship. I’m not sure that would be the right move.

But New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is, without a doubt, the right man at the right time in a state that is under assault. He reminds us that New Yorkers are a tough people, a hardy people, and a resilient people. He has scolded us for spreading rumors. He has called out people who refuse to follow instructions that protect their neighbors from an illness that swept through New York City like the flood waters of Hurricane Irene.

He did a good job when the state got hit by two hurricanes in a row. He’s dealt with disasters before, both as governor and as secretary of HUD. But this time, when there is absolutely no one to trust in Washington, his calm, rational, human response is more comforting than I think he can possibly comprehend.

One publication said that with two words, Cuomo became the leader we all need right now. It was when he ordered the state to basically shut down. He said, “Blame me.”

Accepting responsibility for hard choices. That’s the mark of a leader. It was a reminder of what the best of government can be. And it’s New York’s governor who’s showing the nation how it’s done. I’ve never been prouder to be a New Yorker. He’s making a bad situation much, much easier to handle.

I hope he knows it. I hope he understands that, at long last, there are a lot of people in this state who appreciate him and are counting on him to get us through.

Andrew Cuomo ends each daily press conference with the same line. He stands up and he says, “I’ve got to get to work.”

You do that, Governor. And we’ll be here, thanking our lucky stars that you’re the guy who happened to be in that mansion in Albany at this particular time.

Good job.

And if anyone’s looking for me tomorrow morning, I’ll be in front of my computer, waiting to hear what the gov’s got to tell us today.

 

 

Buying and Selling, a Virus, and You.

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Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

It’s rural here in the Catskills. Really rural. That’s great when there’s a global pandemic. And it’s not great at all.

I’m in Delaware County, New York. We’ve got a lot of open land. And not so many people. I consider it nothing short of heaven, and so do a lot of people who visit here from urban areas. In scary times, it looks even more attractive. And safe.

But there’s a downside.

This county doesn’t have a hospital that can handle ICU cases. We have a screaming shortage of health care professionals. We have a pretty high population of older folks.

That’s all a bit worrisome.

The county government has put out a press release asking our weekenders and visitors to think twice before coming to the country. There’s a concern they’ll bring the virus with them. There’s a concern they’ll be less vigilant once they’re in the country, and there’s a huge concern that they’ll be an added strain on an already critical health care system.

I see both sides. I imagine if you’re in the city and your thinking now’s the time to get out of the city, you don’t want to hear that you should stay home. Particularly if you own a home here.

Then there’s the question of whether you can act on your desire to buy a home somewhere outside the city now. That’s where I enter the picture.

I want you to know how I am trying to walk that tightrope between helping my clients buy and sell properties, and taking stupid risks that might impact me, my clients, and my neighbors.

First, if you’re a buyer and want to see a house, this is the time the video tour is going to absolutely shine. You’ll see enough to know if you want to see more. And use Google Earth to view the neighborhood. Even if you can only do a satellite view, you’ll learn a lot. Weed out the maybe’s from the no-way’s before you ask for an appointment.

I’ll do as much as I can via video and phone. All realtors are trying to limit personal interactions as much as possible.

I’m doing listing appointments virtually. No need for me to haul whatever germs I may have into someone’s home to discuss listing their home. I can talk with them, answer questions, and hopefully convince them I’m going to work my butt off for them without shaking their hands or even walking through the door. My hope is they’ll appreciate that I’m putting their health first.

I’m giving my seller clients the option of showing or not. If they have reasons to be particularly vigilant, whatever they are, I respect that. I hope you do, too.

If we set up a showing, I’m going to ask prospective buyers to be considerate. I’m not showing if they appear sick. I’m not showing if I’m sick. And I’m not showing if sellers seem sick. That may mean a last minute change in plans. That’s just how it is right now.

I’ll be wiping down doorknobs and asking everyone to cover their shoes. It may seem like overkill, but better that than making anyone sick.

Realtors are being asked to limit interactions by lawyers, so I’m not going to closings. I’m limiting my presence at inspections, too, much as I’d like to be there. It’s not worth the risk.

Risk vs. Reward. Think about it. We’ll be here when this is over. There will be a place for you and a buyer for your home. Give it just a little time, let’s get everything under control, and then get in touch.

