Upstate 101: Five Things You Need to Know about Buying a House Upstate


Susan Barnett, a realtor, writer and journalist whose family moved to Woodstock, NY from New Jersey when she was in elementary school, can tell you everything you need to know about upstate New York. Her knowledge ranges from secret hiking trails to secrets of upstate New York real estate, and she’s going to share those secrets with you.

You can also catch Susan as the host of Northeast Public Radio’s 51% The Women’s Perspective, and catch her columns in regional magazines and newspapers. She’s the author of a collection of short stories, “The View From Outside,” published by Hen House Press and is a fan of old houses, unusual houses and country living. This week, in her debut Upstate 101 column, Susan writes on a topic of great interest to our readers. More below.

How Buying a House Upstate Is Different from Buying in the City

While plenty of our readers reside upstate, I know that many thousands of you are city dwellers, accustomed to a certain ferociousness of real estate market that is overwhelming, outrageously priced and full of head-scratching twists and turns (including the opacity of co-op boards).

So I’m here to clue you in to the way things work in the upstate real estate market. You may already know bus and train schedules and have studied up on real estate aggregator sites like Zillow or Trulia, and, of course, have scoured the pages of Upstater.

There are five more things you should know.

1. Rely More on Your Realtor than You Do on Websites

Just because Zillow puts its price opinion in writing doesn’t make it so.  It’s a sore spot with upstate sellers and realtors, as price is carefully determined based on a comparative market analysis – comparing a house to others like it that are for sale or have recently sold.  Imagine if someone tried to tell you a 2 BR condo in Greenwich Village should cost the same as a 2 BR condo in Queens. That’s the challenge of the upstate market – even within one community, values can vary widely. And the market is changing by the day. Zillow can’t keep up. 

Find a realtor you like working with. Take those Zillow and Trulia listings to him or her and ask if the price estimates are realistic. If not, ask why. Let your realtor educate you about the communities you’re looking at – nobody knows a neighborhood better than the people who live and work in it.

That leads us to #2: Find An Upstate Realtor You Trust. They’re Out There. Really.

Real estate may be a blood sport in the city, but upstate realtors are a close-knit crowd and tend to know each other well. That doesn’t mean we’re not competitive – trust me, we are. But we respect boundaries. We all work hard for our clients and put in a lot of hours (and use up a lot of gasoline) with no guarantee of pay. So we try to build relationships with our colleagues/competitors as well as our clients. Many a shaky deal has been saved because the listing and buying agents worked together to make it happen.

But what’s in it for you?

If you’ve got a relationship with one realtor, you will get the benefit of everything and everyone they know in the area. Think you’ll save money by working only with listing agents when you’re buying? Nope. Unless you’re with a buyer broker, all commissions are paid by the seller. And each listing agent you work with also has a fiduciary responsibility to their seller. Don’t you want someone in your corner (particularly since you’re not paying for it?)

3. Make Advance Appointments to See Upstate Houses

“Why oh why,” you wonder, “can I never get into the houses I want to see when I come upstate on a Saturday?” There are many fewer open houses upstate than down, and upstate sellers like to have enough notice to clean up the kitchen, make the beds and run a vacuum over the rugs. Last minute requests for showings can make sellers cranky. And knocking on a door “’cause we were driving by” could leave make upstaters seem very rude indeed. People in the country are there because they enjoy their privacy (isn’t that what you want, too?), so it’s a good idea to give them a little time to get used to the idea that company is coming.

4. Water in the Basement Isn’t Necessarily a Deal Breaker.

There’s a lot of water upstate. So much of it, in fact, that it’s piped down to New York City and runs through downstate taps. Sometimes that means a high water table. That’s not necessarily a flood zone, but it may mean basements get wet. There could also be an underground or aboveground stream near your dream house. The questions to ask are A) How wet? and B)What’s being done about it?

Sump pumps and French drains (channels around the edge of the basement to drain water) have to be inspected by a professional, but if they’re working properly, don’t walk away because they’re there. Battery powered sump pumps will keep your basement dry even in a power outage. On the other hand, if there are old watermarks halfway up the foundation, half an inch of water in the basement and no sign of any attempt to remedy the issue, don’t walk away – run!

5. Be Realistic about the DIY Country House.

I’ve learned this one firsthand. My favorite house was one we redid, room by room, for years. We stripped and painted exterior siding, restored windows, repaired or removed plaster. We did bathrooms, a kitchen, bedrooms. I used enough wallpaper (it hid a lot of sins) to cover a Walmart. Would I do it all over? Absolutely. There is nothing like the experience of working hard on a home you love. Did I realize how long it would take and how much of my life it would consume? Absolutely not. So if you have romantic notions of old houses and DIY restoration, just be realistic. Your every-spare moment will be spent on your projects and you will never, ever be done. But hopefully you won’t mind. And hopefully if you followed my advice and worked with a good realtor, you’ll have a long list of local plumbers, electricians and contractors. You’ll be strengthening your roots in the country.


