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On the North Fork, the Un-Hamptons

Around 75 miles east of New York City, just past the “Rip van Winkle” revival unfolding in somnolent Riverhead, the Long Island Expressway ends in a blaze of commercial glory at the Tanger Outlets. Soon after that, Long Island succumbs to a severe case of geological split personality and sprouts an intriguing pair of sibling peninsulas. Naturally there’s a bit of a rivalry.

The overachieving one, the South Fork, is starting to flirt with being overbuilt, overhyped and overcrowded, but from the perspective of the average homebuyer’s portfolio, owning a home there is an inarguably lovely wish-list item. The Atlantic is a proven tonic to South Fork property values; so is the star wattage of its denizens.

The North Fork is a wallflower and an underdog by comparison, but alluring for its own vistas and virtues. It is not resort chic, and few of its properties are exorbitant. It has no ocean, but plenty of Long Island Sound frontage. Dotted but not glutted with affordable and ofttimes historic homes — and driven by an accumulation of niche farms, vineyards, foodie fanaticism and activities like pumpkin- or berry-picking newly christened as agri-tainment — it is building an identity based on what it is not.

“I think the North Fork is fast becoming the un-Hampton,” said Scott Russell, the supervisor of Southold, an amalgam of scenic hamlets which, along with the South Fork’s Southampton and East Hampton, claims roots back to 1640. “We don’t have the traffic issues, our real estate has stayed within a range of reasonable standards, the bay and Sound beaches are pristine, and farmland is still the cornerstone of our community. We rely on our natural landscape for recreation and as a tourist attraction, and it seems to be working: people are even moving here from the Hamptons.

“It’s a bit of a mixed blessing,” he concluded, “because every time the word goes out about what a hidden jewel we are, we’re a little bit less hidden.”

But Mr. Russell, a confirmed cheerleader for preservation over development, does not like it one iota when people express confusion about his Fork’s qualifications as a haven for weekend homeowners, boaters, golfers and oenophiles. “That perplexes me,” he said. “Maybe we’re a victim of our own success. We’re distinct and different. And we’re unpretentious.”

The North Fork, a verdant jumble of farmland and vineyards interspersed with an intricate ecosystem of creeks and bordered to the north by the Sound, juts 30 miles toward its quaint terminus at Orient Point.

The South Fork, better known as the Hamptons, basks in conspicuous consumption and multimillion-dollar ocean frontage all the way to Montauk Point. The Great Peconic Bay separates these desirable peninsulas, which are linked, with Shelter Island in the middle, by car ferries.

If proof is needed that the less flamboyant Fork is emerging as a preferred destination in its own right there was, as of 2012, upgraded ambassador-class seating on some weekend Hampton Jitney routes to the North Fork. The jitney took over North Fork bus service from Sunrise Coach Lines in 2006, immediately doubled the schedule, and in the last few seasons has noted a 20 percent rise in ridership. Andrew Lynch, a Jitney vice president, said the ambassador jaunts had proved “extremely successful,” just as on the South Fork.

According to Nicholas J. Planamento, the president of the Hamptons and North Fork Real Estate Association and a broker at Town and Country Real Estate, summer rentals typically range from $4,000 per week to $35,000 for the season. Greenport, the North Fork’s only incorporated village, is the hub of commerce, culture, dining and recreation (its restored merry-go-round is a big hit).

The Hamptons have long since arrived on the global luxury real estate map; the stalled conga line of weekend traffic on Route 27 attests to its popularity — and not just in the height of summer. It is a celebrity magnet, a mash-up of movers and shakers. Hedge-fund managers have stormed the hedgerows. There is gala gridlock.

And then there is the Fork less taken, the one without the velvet ropes, the one where the heaviest traffic accumulates on fall harvest weekends. The modest priority list of typical North Fork house-hunters: privacy, easy upkeep, low taxes, water view, bike to beach and/or town.

According to Gayle Marriner-Smith, a fourth-generation summer resident and an agent for Douglas Elliman Real Estate, “The Hamptons are a place where people go to see and be seen, and the North Fork is a place where people go to see the scenery.”