 

 

Five Tips To Sell Your House This Year

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I’m thinking spring. No matter that today, on a late January morning, we’re having an ice storm. It will melt.

It’s time to get ready for the spring real estate rush.

Upstate New York real estate has always slowed down, at least a little, in the winter months. Sellers want to concentrate on holidays, and they’re not keen on strangers tramping through their homes with their slushy boots.  Buyers back off, too – unless you’ve got a specific reason that you must move and fast, it’s a lot more pleasant to look at houses when the mercury holds steady above forty degrees.

The red hot mid-Hudson Valley is the current exception to that rule. The area with Kingston at its epicenter has always drawn downstate buyers, but that market now resembles a feeding frenzy. Multiple offers are the norm. Buyers find themselves shut out of two or three homes before they finally win the bidding war.

Further to the west, Delaware County and Otsego County have been seeing an increase in activity as well. I sold two large properties just days before Christmas this year. And prices are going up.

So if you’re a potential seller, here are five tips to make the most of the spring market.

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Photo by Sander on Pexels.com

1. Spruce up before you list.  You can add thousands in value and cut your marketing time in half.

Take advantage of the indoor weather to take a critical look at your house. What can you de-clutter? Be ruthless. Box up those beloved dust catchers. They’ll look great in your new house. Where could paint be freshened up? Are the rugs worn or dirty? Either clean them, or, if you have hardwood underneath, pull them up and clean the floors. There are a million how-to videos on home staging online. Watch a couple and try it.

Outside, make sure to optimize your home’s curb appeal as soon as the weather permits. Rake up the winter mess. Touch up outside paint and repair any damage. Power washing can do wonders for any home. Trim overgrown bushes. If you’re not a gardener, place some strategic potted and hanging plants, or plant some annuals.

Not sure what your home needs? Call in a professional. Any realtor worth his or her salt can give you free tips and point you in the right direction. Sellers willing to do what it takes to prepare a home for marketing are a realtor’s dream.

2.  Don’t wait for summer.

Buyers look all year long. They may get more active in March, but they’re already shopping online in January. They want to be in their new home by summer. If they have children, they’re usually hoping to move before a new school year begins. It takes time to find the right place, so they start early. Make sure your home is one they see before the late spring listing rush begins.

3. Hire a realtor.

Yes, I’m a realtor. Of course I’m biased. But I’m a realtor BECAUSE I know how essential this job is to help people buy or sell a home. What can a realtor do for you that you can’t do for yourself?  Everything.

A full time realtor is just that – a professional whose job is selling your home. We have the systems in place, the experience, the knowledge, and the time to do everything necessary to market and sell a home in today’s marketplace.

We know the community, we know what’s selling and not, and why. We have a long contact list of clients, former clients, and other agents. They will help spread the word about your house.

We understand the process of buying and selling homes, we can handle the paperwork, answer your questions, and save you hours of frustration.

We know how to negotiate. And good negotiations are essential for a good sale experience.

You want to sell it yourself? Prepare for hours online inputting data, researching websites to see if they’re worth the money they’ll charge you. You’ll pay for professional photographs or you’ll be investing in a good camera and learning how to use it to attract buyers. You’d better be a good writer, too, because your marketing information is part of what draws buyers to your listing. And if you get defensive when people are critical of your home, you’re going to hate being a For Sale By Owner. Buyers are always critical. It’s how they negotiate.

For a percentage of the sale price, you can have a professional guide you through the process and do all the work. Plus, because you’re the client, you can (and should) be clear about what you expect and be sure you get the service you were promised. If that’s not incentive enough, remember this: your realtor doesn’t make a dime unless it sells. That seems like a deal you shouldn’t refuse. Hire a good realtor.

4. Keep it tidy.

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Your house is for sale. It looks amazing. Your realtor tells you you’ll get 24 hours’ notice before a showing. Nobody tells you the ongoing struggle to keep your house showing-ready once it’s on the market. I’ll be frank – it’s a pain in the neck. But it’s completely worth it.  Live like you’re visiting a cranky relative – keep it neat. And when there’s a showing, get the animals out of the house if you can. Some folks are allergic. Some don’t like cats, dogs, whatever. And even if they’re animal lovers, you’re trying to sell your house, not Fido. Keep the focus on the house.

