05/09/11 2:13pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Dandelions line a field on Main Road in Jamesport.

That scourge of temperate-zone gardeners — the humble dandelion — is out in force all over the North Fork, carpeting every available spot in glorious yellow. And you either love it or you don’t.

Most don’t.

Notoriously hard to permanently eradicate, the dandelion just doesn’t give up without a fight. For those who like the manicured garden, it poses a real problem.

If you are uncomfortable with pesticides, you have to weed.  But weeding dandelions means constant weeding. as the plant selflessly volunteers itself to spread all over your lawn and flowerbeds. And it’s not easy weeding either, as the taproot can be up to 10 inches long and is easily fractured. Any portion of the root left in the ground can regenerate the weed, so you might want to invest in a special dandelion weeding tool, stocked by your local Agway. Even then they’ll come back.

So here’s a novel suggestion. Why not embrace your inner dandelion and develop a whole new attitude towards the pesky interlopers?

K.K. Haspel, for one, can’t say enough good things about the weed. “It attracts cosmic forces to the soil,” said Ms. Haspel,  a biodynamic farmer in Southold.

And those cosmic forces are evidently especially attracted by dandelion compost. Ms Haspel suggests taking a look at the powerful compost composed of dried dandelion flowers produced by the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Bio-Dynamics in Woolwine, Va.

“They break up your soil,” said Ms. Haspel. “This is nature trying to help you.” (The institute will purchase your dandelion flowers at $25 a dried pound.)

Ms. Haspel also points out that the dandelion is hugely useful in medicine. “It can ease digestion and alleviate warts,” she said. “It’s also very nutritious, roots, leaves and flowers.”

Nutritionally, the dandelion can be consumed as food or drink. With a warning to avoid plants from areas that may have been sprayed with pesticides, Ms. Haspel recommends eating young dandelion leaves raw in a salad or sautéing them with garlic and spinach and perhaps some onions and ginger and Asian greens. “But just wilt them. Don’t overcook,” she said.

Dandelion flowers can also be steeped in water to make tea. “Steep them for about fifteen minutes,” said Ms. Haspel. “Some people also put them in smoothies.” Dandelion roots too can be finely ground to form the basis for a coffee substitute.

Dandelions can also be useful in other ways.

Ms. Haspel says that leaving dandelions to grow wild really helps bees. “Bees have a very hard time in spring with few flowers from which to gather pollen,” she said. (For beekeepers, the bonus is that dandelion honey is one of the first honey crops of the year.)

And then of course there’s dandelion wine. According to  wikihow.com, right now is the optimum time to harvest whole dandelion flowers for winemaking, although (perhaps as something of a salutary warning) the article counsels that “just the petals can make for a less bitter tasting wine.”

Full on dandelion fans might even consider fermenting dandelion honey to make an ancient alcoholic concoction called mead, and then combining it with an infusion of dandelion petals to form dandelion metheglin, which is the generic name for mead combined with herbs —  homebrewtalk.com has lots of advice on brewing meads and metheglins.

So could dandelion wines form a hot new trend on the North Fork?

Donnell Brown, executive director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance, confesses she does occasionally indulge in nonmerlot wines (and has even been seen with a beer once in a while.) How about dandelion wine?

“I’d give it a go,” she said.

Adam Suprenant, winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion vineyard in Peconic says he doesn’t plan to start making dandelion wine any time soon, in spite of the abundance of raw material currently inundating the Northeast.

“I’ve never tasted it. My understanding is that it’s kind of an old country thing,” he said. “However, even if you gave it a try, I am certain you could not make a regionally specific dandelion wine so I’m not too worried about competition.

“North Fork winemakers are not going to be shaking in their shoes!”

04/29/11 12:01am

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Richard Cifarelli's 19th-century barn, immediately recognizable by its 60-foot height, gambrel roof and distinctive cupola, is located on the south side of Main Road in Cutchogue. It was once owned by the Fleet family, which had a grand house (now gone) with matching cupola close by the barn.

When Richard Cifarelli acquired a handsome barn back in 1996, he knew it was going to be quite a project to turn it into a home.

