the hamptons

The Best Deal in East Hampton

Sea Spray Cottage No. 1 Photo: Stephanie Krikorian

The house is a no-frills one-bedroom with gray faux wood floors, a dated kitchenette, and a teeny bathroom. For whatever it lacks in interior charm, it’s situated on nearly 20 acres of pristine oceanfront land next to East Hampton’s Main Beach, and, for what could be as little as $60,000 for the season, is basically free by local standards. You just have to know that Sea Spray Cottage No. 1 is available to rent. And that it exists in the first place.

The Sea Spray Cottages are a cluster of 13 modest, one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes on Ocean Avenue, the only surviving relics of a hotel that burned down nearly 50 years ago. The Village of East Hampton purchased the properties for $3.5 million in 1979 to protect the land from development and started renting them out each season from May to September to recoup the expense. It worked out: The land has been untouched for decades while mega-estates proliferate along neighboring Lily Pond and Further Lane, and the cottages have made back their purchase price dozens of times over. “The village is very lucky to have them,” says Village administrator Marcos Baladron.

Cottage No. 1 is the first in the row of 13, abutted by the dunes and facing the ocean. Photo: Stephanie Krikorian
A look inside Sea Spray Cottage No. 1 Photo: Stephanie Krikorian.
A look inside Sea Spray Cottage No. 1 Photo: Stephanie Krikorian.

The homes have been cheap-ish since the beginning, and the leasing structure is perhaps the closest thing to rent control that exists in the summer housing market: Once tenants sign, they are more or less given an indefinite first right of refusal, and can renew every two years with a roughly three-percent annual increase. (A minor uprising occurred in 2010 when the Village changed the bidding system and some tenants lost leases they’d held for decades.) Current leases range from $63,000 to almost $150,000 a season while rentals in far less desirable locations can cost that for the month. It’s why people rarely leave.

More interiors from Cottage No. 1 Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.
More interiors from Cottage No. 1 Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.
For some, these modest cottages function as cabanas. Photo: Stephanie Krikorian

“I literally had no idea that one came up,” said Bonita DeWolf, an associate broker at Christie’s who has worked out east for nearly three decades. Which is kind of how things go. You have to keep close tabs on Village Hall to hear about openings. “The minute they don’t want it, it opens up to the bidding process,” Baldaron says of the system. Prospective tenants submit their offers in sealed envelopes they mail in or hand-deliver to the Village Hall. There are no second shots, leaving people to hedge their best-lowest offer and cross their fingers. Highest bid wins.

All of it sounds oddly democratic for one of the wealthiest vacation enclaves in the world, except in practice the Sea Spray Cottages can also function as accessory cabanas for the multimillionaires and billionaires who own property further inland. They are, essentially, bonus rooms for “someone with a big house who also wants a cottage on the beach,” says Merle Buff, a broker with Corcoran. Current tenants include biotech giant Sam Waksal. Paul McCartney’s now-wife, trucking scion Nancy Shevell once kept a Sea Spray cottage. The band’s former manager did, too.

A cottage left with all of its furnishings in place for the winter. Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.
A cottage left with all of its furnishings in place for the winter. Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.

The Village owns and maintains the properties — garbage, electric, water, and mowing are all included in the lease — but the typical resident has a tendency to make themselves at home. Renters are meant to clear out their belongings after the season’s end, but the cottages I toured the last week of February were stuffed with expensive beach bikes and surfboards, art, and white slipcovered couches sheathed in plastic to protect them through the winter.

Some tenants even do extensive renovations: One previous Sea Sprayer cut a sliding glass door into the wall of his cottage to improve the ocean views before giving up his lease. One added an extensive outdoor deck awning. Another installed an indoor sauna. Even with those updates, they’re still little anachronisms among so much luxury housing. “It’s like looking into a time capsule, some of them,” my tour guide, East Hampton deputy superintendent Mike Bouker, told me as we walked from cottage to cottage. And they’re likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future (and as long as East Hampton Village Board murmurings about private ownership don’t hold).

More views of the area around the cottages. Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.
More views of the area around the cottages. Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.

The bidding on Cottage No. 1 closes March 5 at 2 p.m. All offers must include a check for 50 percent of the rent bid. (If you’re short the cash, a true-crime festival will open three of the cottages to the public this April.) Whatever the final bid, it’ll be a steal. “It’s right on the beach in East Hampton,” says Buff, the Corcoran agent. “You can’t get much better than that.”

A view of Sea Spray (left) and the laundry building (right). Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.
A view of Sea Spray (left) and the laundry building (right). Photos: Stephanie Krikorian.
The Best Deal in East Hampton