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October 2008


REAL ESTATE

Deeds & Don'ts
By Lily Oliver

INSIDE STORIES BEHIND AREA REAL ESTATE DEALS

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$1.9 BILLION PRICE TAG
Candlewood, Lillinonah and Zoar, three of Western Connecticut's largest lakes, will soon have a new owner. In September, Suez Energy North America announced its intention to buy FirstLight Resources, the utility that now owns the lakes, along with five hydroelectric power plants on the Housatonic River. The price tag? $1.9 billion, as reported by the French newspaper Le Figaro (Suez is a subsidiary of one of the largest energy companies in Europe). What does that mean for lakefront property owners? Local officials see a stall in the long-stalled shoreline management plan. "I can't imagine having a big multinational company owning Candlewood Lake will be good for the lake," a New Fairfield First Selectman told the Danbury News-Times.

Here's what the top and the bottom of any real estate market have in common: Both can only be identified many months after they've come and gone, when the pendulum has swung in the other direction. We can now declare that the Connecticut market hit its peak in fall 2005, a dizzy-making few months that saw Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas' Westport home sell at $25 million in a matter of weeks, still a record in that town.

Three years later, fall 2008 has opened with a gloomier stat: The number of "delinquent" home loans in our state has hit the highest percentage in decades. In September, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that 3.1 percent of all Connecticut home mortgages were either in foreclosure or 90 days past due—nearly double the rate reported in spring 2007. Some cold comfort: Our state still ranks below the national rate of 4.5 percent of mortgages deemed delinquent or in foreclosure. Florida is the hardest hit, with 8.4 percent of its mortgages in trouble, or one in every 12. More poor Connecticut housing indicators: In June, the median sale price for a single-family home continued its drop to $288,500, from $325,000 a year earlier, according to The Warren Group, which tracks housing trends throughout New England.

Just as national figures sound a little otherworldly to Connecticut residents, generalized state stats are irrelevant to, say, Fairfield County homeowners: In that market you can't purchase much more than a broom closet for the state median of $288,500, even in the worst of times. In Greenwich, for instance, while the sales volume is down some 34 percent, the average-price home has increased during 2007: to $2,899,522, as compared to $2,846,945 last year. "Homes are still selling well when thoughtfully priced," says Ellen Mosher of Greenwich Fine Properties. "The worst thing a seller can do in this market is to put too big of a price tag on their property. The typical buyer in Greenwich is very savvy and recognizes unrealistic pricing immediately. Inventory is up 14 percent—but still way below historic highs—so there are lots of great choices."

One of those sales appears to have been the home of Regis and Joy Philbin, who have gone to contract on the Greenwich home they bought from sportscaster Warner Wolf in 1992, according to the local press. Listed for $5.9 million, the six-acre property was featured in Architectural Digest, described as "dignified with faint Norman manorisms, including quoins, dormers and a ruddy brick facade." The couple added a new wing to the contemporary home that AD also described as "unshowy," expanding the kitchen and master bedroom and, not surprisingly, installing a media room. We also hear the value of the home is in its landscaping and beautifully sited pool and tennis court, and that the interiors are little "tired," especially as compared to the grand home the Philbins have purchased, also in Greenwich, for a $7.2 million.

In other boldface news, Mel Gibson has dropped the price of Old Mill Farm, his 75-acre Greenwich spread, from $39.5 million to $35 million. Greenwich is also atwitter about a scandal involving failed hedgie Michael Lauer, whose funds once controlled some $1 billion but who got so upside down that the IRS is now auctioning off his Dwight Lane home on five acres, with the minimum bid set at $2.5 million. While you'd think the IRS would have plenty of money to throw around, it doesn't appear to be inclined to use any of it to stage its "listings." In fact, the images posted of 7 Dwight Lane on the ustreas.gov website look more like crime scene photos, with the couches strewn with laundry, bathroom counters resembling a Duane Reade jumble sale of haircare products and lip-gloss pots, and exterior shots of a weedy tennis court and overgrown lawn. And there's not a faint Norman manorism or quoin in sight. Undeterred parties may contact Tim Smith of the IRS (Timothy.P.Smith@irs.gov).