5. Keep an open mind.

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There’s a fair chance you’ll get an offer that you think is too low. Don’t let it bother you. That’s today’s real estate market. Buyers want a bargain. But if they want your house, and only your house, that first offer is just an opening bid. Here’s where your realtor proves why you were smart to hire one. A good realtor will work to get those buyers to a number that works for everyone. A good realtor will explain to you what benefits an offer might have (a slightly lower cash offer can be much more attractive than a higher offer with a lot of contingencies and some tricky financing) and help you understand where there may be room for movement and where everyone is standing firm. A good realtor has been through this before. A lot. And the voice of experience is a real comfort in the heat of negotiations.

A final word on the entire process of buying and selling a house. Be realistic. It’s exciting, it can be fun, but it’s also stressful. Be ready for that. But use those five tips and you’ll cut down on the stress, and be well on your way to your next chapter.

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

Holidays in the Hills

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Everything is ever-so-slightly different in Delaware County. We moved here a year and a half ago from Ulster County – Woodstock and Kingston – a bit closer to the Hudson River. Now we’re in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. Summers are a little cooler. The wind blows pretty much constantly through the maples in front of our old house all year long. Winter starts in November, maybe even sooner. And the farther you travel into the fifth-largest, and very sparsely populated county in the western Catskills, and the greater the sense of entering another world.

This will be our second winter and second holiday season in Franklin. Last year we learned that summer is all about socializing. Winter, however, is treated as a serious opportunity to hunker down and get creative work done. It’s a rhythm, kind of reminiscent of farm life, which is still hanging on by its fingernails here. People have to make a real effort to occasionally connect with the community. And they do. Business may go on as usual in nearby Oneonta or Delhi, but in the hill towns, things get very quiet when the thermostat stays below freezing.

This postcard existence presented me with some unforeseen realities. My visions of a big, bumptious crowd of family converging on our farmhouse have proven to be unrealistic, at least for now. Babies and puppies don’t travel easily, so we’ll be traveling to visit the people (and dogs) we love.

Franklin isn’t a wild town. This year finally saw the passage of a referendum to reverse the town’s 1899 ban on the sale of alcohol in restaurants. So it’s not surprising that we don’t have anything as wild and wooly as Woodstock’s annual celebration of Santa’s arrival. But Oneonta has a parade with Santa in November which I haven’t yet experienced. Santa then takes residence in a little cottage on Main Street for several weekends before Christmas. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble the elves get into while he’s sitting around in Oneonta.

There’s a parade with Santa in Cooperstown, too. If there is a more Christmas-y looking village than Cooperstown, I honestly don’t know where it is.

I hear the town of Skaneateles, which isn’t nearly as far from us as it once was, transforms into a Dickens village for the holidays. We may go see this year. https://www.skaneateles.com/calendar/annual-events/dickens-christmas

But we don’t usually go where the big crowds are. We moved to northern Delaware County specifically because I was longing for a smaller, quieter world. I look for the understated celebrations.

Last year we spent an unforgettable evening at the Farmers Museum.

If you have never been there, you have missed something. People in period garb mingle with visitors in an 1850’s village created by a collection of historical buildings from around the region, some from as far away as Greene County. There’s an inn, a mercantile, a blacksmith shop, a pharmacy, print shop, a schoolhouse, a carousel. There are houses ranging from grand to humble. And there are animals. For one night in winter, it is illuminated. https://www.farmersmuseum.org/stec_event/candlelight/

I’ve always wanted to go and it did not disappoint. The historical buildings were lit by hundreds of electric candles, and the paths were lined with candles, too. There was mulled cider in iron kettles over roaring bonfires, carols sung both outside and in the old church. And then, right as if on cue, big, fluffy, Hollywood-style snowflakes fell softly over the entire thing. It was magic. I think we have to do it again.

Sharon Springs, in not-too-far Schoharie County, has a holiday tradition that I’ve wanted to get to. Maybe this is the year. This is a participatory celebration, with folks showing up in Victorian garb. The village mayor, a born actor, used to read a poem called “The Christmas Chicken.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vdb2ZAYK0pI I hope he still does it. The local celebrities, the owners of the Beekman 1802 lifestyle brand, market the whole event like Victorian holidays have never been marketed before. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRvpRQBUg9M

But we don’t really have to travel to get in the holiday spirit.

