Sarah Hebert and Matthew Sabatino, Dominique Rollins and Peggy Zabakolas have...

Sarah Hebert and Matthew Sabatino, Dominique Rollins and Peggy Zabakolas have found or helped clients with unorthodox means of buying houses. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin; Newsday/John Paraskevas; Peggy Zabakolas

Dominique Rollins and her now-husband, Blaise Ehrlich, had found a house in a neighborhood they loved in Nesconset. They placed a bid but heard nothing back, and eventually learned the house had been sold to someone else.

But the couple still wanted to be in that area, preferably on that block. Because no other houses there were being listed, Rollins took an unusual initiative.

"I wrote a letter to all the homes on the block that were of a similar style and lot size to the one we didn't get," the 31-year-old said.

House hunting is more like scavenger hunting than actual hunting: You compete against other people, get clues about where to go, follow leads and ultimately, if you're lucky and persistent, capture the prize — in this case, a home in the highly sought-after Long Island real estate market.

The usual process is to peruse online listings and visit open houses, speak with real estate agents, retain an attorney and place your bid. You then secure a mortgage or, perhaps if you're downsizing from a home you already own, make a cash payment.

There are other less common ways it can happen: You inherit a home. You can buy a tax-distressed property at auction.

Some Long Islanders like Rollins have found other unusual ways of getting themselves a home. From letter writing to scouring Instagram to paying for a house using cryptocurrency, here are a few real-life cases of homebuyers who found their houses in creative ways.

Writing letters to houses on blocks you like

Dominique Rollins hand wrote letters to homepwners on a block in Nesconset she liked. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Rollins and Ehrlich, 33, began their search for a home in spring 2022. After six months of looking, Rollins changed her strategy to letter writing.

"Handwritten letters, and I signed them all," said Rollins. "I said that we were getting married soon, I gave our wedding date, and that we wanted to be in a house by a certain time."

Rollins targeted the block where their first choice was located.

As it happened, a house on that block they wanted ended up being listed in spring 2023, and the couple submitted a successful offer.

Ironically, Rollins said, "I don't know if the homeowner ever got our letter. I believe I did send it to that house, but I don't know if she ever got it — she was older, so her daughter or granddaughter was also getting a lot of her mail. So I'm not sure if they ever received a letter at their home, but I know I did the entire block."

About a month before their Aug. 1 closing, "One of the neighbors on the block said, 'Hey, I got your letter a few months ago. You said you were interested in buying the house. My mom's passed and I'm interested.' "

When informed it was too late, the prospective seller turned out to be a good sport. "She says to me, 'Well, you got a better house!' "

Rollins, who works as a real estate agent at Mr. Homes Reality in Smithtown, wrote those letters for herself as a buyer, and not in any professional capacity. In fact, she said: "We're not allowed to write letters for our clients. They can write a letter for a real estate agent to submit with an offer or they can send a homeowner a letter on their own."
It's a tactic that could be right for some home seekers, she says, advising that a letter "is more likely to be appealing to a seller if it’s someone with a hefty amount of down payment. So you want to lean in with how strong a buyer you are and that you are already pre-approved by a lender. This way you're making the process as easy as possible for them," and also eliminating their having to pay a broker's fee.

Checking Instagram, Facebook, social media

Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty agent Leah Tozer had a client who found their home by looking at an Instagram Reel video that she posted. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The likes of Instagram and Facebook might not be the first place you'd go to find a house to buy. But real estate agents savvy in social media, like Leah Tozer, of Long Beach, are more and more showing off properties there.

Last June, Tozer, 49, posted an Instagram Reel of herself showcasing a modern four-bedroom Colonial on Farrell Street in her city. With a sprightly song playing on the soundtrack behind her, she extolled the home's virtues in a professionally edited walk-through, along with overhead drone shots of the exteriors. Her Instagram page features many similar videos.

