At ‘the End,’ Some New Beginnings

Independent agents join forces to offer steady perspective in hyped-up hamlet
Maureen Keller, on the right of John and Nancy Keeshan
Maureen Keller, on the right of John and Nancy Keeshan, is one of three agents from the former Tuma Agency, who have joined Montauk’s Keeshan realty. Russell Drumm

    Local knowledge might not seem so important in these heady days of Montauk’s celebrity as one of the East Coast’s hottest beach towns, so why is John Keeshan so happy that an experienced sales team from the former Tuma Agency has dropped anchor at his office?
    The Tuma Agency closed its doors two years ago after more than 50 years in the business of selling and renting Montauk properties.
    During an hourlong conversation — a mere chat for the loquacious Montauk realtor — Mr. Keeshan stressed that having the licenses of Frank Tuma, Lexa Tuma, Dave Winters, and Maureen Keller registered with his agency did not constitute any kind of merger. It was more of an accommodation — “we were complemented,” he said — but with the result of concentrating one heck of a lot of local knowledge in one place.
    Mr. Keeshan admitted a certain bitterness in seeing corporate monoliths like the Corcoran Group, Prudential Douglas Elliman, Sotheby’s International Realty, and Brown Harris Stevens plant themselves in the middle of a garden that he and other local independent agencies, including Martha Green, Pospisil, Tuma, and Kathy Beckman, had been tending for so many years.
    He said it was impossible to compete with the reach and marketing of the corporate agencies. It was their hyped-up style of marketing, he added, that was keeping Montauk’s real estate bubble inflated — good for some, but not necessarily for others.
    In Mr. Keeshan’s opinion, Montauk prices have not been allowed to correct themselves from the splurge that took place in the 1990s and early 2000s.
    “In the ’60s, a single-family dwelling sold for $35,000, in 1985, maybe $89,000, and in the ’90s, $240,000. The real spike was 2003, 2004. Prices quadrupled because people were buying with artificial money. Then the bottom dropped out in 2005 because of the recession,” Mr. Keeshan said. He put the loss of market value at about 30 percent. A sizable depreciation, for sure, but it was important not to lose perspective, he said.
    “A property in Ditch Plain that sold for $1,250,000 in 2004 might now sell for $795,000. That’s still three times more than the national average for the same size home, and three times higher than its value in the 1980s,” he said.
    “People in Montauk still have to swallow the bitter pill,” he said, meaning that Montauk’s inflated prices were overdue for a deeper adjustment downward, something that had already happened down the road in East Hampton, he said.
    Montauk is on an artificial high, Mr. Keeshan said, the result of a popular demand generated via the marketing blitz of the big-time brokers. “Montauk is now ‘where it’s at.’ It used to be fishermen, firemen, and cops.’ ”
    Reached on Monday at his house beside the Montauk Downs golf course that he helped create, Frank Tuma talked about the closing of the Tuma Agency and the history of Montauk real estate leading up to its current status.
    “I think something’s been lost. It’s the old story, the big boys coming in and taking over, the small guys struggling to stay alive. No more mom and pop. We found that instead of being the nice friendly business we knew, now they pat you on the back looking for a soft spot to put the knife. I’m sad to see the office close. I always enjoyed it, not just the dollars, but it’s just too aggravating now, one against the other,” Mr. Tuma said.
    Mr. Tuma started selling real estate with the Montauk Improvement Company in 1952 after earning a degree from Colgate University. His education had been interrupted by his wartime service as a navy lieutenant. “I started at I.B.M. out of school. I was making $46 a week, and enjoyed it, but I kept coming back to Montauk, where I could make more money in the charter fishing business.”
    When he began selling real estate, waterfront lots at Soundview on Montauk’s north side went for $2,900, “inland, $700, and on the ocean $800. Hither Woods lots were the highest. They ran up to $7,000. Buyers put 10 percent down and got financing for three years, maybe five. One commission today is more than we’d make in a whole year.”
    “It was always going to come this way eventually. People found Montauk. We live too close to the woods to see the trees.” At the same time, Mr. Tuma said he sensed a certain fatigue with the corporate approach setting in. “I speak to a lot of people in East Hampton. They’re tired of New York people taking the business over.”
    “You can’t stop change,” said John Keeshan, but it is not the hamlet’s “in-ness” that would protect its real estate values in the future. More important, he said, is Montauk’s intrinsic nature. Mr. Tuma agreed with Mr. Keeshan and his daughter and partner, Nancy Keeshan, who said the hamlet’s best hedges against economic downturns are its physical attributes and its residents’ insistence that Montauk be preserved. 
    Mr. Keeshan said that restricting development may have made it “unaffordable for the middle class, but protected the place and its real estate values. Renting has become a popular alternative because there’s no alternative.”
    Mr. Tuma credited the town’s Natural Resources Department under the stewardship of Larry Penny with protecting the golden goose.
    “I bought 19 lots I wanted to develop. Larry got me down to three lots,” Mr. Tuma recalled. After the fact, I thought of how we should be proud to have people like Larry Penny. As a developer I wanted small lots. He didn’t. He kept us all who wanted a lot of lots in order. Montauk would be lot different. He did the real estate business a big favor in the long run.”
    Mr. Keeshan insisted it was not sour grapes to mourn the passing of a way of doing business, from making a deal on a handshake to being required by the state to have a potential buyer read and sign a statement saying “we represent the seller, so beware of us.”
    The realtor said: “There’s no coin in saying you’re the oldest. It’s always been, ‘What are you doing for me lately.’ People used to come to the office, we’d get in a car and show them houses. Now, they go to Craigslist.”
    Mr. Keeshan related the story of one old customer who asked him to come to the house he had sold the man years before. Once there, the man said he wanted to get a feeling for what it was worth so he could place an ad on Craigslist.
    “He told me, ‘Montauk is hot. If it wasn’t, Corcoran and Prudential would not be here.’ ” Mr. Keeshan said he found himself at a familiar fork in the road. “Should I be honest, or tell them what they want to hear? They’d rather hear an artificial number, but it costs them time. Today, the price is lower, and it’s still going down.”
    Mr. Keeshan observed that people don’t sell for money alone, but also because their lives are changing. Artificially high prices cost sellers time, “and time equals money in the long run,” he said.
    “The irony is, telling them the truth is bad business. When reality sets in and they relist it at a lower price, they don’t come back to me. They don’t want to lose face. So they go back to the guys who have controlled the listing by telling people what they want to hear.”
    It seemed clear that Mr. Keeshan, and Mr. Tuma too, believes there is still an advantage to dealing with an agency that is, in Mr. Keeshan’s words, “part of the fabric, with pre-existing roots.”
    “I think Montauk is going to stay where it is. It’s going to come back very rapidly,” Mr. Tuma said.