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Northfield: Historic House "Couldn't Be Saved"

Local realtor explains brother's decision to demolish the Dare House on Valley St.

Many residents lamented when a buyer tore down the historic Hezekiah Dare house on Valley Street earlier this week.

A commenter on Patch wrote, "Very sad....How would the town let that happen?" Another wrote: "So I guess this is OK in Maplewood now, tear down historic houses to make a buck? I thought we were better than that..."

Virginia Kurshan, chair of the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission said that while the house was listed in the town's partial inventory of historic buildings, "it was not a locally designated landmark and therefore there were no restrictions on its demolition."

The man at the center of the controversy, local realtor Robert Northfield, explained the decision to demolish the house.

"It was a glorified shed," said Northfield in a phone interview with Patch on Thursday.

Northfield said he was hired by the home's owner, Blossom (Bobby) Cushing, in February of 2012 after Cushing decided she wanted to sell the house and move to Livingston. Northfield listed the house for $425,000, and had "hundreds" of showings but no serious offers.

"The house was built poorly," said Northfield, and time had not been kind to it. It had only a partial foundation, low ceilings, steep and narrow stairs, water issues in the basement, inoperable windows, an old oil tank, and a moldy smell. 

"A lot of people would look and leave, intrigued by the old charm" but scared off by the amount of work the house needed, he said.

Northfield said architects and engineers who looked at the house said it was not salvageable and that builders and developers who showed an interest all said they would tear down the house. Some expressed concern with its location on a busy county road.

"I truly tried to get a higher price," said Northfield.

After several price drops, and some offers in the low $200,000s, Northfield said his client agreed to sell the house for $285,000 to 592 Valley Street LLC, a limited liability corporation owned by Northfield's brother, Mike Abdalla. Abdalla also owns XCEL Renovation and Remodeling.

Northfield, who served as both the seller's and the buyer's agent (with each side represented by its own attorneys) said he realizes that some might see the sale as a conflict of interest, but he strongly objects to that characterization.

"The seller was well aware of the relationship and of the future plans for the house," said Northfield. "Every (builder) who looked at the house wanted to take it down. Mike offered the highest price."

Northfield said Cushing "wanted to get out" and "move on" and that she was pleased with the results of the sale; he also said she initially offered to sell the house to Northfield but he declined. (He offered to provide Cushing's contact information to Patch).

"I would never harm my reputation for the little commission I would collect," said Northfield. "I wouldn't take that risk...it's not worth my reputation." He said he and his family have been a part of the Maplewood community since 1995.

"I run my business honestly and fairly," he said. "I protect my clients...I don't take advantage of anybody. I am not a scam artist."

He said he felt badly about the house being torn down. "I love old houses, but in this particular case, the home was not practical for today's living standards."

Northfield said his brother is "very sensitive" to building something that will fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. He pointed out that XCEL has won awards from the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission for its work.

"The community should not be worried with the look or style of the (new) house," Northfield said. "It will be consistent with the character of the community."

Northfield acknowledged that his brother initially applied to the township for permission to subdivide the property but he was turned down. Abdalla intends to build a single-family, Colonial-style home on the lot, Northfield said.

"People can make assumptions," said Northfield, "but where were (they) when the house was on the market for six months?"