Prospective buyers "are all over social media, and when I put houses out, I get people from that all the time," she said. With this video, as Tozer typically does, "I put it on Instagram, I put it on Facebook, my company shared the story, and I tagged a lot of Long Island real estate people that I deal with, and the Chamber of Commerce."

And that online dissemination netted her a buyer. "My friend forwarded [the link] to her friends. I did show them other houses," but the one in the video is the one they bought.

Making videos of that caliber involves a fair amount of time and expense. Not only are the results worth it, Tozer said, "But I wish I had more time to do more of them because they're so much fun."

If you're considering buying a property seen in a social media post, Tozer suggests prospective purchasers consider a few things: "Do you really know the area? Often, posts only highlight the best features. If you haven't visited or had a representative check it out, you might end up overspending or being unhappy. On the bright side, if you see a comprehensive view, including the neighborhood 'vibe,' you might snag a deal before it hits the market."

And, she cautions, "Beware: AI can make places look better online than in person."

Private sale from a neighbor

Sarah and Matthew Hebert live in Sayville with their dog,...

Sarah and Matthew Hebert live in Sayville with their dog, Murphy, in a home that once belonged to a WWII vet. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

In addition to looking at listings, potential homeowners should ask friends and neighbors if anyone is thinking about moving or selling their house — or has a relative transitioning to assisted living and is ready to have their family sell their home.

Sometimes that kind of thing falls into your lap through luck and just being a good neighbor.

In 2011, recalled Sarah Hebert, of Sayville: "My husband and I were renting a house next door to an older gentleman, Irving [Levin]. He was a World War II vet and lived alone. We would frequently bring him meals, check on him, invite him over to barbecues at our house. We developed a great relationship with him and always kept an eye on him," she said. "He had wonderful stories and was an amazing person."

After a few years, Levin, by then in his mid-90s, went into assisted living and died not long after. "When his kids were figuring out what to do with his house, they came over and said, 'You were really good to our dad. We'd like to give you this opportunity to buy it,' " recalled Hebert, 41.

"They were going to fix it up and sell it," she continued, "probably for a larger profit, but offered it to us at well below market value. We said we would take it as is after the inspections and all of that." They purchased the home in 2014 for $286,000.

Sarah Hebert and Matthew Sabatino were renting the house next door to their future home. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Hebert, vice president of business operations for the distribution company Package All, and her now-husband, Matthew Sabatino, 49, a writer and the owner of the wilderness-products company Barnaby Black, "were actually going to get married that year, but pushed our wedding to the year after so we could buy the house."

It did require touch-ups. "It was like walking into a time capsule." Hebert marveled. "The whole house was Tiffany blue, and there was green shag carpet everywhere. The kitchen was pastel pink."

The couple, who now have two boys, ages 6 and 10, could not afford to renovate at the time, but they did paint the walls and "ripped up the old carpet to find beautiful hardwood underneath." They updated the interior "a couple of years ago."

"We certainly wouldn't have anything if it weren't for Irving and his family," Hebert said. "We always talk about how lucky we are and how a little kindness goes a long way."

Buying from someone you know — and paying in cryptocurrency

Years before Peggy Zabakolas starred in "Selling the Hamptons," she helped a client who wanted to buy a home with bitcoin. Credit: Peggy Zabakolas

In the late 2010s, well before becoming a reality show star on Max's "Selling the Hamptons," Peggy Zabakolas represented a multimillion-dollar high-tech home in Southampton that had attracted a buyer.

"The owner and the buyer turned out, coincidentally, to have known each other through the cryptocurrency world," she recalled, "and they approached me asking if I would entertain the idea of [negotiating] a purchase with bitcoin. I honestly wasn't fully aware of bitcoin at the time, but they asked, and I try to do as much as I can for my clients to get a deal done."

The notion had originated with the buyer, said the Commack-raised Zabakolas, 37. "He jokingly asked, 'What if I offer it in bitcoin?' And then once it started to settle in his head a bit more, he got serious about it." Zabakolas studied up on cryptocurrency and then "approached the seller asking if this is something they would consider."

