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May 15, 2008 8:33 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

It takes finesse to handle celebrity real estate

May 15, 2008 8:33 AM

The list of high-profile residents and property owners on the South Fork of Long Island is long, which only adds to the patina of glamor and prestige the area has long enjoyed.

“They don’t call it Hollywood East for nothing,” Town and Country Real Estate Managing Partner Janet Hummel said on Thursday. “Celebrities and the Hamptons go hand in hand.”

Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Billy Joel, Christie Brinkley, Martha Stewart, Howard Stern, and the late Roy Scheider have become virtually synonymous with the Hamptons. And there are countless others who have come to call this part of the country home, at least part of the time, including: Russell Simmons, Richard Gere, Jimmy Buffett, Alan Alda, Roger Waters, Renée Zellweger, Michael J. Fox, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Kelly Ripa, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Ed Burns, Brooke Shields, Sean Combs, Rachel Ray ... and the list goes on.

And it’s not just celebrity-starved outsiders who catch star fever. Even sophisticated Hamptonites began buzzing recently when it was rumored that Tiger Woods had plunked down $65 million for a Gin Lane estate in Southampton in March. (That rumor turned out to be not true, or at the very least premature.) East End residents might adopt an air of indifference, but there is a kind of fame by association that comes with having a famous person living down the street.

Additionally, the celebrity factor usually raises market values for nearby homes, according to Ms. Hummel. “It makes the property a little bit more valuable ... people in the neighborhood gain a little stature and monetary means when a celebrity moves in next door,” she said.

So what is it that draws celebrities to the Hamptons?

Most real estate agents who work with the A-list cite privacy as the number-one reason. For that reason, getting agents to say much more than that about their celebrity clients is virtually impossible.

Corcoran Group Regional Vice President Rick Hoffman put it succinctly. “Good brokers don’t disclose celebrity clients,” he said. “The Hamptons is a very celebrity-friendly environment and place of retreat where people do respect one another’s privacy.”

Ms. Hummel, whose firm has helped Howard Stern, Katie Couric, Renée Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow find Hamptons homes, said the agents at her company take secrecy very seriously when they are working with a celebrity. “They are, of course, aware that they have no control over what [outside] agents say or do, but it is very clear here that they have to use a lot of discretion and be hush-hush about who they are working with,” she said.

Despite the reticence of many real estate professionals who work with the rich and famous to speak publicly about it, there is no stopping the trickle of information about celebrity transactions that makes its way to various gossip columns, according to Paul Brennan, the Hamptons regional manager for Prudential Douglas Elliman in Bridgehampton.

“There is no such thing as being discreet when you put your house on the market, particularly for celebrities,” he said. “It just takes one person to see it, and then the word is out.”

A prime example of private matters becoming fodder for public consumption was when Christie Brinkley put her $30 million Bridgehampton home on the market last year during a very public split from husband Peter Cook. Her real estate agent, Susan Breitenbach, a senior vice president and associate broker at the Corcoran Group, had little success in keeping the matter private once the tabloids found out.

“Everybody seemed to know,” said Ms. Breitenbach, Corcoran’s 2007 East End Top Sales Agent. “There was quite a lot of interest, but Christie is such a lady, a very special person, that I think she handled it very well. She is great to work with.”

On her end, Ms. Breitenbach, who has worked on approximately two dozen celebrity transactions, said that guarding her client’s privacy from the prying eyes of curious celebrity thrill-seekers is an important part of the job. She said that qualifying the buyers to make sure they can afford the home is absolutely necessary in the case of any real estate transaction, particularly a $30 million property owned by a celebrity.

“I am more careful,” she said. “You don’t want kooks showing up in someone’s home where they live.”

As one of the top agents in the world for Sotheby’s International Realty, Harald Grant said that confidentiality is the key to success in working with any high-profile client or listing.

“In that price level, and with those particular types of properties, you have to be very discretionary and keep everyone’s confidence,” he said during a recent interview. “One of the reasons people come here is for the privacy.”

Hammering the same point, Corcoran Group Senior Vice President Gene Stilwell said privacy and anonymity are two of the most important factors of celebrity real estate, and also why famous people feel at home in the Hamptons.

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