Shall We dance?
Even more fun than an IRS disposal of distressed assets is the new listing of a Fairfield home once owned by Richard Rodgers, half of Rodgers & Hammerstein, the composer who wrote the scores to The King and I and South Pacific. Fairfield was once something of a country-home hotspot for musical types, with Cole Porter living on Sasco Hill and Leonard Bernstein in Greenfield Hill. Called Rockmeadow, the 21-acre Rodgers spread features largely in Dorothy Rodgers' circa-1967 memoir/decorating guide, The House in My Head. Dorothy wrote the book to document the design and build of what would become their new weekend home, a glass-walled contemporary in Easton. But along the way, she reveals much about her life with "Dick," including endless dinner parties (the Knopfs, Kitty Carlisle and Moss Hart), the couple's separate bedrooms (his with a twin-sized bed) and a dozen of her favorite recipes—for super-fancy French fare, including bisques, jellied madrilènes and a slippery-sounding Eggs Mollet with Ham in Aspic (served with the interestingly paired wine soup and coleslaw).

But we digress. The lovely Rockmeadow estate, now listed for $12.995 million, features one of architect Cameron Clark's classic Colonial manses. Clark built the home in 1929, and over the years it has been expanded and renovated to include three stories (and more than 7,000 square feet) of gracious living spaces, including six bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and a regal-looking library with cherry paneling. On the 21-acre grounds are splendid English gardens, a pool and pond, a Har-Tru tennis court and a guest cottage and caretaker's quarters. Penny Lyons of Al Fillipone Associates, with William Raveis in Fairfield, has the listing, (203) 671-9992.

Solid Gold, Baby
Moving on to a newly constructed Beachside Avenue manse in Westport. Each of Fairfield County's Gold Coast towns has a stretch of shoreline that's recognized as its best address. In Westport, Beachside is it and deservedly so—the often rough and rocky coastline smoothes out here, creating a golden ribbon from Burying Hill (a beach that is much more pleasant than its name would suggest) to Southport Harbor, across the Fairfield town line. Only 1.5 miles in length, Beachside packs in boldface names with an admirable efficiency, especially given the size of their spreads; over the years, Don and Deirdre Imus, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, Harvey and Georgina Weinstein, and too many (and too reclusive) financiers to name here. In fact, Beachside is part of the larger and just-as-lovely Greens Farm neighborhood—Martha Stewart sold her home here last year—which is also one of Westport's most commuter-friendly locales: the tucked-away Greens Farm train stop, housed in a red-clapboard, Martha-worthy station, offers hour-long rides into Grand Central.

Meanwhile, at 75 Beachside, a brand-new manse just opened its doors to prospective buyers. RHB Development built the Shingle-style estate on spec (an increasingly rare endeavor, by the way) to resemble a Newport "cottage." Listed for $14 million, the 12,500-square-foot home takes its place comfortably among its luxe neighbors, boasting all their amenities and more. Its crowning glory is a three-story tower whose top floor is a gorgeously crafted octagonal gazebo, with a vaulted roof inset with diamond-paned windows and five arched doorways that overlook the two-plus-acre property. The middle story houses a solarium and the ground floor gives access to a pretty terrace, shaded by a fan-shaped pergola, that links the eating and kitchen areas inside to the pool outside, which has a cabana and laundry facilities—cool! There's also a tennis court with its own covered viewing porch; an outdoor fireplace; a grand foyer with double staircases, a fireplace and a 21-foot-ceiling (installed with a retractable chandelier that can be easily lowered for bulb changing); and a total of six bedrooms, eight bathrooms and three half-bathrooms. Cheryl Eldh of Fine Homes International with Prudential Connecticut Realty in Westport has the listing, (203) 984-6114.

