Fire Island's rental and buying season is hotter than ever
After years of renting in Cherry Grove, Adam Rosen and Matt Freeman finally bought a house there in January 2021. It may have been just in time.
"We looked at a number of properties," said Freeman, 37, the coordinator for Broadway Bridges, a program that brings students to Broadway shows. "As soon as we saw our house, Adam mouthed, ‘I want this house.’ "
Working exclusively from their Manhattan home since the pandemic, the married couple extended their rental deeper into the fall season.
They bought the three-bedroom, two-bath home with a roof deck and fireplace overlooking Great South Bay for $650,000 and a mortgage rate of 2.5%. Renting it out for part of the summer made it more affordable.
"When we were looking in the late fall, the sellers were basically thinking, if the home wasn’t sold by then, they would be stuck with it until spring" said Rosen, 42, an entertainment lawyer. "The prior owners were motivated to sell."
Paying top dollar
Expect a hot, hot season this year on Fire Island. Sales are way up, inventory is low, and people are paying top dollar to be in the land of no cars and beautiful beaches that are never more than a short stroll away.
As with other hot markets elsewhere in the country, where buyers are snapping up houses soon after listing and renters are signing earlier than in previous years, Fire Island is getting "discovered" by people who never knew the barrier beaches existed.
Cherry Grove, a community of only 278 homes, still has a few places for rent, and even fewer for sale, said Evelyn Danko, a longtime real estate agent at A Summer Place Realty in town.
"It’s a very busy season," she said. "We have seen a huge increase in sales and a high demand for rentals."
So far, 13 houses have been sold this year, a little less than 5% of the small housing market there.
In addition to the usual Manhattan and Long Island residents seeking rentals, Danko sees more coming from out of the metropolitan area, as well as from Texas and Chicago, and even more from Europe, both last year and expected this year.
"It’s amazing all the people that have come," she said. "We’re delighted."
In Ocean Beach, the inventory of houses for sale is the lowest in memory.
"COVID drastically impacted the market," says Abigail Mago, a licensed broker with Fire Island Sales & Rentals in Ocean Beach. Because spring is a big selling season, Mago says she and other agents are hoping for listings in the next few weeks.
Mago’s own analysis shows the 2021 average sale price on Fire Island was $1.126 million, a 23% increase from the year before. Median average shows a more modest increase of about 9%. According to the Fire Island Association, there are about 600 homes in Ocean Beach, and there were 38 sales in 2021, about 6% of the total housing inventory.
"We saw particularly strong activity at the high-end market, including a record-breaking sale of $5.25 million for an oceanfront home in Seaview," said Mago, whose company brokered the sale.
Many of the traditional, modest summer cottages of 100 years ago have been razed and now are winterized with pools and roof decks, and — once a rarity — central air conditioning. Renovations started in earnest after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which gave owners the opportunity to modernize their homes, but it’s clear that more high-end buyers are going to Fire Island, many of whom would have normally flocked to places like the Hamptons.
A flood of influencers
For Tanya Fuchs, a year-round resident of Atlantique and an associate broker for Ramsay Realtors in Bay Shore, which sells homes on both Fire Island and the mainland, a flood of money and social media have given the out-of-the-way Fire Island more exposure.
"You see a lot of influencers with thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers, coming to Fire Island and posting meals from popular restaurants," she said. They’re also hosting online polls asking which drinks are better, such as the original Housers Bar’s Zippy vs. CJ’s Restaurant & Bar’s Rocket Fuel.
Fuchs sees rents averaging $6,000 a week, even in more laid-back Atlantique, which has few houses and more of a booming boating community in the summer.
Atlantique has seen a major turnover, according to Fuchs. With only 55 homes, about 20% have been sold over the past three years, ranging from $600,000 to $1.65 million.
Farther west in Kismet, a favorite summer community for Long Islanders, mostly because of the 1.8-mile walk from Robert Moses Field 5, finding a rental or house for sale is harder than ever.
"We’ve never had less inventory," says Sam Wood, a contractor and real estate agent at Island Beach Realty in Kismet. "Prices are way up."
Rentals that were typically $35,000 for the entire summer season are now $10,000 to $12,000 a week. So, aided by low interest rates, people are buying homes that they can rent out for part of the summer, he said.
"This way, they can use it and then still make a lot of money," Wood said.
The early months of COVID chased many from the city to more bucolic communities, where people could be outdoors and feel safe. Fire Island is one of those places.
'The fall is huge here now'
Known for its summer crowds and quiet offseason atmosphere, Fire Island is attracting residents who are staying through the fall and even into the colder months in newly winterized homes, because many have not yet returned to offices.
"A lot of the city people have been here year-round," Wood said. "The fall is huge here now." Restaurants are staying open an extra month, closing in November rather than the traditional Oct. 1. "People come on the weekends to watch the games," he said.
Teardowns are becoming common in Kismet as well as in Ocean Beach, but supply chain issues are slowing things down.
"Appliances are taking almost a year," Wood said.
For Freeman and Rosen, the attraction to Fire Island was both the nightlife and the quiet beauty. Following the Cherry Grove tradition of naming homes, the couple settled on "Ethel Mermen," paying homage to singer Ethel Merman and their love of the beach life.
Though it’s not that far from New York City, Fire Island feels like a completely different world, the couple said, adding that they appreciate the people and the history of their town.
"I love going up on the roof deck and watching the sunset," Freeman said. "It feels kind of poetic, very peaceful. The fun is there when you want it, but you can also close the door and light a fire."