The “The Crayola Building” in Peekskill where dye was mixed in the 19th century to color the paint for red barns that dotted the landscape across America. Now, it’s both an office and residence. Photo Credit: Jane Haslam

The “The Crayola Building” in Peekskill where dye was mixed in the 19th century to color the paint for red barns that dotted the landscape across America. Now, it’s both an office and residence. Photo Credit: Jane Haslam

Of all the wonderful and diverse communities we have among us in the Hudson Valley, one of the most intriguing for both its promise of the future and grittiness of the past is Peekskill in the northwestern corner of Westchester. Historically, Peekskill is known as an American industrial center for its iron plow and stove products and for Binney & Smith Company, now makers of Crayola crayons, as well as Fleischmann’s Yeast, not to mention the notorious Peekskill Riots of 1949.

Today, Peekskill is poised for a long awaited re-gentrification, promise after promise that it would come, with a spate of artists’ lofts and galleries, a colony of musicians, some really good restaurants, a beautiful park by the Hudson River and a number of housing opportunities that are moderately priced, including modest single family homes, but some that are surprisingly upscale, several condo developments, co-ops and rental complexes.

And there are some grand secrets tucked in among commercial and multi-use buildings along its byways and alleys, the provenance of one which is occasionally debated with my friend County Legislator John Testa: the “Yellow Brick Road,” just over the railroad tracks near the river, behind the historic Standard House that now houses Dylan’s Wine Shop. Is this the yellow brick road that inspired L. Frank Baum’s famous road in “The Wizard of Oz?” John says, doubtful. I say, let us have our fun with it. In our last debate, I think John won.

Peekskill claims its oldest business as Dain’s Lumber, founded in 1848 on the waterfront and today run by Jeff Dain, great, great grandson of founder Nathaniel. And, a fascinating building directly across from City Hall on Main Street, now being magnificently restored, housed a theatre in the 19th century where both great American actors Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, performed.

But an interesting secret that I never knew was revealed to me just recently when I listed a mixed use building at 650 Central Avenue owned by Bob Frissora where he and his son Steven run Arcanna Marketing Group, famous for the development of the NASCAR logo and several prominent PepsiCo brands.

Aesthetically, the Frissoras’ offices create a perfect commercial space on the first and lower floors, stripped to the brick walls and huge hand-hewn beams. On the second floor is a large, loft-like one bedroom apartment which provides rental income. Behind the building is the very active McGregor Brook running gingerly down to the river, giving the back area a feeling of the country even though the front is very much a city scene.

What I didn’t know is that this building was part of a thriving industrial complex in late 1800s that covered the now visible brook that wends its way through the urban sprawl of the city. At that time, Binney & Smith Company used this area as its main distribution and warehousing facility. In 1864, John Binney started the Peekskill Chemical Company to manufacture products containing red iron oxide particles that acted as a preservative. This was the product used for painting out buildings and also become a part of American history as the standard color for barns that dotted farmland across the American landscape.
Built in 1870, this particular building could also have been the plant for the production of carbon black used on tire thread on early cars, increasing its life by four to five times. The company that owned the building was a leader in developing pigments used to protect wood from decay and strengthen the composition of vulcanized tires while adding the consistent black color and white wall tires of the day.
In time, the Binney family expanded their product line by including shoe polish as well as printing ink and the now famous Crayola Crayon brand.

So the next time you open a box of Crayons, know that its origins are very close to home. And when you drive across America and see all those red barns dotting the farmland that graces our land, know that their siding might likely have been protected originally from iron oxide dye mixed in this building.

And, if you have a fancy to own a piece of history as an investment property, one with a bit of “color” to it, give me a call.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

View of the Meditation Garden at the Constant White House in Yorktown, owned by  Joyce and George Harvey, which is for sale by The Home Guru.

View of the Meditation Garden at the Constant White House in Yorktown, owned by
Joyce and George Harvey, which is for sale by The Home Guru.

When I was 10 years old, I had a summer experience of great wonderment. My father had taken a short term work assignment in Lynchburg, Virginia, and my mother, he and I took up temporary residence in an in-town ante-bellum mansion that had come upon hard times after the Civil War and was split up into rooms for transient tenants like us.

There was an unkempt back yard that was a bramble of underbrush that seemed all but impenetrable. In an apartment on the first floor of the building was a couple, Bella and Jake, who looked after the premises as caretakers. They were both world weary and Jake was particularly weather beaten. Sometimes in the late afternoon he would sit rocking on the back porch and tell me stories about the Civil War in which his dad had been a drummer as a boy.

