In an ordinary year, the coldest winter months are considered the best time to score the hottest summer rentals on Long Island's sandy shores. But there's nothing ordinary about this rental season: The ruthless assault of superstorm Sandy and the subsequent nor'easter in the fall devastated some of Long Island's most popular summer destinations, destroying private and public property and washing away giant swaths of the main attraction -- the beaches.
Emergency steps to restore the beaches and dunes will be key for the approaching summer season, as well as for the long-term protection of coastal communities.
The passage of the $50.5 billion Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, a federal aid package for Sandy relief, has brought some measure of hope to these communities. The package includes provisions for flood control, coastal emergencies and long-term coastal hazard reduction projects.
As officials in Long Island's seaside locales are busy making cases for their communities' fair share of the funding, home and business owners continue the long, slow battle for payouts from government agencies and insurance carriers for needed repairs.
Newsday traditionally previews the Hamptons summer rental market at this time each year. In light of the ongoing turmoil caused by the storms, this year's coverage has been expanded to include the barrier island communities of Fire Island and Long Beach.
The customary Presidents Day start of the Hamptons summer rental season has been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, with some renters starting their search as early as October. Despite a weeks-long gap in activity after Sandy, early-bird seasonal renters still turned out by Thanksgiving, says Judi Desiderio of Town & Country Real Estate. "A lot of deals in November closed by the year's end. We have done quite a few leases."
"Prices are holding strong," says Faye Weisberg of Saunders & Associates. "Remember, we have people that rented last year that rent the same house again. . . . By December, we started doing re-dos. That takes away a lot of the rentals" -- about 30 percent, she estimates -- "and we have a lot of new people coming into the market."
Jonathan Miller, a Manhattan appraiser who tracks Long Island real estate sales, has informally kept tabs on the rental scene. He says Weisberg's experience "is consistent with what we are seeing anecdotally -- the demand remains similar to last year, but some of the supply was reduced or offline, keeping the market firm."
Homes, businesses and public property in the Hamptons suffered varying degrees of water and wind damage as the surge spilled over the shores and into the streets. Hundreds of downed trees were reported.
Overall, the region did not fare as badly as feared. However, erosion and dune loss resulting from the storm and the subsequent nor'easter have left some East End coastlines degraded and vulnerable. The surge overwashed portions of Dune Road, depositing 2 to 6 feet of sand from the former dunes into the part of the road that runs from Southampton to Quogue and leaving few to no dunes along the Shinnecock Inlet.
"One area that got badly hit was one section of Bridgehampton, with the ocean on one side and Mecox Bay on other," says Diane Saatchi of Saunders & Associates. "Other sections of oceanfront are fine."
Power outages and the gas shortage turned the area into a relative ghost town in the aftermath. "The storm sucked about a month out of our lives," says Desiderio. "It went from late October when the storm hit until late November."
Signs of life
If a stamp of approval by people in high places is any indicator, a recent Hamptons house-hunting visit by former president Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should go a long way toward reassuring hopeful Hamptonites that the area retains its upper- echelon appeal.
And the social scene has stayed vibrant, even in the off-season, with annual happenings such as the Snowball in Westhampton Beach -- a Westhampton Alliance of Merchants fundraising soiree in January that featured live music, a DJ, raffles and prizes -- carrying on as usual.
Renters are booking their summer homes for longer periods, says Desiderio. "During the Great Recession, we had found that people were curtailing their summers. They were taking one month or two weeks, and now it seems most people are back to a full season."
She credits the activity to an improving economy and the diminished inventory in other, harder-hit summer communities. "Some people who would ordinarily go to the Jersey Shore might choose to come out to the Hamptons," she says.
Chuck Fisher of Realty Connect USA says it's not uncommon for owners to offer to extend the season -- perhaps tacking on May or September -- as a perk to close the deal. And renters are taking them up on it; Desiderio says this year she's seen renters starting the season as early as April.