CJV February 23, 2013 at 04:06 AM
There is a difference between you being a listing broker and a buyer calling you on the phone directly and you acting as a dual agent to write up the sale versus you and your brother working together to buy the house from your client at a 20% lower price than the last showing was advised. The fact Coldwell Banker is in here willfully obfuscating this key distinction crosses you off my list going forward, that's for sure.
CJV February 23, 2013 at 04:17 AM
PS Let's get this straight about the math, Michael. For every $1.00 lower price the Northfields paid for the house, Robert lost $0.06 in commission. That's a net gain to him and his brother of $0.94. It's getting very old, your nonsense otherwise.
MichaelPennisi February 23, 2013 at 04:25 AM
I can appreciate both of your comments but again I think that context is everything. The amount of homes being "flipped" through Robert account for less than one percent of our office production annually. Jeopardizing my license is not a risk worth any price, yet especially not worth less than one percent of our production. Let's also not forget that Robert sold 75 plus homes last year and a large portion of these homes sold above the asking price. Nearly 20 percent of Maplewood homes sold under 89% of the asking price and a number of homes sold at lower percentages than this one. The only reason this is being questioned is the historical significance. Realtors advise and educate, our clients are the decision makers. We get paid when a listing sells, intentionally overpricing inventory is a foolish proposition. Not to mention that historic homes are known for being more difficult to sell. Everyone loves them but not everyone would live in one. Again, it's easy to suggest conspiracy but this transaction was handled both professionally and ethically in accordance to the sellers wishes.
Frank Verderosa February 23, 2013 at 04:40 AM
thank you!!!!!!
Nick Bergine February 23, 2013 at 05:06 AM
Well then, I know who I will not be listing with when it comes time. Thank you for all your "facts". It has informed me as to your character.
stacie levy February 23, 2013 at 11:59 AM
I personally showed that house no less than 20 times. in every single instance I told them that the house would require extensive rehab. They always thought I was exaggerating until they actually saw it. If they were architects and 2 of them were, they said it would cost more to make it habitable than to knock it down and they did not have the heart to do that. I used to help Susan Newbury at the Duran Haddon house so I fully understand and appreciate the local history. That would have been the only other possibility for this house but it did not have characteristics of Duran Haddon House. While the Durand Haddon House had all the features you would expect, large cooking hearth, different parts of the house built at differing historic periods, beautiful floor boards, original wallpaper or the horse hair plaster this house did not. It just was never built to same standard. Sad but true
emy February 23, 2013 at 12:18 PM
A glorified shed? That is a far cry from the "charming farmhouse" he depicts in his marketing materials. Northfield's comments here are self-serving -- Patch, please balance this article. It is disingenuous and untrue to suggest that building could not be saved. It certainly could have been saved, renovated and flipped for a profit, but there was simply more money to be made in tearing it down and starting over. I live in a historic house in a town that claims to value its historic housing, and I for one would never work with Northfield or his brother based on this event alone, and I would say buyer and seller beware if considering working with them. Both of them have well earned this bad publicity and cemented their reputations. Sorry, Mr Northfield, but you can not restore your standing with these self serving comments. It's destroyed and won't exist again, much like the Hezekiah Dare house.
Kim Feddersen February 23, 2013 at 01:20 PM
Even though original listing price is $X (possibly influenced by seller unrealistic expectations), interested parties are allowed to make a lower offer as opening negotiation point. If nobody did that through six months of declining listing prices, then the house was not worth saving.
Wendy February 23, 2013 at 02:53 PM
I was going to say the exact same thing. Seems the folks at Coldwell Banker take us all for a bunch of fools who can't put two and two together and come up with four. You cannot defend the indefensible.
Wendy February 23, 2013 at 02:57 PM
If you're going to come out publicly in defense of this, it's probably a good idea to disclose that you work for Mr. Northfield.
David Frazer February 23, 2013 at 03:11 PM
"It is disingenuous and untrue to suggest that building could not be saved. It certainly could have been saved, renovated and flipped for a profit, but there was simply more money to be made in tearing it down and starting over." Let's assume this is true. How much in lost profits should the buyer have been required to absorb to satisfy the community's sentimental attachment to a lovely old facade along Valley Street? It's very easy to talk about historic preservation in the abstract but put yourself in the position of the seller or buyer. With historic preservation mandates, the former is losing money as a result of a lower price and/or the latter is spending more money. Let's put some meat on the bones. How much do the preservation advocates think it's fair to make them pay? I'm not against historic in all instances but, when it involves a single-family home, it imposes real -- and potentially substantial -- costs on our current or future neighbors, which is not something those decrying the teardown seem to be taking into account. And, we have to understand that historic preservation is really the tail wagging the dog. As someone noted above, in any real estate transaction, despite what may folks might otherwise think, what you're really paying for is the land. The house is just a depreciating asset and, it would seem, this one was fully depreciated.
