These are the days when Urban America, its early-warning system alert to the impending swelter of summer, begins to yearn for gulls and cattails, sea and shore, simplicity and a rustic paradise. There are those alluring advertisements in the city newspapers. The
had some just the other morning:
"In the Blue Ridge Mountains.... Three acres of pines and overgrown pasture.... Lazy old rail fence of long ago still clings to life...."
"Over five acres, amazing wild turkey forest.... Half-buried antique fence on adjoining property...."
"Old mountain store.... Creaky building with merchant's shelves and much-worn counters. Old radios and remnants of World War I era still survive in musty building. Collapsing ageless barn out back usable as shelter for livestock.... Several mountain families live within sight of store."
Ah, the lyric romance of a vacation home. That mountain store is real camp, perhaps too real camp. You decide to leave it to the boy scouts. Besides, buying is more than you can bargain for. Rent a summer house? It sounds like a saltbox full of romance—beach plums, wild roses and the driftwood crackling in the fireplace on a darkeningday—well, until you consider the cost.
A coastline-to-coastline survey of those who make a living renting vacation hearth (a fireplace raises East Coast rents $500 for the season, thank you) and home to the fleeing urbanite shows that never before have so many spent so much to get away from, a cynic might suggest, so little. The great land rush and sand rush are on, and in this spring of 1969 most realtors say nothing seems unrentable or untenantable, no price too high, no demand too extreme—just as long as one element of vacation living is not involved: roughing it.
An intriguing but hardly typical place to begin is Southampton, N.Y., never a hardship hamlet to be sure. It was not that many years ago that Jessie Donahue set her Southampton table with the family silver, only it was gold. The Hamptons, an august string of villages some 100 miles east of Manhattan on the south shore of Long Island, still have their understated homes—cottages they call them—with six or eight master bedrooms and four or five maid's rooms. They sell for $250,000 to $300,000 and rent at $15,000 to $25,000 for the season. Three or four are taken each summer by debutantes' parents anxious to get their daughters' social feet wet on the right beach. Others go to "nice people." Certain Southampton realtors do not advertise or list themselves in the Yellow Pages in their desire to avoid the not-so-nice people. Nonetheless, the status of the Hamptons is now attracting the executives who have made their money at an ungracious pace and high-flying Texas types in his-and-her helicopters.
"More than 75% of the people we deal with are buying or renting status," a Bridgehampton broker says. "They want to know who lives behind the next hedge. They rent their summer houses by April 15 so they can be listed in the local telephone directory as if they've vacationed here all their lives." Status seeking can be measured to the last silly millimeter in the price of property. A broker in Westhampton has three 70-foot oceanfront lots for sale. They are spaced about two miles apart. It is the same beach, the same ocean, but the status changes as you walk the shore. One lot is priced at $17,000, one at $35,000 and one at $65,000.
Real estate in the Hamptons is appreciating from 15% to 50% each year. A waterfront acre can sell for up to $110,000. Since summer-rental prices usually are set at 10% to 12% of the value of the property, there has been a corresponding rise in those costs. One broker says rents have increased 50% to 100% in five years. Few houses are available at less than $2,500, and $4,000 rentals are average. The last bargain anyone remembers in the Hamptons was offered a couple of years ago when Magda Gabor put her mansion up for rent. An extraordinary house that started out as a trailer parked on an oceanfront lot, it has elevators, a theater, a sauna and gym and underwater music in the pool. Magda was asking $20,000 rent for the season, but she was willing to settle for $15,000—if the tenant allowed her to continue to live upstairs.
But inflated prices are not discouraging New Yorkers, who have been flooding the real-estate offices that edge the Montauk Highway as it winds among the Hamptons. Through the glass walls of his office in Westhampton, Realtor Herb Bellringer looks down on a crowded parking lot. "You learn to size them up fairly quickly," he says, "the guys who come out here trying to impress you with rented Cadillacs and blondes, the doctors who show up in jeeps because they figure the MD license plates on their sedans would ruin their chances to wheel and deal and the close-cropped, buttoned-down young executives who are going to put on wigs, beads and shades and turn into summer swingers their first weekend out."