Keep an eye on erosion projects
East End municipalities are seeking their share of federal Sandy relief aid for immediate and long-term protection of threatened coastlines, but steps are being taken on the local front too. Two special erosion districts were created in Southampton Town -- in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack -- and each district approved a property tax levy of more than $13 million for oceanfront homeowners. In terms of the summer, some beaches will be in better shape than others.
What's for rent
$325,000 for Memorial Day to Labor Day
This mansion has enough room to host the mother of all slumber parties -- it has eight bedrooms, including five with en suite bathrooms, two staff quarters and a one-bedroom guest cottage. The estate's 1.3-acre grounds include a heated gunite pool, grilling center and outdoor fireplace.
$42,000 for Memorial Day to Labor Day
There's room for the whole family to relax and play outdoors at this three-bedroom, 2½-bathroom condo. The unit has a private patio and a grassy courtyard for barbecues and lounging, and the complex includes a heated pool with a lifeguard, basketball court and children's play area. The furnished, seven-room home is three miles north of Southampton Village. Other lease terms are available.
Chuck Fisher, Realty Connect USA, 516-330-1941
$750,000 for Memorial Day to Labor Day
This 1.6-acre property, also for sale for $15 million, features a heated pool, spa, guesthouse and tennis court. The 6,000-square-foot home is a block from the ocean and has ocean views. The home has six bedrooms and 5½ bathrooms.
Judi Desiderio, Town & Country Real Estate, 631-324-8080.
$385,000 for Memorial Day through Labor Day.
This 6,000- square-foot traditional-style house has five bedrooms, each with an en suite bathroom, plus an additional 1½ bathrooms. Luxury indoor perks include a gourmet kitchen and a media room.
The two-acre grounds include a heated gunite pool. Large windows, French doors and a covered outdoor dining area take advantage of the pond-front property's views of the water.
Krae Van Sickle, Saunders & Associates, 516-769-7877.
Listings for summer rentals in Fire Island usually start to come on the market immediately after New Year's Day, says C.J. Mingolelli of Douglas Elliman Real Estate. That remains true this year, he says, at least for the homes that were spared the brunt of the storm and those that are repaired or on track to be repaired in time for the season.
"I do have about 100 rentals for different time frames -- weekly, monthly, seasonal -- that are available and that are renting," Mingolelli says. "These are standard numbers, nothing out of the ordinary."
Jay Pagano, president of the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association, says, "My experience so far is that the tenants have paid their rents, and so the rental season will go on in the Pines."
He estimates that about 40 percent of the property owners in his community rent out their homes for the summer and that the majority of those are already booked.
"Probably something like 80 percent of the houses are rented in August for the next season," he says. "They were already under lease when the hurricane occurred, and they'd already made their first payment, and so they continue to make their payments."
The storm caused multiple breaches in the island's coastline, allowing ocean water to enter the Great South Bay. Flood waters crashed into homes, pools, decks, businesses, public buildings and docks.
Sections of the pedestrian boardwalk -- the main mode of transportation on the vehicle-restricted island -- were lifted, buried in sand or collapsed, obstructing gates in some areas and hindering access to some homes and beaches. Critical dunes were washed away, leaving the island in a fragile state.
Sandy compromised vital infrastructure, such as police buildings, fire hydrants and phone equipment, creating public safety concerns. The already limited road access to the island took a hit when parts of Ocean Parkway and the Robert Moses State Park traffic circle were undermined.
Despite estimates that as many as half the island's 4,000 or so homes were damaged and about 150 destroyed, Mingolelli says he thinks much of the rental inventory should be ready in time for the summer.
"Some of these houses are condemned, and the owners need approval to proceed. That's time-consuming because it involves the government," he says.
But for the rest, "There was water damage, but water damage is something that can be addressed and dealt with and remedied. Overall, considering, it could have been very much worse," Mingolelli says.
Signs of life
Ferries are running when weather permits, with added runs to accommodate contractors. Trailers may serve as temporary quarters till public buildings can be repaired or replaced. The damaged roadways to the island are being repaired, and some restricted use is permitted.