Fortunately, the owner of the house — which sold for what Zabakolas called "south of $10 million" — was "crypto-savvy," she said. "And after lots of back and forth and attorneys involved for the contracts and making sure that all that was working, they settled on an agreement. And certain aspects were cash, but the majority was bitcoin."

Subsidized affordable housing

"My husband and I bought our first home for $10," remembered Jodi Haniquet.

The couple was among those in a federally subsidized program by Nassau County's Economic Development Corporation and the Town of Islip Community Development Agency in the 1970s. That program allowed numerous lower-income families to take over and rehabilitate abandoned buildings on the sprawling grounds of the now-defunct Central Islip Psychiatric Center.

"We went with our $10 and a $400 administrative fee and closed on it in November 1978," said Haniquet, 70, a retired Farmingdale High School culinary arts teacher. She and her husband, Charles, a mechanic who died in 1991, then spent months personally doing a gut rehab of the 880-square-foot, three-bedroom house, enlisting family help as well as electrical and plumbing professionals.

The rehab cost $17,000, obtained through a line-of-credit loan from the CDA: The couple would obtain materials and labor through participating entities and sign for it, with the CDA paying the entities and adding the figure to the low-interest loan.

Haniquet, who was pregnant with the couple's fourth child at the time and living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Bay Shore, ultimately raised six kids in their sweat-equity home.

We never [otherwise] could have come up with a down payment. All our money went into kids. The only way we ever could have afforded a house was through this program.

— Jodi Haniquet

"We never [otherwise] could have come up with a down payment" for a house, she said. "All our money went into kids. The only way we ever could have afforded a house was through this program."

Haniquet lived there 26 years before moving to Brookhaven in the mid-2000s. Today, "I take my grandkids to see it: 'This is where your dad grew up.' "

While that particular homesteading program is long gone, its echoes are alive today. The Long Island Housing Partnership's Community Land Trust, for example, is developing a variety of homes that will be available, through lottery and thereafter on a first-come first-served basis, to eligible households at 80% or less of the area median income based on family size. A formal application is required to determine eligibility.

The LIHP also is working with a developer on new two-bedroom, 1½-bath condominiums at Willow Wood at Overton Preserve in Coram. With the LIHP monitoring for compliance with affordable-housing requirements, those will be for sale to eligible households earning 120% or less of the area median income. The estimated $349,900 purchase price may be subsidized by state grants of up to $40,000.

Other municipalities are looking to do similar projects. "One of the things in Huntington that we're working on is an affordable-housing program for volunteer first responders" such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, said Huntington Town Supervisor Edmund J. Smyth, 52. "This is not in concrete," he cautioned, "but it's a potential avenue for affordable housing."

Check with real estate attorneys

"The traditional route of speaking with a real estate agent, that's a tried-and-true method" of finding a home, said Smyth, whose background is in real estate law. "But I also encourage people to talk to a real estate lawyer" who they might then consider to represent them.

"Law firms often have advance information on who's buying and selling before the real estate agents do," he said. "Oftentimes real estate lawyers will get the lead first — somebody comes to them and says, 'Listen, I'm thinking of selling my house. What should I do before preparing the listing?' "

People want to live on Long Island, and it's not easy because there's so many people competing for the houses that do go for sale. Long Island has been a victim of our own success.

— Huntington Town Supervisor Edmund J. Smyth

Smyth added, "It's not at all unusual for a lawyer to say, 'Hey, I know a potential buyer for you. Here's their name. Go work out a transaction.' "

In the end, finding the right house to buy is a confluence of many things: studying the market, making a plan, putting out feelers, thinking of creative approaches and being blessed with a little luck.

"People want to live on Long Island, and it's not easy because there's so many people competing for the houses that do go for sale," Smyth said. In that respect, "Long Island has been a victim of our own success."

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