“It wasn’t usable at all,” said Mr. Cifarelli, who, as a senior agent with Prudential Douglas Elliman, knows a thing or two about real estate. “There was no water, no electricity. It was about as raw a piece property as you could imagine.”

The 19th-century barn, immediately recognizable by its 60-foot height, gambrel roof and distinctive cupola, is located on the south side of Main Road in Cutchogue. It was once owned by the Fleet family, which had a grand house (now gone) with matching cupola close by the barn.

Mr. Cifarelli says the barn was originally used to house horses and, indeed, according to Munsell’s “History of Suffolk County,” in the 1880s Henry L. Fleet was renowned both as a horse breeder and as the biggest farmer in the Town of Southold.

The book describes Mr. Fleet as having “raised a number of colts and horses which sold at prices ranging up to several thousand dollars, and has at the present time a very superior stock of young horses, from which similar returns may be expected.”

Later on in its history, the barn was used in the flower business of another member of the Fleet family, who sold gladioli from the building, advertising the flowers on an old horse carriage as the “Wayside Flower Stand.”

By the 1990s, though, the barn had fallen into disrepair.

“Probably nothing was done with it for 30 years or so,” said Mr. Cifarelli. “There were gaping holes in the roof.”

Although he had a vision for the barn, Mr. Cifarelli did not dive right into a major renovation project. Instead, he took his time getting to know the property.

“I owned it a long time before I started working on it,” he said. “You walk around a lot, you check where the sun comes in and that’s where you put the kitchen.”

After major work was completed — Mr. Cifarelli estimates that around 80 percent of the barn is new — 1,100 square feet of living space had been created. He moved into the two-bedroom space in 2007 and says the barn is still a work in progress.

In that regard, Mr. Cifarelli plans to turn the rear of the building into living space and convert the current residential area into additional bedrooms.

“I’m going to build a three-car garage, there will be a courtyard to the east and a pool will go in just off the back of the barn,” he said. “It’s 2 1/2 acres, so it’ll be a small estate.”

And, indeed, the exterior of the barn and surrounding grounds already possess a rather European country-estate look by virtue of privet hedges and a paved stone driveway.

It’s kind of a French and Tuscan mix,” said Mr. Cifarelli. “I also wanted low maintenance and although the privet was expensive, there’s not that much upkeep going forward apart from mowing the grass.”

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The living area’s interior is paneled in wood, some of which was originally on the outside of the barn, and painted a creamy white. The plank floor was also painted white “and then we painted it a Ralph Lauren blue which, with the original white coming through, makes it look quite old,” said Mr. Cifarelli.

The result is a relaxed country space flooded with light and offering comfortable bentwood armchairs and couch to sink into. Fresh flowers, paintings and prints abound, along with a collection of horseshoes propped up on shelves and an ancient porch support casually leaning against a wall.

One quirky touch is the huge creamy-colored chandelier suspended from an old glass-paned door attached to the post and beam ceiling.

“Double the light gets reflected in the glass panes,” observed Mr. Cifarelli.

Mr. Cifarelli seems remarkably calm as he describes the labor of love, but he is the first to admit the project has had its share of stress.

“I moved to Miami for a year and a half right in the middle of it,” he said. “Then I came back and finished it enough to be able to move in.”

He knows there’s still a substantial amount of work to be done, but Mr. Cifarelli remains committed to his work in progress.

This is just what I wanted for my home,” he said. “I lived in Europe and so I really don’t like a typical sheet-rocked house. And I grew up with a barn in my backyard.”

03/28/11 12:30pm
Aquebogue bridge

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Gabrielsen Builders employees Tom Bader (left) and Joe Minnick work on the 'covered bridge' entranceway to the Bocksel's Moore Family Farm in Aquebogue earlier this month.

Over the past few years, Bob and Karen Bocksel have become accustomed to drivers slowing down to stare at their property on Main Road in Aquebogue.

After all, not everyone has a full-sized windmill complete with custom-made sails sitting in the yard.

And now passersby might be forgiven for thinking they’ve suddenly been transported to Vermont. The reason? Construction of the Bocksels’ latest whimsical architectural feature – a covered bridge – is well underway.

Situated to the west of the house, the structure is visible from the road because it sits rather high on the property. It fulfills Mr. Bocksel’s long-standing desire for an imposing gateway to the farm that lies behind their house.