Open Houses: The best of the fall market
There are always homeowners who choose to sell—or must sell—even when sales are scant. Realtors characterize the fall market as "re-energized" by these new listings and note an increase in traffic to their weekend open houses. Among our favorite new and otherwise notable homes for sale are the following:

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Heated History
Westport
$3,695,000
The bitter battle between preservationists and developers to save this historically significant Westport "Bradley House" farmhouse has had a happy ending. Built in 1800, the now-9,200-square-foot Colonial on 2.7 acres was restored and expanded by architect Jack Franzen and I.K. Builders, who were bestowed with a Westport Historic District Commission Preservation Award for their efforts to preserve the structure and some of its antique details—stone hearths, exposed beams and barn doors. The annex, built in 1800 by Abel Bradley, offers a dramatic loft with antique beams and a stone fireplace. Combining the tiny original structure with the much larger addition gives this home six bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, seven fireplaces and, on the lower level, a media room and wine cellar and tasting room, built from the existing 200-year-old timbers. It's listed through Vera Ruud with WRG Homes of William Pitt Sotheby's International in Westport, (203) 722-2230.

Agrarian Meets Modern
Wilton
$1,299,000
Another old dwelling made new, this 18th-century barn has been entirely reimagined. The airy former barn space is now a cool great room and kitchen with a second-story hayloft room. An expansion added chic, Modernist spaces with windowed walls overlooking the Norwalk Reservoir—it now offers four bedrooms and three bathrooms (plus three half-bathrooms), including a master suite with a fireplace and spa tub. The 1.3-acre grounds were designed by landscape architect Armand Benedek. It's listed through Gail Murphy of the Higgins Group in Westport, (203) 216-3879.

Marks of Wear
Darien
$2,475,000
Built in 1776, this Colonial and its carriage house were moved from Stratford to Darien to make way for the Merritt Parkway. A Darien architect painstakingly reassembled the structure, marking the beams with Roman numerals, which are still evident, and using wooden pegs and handmade nails. For the antique-house fancier, this one has it all: random-width floorboards, a chimney with a Dutch oven and a carved staircase. Now 6,000 square feet, the house's modern-day creature comforts include five bedrooms with three bathrooms (plus one half-bathroom) and a pretty pool on its 1.5 acres. It's listed through Becky Walsh and Linda Malpass of William Pitt Sotheby's International Realty in New Canaan: (203) 858-5909 and (203) 321-0020, respectively.

A Snapple a Day
Bridgewater
$2,749,500
Bridgewater is one of Litchfield County's southernmost villages, at less than a two hours' drive from the George Washington Bridge. Its rolling meadows and bucolic farms have a kind of movie-set prettiness that's fiercely protected by its land owners, including Mia Farrow and an ex-owner of Snapple, who controls 1,000 acres. This English manor-style home sits on 2.58 private acres but also boasts a walk-to-town location. It offers six bedrooms, including a deluxe master suite with a sitting room, two fireplaces, spacious walk-in closets and a balcony overlooking the gardens. It's listed with Stacey Matthews of the Matthews Group at William Raveis Real Estate in Washington Depot, (860) 868-9066.

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Three Worlds Collide
Weston
$5.8 million
This nearly new Shingle-style home in Weston has the kicked-back feel of a country home with its expansive views over Crystal Lake—best enjoyed from the private dock—and its own 2.5-acre grounds. But because it sits within a 12-minute drive to the Westport train station, it's got that three-in-one location that characterizes Fairfield County's best neighborhoods: an easy commute into the city, minutes from town amenities, but surrounded by rural beauty. The 9,100-square-foot home also offers five bedrooms and six bathrooms (plus two half-bathrooms). It's listed with Alexander Chingas of the Riverside Realty Group in Westport, (203) 451-0081.

The Whole Gang
Fairfield
$2.125 million
A 5,546-square-foot Colonial is a well-priced family-friendly home. To accommodate even the biggest broods, there is a master suite and four additional bedrooms, with three full bathrooms and two half-bathrooms. Built in 2003, the home's formal living areas include an elegant cherry library and a living room and a family room, each with a fireplace and a high-end kitchen. Outside: a pool and gardens which border Brett Woods Conservation land. Bonnie Paige with William Raveis Exceptional Properties in Fairfield has the listing, (203) 331-7512.

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