Living Large on Less
It’s a buyer’s market for designer clothes, yachts and even your fantasy vacation dream house – if you know where to look.
The irreverent personal finance bloggers at StopBuyingCrap.com recently issued a list of “10 Simple Ways to Feel Rich Without Materialistic Means.” Their advice to appreciate more sunsets, squeeze in more hugs with the family and bake more yummy cookies resonates strongly during these turbulent economic times — especially to the thousands of New Hampshire families smacked this winter by power-robbing ice storms.
But even the most sentimental Americans still love to own nice stuff. And Granite Staters, of course, are no different.
If you were lucky enough not to flush too much money down the Wall Street toilet — or perhaps fit the New Hampshire stereotype of hoarding cash in your mattress — today’s economy presents tremendous buying opportunities. From traditional luxury goods like jewelry and fur coats to trendy designer fashions and high-end real estate, bargain hunters with expensive tastes can now afford to be choosier.
Although there’s nothing new about the wisdom of buying used versus new, upscale thrift shops and consignment stores report that their supply side is booming. Whether they truly need the money or not, more wealthy people have been motivated to thin out their closets.
Fur making a comeback?
Maybe it’s more about the ice storms than retro glamour, but Amherst consignment dealer Heather Bodholdt can’t keep up with the demand for vintage mink coats ($50 to $300). Her Twice As Nice store also stocks rabbit, seal, raccoon and even a bright red Mongolian lamb fur “that will make you look like Elmo.”
“Fur makes you feel wealthy,” insists Bodholdt. “I just sold a mink for $54 because it had a tear in it, and the woman was thrilled. She said, ‘I can’t believe I own a mink! Omigod!”
“And you can’t beat the warmth,” she adds. “I have a fox fur collar at home and my neck is sweating every time I wear it.”
Bodholdt says she’s heard local reports of a renegade animal rights activist slicing up fur coats with scissors, but quickly assures herself that support for hunting in New Hampshire is widespread and that “these animals died a long time ago.”
Twice As Nice also specializes in high-end costume jewelry and semi-precious gemstones, which she purchases from “secret sources” in Manhattan. Gemstone bracelets (amethyst, lime quartz, peridot, druzy) that sell for $120-$160, usually fetch up to $900 at the mall, Bodholdt claims.
Her advice for “living large” for less: Always choose sterling silver over gold. For the price of one gold item, you can buy a comparable necklace, bracelet, earrings and ring.
“It’s not about need,” Bodholdt says. “It’s all about want.”
Daily Jewels & Feeling Rich?
In downtown Portsmouth, Puttin’ on the Glitz boutique owner Assiah Russell’s mantra is that jewelry is not meant to be stored in a safe deposit box. Her sales pitch is that “Daily Jewels” — fine crystals, beads, art glass and semi-precious stones — can represent “the soul and personality of the woman wearing them.”
“Costume jewelry, or fashion jewelry, as it is now called, arose in the 1920s and ’30s when women wanted to look great in a down economy,” she says. “Also, women who were rich and had precious jewels did not want to travel with them, but would not be seen without jewelry. It is like gilding the lily or putting the icing on the cake.”
“We believe it is not about the price, but rather finding the jewels to accent each woman’s uniqueness,” adds Russell, who also specializes in vintage beaded purses from Europe. “Therefore, our prices are from $15 to $500.”
A few blocks away, Upscale Resale owner Janet Solomon agrees with the Glitz philosophy of daily high fashion. Solomon, who also owns a seasonal high-end thrift store in Ogunquit, Maine, focuses mainly on artsy clothing.
“If a woman knows her labels, she’s going to flip out when she comes in my store,” she predicts. “A good label will fit the body much better, it will hold up longer and it will be the item in your closet that you reach for first. It’s like anything else in this world. You get what you pay for.”
The majority of Upscale Resale tops, sweaters and jackets are in the $30-$40 range. Solomon says the economy is spurring more wealthy women to shed clothing “too good to donate.”
“I wouldn’t say my clothes will make you feel rich,” she adds. “You will feel attractive and feel excited about what you’re wearing. You’ll get compliments and walk out feeling like you don’t look like everyone else.”
