Big changes in real estate on Ocean Beach at Fire Island

The din of hammers and chainsaws has come to an end in Ocean Beach, at least for the summer as the village demands, leaving Hamptons-like homes in its wake.

Slowly over the past few years the charming little cottages, some over 100 years old and many with little change since, have been replaced by larger modern luxury homes.

Realtors and builders say the changes, which began right after Super Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when homeowners got insurance and money from FEMA to raise homes to new government codes, have accelerated during the pandemic.

A late summer scene at Ocean Beach in 2020.
Credit: Raychel Brightman

“It’s exploded into the high end,” says West Babylon-based Rob Cernelli, who has been in the renovation business for 35 years. “It’s a modernization of the whole city. Gone are the passed down houses. It is often investors” who buy the properties and have them renovated.

Next to Ocean Beach in Seaview, a five-bedroom, 5½-bathroom home stands on a double lot on the site where a cottage once stood – barely changed from the 1950s.

The two-story home features central air conditioning and 5,000 square feet of deck, high-end kitchen, second poolside laundry room, master suite with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Great South Bay and a rooftop deck with water views, making this one of the most luxurious homes on the Fire Island market. It is listed at $4.79 million.

The view from a five-bedroom house that rises on a...

The view from a five bedroom house on a double plot at Seaview, overlooking the Great South Bay.
Credit: Johnny Milano

“Each room has a private bathroom; there’s a fireplace in the living room, and the great room opens out to a 30 x 15 swimming pool,” says real estate agent and general contractor Abigail Mago, who is building the house with her brother, Alan Medvin, through their company, A2 Development Group and Fire Island Sales and Rentals.

His colleague, associate broker Joan Woletsky, recently sold an oceanfront home on Laurel Avenue for $5.25 million, a record for the area, Mago said. While it’s hard to get accurate stats for Fire Island – most homes don’t appear on a multi-listing service but are sold through local real estate agencies – companies are seeing prices go up in boom, both in terms of sales and rents. A house that was once in the mid-$500,000s in poor condition can now fetch over a million dollars.

“There’s more building from scratch,” Mago says. “We’re seeing more gut renovations and real teardowns.” Part of it is complying with FEMA height requirements put in place after Super Hurricane Sandy. Homeowners also want more comfortable living spaces as they extend the visiting season.

Keep the vibe, boost equipment

Before the trend, Fire Island homes were known for their rustic, even slightly uncomfortable living spaces. For example, most houses were not well insulated, only had individual air conditioners and the terraces could be worn.

“The level of wealth has changed significantly,” Mago says. “Now, if a product looks good enough, people will think, OK, that’s the level of comfort I was looking for. That didn’t exist on the market.”

Realtors say renters and buyers are looking for the down-to-earth vibe of Fire Island for the city and the beach, but when it comes to their homes, they want more amenities.

Estate agent Robin Citriniti offers a five-bedroom house...

Realtor Robin Citriniti is listing a five-bedroom house on Surf Road in Ocean Beach for rent for $13,000 a week. It was built on the site where a bungalow stood.
Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

“People don’t want to get old anymore,” says Lisa Campbell, an agent at Netter Beach Estates, which has a $1.5 million listing that’s considered demountable property. “They want new and shiny.”

With traffic to and from the Hamptons and Montauk often unsustainable, Fire Island has become more attractive to Long Islanders, who make up 65% of renters and buyers there, Campbell estimates. “It’s so beautiful here,” she adds.

More and more investors have discovered Fire Island, which is worth the total dismantling of a cottage and the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars or even more.

A five-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a pool on Surf Road in Ocean Beach that was built on the site where a bungalow stood is ready for renters costs $13,000 a week, says Robin Citriniti of Netter Beach Estates , which has the list.

“Investment houses are bigger,” she says. “And so they are rented out to extended families, or two or three couples with children.”

Swimming pools, once rare in the Ocean Beach area, are now a standard addition to newly built homes and top wish lists. Homeowners are also looking for large windows and high ceilings, features not found in the typical Fire Island home.

“Hard to accept”

For some, the changes are troubling.

“I find it so hard to come to terms with what’s happened here,” says Todd Pavlin, who has been coming to Fire Island since he was 7 years old. “You spend a million and a half dollars. Put something beautiful, build something exceptional, put beautiful trees around.

Longtime seasonal resident Andy Meyer is unbothered. “Some of the more modern ones are pretty cool, but you have some of the old ones that have survived,” he says. “It’s good.”

For those who work in construction, it has been a race to the finish. In Ocean Beach, a “hammer cannot be swung” after June 30, as a local saying goes.

Glenn Graham Associates, a Bay Shore-based design firm, has seen many changes in the past 25 years of working on projects on Fire Island, but the past few years have been the busiest.

“They used to be beach cottages used only for the summer, but now people are moving out full time,” says owner Glenn Graham. “People spend a lot of money there.”

Newly completed homes in Ocean Beach are elevated with foundations...

Newly completed homes in Ocean Beach are raised with foundation plinths as required by code.
Credit: Johnny Milano

In a village known for its various strict ordinances, earning it the nickname The Land of No, Ocean Beach has passed rules requiring all new construction or significantly improved homes to have a skirt to hide foundation piles and that the pitch of the roof should be set to allow sunlight to reach adjacent properties, Graham says. Village administrators did not return calls for comment.

While it might seem a little disorienting to wander down one of the iconic walkways and find it dramatically changed, Fire Island will always remain a quaint and unusually laid-back town, mostly because of the no-car rules, say the real estate agents.

“I still believe that people who are drawn to Fire Island are drawn to the relaxing destination,” Mago says. “Here, it’s never towel against towel like Jones Beach.”

Steve Langford contributed reporting.

Built in 1952, this three bedroom cottage on West Walk...

Built in 1952, this three-bedroom cottage on West Walk in Ocean Beach is listed at $2 million.
Credit: Lauren Chenault

The interior of the 1,800 square foot chalet.

The interior of the 1,800 square foot chalet.
Credit: Lauren Chenault

On the market

A traditional Fire Island cottage on the market that could use a teardown or a major renovation is an 1,800 square foot cedar shingle house that is listed at $2 million.

Located in the Summer Club gated community of Ocean Beach, the three-bedroom single-level home is winterized but lacks air conditioning and a pool, which most buyers want.

Built circa 1952, the cottage sits on 2 acres on West Walk, four houses from the ocean. It has cathedral ceilings, hardwood floors, a wraparound deck, and 2½ bathrooms. The house has four zone electric baseboard heating.

“The property is large enough to build your dream pool home, or keep it as is,” says listing agent Robin Citriniti of Netter Beach Estates. “Summer Club rarely has houses for sale, so this is a great opportunity to buy one.”

The community has its own clubhouse with gym, mooring rights and tennis courts. It also has access to a bay beach. Elementary students attend Woodhull Elementary School in Ocean Beach. The school district assigned to middle and high school is Bay Shore School on the mainland. Taxes for 2021 were $9,294.


Lynn A. Saleh