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As a dearth of Hamptons houses pushes the magic number to $25 million, would-be buyers have to bid up, tear down, and -- gasp -- buy modern.

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Broker Peter Turino figures he can get $25 million for Linden, a sixteen-acre estate owned for 47 years by Texas oilman Lloyd Smith, who founded the National Review and died at 94 last fall.Other than the $38 million Jerry Seinfeld is said to have paid for Billy Joel's oceanfront spread ("He overbid on everything," sniffed one broker), that would be a new high for the Hamptons. The only properties that have come close are the Tyson Lane beach house Helmut Lang bought for $15.5 million and the almost-ten-acre place on Lake Agawam owned by the family of local real-estate broker Michael Shaheen that sources say just sold to an unmarried telco multimillionaire for about $20 million. (Shaheen wouldn't comment.)

Still, "I fully expect to sell the estate this summer," says Turino, a principal at Dunemere Associates Real Estate. "I show it every week." Even though the 17,000-square-foot mansion comes with greenhouses, carriage barn, and caretaker's place, some brokers are scoffing at the price -- "It's not even on the water," says one. But $25 million seems to be the Hamptons' magic number this spring. "There's a small handful of people who would pay $25 million for the right property," says Sotheby's John Golden. "But it has to be the right property. Which means a great piece of oceanfront or pondfront with a great house. And it just doesn't exist. They just aren't for sale."

Brokers say Count Traglio, who owns the former Ford estate that's been on the market for $30 million, is close to reaching a deal that would break the $25 million barrier -- with a buyer who would tear the place down. Next up might be Keewaydin, the Halsey Neck Lane, Southampton, estate of Anne Eisenhower Flottl and Wolfgang Flottl that's on the market for $23 million (they bought it from former Sony USA chief Mickey Schulhof for $5.6 million).

What about the ordinary Manhattan burghers, the folks who just want a place to get away from it all on weekends?

"If it's south of the highway in Bridgehampton, you're looking at $1.5 million and up," says Prudential Realty broker Paul Brennan. "It's pretty slim pickings after that." Sotheby's Frank Newbold estimates "$1 million minimum south of the highway in East Hampton. And then there's no central A/C or pool."

"For a house on a half acre in the 'estate area' of the village in East Hampton, you're going to need at least $1 million," says another broker. The smaller houses "off of Main Street, like Mill Hill Lane or Dayton Lane, you need a minimum of $500,000. They were built in quarter-acre lots on the streets that used to be inhabited by the locals -- they'd sell for $89,500 anywhere else. For $500,000 to $700,000, you can get a contemporary house in the Northwest Woods. For $2 million, you get a teardown south of the highway on two acres. Anything not a teardown on over two acres south of the highway would be $4 million to $6 million. And anything on the water is $8 million or up."

There's always Sag Harbor, traditionally home to writers and artists who can't afford the pricier Hamptons. Even there, author Michael Thomas's more substantial Victorian is on the market for $850,000. "The kind of thing that would appeal to a New Yorker," says David Bray of Allan M. Schneider Associates, "starts in the $400,000s for little cottages from the mid-1800s."

Increasingly, Hamptons residents are feeling like they're in an endgame: There's only so much land left. Brokers say everybody who wanted to cash out during this real-estate boom already has. The estate-owning aristocrats -- your Spielbergs, your Perelmans -- aren't going anywhere. And brokers say cold-calling potential sellers isn't getting them very far: One mentions a two-year flirtation with an owner who said he'd sell for $14 million, $15 million, and then almost $17 million, finally backing out two weeks ago.

"Most brokers' only complaint," says Newbold, "is that there's not enough inventory." And nothing's adding inventory, he adds, except "death, divorce, and debt."

"There's a limited amount of land," says Paul Brennan, "providing there are no more hurricanes blowing everyone away on the ocean." (On a stretch of Westhampton Beach that was washed away by a 1992 storm, new million-dollar homes have already crowded the $17 million Army Corps of Engineers-created sandbar.)

Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the South Fork, estimates the entire East End will be fully developed within a decade, at least if building keeps moving at its current 900-houses-a-year clip. "You're probably losing another 600 acres a year for subdivisions," he says.

"You figure it's about three-quarters developed now," says Newbold. "That means it will be 25 percent more crowded in a few years."

Because of that pace, Southampton has placed a moratorium on the approval of new subdivisions until town planning can catch up. "The effect has been that the approved subdivision, land that currently exists to be built on, becomes more valuable because they ain't making more of it for the moment," says Brennan. "Land especially has gone up because there just isn't much around."

East Hampton is considering a similar moratorium. "It's like a race to the finish line," says Stuart Epstein of Devlin McNiff Real Estate. "What's still not developed is being bid up so ferociously. All it does is cause them to develop faster."

"If you drive by and see an open farm field, you find oftentimes that it's already been subdivided," says DeLuca. "There's a certain mirage landscape."

Both Southampton and East Hampton have instituted a 2 percent transfer tax on real estate in order to build up a war chest to purchase empty property. The tax has already raised $13 million in Southampton and $5.7 million in East Hampton. "Now we just have to get them to spend it," says DeLuca.

"There's not a lot of land left," says broker and developer Tom Raffo. "I think people are going to be doing more teardowns. I just bought a house that's getting torn down. It's up in the Deerfield area. It's one of those cheaply built slant-roof contemporaries." His company's buying it for around $500,000. The new house will "probably be put on the market for around $2.9 million."

Southampton's historic-preservation rules will keep Linden's 1915 mansion from becoming a record-setting tear-down, but there's not much to stop the buyer from crowding the sixteen acres of cutting gardens and fruit orchards with the kinds of hulking comfort mansions New York's rich keep bidding for. "The property is in a three-acre zoning district," says Turino. "You do the math."


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