October 31, 2008: New York Times: View From the Blog about the Catskills

View From the Blog

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Published: October 30, 2008

LAST year, right around the time his clique of Hamptons summer share pals fell apart, Nick Baily and his wife, Rebecca Phillips, fell in love with the Catskills.

Jen Hsieh

Mr. Baily’s father had recently bought a place in the Catskills, and visiting his home the couple realized how much they liked it there. Soon enough, Ms. Phillips and Mr. Baily thought about buying a getaway of their own.

“It’s tough to go into a sort of rural area, where everyone’s been there forever,” said Mr. Baily, the director of publicity at Shore Fire Media, a Brooklyn-based public relations and online marketing firm. “There’s a real barrier for entry. You stay at a B & B and think, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a place here? To go from thinking about buying a place to looking at places — seriously, it’s a big jump. It’s a little scary. You just don’t know what a good deal is; you don’t know the landscape. You can’t go buy a manual. You need to find someone you can trust.”

A Web search led Mr. Baily to blog.catskill4sale.com, a blog about the real estate scene in Sullivan County, N.Y., written by David Knudsen, a broker at Catskills Buyer Agency. On his widely read site, Mr. Knudsen ruminates upon everything from current market conditions to energy drilling and new restaurant openings. Mr. Baily said he read “pages and pages” of the blog, and not only was he convinced he’d found his real-estate agent, he said, but he also gained confidence in his decision to buy a home in the area.

That real-estate agents have an online presence is nothing new. (According to a 2007 study from the National Association of Realtors, 84 percent of home buyers use the Internet in their search.) What’s changing, however, is the growing importance that blogs play in the real-estate world in general, and in the vacation-home market in particular.

For brokers, blogs are, of course, a handy marketing tool: they’re economical, practical and easy to update. But for prospective buyers, a sophisticated blog — one with more than an agent’s plea, “check out my new listing” — can help potential buyers forge a connection to a faraway community, learn the landscape of an area and, ultimately, make informed purchasing decisions.

“Blogs are a medium that are well suited to a mix of information, opinion and personality,” said Mr. Baily, who, working with Mr. Knudsen, bought a fixer-upper Victorian on 22 acres in Bethel, N.Y., in August. “If the person is well-informed and has the background to contextualize the information for you, it’s a really great way to keep your finger on the pulse of something.”

Ultimately, agents’ blogs are tools to attract new clients. “If you’re going to sell a home in the mountains, you’re going to have to sell the mountains,” said Elwin Wood, a real estate broker who is also chairman of community and economic development for the Sullivan County Legislature.

Nonetheless, comprehensive vacation-home blogs — ones that address everything from details on the real estate market (Is inventory on the rise? Is it possible to buy a waterfront home for under $500,000?) to quality-of-life questions (Is there cellphone service? Can I get a pizza delivered?) — can help potential buyers get a sense of a community that they may have visited only once, twice, or never.

“The thing about a second-home market, it takes people three, four trips to an area before they buy something,” said Mike Kennedy, an agent at Railey Realty in McHenry, Md., and a prolific poster on his company’s blog (realty.railey.com/blog) about vacation homes at Deep Creek Lake. “You’d spend half the time looking at houses, half the time in the car answering questions about the area.”

With the blog, he said, “you work through some of those things up front, as opposed to the three, four trips that it takes people to get educated.”

Joanne Hanson, a broker-blogger, agrees. The clients who come to her via her blog, www.mountain-living.com/blog, “come to us much more ready to buy,” said Ms. Hanson, leader of the Mountain Living Team at Coldwell Banker Colorado Rockies Real Estate in Frisco, Colo.

Such was the case for Jeff Geslin, a Houston-based geological adviser for ExxonMobil. Earlier this year, he and his wife, Lorna Campbell, decided to buy a mountain home in Summit County, Colo., about 90 minutes from Denver, where Mr. Geslin’s family lives.

“We weren’t familiar with the real estate in the area, and we weren’t familiar with having a second home that we were going to rent out,” said Mr. Geslin, who said his agent pointed him toward Ms. Hanson’s blog for answers.

Throughout the spring, the couple did an enormous amount of research online and looked frequently to Ms. Hanson’s blog for advice. “When we showed up in June, we had a pretty good idea of our price range, what we were interested in and how we were going to manage it,” said Mr. Geslin, who visited 15 properties in a single day, revisited two on the second day and made an offer on a furnished two-bedroom condo on the third. “It made for a very effective trip.”

Sometimes it’s the nitty-gritty market details on a blog that help buyers take the plunge. Kathy Murray, along with her husband, Rob Murray, her father-in-law, Bob Murray, and his girlfriend, Christine Prettyman, were interested in purchasing a home at Deep Creek Lake, in western Maryland. The family, who plan to rent out their home when it’s not in use, knew they wanted a place with multiple master bedrooms — but, thanks to the Railey Realty blog, expanded their must-have list.

“The blog gave us insight into the rental market,” Kathy Murray said. “We knew what we liked; they had a different perspective.”

Ms. Murray said what they hadn’t considered were the little extras that help a property do well in the short-term rental market, such as a great view or interesting architecture. Looking at the blog, they realized that there were “a lot of factors to consider when buying a rental home,” she said. “You need to have a pool table, Ping-Pong, some sort of entertainment. I could care less if there was a pool table. But in the rental market that we’re going to go into, that appeals to people.”

In late September, the family closed on a five-bedroom, five-bath newly built chalet with a “fantastic view,” according to Ms. Murray, where there’s plenty of room for the pool table.

For agents, a blog can provide an avenue for a slightly softer sell. Karin Elliott, an agent with IBA Mountain Homes in Big Canoe, a resort community about an hour north of Atlanta, said that every three or four posts on her blog (ibamountainhomes.com/wordpress/), she writes about a listing — to little effect. “People blow past that — they don’t want to read that,” said Ms. Elliott, who focuses on life’s little details, like mushroom hunting and the local Oktoberfest. “I just write about the stuff that doesn’t stress people out.”

Kelli Clay and her husband, Brett Newsom, bought a two-bedroom cottage in Big Canoe in March. Ms. Clay said she discovered the community, as well as her future vacation home, via Ms. Elliott’s blog. “It’s not a hard sell,” said Ms. Clay, who lives in suburban Atlanta and as a wellness instructor helps families live healthy lives. “It talks more about the day-to-day life in Big Canoe. It’s a warmer feeling, in terms of the draw. It kills two birds with one stone in a very nice way: there might be a soft-sell point to it, but you can completely ignore the selling point if you’re not interested.”

“A good second-home blog is a little bit like an opinionated Web cam,” said Mr. Knudsen, who, thanks to his blog, is something of a celebrity in Sullivan County. “With second-home blogging, you’re communicating information to people at a distance — a little bit like an electronic newspaper for people who don’t have ready access to the local newspaper, who aren’t stopping into a local bar or restaurant and picking up local gossip and tidbits.”

In fact, some find these blogs better than the local newspaper. During his Catskills home search, Mr. Baily had the local newspaper delivered to his Brooklyn Heights home. “I read it every day,” he said. “I didn’t renew it. What I read from David’s blog was much more helpful.”

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