East End reels from influx of year-round visitors

Home sales are booming and rentals are nowhere to be found in the sizzling Hamptons market

Citarella Southampton
Citarella Southampton

In the Hamptons, summer vacationers and year-round residents endure something of a symbiotic relationship.

The hedge funders, Hollywood types, old-money scions and rock stars who proliferate from Memorial Day to Labor Day need the fishers, farmers, plumbers and construction workers who populate Suffolk County year-round. And vice versa. The latter can’t pay their bills without the former, and the former need the latter to survive. An uneasy social contract keeps the peace between them for a dozen weeks each year, and life goes on.

That changed when the pandemic hit. Not to get too dramatic, but it was like the French Revolution. The social order was upended. Lines of black Range Rovers and G-Class SUVs waited to pick up kids outside schools where there used to be Chevy Tahoes. Lines curled around the Amagansett IGA. Lines were everywhere. The summer folks were here, and they were staying. The once peaceful, orderly, seasonal cycle was over.

Citarella ran out of caviar, Roquefort and uni at Christmas. Sagaponack Farm Distillery ran out of Armin baguettes. Had city butcher Ottomanelli Brothers not started delivering to the Hamptons, starvation might have set in.

“The good news is, restaurants that usually closed for the winter stayed open this year,” said Douglas Elliman agent and East Hampton local Patrick McLaughlin. “The bad news is, you can’t get a table. You need reservations on a Monday night. Monday? Really?”

Along with the fleeing city folk came their children. School populations spiked. Amagansett School, a public school, saw K-6 enrollment more than double, the East Hampton Star reported. In other local districts — Montauk and Sag Harbor — enrollment increased by about 20 percent. The Ross School, a private school, which had shuttered its Bridgehampton campus, reopened it this year with a similar increase. And for-profit Avenues, which debuted this year in East Hampton, almost immediately opened a second campus to meet demand.

Incredibly, some parents have been paying tuition to schools in the city and the Hamptons while they figure out where to ultimately settle. They don’t want to lose their spot at Horace Mann.

It’s not clear how these extra bodies will affect the area long-term, but the infrastructure can absorb them: Enrollments had been declining in the past few years. While Amagansett, for example, now has about 150 students instead of 75, it had a similar number in 1973.

That is not necessarily true of the real estate market. Not a Hamptons homeowner, but want to relax here this summer? Good luck. If you’re determined to secure a rental, you’d better have deep pockets. And move fast. People are paying silly money for rentals, if any can even be found.

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One such deal, done privately, set a new Hamptons record at $2 million for the summer. And that’s not always enough: Veteran broker Harald Grant reportedly had a $2 million rental offer rejected by a homeowner.

“The rental market is challenging in all price ranges,” said the Corcoran Group’s Gary DePersia, one of the more active agents in the market. “It has all brokers confounded on how to fill the need.”

Many houses previously on the rental market have been sold, he said, so agents have taken to cold-calling owners to create new rentals.

“Those renters who are waiting for the last minute to get a deal will be sorely disappointed,” DePersia said.

The same is true for those looking to buy. Houses are flying off the market, according to a report by appraiser Miller Samuel for Douglas Elliman. In the first three months of this year, properties sold in just 101 days, on average — 32 percent faster than a year ago. Sales volume plummeted almost 40 percent, simply because there’s practically nothing for sale. Listing inventory fell 34 percent in the first few months of 2021, the steepest drop in the 13 years that Miller Samuel has been tracking it.

Eager buyers are lining up at open houses, with agents fielding bids over the asking price. One agent had an open house in Montauk and received eight offers that day. She was so overwhelmed that she stopped accepting offers and asked all the prospective buyers for their best one right then and there. The property closed for considerably over ask.

If you’re lucky enough to already own out east, don’t expect to have your pool house spruced up in time for Memorial Day. Many builders are so swamped that they’re not even returning calls. And owners who did manage to book a contractor are running into another problem: materials shortages.

“We are trying to install new electric service to one house, and the electrician cannot get the material to do the job,” said Ray Harden, a co-owner at Ben Krupinski Builder. “The cost of material has also gone up since he quoted the project.”

Beach passes, which have always been coveted, have become more sought-after than ever. Southampton Town, which charges $450 for a non-resident pass, sold 24,151 of them two years ago. Last year, it sold 29,279. East Hampton Town jacked up its price this year to $500 from $375. East Hampton Village, which controls the ocean beaches in East Hampton, sold half of its 3,100 non-resident permits at $500 each in an hour.

With more people than ever squeezing into one small area of the world, they’ll have to remember that they need one another — the wealthy and the welders, hedge funders and hedge clippers, Teslas and Tahoes. Also, don’t cut the line at Main Beach, or they’ll send the tumbrel for you.