Hamptons brokers jet-set to land clients in off-season

East End brokers hit Aspen, Art Basel and polo grounds to mine for clients as market slows in cold months

Nov.November 20, 2019 01:00 PM

Aerial view of Aspen, Colorado

When the yachts go south and it becomes less of a feat to get a reservation at the East Hampton Grill or other local haunts, the residential brokers in the Hamptons have to come up with creative ways to network and keep their pipeline of business flowing.

Some globetrot to chase down clients. Others meet with potential clients in Manhattan. And many keep contractors on track.

“The fall is kind of a breather, but it’s also really a time to set yourself up for the winter and spring,” said Brown Harris Stevens agent Christopher Burnside.

And different brokers, of course, take different approaches to doing that.

Douglas Elliman’s Enzo Morabito said he attends events like Art Basel in Miami Beach — which takes place every December (he’s going this year) — and the Super Bowl in February, “which is when buyers start to come out again.”

“In this business, business and social are the same things,” said Morabito.

Last year at Art Basel, he ran into a fellow Elliman agent with a Florida client hunting for a newly built waterfront house in the Hamptons. Morabito suggested his listing at 611 Dune Road in Westhampton and the deal closed for $6.7 million in February, he said.

Meanwhile, top East End agent Susan Breitenbach, of the Corcoran Group, is also a regular at Art Basel — and an advertiser there. “You definitely see a lot of Hamptons people there,” said Breitenbach, who also relocates her 67-foot powerboat from Sag Harbor to Miami Beach in the winter.

Breitenbach often gets referrals from Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber, better known as the “the Jills.” The duo — who recently teamed up with Judy Zeder — are at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, which shares a corporate parent (Realogy) with Corcoran. Corcoran, which opened a new Miami Beach office in September, also sends her leads.

At press time, Breitenbach was nearing a closing with one of those buyers on a Sagaponack property. She said she also spends a week every February on a boat in St. Bart’s chartered by clients. “I’m on the phone the whole time, but so are they, so it’s okay,” she said.

BHS’ Burnside — who in the summer zips clients around in his 42-foot motorboat, which he uses to check out estates from the water — also usually goes to Florida in the winter. He bounces between borrowed condos in Palm Beach and Miami and spends weekends with “customers who are also friends.”

But now, with the Hamptons’ market seeing a slow off-season, those trips have taken on added importance. Burnside’s 10-year-old daughter, Amelia, a competitive equestrian, will train this winter in the wealthy village of Wellington, which is thick with potential East End buyers.

For the month of December, while Amelia works on her jumping, Burnside will, for the first time, work out of BHS’ Palm Beach office. By then, he hopes to have a Florida real estate license so that he can also list Palm Bach houses owned by Hamptons homeowners. “It seems like there is a lot of money in the horse world,” said Burnside, who was tapped by developer David Walentas to market 12 new-construction spec homes on the site of his Two Trees Farm, another equestrian spot, in Bridgehampton. (Those homes sold, but he’s still marketing the original farm, which is on the market for about $18 million.)

Corcoran’s Gary DePersia, meanwhile, turns his attention to Aspen in the winter, making frequent trips there and buying ads in Aspen and Aspen Peak magazines and on a popular weather app. And the advertising seems to pay off: While having dinner at the restaurant Betula Aspen last year, “a woman recognized me and said, ‘Do you know about my property in Sag Harbor? I might want to discuss listing it with you,’” he said.

DePersia got the listing, which he said is currently on the market. He declined to disclose the address, but in November he had five Sag Harbor properties listed on his web page.

Among them was the $12.9 million 14 Seaponack Drive, which he appears to have picked up this year. According to online records, the new-construction home in the North Haven section came on the market in 2017 for about $17 million with Saunders & Associates, which is currently sharing the listing with Corcoran.

But DePersia, a long-time skier, bristles at suggestions that he chases clients to the Rocky Mountains. “It just turns out that a lot of my clientele happens to be there,” he said. “Connections happen organically.”

Local yokels

When DePersia first came to Hamptons to windsurf in the 1980s, many owners boarded up their houses at the end of the summer season. That’s obviously not the case anymore for most second-home owners on the East End.

And annual events like the Hamptons International Film Festival and Winterfest — a weeks-long festival of music, food, arts, wine and entertainment throughout the North and South Forks — are a big draw.

But outside of those events, the hubbub and deal volume fall off.

In 2018, the fourth quarter was, not surprisingly, the slowest of the year on the South Fork, with 360 deals, according to market data from Elliman. By comparison, the second quarter was the most active, with 601 deals.

But brokers say there’s been a bit more activity this fall than usual as cautious buyers finally commit to purchasing houses they’ve been circling for months.

