Category Archives: Finances

UPSTATE JANE: Keeping Warm and Keeping Modern, In An Upstate House

Why is it always such a difficult process to merge form and function? Since moving into my new home Upstate full-time, I have discovered an ugly fact. I was aware that this new home heats with oil (much to my chagrin and irritation) and I assumed down the line I would have to make the necessary environmentally friendly and energy-efficient changes for our budget and my peace of mind. What I didn’t realize, is that to fill my 275 gallon tank of oil, I would pay $800.00. I also didn’t realize that this 275 gallon tank would last me a month. This is not cranking the heat, but keeping the indoor temperature around 65 degrees. My last house had 3 smart heating solutions. It had a propane back up for creating instant heat when coming inside, it had zoned baseboard heat (rarely used, but on thermostats, convenient and efficient) and it had a wood stoves.  All this combined to a very inexpensive heating source. We were also weekender’s and the old home was 1100 square feet as opposed to 2000. It is something to seriously consider when looking for a home, especially larger homes than 2000 square feet. I just think back to the old mansions I had been pondering!

Fast forward to full-time living and working from home, with a more expensive oil based central heating system, and you are slapped with $800.00 a month during the winter. Well considering our mortgage payments are not much more than that, we cannot “wait” to make the changes, we have to do it…well…NOW. I needed to get a woodstove insert for our large fireplace to act as a furnace/primary heat source.


I recently visited a local shop, and was quite disappointed by the lack of modern or contemporary wood stove inserts for your fireplace. I assumed I may have to pay more for a design that would aesthetically work in our modern home- but I assumed there would at least be one option.  Though not at this store, there are some cool modern free standing wood stoves and fireplaces, see my URBAN JANE post) At this local store I found country wood stoves (great for a different style home) heavy cast iron stoves that protruded far out of the fireplace, and then typical wood stoves with scrolling and ornate details. The salesman suggested I just place one of these wood stoves in front of my fireplace. These solutions are fine for a farmhouse, or an older home- but a home that is about clean lines and modern minimalism an ornate wood stove sitting in front of a linear limestone fireplace, just can’t work.

I was then shown gas fireplace inserts to use propane with. Now propane is the more environmentally friendly option over wood (to some)since it burns cleaner and less carcinogenicity, but it is not necessarily a renewable “green” resource.  It costs about the same to heat as with wood, (Unless you scour for your own decent fallen trees and cut it all yourself and stack 50 cords out back for years down the road.) These models were much slicker looking, and granted they come with no muss or fuss, less maintenance, and can be controlled by a thermostat and timer just like a regular furnace. However, you don’t get that real fire feeling or sound or smell. Is it worth it?

I decided there must be a more attractive wood stove insert out there than this shop was showing me (even though they claimed there was not) When I asked him  about Wittus (whom they did not carry)  he claimed they did not make a wood stove insert like that, and that in Europe they will heat with 3-4 free-standing wood stoves. I then realized I needed to do more of my own research since I knew for a fact that there were some great models in Europe, and there must be some available here to purchase in the U.S.

Below are a few models I have found that are contemporary to modern and offer a high BTU output. They should be able to heat a 2000-2500 square foot home in the winter. However, remember they will not heat your water, so you are still left with your oil heater if you don’t replace it for a propane or electric hot water heater.

The first model is a Wittus wood burning insert- and though expensive (I have read approximately $4,000.00) At $800.00 a month for oil, it would be worth it.

The Optifire Zero Clearance Fireplace (up to 50,000 BTU and heats up to 2500 square feet in the greenest manner possible)  and the H530 insert (up to 30,000 BTU and heats up to 1500 square feet respectively)

The next is Morsø 5660 NA woodstove Fireplace Insert (up to 50,000 BTU and up to 2200 square feet) The viewing window for the fire is smaller and the surround is larger, but this is also a more environmentally friendly stove. It runs approximately $3100.00

They also make another less expensive model which has the same BTU and space heating qualities but it slightly smaller for $2750.00

The last woodstove insert is the FPX 33 Elite Plus Wood Insert wood insert (heats up to 2000 square feet) but does not seem to display all the green qualities. The price seems to be a bit lower though, in the $2000.00 range before add on’s.