One day while rocking on the back porch, perhaps observing that I was bored with nothing to do, he told me a secret. With a twinkle in his eye and whispering low, he related that, within all the bramble of the back reaches of the yard had been a beautiful formal garden, surrounded by a low wall and traversed by brick paths leading to a center fountain made of marble. It was still there, he told me, but now completely covered by years of vine and overgrowth that he estimated had been neglected from the time of World War I when the mistress of the property, before it had been converted to a multi-family dwelling, had died.

Can you imagine the effect the telling of this secret had on a highly curious boy of 10? Upon my begging, he allowed me to borrow his heavier garden tools from a shed and the majority of my days for the rest of the summer were spent, with his permission and my mother’s, cutting, hacking and pruning until I reached the outer rim of the fountain that had been long obscured. I didn’t totally finish the job before the time we had to leave town, but I did have time enough to create an effect in the dense growth much like the parting of the Red Sea.

Since that early experience, I have never regarded a lawn as just a lawn but as an opportunity to create hidden, private spaces for reflection. On the property of my own historic home, I have created shaded walkways made from bluestone and flat faced field stone, and in my head, I have planned a formal English garden for the broad expanse of my lawn, created when a 200 year old maple was felled by Sandy two years ago and changed the shady plane into a sunny one.

However, for some years I’ve had to concentrate more on urn and container gardening, leaving behind my bigger projects, like more secret paths and gardens, until my eventual retirement years, or at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself. I’m approaching an age when most mortals are at least thinking about retirement, yet I’m busier today than I was in my 30s, and it appears likely that this is not likely to happen any time soon, if at all. So, devoid of time to do much gardening myself, I live vicariously through others’ joy of gardening.

The most ingenious garden plan I’ve found in recent years is that of Joyce and George Harvey whose historic home, the Constant White House, I have listed for sale in Yorktown Heights. Behind the house, started in the early 1700s, is a “secret” meditation garden, hidden from view by plantings until you are upon it, that was ingeniously placed where an old tennis court had once been.

“The dimensions were determined by the pre-existing but dilapidated blacktop tennis court,” Joyce said in explaining how it came about. “Removing all the material was a Herculean task by a crew and excavator. We reused much of the gravel underneath the surface for the paths which were edged with recycled bricks from an old patio and lots of rocks and boulders unearthed during the demolition.

“There are several different seating areas, all with different views of the garden, as well as the rest of our property – our sweeping lawn, barn and pool,” she continued. “We simulate prairie-style waves of green with three circular beds of five different grasses of varying heights and hues. For color, there are swaths of undulating wildflower patches along the path as well as a native garden and horseshoe court.”

Considering some other exceptional amenities offered by this particular house designed to appeal to the mind, body and spirit – like a large soak tub/ jacuzzi for two, a barn with a second story gym/meditation space, and a beautiful pool, also surrounded by grasses and colorful perennials, I can personally guarantee that anyone lucky enough to acquire this particular house will be stress free while under its spell.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com.  To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

Bill Pope of Spotless Cleaning Systems on The Home Guru’s rug, reporting the bad news that a stain has permanently dyed the fibers, necessitating replacement.

Bill Pope of Spotless Cleaning Systems on The Home Guru’s rug, reporting the bad news that a stain has permanently dyed the fibers, necessitating replacement.

As a young child I was overly impressed by the movie “Gone with the Wind,” especially Scarlett O’Hara’s line, “I’ll think about it tomorrow,” and whenever there’s been an unpleasant task at hand, I’ve frequently pulled it from my bag of tricks to accommodate procrastination. Now as I tread gingerly through my Golden Years, that trick doesn’t seem to serve me very well and it’s become all but impossible for me to live with certain gnawing aggravations that I’ve tolerated for years on end and done nothing about.

Among them are a few annoying spots on my carpets and upholstery from which I’ve averted my eyes for years. Lately they serve beacons of frustration, especially since I’ve started writing as The Home Guru.

Some 25 years ago, I stumbled upon a great opportunity near my New Orleans office in the French Quarter at an estate sale to acquire several fine oriental rugs. On one of them, the most beautiful with a pale beige background, I detected a pale brown stain, probably from dog poop, but I figured I could have them removed once shipped to New York. But it was set in place in my living room without having had the job done. How, I ask you, could I live for 25 years hoping that everybody who visited my living room would be as myopic as I am? Also, there was that coffee stain on the damask of my camelback settee and the questionable stain on the silk of the sofa. Time to clean up, I thought. Tomorrow is finally here.

