“You know what else is coming back?” asks Dottie Herman, owner of Prudential Long Island Realty, as she gives a tour of an airy Southampton postmodern. “Elevators.”
The beach house has come a long way, baby. And the modern beach-house buyer may not want to travel all that way on the sweeping spiral staircase in the foyer, attractive though it might be. Herman, a charismatic blonde with a raspy Joan Rivers voice who hails from – horrors! – Syosset, understands this, though she can still see the humor in the scenario. “One time, we were showing this guy’s house – he used the elevator to make an entrance at parties – and it got stuck mid-floor,” she laughs. “We had to break in the door.”
All this extravagance – the $1.5 million swimming pools, and the $20 million tear-downs, and the hot tubs you can turn on with your cell phone from your Porsche on the L.I.E. – has been good for main-line Hamptons real-estate brokers. But at the same time, as they see it, all the money tends to attract the wrong sort of people. People with mid-island accents, who’ve never seen the inside of the Maidstone, who prefer a Gap pocket tee to a pink-striped Brooks Brothers shirt. “There’s a core of ten brokers who exclusively manage the high-end market, the $5 million and up,” says Sotheby’s John Golden via cell phone while showing a $10 million house and sporting, he says, a pair of yellow pants and Gucci shoes. “Someone who is alien to the Hamptons is going to have a tough time trying to sell pizza in a McDonald’s.” “We’re maybe 1930s around here,” sniffs one veteran broker. “A lot of old-timers want to keep this a quiet word-of-mouth business.”
But Dottie Herman, whose company’s 40 offices did $1.4 billion in sales last year, is definitely not a quiet word-of-mouth kind of person. “I had to open up out here,” she says, “or I wouldn’t have peace.” After an attempt to purchase an existing Hamptons outfit stalled, she decided instead to expand her Melville-based empire herself. In blitzkrieg fashion, she set up five offices in six months, from East Hampton to Hampton Bays, with two more to follow, and, naturally, incensed locals who felt she’d carpetbagged her way into their turf. “Anybody new to the area in any sort of business is looked upon with less than warm feelings,” explains one broker. “But they’ve kind of pounced on this market in a way that was, needless to say, annoying.”
Even as prices rose and rose over the past decade or so, brokers prided themselves on doing business the old-fashioned way – through family and social connections. Outsiders, even large, well-funded ones, couldn’t get to square one. “There was Remax, an international chain,” recalls one local broker. “Everybody snubbed them and they were gone in no time.” Cook Pony Farm, a longstanding local institution briefly affiliated with the national franchise Coldwell Banker, then decided against it. “It’s taken a while for Cook Pony to get over that,” says another, “It hurt them a great deal.”
True to form, the competition is still hoping to run the new girl out of town, refusing in some cases to co-broker listings with Prudential and in all cases providing venomous commentary on everything from the aesthetics of its ads to the aesthetics of its brokers. “Prudential got a reputation for having lower-level listings, lower-level buyers. It was a little schlocky and mid-island,” says a competitor. “You know, they were the guys in the orange blazers.” “They do not have the look,” a colleague agrees.
“What she’s doing is very smart,” adds another – who then thinks better of such benevolence – “but with the market the way it is, my dog could come here and make money right now.”
“People told me to my face that I’d never make it,” says Herman. “They thought, She’ll open an office or two and go under,” she laughs. “I don’t think they knew who I was. Up-island, I’m in Locust Valley, the North Shore, all over Brookville. The North Shore is just as huge as this, if not more. And a high-end buyer is a high-end buyer. If they did their homework, they might say, ‘Maybe she knows a little something.’ “
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, Herman, who is outfitted in a periwinkle sweater and black Capris, and her fine-homes director, Faye Weisberg, who is dressed in a pink pantsuit, are on their way to the house with the elevator in Weisberg’s black Jeep Cherokee. Weisberg, plucked by Herman from Dunemere, the toniest local agency, sold the lot two years ago for $850,000. The owner slaved over the construction, importing nails from Paris and windows from Canada, only to proclaim it too big when it was completed. “I told him to have a drink and call me later,” says Weisberg. When it became clear he meant it, she sold the place for $4.9 million. Herman and Weisberg are back because the new owners who moved in this February said they’d consider flipping it for $7.5 million. “A lot of things are not officially on the market,” explains Herman. “But you say, ‘Well, if I got you this price …’ Every house has its price.”