Category: Top Stories, Upstate 101

By: lisa | 3 April 2013 02:00 PM | 26 Comments

26 Responses

  1. Susan, this is a great piece and a must read for any city buyers looking for property upstate.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks, David. I’m hoping to offer a lot more goodies as the weeks go on. I’m hoping readers will let me know what kind of topics they’d like to see as well.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with the water in the basement. My house was built circa 1900 and has a stone foundation. Upstate there is river rock in most places a foot or so beneath the surface and high water tables. What this means is that when it rains hard water the water table rises and water can also travel horizontally into a basement. The water in my basement leaves as quickly as it enters. I do have a sand floor in places. I keep a dehumidifier down there so there isn’t any mold but there are water marks on the walls from the flooding. It is not a big issue.

  4. I remember attempting to sell a little cottage in Barryville NY to an older couple – one a private school teacher in the city and the other a non-profit administrator – both were also naturalists who spent a lot of time in the jungles of various continents.

    So I’m showing them this ‘a little rough around the edges cottage’ and we go down to the stacked stone, low ceilinged basement, and for some reason house tours typically pause for conversation in the basements.

    So we are standing in this cramped little moist space and something slithers by, and now for 99.9% of all buyers, seeing a small sneak slither across a basement wall would be a deal breaker, if not a hurried exit.

    Not these folks – he rushed over, picked it up, looked at its belly for identification purposes, oohed and aahhed with his wife hovering over also.

    Done deal. They are living happily ever after in their home. Good stuff for sure.

  5. JERSEY GUY says:

    DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK!! GET A VERY GOOD ATTORNEY!! In my search for land and homes in the Catskills, I’ve found that I know more than most of the realtors that I encounter. One agent knew nothing about the watershed, and what she claimed to know was incorrect (I did my own investigations). Whenever I see a house i’m going to take a look at, I do my own research of the home’s history. The last time, the realtor starts telling me the story of the home, and didn’t even have the correct history. I wasn’t trusting him from the first sentence. Do your own homework, talk to the neighbors, and walk the neighborhood. I bought 50 acres of land from a bankrupt farmer. I credit my own due diligence, and the determination of the seller with the eventual success of a sale. If we had relied on the representations and misinformation from the realtors, we’d still be waiting to close. And, never, ever, believe “that’s the way it’s always been” or “that’s the way we do things up here.” A real estate agent is out to make money, they’re not your friend.

    I’ve never met David Knudsen, but I love his website and monthly real estate commentary.

    • susanb says:

      Doing your own homework is always important. No matter how knowledgeable your realtor, they can’t know everything about every place. A good realtor will admit what they don’t know, and either help you get an answer or tell you how to get one.

  6. Jersey Guy says:

    With the exception of #4, this article should have been titled “How to find a realtor and research real estate listings upstate.” It deals mostly with determining your needs and then the steps involved in shopping for a home and determining fair market value. It has very little to do with the most important steps in buying a home upstate.

    #1 Find a good realtor. Ask friends, neighbors, chamber of commerce, NY State Bar Association.

    #2 Find out the names of reputable, ASHI-certified home inspectors.

    #3 Find out the names of reputable land surveyors – you’ll most likely need one – since many properties upstate have never been surveyed or have old, out-dated, and inaccurate surveys (my property of 48 listed acres turned out to be 52 surveyed acres).

    Also, while I think the article is somewhat helpful, it is deficient in one important fact. I don’t think Susan is being a good realtor by advising readers on whether or not water in the basement is a deal breaker. A realtor is NOT a home inspector. I think the only comment should have been – if there is water in the basement – to make sure that you get a home inspection or hire a professional engineer to determine the source of the water, whether it is having a detrimental effect on the structure, and the possible remedy for the problem. But, to say that you shouldn’t be worried even with a little bit of water is misleading to prospective buyers.

    • susanb says:

      Jersey, for most people, finding a realtor is the most important step to finding that home. And if you read again, I never advised not to worry about water in a basement – I said it isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. It means ask questions and find out the whole story. A good home inspector is precisely what’s called for – and any good realtor (including me!) will tell you to get one if the house is perfect for you in every other way.
      But thanks for taking the time for the detailed additions – more information is always good.

  7. Jersey Guy says:

    CORRECTION. #1 in my last comment should have said “Find a good attorney.”