Finally last week, I received an promotional email from Bill Pope of Spotless Cleaning Systems and decided to bite the bullet by calling. Based in Carmel, he was at my door within 24 hours and on the floor examining the stains in question, explaining to me the difference between types of stains. “If it’s a stain, like urine from an animal it can be removed,” he said, but if it’s from the feces of an animal, depending on what the dog or cat has eaten, it can actually change the color of the fibers, dye them and that type of stain can’t be removed.” Pope then told me the story of a client who gave his dog a medicine that was delivered through a chocolate based medium, but the dog found the package and ate all of the medication which resulted in a case of diarrhea which ruined a white carpet. “Chocolate is the worst thing a dog can eat, for this reason” Pope warned.

It is apparent, according to Pope, that my living room carpet was the victim of such an attack and if I don’t want to see the unpleasant residue of the incident, I must dispose of the evidence and get a new carpet. A decision a long time in the making, and an expensive one at that.

For area rug cleaning, Pope removes rugs and uses a pit wash system where the rug is first vacuumed heavily with a method called dusting, then soaked with a mild cleaning detergent. When removed, it is brushed with a rotary machine then vacuumed with a powerful machine that sucks the water out, then dried with fans.

For wall-to-wall carpeting, a truck based machine is used for surface cleaning. I had my central hall and stairway carpeting done by this method and it is amazing how it plumped up like new.

When I showed him the small stains on my damask and silk and asked if he did “spot” cleaning, Pope said no, it wouldn’t pay for me to request that. There are minimum charges for his crew to come out, and it wouldn’t be feasible for a homeowner to request anything but a full cleaning for an upholstered piece of furniture, and I did request that for the two slipper chairs in my dining room, but for the small stains on my living room chairs, I asked how I might remove them on my own. “Simple,” Pope replied. “Just use warm water and a mild soap like Ivory and dap inward with a clean towel.”

If you happen to be sleepwalking through the rooms of your house, wringing your hands moaning “out damned spot,” you may need to call Spotless Cleaning Systems at 845-225-6449 or email Bill Pope at bill@spotless-clean.com.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

KimMatt&SydneyCozza

From left, Kim, Matt and Sydney Cozza in front of their 1726 “Home of the Future” in Yorktown Heights, garnering multiple showings and two offers in less than two days on the market. PHOTO CREDIT: Bob Buchanan

When I first met Kim and Matt Cozza and their teenage daughter Sydney, I knew I would enjoy helping them find a home because they said they would consider an historic one and, as a realtor, I had developed a specialty in historic homes, having studied early American architecture at The College of William & Mary in Virginia and having interned at Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts, with the intention of becoming a museum curator. But, somehow that profession and my more gregarious personality didn’t seem to match up, and I ended up in the more “out there” fields of public relations, then real estate, instead.

However, I have enjoyed owning and restoring two historic homes which has greatly enhanced my living experience, and I have been fortunate to be called upon to list and sell a good number of historic homes since I entered the field. Currently I have several such homes on the market, and the one purchased by the Cozzas more than two years ago offers a particularly exciting opportunity for some lucky buyer to visit the future while stepping back into the past because of the vision demonstrated by this couple in the home’s renovation.

While searching for the Cozzas’ home, I had to be on my toes because Kim had been a realtor upstate, working on the commercial side of the business, and Matt was the vice president for development and construction for a major supermarket chain.  Kim would check everything new on the market each day before I got around to it, and I can’t count how many houses we looked at before we came to the wonderful 1726 colonial they decided to buy, coincidentally on the very same road on which my historic home is located in Yorktown Heights.  Kim eyed it up and down and I could see her mind working in terms of the work it needed.

“When buying a house, I think about what it needs in terms of investment and what additional value it will bring to the house when we go to sell it,” she said recently when readying her house for re-sale, necessitated by Matt’s having taken a job in a new location. “We look at the roof, the heating system, the windows, the siding, water heater, the kitchen and bathrooms…the expensive things to deal with…everything else is relatively minor in bringing a house up to where it needs to be.”

