The din of hammers and chain saws has come to an end in Ocean Beach, at least for the summer as required by the village, leaving in its wake homes fit for the Hamptons.
Slowly over the past few years, the small, charming cottages, some more than 100 years old and many with few changes since then, have been replaced with larger modern luxury homes.
Real estate agents and contractors say the changes, which started just after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when homeowners got insurance and FEMA money to elevate houses in accordance with new governmental codes, accelerated during the pandemic.
“It has exploded on the high end,” says West Babylon-based Rob Cernilli, who has been in the remodeling business for 35 years. “It’s a modernization of the whole town. Gone are the houses handed down. It’s often investors” who are buying the properties and having them renovated.
Next door to Ocean Beach in Seaview, a five-bedroom, 5½-bath house is going up on a double lot on the site where a cottage — barely changed from the 1950s — once stood.
The two-story home on Laurel Avenue has central air conditioning and 5,000 square feet of decking, a high-end kitchen, a second laundry room by the pool, a primary suite with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Great South Bay, and a rooftop deck with water views, making it one of the most luxurious homes on the Fire Island market. It is listed for $4.79 million.
“Every bedroom has a private bathroom; there’s a fireplace in the living room, and the large great room opens up to a 30-by-15 pool,” says real estate agent and general contractor Abigail Mago, who is building the home with her brother, Alan Medvin, via their business, A2 Development Group and Fire Island Sales and Rentals.
Her colleague, associate broker Joan Woletsky, recently sold a beachfront home on for $5.25 million, a record for the area, Mago said. While it is hard to get accurate statistics for Fire Island — most homes do not appear on a Multiple Listing Service but are sold through local real estate offices — those in the business see skyrocketing prices, both in sales and rents. A home once in the mid-$500,000s in a state of disrepair can now fetch more than $1 million.
“There’s more ground-up construction,” Mago says. “We are seeing more gut renovations and true teardowns.” Some of it is to comply with the FEMA height requirements put in after Superstorm Sandy. Owners also want more comfortable living spaces as they extend the visiting season.
Keeping the vibe, boosting the amenities
Before the trend, Fire Island homes were known for their rustic, even slightly uncomfortable living spaces. For instance, most homes were not well insulated, had only room air conditioners, and decks could be worn down.
“The level of affluence has noticeably changed,” says Mago. “Now if a product is nice enough, people will think, OK, this is the level of comfort I was looking for. That didn’t exist in the market."
Real estate agents say both renters and buyers are looking for the down-to-earth Fire Island vibe for town and beach, but when it comes to their houses, they want more amenities.
“People don’t want old anymore,” says Lisa Campbell, an agent with Netter Beach Estates who has a $1.5 million listing that is considered a knockdown property. “They want new and shiny.”
With traffic to and from The Hamptons and Montauk often untenable, Fire Island has become more appealing to Long Islanders, who make up 65% of the renters and buyers there, Campbell estimates. “It’s so beautiful here,” she adds.
More investors have discovered Fire Island, making the total teardown of a cottage and the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, worth it to them.
A five-bedroom, three-bath house with a pool on Surf Road in Ocean Beach that was built on the site where a bungalow had stood is ready to welcome renters for $13,000 a week, says Robin Citriniti of Netter Beach Estates, who has the listing.
“The investment homes are larger,” she says. “And so they are being rented to extended families, or two or three couples with children.”
Pools, once a rarity in the Ocean Beach area, are now a standard addition to the newly constructed home, and top wish lists. Owners are also looking for large windows and high ceilings, features not found in the typical Fire Island home.
'Difficult to accept'
For some, the changes are troubling.
“I find it in some ways so difficult to accept what’s happened out here,” says Todd Pavlin, who has been coming to Fire Island since he was 7 years old. “You are spending a million and a half bucks. Put something beautiful, build something outstanding, put some beautiful trees around it.”
Longtime seasonal resident Andy Meyer is not bothered. “Some of the modern ones are pretty cool, but you got some of the old-timers that survived,” he says. “It’s great.”
For those in the building trade, it has been a race to the finish. In Ocean Beach, a “hammer can’t be swung” after June 30, as a local saying goes.
Graham Associates, a design firm based in Bay Shore, has seen many changes over the past 25 years of working on projects on Fire Island, but the past few years have been the busiest.
“These were beach cottages only used for the summer, but now people are moving out full time,” says owner Glenn Graham. “People are spending a lot of money there.”
In a village that has been known for its various strict ordinances, once earning it the moniker The Land of No, Ocean Beach has adopted rules mandating that all new construction or substantially improved homes have skirting to hide foundation piles and that roof pitch be set to allow sunlight to reach adjacent properties, says Graham. Village administrators did not return calls for comment.
While it may feel a bit disorienting to stroll down one of the iconic walkways and find it vastly changed, Fire Island will always remain a quaint and unusually laid-back town, mostly because of the no-car rules, real estate agents say.
“I do still believe that people who are drawn to Fire Island are drawn to the chilled-out destination,” says Mago. “Here, it is never towel-to-towel like Jones Beach.”
With Steve Langford
On the market
One traditional Fire Island cottage on the market that might be headed for a teardown or major renovation is an 1,800-square-foot cedar-shake house that is listed for $2 million.
Set in the community of Summer Club, the three-bedroom home on one level is winterized but lacks central air conditioning and a swimming pool, something most buyers want.
Built around 1952, the cottage sits on a 2-acre lot on West Walk four houses from the ocean. It has cathedral ceilings, hardwood floors, a wraparound deck, and 2½ bathrooms. The home has baseboard electric heat with four zones.
“The property is large enough to build your own dream home with a pool, or keep as is,” says listing agent Robin Citriniti of Netter Beach Estates. “Summer Club rarely has homes for sale, so this is a great opportunity to buy one.”
The community has its own clubhouse with gym, mooring rights and tennis courts. It also has access to a bay beach. Primary school students attend Woodhull Elementary School in Ocean Beach. Middle and high school students attend either Bay Shore or Islip schools on the mainland. Taxes for 2021 were $9,294.
— STACEY ALTHERR