The Bocksels’ house is an Aquebogue landmark all by itself. Originally constructed by Ms. Bocksel’s great-great-great grandfather, Luther Moore, it is immediately identifiable by the belvedere that sits on top of the roof. (A belvedere is an architectural feature designed to afford a panoramic view, which in this case includes the Aquebogue School, the Meeting House Deli, Main Road and beyond.)

In 2006 the Bocksels embarked on a renovation of the main house, a project including structural work in the basement, custom six-over-six-paned widows, new cedar shakes and a new roof.

Next came the windmill. The Bocksels had admired working windmills in Holland when they lived in Europe and had always liked the windmill in Watermill. Mr. Bocksel says it was an easy decision to construct an English-style “smock” mill, similar to several that still stand on the South Fork.

After the windmill was completed in 2008 the Bocksels decided to renovate their carriage barn into a summer entertainment space, hence the large deck. The couple also installed a fireplace and cedar tongue-and-groove siding along with a cedar shake roof.

Just as excavation for the windmill turned up colonial-era clay pipes and Spanish coins from the late 18th century, the carriage barn too revealed some history during its renovation.

“It was originally a horse barn,” said Mr. Bocksel. “We found a lot of horseshoes while we were working on the place.”
The Bocksels agree that their property is a definite work-in-progress, even more so now they have embarked on yet another ambitious project.

“The covered bridge idea was my personal concept, although Karen prefers to call it the gate house barn,” said Mr. Bocksel.
Whether you call it a barn or a bridge, it’s an open building “that you could drive a tractor trailer through. There are no doors,” said Mr. Bocksel.

Local builder Rob Gabrielsen, who also had a hand in the construction of the windmill and the carriage barn, is supervising the project. At its core are massive spans of custom white pine timber from New Hampshire. (Appropriately enough, as New Hampshire shares with Vermont the longest two-span covered bridge in the world at 450 feet, according to website www.visit-newhampshire.com.)

The building’s foundation is made of the same Long Island fieldstone used for the windmill. On either side is a shed that will be used for storage.

The first concept for an entrance to the farm was stone columns “but that was very pricey,” said Mr. Bocksel. The couple brainstormed with Mattituck architect Don Feiler, whose initial design gave a more a traditional barn appearance.
“Eventually the design morphed into what we have now,” said Mr. Bocksel.

“While you can see the archway from the road, the real beauty of the building is on the inside when you look up and see these huge timbers and spans,” he added.

Although the bridge does not cross water, Mr. Bocksel says he has not ruled out the possibility of constructing a waterway under the building.

Watch this space.

03/25/11 5:32am

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Sub-contractor Peter Klipp of Peter Klipp Drywall of Mattituck spackles the study of a new home as he talks to fellow builder Rob Gabrielsen.

Even at the height of the housing market boom, there was little large-scale new home development on the North Fork. And unlike many other parts of the United States where cheaply constructed cookie-cutter single-family houses were thrown up by the hundreds, new home projects in our area tended toward a limited number of higher end homes like the Highlands in Aquebogue development or vacation condominiums such as the Cliffside resort in Greenport.

But since the bust, even that small amount of spec development has come to a halt, says Rob Gabrielsen of Gabrielsen Builders in Jamesport.

“You just have to drive around the area,” he said. “You used to see ten or fifteen homes going up. That segment of the new home market has definitely been the hardest hit.”

Mark Boeckman, the owner of Boeckman Construction in Mattituck, agrees and says the slowdown has extended beyond subdivision projects to individual homes.

“I haven’t seen a set of plans for a new house for six months,” he said. “People seem to be holding off.”

New construction may have slowed down, it’s not completely moribund, according to Mr. Gabrielsen. His company is seeing more renovation projects than new home building, but they’re still building high-end homes.

Christine Owen of Owen Construction in Baiting Hollow observes that the extremely higher-end home market has not slowed significantly, but she’s noticed a difference in what people are looking for in a new home.

“Average customers are now tending to keep home size in conformity with neighborhood standards,” she said.

The scaling down of square footage isn’t the only significant trend in new home construction since the dip in the housing market took effect.