A debris removal project was begun in January. Work was temporarily halted when a competing bidder for the job protested the original contract. The Army Corps of Engineers awarded a new contract for $10.5 million to Bay Shore-based Custom Earth Recycling last week. The work is scheduled to resume this month and continue into March.
Property owners are intent on being ready in time for the season. "Homeowners are working seven days a week to make this place look as beautiful as it was before Sandy," says Tanya Fuchs, founder of the nonprofit Fire Island Restoration Project Inc.
And, thanks to a Jan. 22 resolution urged by Brookhaven Town Councilman Tim Mazzei, the process of rebuilding legal but nonconforming residential structures such as a house or deck will be expedited; residents who had a variance will not have to get a new variance, provided the new structure continues to meet the same requirements.
But dining and nightlife will be a must, says Mingolelli. Local hot spots such as Flynn's in Ocean Bay Park already have pledged to open in time to keep summer folks fed and happy.
Keep an eye on the dunes
They are a crucial line of defense in protecting Fire Island's beaches, homes and businesses from the ravages of the ocean.
Although federal measures are still in the works, communities have begun taking protective steps. For instance, the village of Saltaire used the washed-over sand to build a temporary berm along the oceanfront as a barrier, and with the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, installed a system of large, interlocking sand bags at the base of the berm to stabilize it.
The Fire Island Restoration Project Inc. used Facebook to drum up support for the Feb. 10 "Got Dunes?" benefit at the Nutty Irishman in Bay Shore, raising at least $30,000 for essentials such as dune grass and fencing.
What's for rent
$14,500 a week
The unit Soak in a hot tub as you soak in the views of Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from the rooftop deck of this four-bedroom contemporary in Water Island. The bayfront house features an open floor plan, a custom kitchen and 4½ bathrooms. If you get really attached to it, you can keep it -- the home is listed for sale at $2.85 million.
C.J. Mingolelli, Douglas Elliman Real Estate, 212-321-7117
$60,000 for Memorial Day through Labor Day
A spacious second-floor living room offers ocean views and a fireplace in this Fire Island Pines house. There are ample ways to keep cool, indoors and out: The home's four bedrooms are air conditioned, and there's a pool outside. The home features an open gourmet kitchen.
Ken Lesser, Pines Harbor Realty, 631-597-7575.
For more than a decade, the traditional start of the hunt for a Long Beach summer rental has begun with a splash -- specifically, the Long Beach Polar Bears' annual Super Bowl Sunday dunk into the frigid Atlantic, to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Despite widespread destruction throughout the city, the tradition was kept alive this year, albeit in a new spot: It was moved from the more severely damaged West End to the Grand Boulevard area of the beach, where storm cleanup efforts had created sufficient space for the thousands who turned out for the event.
At the time of the plunge, the rental market was off to a slow start; by press time, there were 12 summer rentals listed in Long Beach on the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island. That's not to say this year's seasonal inventory won't increase before summer; more listings should appear in the spring as homes are repaired, says Joyce Coletti of Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
If you were hoping to rent in one of the neighboring communities of Lido Beach or Atlantic Beach, your options are few: At press time, there were only three summer listings in Atlantic Beach and three in Lido Beach. More may be listed later -- but probably not many. Last summer, 12 homes rented for the season in Atlantic Beach and none in Lido Beach, according to MLSLI.
Ricki Noto of Century 21 American Homes sums it up: "Nobody really escaped from this."
The storm surge flooded the island, sending everything from trash cans to chunks of boardwalk to cars floating through the city, leaving mounds of sand in the streets and destroying the lower portion of any structure in its path.
"Crucial infrastructure, such as power, telephone, water and sewer systems, were all compromised. Sandy's path of destruction tore through the bay front, beaches, boardwalk, playgrounds, emergency vehicles and equipment and public buildings.
