Nine years ago, when the Potter family relocated from the Upper East Side to live full-time in Amagansett, little did Nan Potter know that finding the right school for their young children would prove the family’s greatest obstacle.
She had no idea how hard it would be to replicate the magic of P.S. 6, a public school on Madison Avenue and 81st Street, which she described as “big and crowded and progressive and open to new ideas.” The Amagansett School’s small class sizes, though seemingly ideal at first, quickly felt claustrophobic. The following year, the Ross School proved impractical when it came to footing private-school tuition bills for four children.
“We didn’t want to pay for private schools. We wanted the public school experience. Everyone said Sag Harbor was so great. We figured, why don’t we just try it?” said Ms. Potter. “So, we did a winter rental in Sag Harbor.”
Since enrolling her children in Sag Harbor schools, the Potters have not looked back. Over the past six years, they have lived, from September to June, in four rental houses, returning to their house in Amagansett in July and August.
“You get to experience different types of architecture, different neighborhoods,” said Ms. Potter. “And you learn to live minimally. You realize that you don’t actually need all that stuff.”
Now in the second year of a rental on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, she enjoys the easy access to shops, restaurants, and a vibrant year-round community. With their oldest child away at college, Ms. Potter and her husband, who jointly run a marketing and conference business, plan to keep renting until their youngest, now in seventh grade, graduates from Pierson High School.
The Potters are just one in a growing number of relatively well-off families who rent in Sag Harbor during the off-season so that their children can attend the public schools there. Many of them close their houses in neighboring towns for the winter; some keep them open to return on occasional weekends.
In recent years, Simon Harrison, who runs Simon Harrison Real Estate in Sag Harbor and has sold real estate for the past 25 years, has discovered a new product: the school-year rental, whose start and end dates coincide with the academic calendar. Mr. Harrison estimates that he gets at least a dozen calls each month from people asking after such properties.
Susan Lahrman, an agent at Simon Harrison, said school-year rentals are often a bargain. While year-round rentals generally cost $2,400 to $3,300 a month, she said, school-year monthly rents may be as little as $1,200 to $1,800. That still leaves the owners with an empty house to rent over the lucrative summer months.
Some South Fork families who neither own nor rent in Sag Harbor opt to tuition-in their children. Over the last five years, Matthew Malone, the principal of Sag Harbor Elementary School, has seen an uptick in the number of tuition-paying families. During the current school year, Mr. Malone said, 14 families will pay $16,622 for a child to attend Sag Harbor Elementary, a kindergarten through fifth-grade school that enrolls about 500 students. An additional 7 families will pay $21,607 for a child to attend Pierson Middle and High School.
“It’s a public school with a private school price tag if you’re not in the district,” said Mr. Harrison, who has a son in the fifth grade at Sag Harbor Elementary. Since enrolling him there, he said he has seen the school grow by about 150 students.
For families with more than one child, rentals generally create considerable cost-savings, not to mention the appeal of living closer to a child’s activities and friends. To register in the Sag Harbor district, renters must provide a copy of their lease and a utility bill. In some instances, a signed affidavit from the property’s landlord is required as well.
But tuition-paying or not, Mr. Malone, who has worked at the elementary school for the past nine years as both its principal and assistant principal, sees many families drawn to its unique culture and strong academic reputation. This year, the school has already enrolled about 20 new students. “In a time when everything is very fast-paced and things are changing quickly, there’s this sense here that kids can be kids and maybe even grow up a little bit slower,” he said.
For families occupying school-year rentals, Ms. Lahrman described the days following Labor Day as “crunch time,” when the houses are scrubbed clean, the keys handed over, and new occupants ready themselves in time for the start of school.
Early Monday morning, Laurie Gordon, a homeowner in Bridgehampton, moved into her new rental home in the Village of Sag Harbor. Ten years ago, Ms. Gordon moved from Manhattan to the South Fork when her oldest daughter was starting kindergarten. “We bought our house in Bridgehampton without any kids,” said Ms. Gordon, who works as a freelance editor and writer. Her husband works on Wall Street. “But we never thought we would live here full-time, or send our kids to school here.”
After nine years, the tuition at Ross, coupled with changes in the economy and the need to save money for college, became prohibitive, she said. The Gordons began searching for affordable alternatives. Sag Harbor became the clear front-runner.
After a bit of research, the couple determined that off-season rental rates were “significantly more affordable” than paying upward of $40,000 a year in tuition. Their daughters, now 15 and 11, just began their second year in the district. So far, the family has lived in three rental houses, after two of them were sold. Ms. Gordon remarked that the lifestyle was not for those afraid of change. “It also teaches your kids to be flexible and adaptable.”
Recently she had to text her husband, who works and lives in the city during the week but comes home in time for dinner mid-week, the address of their new Sag Harbor rental. The family returns to Bridgehampton most weekends, generally packing up on Sunday nights for the trip back.
Since moving to Sag Harbor from Summit, N.J., last summer, Antonia DiPaolo estimates that she has crossed the Shinnecock Canal fewer than a dozen times. Ms. DiPaolo has long had an affinity with the South Fork, having spent summers in her family’s 18th-century house near the ocean in Bridgehampton as a girl. She recalls never wanting to leave.
After finding New Jersey “too conventional, too suburban, too safe,” the family packed up and headed east. “We knew friends and we knew the town, but the schools were the outlier,” said Ms. DiPaolo. For the past year, the family has rented a Sag Harbor house. Their twins attend Pierson, while the youngest is at the elementary school. “The schools have been the best surprise ever,” Ms. DiPaolo, a stay-at-home mother, said. “They’ve far exceeded our expectations.”
Her husband, Evan, commutes a few times a week into the city, where he works in finance. The couple keeps an apartment on the Upper East Side. Come October, the family will move into a second rental house a bit closer to town. After falling in love with the schools, they are building a house in Sag Harbor Village that will be finished, they hope, by the spring of 2015. Until then, they will keep renting.
Ms. Potter sees several families trying out different variations — schools, houses, sometimes both — until they find the right fit. In many ways, she said, the change of scenery benefits parents as much as children, a particular concern during the isolating winter months.
“This is a community. You can’t sit on a bench on Main Street without running into someone you know,” she said, while sitting on a bench on Main Street. She paused several times to wave hello to passers-by. “You can go to the American Hotel any night of the week and there’s people sitting at the bar. It’s a very vibrant place to live.”
Ms. Gordon, who sat next to her, agreed. “I feel really lucky on a daily basis to live here,” she said.