July 23, 2005
MY OTHER HOME HAS A PORCH
By LISA KEYS
it Bungalow, Version 2.0. Its earlier incarnation was in the '40s and
'50s, when the Catskill Mountains were full of city folk seeking an affordable
way to beat the heat. They camped out in Sullivan, Ulster, Greene, and
Delaware counties, in mountain-top hotels or unwinterized cottages, known
Today, two key elements remain. First, the Catskills - about a two-hour
drive away - are the city's most accessible summer-home destination. Secondly,
they're the cheapest. A Catskills summer home can be had for as little
The area isn't what it was in its glory days, of course. But instead
of holding out for a crash so violent that a multi-million dollar Hamptons
pad becomes affordable, why not buy a small summer cottage on a property
that was once a bungalow colony?
These modern day Catskill communities still have a sense of shared space.
And yet, they feature more "now" amenities like winterized homes
and swimming pools. "What's happened is that the Catskills have gone
from bungalow colonies to more sophisticated condos," says Patti
Greco Sunshine of Yeager Realty. "It seems to be something we need
more of now.
"People want to come up here to vacation; they don't want to maintain
property," she adds. "They're not coming up to take care of
a house, they're coming up to just be."
One thriving community is Little Village, a "cottage cooperative"
in Livingston Manor, N.Y., that was once a rental bungalow colony, built
in the '40s. And though the co-op is short on amenities (the houses are
seasonal and there's no pool) the price can't be beat: Little Village
has two available units; a one-bedroom for $50,000 and a newly-renovated
two-bedroom for $100,000.
Plus, the monthly maintenance is $105 - which includes property tax,
common insurance, landscaping, and the cost of seasonal opening and closing.
"The Catskills are becoming a hotspot because of their affordability,"
says treasurer Chris Corbett, who bought his unit in 1996 for $5,000 and
has since done $70,000 worth of renovations.
Still, with 12 units - many in shared houses, spread over five acres
- there are occasional privacy hassles. "There are some things you'll
have to put up with," argues Corbett. "You've only spent so
many thousands of dollars."
"It's a very inexpensive way of having a semblance of a country
house," says Irwin Richman, author of "Borscht Belt Bungalows:
Memories of Catskill Summers."
"That was always the appeal of the Catskills and of bungalow colonies."
Oy, the much-lored and adored Catskills of yore. Known colloquially as
the "Borscht Belt" or the "Jewish Alps," the mountains
drew scores of newly-arrived immigrants starting in the 1920s. The newcomers
rented cheap rooms in farmhouses-turned-boarding houses, commonly called
kuchaleins, or "cook-alones," as residents did their own cooking.
As the Catskills' popularity grew, some boarding houses became hotels,
and other entrepreneurs bought land and built a series of simple cottages
that became known as bungalow colonies. According to the Catskills Institute,
an organization that documents the role of the Catskills in American Jewish
life, the region once boasted 783 bungalow colonies. There were also 1,145
hotels, known for fostering the careers of Henny Youngman and other "Take
My Wife, Please"-type entertainers.
But in the '70s, hotels and colonies increasingly closed up shop. Many
of those that remained were taken over by ultra-Orthodox Jews - but a
select few were reinvented as affordable co-ops and condos. "Out
in the Catskills there's a certain sense that life gets recycled,"
said Baruch College journalism professor Roslyn Bernstein.
It's something she knows about first-hand. Back in 1980, Bernstein and
her husband, Shael Shapiro, purchased Jacoby's Bungalows in Woodbourne,
N.Y., and turned it into a co-op. "The idea was something simple,
not expensive; to have a place that has some sort of communal activity
but not be a commune," says Shapiro, an architect.
Reinvented as the Buffalo Colony, 29 units sit in a semicircle on a wide
expanse of lawn that is but a fraction of the 105-acre property. Residents
tout their community's perfect blend of privacy and activity. People generally
do their own thing, but on the Fourth of July, for example, everyone gathers
for a potluck and an activity in the "casino," or communal house.
This year they participated in a homegrown version of "The Gong Show."
Journalist Deborah Erickson was the last of the colony's original buyers,
who relishes her weekends spent in her low-tech, low-key summer home as
"Because it's affordable, you don't feel like you have to be here
all the time," she says, repeating an oft-heard phrase among Catskills
Though the original buyers purchased their units for a mere $20,000 -
or less - buying into the Buffalo Colony today is a relative bargain.
Last year, a unit sold for $80,000, and currently, the most luxe cottage
in the group (it's winterized and boasts two full baths and a washer/dryer)
is available for $175,000.
Though the region covers four counties (and properly, the Catskills Park
is a 300,000-acre tract of land that was deemed "forever wild"
by New York State in 1894), Sullivan County, where most of the bungalows
were built, was the most widely settled. And in recent years, the real
estate market has been red hot. "Sullivan County has been gaining
in popularity over the last five years," says David Knudsen, a broker
with Catskills Buyer Agency. "The biggest rises occurred in 2003
and 2004 seeing prices rise 30 to 35 percent over the previous year. That's
a huge jump."
Now the good news: Knudsen thinks the market's slowed to a 10 to 15 percent
increase. And even better news is that numerous communities remain unconditionally
affordable, despite the rise.
A de rigueur destination is Smallwood, a hamlet in the town of Bethel
that boasts some 2,000 log-sided homes and its own lake, clubhouse and
post office. In contrast to many of its neighbors, Smallwood was developed
in the 1930s exclusively for a Christian clientele.
Today, however, Smallwood draws a diverse, artsy, urban crowd. "You
used to be able to find something for under $100,000," says Smallwood
resident Fred Williams, an associate at Malek Properties. "Prices
have gone up a lot - but not a lot considering that in Long Island and
Westchester, a $225,000 house is now worth $450,000."
Today, a "nice" seasonal, says Williams, runs from $125,000
New Yorker Jose Nunez bought his Smallwood cabin three years ago. "I
was looking for a place that would give me a sense of being in the country
without being isolated," he says. "I really fell in love with
Having paid "under $150,000," Nunez thinks he's right on the
money. "I thought it would be nice to find something affordable,"
he says. "Something I wouldn't have to rent out."
Affordable is great, but for some, dirt-cheap is even better. The biggest
bargain around may be down the road at Grandview Palace in Liberty, N.Y.
The former Brown's Hotel (the mega-resort that served as the inspiration
for the movie "Dirty Dancing") went condo eight years ago. Today,
studios are a mere $37,500.
In many ways, Grandview Palace still feels like a hotel. Most of amenities
of Brown's - the pools, a cinema, mini golf, a chapel and a synagogue
- remain. The restaurant is now closed, though, and the bar is staffed
irregularly by volunteers. The hotel rooms are now studios, complete with
"People ask, 'Is it a resort, or a condo?' I say, yes," says
president of the board Mort Teisch. "You can live here year-round;
the reason people don't is by choice."
On a Friday afternoon, the population appears mostly elderly, but residents
insist that Grandview attracts a diverse crowd. David Rosenstein, a chiropractor,
originally bought his unit as an investment. "I loved it so much,
I ended up coming up every weekend," he says. "I joke that I'm
practicing for retirement."
Web designer David Josephson, 49, used to summer in the Catskills as
a kid. Eight years ago, paging through the Bergen Record, he saw an ad
for the condos. "I was flabbergasted," he says, by all the activities.
He bought a unit and stays there every week. "It's almost becoming
a second Hamptons - but obviously less expensive," Josephson says.
"The area's coming full circle."