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Buying a home on the North Fork requires a great deal of research. These are the questions you must ask.

Each May and June, Sheri Winter Parker, a Southold-based licensed associate real estate broker with the Corcoran Group, gets a bit of a break from open houses, private showings and reviewing closing documents. She says that’s because her clients are typically busy helping their kids finish the school year, and celebrating graduations and weddings.

“There are certain times of year that are quieter,” she said. “May and June usually aren’t super crazy. People are busy with their functions.”  

That changed this year.

“It literally never stopped,” she said of interest that started in April. “People are saying ‘This is the time to buy.’ I am hearing, ‘We were on the fence but now we know we need extra space, we need to be able to get out.’ People are talking about what is going to be happening in the fall and winter, and thinking they want to secure their weekend place. They want to know they have another place to go.”

Though Q1 2020 real estate activity in some parts of the North Fork had increased, possibly due to stock market gains, said Ed Reale, brokerage manager, Sotheby’s International Realty, there is now “a different mood among buyers post-COVID. Many buyers are looking for a refuge for their families. Buyers are looking for space and privacy and our area allows people to stay at home and be outdoors and function with minimal social contact. Clearly, buyers are looking to maintain social distances and have a safe place to work or attend school from home.”

Locals know well (and have worked hard to maintain) the appeal of the North Fork’s slower-paced way of life, with vast, undeveloped open spaces and natural vistas to enjoy. The region is steeped in history, with many historic buildings and areas that serve as reminders of the area’s maritime and agricultural past and present. To preserve this land, and the area’s charms, home buyers pay a 2% land transfer tax, also known as the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, that goes toward preservation to protect the area from overdevelopment.

Some people love the bay, some people love the sound.

Sheri Winter Parker

Whether you’re a current North Fork resident looking for a new place or a potential buyer beginning a search in the area, Reale and Parker say these are the specific questions you should be asking when touring properties.

(Credit: David Benthal)

What amenities and services do I want nearby?

Parker calls this a “feel thing.”

While the majority of the area is accessible via a roughly 30-minute drive on Route 25, North Fork towns differ in many ways. Southold, for example, is hugged by the Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay, making it ideal for kayakers and boaters. Orient, a tiny hamlet on the tip of the fork, boasts open farmland, a state park ripe for exploring, and waterfront views, plus a tiny downtown area with quaint historic buildings. You’ll find plenty of shopping, dining and nightlife in the fishing village of Greenport, but also lots of summer traffic. Depending on the hamlet you’re in, and whether it falls within the Town of Riverhead or Town of Southold, you may get access to different beaches. What’s more, Riverhead Town residents enjoy municipal trash pickup, while those in Southold Town have to pay for private pickup or take their trash and recycling to the dump.

“One couple I worked with in May wanted to be able to bike or walk to a beach,” Parker said, “while other people really want to know they can just take the Jitney out and not have to have a car. Some people love the bay, some people love the sound. Some people might want to be in Greenport where it is buzzy and they can walk to a restaurant, have some cocktails and not have to drive home.”

(Credit: David Benthal)

What are the legal restrictions on changing the property?

Zoning in the area may prevent improvements or enlargements of property. “The East End has a very restrictive scheme of land use and flood protections,” said Reale, “and even on properties that appear to have sufficient space, there could be strict limits on uses.”

This can affect everything from design restrictions meant to protect the character of the town and a defined lot-to-home size ratio to minimum setback rules and maximum building height. Each Southold Town hamlet — including Cutchogue, East Marion, Fishers Island, Greenport West, Laurel, Mattituck, New Suffolk, Orient, Peconic and Southold — has its own parameters so it’s important to understand the distinctions when visiting properties if you have renovations in mind.

Parker said that flood insurance is an important thing to ask about if you want to be on or near the water. What’s more, depending on your potential home’s proximity to the bay or sound, “your landscaper must have a special permit if he is going to be doing work there.”

(Credit: Grant Parpan)

What are the additional costs of the purchase beyond the actual purchase price?

In addition to a home’s price, “there are title insurance costs, transfer taxes, bank fees and a variety of insurance rates depending on location,” Reale said. He also advises looking into how long the home you’re interested in has been on the market, especially if you are a motivated buyer and eager to reach a deal. A home that’s been for sale for a lengthy period of time, he says, “can indicate price is out of sync with the market values.” Finally, since there are many centuries-old homes on the North Fork, Reale reminds buyers to ask “questions about the structural conditions that would all be answered by having an engineer inspect the property before signing a contract.”

(Credit: Vera Chinese)

Do you want to rent your house?

You may envision using your new home as much as possible in the coming year or two, but you may at some point want to rent it for extra income. This may seem like a breeze in an AirBnB world. Not so. In an effort to squash transient weekend visitors and preserve housing for long-term renters, Southold Town passed rental regulations in 2018 that homeowners must abide by or risk a fine or imprisonment. “I talk about rentals right away,” Parker said. “There is a two-week minimum for rentals.  You have to apply for a rental permit and have your home inspected, either by hiring someone to do the inspection or have the town do it for you.”

It gets trickier: Greenport Village and Riverhead residents must abide by an entirely different set of regulations, including restrictions, in Greenport Village for example, on the number of basement bedrooms allowed and the ability to sell sub shares in a rented house . If you plan on renting your home, “be sure to check the regulations in the jurisdiction you are in,” Reale said.

Compliance involves having a certificate of occupancy, installing the necessary smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and making sure housing, sanitary, building, electrical and fire codes are met.

(Credit: David Benthal)

What kind of homes that have a higher resale value?

It’s hard to predict taste, said Reale. Just a little while ago, he says, ranches were thought to be out of favor, but now he says folks interested in mid-century modern aesthetic are buying and renovating them. Still, there are characteristics that will always be in demand on the North Fork. “Anything that’s in a desirable location is always best,” he said. “This includes homes that are “near the water or have protected farm views.”