Catskills - Sullivan County - Ulster County Real Estate -- Catskill Farms Journal

Old School Real estate blog in the Catskills. Journeys, trial, tribulations, observations and projects of Catskill Farms Founder Chuck Petersheim. Since 2002, Catskill Farms has designed, built, and sold over 250 homes in the Hills, investing over $100m and introducing thousands to the areas we serve. Farms, Barns, Moderns, Cottages and Minis - a design portfolio which has something for everyone.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Great, but not Perfect

I say, and for the most part it is true - that for 20+ years, I’ve woken up and run this company of mine like it’s a start up, just getting off the ground.  There is little to no administrative fat in the ranks, there is little to no waste of time, little to no costly inefficiency of poor organization.  I wake up every morning breathing fire, and pushing for a productive day.  Ask anyone who gets my 4:45am texts.

That was true even as I say that the last few years I delegated a lot of the client-facing day to day operations.  There was/is plenty to coordinate beside tile and kitchen selections.

I bring this up because as the business owner who runs their large company like it’s a small company I rarely see something in the business without seeing a way to improve it.  We are going through that right now with our marketing, incorporating cutting edge renderings into our marketing efforts of our new homes.

Real photo of our home, with digital landscaping and black windows, and green green grass.

Frankly, it’s amazing what can be done currently in the realm of - let’s call it ‘artificial design”, as in ‘artificial intelligence’ but wow that sounds horrible so let’s try something else, like ‘computer renderings’ (ugh), ‘digital design’ - ummm, that’s not terrible.

What it is is a combination of our stock photos from when we take pictures of houses as we complete them, and a computer-generated enhancement of the photo, as well as the addition of new colors, landscaping, outdoor furniture and other accents on the outside.  They can change the large- the colors- to the small, like the color or style of the front door or stone around the porch columns.

On the interior, they can take pictures of a home we built in the past and change the floor colors, the kitchen, the paints, and then add room by room furniture. 

Entirely digital

The problem that I saw in the past with this stuff is the execution was only fair, and it looked artificial and to me once it looked less than 100% real, then it wasn’t worth doing. But the other week my friend and realtor extraordinaire Erik Freeland showed me a house he is marketing and I was blown away by the digital design of the interior and that opened my eyes as to what is really possible for us.

And because we sell so many houses before they start or make much progress, it’s easy to see how valuable this would be to the potential client, in terms of informing and inspiring them to buy from us.

Our newish employee Jordan comes from a strong design background and has been leading the charge for the digital design of 11 homes - we aren’t talking about what type of fixtures we are using, it is more like ‘what this house could look like’.  And I got to tell you, it’s a game changer.

But it’s a game changer for the same reasons it’s always been - I didn’t stop trying to improve our offerings and our process, I know the company well enough to know what still could be improved, and then I insisted on quality when we endeavored on this new initiative.  And you can’t neglect the one variable that has always been true - I have good taste and a good eye - I don’t deserve to have either since I don’t really come from any background that would lend itself to that talent, and I never in anyway developed formally that talent, but it is there, and it runs through everything we do - an eye that knows when something is good looking, and aligns with the design inclinations of our clients.  You can do whatever you want, but if it is generic, or lacking in pizazz, that does have a measurable impact on it’s impact on the business- our business has always found a lane because our design eye has always been sharp.

 But to circle back - even this exercise of digital designing is not done leisurely.  I want it done, fast, as well as it can possibly be, and out the door and into production.  There is zero value for me in a partially completed project, however awesome it is. There is no time to waste in a startup, and while we may not be that anymore, we still definitely act like everything is on the line, everyday.