Now for the Gas Fireplace’s. These typically cost less money but depending on whom you speak to are more environmentally friendly, are more fuss free, yet also don’t kick out the jams like the wood stoves do, although they claim the same BTU and square foot coverage.

The FPX 34 DVL GSR Insert (up to 40,000 BTU and heats up to 2000 square feet)

two different surrounds with decent looking fronts, both the same fireplace

The next is the Avalaon 33 DVI Gas Fireplace- heats up to 2000 square feet and 40,000 BTU’s

Avalon Gas Fireplace

The last is the Napoleon Inspiration GDI44 heats up to 2500 square feet at 44,000 BTU’s- Remember these are just the inserts you see (not the “fireplace hearths”)

You, Too, Can Get Paid to Live Here

A couple of weeks back we got an email from a professional property caretaker, asking us to spread the word about his services. And we got curious… just how does one become a caretaker, someone who gets to hole up in the guest house of a grand mansion while the owners are away (which they mostly are)?

Pat Linnan tells us all about it. He’s cared for great estates but also, you know, kept the pipes from freezing on some more modest second homes, as well — something many of you ask us about. Read on if you want to know what Pat does, and how he does it! If you’re interested in hiring him to check up on your pad, send him an email.

UPSTATER: Tell me how you came to live upstate. Are you a native, or did you relocate from elsewhere? Where upstate have you lived?

PAT LINNAN: I’m originally from Western Pennsylvania.  A small town called Clarion out towards Pittsburgh.  I was living in Atlanta and was looking to find a caretaking position slightly closer to home – my cousin told me to look in the Catskills.  He lives in Philly and has a lot of friends with properties around Hunter. I’d never been to the area before but moved to the Hudson Valley four years ago and have settled right in.
U: How did you start being a caretaker? What kinds of properties have you cared for?
PL: The first few positions were tied in with renting or working a regular job.  I exchanged property maintenance for housing, or kept an eye on the place if the homeowners had to be out of town for an extended period of time.  My cousins also have a property management company in Vail, CO, so I was always aware of the market while I was growing up.

I’ve been a property caretaker for quite a few different types of properties.  The first place I was a caretaker for here in New York was a rather manicured historic estate on the Hudson River.  Currently I’m caretaking a non-working farm estate.  In Charlottesville, VA I was caretaker for a bed and breakfast property north of town and in Breckenridge, CO,  I was supervising operations for a snowmobile company set on an old mining claim in the mountains above town – I lived with a few friends in a cabin there so the owners could have a presence on the property during off hours.

U: What duties does it entail? What services do you offer?

PL: Each property is different depending on what the owners need/are looking for.  Sometimes it’s very minimal – stop at the house once a week to make sure the heat is on and there’s no water in the basement and do a quick walk-through.  Other properties require you to work 50 hours Monday through Friday and be on call on the weekends for snowplowing, etc.

U: When you’re taking care of an estate, does it leave you time for smaller jobs?

PL: The property I’m currently caretaking does.  It is fairly low maintenance  and the lawn care, housekeeping, and pool are all outsourced.  I live here and manage things but have a flexible schedule otherwise.

U: What do you charge for your services, especially for weekend homeowners?

Read the rest of this entry

Ulster County Property Taxes On the Rise

Has anyone been following the story about the New York State Property Tax Cap? As far as I understand it, Cuomo ushered through some legislation late last year that caps the increase in property taxes at 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Sounds good, right? Here’s the catch: municipalities can vote out the cap (which doesn’t apply to NYC, by the way). “Communities may raise or lower property taxes according to the needs of the community. If the taxpayers want to pay more taxes they can, and they can override the cap with a 60 percent vote for schools and by a 60 percent vote of the governing body for local governments.”

In Ulster County, all but two municipalities opted out of the cap, according to the Daily Freeman. Here’s the skinny:

“According to the  Real Property Tax Service Agency, 2012 county tax rates per $1,000 of assessed property value will be as follows.

