One week before Memorial Day, 1995, I drove onto the North Ferry. A sense of calm came over me as I breathed in the salt air. With the buoyancy of each wave, the stresses of city life seemed to dissipate. As the boat neared the dock, I noticed the quaint Beach Club to the west and the row of charming turn of the century homes, almost a beacon along the shoreline to the east. After landing and passing the “leaning tower house” I thought I had better find the closest real estate office and learn more about the real estate market on Shelter Island.
Customers often ask how I came to find my home on Shelter Island. It was quick: I came, saw and bought on my first visit, but not without the stresses and self doubt that can come with a big purchase.
The real estate agent, Maureen, was retired, and said she worked because she liked meeting people. She showed me four properties, each with its own pros and cons. Because I knew nothing about the island, I decided to stay overnight to explore further.
I stayed at Kraus’s Motel on Crescent Beach, where Sunset Beach is today. The room was on the second floor with beautiful water views, and both the motel and beach were quiet. Maureen had suggested I try dinner at Rams Head Inn, which seemed far away from it all like a hidden gem. Without a map in hand, I got lost a few times en route but, as Maureen said, “you don’t get lost for very long around here.” My German shepherd, Lupo, had his head out the window as we drove across the causeway with Mark Knopfler singing “Telegraph Road” on the cassette player. Everything so far felt so right.
The next morning, I awoke at daybreak and took Lupo out for a walk. Weck’s Pond, just in front of the motel, in contrast to everything else, was teeming with bird activity. A red-winged blackbird dove from the top of the osprey nest to the long reeds along the shoreline of the pond screeching, almost insistently, “Oh-ka-lee!” We walked past Peconic Lodge, now the Perlman Music Center, and took a left. The woods were lush, shaded and cool. As we rounded a corner, we stopped to listen to a mockingbird singing, its song echoing under the canopy of trees. The sun shone through oak trees that swayed in the morning breeze and which suddenly looked familiar. I realized it was the front yard of a house I had seen the day before.
No one seemed to be home, so I walked up the driveway, which was buckling with dried out, hand painted tar, and onto the back deck, splintered with popped nails. There was a covered porch with a turquoise ceiling that had caught my eye the day before. It was a concrete block house with bile colored walls, a massive red concrete block fireplace and Formica counters with pink and blue feather patterns. There was little charm outside and less charm and sheet rock inside, but I liked it. Nuthatches, chickadees and red finches flew close to me and perched on a cedar tree just off the deck, where long neglected bird feeders still hung.
I asked Maureen to show me the house again that afternoon. As she opened all of the windows to air out the scent of mothballs, I sat in the back bedroom and felt a connection with the home and the grounds. “It comes furnished!” Maureen said, pointing to a teak sideboard with matching grain drawers. I made an offer that was $45K less than the asking price and promised to send a pre approval when I returned home.
The sellers responded quickly that they would accept $43K less than the listing price and I was elated. Maureen seemed to do everything following the handshake; she lined up the inspection and recommended a Shelter Island attorney. I began to get my finances together for the mortgage, which had an 8% interest rate for a 30 year fixed mortgage, typical at that time.
I spent the summer upstate at a rental property, wistful about Shelter Island and the notion of owning my own home and doing little improvements, starting with white paint for the house and some bird houses for the cedar trees. The mortgage broker called with updates and I began to get my funds together for the closing.
As the big day drew nearer, I began to focus on what would remain in my bank account after the closing, and it was daunting. With every passing day my buyer’s remorse grew: What had I done? Did I really need a second home? How would I pay for it? Why had I been so impetuous? I called my attorney and told him I absolutely could not go through with the purchase. He reminded me that we were in contract, I would lose my deposit, and there was little more to worry about because the financing was almost complete. Somehow he talked me off the cliff and I decided to try and not think about the house too much, the closing would come and go and perhaps the stress would be behind me; if I decided then it was a mistake, I could sell it.
In October, my attorney called with the closing date in Huntington, NY. On that day the Pope was in town and the traffic was snarled. I arrived an hour late, but figured if the sellers got really annoyed, they could cancel the closing and maybe I could get out of having to buy the house. Instead, my attorney, whom I had never met, was cheery and the closing relatively painless. The sellers were a little grumpy but handed me the keys and wished me well.
Afterwards, I drove out to the house on Shelter Island for the first time since before I had made the offer. There was a potted mum with a small American flag on the back door step with a card from Maureen. As promised, the furniture was left intact, but the sellers had also left a shed and garage chocked full of junk, which included an old truck engine, tires, broken lawn furniture and dried up paint cans.
It was a cool autumn night and with Lupo on the floor next to me, I slept with the windows open. Aside from an owl that hooted all night, it was so quiet I could hear the blood rushing through my ears; it was sheer bliss.
The next morning, I took a walk around the Heights to explore the shops and, passing a real estate office saw a snapshot of my house in the window. A man came out of the shop to say hello. “I just closed on this house yesterday!” I exclaimed. He congratulated me and asked how much I had paid. I told him the price and he paused. He said the house had been on the market for over five years and that he would have thought it would have sold for less; the sold price was only $2K off the listed price. When I tried to clarify, he said that what I thought the list price was actually was the original price. It had been reduced a few times and the price I had paid was actually the highest ever for a house of that size.
The feeling of regret returned. I had clearly overpaid, but it was done. In those days real estate brokers worked off of index cards since there was no internet or computers. I walked along the length of Crescent Beach, then back at the house, hung up the new bird houses and sat on the back door stoop with Lupo next to me. I looked out onto a row of four statuesque cedar trees along the edge of the yard. Growth on the lower branches had been eaten by deer which had also worn the bark off with their antlers, yet the upper branches were lush. With dusk coming, robins started their evening songs and flitted along the grass and in the trees. The wind changed and I could smell salt in the air. Whatever had happened with the purchase of the house, there was an overwhelming sense that Shelter Island was the right place for me and my dog. Perhaps I had not paid enough attention, but in sum total, spiritually everything seemed right. If I could not sell my house tomorrow I might be able to sell it at some in the future if I fell on hard times. In the meantime, the saltwater around and the nature on Shelter Island gave me strength and spiritual renewal which has continued to the present day. As the Edith Piaf song goes, “no I regret nothing.”