To circle back to another point, one of the hardest parts of leading any initiative is truly evaluating what is possible- from a budget vantage, and more importantly, from a talent and time vantage.  Seldom, and possibly if ever, have I had the luxury of saying ‘make this perfect’ - ‘go back to the drawing board’, ‘start from scratch’ ‘do another draft’.   On the path of many if not all of our initiatives over the last 20 years, there is a hard to accept but critically important aspect of knowing your team well enough to know when you’ve reached ‘pretty good’ and ‘we can live with that’ - where ‘pretty good and done’ outweighs ‘perfect’ - I’m not really talking in construction, but everything else from book-keeping to marketing, to design, to tracking sales leads to fleet management to a million other things we do each day.  There is just truly diminishing returns of chasing a level of execution that isn’t available at the moment - you can yearn for it, you can keep it in mind for another day in the future, you can nurse your heartbreak, you can bookmark it, but you got to keep moving, and many times that involves the heartbreak of not a reaching level of finish you were hoping for, but dialed back as other urgent needs require attention, and as you always must, you prioritize and allocate scarce resources in a fashion you see as most pressing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Mid-Spring Fast Start

A combination of weather, team and effort has allowed us to get a fast start out of the box, this spring of 2023.

New Mural at my office facade.

I’d say at this point we’ve more or less completed the transition since ‘the departure’.  Been a pretty heavy lift and fascinating journey, and my enhanced engagement has benefited both me and the business.  I think I’ve said the previous before - but I don’t go back and read my recent previous posts - but it’s true - the somewhat auto-pilot out to pasture posture I had assumed was bad for my mental health as I twiddled my thumbs and only was served up sticky problems to solve instead of sticky problems to serve but also with a healthy dose of positive client interaction.

We have a lot going on - and I can honestly say I don’t think we’ve missed a beat or caused a delay or failed to keep looking forward with the business.  Hard to say right now, right in the fog of war, but it seems to me like all is proceeding exceedingly well.  And part of the reason for that is that I’m asking, suggesting and demanding more from my vendors and partners.  With the previous designer/project manager, she allowed our partners to lean on her for everything, when a fair amount of tasks, decisions and efforts should have been bounced right back to the vendor trying to shirk the task or delegate it back to us.  So you take 20 skilled partners, and ask just a little more from them (and in reality no more than they should have been offering anyways) and net benefit to the process is huge.  Everyone just needed to grow up a little bit, and do their fair share and maybe a little more.

Upper Big Sky Farmhouse just about done.

Another benefit of my enhanced engagement is my team can see up close and personal how much I care about what we are producing - before, I come in, I review, I critique, I move on. Now I’m in the weeds, early middle and late process, and everyone on the team is reminded of why this business is what it is - I know what I’m doing, I have a good eye, and I care.  And I don’t suffer fools.  We pay our partners good money, and we pay on time.  Week after week and year after year.

Currently, we are finishing up Upper Big Sky and had a really good site meeting with the clients on Friday.  Few more weeks and that $1.2m house on 10 acres with best in class views will be completed and banked.

Site meeting with UBS owners.

We started a house in Copake, NY in Columbia County and it is going really well.

New foundation for a Ranch in Narrowsburg.

2 Ranches in Narrowsburg are more than half way done.

Quarter mile of road being built in Olive for our new 9 lot project, Ashokan Acres, after a year of planning board meetings and negotiations.

Lunch with the Famous Erik Freeland

2 new small houses (720 sq ft and 500 sq ft) getting started in Narrowsburg.

Big Barn on a lake in Forestburgh continues and is about 60% complete.

Just painted a mural at my office and had the office painted.

Big landscaping project at my home, with new planting beds and all roof water running into rain barrels and being recycled - Pools Open!

New renters/tenants at the new construction rental, Arches.

And just got elected to my 2nd term as HOA President of my community in which I live.

Been experimenting with drafting our houses, real life renderings, and 3-d walk-thrus, using a bunch of remote workers - some that work out, some that don’t.  This should be super neat.

Developing a new product portfolio on the website so people can see what others have done better.

And hiring and experimenting in the office and on the jobsites.

A lot going on.   But it feels like the right tempo.

Doing manly stuff like driving through mud.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Spring Rain

Wow, nothing complicates my life like 5 straight days of rain in the spring.  Well, that’s not true, now that I’m reflecting on it.  Having my main wingperson leave with 2 weeks notice, that was pretty complicating.   Having a historic flood hit my 4 home single family community, that was pretty complicated.  Hiring, firing, buying land, spending a year in front of a planning board - that’s pretty complicated.

Delaware River

So let me rephrase - it’s not as if 5 straight days of rain is the worst disruption I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t make my life any easier.  Lots of rain, no sun.

