Sunday, September 15, 2013

Showing opulent homes, from a cockpit high above

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — "We're right over Sagaponack," Christopher Burnside announced from the front seat of a tiny four-seat Cessna as he cruised over an ocean of mansions and tennis courts. "I'm just looking for the house."

Burnside is a real estate broker with Brown Harris Stevens, and he was out for a spin with a reporter to show off a lavish property he has listed for $13.9 million, on a street called Hedges Lane, less than a mile from the ocean.

There was only one problem.

"I don't know why I can't find it," Burnside said into his headset.

"You can't miss it," he continued. "Let's see."

Burnside sells homes in the Hamptons, a slice of Long Island so famous for its glamorous excess that the word itself almost tastes like money as it slides off the tongue.

In those wealthy enclaves, homebuyers have little incentive to stick with a particular agent as they cruise the beach for a place to park their millions, and the commissions on the line can be enormous. So Burnside offers his clients something even the very wealthy do not get every day: a chance to ride in his airplane.

From the air, they can have the widest possible view of a property's scale, its neighbors, and the land that it occupies — but ultimately, Burnside admits, these trips are about something else.

"There is no loyalty out here," he said. "But if you take somebody up in your plane, they're not going to anybody else."

Eventually, Burnside found the house he was looking for on Hedges Lane, tennis court, pool, pool house and all. But when gazing at even the grandest of homes, from 1,000 feet,, you are basically looking at a roof.

Inside, the opulence is more visible. This newly built house — in which Burnside is an investor — has a sauna and a steam room, a movie theater, a wine cellar, a hot tub, and four sets of washer-dryers. It has eight bedrooms and an elevator, and you can see the ocean from a large closet on the second floor.

But it also has a lot of neighbors nearby, giving it the feel of a showy suburb rather than a palatial private island. The price was recently lowered $1 million to its current $13.9 million, Burnside said.

Regardless of whether the goal is to ingratiate oneself to a client or to take aerial photographs for a listing, it seems that having trouble finding a particular house during a flyover is common.

"When I do aerial shots, I've got to go to the house first and look for landmarks," said Robert Kittine, a former commercial pilot and now a broker in the Hamptons with the Corcoran Group. Even so, he admits, "I've shot the wrong houses."

Less common, Kittine and Burnside said, is finding customers who are eager to crowd into what feels like a phone booth with wings with a real estate broker behind the wheel. Kittine estimates that 90 percent of the clients to whom he offers a plane ride turn him down.

"They'll say, 'Thanks, but we'll Google Earth it,'" Burnside said.

The brokers said they have better luck getting clients to look at properties in boats, preferably with a bottle of wine or two in tow.

For those who decide to accept the offer of a flyover, the experience is really the point. On a sunny day, the Atlantic is greener and clearer than one might expect. Swooping golf courses, jewel-toned pools, and an endless parade of tennis courts project extravagance up into the sky. Passengers wear big headsets, and learn that pilots and their control towers really do communicate with words like "Roger."

There is also the fun of snooping at exuberant monuments to wealth that are hidden beyond long driveways, Kittine said, even if clients have no intention of buying them. Like, for example, the gargantuan Sagaponack home owned by billionaire investor Ira Rennert, which looks a bit like a Versailles knockoff from above, and about as tasteful.

Even at the East Hampton Airport where that little Cessna 172 is kept, the opulence of the area is clearly visible, especially on summer weekends.

"If you came here on a Friday, you'd think you were at JFK," said Jemille Charlton, who works in the airport's management office, as he stood in front of a Gulfstream 5 jet idling on the runway.

Burnside began flying about seven years ago, a hobby that started shortly after a high-rolling client swept into the Hamptons and asked to see some oceanfront properties on a day when Burnside was in Nantucket. He called a friend with a small plane, begging him to pick him up and take him home. After that ride, he said, he was hooked. He owns the Cessna with four other people; it costs him about $300 a month.

He offers flights to many of his customers, once he has gotten to know them a bit, and he said it has helped him to seal some deals. So the $100 per hour in gas and airport fees it costs to ride in the Cessna seems to him a worthwhile expense.

Once the ride is over, "they trust you," Burnside said. "You've got their life in your hands."

Story and Photos: