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Blue-Collar Bonanza

If you can wield a hammer, or a shovel, or a wrench, or a vacuum, or carry a tray of drinks, you can get rich working for the summer people in the new Hamptons gold rush -- one plumber has his own private plane.


Lava-dense and glacier-slow, the jam begins just past the Shinnecock Canal -- where Route 27 bottlenecks down from four lanes to two -- and extends east all the way to Amagansett. Typical Friday-afternoon traffic on the Montauk Highway -- except that it's 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the blacktop is teeming with wide-payload pickups and heavy construction equipment, not Lexus SUVs and Mercedes convertibles.

This is the other side of the Hamptons building boom: Wall Street zillionaires and media moguls with expensive tastes and bottomless bank accounts are ordering up houses and pools and golf-course-quality lawns and garden parties for 100. In the frenzy, the locals -- carpenters, contractors, gardeners, housekeepers, cooks, and plumbers -- are quietly managing to get a lot richer. Making a buck off the swell set has always been a diverting sideline for the permanent people, and these days, the money's practically growing on every hydrangea bush on the South Fork. All it takes to get it is a summer of sweltering, 70-hour work weeks while the vacationers lounge poolside -- writing enormous checks.

"I had to take the Jitney, and my contractor was running around in a BMW," recalls up-and-coming British decorator Maxine Harrison, who completed her first Hamptons job this spring. "When I was ready to go back to the city, he would drop me off at the Omni. That always made me laugh."

"I don't think a client wants to hear about how well his builder is doing," says builder Ben Krupinski, whose résumé includes construction and renovation for Martha Stewart and Jerry Della Femina (also Krupinski's partner in a number of commercial properties). But clients often figure it out for themselves while jetting to East Hampton aboard Krupinski's private Dassault Falcon 10 for a site inspection. On the ground, Krupinski drives to the sites of the eight jobs his crews are working on -- three of them new constructions encompassing more than 20,000 square feet -- in that unflashy but respectable standby the Chevy Suburban.

No wonder the help is cashing in: New arrivals in the Hamptons -- whether they're building, rebuilding, or merely remodeling -- are used to being pampered by doormen and supers and are in the market for some high-priced hand-holding. "These people grew up in Fifth Avenue apartments, not suburban split-levels," snickers one Southampton businessman. "So they don't know what to do when the toilet backs up." "I live in a co-op in New York," concedes novelist Rona Jaffe. "When the water goes out, it's the super's problem." At Jaffe's three-bedroom Sagaponack farmhouse, such hassles are hers alone -- and tough to resolve if the local plumber is putting in twelve-hour days hanging pipe in the shingle castle under construction down the road.

Jaffe's most enlightening experience was actually the result of a mundane mosquito invasion. "My screens had holes in them," she recalls. "And no one would fix them. One place I called said they were busy for the whole summer, and that when they could get to it, they'd have to replace the storm windows and the screens. Then I got the local guy who cuts my lawn to take the screens in and say they were his. They fixed them in two hours." The bill, says Jaffe, came to $36 -- instead of the $2,500 estimate she'd been given over the phone. "They hate us," she moans, half joking. "They hate the summer people."

Ninety-eight percent discounts for locals may not be the rule, but Jaffe's frustration with tradespeople is common. "They don't have any sense of moral obligation," fumes Bridgehampton homeowner and freelance P.R. rep Roberta Wolf. "I wish I could portray the aggravation of waiting. And then when they finally do come, you're so grateful, you'd do anything for them. I'd give them my husband, my mink coat -- anything."

It's not as though the laborers are slacking off, though -- they've just got their hands full with projects of outlandish proportions. "The houses are getting bigger," says East Hampton builder Pat Trunzo. "On the average, they're 8,000 to 10,000 square feet; we're just finishing one that's over 18,000."

Work on such a scale, of course, requires vast overhead. "Our labor costs are higher than almost anyplace else in the country," admits Bridgehampton-based architect Preston Phillips. "Only Greenwich and Beverly Hills are more." Combine going rates such as $30 to $45 an hour per carpenter with forced-march building schedules, and things get pricey fast.

The growing popularity of high-end spec houses is also affecting the pace (and price) of labor: With a new property's purchase-to-occupancy time dwindling from two to three years to the same number of days, clients want all the trimmings pronto. And they will pay through the nose for immediate gratification. "There's a lot of instant landscapes now," says James Conley, the production manager at Marder's nursery. "And we like to respect deadlines -- whether they're realistic or not." For Marder's, that means keeping some workers on the job six days a week even during the traditionally slow midsummer months -- and paying them overtime. "Normally, I'd like the guys to take weekends off in the summer and rest up for a big fall planting season," says Conley. "But that isn't happening this year." On this particular Friday, for instance, Conley hasn't got long to talk, because a contractor needs an immaculate sod lawn in place before the client arrives for the weekend. The pace may be hectic for the workers, but it also means Charlie Marder, who grew up in Springs, now presides over a multi-million-dollar nursery whose eighteen acres brim with $30,000 beeches and Japanese maples; in the past year alone, his business has grown 45 percent.

After buying a white-columned "plantation house" that contractor Jeffrey Collé had built on spec in Sagaponack, Helen Lee Schifter wanted to move an electrical outlet to the kitchen's center island. "The electrician who'd originally wired the house said, 'Oh, no, we can't do that,' " Schifter recalls. "Then my phone person from New York City told me it should be a simple job." Out here, she says, "they just don't want to bother."

That wasn't the end of Schifter's subcontractor blues: "Most of the paint flaked off the west wall of our servants' quarters," she sighs. "We waited two and a half months before it got repainted. Let's face it: It's embarrassing when your friends come over to look at your beautiful new house and ask where the paint is on a whole wall."

"The subcontractors are all over the place with so many jobs," says one Quogue homeowner. "You practically have to have a shotgun to keep them on the job." An anti-aircraft gun might be more helpful: Like Krupinski, Robert Okunewicz, of Southampton's Okey Plumbing & Heating, has also made enough money to buy a private plane.

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