Mr. Boeckman has noticed that high-end home customers tend to consider environmentally friendly materials, although in his experience, ambitious “green” projects like geothermal heating have not always panned out as cost effective. His company has not yet installed solar panels in any new home construction project, but he expects interest in solar technology to increase in the future.

According to Ms. Owen, customers have shown an interest in adding the necessary infrastructure to allow going solar, but many are waiting for improved technology before they take the plunge.

While North Fork customers may not yet fully embrace solar and geothermal alternatives, there is a healthy interest in energy efficiency, says Mr. Gabrielsen.

“With the price of oil soaring, many customers are looking at natural gas if it’s available,” he said. “They ask about windows and doors. People are getting educated about these issues and it’s forcing manufacturers to come up with more insulation options.”
In addition to a focus on energy-efficient options, Mr. Gabrielsen says the trend towards open areas for working and entertaining continues.

“Even though people may sometimes go off at a tangent in terms of new home design, at the end of the day they come back to a traditional look. We get requests for traditional casings for doors and windows, exposed beams, the whole beach cottage-y look,” he said.

That traditional look can be achieved with some interesting new products that effectively mimic more costly traditional materials, such as wood, stone and cedar shingles.

Ms. Owen said many of her customers like the traditional appearance of a product that has the look and feel of clear premium lumber, but is in fact a maintenance-free cellular PVC trim. If properly installed it does not require painting and is ideal for anything from trim and fascia to detailed mill work.

“People definitely want products that look authentic but don’t require a lot of maintenance,” she said.

Some of the new products also offer significant cost savings.

“Traditional stone fireplaces are very popular and can be very expensive,” added Mr. Gabrielsen. “But you can use a more reasonably priced cultured stone that is a sliced real stone veneer. Products are much better these days than they used to be.”
Mr. Boeckman agrees that North Fork customers want the traditional look and he expects that preference to continue.

“They tend to want homes constructed with materials like granite, marble and tile,” he said. “We don’t do too much out here that’s out of the ordinary.”

02/28/11 9:41am

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Maidstone Landing condos overlook the Sound in Northville.

In the market for a condo or co-op on the North Fork? You may want to know how prices are holding up compared to single-family homes, whose prices and volume of sales have declined from the highs of a few years ago.

The answer, according to local real estate agents, is reasonably well.

“We have a limited number of condos on the North Fork,” said Paul Loeb of Lloyd’s Realty in Greenport. “There’s not much out there and so when a condo comes on the market, it often sells more quickly than a single-family home.”

Mr. Loeb cites as an example the Cleaves Point complex in East Marion.

“There’s nothing available at the moment but we have people very interested should a unit come up for sale,” he said.

There have been some strongly priced sales of desirable units, according to Mr. Loeb.

“Last year a unit sold in the Pipes Cove development at the end of Sixth Street in Greenport for $990,000,” he said. “It sold quickly and there wasn’t much of a price drop from the asking price.”

A condo in Greenport’s Oyster Point community sold just as fast, Mr. Loeb said.

“Of course the draw for both of those units is waterfront location and docking,” he added.

Even so, pricing issues have kept a second-floor unit in the waterfront Sterling Harbor complex from selling. That, Mr. Loeb said, underlines the need to set realistic prices.

Inland, four units at Pheasant Run in Greenport and one in Founders Village sold in 2010.

“The sales prices probably declined about the same extent as single family homes,” said Mr. Loeb. “But the point is they all sold.”

Across the North Fork 57 condos and co-ops sold in 2010, down from 64 in 2009, said Laurie Mindnich of Options Realty in Riverhead.

“But overall pricing was close to what we saw in 2009,” she said. The highest priced sale was a unit in the Maidstone Landing complex in Jamesport on the Sound shore.

A 3-bedroom, three and a half bath condo sold for sold for $1,048,500, down from the $1,199,000 asking price.

The lowest priced sale was a Calverton condo that went for $85,000.

But a lack of inventory isn’t the only reason why some condo prices have not declined dramatically, said Ms. Mindnich.
“Some of the 55+ communities are in better shape than the unrestricted developments,” she said. “I think the reason is that older people will tend to buy a condo with cash and prices held up for that reason. Founders Village in Southold is one 55+ development that remains very popular, especially the end units.”