In the case of their home in Yorktown Heights, “the exterior had already been done in top quality no- or low-maintenance materials like Azek trim, HardiPlank clapboard siding, and ‘lifetime’ roofing, but the heating system needed to be replaced, along with the kitchen and windows,” Kim said, “and because we intended to stay here for a long time, we decided it was worth it to make this major investment.”

Matt chimed in that, in the case of the heating system, he decided to go whole hog because, in this house, it was such a hodgepodge of steam, hot water and electric. “Home buyers are sometimes hesitant to invest in an old house because they fear such factors as the upkeep, the heating system and the lack of insulation…these are the biggest concerns … so we decided to put our money there,” he said. “We invested in a dual pump system that was expensive as an initial investment (in the case of the Cozzas’ home, it involved a $27,000 cost, to include air conditioning), but it pays for itself over the years of efficient energy use.”  The Cozzas also invested in a new kitchen with top grade surfaces that cost close to $40,000, and all new windows that cost $8,000.

“It’s the dual pump heating system that really makes this a home of the future because we can achieve maximum energy efficiency by switching back and forth from electricity to propane, depending on which is cheaper to use during the course of the season,” Matt volunteered, “and should we get a gas line in, or choose to install solar panels, we could also switch to one of those energy sources if we choose.

“It’s expensive to install but if you’re going to be in the house for a while, it pays for itself, “ Matt concluded. As it happens, relocation for Matt required that the Cozzas place their house on the market long before they planned, but combining the charm of yesteryear with the efficiencies of the future captured the attention of the market. As this column goes to press, the house has been on the market only two days, but it has enjoyed multiple showings and has two offers on the table already.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

Hillary Sheperd, "Dirty Jobs" gal.

Hillary Sheperd, “Dirty Jobs” gal.

When the bundle of energy that is Hillary Sheperd bursts into a room, or in this case, into the sidewalk café where our networking meeting was taking place, you can’t help but take notice. I overheard her apologize to friends for her tardiness with snippets about “traffic” and just having had to deal that day with a really “dirty, dirty” job. My ears picked up.

“You mean you do dirty work like Mike Rowe on ‘Dirty Jobs’ on TV?” I asked her as soon as I could grab her attention. “Yes, I’m the female Mike Rowe,” she responded, extending a friendly hand. More questions revealed that Sheperd is co-owner with her husband Forrest, a contractor, of a ServPro franchise serving the mid and lower Westchester area. The company handles fire and water cleanup and restoration, mold removal and remediation and other “dirty, dirty” jobs that “somebody has to do” as Mike Rowe, one of my favorite media personalities, always says and as the ServPro’s tag line states: “Like it never even happened.”

When I confessed to Sheperd that I always have held great admiration for women doing jobs typically associated with men and asked what attracted her to the business, she said, “I had worked with both Homeland Security and FEMA prior to buying this franchise and, especially with FEMA, I had dealt with the effects of disaster with that rash of hurricanes we had, one after another in 2011 and 2012. Many times I heard our ‘old-timers’ there recommend to victims of the storms that they reach out to services ‘like ServPro’ to help them clean up from disaster, rather than resort to the possibility of hooking up with some unscrupulous contractor who might take their money for materials and never come back, and they’d be victimized yet again. I knew that ServPro had a good reputation and it would be a good match for my experience in dealing with immediate response to disaster.”

As a journalist, it was my natural inclination to ask Shepard to tell me about her most “disgusting” job and her most “horrific” job. After she told me, very honestly, I was sorry I asked, especially in the case of the latter, but I feel compelled to report it, to demonstrate the extent to which these valiant service providers must sometimes go to restore living environments for the protection and safety of others.

Shepard reported that the most disgusting job her crew encountered was in a home where the occupant had a hoarding problem, including with her own human waste which she kept in her bathroom, wrapped in toilet paper, completely filling the room over many months until its capacity had been reached. When the problem was discovered, help was sought through ServPro. “My crew had to don Tyvek non-porous protective clothing and respiratory masks, but still it was the most disgusting job they had ever encountered and they have seen it all.”

The most horrific job involved the tragedy of the loss of a human life and a conflagration that resulted from that. “A woman was filling an oil lamp and, without realizing it, she got some of the oil on her clothing that was highly flammable,” Sheperd explained, “and when she lighted the lamp, her clothing caught fire. Thinking fast, her daughter got out the fire extinguisher but, what most people don’t know – and this can be a lesson – is that the type of fire extinguishers which are mostly talcum don’t work with a hot oil or grease fire that should really be smothered with a blanket. The woman fled down a flight of stairs ostensibly to a downstairs bathroom shower destination as she was being immolated before her daughter’s eyes. She became a human fireball through the house filled with electronic equipment that caught fire with a very hot burning blaze that took a long time to extinguish. The melted electronics and the resulting water damage made the job particular difficult for Sheperd to mitigate. It was also difficult for her to share the story and for me to report here.

