A couple of posts back, I wrote about the importance of momentum for a new listing and gave two examples of houses that built great momentum fast. Both of those houses had something else going for them, though, besides a good price or marketing. They both had a great narrative. By that, I mean a house that tells a story that resonates with a buyer. The Jeff house exuded country-cute charm – Adirondack chairs on a wide front porch, muted appealing country colors and details like wainscotting. The house just invited you to sit a spell on the front porch and have a glass of wine. The only thing missing was a big flag pole in the front yard. The house isn't large, by any stretch, and in fact, on a pure spec basis – e.g. square footage, number of bathrooms, size of the kitchen and living room, it should have been a non-starter. But people loved it. The same with the house at Wanaksink, although it exuded a much more contemporary vibe with a different set of appeal factors.
The narrative of a house is such a key factor in the second home segment of the Sullivan County market. In New York City most people live in some version of a stacked box with rectangular walls and some windows. Sure, there are differences in location, pre war or post war, doorman or no doorman, and entrances and lobbies exude differences, but once you're upstairs in an apartment, they're not that much different beyond square footage, view and light (until you get into the stratosphere of trophy properties — lofts, new celebrity architect buildings, or apartments with terraces). Sure, you can renovate and decorate, and if you're a renter, even those options can be limited. And regardless of whether you're a renter or an owner, your ability to express yourself architecturally is pretty non-existent.
Which is why I think the "narrative" of a house, while a factor in the dream-fantasy sphere of second homes anywhere, is even more central in the New York second home markets. Vacation homes are often about dreams and aspirations, how you'd like to be in a way that's different from your day to day life. (That's certainly been true for me about the vacation homes I've bought, and I'm now on my third.) If you're thinking about a vacation house, you probably have a pretty good image in your mind about what it should be like — whether its a farmhouse, a lake cottage, a mountain cabin or a beach house. They each conjure a different image and a different narrative. When I'm working with a lake buyer, I often ask, "Is your ideal something like from 'On Golden Pond'". For farmhouse buyers, the reference is often "Love, Valour, Compassion."
Buyers often have a whole story (although not necessarily conscious or spoken) that goes with the house they're looking for. Planting a garden, curling up in front of the fireplace on a chilly fall evening, filling the house with friends for the weekend, swimming and canoeing with their children at the lake, zipping around with their buddies on jet skis and yes, being able to have sex outside under the stars. Some buyers have a Dwell house modern ideal, others more of a Norman Rockwell thing with cows and some the backwoods cabin.
Absolutely nothing wrong with any of these. But the most successful houses on the market are those where the narrative of the house resonates with the story of the buyers. Both Chapin Estate and Catskill Farms have been so successful in their different niches because they developed and maintained a narrrative that has real appeal to buyers. There have been a couple of builders that have mimicked the Catskill Farms houses, but haven't been as successful because they didn't quite get the DNA of the narrative right.
There are a few other areas in Sullivan County that tell a good story. Merriewold, a "mountain club" started in the early 1900's (where Agnes DeMille and John Moody had their summer homes) has a fabulous narrative for folks looking for that older, genteel mountain lake getaway. (And there's seldom, if ever, a house for sale there.) Tennanah Lake and Wolf Lake both exude that classic lake feel. All of these areas actively work to maintain the consistency of their respective narratives.
Five or six years ago, there was this non-descript (to be kind) ranch house on CR 131 near Hortonville. Somebody with a great sense of style bought it and transformed it into almost a wooded cabin — added a screened porch, changed out the windows, sided it with rough hewn wood and redid the interior in a country-cabin style. Essentially he totally changed the narrative of the house, and in the process, hugely increased the value. It wasn't just an overhaul of the house, it was an overhaul of the story.