MichaelPennisi February 23, 2013 at 03:35 PM
I could appreciate these comments but again, consider the context. Homes being "flipped" by Robert account for less than 1% of our business. There is no amount of money worth the risk of my license. Why would anyone take risks over such a small amount of business? As for price, consider that Robert sold over 75 homes last year, many of which were sold at or above the asking price. As a whole his listings often outperform the market. No one questions this. In Maplewood almost 20% of the market sold below 89% of the asking price. In fact, a number of homes sold at lower percentages than this home, all by other brokers. The reason this is in question is the historic nature of the home. Let's not forget that historic homes are much more difficult to sell because this is also a very real factor. Everyone loves them, yet few people are willing to buy one. Selling is exponentially harder when the historic homes needs extensive renovation, as in this case. To comment on the math of this business, remember that Robert is a Platinum Level Producer ranked on the Wall Street Journal's list of top Realtors in the country. His income is based on sales in real estate, not "flipping" homes. This business is such a small percent of his sales it is negligible to his success. Again, I hope this transparency is helpful to understanding what really transpired. Thank you for your time.
Tom February 23, 2013 at 03:37 PM
Michael, legally you are correct but what's alarming is that you don't see the failure of honesty or improper behavior. The point that everyone is making is that Robert keeps hooking these deals for his own benefit. Using his bother to consistently come in and buy the house from the seller that he is representing. Is this the first and only RE transaction that Robert and his bother have been involved with or have there been others? Is there a pattern here? The sellers frustration that they cannot sell increases Roberts chances of buying the house at a discounted price from the seller via his brother. So is Robert really aggressively trying to sell the house for the seller or is he trying to play on the sellers need to sell the house so that he can gain on the other end by having his bother come in and buy the house? Do you really think that he is not getting a return on this house on the other end? Do you really think that Coldwell Bankers will not be the listing brokers? Do you really think that proper representation was given to a client v given to a family member? Do you really think that loyalty to a client superseded loyalty to his bother?
Tom February 23, 2013 at 03:38 PM
Was this really an "Arm's Length Transaction? A transaction in which the buyers and sellers of a product act independently and have no relationship to each other. The concept of an arm's length transaction is to ensure that both parties in the deal are acting in their own self interest and are not subject to any pressure or duress from the other party. The concept of an arm's length transaction commonly comes into play in the real estate market. When determining the fair market value of a piece of property, the price for the property must be obtained through a potential buyer and seller operating through an arm's length transaction, otherwise, the agreed-upon price will likely differ from the actual fair market value of the property. For example, if two strangers are involved in the sale and purchase of a house, it is likely that the final agreed-upon price will be close to market value (assuming that both parties have equal bargaining power and equal information about the situation). This is because the seller would want a price that is as high as possible and the buyer would want a price that is as low as possible. This contrasts with a situation in which the two parties are not strangers. For example, it is unlikely that the same transaction involving a father and his son would yield the same result, because the father may choose to give his son a discount.
unleb February 23, 2013 at 04:23 PM
Kim, Most buyers will not offer (and are in fact often advised by their agents not to offer) significantly below the current asking price. Most houses I go to look at, the agent has a range where they think the house will sell, and withing which an offer would be considered. Part of what people are taking issue with is the fact that the accepted offer was so far below what the current asking was. It suggests (but of course does not prove) some sort of under the table dealings... made worse by the fact that Northfield essentially represented ALL parties in the transaction. That suggests zero checks and balances in the sale process.
unleb February 23, 2013 at 04:26 PM
Again, this suggests that there were no other buyers willing to offer at $285,000. I know that I surely would have been willing, had I had the inkling that it would be accepted. Also, Northfield makes this statement: "Northfield listed the house for $425,000, and had "hundreds" of showings but no serious offers." I would be very curious if any of those "not serious" offers where at the $285,00 level (or above)...
unleb February 23, 2013 at 04:48 PM
Michael, thank you for your very informative posts, they definitely added some clarity. Among my issues is this: "New Jersey state law allows agents to participate in “Dual Agency”". While that is true, that doesn't mean it's "right". Legal, yes, but not clearly "right". A number of States do not permit Dual Agency, because they think there is the potential for a conflict of interest. New Jersey has not built a reputation as a pillar of ethical behavior, unfortunately, so I wouldn't hang my ethical hat on what is "legal". What is abundantly clear is that Northfield was on the buyer side, the seller side, the developer side and the contractor side. How that could not be perceived as a CLEAR conflict of interest is beyond me, regardless of whether it is legal or not. In addition, that fact that his brother applied for a variance to subdivide the property shows that he had no interest in the neighborhood, contrary to Northfield's claim, and was simply interested in maximizing his return regardless of impact on surrounding values (a subdivided lot would almost certainly have a negative impact on neighboring properties). This certainly gives the perception of a conflict of interest. If Northfield is so concerned about his reputation, I'm not sure why he would play all sides of a deal like this, when it clearly looks so bad. As an aside, I applaud Patch for reaching out to Robert Northfield to get his side of the story.