What this does to active job sites is hard to overstate.  And each job site is different, with different levels of access complexity, different types of absorbent soils, better drainage.  Each site is at a different phase of construction - for instance our job on the East of the Hudson in Copake NY we are trying to get the foundation in.  That involves a lot of men, very heavy concrete and concrete form trucks, lots of access needs.  That site has soils that retain water, very heavy with clay.  So today, they are going to up and try and get the foundation in.  We shall see how it goes.

House in North Branch

At Upper Big Sky in North Branch, we are in the final month of construction, with the floors just being finished meaning I want zero mud and dirt in that place and that will be a tall order for everyone to abide and enforce.  With the floors finished, tile in, staircase prepped, the last thing you want is dirt and mud everywhere and ground in.  It’s a priority this week to avoid that.

We have an excavated hole in Narrowsburg that the masons can’t get to and so on and so on.

The problem is you expect rain this time of year, but this was a lot, and a lack of sun meaning it won’t dry out right away and the problems just aren’t inconvenience - there are safety issues, and there are improvement destruction issues - for instance, you can ruin an expensive driveway by running over it when the base is saturated and vulnerable.

We also have a ¼ mile road going in in Olivebridge NY, but while that may seem like the biggest problem, since we have a lot of rock there as existing conditions, it’s less exposed to damage.

The challenge is to accept the conditions, and make plans based on the reality of the situation.  If you can delay something, delay it, even if it’s frustrating.  Spring time brings lots of things, and uncertainty is one of them and sometimes you just can’t power your way through.  

Update - spent the day or at least the morning running around and getting up to speed, and turns out, while the rivers were high, and their was water running everywhere, all was good, and we actually made good progress all around without retreating too much.

As i drove around, it seemed like I was watching a wrestling match between Winter and Spring - neither retreating, engaged in war, with the outcomes of Today's battles still uncertain. Tragically, and unbeknownst to Winter, the die has already been cast and all efforts to remain are futile.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Mis-direction, and knowing when to fold them.

Of all the things self-employed people have in common, I’m sure one that ranks way up there is getting into something that in retrospect either you shouldn’t have, or maybe you should have, but if you knew what you were signing up, you wouldn’t have.

As I look across my small business colleagues, there isn’t literally one of them that didn’t bite from the wrong apple, or took too big of a bite of that apple, or bit the apple too early when unripe, or too late when overripe.  

I’ve done it too many times to count, but in at least one regard if you are one that looks for silver linings in things, I haven’t made the fatal mistake that strikes a lot of people in my business, and that is buying the wrong piece of land, or overbuilding a spec house, or getting stuck with a house for a lot longer than you want.  Other than that pretty important mistake avoidance, I’ve made all the rest.

What got me thinking about the corners I’ve fought out of, all the tight spots I’ve wriggled out of, all the hairpin turns I’ve navigated on 2 wheels, is this 4 house, single family rental community I built and own down in Phoenixville PA.  P-ville is just a fabulous town, and has been growing for 15 years or 20 years and it’s one of those towns you can feel the civic enthusiasm across the cultural, business and neighborhood environments.  

My sister lives down there, so around 2014 or so I was riding my bike on the trail that hugs the  Schuylkil River (not a word easily spelled) and came across this 5 acres parcel with a distress box for a structure on it.  Being such a vibrant area, my thinking juices got pumping, and before you knew it, I owned it.

That began a 8 year journey of false starts, mis-starts, wrong starts, what seemed like good ideas but turned out not to be, etc…  Just a never ending process of experimenting, brainstorming, switching gears and changing directions - what made it worse, was it was far from home and I was really busy on the home front, and I had zero for a team down there.

So the original building was a community hall, built in 1935.  From outerspace google earth, you can still see the faintest traces of a baseball field.  From there, it was a hardcore biker bar (my neighbor has bullet holes in his stucco when he would occasionally complain to the police), an underground lesbian bar, a korean church, a charter school, then sat vacant, then I got suckered into it.

