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COVID changes Shelter Island real estate market: The good, the bad and the bizarre

“It’s a riot,” Georgiana Ketcham said about the Shelter Island real estate market.

A broker operating on the Island for decades, Ms. Ketcham is seeing startling changes in pricing, among other alterations, including a number of people coming from the city and buying when they were once seasonal renters.

If there’s a silver lining in the pandemic, it’s a thriving real estate market that has changed all the norms.

COVID-19 opened doors to people who view the Island as a place of safety and comfort, along with a solid elementary and high school for their children.

The general agreement among most real estate professionals is what’s happening today may not be a harbinger for the future when vaccines have reached most of the population and people become less fearful. But for now, they’ll take it, and gladly.

What’s evident beyond the boom is the sale and rental markets are different today than they were pre-pandemic. Take the experience of Dering Harbor Real Estate broker John Catrambone. If high end houses were slower to sell in years past because those with deep pockets preferred to construct their own, Mr. Catrambone’s had a lot of interest in his listing of a seven-bedroom house overlooking Crescent Beach. Since going on the market, he’s had 1,200 hits online.

But more than those searching online to see houses they know they can’t afford, there have been several potential buyers interested in the house that started out as a traditional beach cottage in 1925 and now has a 3,400 square foot addition designed by architect Michael Haveland.

“People are willing to pay the price,” Mr. Catrambone said, which is $7.75 million.

There’s not a bidding war going on for every property, said Janalyn Travis-Messer of Griffing & Collins Real Estate. Older listings that weren’t selling in 2019 have now sold and new listings are going fast, she added.

There will always be relatively little inventory on Shelter Island since many houses pass from generation to generation within families. Agents agree that those who want to sell, but have held off, should know that now is a good time to put a house on the market and get the asking price.

Many owners are over-pricing their properties, said Melina Wein of M. Wein Realty. But houses priced at $2 million are quick to be plucked. There are also a number of buyers who want homes they can acquire and not have to do a great deal of renovation, she said. “COVID has been our tipping point,” Ms. Wein said about what has brought on the current market. “There was a frenzy.” 

Marika Kaasik said it’s been a good year for her sales. She’s spending almost every day in the real estate office instead of at her Marika’s Eclectic Boutique on South Ferry Road.

“If you have a turnkey house, people are buying,” Ms. Kaasik said. Only if its a “train wreck” will you have difficulty finding a buyer, she added.

Similarly, Julia Weisenberg of Compass said COVID was an unknown that has caused an opportunity for many to choose this time to sell or buy.

Broker Susan Cincotta said Shelter Island has low taxes, reasonably priced properties for those who don’t want to pay Hamptons’ prices and great services. Entry level houses that once sold for $300,000 or $400,000 are now priced at $600,000 or $700,000, Ms. Cincotta said. Besides COVID, she noted, low mortgage rates are fueling the already hot market.

Penelope Moore of Saunders said in 2017 buyers were skittish because of tax reform legislation. Even in 2018, the Island real estate market was flat. It began to rebound in 2019, Ms. Moore said, but has taken flight in 2020 as people began reevaluating their lives.

Still, she said, there are some great houses that aren’t getting a look yet. There are a lot of good buys for those “chestnuts,” but buyers have their own wish lists.

The rental market has also changed since COVID. After controversial public debates over short-term rentals, that part of the market has all but disappeared. It’s practically impossible to find anyone willing to rent a property for two or three weeks or even a month, Ms. Weisenberg said. Many owners who once left the Island in summer months to rent their properties are more likely staying put, she said.

Many owners who once engaged in short-term rentals prefer now to rent for the entire summer season or even for the year. That’s a direct result of more people coming to the Island for lengthy periods.

A change in the state law affecting rentals no longer enables landlords to get several months rent paid in advance, something that often was done for those renting for a full summer season, Ms. Moore said.

Those who can find a rental often take it sight unseen, Ms. Travis-Messer said.

There’s one other factor to which few referred, but Ms. Weisenberg and Ms. Moore weighed in: To some extent, COVID has changed the way they work because they aren’t considered essential workers who can get in line for vaccines. Ms. Weisenberg has used Zoom to bring together landlords and potential tenants. The positive aspect is that even though it’s a meeting at a distance, tenants and landlords can still assess one another and often make a connection that makes both comfortable with a rental.

Real estate professionals, dealing with the public, can have some truly bizarre experiences. Ms. Moore recently had one that was  particularly strange. She spent two-and-a-half hours with a woman — masked and socially distanced — to show her properties for purchase. Ms. Moore took the time to show several houses, only to have the woman tell her at the end that she really wasn’t in the market for a house.

She was simply starved for some human contact after a long period of isolation.