• Denning: $23.34, up 8.4 percent from $21.53 in 2011.
• Esopus: $4.25, up 8.4 percent from $3.92.
• Gardiner: $4.85 per $1,000, up 2.3 percent from $4.74.
• Hardenburgh: $6.39, up 8.3 percent from $5.90.
• Hurley: $4.02, up 0.5 percent from $4.
• Kingston (town): $4.69, up 1.5 percent from $4.62.
• Kingston (city): $4.24, up 8.4 percent from $3.91.
• Lloyd: $4.24, up 8.4 percent from $3.91.
• Marbletown: $3.95, up 1.3 percent from $3.90.
• Marlborough: $4.27, up 8.4 percent from $3.94.
• New Paltz: $4.23, up 8.5 percent from $3.90.
• Olive: $4.21, up 8.5 percent from $3.88.
• Plattekill: $4.27, down 0.6 percent from $4.30.
• Rochester: $4.23, up 4.2 percent from $4.06.
• Rosendale: $4.25, up 8.4 percent from $3.92.
• Saugerties: $4.27, up 8.7 percent from $3.93.
• Shandaken: $18.30, up 8.3 percent from $16.89.
• Shawangunk: $21.35, up 3 percent from $20.72.
• Ulster: $5.24, down 0.2 percent from $5.25.
• Wawarsing: $257.92, up 8.3 percent from $238.05.
• Woodstock: $4.43, up 3.7 percent from $4.27.

That means that for lower taxes, head to Plattekill or the town of Ulster. Upstater will check those towns out soon!

Grants for Upstate Businesses

If you have a dream of moving north and opening up a little shop of your own, here’s some incentive: Sullivan County has started a Microenterprise Program to give grants of between $5,000 and $35,000 to local start-ups. Personally, I’d try to figure out how to reinvent a bungalow colony, which is still my dream.

A Labor Exchange for the Catskills

Has anyone gotten on board with Catskills Time? It’s a co-op of sorts, in which you offer your services, earn points, and can spend them on services that someone else is offering. These kind of time banks always insist it’s not bartering — I’ll do your taxes, you fix my plumbing — but that’s mostly because you don’t trade directly with another person. You can offer home baked goods, picture framing, errand-running, ditch-digging…whatever it is you can offer in time. Might be a terrific thing for weekenders who would like to swap some services in exchange for having someone check regularly on their home or perform other caretaking dutues!

There’s an orientation potluck on Sunday, January 15th at Stone and Thistle Farm1211 Kelso Road in East Meredith.

Who’s Buying Upstate? You Are. If You’re Rich.

Luxury Farmhouse from Catskill Premier

Our Margaretville correspondent passed on this article from the Financial Times. According to the Brits, the bulk of sales for homes in the Catskills are going to New Yorkers, despite the untimely lull in sales, post-Irene. They’re attracted by its “four-season resort” amenities: swimming in summer, fishing in fall and spring, skiing in winter. Brokers say some live there as much as 3/4-time (hope they write in to tell us how that’s possible for the rest of us) while others are weekenders.

While our philosophy is that upstate New York properties are incredibly reasonable as compared to hyper inflated prices here in New York City, and that there are tens of thousands of folks like us, who want to be home owners but can’t make it swing in our neighborhood of choice, this article reports on folks interested in grander properties. “One discernible trend is the increasing number of buyers seeking estates, usually of 100 acres or more,” they write. “Catskill properties can fetch as much as $2m, particularly those closer to Manhattan. Yet you don’t have to spend anywhere near that to obtain an exceptional home. Spinelli is selling a four-bedroom property with mountain views for just $750,000. Located in Bovina, it includes a pool and 12 acres of grounds.”

Personally, that seems like a lot for Bovina to me, but I’m not looking for a second home in that price range. This article really caters to folks who might otherwise be interested in the Hamptons or other chic places, but want more for their giant pile of cash — excuse me, more for their money. As one upstate buyer put it, “It’s better than sitting in traffic on the way to the Hamptons. And for the money, it’s a great deal.”

Never Mind Upstate–Move to Massachusetts!

I don’t really mean this. I mean, if I did, I wouldn’t have a website called Upstater. Plus, as the old saying goes, I heart New York. But one extremely helpful commenter yesterday alerted us to the potentially specious claims of low taxes on Chatham properties, and then passed on this article, about why property taxes are higher in New York State than just over the border in Massachusetts.

“In Troy, Angela Renna lives in a 21-year-old, 1,850-square-foot, split-level home in a quiet residential neighborhood far from the city center. Taxes on her home run $6,564 a year.

‘Troy is outrageous, Renna said. ‘Rensselaer County is out of control, too.’

