Keeping Up With the Joneses, and the Kellys, and the Riccis, and the Cohens...
Over-the-top, outrageous one-upsmanship, Westchester-style.
Keeping Up With the Joneses, and the Kellys, and the Riccis, and the Cohens…
Over-the-top, outrageous one-upsmanship,
Like crabgrass or tennis elbow, it’s an unpleasant fact of suburban life, but Westchester wouldn’t be the same without those neighbors who simply have to own the best of everything—and make sure to tell you all about it.
By Lois Podoshen
You know the type—or maybe you even live next door to them. They’re the couple who have to possess the biggest and fanciest home, drive the most deluxe car, take the most exotic vacations, belong to the most exclusive clubs, and send their kids to the most elite colleges—and they go out of their way to tell you every single, blessed detail. If some hot new gadget comes out today, they’ll own it tomorrow; if there’s some new of-the-moment designer dog, they’ll have the first puppy from the first litter. If there’s some trendy new designer schmatta, you just know who’s going to be wearing it first. Need we go on?
“Westchester is so competitive,” laments Helen B., a resident of northern Westchester who asked that her last name and residence be withheld. “A friend of ours sold his home and purchased a four thousand-square-foot contemporary complete with maid’s quarters,” Helen reports. “He told us that he bought it because he wanted everyone to see it and know that he’s a success. When he bought his first Mercedes, he came right over to show us, and that was okay. But it wasn’t okay when he came to a party at our house and made another couple feel bad because they couldn’t afford a status car like his.” And competition in Westchester isn’t just about houses and cars. “Friends and neighbors have actually turned over the plates in my house to see what kind of china I have, and have checked a vase to see if it was signed. And when I mentioned to a friend that I was vacationing in the Canary Islands, she went home and checked the Internet to see if the hotel was five-star!”
Okay, so this isn’t exactly new behavior. Economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe this sort of status-seeking behavior in his groundbreaking 1899 study, The Theory of the Leisure Class. You, on the other hand, might be more apt to call it merely “keeping up with the Joneses.” But whatever you call it, there’s no debate that you can find plenty of such unabashed flaunting of wealth (or allusions of wealth) everywhere you look in Westchester. With a median household income of $66,560, according to a report published in 2003 by the U.S. Census Bureau, Westchester ranks as the 24th richest county in America. (Fairfield County, Connecticut, ranks as No. 13 with a $70,083 median household income; the U.S. national average is $43,318.) Spend just a little time here, and you’ll realize it’s not just keeping up with the Joneses—it’s also keeping up with the Riccis, the Goldbergs, the Washingtons, the Kowalskis, and the Tanakas. And there are countless high-end retailers who are eager to sell all sorts of expensive merchandise to separate the Haves from the Haven’t-Got-It-Yets.
“We see a heightened sense of competitiveness here in Westchester, as in many American communities that are in above-average income brackets,” says Abby Levenkron, a psychotherapist with offices in White Plains and Manhattan. “It’s human nature to give value to that which occupies us, and upwardly mobile families who live here value the outcome of their time and energy: money and the things that it can buy. It becomes important for them to demonstrate their success. By driving fancy cars and living in mini-mansions, they show their neighbors that they are good at what they do, a feeling that most people strive for, regardless of their occupation. If they can outdo their neighbors or at least keep up with them, they feel successful.”
When it comes to making a statement to the neighbors, the first place to start is real estate. Thanks to the continuing real estate boom, having just a million-dollar home doesn’t carry the cachet it did a decade or so ago. “Twenty-five percent of all the homes sold in Westchester in 2005 were a million dollars or more,” notes Deborah Baumohl, a sales associate for Coldwell Banker in Larchmont. And for that kind of money, what you actually get in some neighborhoods is little more than a starter home—or a candidate for a tear-down. “Everywhere you go, you see construction crews digging, building, and demolishing,” adds Baumohl. “I estimate that thirty percent of the homes in my immediate neighborhood have been renovated or expanded.”
