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Shelter Island real estate reflects COVID concerns

The real estate market on Shelter Island jumped sharply earlier this year, as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic spurred families in the New York City area to seek a safe place to isolate.

Rentals, which would not typically move until late spring, were sought in March and April. Sales took off as well, with properties being snapped up that had been on the market for years.

“I have no inventory left,” in houses for sale, said realtor Georgianna Ketcham. “We’ve almost gotten into bidding wars.”

Bob DeStefano, a colleague in the same real estate firm, said there was virtually nothing left in rentals.

Real estate sales in the five East End towns spiked more than 60% during the first quarter of 2020, compared with the same period last year, as indicated by The Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund (CPF). An accurate marker of real estate activity, CPF saw revenues of $38.3 million for the first four months of this year, while the fund took in $23.9 million from January through April 2019.

According to figures released by Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), Shelter Island’s CPF fund took in $630,000 during the first quarter of 2020, compared to $410,000 last year.

Money for the CPF comes from a 2% tax that buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is used in turn to purchase open space for preservation and fund water protection programs.

Penelope Moore, from Saunders Real Estate, said it has been a “strange” season in many ways. “We’ve been inundated” with calls for rentals and sales.

But the agents have a problem, because the state’s NY PAUSE program didn’t deem them essential workers, so they have not been allowed to show houses. “I’ve had [a colleague] Hallie Dinkel with a steadycam on his chest, videotaping through a window to get footage to send potential buyers,” Ms. Moore said.

Agents are only allowed to give a buyer’s phone number to the owner, she noted. “I’m worried that a seller talking to a potential buyer would not know what they are not allowed to say, under the Fair Housing laws, like asking how many children are in the family,” she said.

Starting Wednesday, June 10, real estate agents and brokers on Long Island were allowed to resume in-person work, as long as they stay at least 6 feet away from other people, or wear masks if they come closer.

Ms. Moore said it’s been difficult fielding demands from off-Island brokers who are aggressive and unwilling to follow state guidelines.

“We should all be on a level playing field,” she said.

She said she’s been surprised at how many people want to stay on the phone and talk once they contact her. “A call will go on for 90 minutes, talking about what they’ve been going through, isolated in the city with their children, saying they’re just seeking tranquility,” she added.

People seemed to have been lonely and anxious to talk once they’d made the connection. “And all the other realtors I talk to have found the same thing,” she said adding that she anticipates changes will be seen on the Island, with many people not just staying for the summer, but opting to stay on after Labor Day.

“The Island is jam-packed,” commented realtor Melina Wein. “People are realizing that maybe since they don’t have to be in an office to work, the Island offers a better quality of life for the family.”

Rentals were a large part of the real estate market on the Island, but Ms. Wein remains cautious about the upward trend in sales. “The demand has increased, but it’s hard to tell how high people are willing to go,” she said.

In these uncertain times, Assemblyman Thiele was also cautious: “Revenues will need to be monitored closely in the coming months during this very volatile economic time.”

There was a jump in the April 2020 median home price for Long Island, which includes Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens housing data, to $496,000, according to the Long Island Board of Realtors. This represents a 9% increase over last April, despite the market area being an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suffolk County reported a closed median price of $425,000, which represents an 11.8% increase over $380,000 reported a year ago.

Year over year, closed median home prices increased across Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens County in April, even while sales activity dropped sharply as expected amidst the coronavirus outbreak.