For financially challenged fashionistas who do want to emulate the rich and famous, there is a surprising alternative to thrift store scavenger hunts. Avelle, a Massachusetts company formerly known as “Bag, Borrow or Steal,” rents out luxury brand handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, watches and luggage for short time periods.
Nicknamed the “Netflix for Handbags” by The New York Times, the company was recently prominently featured in the “Sex and the City” movie, and not as paid product placement. In the movie, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie Bradshaw, interviews an assistant who carries rented Louis Vuitton bags. The woman is later given her own designer purse as a gift.
Members can rent a $1,200 canvas Vuitton bag for $49 a week or $145 a month. Avelle, which boasts more than a million women in its customer base, also features other luxury designers such as Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Coach and Vera Wang. (In case you were wondering about the previous renter’s chewing gum, these handbags are cleaned and subjected to a “rigorous 10-point inspection process” in between users).
At Sak’s Thrift Avenue in downtown Keene, two lucky women just scored their own $1,200 Louis Vuitton purses for $500 each. “We had them in the window and they lasted only two days,” says owner Sylvia Naumburger. “And we did verify that they were real.”
Naumburger is unique in the second-hand clothing biz as one of the few upscale dealers trying to specialize in men’s casual fashions. But she openly wonders if it is a wasted effort.
“It doesn’t sell so well. Women love to shop, but a guy will come in here, say he’s a size 32 and then take his pants home without even trying them on,” Naumburger laments.
Middle-Class Yacht Clubs
Most guys don’t like trying on designer jeans, but they love powerboats. And the notion you need to be Thurston Howell III to afford one is as outdated as, well, a pop cultural reference like Thurston Howell III.
The word “yacht” is an extremely broad term, describing everything from a modest speedboat or sailboat to floating mansions with spiral staircases. If you are in the market for the former, the current glut of used yachts is fantastic news for the wallet.
“Today’s yacht clubs are primarily made up of workers who make less than $100,000 a year,” says Laurence Bussey, owner of the Portsmouth-based NorthEast Yachts brokerage firm. “There’s a lot of focus on families.”
As with new automobiles, boats can depreciate rather quickly — up to a 20 percent dip in value after only a year. Bussey says a smart shopper can save up to 50 percent on a used yacht that still has its motor under warranty.
Most of NorthEast’s used yachts fetch between $30,000 and $80,000 and do not include spiral staircases. Bussey says he highly discourages boaters from jumping at loan liquidation sales, which sell repossessed boats at 10 to 15 cents on the dollar.
“There’s a high risk of neglect or sabotage,” he says. “If somebody knows they can’t make their payments, they always let their boat go. It may have been sitting under snow and ice for months before the repo guys went for it.”
Vacation Like a President
Lake Winnipesaukee, the poster lake for New Hampshire yachting and other summer fun, found itself in the international spotlight two summers ago when French President Nicolas Sarkozy vacationed here (and berated local photographers who got too close to his boat). The Big W also is home to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who once came to the rescue of a capsized boat with his son on Jet Skis. And home to the Marriott hotel family dynasty, which owns multiple properties in Tuftonboro.
But even if you don’t mingle in the same circles as international business and political power brokers, you can swim in the same waters. Wolfeboro realtor Adam Dow, who has been enjoying Winnipesaukee since he was in diapers, says buyers for higher-end properties are now hesitant to pull the trigger. That means less competition for your summer dream house.
“The saying around our office these days is buyers have NSU — No Sense of Urgency,” Dow says. “Right now there are actually available properties, as compared to five years ago, when every property had a story, bad exposure, steep, close neighbors, no view, etc.”
“I think the best buys on the market are condos with deed docks,” he adds. “If you think about it, you stay in your condo and get in your boat, you are on the same lake as people who have spent tens of millions of dollars to be on.”
At press time, available properties with water rights included a Laconia RV site for $115,000 to Guilford condos from $250,000 to the low $300,000s.
In the Mt. Washington Valley, the state’s equally popular vacation mecca, realtors say it’s been a buyer’s market for a few years now — well before the Wall Street crashes.