On December 7th, Franklin hosted its 18th annual Christmas Stroll and Holiday Market. It started at nine and ended at seven at night. The library had a story hour for children plus a book sale, the firehouse was full to bursting with various vendors, and the local shops opened their doors for the event. There was music, bazaars and food at the local churches and even the local auto body shop had a Kid’s Crafts Extravaganza. https://www.facebook.com/events/franklin-delaware-county-new-york/franklin-holiday-market-and-christmas-stroll/392802464725834/

This year, the self-guided tour of decorated homes was back, with one family displaying their extensive collection of Victorian decorations. There are some lovely old homes in Franklin.

My favorite part of the Franklin holiday celebrations, besides the library book sale, is the display of Christmas trees at the Railroad and Community Museum. The museum is a quietly remarkable thing all year long. Inside, there is a huge collection of memorabilia about our small town.

I’ve gone there to research the history of my house, and also to try to find out more about a wind storm in the 19th century that reputedly ended the town’s then-dominant industry, sheep farming. That must have been some wind storm. I picture sheep flying through the air and landing in a neighboring community, where they lived happily ever after.

The pride of the museum is an opulent, semi-restored Victorian honeymoon rail car. It’s a work in progress, as the patron who donated it died and the funds to complete it are still being raised. It may, in fact, be more charming because it’s not perfectly restored.

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A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, my neighbor, Sue, creates remarkable displays of themed trees. Sue waves me away when I rave about her decorations, but I’ve seriously never seen anything like them. Last year among the trees was one decorated with books. Real books. It was lovely.

Each tree has a theme. I think there are other town residents who design the trees as well. They were all much better than anything I can create. But Sue’s stood out. Every tree that struck me as particularly unique turned out to be one of hers.

There is something about this town that has resonated with me in a way that nowhere else I’ve lived has done. I think it’s about scale. I feel embedded already. Our mayor, Tom, will be holding a holiday open house at his home. We got an invitation. During the holiday festival, Sidney the shop dog will be greeting everyone outside the antique shop where he works, while Neal, the man he owns, will probably sit inside and try to stay warm. The Franklin Garden Club’s barrels are already full of pine boughs and red branches, and I know that Diana, the artist who started the garden club, has checked to make sure everything looks just so. The Rotary Club, a lovely bunch of folks who meet once a month, share dinner and sing “God Bless America,” will have set up the annual display of Christmas trees on Main Street. Shana and Willem, the young couple who bought the huge house next to the park, will be out in the thick of things, where their little girl always wants to be. They’ll probably be caroling in the park, which their daughter has claimed as her own because it’s next door to their house.

The Franklin Farmer’s Market crowd, the folks from the newspaper, the Chamber, the artist group that meets for lunch every Tuesday, I’ll probably see them all. The other new people, the ones who opened the upscale antique, décor and bespoke fashion stores, will thrown open their doors. If we’re lucky, the owner of our new cafe will have the coffee pot on.

I am different here. Better. More relaxed, more confident. More open-minded.

This is a town that’s traditionally Republican. Most newcomers aren’t. And yet somehow, despite the hysterics I occasionally (often?) join in on on social media, I find that most local Republicans/Trump supporters here are nice people. Not just kind of nice. Really nice.

It’s mind-bending. Don’t tell me I’m deluded. I’m not. I don’t pretend to be okay with their political views. We disagree, very strongly. But we are neighbors first.

It feels like growth. And hope.

Franklin and I seem to fit. There are big personalities but they don’t seem overwhelming. There are quieter, more intense personalities, and space is made for them. Most of the people here seem to welcome newcomers who want to join in. There is diversity of race, religion, sexual orientation. Franklin is like the spaghetti sauce I was taught to make years ago; a little extra something is always fine – toss it in the pot. It’ll taste even better.

We’ve lived here a short time and we know enough people that it seems like a very good idea to throw a holiday open house this year and invite all the people we like. It’s going to be a crowd.