She said the low interest rates and moderate prices of the past two seasons had brought a new sort of buyer to the North Fork: escapists from New York who don’t own their apartments and are buying their first home to use as a second home.

She met Regina Baptista and Nikolai Pohorelsky last summer at an open house. The couple had ventured out to Southold three years ago to dine at the North Fork Table and Inn and were quickly smitten by the North Fork’s bucolic charm.

They decided they wanted a contemporary house with water views and a price under $500,000, and bonded with Ms. Marriner-Smith when they learned that she, too, had a loft in Dumbo. Last summer they rented for a week each in four North Fork locales — Orient, Cutchogue, Southold and Peconic — and last fall they stepped up their search.

Ms. Marriner-Smith urged them to get preapproved for a mortgage so they’d be ready to negotiate when the right house came along. “Homes in this range that are sharply priced are moving quickly,” she said.

This spring Ms. Baptista and Mr. Pohorelsky found a turnkey contemporary near Mattituck Inlet listed for $399,000. But no sooner had they made an offer than another party made a better one. Ms. Marriner-Smith suggested they counter with a bid just above the asking price, but only if they would be heartbroken if the house got away.

“We knew we would definitely be upset if we lost the house,” said Ms. Baptista, a vice president for marketing at IT Cosmetics. (Mr. Pohorelsky is a senior technology director for Showtime.) “This property really had it all, and thankfully we won out in the end.”

They closed on their two-bedroom two-bath getaway on May 28 and have already moved in. “It’s amazing how fast it felt like home,” she said. “We honestly never could have imagined that a place like this, so perfect and quaint, would exist just two hours from the city. We picked the North Fork for so many reasons that can be summed up as one: it’s the anti-Hamptons. Also, we looked very briefly upstate around Woodstock and New Paltz, but that area didn’t hold a candle to this.”

What’s growing in most North Fork fields aren’t subdivisions but vegetables, fruit and lots of grapes. The draw is the natural landscape, not trophy estates, although there are a few, like the 1895 mansion on eight acres with 350 feet of waterfront barrier beach in East Marion listed for $3.95 million by Nancy Cervelli and Barry Novick of the Corcoran Group. The stunning sunsets are gratis. But such sunsets are available in most North Fork price ranges.

Perri Dorset lives in TriBeCa with her husband, Brett Moskowitz, and their daughter, Nolia, 6, but spends most weekends on the North Fork. “Seven years ago I didn’t really know what the North Fork was,” Ms. Dorset said. “But we knew we didn’t want to deal with the crowds in the Hamptons, wound up renting in Southold for a week, and fell in love with the beauty of the place.”

After renting for two summers in Greenport, they realized their affection for the North Fork was not a passing fancy, and in 2011 they bought a four-bedroom beach house near Goose Creek in Southold for $469,900. They use the place, which has central air-conditioning, an outdoor shower and half an acre of land, to exhale on weekends.

“There is no scene on the North Fork,” Ms. Dorset said, “and it makes you feel good that when you buy property, there’s a 2 percent tax that goes to land preservation. I can tell that the locals are concerned and sensitive that it not turn into the next Hamptons, but I don’t see it happening. The party isn’t here.”

Nobody would ever accuse Albert Einstein of having been a party animal, but he was smart and loved to sail, and a cute white cottage on Nassau Point on the North Fork is where he insisted he spent, in 1939, the happiest summer of his life. That he got away with wearing a pair of Size 11 women’s sandals all season because the local Rothman’s Department Store had nothing else that fit him is part of the lore; the prevailing opinion is that he could still get away with ersatz footwear were he in the market for a North Fork summer getaway in 2013.

“My buyers are often very high-profile customers who seek out the North Fork because of its low-profile lifestyle,” said Suzanne Hahn, who has sold homes here since 1984, when she opened her own firm in Greenport. Since 2009, she has been the director of North Fork sales for Brown Harris Stevens. “The high end for us is a $4 million waterfront home,” she added, “but what’s unusual for us is just another piece of cake on the South Fork.”