“There are definitely usually fewer showings at this time of the year,” said Saunders’ Terry Cohen. “But we’re doing more deals this off-season than during the season.”

That may be because average listing prices are down about 20 percent from the spring — to $1.38 million from $1.73 million, according to Elliman’s third-quarter market report. Average sales prices were also down for the year through September — a fact agents attributed to both fears of a pending recession and the recent federal tax overhaul that capped state and local tax (SALT) deductions at $10,000 a year, which made buyers hesitant to take on big-ticket second-home properties.

Not helping matters is that some of the Hamptons’ venues — like Starr Boggs in Westhampton Beach, the Inlet Seafood Restaurant in Montauk and the Beacon and Le Bilboquet in Sag Harbor, places brokers flock to in order to hobnob and generate deals in the summer — close up shop in the off-season.

But increasingly, some establishments — Pierre’s in Bridgehampton, the Palm in East Hampton and East Hampton Grill, to name a few — stay open throughout the winter.

Elliman’s Morabito and his team meet at Sag Harbor’s American Hotel once a week for breakfast. “I always get leads there,” said Morabito.

For some, Hamptons venue hours are not as crucial in the winter.

BHS’ Burnside said he also heads into Manhattan in the off-season for meetings at the firm’s main Midtown office, where he meets with firm principals once a month.

He said he recently met with Will Zeckendorf, an owner of Terra Holdings, the firm’s parent company. Zeckendorf, Burnside said, is closely following the firm’s conversion of Southampton’s former post office into a BHS office. (Burnside oversaw the recent expansion of BHS’ Bridgehampton office and is involved in this project as well.)

Hal Zwick, a commercial agent with Town & Country Real Estate, said he, too, takes more Manhattan meetings in the off-season.

Negotiations with his clients — particularly owners of bars and restaurants, many of which are offshoots of New York City restaurants — require multi-day trips to Manhattan about every six weeks. “I stayed at the W Union Square right after they opened,” back in the early 2000s, “and have not stayed at another hotel since,” said Zwick.

Venue owners — who often have to wait months for the state to approve a liquor license — generally need to lock down a space by the late fall to start the approval process, Zwick said. And there are a number of deadlines to meet in order to be up and running by Memorial Day, he said.

But outside of bars and restaurants, retail leasing is weak on the East End. A decade ago, retailers were looking for 10-year leases. Today they want one-year pop-ups, which landlords won’t agree to until March, when their other options run out, Zwick said: “It’s been difficult to do business out here. That’s a fact.”

Keeping busy

In the old days — aka the 1990s — resales were the properties du jour in the Hamptons. But those resales often needed renovations. That dynamic led to a rush to buy in the fall, leaving enough time for off-season construction so homes could be ready by summer, said Aspasia Comnas, the BHS executive director who manages the firm’s nine North and South Fork offices.

Art Basel is a popular event for Hamptons brokers.

But with the rise of new-construction homes, that autumn deal bump has dissipated, Comnas said.

On the plus side, new-construction home closings can happen much closer to the start of the season. “You no longer have the same pressure to close that you used to,” she said. “Deals are more evenly distributed throughout the year.”

Construction of spec homes has, however, produced a new kind of off-season work for brokers: unofficially project-managing to ensure that properties are ready to market during the critical spring window.

BHS’ Burnside is currently keeping tabs on the under-construction 33 Bellows Court in Southampton Village, which is listed for about $4 million. Marketing materials for the property are not yet ready, but he’s pushing to make sure it’s photo-ready by February.

Another property he’ll be prepping for the market is 1127 Noyac Path in Water Mill, a spec house listed for $5.2 million — or $350,000 for the summer. The house was completed in August, an unfavorable month to enter the rental market, so Burnside decided to move into it himself in November. A cocktail-fueled open house may be held there in the spring, to lure buyers or renters, but is not likely before then.

Event-style showings are an effective in-season tool, he said. An August gathering that included an art show drew about 100 people to 54 Old Sag Harbor Road, a six-bedroom listed for about $4.7 million. But, he said, in the off-season potential buyers (and renters) usually just come to the East End to check out houses for the day.

For years, renters booked summer homes in the previous fall. After the 2008 crash, they began hunting more aggressively for deals, which meant waiting till the last minute.

Now, however, brokers say they’re seeing more long-term planning. Some of that demand is being driven by those looking to rent while they’re constructing Hamptons homes, according to Saunders’ Cohen.

In early November, Corcoran’s DePersia was on the verge of closing three summer leases, including one for a full season for a house in Bridgehampton to be rented by “a guy in his 40s from Manhattan with an extended family,” he said.

Still, the pace of deals is undoubtedly slower than usual. “[But] if you’re just going to be working all the time it kind of defeats the whole point of enjoying the beauty of the Hamptons anyway,” Burnside said.


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