emy February 23, 2013 at 06:40 PM
I did not mean to suggest that this buyer be forced to renovate vs tear down. My comment that the house could have been saved referred to the possibility that had the broker in question matched the right buyer for this historic asset -- a preservation-minded buyer -- the house would still stand. This did not happen. I accept that this is how things go, but the fact remains, it is a huge shame. Preservationists are not sentimental fools who don't understand how markets work. Many, like myself, make private investment in special places to keep them just that -- special -- and these efforts in no way impose costs or devaluation upon my neighbors. Suggesting otherwise misinforms the public on how preservation works, both by individuals and by towns.
David Frazer February 23, 2013 at 07:18 PM
I'm not a fan of dual agency but it's silly to expect brokers to decline to take advantage of the rules. What sensible business person would do that? Same with the developer. It's not the developer's role to "protect" the neighborhood. His role is to build housing at a profit. If he could make more money by the perfectly legal device of applying for a variance, why wouldn't he? And, by the way, while granting a single variance for a subdivided lot might have a negative impact on the adjacent properties, rezoning the neighborhood into smaller lots would increase property values. The denser the housing, the more valuable the land.
Megan Baker February 23, 2013 at 08:08 PM
Stacie Levy showed me houses last year. At the time she was working for Robert Northfield. She just wrote in his defense without telling anyone that she is his employee.
Nick Bergine February 23, 2013 at 09:36 PM
I'm looking forward to some horrible, cheaply built faux-chateau a la Joisey to go up and really make everyone happy.
unleb February 23, 2013 at 11:54 PM
David, first of all I disagree with the premise that if it's legal it's right (or OK), as I've stated before. Sure, specifically and legally it's not his "role" to "protect" the neighborhood, but I strive for something a little more. Further, the question of what sensible business person would decline to "take advantage of the rules" when by doing so they at the very least create the impression of dishonesty and tread at the very edge of what MOST would consider unethical... well, I guess I'm just one of the silly ones. Finally, are you suggesting that if Maplewood were zoned into smaller lots, leading to higher density, that that would somehow INCREASE individual property values? While it may increase the overall tax revenue, it would surely decrease individual property values (and make for a much less pleasant town, in my opinion).
STEPHANIE VOLIN February 24, 2013 at 10:02 PM
"Let's also not forget that Robert sold 75 plus homes last year and a large portion of these homes sold above the asking price." were any of them sold to his brother? also, Mr. Pennisi, why is the word "flipped" in quotes? it's a common word that apparently accurately describes what Mr. Northfield is doing. do you feel that it is a term incorrectly applied to the homes he has purchased and resold? does it have a negative connotation in your ears?
STEPHANIE VOLIN February 24, 2013 at 10:06 PM
I actually think this article is pretty balanced. Mr. Northfield does not come across well at all in this article.
Carolyn Maynard-Parisi (Editor) February 24, 2013 at 11:20 PM
Megan, I don't think Stacie or Jill were trying to conceal the fact that they work for Mr. Northfield. They were just adding their input as agents who were familiar with the house in question.
jill sockwell February 25, 2013 at 04:49 AM
I have worked on Robert's Team for over two years and that is certainly no secret as there are marketing materials and property video tours of us together online. If I wanted to be deceptive I would have a nonsensiscal or cryptic username to hide behind. At the time of my comment I thought I was simply adding a bit of levity as someone who has actually been in the home and knew the owner as well.
CJV February 25, 2013 at 01:05 PM
Jill- Add me to the list of those you confused by not mentioning your 100% conflict-of-interest. I took you as simply a local realtor whose defense of a presumed competitor acquired extra credibility. Nothing personal, but working for/with Northfield gives you no credibility whatsoever in this particular matter.
tm March 01, 2013 at 02:00 AM
I agree that the article is unbalanced. I would like to know how Kurshan feels about the destruction of an historic house. Why is her opinion excluded from the article? What about other folks in town involved in zoning, historic preservation, local architects, even the neighbors? Isn't it kind of obvious that Robert Northfield believed that this house had to be torn down? Poor reporting on this one.
Carolyn Maynard-Parisi (Editor) March 01, 2013 at 02:28 AM
tm: Virginia Kurshan wrote a blog that I posted yesterday. http://maplewood.patch.com/articles/historic-preservation-comm-saddened-by-dare-house-demo
Stephen Sekel March 03, 2013 at 04:35 PM
What I take away from this story is that it is easier in Maplewood for a real estate developer to tear down a historic house than it is for homeowners to have a diseased tree removed from their property. Let's hope that a lesson can be learned from this unfortunate occurrence and that citizens can mobilize to ensure that something similar does not happen with the Women's Club!.

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