Margaret Snow, a client of Ms. Hahn’s who was searching for “small-town authenticity and a water view,” moved to the North Fork full time last year from Manhattan after finding a secluded Southold contemporary on a pond adjacent to a bird preserve: the place has a rose garden, a fireplace, a deck and views of Little Peconic Bay.

The listing price was $565,000; Ms. Snow’s offer of $550,000 was accepted: “I was too enamored of it to negotiate,” she said. “There is quiet money out here, and people aren’t afraid to be nice; there’s this Hemingway-esque kind of serenity.”

The North Fork doesn’t care what you wear or, for that matter, what you spend: for a certain stratum of home buyer looking for comfort, natural beauty and a beach within a stone’s throw, that lack of pretense is a siren song. So are the prices: in the first quarter of 2013, the median price of a single-family home on the North Fork was $469,000, while the price of its South Fork counterpart was 58 percent higher, at $740,000, according to Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel, an appraisal firm.

Mr. Miller says North Fork sales represent 20 percent of all East End sales and are decidedly more affordable. “Roughly 10 percent of North Fork sales are above $1 million, while roughly 40 percent of sales in the Hamptons are above the same threshold,” he said. At the height of the market in 2008, North Fork median prices maxed out at $608,000; later, they bottomed out around $412,000.

So far this year, the most and the least expensive sales on the North Fork were recorded in Orient Village, a minuscule hamlet that has surged in popularity. According to the Corcoran Group, Orient recorded six sales this year that range from a low of $199,000, for an oldie on the main drag, to $3.19 million for a waterfront compound. The biggest increase in median prices, according to Town and Country Real Estate, has been in Mattituck: from $415,000 to $555,000.

Mickey Harley, a Wall Street retiree, recently paid slightly more than $1 million for a ramshackle farmhouse on 30 acres of former potato fields in Southold. It was the land that attracted him: in the same pioneer spirit that motivated Alex and Louisa Hargrave to establish the North Fork’s first commercial vineyard in 1973 (now there are more than 30), Mr. Harley is behind its first commercial blueberry farm. He and his Bhavana Berries team expect to have 34,000 plants in the ground by late June.

“Obviously I’m looking at this as an investment,” said Mr. Harley, who lives in Massapequa but renovated the farmhouse for his staff. “But it’s also a passive way of preserving a tradition.”

In addition to farm stands and wineries, there’s a restaurant infusion exemplified by the North Fork Table and Inn (the chefs did not leave their urban clientele behind when they left Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, but in true North Fork spirit added a parking-lot lunch-truck option for casual takeout). Nor does one have to depart the Fork to find an artisanal cornucopia: shiitake mushrooms, Icelandic sheep, goats, buffalo, microgreens and beer. In Greenport, a microbrewery has taken up residence in a renovated firehouse.

“You can feel it starting to become this great little gourmet ghetto,” Ms. Dorset said.

Or, as Carol Tintle of Daniel Gale Sothebys International Realty put it: “Greenport, with all its restaurants and galleries and shops, is a very hot area for sales this year. You can take the train or jitney out and walk to wherever you need to go. Refurbished Victorian sea captains’ homes are very popular: what you’d spend $2 million on in Sag Harbor, you can get for under a million in Greenport. No, we don’t have the ocean, but what we’re seeing are families with small children who aren’t comfortable with the ocean and prefer a bay beach.”

Joe Calabrese toured 17 North Fork homes in a single day last spring with Ms. Marriner-Smith before zeroing in on a pristine ranch in Laurel, a $437,500 purchase that included a guesthouse with a second-story deck offering bay views. “It’s a cute little beach house on a gravel road that dead-ends at the water,” he said. “And the water is shallow and safe for the kids.”

Mr. Calabrese had looked everywhere for a weekend house with rental income potential, including the Jersey Shore, Long Beach and the Hamptons.

After renting in Jamesport over Labor Day weekend, he realized the North Fork was where he wanted to buy. “I said to myself, ‘Wait a second,’ there’s farms for the kids to run around, my wife enjoys the vineyards, I need to be near water, and I don’t want to sit in traffic on my way to the Hamptons.

“Even if the prices were the same,” he said, “I’d pick the North Fork. It’s like I feel the stress melting off me every time we come out.”

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