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In the Hamptons, Bargain Chic

THERE was a time, not long ago, when some Hamptons residents were flipping homes here for obscene returns.
Christopher Burch, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, started buying oceanfront properties in Southampton in 1997. He renovated and resold them, usually doubling his money every two years, he said. In the decade between 1997 and 2007, “all the properties I bought on the ocean went up between five and seven times in value after a little bit of work,” he said.
Mr. Burch, 59, was luckier than most. Marketwide, prices about doubled in the Hamptons in that decade, and most sellers tripled or quadrupled their investment after renovating, said Jonathan J. Miller, president of Miller Samuel, a real estate appraisal firm.
When I caught up with Mr. Burch the other day at a book-signing at his Southampton home for the author Gigi Levangie Grazer, he spoke about high-end Hamptons real estate as if there had been a death in the family.
“I just don’t think it has come back at all,” he said.
In fact, the volume of sales of prime Hamptons properties is down more than 20 percent from when the market peaked in mid-2007, brokers said. The Hamptons have become a solid buyer’s market, where listings at all price ranges are plentiful and huge price reductions are common.
“If homes aren’t priced correctly, they probably won’t even be shown,” said Harald Grant, a broker at Sotheby’s International Realty.
While the luxury Hamptons market — with sales over $20 million — is recovering at a faster pace than the rest of the market, there is little wow factor in what’s been happening lately.
The Hamptons provide a stunning contrast to what’s going on some 90 miles away in Manhattan, where high-end sales continue to break records and the potential for a $100 million sale no longer boggles the imagination.
The priciest oceanfront sale in the Hamptons this year, closing in February, was a two-acre property in Southampton that went for $28.5 million. Mr. Grant represented the Meadow Lane home’s buyer, a South American.
That’s a far cry from the spectacular sales in the boom years, like the $103 million that the billionaire Ron Baron paid in 2007 for 40 acres of undeveloped waterfront property in East Hampton. Mr. Grant still remembers one woman that year who turned down an unsolicited offer of $70 million for her Southampton home.
“The trophy sales aren’t really happening any longer,” Mr. Grant said. “In our market for oceanfront, $28.5 million was an average price.”
The high-end Hamptons market has moved in fits and starts. Last year there were two sales over $30 million — one for $32.5 million in Southampton and another for $36 million in North Haven. And this year there have been six sales of $20 million or more, all closing before May.
The lost market that Mr. Burch laments may have been built on loose credit and associated Wall Street profits, as Mr. Miller impressed on me. But perception is often reality.
Conversation around the Hamptons punch bowl used to touch frequently on the rising prices of people’s estates, but it rarely does anymore, Mr. Burch said.
“People were excited about making good investments and that their property values were going up,” he said. “Today, real estate is just not as much of a conversation piece as it was in the past. People talk about their families, their kids’ schools, about preserving the environment.”
That was certainly the case at the event to celebrate Ms. Grazer’s latest beach read, “The After Wife” (Ballantine), about how a Los Angeles woman copes with the death of her husband.
The low-key event drew a smattering of celebrities, socialites and the powerful. The mogul Russell Simmons made the rounds, as did Rita Schrager, the ex-wife of the hotelier Ian Schrager, and Michael Michele, an actress who appeared in the movie “Ali.” There was talk of the presidential election — Mr. Simmons said he had just returned from a “strategy session” with President Obama — and plenty of chatter about the fifth book from the leggy and hilarious Ms. Grazer, the ex-wife of the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer.

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