By the time she turned 29, Olivia Cunningham had not lived with her parents in over a decade. She moved from their Sag Harbor home into a college dormitory in upstate New York, then spent most of her 20s renting apartments with her partner. She married and divorced, then took an apartment in Coram where she lived until her roommate moved out.

Unable to face the Long Island real estate market on a single income, Cunningham is living in her childhood home again.

"I didn’t anticipate that I would’ve celebrated my 30th birthday in my childhood bedroom,” she said.

Within two-toned purple walls painted when she was in the 11th grade, Cunningham sleeps on a queen-sized bed. A dresser and couch that will move with her someday monopolize the space.

Cunningham works full-time as an assistant manager at a winery on the North Fork. Her income is stable at about $55,000 a year — but she, like many other Long Islanders on a single income, struggles to afford rent or a mortgage on her own.

The Long Island housing market is a microcosm of a nationwide real estate reality: Prices are rising, sales are falling, and inventory is exceptionally low, said Jonathan Miller, CEO of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

Miller's company reported 5,019 active single-family and condo listings in Nassau and Suffolk counties, excluding the Hamptons and the North Fork, at the end of 2022. 

“If I go back to the second quarter of '08, which would be right on the precipice of the financial crisis, the listing inventory was 26,145,” he said. “Essentially, inventory is down 80% from the peak, and it’s less than half of what the long-term average suggests it should be.”

There were

26,145 listings

on Long Island in the second quarter of 2008, compared with

5,019 listings

at the end of 2022, excluding the Hamptons and North Fork. That's an

80% drop,

according to Jonathan Miller, CEO of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

Facing the market

Cunningham compares listings she has seen for studios and one-bedrooms priced about $2,000 monthly to two-bedroom apartments that cost just hundreds more.

“It’s this weird disparity where, if you have dual income, you can split a two-bedroom; but by yourself, it’s next to impossible to find anything out here,” she said.

A real estate agent assigned by her employer helped Heather Brown find a condo when she transferred from Denver to Long Island for work in 2014. Within six months, the condo was found to have mold, and Brown had two weeks to get out. “I have been through the wringer a little bit,” she said.

Brown, 57 — who now rents a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a private home in Lake Grove for $1,850 per month, offset by assistance she provides the homeowner — said she's still spending 50% of her income on rent.

The arrangement works for Brown, 57, for now.

“It’s getting to the point where, as an older person, I have to start considering whether or not I can stay on the second floor, whether or not it’s safe for me,” she said.

'I make really good money anywhere else in the country — except for the housing market here in New York.'

Heather Brown, 57, of Lake Grove

Credit: Barry Sloan

By her estimation, she would need $6,000 plus moving costs to consider finding a new place to live. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, well, you just call this apartment complex.’ Well, I can’t afford $2,400 a month for a one-bedroom,” Brown said. “I make really good money anywhere else in the country — except for the housing market here in New York.”

Home, for now

Home, to Patrice Kern, is a one-bedroom apartment with vaulted ceilings and skylights on the upper level of a house in West Babylon. She moved in about 15 years ago and lucked into maintaining a rent expense of $1,200 — a number well below market value in 2023.

“But recently, the couple that I was renting from passed away and their children have the house now; and they’re fixing it up in anticipation of selling it,” she said.

Kern started looking at options two years ago, knowing the family would be looking to sell.

'I really think that on Long Island at this point, if you’re single and you’re not making $100,000 a year, you might as well just look for a roommate.'

— Patrice Kern, of West Babylon

“I really think that on Long Island at this point, if you’re single and you’re not making $100,000 a year, you might as well just look for a roommate; or you’re going to have to move into a firetrap,” she said. 

For 13 of the past 15 years, Kern has worked two jobs to cover living expenses. Over time, the routine became too taxing. She now holds just one position as chief operating officer of a Long Island nonprofit. She has no debt, except for a car lease, she said.

“And even with that being my only debt, the most I can afford is like $1,500 to $1,600 rent,” she said.

Throughout her search, Kern has been most disheartened by the number of scams she has encountered. “I probably inquire about five apartments a week, give or take,” she said. “And probably four of the five — sometimes five of the five — are scams.”

