We were going head to head the other day, in a wide-ranging discussion with some other longtime summer people turned almost-year-round, about never-ending construction on our streets and whose lost real estate opportunities and dumb decisions, over the years, were dumbest and lostest.
We’d all bought our houses in the ’60s or ’70s, years before the South Fork became the Hamptons, when you’d walk along Main Street pushing a stroller and shopkeepers, seeing an unfamiliar face, would come smiling out to introduce themselves. We agreed that compared to almost anything else, we could hardly have made a better investment.
But everyone had a story also about the land that got away, the vacant acre that could have been acquired years ago but was not — sold, last year or last month, for some preposterous figure, cleared of tall trees and underbrush where small furry creatures roamed, and built up to within an inch of the lot lines with monster houses lacking nothing but moats.
Big is nothing new here. The 19th-century “cottages” in East Hampton Village were built with eight or 10 bedrooms plus three for staff — only it’s now happening on parcels too small to contain it. I hear the East Hampton Town Board is thinking of imposing new standards that would limit a house’s size relative to the size of its lot; good luck with that. The town is far from alone, of course; the “too-much-money syndrome,” as Paul Goldberger calls it, is spreading nationwide, changing the look and character of beleaguered neighborhoods everywhere. Last week a resigned North Shore village official told Newsday that “this is the way people want to live these days” and suggested that his village’s code might be “behind the times.”
One of the first things I remember about the South Fork is big, ugly billboards, spaced out along the Napeague stretch almost as far as Hither Hills, advertising everything from motels to cigarettes and car dealerships. That was in 1966, when Sidney and I ventured out from the city to rent something for the summer in Amagansett, which, we’d heard, had broad, beautiful beaches that made up for its being more than four hours away from civilization.
Almost nobody we knew had ever heard of the place. A year later, when my proud father told someone that “my kids have bought a house in Amagansett,” the man looked at him quizzically.
“Why?” he asked.
“ ‘Why’? What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“Why are you against it?”
(Say “in Amagansett‚ in Amagansett” fast. Get it?)
The billboards were gone when we returned as new mortgagees the following spring, the town board having won a prolonged legal battle to enforce the anti-billboard provisions of the zoning ordinance it had enacted 10 years before. Gone, too, was the vacant acre next door, which had been offered to us for $5,000 soon after we bought the house. Five thousand dollars? No way!
Most everyone in the room that night had a similar story, some with happy endings (nice new neighbors), some not. (One woman asked the architect of the castle rising almost in her backyard whether they would be planting trees for screening. “Of course,” he answered. “They don’t want to see the dinky pool out there.”)
If the evening devolved into a contest of sorts — who’d lost the most money by sitting tight when they could’ve jumped — we won. Here’s why. Right before we were to sign the contract of sale, a friend called my husband with a tip on the stock market. Buy shares of something called Berkshire Hathaway, he advised. One share of the brand-new venture was a little over $19.
No matter. We were about to spend $35,000 on a house, and that was pushing it. We passed.
By buying the house, which we love and still live in, instead of the stock, we gained 50 years of contentment, and lost, according to Berkshire’s current price, about $34.8 million.
Irene Silverman is The Star’s editor at large.