Country time: Catskills builder constructs dream homes at low prices
The pitch sounds like an infomercial. Build your own home, pick the land, house color and all vintage fixtures, starting right this second, for as little as $180,000.
But it’s as real as the reclaimed wood on your new bedroom door. In the past 10 years, more than 100 homes have been sold to New York metro-area residents. Almost all of them pinch themselves after settling in to these houses on 5-acre-plus sites in New York’s Sullivan and Ulster Counties.
The brainchild of design-and-build expert Charles Petersheim (shown at right in the photo above alongside cottage owner Bryce Boyd), Catskill Farms has perfected new-construction cottages and farmhouses for people who can spot a good real-estate deal. Guitarist Albert Hammond of the Strokes, Gavin McGinnis from Vice magazine and comic David Cross have bought homes from Petersheim. So have a gay New York City police officer, Brooklyn playwright, guerrilla researcher, chemist, MoMA curator, Broadway composer and New York City sanitation worker.
Bluestone hardwood floors and open space beckon in a farmhouse (Catskills Farms)
“I want to build beautiful and functional homes for real people,” says Petersheim, who left the city after losing a construction management job in the wake of Sept. 11. “I started this when everyone was building mega-mansions and people were driving Hummers. These homes are a response to a simpler way of life.”
Selling 12 to 14 homes per year, Petersheim works in an area of the Catskills less than 100 miles from New York. The drive past Port Jervis takes less than two hours to Barryville. Recently, he has begun to build in Saugerties near Woodstock.
Most homes have living areas like downtown lofts. All owners have an option for a finished basement. Because of the flexibility in allowing homeowners to select finishes such as doorknobs and bathroom tile, each house has individual flair. I toured 10 houses on a recent Saturday, and it became clear why people buy here. The homes make you feel like you’re part of an older America. Multiple acres of woods between houses add to the sense of getting away from it all.
“Homeownership is the American Dream, and these homes make that possible again,” says Petersheim, who lived in a home without heat or hot water for six months while he created the business. “The architecture is based on old ideas, but these are brand-new houses. You have none of the hassles of a fixer-upper, which can be emotional and financial drains. Eventually, I’d like to be the Apple of home building. A little more expensive, but known for high design. These are also the greenest homes out there. Everything is sourced local and is recyclable and sustainable.”
A mix of modern and antique in the living room of Greg Kalleres and Erin Matts (Catskills Farms)
Home purchases usually happen one of two ways. Someone, or a couple — almost always people renting in New York City — want to buy a dream weekend getaway but don’t want the hassle or prices of the Hamptons. Either a friend tells them about Petersheim and the houses or they find him on the Internet, where Catskills Farms has a quirky, informative and comprehensive website.
Erin Matts works in digital marketing for a beer company. After renting a weekend home in Ulster County for several years with her husband, playwright Greg Kalleres, she wanted to own. A Park Slope resident, Matts came across thecatskillfarms.com on a search for real estate in the area.
“It was obvious from the website that this guy knew what he was doing,” says Matts, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., and likes a combination of country and city life. “The houses were really attractive. We fantasize about being handy and fixing up a house one day, but that’s just not us right now.”
Matts and Kalleres purchased a yellow, midcentury, two-bedroom ranch with a red front door that cost in the low-$300,000s. It was being built when Matts came across it. The home has a deck overlooking the Pennsylvania mountains where the couple sit and read, and eat 90% of their meals.
(At left, Matts and Kalleres enjoy their view, Thomas Duncan)
“There’s nothing better than a beer and a book sitting on an Adirondack chair on our deck,” she says. “This is it for me, the place my grandchildren will come, where we can grow old. That’s how much I love it.”
Most owners have similar stories, and almost all have moments of joy associated with their home. Daniel Simmons, who works in marketing for a newspaper, bought a two-bedroom micro-cottage on 5 acres more than 18 months ago for around $220,000.
He picked out the reclaimed Pennsylvania barn wood that flanks his front door on the inside. He also asked Petersheim to build a sink from an early-19th-century school desk he found at the nearby Bungalow Antiques. Simmons built his own firepit and recently put additional stairs on his front porch.
“I always wanted a home in the country and I wasn’t getting any younger,” he says. “I was bidding on a house nearby that needed serious work when I met Chuck and saw these houses. My house, which I got brand-new, came out cheaper than what the other guy wanted. The other day I was riding my bike around. It was beautiful out. I got to the top of my road, and I remember thinking I haven’t been this happy in years.”
According to Petersheim, more than 30% of homebuyers are gay or lesbian. Some are planning to marry. Petersheim and some homeowners attribute the popularity among gay buyers to pioneering good-value neighborhoods, or getting tothe right neighborhood first.
Bryce Boyd and his partner loved the area so much they opened a boutique in the nearby town of Barryville on Route 97. Called the Region General Store (regiongeneralstore.com), the shop sells home goods, art and food products all created locally. The owner of a two-bedroom cottage that sold for above $325,000, Boyd immediately took to the area.
Christine Richardson in her large, modern kitchen (Thomas Duncan)
“We were looking in the Hamptons and Shelter Island, but this esthetic appealed to us,” says Boyd, who worked in luxury fashion retail for over two decades. “We have 8 acres, and our entire social life is out here now. The community and locals are so welcoming. We just built a back deck. Sometimes you can hear a train in the distance. I love that sound.”
It usually takes six months for Petersheim and company to complete a house. He employs four people, working out of an old steel school bus depot he converted into a design studio. He collects antique typewriters. A community member, he met his wife at a town-zoning meeting. They live in their fifth house in 10 years.
Petersheim is now experimenting with midcentury shapes and the Shack series — efficient, 550-square-foot one-bedroom homes priced at $180,000. On average, a Catskill Farms house costs $320,000. His company invests over $400,000 per month in the community through construction jobs. He estimates the 100 homeowners contribute about $800,000 in annual taxes, helping this corner of the Catskills thrive.
(At right, Daniel Simmons takes in a morning read outside his micro-cottage, Thomas Duncan)
In addition to overseeing all construction and site preparation for each client, he writes the entire website and takes every photo. This hands-on approach helps ease the home-buying and homebuilding process.
For most Catskill Farms buyers, it is their first home purchase. “I always wanted to do this but never could have imagined how,” says Dr. Christine Richardson, a chemist who built a farmhouse. “I was a little freaked out about the money and financing and the process, but Chuck walked me through the process and made it so easy. This is the best thing I ever did.”
Calling her house “a retreat, an escape and another world,” Richardson likes living on 8-plus acres in the woods.
“I have a bear that comes in my backyard,” she laughs. “That freaked me out too, at first. The bottom line is I never could have done this where I live in Westchester. Or if I did, it would have cost $2 million. The people know my name at the grocery store. I feel at home here.”
Catskill Farms homes: A look at what's available
How much: $280,000
What you get: Two bedrooms, two baths on 5 acres with a full basement and front porch.
How much: $275,000
What you get: Two bedrooms, one bathroom and a back deck with sensational views
How much: $490,000
What you get: Four bedrooms, 2.5 baths on nine acres