When asked, Sheperd volunteered that the most frequent request for cleanup is for issues regarding water damage, including sewage. “We have our own code for that,” said Sheperd to lighten the subject, “which is ‘OPP,’ code for ‘Other People’s Poopie.’”

Pricing, according to Sheperd, is pretty much set by the insuring companies, such as State Farm, which have codes for payment for particular kinds of damage and, if it’s a self-pay situation, the cost will depend on the people and time needed to get the job done.

As Sheperd explained her response to disastrous situations and her way of doing business, I took away the conviction that if I were to suffer a loss, I would want her steady hand and mind by my side to pull me through the ordeal.

Hillary Sheperd can be reached at 914-699-5181 or at hsheperd@servprosmv.com.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.r

When I announced in the office sales meeting at William Raveis that The Home Guru Team was just about to list a great “mother/daughter” house, my office manager Doris Ellias gently advised me that “now it’s suggested that we refer to them as ‘extended family’ houses.”

Oh, no, I exclaimed mentally, now we have yet another widely accepted housing term that is considered either politically incorrect or unacceptable to the Fair Housing Act’s advertising guidelines. I looked for any reference to support Doris’ notation and couldn’t find anything, but I’m sure she’s right. After all, my friend Steve Welles lives in that kind of set-up with his two sons, Shane and Cody and why should his house be called a “mother/daughter” and not a “father/son?”   So, I guess “extended family” can cover a broader swath of new family situations, including all the in-laws, and all the other possibilities we now have with equality in marriage.

But, consider yourself lucky when you set out to sell your home that you’ve hired a professional realtor who’s trained to navigate all the language land mines out there that protect citizens from discrimination in housing. We realtors have one heck of a time making sure that we are in compliance when we create copy for a listing, write a brochure or place ads. We might as well have a lawyer by our sides to make sure we are not in violation of those guidelines. Acceptable terms and phrases may seem arbitrary until they offend someone and spark a complaint to a government agency.

Section 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act prohibits language that would foster discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin and, now, in some states, sexual orientation. Some limitations are allowed, such as “no smoking” and “no pets” but others are not, such as “no children” and may not state a preference for adults, couples or singles but rather can describe the properties, as suggested by the National Association of Realtors.  We all know the obvious phrases that would denote a particular preference or those code words that imply limitations such as “exclusive” or “private.” Also we must be careful not to mention particular school systems or houses of worship that could imply a preference in a buyer or tenant.

And when we set about to describe the house itself, there are difficulties in describing its rooms with all the changes that have come about with modern living and, in some cases, where a name may have one meaning but imply another. For instance, does having a master bedroom imply that slavery is still alive and well, or that only households with males at their head should consider buying the home? And, where would the mistress put down digs?

Scores of other questions come to mind about rooms’ names. Why do we call it a John and not a Jill? And, I don’t even want to venture a guess about the Jack and Jill bathroom.

So many room names have gone totally bye-bye just by virtue of the way we live differently from the way we lived years ago. Does anyone really live in the living room anymore? Hasn’t it been completely replaced by the family room just off the kitchen? Shouldn’t we just dump it from our housing vocabulary and our floor plans as well? And who decided that the great room should be a great room? Is that in contrast to a lousy room?

And have you seen a sitting room or sewing room lately? Or a library? That is, unless you live grandly, as some do. One of my favorite stories is about the time I visited the home of a client, Ella Brennan, matriarch of the family that owns Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and when she opened the double doors to her grand ballroom, I exclaimed, “Oh, you have a ballroom in your house!” and she replied, “Doesn’t everyone?”

And why do we still call the mud room the mud room? Has there really been any mud in it since we stopped being an agrarian society? Just in the past month I’ve listed two historic houses that have “birthing rooms” just off the kitchen. What in the world should I call them? And, remember the rumpus room when we were kids? All such vestigial rooms have been replaced courtesy of the internet with the home office that people my age never had the luxury of and are now de rigueur in the modern household.

There are so many terms and room descriptions that are being pulled from our housing vocabulary for one reason or another, either because of lifestyles changes or the requirements of the Fair Housing guidelines, that someday we may be reduced to saying simply, “nice house for sale.”