If it sounds like something out of It’s A Wonderful Life, that is because it is. It’s Bedford Falls on a very small scale, without, it seems, Mr. Potter.

And what could be more in the spirit of the holidays than that?

(first published in the Kingston and Woodstock Times/HudsonValleyOne)

Seasonal Affect

IMG_2493

That’s it. Fall is here. Mrs. Violet Wiggins, anxious but loyal doggy companion, accompanied me on a walk to town on a gray, not-too-cold day and there is no denying it.

There were a handful of deep red Empire apples left on a tree in the yard of a home that will have a new owner by this weekend. No leaves, just apples. Other apple trees, wilder, less tended ones, are nothing but bare branches now.

We live on a hilltop town in the western Catskills. Winter is no joke here.  The wind is a near-constant presence. This is a town where, according to a history book I just read, the town’s entire industry of nationally-renowned long-hair sheep was wiped out in a vicious wind storm sometime in the last century. I cannot even imagine. But the locals switched to cows after that. Presumably they’re a bit more likely to stay on the ground in a heavy gale.

Yes, reader, I do want to know more.

Last year, even the locals were stunned when we had a twenty degree below zero night in November. The forecast for next week actually includes snow.

Mountain farming people are a self-sufficient bunch, but they also clearly know the value of social connections. When winter comes, the Farmer’s Market is over. But the artists meet every week at the local restaurant. The market crowd meets there once a week, too. There are social organizations, community organizations. Even the garden club meets all year. Winter meetings are about seeing friends and dreaming of flowers in the spring.

It’s also smart to have winter projects; things you enjoy that keep you occupied when the weather is so fierce that going outdoors unnecessarily is just plain stupid.

This year I’m going to find out about my house.

It’s a puzzle, this place, an architectural puzzle and an historical one. It’s known in town by the name of the people who most recently lived here longest – the Hillises. The people who bought it from them are already forgotten, it seems. They were only here five years.

But I want to know about Ernest and Flora Hunt. According to my deed, this was their home from the 1920s to the 1960s. My neighbor remembers Mr. Hunt as a gentleman farmer, someone with a small place, a few cows.

“He was a nice fellow,” he recalled. “Always there to help when his neighbors needed a hand.”

From what little history I’ve found so far, Mr. Hunt was a photographer. He owned a studio in a town that is about 30 miles away. That is quite far for those days. I wonder if it was the same person, or perhaps father and son.

I’d like to see pictures of the Hunts, and if I can find pictures of this house it would be amazing. The Hillis family modernized it and removed all the original woodwork and details. I’m sure it seemed like a wonderful thing at the time.

I’m hoping, in time, to restore this old farmhouse to the one Ernest and Flora would recognize. Until we’ve been here long enough to be remembered as the people who belong here, I think, for me, this is Flora’s house – the old Hunt place.

 

 

 

 

Franklin – Small Town Considers Its Future

IMG_2307Village Mayor Tom Briggs holds up a tent during the annual Franklin Blueberry Festival as a deluge of rain begins.

 

All Politics Is Local (or – The Key To Getting Along Is To Avoid Being A Jerk)

 

This is a story about the town and the village of Franklin in Delaware County, two related communities with very different political views. They co-exist peacefully most of the time.

A very smart editor I know has told me that a vital local political scene is a healthy thing for American politics. The “habits of the heart” that French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed here, he says, – family life, local politics, religious affiliation – helped a young country maintain free institutions while nurturing the rugged individualism that is so characteristically American. Collective action at the local level was essential for creating and retaining healthy communities, de Tocqueville argued. My friend the editor believes this, at least, has not changed.

How that’s working in today’s world? This was the question he asked me to explore, here in a very small corner of the far western Catskills.

Delaware County encompasses over 1400 square miles. It’s the fifth biggest county in area in New York. But Delaware is also small, According to the last national census, just 45,000 people live here. According to voting records, there are fewer than 30,000 registered voters in the entire county, which is Republican by a three-to-two margin. The number of Democrats is the same countywide as it was a decade ago, but there’s been a decrease of about 1000 registered Republicans.