  8. Maire says:

    Great article! As seasoned owners (and lovers) of Catskills properties, we’ve learned quite a few lessons. Some of the most important are as you’ve pointed out, Realtors & Attorneys, but also building good community relationships. This is absolutely essential, not only because good land stewardship is the responsibility of anybody who owns property in a Eco sensitive area, but because its likely you will be reliant on people in the area to help connect you with contractors, businesses, etc if you’ll be renovating, renting out your home, etc. Even with this, we’ve had some less then positive experiences (as with anywhere) but, because we do have some long standing friendships in the area, it’s helped us in more then one situation when we’ve needed help.

  9. EHinBH says:

    Realtors upstate are WAY more aggressive than in the City — beware! Sales are slow, so they will play every trick in the book. Have your eyes wide open and always tap a professional as a buyer’s broker (which is free) — dont use listing agents, who only work for the seller and will do anything to make the sale happen.

    • susanb says:

      Sounds like you had one (or more?) bad experiences, EH. I’m sorry – no good realtor, listing or not, would do “anything” to make a sale happen. Hope you have better luck in the future!

  10. goodbklyn says:

    We are *this close* to closing on a weekend place, and I wish we had known more about how to find a great realtor. In our situation, the seller’s broker has been far more helpful/accomodating/engaged than our broker.
    Susan, I think that would make a great post in the future.


    • susanb says:

      I’m sorry to hear this hasn’t been a great experience, goodbklyn. That’s not how it ought to be. The good ones are out there – you just have to refuse to settle. But congrats on your new place!

  11. susanb says:

    And someone else would probably think that’s a catastrophe. See the next comment for further illustration!

  12. I agree with the Jersey Guy! Do your own research!

    I also love number 5 Susan! I love DIY works and it has taken a lifetime and I love it! Fond the work you love and you will never work for a single day!


  13. Blueirisheis says:

    Sounds like it should be a no-brainer, but another thing is to make sure that you find and use your own Home Inspector. Like finding a good attorney, this can be difficult if you are new to the area.

    I purchased a weekend home upstate 2 years ago and my realtor (who was a buyers agent) and the sellers agent worked out of the same real estate company / office. My “buyers agent” was pushing very hard to have me use an inspector out of their agency’s list of inspectors. Instead, I used someone recommended by my attorney who was not on the agency’s list. I was extremely satisfied with my inspector and thought he did a great job of providing an accurate, comprehensive and objective assessment of the house. My realtor complained about him constantly. As we moved through the closing process, I got a copy of the inspection report that the seller had completed when they purchased the house and it was from the same inspector being pushed by the realtor.

    My realtor also got upset when the bank reassessed the value of the house based on local comps (which was considerably lower than asking price), which resulted in my ability to renegotiate the sales price. Both of these instances made it pretty clear to me that the realtor was in it for the seller, their own commission and the interests of the agency over the buyer.

    • susanb says:

      Blueirisheis, that’s a horror story. I’m reminding myself that people who have great experiences seldom share them – so let’s hope all this bad stuff represents about .5% of our realtors.
      We’ve got a code of ethics and most of us take those very seriously because we want to build a long term relationship with our clients.

  14. UpstateBoundNY says:

    Great article. But what I would LOVE to see an article on from you, is a detailed background on the neighborhoods in some counties, such as, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, & Sullivan. Not demographics per-se, but more like fun things to do in the area, dining, theaters, shopping, are the towns more family-oriented, or more of a college party town, old town that hasn’t been updated w/ much to do, etc.
    I’m from Queens, and would like to buy a home upstate for a weekend getaway, but also to later retire in and move there permanently. (unless I can find a job there, then I’d move in a heartbeat!) I just love the country air, vibe, garage sales, antiquing, privacy, and quality of life lived in a country.
    I used to go up to Garrison and Pine Hill w/ my family growing up, and I really miss it. But times have changed, towns have changed, and I’m not sure where to look anymore for a quiet, clean, and safe place to raise a family. Would love any insights from you Susan, or anyone here to help me get started in my search.
    Thank you much.

  15. Regina Rosario says:

    unfortunately, we have had some trouble with real estate agents upstate and the last one actually screwed up a deal by misrepresenting our offer. I have found the best way to buy is to find a house-then find an attorney to deal with the realtor, even a buyers agent.

    • susanb says:

      Regina, Like any field in any area, upstate real estate undoubtedly has its bad apples. Sorry you’ve encountered them.
      DIY househunting can work, but you’ll miss some properties. More than once my clients have described their dream house – and I’ve seen it. It’s not for sale, but I’ve been talking to the owners who are ready to list, or it was for sale last year but the owners pulled it off the market. I can see if they’re ready to sell. There’s a whole other market that real estate sites can’t access.

  16. goodbklyn says:

    Now that our purchase is complete, I want to widely praise the realtor who represented the seller in our transaction: Dick Faust at Gray Rider Real Estate in Chatham. If you are looking for property in Columbia County, you will be in good hands. Our own realtor was lackluster, but Dick was fantastic.

    We look forward to spending weekends, and ultimately retirement, Upstate.

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