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

Home improvement “ombudsman” Richard Cirulli stands before the 1861 wing of The Home Guru’s Ebenezer White House to which a modern glass structure will be added. He will mentor the process with contractors.

Home improvement “ombudsman” Richard Cirulli stands before the 1861 wing of The Home Guru’s Ebenezer White House to which a modern glass structure will be added. He will mentor the process with contractors.

It was more than 40 years ago, but I still feel the sting of being swindled by an unscrupulous home improvement contractor.

As a young couple, my wife and I had just managed to qualify for a mortgage and cobble together enough money for a down payment to buy our large historic house that at that time was in fairly poor condition. We didn’t have much money left for needed improvements but it was essential to renovate the mudroom which was literally falling off the house. It was the main entrance from the driveway to the kitchen and needed the works: a cement floor, new framing, roof, new door, insulation, a half bath, and closet.

Our friends Linda and Michael who had moved to Westchester just before us recommended a contractor who gave us a quote of $2,000 for job and told us he required a $500 deposit to pay for materials. Naïve as we were, we went with him, not knowing whether he was licensed or checking other references. He took our check, cashed it quickly, and we never saw him again.

Recently in the White Plains edition of this newspaper, I read about a new service that guards against this kind of thing happening to other homeowners who may be as naïve as I was then and, in many ways, still am. I thought it would be a good idea to share this information with other readers because so often I receive complaints about unsatisfactory home improvement jobs.

Called the Homeowners Ombudsman Program, the service was created by Richard Cirulli of Kymar Limited, a White Plains-based construction management company. Cirulli, who holds a doctorate degree in engineering, has spent over 30 years in facilities and construction management for major companies, and now in his own business, offers himself as an ombudsman, or advocate, to homeowners to protect themselves from making mistakes when renovating their homes.

“I should be the first person homeowners call when planning a home improvement, not a contractor,” Cirulli says. “For a reasonable consulting fee, an ombudsman can prevent a homeowner from the pitfalls so common to the industry. For instance, such an advocate knows enough to ask the contractor which bank would hold the client’s escrow account as required by New York State lien law. And he lets that contractor know that a waiver of liens will be required with each progress payment.”

I’ve been around the real estate and home improvement business for a long time and I’ve never heard of these requirements. Shame on me! Now I am aware and will suggest this mentorship program to all my clients planning to renovate.

In my own case, for many years, I have been dreaming about leaving my mark on my beloved Ebenezer White House, started in 1734, that has not had a change to its exterior appearance since 1861. I’ve delayed that decision year after year, probably because of that first bad experience that I ventured on my own. As I’ve disclosed time and again, the “guru” attached to my byline is only the expertise I channel from the real experts. On my own, I’m only a vessel.

I have already engaged my architect Michael Piccirillo for a novel idea. I’ve taken the shape of that 1861 wing, which is a story and a half structure with a lean-to on the back, making it appear like a saltbox, recreating it, attaching it in reverse and structuring it almost completely in glass, facing our pool and gardens. This will be the “open” floor plan I’ve coveted to complement the traditional proportions of the rest of the house. It should be a stunning modern statement, yet in complete harmony with the home’s heritage.

At our first meeting, Cirulli told me that he will study the plans, create a schedule for the project, spec the materials and estimate the costs. From there, he will set up an escrow fund and handle the employment and financial dealings with the subcontractors, always seeking my approval along the way.

The first step is to plan the re-grading of the lawn area upon which the new wing will sit so that there can be crawl space beneath the structure to accommodate the space needed for a new HVAC system that I plan to install throughout the house. Ebenezer White, with a little expert help, I can’t wait to introduce you to all the new technologies of the 21st century!

Ombudsman Richard Cirulli can be emailed at profcirulli@optonline.net or called directly at 845-380-2872

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

The historic house was one of the loveliest I had ever listed, but it was on the market for over a year and, while it had many showings, it hadn’t yet gotten a single offer. When it came time to relist it, the owners and I considered what else we might do to make the home more attractive to a broader reach of buyers. Noting that their hardwood floors were somewhat dull and faded, I suggested that they might consider the investment of having them refinished.

I had heard of a floor refinisher named Debbie Gartner, aka “The Flooring Girl,” who had established a reputation in the Hudson Valley region for excellent work at reasonable prices and suggested her to the owners. As Home Guru readers would know, I’m always intrigued when I find a woman supplier who takes on jobs traditionally associated with men.