Inside, there are photos of the family with President Clinton. Two housekeepers are cleaning and cooking in the Viking-covered kitchen, which is a mini-mansion in itself – it contains not only a fireplace and a full living-room set but an indoor SwimEx lap pool. It’s clear that despite the bad will – and the absence of a multiple-listings service, which forced them to build an inventory from scratch – Herman and her agents have managed to scare up their share of high-end properties. Her game plan to hire locals with strong community connections has worked well. Chris Chapin, her “land guy” in East Hampton, charges through the woods to spot precious unoccupied lots and then search out their mysterious owners, FBI-style. “We tracked down a guy in Thailand who wanted to sell,” he says. But it’s Bridgehampton native Paul Brennan – formerly of Sotheby’s and with a sparkling client list that includes Calvin Klein, Peter Jennings, Katie Couric, Richard Gere, and Ron Lauder – whom many view as Herman’s smartest hire. Over lunch at the American Hotel, Herman persuaded him to manage her Bridgehampton office, which he will soon relocate to a plum space adjacent to the oft-lamented Starbucks on Main Street, the same building where his great-grandfather founded the town bank. “Dottie’s genius comes from hiring people within the community and also brokers who can talk New York,” says Brennan. “When you sit in a car with somebody and say how you had an apartment on Park Avenue and speak the language, it helps. She brings both into the office and synergizes that.”
Herman bought her Southampton place six years ago, but she’s been summering in the East End since childhood. Recently, she has made a point of “getting involved”, as they say: standard practice for local brokers. At seven this morning, she ran in a 3K through the estate section of Georgica, which Prudential sponsored to benefit the Retreat, a local women’s shelter. The weekend before was a “Hot Latin Nights” extravaganza for the same cause, for which she shared the committee list with Jerry Della Femina and Courtney Sale Ross.
“I met Dottie, and that was it. I said, ‘I want to go with her,’ ” says Weisberg, back in the Jeep’s driver’s seat. She is just one of many agents who speak of Herman with near-Scientological devotion. “Plus, in this market, you need the tools,” she continues, “and Dottie has all the tools.” Indeed, virtual tours of almost all Prudential’s listings are available; agents can construct personalized Web pages for clients. A live Internet auction is in the works, as is outfitting her entire staff of 1,100 with Palm Pilots so they can answer clients’ queries from the road. “You have to be at their beck and call,” Herman says. “I had to do a self-service dinner party once because a client wanted to see something. It’s hard to have a life.” As she’s talking, her faux-mahogany-covered Nokia rings, playing “Für Elise” softly in the background. It’s a call from one of her commercial clients in Melville. “Paul, if you don’t do well, I don’t do well,” she says as we pass a field of grazing horses. “Where will you be over the weekend?”
The next stop is a $5.9 million, 10,000-square-foot spec house under construction on ten acres north of the highway, an area where you couldn’t give land away five years ago. The “garden pavilion” with heated bluestone floors is finished, but the main house, which is perched so high on a hill even the first floor has a water view of Sag Harbor, is still only an outline. Herman delicately navigates the slatted wood plank that serves as front steps in her black platform slides. “I always wear heels. I’m so used to wearing heels,” she offers, “when I came out here, I’d walk around in new construction and all my agents would make fun of me.”
It is true that Herman and her agents, as her competition claims, do not look like the epitome of the Wasp aesthetic. But just as the Hamptons business is evolving, Herman believes that Hamptons buyers have also come a long way. “If you really talk to homeowners, which I did,” she says, “Allan Schneider – and I give him all the credit – he built an image, with the Ralph Lauren and the whole elite thing. But I think people today are different. They’re not into that whole shtick. I hear them talk on the golf course about how ‘we’re not going to let Jerry Seinfeld in.’ You know what? He’s not going to want to be in your clubs. They’ll build their own clubs. They don’t need you.”
In less than an hour, Herman is out on Route 27 in her Mercedes convertible – her “office.” “It’s all become very unreal – it’s funny money,” she says as the highway curves through fields whose crops seem to be gigantic mansions, pink with their new shingles – the old and the new, played out in plain sight. “At the end of the day, I didn’t change it,” she says as they fan by.”I didn’t change it. But it is changed.”