At 1:22 p.m. on Saturday March 14, 2020, the day after Donald Trump declared a national emergency, real-estate agent Joseph Kazickas sat down at his desk at Rosehip Partners in East Hampton to send out the following email. “Dear Homeowners,” he wrote, “Virus fears are driving an early start to the rental season. We have received a number of enquiries for immediate occupancy through May. If you would consider renting at a premium to what normal off season rates are please let us know immediately.” The response was immediate. “Quite a large number of homeowners responded,” he says, “I would say the email was well received.”
Kazickas and the savvy homeowners who responded knew that the flight from New York was on. For those who could afford it — like the rich who fled plague-stricken Florence in the Decameron — salvation, it seemed, might be reached by the Long Island Expressway. Or at least space, and possibly social distance from their social inferiors. Doorman buildings all over New York had SUVs lined up out front, lifeboats against an invisible virus. Towns, just waking up from their winter hibernation, were caught unawares. The Stop & Shop in East Hampton was out of organic lettuce and the Cumberland Farms in Southampton out of firewood. And suddenly the short-term rental market was as hot as August.
“It’s on fire,” clarifies Laura White, a real-estate agent with Saunders. “I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve been doing this for 38 years.”
According to another broker, Susan Breitenbach — the No. 1 broker in the Hamptons according to the Wall Street Journal — the calls were coming in fast and furious: “I’ve been fielding calls from families who are on the road who need to find a home.” This has, naturally, driven prices up. Though the threshold for what is price gouging — and there is a legal definition for it, under the New York State law 396-r — and what is simply responding to market pressure is statutorily vague, the real-estate market in the Hamptons is whatever the market will bear. A house that might previously rent for $2,000 is now going for ten times that amount, Kazickas told me. “It’s like the Fourth of July in March,” said Ms. Breitenbach.
Another way of looking at it is that summer’s here already for the people who use summer as a verb.
“I just had an eight-bedroom house on the waterfront,” says Ms. White, “never rented before. A renter wanted $200,000 for eight weeks. The landlord came back and said ‘How about $750,000?’ I told my client and he said, ‘Fine. We’re on our way out.’” The competition is fierce. Ms. Breitenbach recalls, “I just got outbid in a bidding war for an unlisted house renting for eight weeks. We offered $300,000. Two hours later they had a $400,000 offer.”
Meanwhile, even as demand is up, supply is down. “A lot of people who usually rent [out their houses in the summer] are not going to Europe,” explains Bonnie Aarons, a broker with Douglas Elliman. “This creates a shortage.” And not everyone can capitalize on it.
“I just got a call from a real-estate broker asking whether I’d rent out my place,” says the author Steven Gaines, a long-time Hamptons resident and author of Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hampton. “I said, I’d love to but I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
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