“You don’t have to hit the market at the exact bottom to get a good deal on real estate,” says North Conway broker Joy Tarbell. “Just like predicting recessions, the bottom of the market is often reported several months or even quarters after it has occurred.”
Tarbell recently sold a 4,200-square-foot North Conway home near Mt. Cranmore for $435,000, far below its original $750,000 list price.
Echoing her North Conway colleague, Badger Realty agent Bernie Friberg argues there is no point for waiting for prices to dip further if you plan to actually use your investment property.
“It is an ideal time with the inventory being generous, the prices being in a declining mode and the interest rates at an all time low,” she says. “Start enjoying what vacations are made for and you'll be thankful every day that you own a part of this magnificent land.”
European and Prison Décor
Once you have your discounted dream house, you’ll want to furnish it with stuff. Instead of rushing out to the Big Box stores, check out the Big Blue Barn off Route 25 in Rumney.
Since 2000, Blue Moon Salvage & Marketplace has specialized in antique architectural items — ornate windows, doors, hinges, knobs, columns, fireplace mantels, etc. — taken from old homes and churches that are demolished or renovated. Some of the stained glass windows were imported from England and Spain and date back to the 1800s. Depending on size, stained glass prices range from $100 to $1,000
“Our slogan is ‘Often Used, Always Unique,’” says owner Edda Lavery, of Manchester. “Our customers are extremely attached to the historic element.”
Blue Moon clients have incorporated vintage European windows in kitchens, home offices, walkways and living rooms.
Another unorthodox décor option is the New Hampshire state prison system, which operates an antique furniture restoration shop in Berlin and a customized furniture shop in Concord.
Both facilities depend solely on word-of-mouth business and can save the public up to 50 percent of what they would otherwise pay for similar services and products. Labor costs of $2 to $3.50 a shift for each inmate account for the deep savings.
Berlin shop manager Tim Villeneuve says his inmates have restored everything from antique sewing machine stands to baby cribs, ice chests, horse sleighs, rockers and modern dining room sets and hutches.
“More than 90 percent of our customers keep coming back,” he says. “My refinishing backlog is three months and people are willing to wait.”
However, Villeneuve cautions antique owners not to touch their items if they are for investment purposes only. “We make every customer sign an approval form stating we are not responsible for the depreciation of value of antique furniture. An old chair will remain valuable as is. But who wants to sit on a bunch of splinters?”
“We just refurbished an 1882 lounge chair that looked like it just came off the Titanic,” he adds. “It was useless as is. But now the person has it in their sunroom and they can enjoy it.”
In Concord, wood shop manager Mike Boudreau says his guys have become quite gifted at crafting high-end cherry dining room sets. “We literally can build anything. We often get pictures torn from upscale magazines and when we quote them a price, the number is a real attention-getter!”
“The higher end the products you’re looking for, the bigger the savings will be,” Boudreau says.
For home furnishings even cheaper than the prison option, a great place to start looking is the Yahoo Freecycle NH message boards. The Internet listings bring together people who want free things and people who are giving them away — ultimately keeping more items out of the landfill.
More than 30 New Hampshire communities maintain their own freebie networks. A recent search of Greater Nashua Freecycle offerings turned up more than a dozen pianos.
“Free stuff may be the first draw, but it is not the main purpose or mission of our group,” says Nashua Freecycle moderator Diane Sheehan, who oversees more than 4,000 local members. “Most people are more enamored by being able to post and make stuff go away, right away, without the guilt of throwing it out and wasting it.”
Over the years Nashua Freecycler Suzanne Wilson has given away computers, TVs, lawnmowers, exercise equipment, skis and an electric stove. She’s scooped up a leather chair and ottoman that her family still enjoys in their living room. Wilson also salvages curbside trash items she thinks other people will find useful and later plays matchmaker.
As she sees it, there’s more than one way to “feel rich.”
“I feel truly blessed,” Wilson says. “I see these items as a result of the law of attraction, putting positive thoughts out to the universe regarding my needs and eventually being rewarded.”