By comparison, Ulster County, about 300 square miles smaller, has a population of more than 180,000 people.  More than 50,000 of its registered voters are now Democrats, up from 41,500 a decade ago. Meanwhile, Ulster County Republicans have decreased in number from 32,000 to barely 30,000.

Kathleen Hayek, a Brooklyn weekender who moved to the county full- time in 2015, is finishing up her first term as head of the Delaware County Democratic Party. She’s been learning how to navigate local politics on the job. She’s learning what it would take to make the party competitive in local elections.

It’s not so much party, locally,” Hayek said. “People don’t care on the local level. What gets you elected is name recognition, whether you’re liked, and what you’ve done for the party.”

It’s the unaffiliated voters of Delaware County who make the difference, she says. She thinks the way in with these folks is to help explain why Democratic values are a better match with rural life.

We don’t tell our story,” Hayek said. “Labor unions, values, value of farm crops, caring for your neighbor, those are Democratic values. The GOP philosophy is, ‘I got mine, everybody help yourself.’ But the rural voters’ perception is that the Democrats have abandoned them. We need to be the people-first party again. We always have been, but we need to say so.”

Delaware County’s sparse population means its local governments are, for most communities, quite different from the full-time-job career positions found in more populous areas. In the town of Franklin, where I live, the town clerk has office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a healthy break for lunch, and reopens for a couple of hours on Saturday. Everyone knows everyone else, and if you really need something quickly (and you’re not a jerk about it), you can generally get whatever you need. Or you might have to slow down and be patient.

The key to getting along in a rural community, from what I’ve seen, is just that simple: don’t be a jerk. Online rants and letters to the editor may be cathartic, but they don’t accomplish anything except make your neighbors wonder if you’re a hothead. I speak from experience.

The town of Franklin is very Republican. The town clerk is a Democrat, but every seat on the town board is held by a Republican man. The town board is pro-farm, pro-business, and very leery of too much regulation. 

That has sometimes put it at loggerheads with the village of Franklin, which has elected a Democratic mayor and some residents who have created a very active, very effective environmental lobby.

Compressor Free Franklin became a legend in state government and activist circles, effectively lobbying to stop what seemed, at first, an unstoppable gas pipeline and compressor station aimed straight at Franklin. Such issues create unlikely alliances. Even the town’s Republican supervisor said he was “still not sold” on the compressor station.

The issue is on hold for now. The state Department of Environmental Conservation rejected one proposed gas line that would have used the station. The other was put on hold by its parent company three years ago.

Franklin village mayor Tom Briggs, a Democrat, brings a studied even-handedness to his job. He grew up in a small town in southern Delaware County. He says he understands the issues. After five years as mayor, he sees economic concerns as the key issues in Franklin.

Granville Hicks was a socialist and a communist who moved to a small town and explored politics back in the Forties,” he noted. “It’s probably still the seminal work on rural life. I don’t think some things have changed all that much.”

In his book “Small Town,” Hicks concluded that rural communities practiced democracy in its purest form. Rural people, mayor Briggs said, stand up for what’s right, regardless of politics. And he sees, as Hicks did, a divide between locals and outsiders/newcomers. Hicks found the divide wasn’t about money. It was about education. The well-educated, Hicks found in his studies, were intimidating to rural people. They were seen as pretentious.

There are indications that the newcomers are affecting the political balance between the major parties in Franklin a little more rapidly than they are in Delaware County as a whole. In April 2009, when Franklin had 1603 potential voters, 737 of them were registered as Republicans, 409 as Democrats, and the rest otherwise. Of the 1675 people on the election rolls this February, almost a decade later, 716 were Republicans and 557 were Democrats. At this rate of change, the number of Democrats will catch up with the number of Republicans in about another decade. Change is happening.

Jeff Taggart grew up in Franklin. He is a Republican and has been town supervisor for three terms. He’s running for a fourth. Before that, he was deputy supervisor and a town-board member. He sees the philosophical divide as one of conservatives versus liberals, not one of party affiliation.

The great thing about politics in a small town is that it’s people-oriented, not party-oriented,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of difference between Republicans and Democrats here. The difference is between liberals and conservatives in both parties. So the important thing is to keep open ears. People want you to hear them. Bottom line, I want to I feel like I’m doing the right thing, even if not everyone agrees with me.”

