Rentals, Resilience and Reality for East End Real Estate Amid Coronavirus

370 Captains Neck Lane, Southampton, Photo: Douglas Elliman Photography

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook.” The statement from Alan Schnurman of Saunders & Associates may, at first glance, feel surprising amid other news about the impact of Covid-19. But East End real estate has been seeing a flurry of activity, particularly over the past week, as the Hamptons and the North Fork offer an escape and a sense of relative calm. “People are fearful. They are fleeing the city seeking safety for their families. The Hamptons has always been and will always be a safe and secure environment.”

With coronavirus news and restrictions changing multiple times a day at this point, people are coming to the Hamptons and the North Fork much earlier than would occur in a normal pre-summer season. Of course, things are anything but normal at this moment, and local real estate is providing something of a haven, with what many viewed as a strong start to the year not so much weakening, necessarily, as morphing in the moment.

“Prior to recent events, we were having, in my opinion, it was an excellent sale and rental market,” says Gary DePersia of The Corcoran Group. “Personally, I had a very good first quarter going in both sales and rentals and was looking forward to more of the same.” For rentals in particular, he says, “things are at fever pitch with people looking to move in ASAP for a month or more, and there is continued strong interest in summer rentals and year-round.”

“Many people are looking for two-month rentals so they can get their families out of the city,” says Lori Schiaffino of Compass Real Estate. “Many of the renters that were waiting on the sidelines for better Memorial Day to Labor Day pricing are now eager to sign leases. The Hamptons is going to be ‘the place’ to be this summer, as most families will not be traveling to Europe and other destinations. We are going to be very busy.”

As people increasingly look to depart for points east more quickly, the inventory for them to consider is rising as well. “There has been an uptick of homeowners making their homes available to rent off season for those who may want to be on the East End a little earlier than usual,” says Douglas Elliman’s Todd Bourgard, Senior Executive Regional Manager of Sales for the Hamptons. “We are seeing agents and homeowners acting very responsibly by not hosting open houses. Additionally, they are taking extra steps to enforce health precautions with private showings. Facetime and videos are also becoming popular.”

Indeed, the way homes are shown and viewed is evolving to keep up with implementations of social distancing and other approaches to ensure health and safety. Open houses being put on hold, brokers are doing in-person showings on a case-by-case basis and everyone is turning more and more to the digital realm.

“We had our first virtual listing presentation through FaceTime last week,” says Tim Morabito of Compass. “In addition, instead of hosting open houses, we are offering virtual open houses as well as virtual tours for inquiries on homes.”

“The biggest change I’ve seen in conducting business over the past two weeks has primarily been the social aspect of the real estate business,” notes Christopher Burnside of Brown, Harris, Stevens. “I’m not driving customers in my car or shaking hands. I am keeping a distance that is safe for everyone. I have become quite efficient doing walk-through videos and Zoom meetings.”

Even before coronavirus, habits had been changing, so renters and buyers were already getting used to virtual interactions, as were brokers. “Half of the customers are not even coming out, they are using the photos on the site and my guidance to take one property over the other,” says Halstead Real Estate’s Timothy O’Connor, noting that the immediacy has become modus operandi. “Since last Wednesday after President Trump spoke on national TV, the short-term tenant with immediate occupancy has taken off.  Everyone wants to be in this week. It has and will continue to be great demand over the next few weeks.”

“Rentals are off the charts, and full-season or longer dominate for the first time in years,” says Town & Country Real Estate CEO Judi Desiderio. “Sales are on a divided fork in the road–some buyers have now accelerated the process and their desire to own a piece of East End dirt, and others got caught with their money to buy a home in the stock market, so they may be pumping the breaks.”

“I have had limited interest in sales, though still am working with active buyers who are not afraid of the financial market, seeing this as a good time to buy,” notes Maria Cunneen of Compass, who believes that people need to keep in mind “that home valuations will remain strong after we recover from this. The notion of having a place out here to retreat to from the city specifically will forever hold tremendous value.”

The East End market is not like other markets, in that the power of “location, location, location” always remains a factor, even during periods like this. A number of experts have in fact noted that this can be a smart time to look at buying property. “The interest rates are at an all-time low. The stock market is uncertain,” says Mary Terry of Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty. “I am advising all of my client’s and customers to invest in real estate. It’s tangible. People will always need places to live and our market is solid.”

Thomas McCluskey of Douglas Elliman concurs. “The United States is the most resilient country on the planet. The underlying economics of the real estate market on the East End were good, personal debt was low and home equity was high, unlike 2007 to 2009.  The economy was very strong prior to coronavirus. I anticipate that once this is under control, the economy, jobs and prosperity will come back quickly.”