But to the determined status-seekers among us, the home renovation brings with it all sorts of opportunities to outshine the neighbors. C.T., a resident of Hartsdale, who also prefers to remain anonymous (for obvious reasons), has first-hand experience of just how far a neighbor will go to be the “Mrs. Jones” of the cul-de-sac. “My neighbor watches everything I do. Recently, I put an extension on my house, and she actually went to town hall to find out my addition’s specs,” says C.T. “She put an extension on her house that was five feet bigger than mine, so she could claim to have the largest house on the block.” The score: C.T., 2,600 square feet; “Mrs. Jones,” 2,605.
And it didn’t stop there. When C.T. put bluestone on her walk, her neighbor followed suit; when she dressed her five-year-old daughter in Ralph Lauren, her neighbor did the same; when C.T. bought a Discovery, her neighbor bought a Sequoia. “She told everyone that now she had the biggest car on the block,” C.T. says. But it wasn’t until C.T. bought her Land Rover that her neighbor was stymied. “She had spent so much money on that extension, her husband wouldn’t let her buy a Rover.” Advantage: C.T.
There are plenty of local architects catering to the sky-is-the-limit crowd. Katonah architect Richard Kotz, for example, specializes in multi-million-dollar homes featuring amenities such as home screening rooms and billiard rooms. “I had a customer in Armonk who wanted a change in lifestyle. He had spent his entire life working and now wanted a dream house to come home to,” he says. The house Kotz designed for him included 11,000 square feet of space; six bedrooms; six bathrooms; three garages; a home gym; a meditation room; a heated pool with a whirlpool; and a pool house with a kitchen, bathroom, and changing room with heated floors. The cost: a cool $5 million.
Sometimes, trying to build the biggest house on the block backfires—badly. Denizens of one Greenwich, Connecticut, neighborhood—certainly no strangers to humongous homes—drew the line recently at the proposal by Joseph M. Jacobs, a local hedge-fund manager, to build a 39,000-square-foot mansion, notable for its 220-foot-long façade—not to mention its 11 bedrooms, four kitchens, five-car garage, home theater, indoor squash court and pool, plus a lounge just for the family’s five-person domestic staff—that would have been the largest private home in town. “It’s just a huge departure,” one of the dismayed neighbors, whose own mansion of 20,000 square feet must have seemed a veritable shack by comparison, told the New York Times. Jacobs scrapped the proposed home after formal complaints were lodged to the town zoning board over the project’s size.
“The baseline has really risen,” says Armonk builder Fred Wyman, who constructs homes in the $3 million to $5 million range. “A lot rests on the details. Everyone puts in a commercial Viking range and granite countertops nowadays, and home theaters are almost de rigueur,” he says. So, if you want to wow the neighbors, you need to be more creative. Home automation is one way to go. “I had a customer in Bedford who got the midnight munchies and we installed a custom programming system to turn on the upstairs hallway light, then one on the secondary stairs, then one in the kitchen just so he could find his Häagen-Dazs.” The cost for a midnight snack of mint-chocolate chip: $40,000. Another one of Wyman’s clients wanted to be able to soak in his tub as soon as he stepped in the front door. “He could call from his cellphone to fill his Jacuzzi!”
And no top-end house is complete without some sort of personal gym—the bigger, the better. “For a home in Katonah, I designed an indoor tennis court and a basketball court that converts to a batting cage. It has a ceiling with netting to protect the custom scoreboard and gym lights,” says Ruth Tara of Home Gym Design, Inc., in White Plains. The same house also boasts a four-lane regulation bowling alley, an Olympic-sized pool, and two separate rooms for strength and aerobic exercise. The price tag for making their neighbors sweat in awe? Slightly under $1 million.
Lavishing money on a home’s interior is just the beginning. “You now need to create an outdoor environment equal to the indoor space in aesthetics and quality of life,” says Jay Archer of John Jay Landscaping in Katonah. For a customer in Katonah, Archer created an “environment” that included multi-level decks, a hot tub, an Idaho quartz-stone patio with fireplace, a six-foot fire pit surrounded by fieldstone, and a Gunite (concrete) pool with a natural setting and pool house.