Jerry Cibulski of Century21 Agawam Albertson’s Southold office says there has been some price decline, which would obviously disappoint sellers. But on the other hand people are definitely purchasing condos.

“I’ve seen an increase in the number of people looking at 55+ condos recently,” he said. “Even when the weather was so bad, we’ve had people coming out to view some of the 55+ communities in Riverhead. There’s been a strong uptick in the last six months.”

Mr. Loeb says more inventory would be welcome.

“There’s certainly room for another reasonably priced community like Pheasant Run,” he said. “The sales prices for the four units that sold in 2010 ranged from $280,000 to $330,000. The properties are in the 1300- to 1400-square-foot range. Some have garages and there’s a pool. And the maintenance is done for you.”

The key to making a sale in the current market is to have the condo unit in tip-top shape, Mr. Cibulski said.

“You’ll definitely have to sell at a lower price than you may want if the unit needs repairs,” he said.

The development itself has to be in excellent financial condition if a seller is dealing with a non-cash buyer, says Mr. Cibulski.

“Banks are looking for condo developments to have good cash reserves,” he said.

Mr. Cibulski is of the opinion that the harsh winter may have provide hidden value for condo sales.

“It’s got a lot of people thinking about whether they really want to shovel their driveways and do all that other maintenance,” he said. “So all that snow may encourage people to take a fresh look at condominiums.

02/22/11 8:00am

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Bruce Clark enjoys a cup of coffee in the front yard of his Camp Upton cottage on Williamson Lane in Jamesport.

Ninety years ago this year, The New York Times ran a small squib that advertised an auction sale of massive proportions.

It estimated the lumber on offer alone totaled 51 million feet, enough to stretch from New York to San Francisco and back. It listed for sale “complete houses, bungalows, stables, sheds, storehouses, hospital buildings, refrigerating plants, water pumping stations, 1,574 telegraph poles, miles of wiring, toilets, plumbing supplies, bakeries, laundries, garages, fence wiring, doors, electric lights, heaters and stoves.”

The description was no hyperbole, as this was the sale of the mighty Camp Upton, built in 1917 in central Suffolk north of what’s now Shirley. It was a training camp for the 77th Division, famed for its bravery in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in 1918, and deactivated shortly after the end of the First World War.

In its heyday the camp comprised 1,400 buildings and could house 40,000 troops. But by the end of 1921 everything moveable had been sold and hauled away. The roads were all that remained.

With World War II raging in Europe and the distinct probability that the United States would join with the Allies, the government decided to rebuild the camp.

Following the war, in 1945, Camp Upton II was declared surplus. This time however, it wasn’t demolished but instead converted into the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Camp Upton is long gone, but many of the buildings sold in 1921 still exist. Bruce and Susan Clark’s neat bayside ranch house in Jamesport is one of them.

“It belonged to my wife’s side of the family,” explained Mr. Clark. “According to a history my wife’s mother wrote down, her parents bought it in the 1920s from the original owner, a man named Williamson. The house was officers’ quarters and Williamson brought it to its present location. We have no idea how.”

The three-bedroom, two-bath house has a screened-in porch that was originally open, Mr. Clark said.

“A kitchen was added in the 1930s and the porch was enclosed in the 1950s,” he said. “Mr. Williamson also built a brick fireplace, but otherwise the house is pretty much as it was.”

Four other homes in their neighborhood are said to be former officers’ quarters. Out in New Suffolk, the bar side of Legend’s Restaurant, which was recently removed as part of a renovation, was once a Camp Upton building.

The Clarks are proud that they’ll be able to pass on a piece of World War I history that has remained relatively untouched through the years.

“We even have one of the pair of rockers our family painted in the colors of the 1939 World’s Fair,” said Mr. Clark. He doesn’t know what became of the orange chair but the blue one still sits on the porch.

The Clarks say the house escaped major changes in large part because the construction was relatively sound for a structure that was meant to be temporary.

“We have a crawlspace attic and the two by fours are actually two by fours,” said Mr. Clarke.

Mr. Clark says he is delighted to own a piece of salvaged history, especially one that originated from the illustrious Camp Upton.
“We’re definitely on the cutting edge with our recycled house,” he joked.