Those listing apartments ask that applicants submit the application and an associated fee in the neighborhood of $120. Some ask for pay stubs and even a Social Security number, under the guise of using that information to run a background check, Kern said.

“Some listings have been out there for a year,” she said, theorizing that all the poster is doing is collecting application fees.

Having had two hip replacements over the past 10 years, Kern is looking for a place without stairs; but she continues the search with uncertainty about what she will or won’t find.

“If you have a pet, it’s even worse,” she said. “Or if you’re a single female with a child.”

An agent's perspective

When her husband died, Marianne Koke was living in a large house in Nissequogue. Three of her four children were in college.

“My idea was that I would stay in the home for as long as I could, to not upset them from any other direction,” she said. To experience one loss was enough.

Koke kept the home for almost 10 years before deciding to sell in the mid-2010s.

"It was a struggle for me financially,” she said. “I was in real estate when my husband passed, so I had work; but I wasn’t at the level that I am now, because we had two salaries.

Once the house sold, she had the cash for a substantial down payment. Inventory was low, but she needed to make a purchase.

“Whether you’re talking about the first-time homebuyer, the newly divorced person, or someone that just lost a spouse, it’s a very lonely experience, trying to go out and buy a house,” she said. “Because they’re doing it on their own, and they’d love to have another person there.”

When Koke was visiting houses, her older son would accompany her. And when she finally made a decision, she tapped into an even more extensive support network.

“I brought like four or five of my best friends to the inspection, to be like, ‘All right, do you think this is the right house for me?’ And I do this for a living,” she said. “I remember the homeowner saying, ‘Do all these people have to be in the house?’ ”

Koke, who works for Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty, said most of her clients who are shopping by themselves will bring a family member, significant other or friend to see a property they are considering purchasing. On rare occasions, she said, the client does not have anyone to bring, and what should be an exciting time can feel less so.

'Elicit your friends and family to come and look with you if they’re available, to give you support.'

– Marianne Koke

A first-time homebuyer on one income typically has less of a down payment than a two-income household, she said — a reality that makes their offer less competitive. 

“And also for them, they have to kind of take into account — and many of them don’t — the isolation factor,” Koke said. “If they overspend for the house, young people like to go out to dinner with their friends, they like to have a gym membership; and sometimes buying that first home then prevents them from having those extras in their life, which then does cause an isolation factor.”

No matter the circumstance, Koke advises prospective homebuyers to interview real estate agents to find the one they feel most comfortable with — and who makes them feel the most heard.

And, she added, “Elicit your friends and family to come and look with you if they’re available, to give you support.”

Where to go for help

The Long Island Housing Partnership is one organization working to find and facilitate affordable housing opportunities. 

“A lot of the people that we serve and the clients that we serve are single-income households,” said James Britz, the executive vice president and COO of LIHP. “We see a lot of people who are kind of trying to figure out a way either to rent a place or to buy a place here on the Island.”

According to an annual survey by National Association of Realtors,

26%

of homebuyers were single.

According to an annual survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors, 26% of recent U.S. homebuyers were single individuals. Of those, 17% were female and 9% were male. 

The high cost of homes, coupled with high interest rates, is an immediate barrier, and low inventory instigates bidding wars, Britz said.

“It makes it a lot more difficult for the clientele that we serve to be competitive in this market,” Britz said.

LIHP administers down payment assistance programs for Nassau County, the Town of Babylon and the Town of Brookhaven. These programs bring in federal money to help cover down payment and closing costs.

“Right now, each of those municipalities gives over $30,000 per household to get into a home; their first home,” Britz said. “We secured state funding this year to help bring in additional funding for those programs, to give people even more money.”

The goal is to make prospective buyers or renters within certain income ranges more competitive, Britz said. LIHP offers education and counseling, connecting clientele with HUD-certified mortgage counselors in person or via Zoom.

Income qualifications for available programs vary based on household size.

“A single income usually is a bit lower with the HUD standard,” Britz said. “A single person right now based upon our programs could not make more than $81,400.” A household of four can qualify with an income of $116,000.

Single-income households also face difficulty once in a home, he added, with the high carrying costs of homeowners insurance, taxes, home maintenance and living expenses.

“But there are programs out there,” he said. 

Britz advises those in need of assistance contact the agency. For more information, visit lihp.org; 631-435-4710.

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