Something Old, Something New
Builder's custom Catskills 'shacks' in demand for Gotham residents
Section: Real Estate, Page: G4
Date: Sunday, July 10, 2011
In 2002, Charles Petersheim pulled out of New York City and moved to rural Sullivan County. Petersheim had worked as a commercial contractor in the city, and his plan then was to fix up old homes for Gotham dwellers looking for a slice of country life.
But after finding that second-home buyers would rather avoid the hassle of a remodel, Petersheim went in a different direction: new houses.
Well, new houses that look and feel like old houses.
In the nearly 10 years since, Petersheim, now 41, has built about 90 homes across the Catskills, and almost all are part-time residences for New Yorkers looking to escape the city's grind. Yet Petersheim, building under the name Catskill Farms, isn't cranking out cookie-cutter homes. Each has a personality. "Any time you're reinventing each house, you're doing it the hardest way you possibly can," he says. "We're always pushing the envelope, and that 'never get lazy' mantra is something we repeat every day."
Still, there's a look and style that's consistent with many of Petersheim's homes. They're clean and crisp, almost modern, without much frill or ornamentation. They lack ostentation, too, and include symbolic hallmarks of country homes: Big front porches. Wide-plank floors. Fireplaces.
They have a sense of history, yet they aren't entirely traditional. In contrast to many older homes, Catskill Farms houses have interiors that are wide open and spacious, with large windows that flood them with light. Their modern kitchens and bathrooms, meanwhile, might baffle Catskill residents of a bygone era.
Petersheim describes his homes as cottages, farmhouses or just plain shacks. And many of the houses are quite small. A "shack" now on the market in Sullivan County, for example, has just one bedroom and 500 square feet of space. It's selling for $178,000.
The cottages, meanwhile, include about 1,250 square feet of space -- far smaller than the typical new American home -- and sell for $335,000 to $375,000.
Petersheim says he builds smallish homes to keep them relativity affordable. Somewhat inspired by Sarah Susanka's influential book "The Not So Big House," he notes that Catskill Farms began building smaller houses when the age of the McMansion was still in full swing.
"We knew we couldn't sacrifice quality ... We knew we couldn't sacrifice details or design or the coolness factor," he says. "The only choice we had was to shrink it."
All his homes come with 4 or 5 acres of surrounding countryside. Still, there's no doubt Petersheim's houses are expensive for their neighborhoods: The 2011 median sales price in Sullivan County was $104,628, according to the New York State Association of Realtors. (It was $190,000 in Ulster County.) But in the world of custom-built vacation homes, the houses are priced relatively modestly. The homes were once all built on spec -- without an owner in place before construction -- but that's less and less the case.
"For the most part now," Petersheim says, "they're spoken for before we build, or just after we get started."
Petersheim proudly works outside of traditional industry models. He doesn't, for example, work with Realtors. He sells the homes himself, claiming that his company "is turning the real-estate sales process on its head."
When a Catskill Farms home goes up for sale, it goes up on the company's website. Actually, by the time a house is finished, it's probably been on the website (http://www.thecatskillfarms.com) for quite some time, with its construction progress chronicled in photographs or on Petersheim's blog.
That blog, by the way, is far different (and far more personal) than the standard sales language typical of home builders web sites. The posts often are written as a stream-of-thought that might please Jack Kerouac.
"Rock and Roll. Dig it, this modest business proposition that modesty and affordability and great design have a place in this world," Petersheim wrote in a recent post. "That funky groovy rad idea that we've been perfecting for pushing a decade."
Catskill Farms is based out of the Sullivan County town of Eldred, about two-and-a-half hours southwest of Albany. Lately, Petersheim has been building closer to the Capital Region, in Ulster County towns like Woodstock and Saugerties.
Doing so makes sense, he says, because those towns, along the Thruway, are more attractive to second-home buyers than remote and isolated Sullivan County. Expanding into Ulster County shows Petersheim is trying to grow his business, though he admits he's close to capacity.
He builds about 12 homes a year now. Too many more, he says, and he risks losing the individualized process that gives his homes their market niche. And he doesn't want to overbuild, for fear of repeating the mistakes made by some other home builders in a real estate economy that remains slow. "We've always been in a position where demand outstrips supply," Petersheim says. "We want to keep it that way."