Northville farmer David Wines also owns a Camp Upton structure, but he’s not quite as impressed by the quality of the construction.

“It’s lasted, but with a lot of work on our part,” he said. “It’s had three roofs in my lifetime alone. It’s very light construction so it’s quite a project to keep it going.”

Mr. Wines says his great-grandfather would have been the one who bought the building at the auction. Originally a horse stable at Camp Upton, the structure was divided into three or four pieces, at least one of which became a summer house somewhere in Jamesport. Another piece morphed into the Wines’ shed.

“We think it was dismantled and reassembled because you can see rough numbers on the ends of the lumber,” said Mr. Wines. “We knew it was a stable because there was a number above each stall.”

The building has served several purposes. “My grandfather kept all the farm equipment in it,” said Mr. Wines. “Then we used it as a henhouse for a while. After that we kept tractors there.”

The building will soon have yet another use, this time as a milking shed.

02/08/11 11:15am

This home on Old Orchard Lane in East Marion has gone into foreclosure.

PHOTO COURTESY OF OPTION REALITY | This home on Old Orchard Lane in East Marion has gone into foreclosure and is back on the market.

The North Fork has been relatively immune to the profound turmoil in residential real estate over the last few years, particularly the loss of homes through foreclosure, and local experts say there are several explanations.

Nicholas Planamento, a senior vice president with Town & Country Real Estate in Mattituck said that both Riverhead and Southold towns have not attracted investors to the same degree as the South Fork.

“This isn’t to say there are no foreclosures, but the percentage has been very small compared with the South Fork, where investors may have overextended themselves,” he said. “There was also a bit of speculation on Shelter Island that came to a rather abrupt end just as the U.S. market went into a tailspin.”

Kevin Santacroce, executive vice president at Bridgehampton National Bank, agrees that the region’s relative affluence and financial stability are substantial contributing factors.

“This is not like Nevada and Florida, where a huge percentage of homeowners are under water,” he said. “There are around 3,000 homes in trouble in Suffolk County, but most of these are concentrated in mid-Suffolk. We are buffered but we’re not completely isolated, however.”

In that regard, Mr. Planamento points out that the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island currently lists six real estate-owned (REO) properties in Riverhead and Southold. (An REO property is owned by the lender.)

“They’re all around or under $300,000, which makes them the lower end of the market and probably not second homes,” he said. But Mr. Planamento believes there may be up to 70 homes on the North Fork that are in trouble, but are yet to experience any legal action.

“On the North Fork everyone knows each other so people are reluctant to reveal they’re in trouble,” he said. “But I personally know of one homeowner with two homes who is upside down on both of them so I suspect there might even be more.”

There may be another reason our area is not seeing much foreclosure action. In October 2010, New York State chief Judge Jonathan Lippman set out strict rules for foreclosure filing that require the lender’s attorneys to affirm that the claims are all true because they personally checked them.

The net result, according to The New York Law Journal, has been a steep drop in foreclosure filings.

Shelter Island attorney Abigail Field writes extensively on real estate legal matters and detailed in an article published last December on www.dailyfinance.com that three Suffolk County judges had confirmed the withdrawal of hundreds of Suffolk County foreclosure filings as a result of the Lippman ruling.

Ms. Field was also told by several attorneys that foreclosure filings were expected to be at a standstill for several months until banks and their attorneys worked out a way to comply with the ruling.

Though she does not claim to be an expert on the North Fork market, Ms. Field says she believes foreclosures are unlikely to become a huge problem when legal actions resume.

“There was never a massive amount of building on the North Fork and the area has a lot of property that is not encumbered by a mortgage,” she said. “Many North Fork loans weren’t securitized, making the bank much more likely to modify a loan that it is holding,” she observed.

Mr. Santacroce agrees that the historical lack of speculative construction on the North Fork has worked in its favor. He says there may also be complicated political reasons not to flood the market with foreclosure actions.

“They’re certainly not assigning a massive number of judges to handle foreclosures so now it’s becoming a 24-month rather than a two-month process,” he said.

With foreclosures so scarce in our area, no one was more surprised than Paul and Joan Simon when they ended up purchasing a foreclosed home in Southold about eight months ago.

