Reg Oberlag, surreal estate agent, prowls the Catskills
I help city folk find country homes in the Catskills. Frankly, it’s a line of work that I’ve been reluctant to have my name associated with for the dozen years I’ve been doing it because of the stigma I’ve always felt for sales jobs in general and for real-estate agents in particular. With a long career as a writer, journalist and filmmaker, slipping into the real-estate business was sort of accidental.
I had established the Catskills Film Commission in the 1990s after helping some movie producer friends make a Christian Slater-starred movie in Fleischmanns, a village picked for its down-at-the-heels, godforsaken, decrepit Main Street set amid the glorious natural landscape of the Catskill Mountains. I saw the economic boost this little movie gave to the area, and I believed that with such spectacular locations this close to the city the film commission could be an environmentally friendly financial boon to an area.
The Catskills was suffering a long decline from its heyday as a prime dairy-farming region and summer recreational retreat for city dwellers seeking to escape the heat and congestion of New York City. Air conditioning and cheap air travel shifted the tourism market from the Catskills in the 1960s at the same time that refrigerated rail-freight could bring cheaper milk and dairy from the vastly larger dairy farms in the Midwest. This made the smaller-scale hardscrabble mountainside farms less prosperous, vulnerable to being sold off to second-home developments. These economic blows to a region saddled with a cheesy reputation for Borscht-Belt resorts gave the area a negative cachet that has taken it half a century to overcome.
Helping filmmakers find locations for movies, TV commercials and photo shoots in the region had me sourcing out lots of different sorts of properties. The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, announcing; “Hey, I could get my real-estate license and make some money,” a solid step up from mostly pro-bono film commission work.
That’s how I started down the slippery slope of becoming what I liked to call a surreal-estate agent. Adopting the British nomenclature of “estate agent” helped me to avoid admitting to myself that I was just another real-estate sales guy. Reading one of my favorite ‘Southern’ novelists, Richard Ford, had also helped brainwash me into thinking more philosophically about the job. His series of books had traced the life of the failed-writer Frank Bascombe, who sold real estate. Ford’s early novel “The Sportswriter” was followed by his Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Independence Day” and by “The Lay of the Land.” These volumes follow the career of a suburban New Jersey broker with a philosophical approach to helping people find homes while dealing with his own existential and family crises. I wish they made them required reading for the Real Estate Licensing Exam.
In order to deal in real estate and not feel like I’d sold my soul to the devil, I would look at my clients and customers in this more philosophical way. I tried to solve their problem of balancing financial realities with their dreams of sylvan escape.
Buying a country home is not like buying a primary residence. It is not a necessity. It’s a dream, a dream of finding peace and quiet and birdsong, crisp clean air, rushing trout streams, mirror-surface ponds reflecting sailing summer clouds, undulating ridgelines where light and weather changes constantly in a beauty that is heartpoundingly magnificent.
You know first-hand why the Hudson Valley painters came into these hills and found scene after scene more stirringly emotive. That’s why all these people like me who may live in the middle of the wondrous metropolitan machine of New York City, with all its cultural, social and career benefits, still require the balance of a dose of nature on a regular basis. We seek to find tranquility in our country homes. These retreats where we can garden, bird-watch, fish, boat, climb mountains, have dinner with friends, take in art shows and antique shops, or simply gaze out the window at dusk and breathe deeply the balsam-scented breeze. We feel life more richly enjoyed as the urban stress dissipates.
I was just invited to a party where I had helped five couples who were all friends find very different homes. All felt their lives incomparably enriched by the experience of having their own rural retreat to which to escape. All expressed appreciation for the role I had played in helping their dreams find reality. “You just can’t imagine how much our lives are changed because you helped us find this place,” they told me.
I’m paid to do this work, and I’ve been successful at it despite my cringing at the idea that I’m a realty agent. I’m still a writer and make videos and have a business in the city, too. But learning how to get inside someone’s head and heart, to feel what they want to feel, to visualize their ideals with them, and to find the concrete embodiment in the material world for what they are seeking is gratifying for me. There are difficult people in all facets of life, but usually I find it easy to empathize with those yearning for a natural experience in a country home. By and large, these are fine people.
But let’s not get too dreamy. I’m a natural skeptic. When I first start working with someone, I like to loan them a copy of the hilarious and cautionary tale of the late great playwright, performance artist and actor Spaulding Gray. His movie The Terrors of Pleasure chronicles the country home search of the writer and his girlfriend in Woodland Valley outside Phoenicia. The ominous mantra of their realty agent is repeated over and over again: “You can change the house but you can’t change the property. You can change the house but you can’t change the property…” His was a variant of the old saying that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, location.” Hapless artists can be overwhelmed by everything that can go wrong in buying a country refuge…Thus the terrors of pleasure.
There are mysterious country-home things that urbanites don’t have to think about. Like where your drinking water comes from and where your wastewater goes. Knowledge of drilled water wells, spring water purification, septic tanks, leach fields and cesspools are among the topics of knowledge which may come to light in your visits to country homes with your hopefully trustworthy and well-informed agent.
R-values of insulation? Fireplace versus woodburning stove? Hot-air or hydronic heat? Radiant floors does not refer to a well-waxed and shiny surface. Can you get cell phone reception or cable TV or high-speed Internet? What’s a French drain? Thermal glass? 200 amp? You didn’t know you can’t build a pond without a spring water source? What’s a transfer station? You mean I have to deal with my own garbage? Snowplowing my driveway?
These can be among the terrors of pleasure in owning a country home. But when you step out onto your porch and look at that amazing landscape on that giant-screen TV of nature spreading out in front of you as far as you can see and breathe in that wildflower fragrant air, you know it is worth it.