Taggart describes himself as “old school.” No computer, no cell phone.

I know things are changing. Society is changing,” he says. “But even though we’ve got two entities here, the town and village, we converse. We’ve worked together on some things.”

Carla Nordstrom is one of Franklin’s more visible activists. The co-founder of Seeds of Democracy lives in a farmhouse just outside of town and is head of the Friends of the Franklin Library. She’s a registered Democrat, but she found that running candidates on what is now The Franklin Party has been a more effective way to chip away at the Republican-Conservative establishment.

The first year, our candidates lost by a couple of hundred votes,” she said. The last election, our candidate lost by only nine votes. What we’ve done is forced the Republicans to at least come out and run. We’ve insisted they hold forums when we challenge them. And once we learned that most of their organizing was done in the churches, we started organizing at the Franklin farmers’ market on Sundays. There’s a lot of Sunday organizing that occurs in this town.”

Nordstrom and her husband have worked to bring campaigning in Franklin into modern times. They’ve shot videos for candidates and made Facebook pages. This year, due to changes in state election laws that caught Delaware County unprepared, there are no Democratic candidates for local office in Franklin.


Two issues will, however, be mobilizing voters. The first is a referendum on whether to change the current law prohibiting the sale of wine and beer at local restaurants. Franklin’s been partially dry for years – you can buy a six-pack of beer at the gas station, but you can’t drink one at the local pizza place. And there’s a fine dining experience to be had at The Tulip and The Rose, but no wine.

I think it’s going to pass this time,” Nordstrom said. “A lot of the people who were against it are gone. And a lot of newcomers want it.”

There’s probably another cross-party alliance in the making. The owner of the local pizza place, who is very much in favor of changing the law, is a Taggart.

The other issue likely to create new alliances is the possibility of a Dollar General in an open field just outside the village. The first planning board meeting on the proposal, even before any proposal has been made, involved the real estate developer for the corporation and a standing room only crowd that filled the town garage and spilled out into the parking lot to listen and to be heard.

It’s less than six miles to another Dollar General in Otego. Oneonta, with multiple box stores and groceries, is just a 15-minute drive away. And Franklin this year has been enjoying a big influx of downstate visitors, drawn to its well-preserved architecture, carefully tended gardens, and small-town charm. Real estate values have been rising.

On the flip side, there’s an aging population in Franklin. The local gas station and convenience store has limited offerings. There is no other market in town.

And no jobs. It was jobs that made the compressor station and a gas pipeline look appealing, Mayor Briggs said.

I guess I’m neutral on the Dollar General,” he said. “It will be just outside the village, so it’s not going to impact us directly. But I’d certainly ask how the building is going to be made to fit the look of this community. That’s a question that ought to be asked. People here are desperate for jobs, so desperate that they’re willing to risk some compromise to be able to stay and raise families here.”

Taggart said he isn’t taking a position yet, either.

The main employers in the area are two SUNY schools and the local hospitals, all at least 15 minutes away. In town, there’s the public school, a bank, a gas station and a few small businesses. Farming is still a major industry here, and trucking is another steady employer. That’s about where the local job market ends.

The past year has seen an influx of a few young families who work remotely. Franklin has not only high-speed cable Internet, but new fiber optic lines being run by Delhi Telephone. There are empty buildings that might be perfect offices for Internet based businesses, but they come with historic and environmental complications.

The opposition to the pipeline and the compressor station has well-taken points, Briggs said, but some of their warnings were seen by the pro-compressor population as hyperbole. Briggs references the Soft Revolution – trying to find common ground, understanding that anger and hate can’t lead to a conversation.

I wrote a piece asking if the compressor station isn’t the answer, what can we bring here that will mean jobs and wealth for this area?” Briggs said. “There’s no forum for politics at the local level. Our job is to bring stakeholders together, improve things where you can, and hope that the result is that you make others respect your political position. Save Our School, the group that organized to keep the Franklin school open – that’s good stuff. That’s something we can all agree on.”

Local-level collective action is apparently still the best antidote to corrosive individualism. Healthy local politics makes for healthy communities. If you don’t find a place for yourself where you are, it may not be you. Your community is out there. It just may be smaller than you expected.