Shortly after I made the recommendation, I was told that the estimate for refinishing the entire first floor came in reasonably and the project was accepted. When I revisited the house after the job was done, it was a revelation. Bottom line: when the house was relisted, it received an offer in three days. I can’t attest to how much influence beautifully refinished floors had on that rapid a sale, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. One thing is certain: the experience got me thinking about having the flooring in two rooms and my central hallway in my own home redone.

My main concern however, was the time and effort involved with clearing the deck, literally, for such an all-out job. I had a lot of questions about the process. “Those are exactly the questions all my customers ask me,” Debbie said, and she came well prepared with the answers. Here they are:

Q: How long does it take to refinish hardwood floors from start to finish? That depends on what type of polyurethane is used, oil-based or water-based. Oil tends to take longer, from three to four days plus drying time, and water based tends to dry faster in two days.

Q: Is there a lot of dust when sanding floors? Yes, but the dust goes into a vacuum bag. While no process is 100 percent dustless, it does take care of 90 to 95 percent of the dust.

Q. Can you change the color of the hardwood? Yes, you can go from light to dark, or dark to light or anywhere in between.

Q. What if we have pet stains on the floor? If there are areas that have pet stains or water damage that have turned black, the best thing to do may be to replace those hardwood boards and weave them in.

Q. What if there is damage to the floor or sections where hardwood is missing? This is usually solvable with weaving in additional wood, especially with oak flooring.

Q. Will I need to move my furniture? Some customers prefer to move furniture themselves; others prefer that the floor refinishers do it. It can work either way.

Q. Where do I store my furniture? Most customers use other parts of their home that may have tile or carpet, or move it to a basement or garage. Or a job can be done in two phases to accommodate space for furniture, or a storage container can be used.

Q. When can we walk on the floors? On average, you can walk on the floors about 24 hours after the application of the final coat. It is recommended that for the first 24 to 48 hours you wear socks only, no shoes, no bare feet.

Q. When can we put area rugs back down on the floor? It is recommended that you wait four weeks after the job is complete before putting area rugs back in place. This allows adequate time for the floors to cure.

Q. How long will the new finish last? The lifestyle of the home determines how long the finish will last. With regular maintenance cleaning, it can last between seven and 10 years.

Q. What is a screen and recoat? What is floor buffing? Both are the same. It’s a non-invasive method where the floor is buffed and abraded so that an extra coat of polyurethane can be added. It allows an extra coat of polyurethane to be added for extra sheen and protection.

Before Debbie Gartner bought into the franchise operation of Floor Coverings International and branded herself as “The Flooring Girl,” she was a marketing executive with major companies such as Procter & Gamble and knows the language and strategies for communicating her message to the public. But judging from the work she’s done for my clients, I know that her marketing skills are backed up solidly with the superb service she provides. To know more, visit www.TheFlooringGirl.com or call 914-937-2950.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

For more than a dozen years, The Home Guru has been observing and writing about the housing market and home building design, repair and maintenance. I have focused on hundreds of widely varied subjects, sometimes into areas quite unexpected.

Who would expect a home columnist to write a treatise on mattresses or toilets or delve into the ghosties that still live among us? No matter how far flung my pen or keyboard may reach, there are so many thousands of topics that deal with the experience of “home” that this column could last far beyond my earthly years.

Even though it’s not my favorite kind of reporting, I’m reminded from time to time, especially when my editor forwards me the quarterly report from the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors (HGAR) which manages our Multiple Listing Service (MLS), that part of my job is to respond on the most frequently asked question I get from readers and friends: “So how’s the market doing?”

Normally the regional daily paper gets the jump on me with that report, and the headline there would surely seem discouraging to anyone who would have their homes on the market now or in the near future. “Spring Sales Stalled” it announced, but then that didn’t come as any surprise to those of us in the business. We were aware that some of our seller clients were getting anxious about not getting as many showings as they had been hoping for since their listing date, while others were ecstatic about the results they were getting, even with bidding wars getting back into play.

The second quarter, from April 1 through the end of June, was very strange to say the least following a winter that started early and never seemed to end. At least that’s the reason industry pundits are citing for such lackluster results in a recovering market.

In our area, sales dropped 13.5 percent in Westchester and 6.6 percent in Putnam in the recently completed second quarter compared to the same quarter last year, even though the market had shown an uptick the three months before. That would seem to be a stunning statistic but the weather caused one showing cancellation after another. After a while, sellers decided to wait until spring to list and buyers seemed to put house hunting on hold as well.