If you want to make the Mrs. Jones in your neighborhood green with envy, forget the old style of planting trees in a row to shield your premises. We know of at least one landscape artist who says she plants mature trees in an interrupted screen around a property for the sole purpose of causing neighbors to investigate what’s happening in that backyard and to ensure that the inquisitive neighbors eat their hearts out to discover the beauty next door.
That beauty has to include flowers and lots of them; we’re not talking daisies here. “People are hiring landscapers to create waterfalls and exotic gardens,” says Realtor Deborah Baumohl. “One exotic plant can cost as much as twenty thousand dollars. And my gardener told me about a family that spends over fifteen thousand dollars a month just to plant annuals that are always in bloom on their property during the spring and summer.”
Now, let’s move on to the driveway. According to Peter Provost, the general sales manager for BMW in Greenwich, only one car will really seem at home in the Joneses’ garage. “The BMW 650 coupe,” he says. “It’s sexy. It’s a real eye-catcher and comes as a convertible, too.” Edmunds.com, a website that reviews cars, has designated the BMW 650 one of the year’s most wanted vehicles; it fetches $75,000 to $85,000. But if you really want your neighbor’s jaw to drop, Provost suggests you sign yourself up for a BMW model M5, sold only to loyal customers. “It’s a wow car,” he says of the $95,000 vehicle. “It makes a monster statement, and it’s the fastest car BMW has made. People who want this car don’t even blink at the price. There’s a one-year waiting list and we get one in about every three months.”
Maybe you’ve glimpsed the Joneses riding around town in their new BMW, and they look really good. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Jones’s crow’s feet seem to have flown the coop and Mr. Jones’s formerly furrowed brow looks like it has had an uplifting experience. “After a certain age, people have accumulated as much
material goods as they could ever want and turn to spending their money on enhancing their appearance,” says Dr. David Bank of the Center for Dermatology in Mount Kisco, who estimates his practice has benefited from a 30 to 40 percent increase in patients seeking treatment with Botox or Restylane over the last five years. “I had a patient who came to me and said, ‘I have plenty of jewelry; what I want now is to feel good about myself.’”
All of this competitive behavior is not lost on the Joneses’ children. They must have the hottest stuff, too. “My friend, who is a doctor, was going to buy his sixteen-year-old daughter a car—something safe and respectable,” says David Hochberg of Katonah. “She told him that car wasn’t ‘status’ enough. She wanted an Audi, a car that met the expectation of her friends.” What she got was a car that met the expectations of her father: a Saturn. Like most
To go with their status home and status car, many people simply have to have a high-status dog. “Ten years ago, the ‘in’ dog was the Shar Pei,” says veterinarian Dr. Brian Green of the Sleepy Hollow Animal Hospital. “Now it’s the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and there has been an increase in interest in ‘designer’ dogs too.” Heard of the labradoodle (lab/poodle mix), the puggle (pug/beagle mix), and the goldendoodle (golden retriever/poodle mix)? “People are spending $1,200 to $3,500 on what essentially are mutts,” Dr. Green says. While some people are buying designer dogs hoping to get the best of both breeds, which Dr. Green cautions does not necessarily happen, others are hoping to get something else. “Is the motivation,” he asks, “to be the first one on the block?”
Whether it’s walking around the block or going for a long run, the Joneses’ dog is one lucky canine. When the family goes yachting in the Exumas, skiing in Vail, or camel riding in
So, where does this leave the rest of us non-Joneses? Our northern neighbor, Helen B., has no designer dog to board at an expensive canine spa. She doesn’t care if her house is the biggest on the block. And she hasn’t had Botox, either. But just to set the record straight, she wants you to know that her plates are antique porcelain, her beautiful vase is indeed signed, and the hotel in which she stayed in the Canary Islands was definitely five-star.
Lois Podoshen lives on a nice street in Yorktown Heights. She sees an occasional Mercedes, has noticed a few home additions and reonvations, but she has yet to meet a “Mrs. Jones.”