Thing is, it sits in a flood plain, last flooded when everything on the east coast flooded in the early 1970’s Hurricane Agnes, more than a generation ago, so all memory of it was mostly lost, especially for those younger people involved in its nascent gentrification and who didn’t have any relations or contacts down in the area.  Christ, it hadn’t flooded in 50 years, until it did, in 2021, when Ida began in New Orleans and somehow came up inland and hovered over Southeast PA, and dumped a lot of rain really quickly.  And flood did it flood.  Right after I had spent 7 years of my life improving that home that sat in the flood plain, but also building 3 more, just out of the flood plain.

Flood it did. Worse than anyone could remember. The entire canal and river area under 5' water. 130,000 gallons of water in my basement - 8' high, in a 40x60 space. Poured in in a matter of one hour. My tenant had to be rescued in a canoe, and canoe back every day to feed her cat. That was hard, post-pandemic (actually not quite post), and a lot of really taxing events that pushed me to the brink, literally not figuratively. After events like that, compounded by a 2 year pandemic, when I measure myself of what I'm capable of dealing with, sustaining and navigating - I'm almost on a different planet than most people.

Turns out, getting the plot surveyed, as I always do, was a good thing, and one a lot of people don’t do. I’d never buy a piece of land without surveying it - just a simple exercise, and can reveal so much from property line misunderstanding to deed issues.  Anyway, what this survey did was reveal to me (and not the other dozens of people interested) that the flood plain stopped 2/3s up the property which gave me a development opportunity.

A lot of people think I’m a skill developer, but I’m really not.  I mostly buy parcels that are building permit ready and leave the subdividing to others, in the far past or recent past.  Subdividing can just cause so much expense, delay, time and uncertainty and there is no real guarantee that you will succeed, regardless of the expense and money invested.  In the end, it’s up to 5-6 people on a planning board, many who have very little expertise.  Though on the other hand, it’s fascinating how many boards are made up of a diverse cross section of skilled persons as well.

I’ve purchased, either in bulk or one by one, several subdivisions done by others.  Autumn Ridge in Saugerties, 12 lots in Bethel, 200 acres and 20 building lots in North Branch, (2) 4 lot subdivisions in Kerhonkson, a 15 lot project in Kerhonkson, a 3 lot subdivision in Olive, 16 lots in Saugerties and there’s probably more.  I’ve built them all out, many of them had been sitting around for years if not decades.

So where was I going with this - basically I guess, just to demonstrate 1 project I bought, had a plan, the plan sucked, had another plan, plan sucked more, and kept coming up with ideas until one didn’t suck and actually stuck.  4 lot subdivision instead of a pre-school, of single family rentals.  Nothing about it was easy.  Nothing about it was straight-forward, nothing about it went according to plan, but in the end, through perseverance and really no other option, I saw it through, and it’s now generating $10k of rental income a month, plus the depreciation and tax advantages of owning real estate.  That’s forever.

But my point is, all of us business people get into these situations - and the hard part is when to know when it’s a lost cause and time to admit defeat and move on, or whether to stick it out and see it through.  It’s hard to admit defeat, and defeat comes in many forms - it may be that it’s just sucking up so much time that it is materially taking away from your core business.

It’s impossible to avoid - these mis-judgements and misdirections - it’s just what you do with them that counts.  Plenty of folks have made lemonade out of lemons, and probably just as many refused to let go, and drug the whole enterprise down with it, maybe not ‘out of business’, but less mobile, less healthy, less positioned for growth and less positioned to take advantage of the next opportunity that comes your way - miss too many opportunities (most not even close to being well-timed, which helped me coin the idea that 'you don't get to time opportunities, you get to decide to pounce or not.'

The building when I found it.

Charles Petersheim, Catskill Farms (Catskill Home Builder)
At Farmhouse 35
A Tour of 28 Dawson Lane
Rock & Roll
The Transaction
The Process
Under the Hood
Big Barn
Columbia County Home
Catskill Farms History
New Homes in the Olivebridge Area
Mid Century Ranch Series
Chuck waxes poetic...
Catskill Farms Barn Series
Catskill Farms Cottage Series
Catskill Farms Farmhouse Series
Interviews at the Farm ft. Gary
Interviews at the Farm ft. Amanda
Biceps & Building
Catskill Farms Greatest Hits
Construction Photos
Planned It
Black 'n White
Home Accents at Catskill Farms, Part 2
Home Accents at Catskill Farms, Part 1