The good news is that realtors are comparing notes and reporting that pending sales–those in contract–are higher as parents are rushing to close deals on new homes to enroll their children into local schools before September. That augurs well for a stronger third quarter.

What has been odd about the second quarter is the spottiness of hot and cold pockets in Westchester and Putnam, depending on the price points and locations of properties.

For instance, I listed two historic colonials lastquarter, one in the hot market of Bronxville at 447 California Rd., which was priced at $997,500, and received an accepted offer in two days. Another that I listed in Brewster, a really great house and priced wonderfully at $575,000, just five minutes from the train station and an hour from Grand Central, has had only one showing so far. Go figure. But slowly, very slowly, we know from our showing desk that appointment activity is slowly moving north. And that’s encouraging.

Overall, I would say that the second quarter, after weathering a horrific recession and a horrific winter season, is simply shaking out and stabilizing for a more solid fall season.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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Cathleen “Cat” McAuliffe, realtor with William Raveis in Yorktown and Asian scholar, speaks fluent Japanese and offers her services to Japanese home seekers who do not yet speak English.

The conversation started on the 4th of July weekend about a beautifully written essay in The New York Times by a man who had found Leaves of Grass to be a beacon of hope when growing up in the South as an Evangelical harboring the secret that he was gay.

My wife somehow had missed the homoerotic messages of Whitman’s work and was as surprised as when she first learned that Rock Hudson was gay. “But it was a nun who put that book in my hand,” she said.

That comment struck me funny because, when I went to Catholic school in Philadelphia, the only thing I remember a nun putting into my hand was a ruler with a smart whack. When I asked my mother why that nun was so mean to me, she said, “Because she’s Irish and you’re Italian!” Maybe my first grade nun had issues, but obviously my mother did too.

My parent’s generation didn’t yet have the Sharks and the Jets. They had the Irish and Italian factions, the former having arrived a generation earlier because of the potato famine; the latter lagging behind a half century to escape a great Italian depression to build projects in the City of Brotherly Love, and the wars for turf were on. The difference was that my dad’s gang in the 20s and 30s used fists, bricks and bottles, rather than knives and guns.

By the time my dad stopped hanging around with the gang and married my mother, the first home they purchased was next door to the O’Gradys, and I’m told that my grandmother didn’t like the idea that they didn’t buy in a nice, exclusively Italian neighborhood.

By the 1950s because of a post-World War II opportunity for my dad, we would be living in the South before Rosa Parks, where there were designated neighborhoods in which blacks could and could not live. Even we as Italian, Catholic northerners with one parent having an Italian accent were labelled “the foreigners” in our community.

In another 10 years, my widowed mother would be moving to Baltimore to be closer to my married sister, and shockingly enough, to buy a new row home there, she was required to sign a covenant with the developer pledging that she would not someday resell the property to a buyer of “Oriental extraction.”

“How could you sign something like that?” I asked her, having just graduated from college the year Kennedy was elected, and looking back, am astounded that Federal law did not yet protect citizens from such discrimination. “It’s the only way I could get the house,” she responded.”

Fast forward 50 years, and in the course of the past 12 months, I have represented such a diversity of buyers and sellers that they could make up a United Nations in themselves, and that is thrilling to me, having witnessed the long fight for equal opportunity in housing through the years.

Considering my mother’s bout with discrimination against Asians a half century ago, I was delighted to meet Cathleen “Cat” McAuliffe, a new agent at William Raveis Real Estate in Yorktown Heights. She’s new but has been connected with the real estate and construction industries for a very long time through her family. Cat is and looks as Irish as Irish can be, but the surprise is that she is an Asian scholar who speaks fluent Japanese.

Having lived in Japan and taught English there for seven years, she is back to represent all sellers and buyers, but will be a treasure to those who are relocating from Japan and do not yet speak English. “I encourage anyone who knows anyone in that situation to contact me,” Cat advises, “because I can both teach them English and handle their real estate needs at the same time!” That welcoming accommodation is a far cry from the days of shameful prohibitive covenants.

How great is it that we live in a country that protects our right to live where we choose, albeit belatedly and with no small amount of struggle. And, how gratifying it is to work in a profession that guarantees and facilitates that right.

Bill Primavera,“The Home Guru” Realtor,® is associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.