In terms of the summer housing stock, the storm has caused a reduction in supply. For one thing, there are homes and neighborhoods that just aren't ready yet. That's particularly true in the hard-hit West End of Long Beach -- historically a summer renters' hot spot because of nearby nightlife. Though the area is no stranger to foul-weather flooding, it took a nearly unbearable beating, says Noto. "We lost the dunes. Everything was affected, because the bay met the ocean. All the stores and restaurants were gutted."
And the storm displaced many residents, causing them to seek temporary housing in the community -- including would-be summer rental properties. "There's definitely a housing shortage right now. People still want to be here, and they're having a hard time finding a place to live. That's going to affect what's available," says Jean Sondergaard of Petrey West Realty.
So don't expect any fire sale prices, says Coletti. Not only could demand surpass supply, but just about any place that is available will be newly renovated -- and the prices may reflect that, she says.
Signs of life
Long Beach homeowners are determined to get their city back on its feet, as evidenced by a steady hum of repair activity. "Every house has a Dumpster outside and a contractor. Right outside my door, that's all I see," says Sondergaard, who is busy restoring her own home in the West End. "It's buzzing down here."
Local businesses are on the mend, as well. An ever-increasing number of storefront banners triumphantly announce, "Yes, we're open!" The city is once again a place where you can shop for groceries, have your clothes laundered or dry cleaned, get a haircut, fill your gas tank and even browse for gifts and home decor, all without leaving the island. "With each thing that opens again, we're jumping up and down," says Sondergaard. "Little by little, it's happening."
And perhaps most importantly for summer folk, local spots are opening for the requisite dinner, drinks and more drinks in the evening -- and the equally essential bagel and coffee in the morning. For instance, Minnesota's, the popular West End haunt that was closed and served as a relief center after the storm, had a lively turnout on the day the bar and restaurant reopened for business in January. Lights are already on in the nearby Saloon, as well; the goal is to reopen in time for St. Patrick's Day.
Sand and debris have been cleared from the streets, the water and sewer systems are running, and cleanup and rehabilitation projects are under way.
The beaches are expected to get a boost from the federal aid package -- but in the meantime, local officials and volunteers have gotten creative: They're repurposing thousands of unused or discarded Christmas trees to restore dunes.
Keep your eye on the boardwalk
In a painful and symbolic moment on Jan. 5, thousands of residents turned out to say farewell as demolition was begun on the Long Beach boardwalk, which was damaged beyond repair by Sandy.
At a council meeting on Jan. 22, the city chose LiRo Engineers of Syosset to plan and design the new boardwalk. The city is hosting a number of focus groups and accepting online surveys this month to get residents' input on the project.
The findings will be presented in a meeting at City Hall, scheduled for Wednesday. Officials have said the work could be completed in time for summer. The success of this project may well set the tone for the entire season, says Noto. "The boardwalk will be key," she says.
What's for rent
$50,000 Memorial Day through Labor Day
This two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit in the luxury apartment building, The Meridian, features a 1,795-square-foot wraparound, oceanfront terrace. Amenities abound, including a heated oceanfront pool and patio, doorman and parking garage. Can't spend the whole summer? It's also available for $5,000 a week.
Joyce Coletti, Douglas Elliman Real Estate, 516-432-3400
$40,000 Memorial Day through Labor Day
The unit This second-floor town house was untouched by the storm, but is newly remodeled, nevertheless. The wood floors, carpeting and paint are all new in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home.
The apartment includes a perk that's hard to find in Long Beach -- parking. There's a garage, driveway and parking lot for guests, for a total of three spots. Additional lease terms are available.
Ricki Noto, Century 21 American Homes, 516-665-2000.
$12,000 Memorial Day through Labor Day
The unit This upper level one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo features hardwood floors and an efficiency kitchen with glossy upgrades such as granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances. You can enjoy the sea air from the unit's deck or take in the ocean view from the rooftop deck. Fluffy or Fido can summer here, too -- it's a pet-friendly building.
Jean Sondergaard, Petrey West Realty Inc., 516-431-0828.