An hour away in Pittsfield, Carl Callahan has an 11-year-old, 1,850-square-foot residence, also located on a tranquil street away from the bustle of downtown. Taxes on his home run $4,579 a year.

The $2,000 difference is significant, but consider this: Renna’s house likely would go to market at about $164,000; Callahan recently sold his for $305,000.

A $164,000 home in Pittsfield would carry a tax bill of $2,489, or just over one-third of the cost in Troy.”

To which we say, so eloquently: Dang.

Of course, I’d rather live in Troy than Pittsfield. How much is that worth?

Proposed Affordable Housing in Woodstock: Strife Among the Hippies

A reader turned us on to this article from The New York Times last week, about the feathers ruffled in oh-so-liberal Woodstock by a proposed 53-unit affordable housing project there. I’ve always thought that one of the main differences between conservatives and liberals was their take on poverty issues — liberals actually want to spend money on the poor, to have their tax money benefit the less fortunate. But in this case other standard liberal values, like environmental issues, seem to be clashing with the desire for an economically diverse community.

One problem is that folks tend to be intractable no matter what their values — once they get comfortable with the general state of a place, they don’t much want that to shift. I love this quote from the Times’ piece: “Nobody would tell you they don’t want these people in our town,” said Jeff Moran, the town supervisor, who has been a conflicted supporter of the rental project. “Instead, they talk about the effect on the quality of life, ramping up the costs of services and those kind of things. But there’s a joke in town that the reason The Woodstock Times costs a dollar is because people don’t want change.”

At least, they don’t want change on this scale. They say the 53 units of Woodstock Commons for a town of 6,000 is too big. I’m gonna say the plans sound pretty good, and also sound like they will be bringing in hard-working lower middle class folks. “The current plans, with a green design and geothermal heating and cooling, would set aside some units for households making less than 30 percent of the county’s median income of roughly $70,000 for a family of four; other units would have income ceilings of 50 percent and 60 percent of the county median,” the Times reported. The average listing price in Woodstock at the time of this writing, according to Trulia, is over $600,000.

Tips for Buying Catskills Real Estate in the Post-Irene Era

Okay, maybe it’s not an era, but surely buyers’ feet are a little colder after seeing entire Catskills towns flooded with muddy water. On the other hand, says Timberland Properties’ John Tufillaro, “I’ve seen some places where you would never know there was flooding in the area.”

So, how to pick a safe bet? It’s not just avoiding the valleys, says Tufillaro. “I could point out properties in valleys that are untouched by what happened here.” Rather, it’s about picking properties that are high enough — 15 feet minimum — from a stream or other body of water, and far enough from them. The higher properties are, for the most part, the better they do…unless they’re on the side of a mountain that’s gushing down water. Suddenly, a stream-side cottage doesn’t look as good.

As we mentioned last week, you can also type in the property’s address to this website and find out if it’s in a flood zone.

After Irene, Should We Rebuild?

The NY Times asked an important question this weekend: should we rethink rebuilding in the very spots that Irene ravaged? After all, at least a little built of the destruction came from a human miscalculation about, or perhaps willful ignorance of, building on the flood plain. “Are there communities that simply can’t be protected adequately and should be relocated?” asked Assemblyman Kevin A. Cahill.

Cahill goes on to say that the communities with the strictest building codes tended to be the least damaged–a vote for big government, I guess, and that dirty word regulation. The decision has to be made based on what folks in the article term the “new normal”–the more severe weather patterns expected to continue due to climate change.

The town they focus on is Phoenicia, a favorite of ours for its sweet little inns, the great tubing, the beauty of the Esopus Creek…which is also it’s most potentially menacing aspect as well. And they mention poor Margaretville as well, where business owners are now second-guessing their choices.

“…the destruction left by the tropical storm has already begun to alter the mind-set of some business owners and homeowners. Last year, PSK Supermarkets, which operates a chain of Foodtown and Freshtown stores in New York State, spent millions of dollars to open a store in the Village of Margaretville, in Delaware County, about 20 miles west of Phoenicia.

Noah Katz, a co-president of the company, said he knew he was building on a flood plain and was aware of the damage that major storms had already inflicted on the village. But since a couple of 100-year floods had already occurred in the past 15 years, the likelihood of another such storm anytime soon seemed slim.

‘We thought we had a hundred years,’ he said.”

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