“We weren’t shopping for a foreclosure, but we noticed this one house whose price had dropped dramatically and it turned out to be foreclosed,” said Mr. Simon.

Although they were initially reluctant to look at it, they say they were pleasantly surprised at the home’s good condition and decided to make an offer.

“It took about four or five weeks from offer to closing, so it was quick,” said Mr. Simon.

“The bank was not easy to negotiate with, though, and that was the stressful part,” he added. “It was an out-of-town bank and they tried to give us the impression there were multiple offers on the house when there really weren’t. For anyone thinking about pursuing a foreclosure, I would say it’s far easier to negotiate a sale with a private party than with a bank.”

01/26/11 5:30pm

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | First time home-buyers Matt Vescovi and Maggie Miller with their dog Tyson outside their Mattituck home.

With house prices still on the low side, some North Fork residents may be wondering whether it’s time to take the plunge into home ownership.

Maybe, maybe not.

It’s still all about money, and not just the sales price.

The heady days when just about anyone could qualify for an interest-only, no-money-down mortgage are long gone. That may mean even a modestly priced house is still out of reach for many.

“With a conventional loan these days, even if you have a steady job and good credit, you should budget for a 20 percent down payment,” said Southold mortgage expert Richard Winters.

“If you borrow more than 80 percent you need mortgage insurance, which is very expensive,” he added. “It used to be that you could get a first mortgage for 75 to 80 percent of the purchase price and a second for 10 to 15 percent and bring the down payment way down, but you can’t do that any more.”

Would-be buyers should also be prepared to pay substantial up-front expenses.

“On a $350,000 house, you need to budget for upwards of $15,000 for closing costs,” said Mr. Winters. “That includes items like a deposit to escrow, title insurance and New York State mortgage tax.”

Homeowners with mortgages routinely pay into an escrow account, which sets aside funds for recurring expenses, such as property taxes and homeowners’ insurance.

“And don’t forget the Peconic land tax, which is 2 percent of the purchase price above $150,000,” added Greenport realtor JoAnn Wind. That money is set aside for farmland preservation and open space purchases.

“And then there are the engineer’s inspection and the termite inspection that come up once the offer is accepted,” said Ms. Wind.
It’s helpful to use a realtor to get an idea about up-front costs and perhaps trim expectations about what is affordable.

“As a buyer you don’t lose anything when you work with a realtor,” Ms. Wind said. “We can definitely educate buyers about all the costs they may not be aware of and sift through properties that meet their needs. But people should also always get pre-qualified, to be financially prepared. I never want to be in a position with a client where the agent on the other side of the transaction has to ask if he or she is pre-qualified.”

It may not be all gloom and doom for a first-time home buyer, says Matt Vescovi of Mattituck. Mr. Vescovi, who will turn 26 this year, purchased his first home in December 2009 using a combination of resources to keep his out-of-pocket expenses very low.
“I was paying $1,000 in rent and my mom pointed out that I could own something for around that much a month,” he said. “I got pre-qualified for a loan and started looking around at properties. One house had major plumbing problems. I found that even a dump cost $300,000.”

Mr. Vescovi said there came a point when he began to wonder if he could come up with the necessary up-front cash. That was when his mom told him about Suffolk County’s assistance program for first-time home buyers.

“I applied and got approved and the grant covered my down payment,” said Mr. Vescovi. “But once you get approved, you have to find a house and nail down a loan within a certain time limit.”

The home he eventually found was a handyman special.

“I was like, no way, let’s leave,” said Mr. Vescovi of his first look at his very comfortable three-bedroom, two-bath, 850-square-foot home. “It needed a lot of work, and I ended up putting a lot of work into it without knowing if it would all work out in the end.”

Mr. Vescovi was approved for a Federal Housing Authority loan, which requires a lower down payment. However, FHA standards are very strict.

“There were so many stipulations,” he said. “It makes you think it can’t be done.”

But it did work out and Mr. Vescovi estimates he only had to find around $2,000 of his own money to seal the deal.

“No one knows about these Suffolk County grants,” he said. “You can’t sell or rent out the house for five years, but after that there are no restrictions. If you’re young, you should definitely take advantage of the program.”