In the summer of 1998, Ken Hilderbrandt was contemplating buying a bigger boat — or a beachfront trailer on a wave-swept bluff in Montauk overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
“There was a [for-sale] sign on the window, rotted off,” Hilderbrandt, 85, told The Post, recalling the dilapidated trailer sitting on a 1,972-square-foot lot of land within Montauk Shores, the former seaside campsite for working-class vacationers, locals and surfers. Hilderbrandt, who owns a jet-ski rental business in Bellport, saw the potential. Sure, it was a fixer-upper off a dirt road — but the million-dollar ocean views pulled him in like a riptide. The asking price was $150,000.
“I said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ It was old. It needed to be gutted. I took a look inside, walked out here with him and said, ‘I’ll make you an offer — for $95,000.’ He said, ‘I want $96,500.’ So that was it,” Hilderbrandt said. He sold his boat and purchased the trailer.
“Back then, you could rent them for $50 a month,” he said. A decade later, he tore down the trailer and erected a two-bed, two-bath modular home with a wraparound porch, marble countertops and laminate floors, investing around $100,000 in the remodel. Today, his humble 1,200-square-foot abode could command $60,000 as a three-month summer rental, enough to send one of his grandkids to college, he told The Post. He said he won’t even consider selling the property for under $5 million.
Though it bills itself as “Montauk’s best kept secret,” 65-year-old trailer park Montauk Shores is now a shabby-chic status symbol that’s dividing the local community. Hilderbrandt may drive a reliable Honda — but you’re just as likely to spot a $40,000 Mercedes SUV parked here. Deep-pocketed buyers are being lured in by its location in Ditch Plains — a surfer’s paradise spanning two miles of sandy cliffs and the most coveted waves on Long Island’s East End. This week, The Post reported that an off-market listing for an 800-square-foot oceanfront trailer located on Edgewater Drive was in contract to sell for a record-breaking $3.75 million.
It’s unclear who the buyer is in the deal set to close next month, but local residents said it’s the same unit musician Jimmy Buffett got into a bidding war over back in 2005. That’s when the mobile home reportedly sold for $430,000 to another buyer, though Buffett was said to have offered $30,000 more.
The trailer park’s previous highest recorded sale was in 2022 for $1.8 million. High rollers who’ve picked up modest homes here in recent years include Vitamin Water co-founder J. Darius Bikoff, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and film producer Karen Lauder. The property comprises 152 individually owned lots and 47 leased sites totaling 199 homes — some scruffy-looking trailers, others tricked-out modular units. On-property amenities include a community clubhouse for residents to host parties and events, a heated swimming pool and a playground.
But longtime owners and locals remember Montauk Shores as it once was — a sanctuary for year-round surfing, ocean views and easy living. Starting in the late 1940s and ’50s, it was a tent campsite until the owners eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1976, a group of residents and families purchased the property and started the Montauk Shores mobile-home park condominium, the first trailer-park condo association in New York State, according to its website.
“The people who are buying in there [Montauk Shores] are no longer firemen from New York City who want to go surfing on the weekend, they’re people who have a lot of money for a second home who say ‘I want to be right where the surf break is,’” Dave Rutkowski, owner of John’s Drive-In, which opened in 1967 on Montauk’s main drag, told The Post. “It’s wild to think that a trailer could ever sell for that much money.”
Residents say their new billionaire neighbors merely use the trailers as a changing room after a swim, leaving the units vacant during the off-season. And some say that all this cash is driving out the community feel and transforming the once funky surfer’s haven into a private-equity playground that’s a revolving door for entitled summer renters.
“When you read about the history of Montauk, it was a village of the workers. Now, they’re being priced out and pushed out,” Kathy Pare, a retired New York City teacher who moved to Montauk Shores with her husband, Chris, just after 9/11, told The Post. The couple, who used to park their camper in a nearby campground, bought a one-bedroom trailer for $175,000 in 2001.
Pare continued, “When we first moved here, it was a much tighter community. On the weekends we’d have parties, karaoke, hang out with our neighbors — now, since a lot of people moved out, we have a lot of renters. They can get loud at night because they’re there to party. You don’t get to know people for a long period of time. They don’t respect the rules.”
Her husband agrees.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s all that good. The people with money that are moving in don’t really want to be part of the community. We have functions all year long — barbecues, Fourth of July parties. Years ago, there were more residents partaking in these. The Vitamin Water guy, he doesn’t want to hang out with us. He doesn’t want to come to the barbecues up at the club house,” Chris told The Post.
Still, they emphasized that they’re “grateful” their home’s value has gone up and said that Montauk Shores remains a “great” place to live. Years after buying their trailer, the couple have erected a modular home of their own, with three bedrooms on the first floor and a studio in the attic with two queen-sized beds, a deck and an outdoor shower. The home can easily accommodate up to 12 guests, they said.
Referred to by locals as “a drinking town with a fishing problem,” Montauk has been steadily losing its sleepy, blue-collar feel over the last couple of decades. The tip of Long Island witnessed an uptick in sales in the early 2000s, after 9/11 spurred some to flee the city for a more laidback locale. But the area’s image really started to shift with the 2008 opening of the trendy Surf Lodge nightspot. A hipster Manhattan party crowd soon descended on the town, overwhelming locals, and Ditch Plains Beach suddenly had cachet. In 2013, a limited-liability company headed by Bikoff purchased the beloved East Deck Motel in Ditch Plains, a family-run oasis for surfers and fishermen built in the 1950s, for $15 million, with the intention of building a private club for wealthy surfers, the East Hampton Star reported. The plan was eventually scuttled by angry residents and, in 2015, the motel went back on the market for $25 million. Now, the property just west of Montauk Shores has been subdivided into four lots, with owners listed under LLCs, according to property records.
By 2018, when retired NYPD detective Richard Pavese, 54, bought a home in Montauk Shores, prices had started to climb — but had yet to hit their current post-pandemic peak. He said he avoided a bidding war when picking up a two-bedroom, two-bath modular home for just under $700,000.
“I had very close friends who were coming out here since the ’60s and ’70s. It was always my dream to have a place here for my kids,” Pavese, whose home is adjacent to Lauder’s, told The Post. “A few people have inquired [about buying our home], but it’s not something we’d entertain. It’s very placid here.”
Still, he said he isn’t bothered by his billionaire neighbors. After all, they’re hardly ever around.
“They don’t really stay here,” Pavese said. “They’ll stay for a weekend, a week — it basically revolves around fishing and surfing. They look like regular people. They go surfing and they come shower off. If someone has the money to spend, they’re going to spend it.”
And spend it, they are, leaving some old-school locals in a state of bewilderment.
“We’re sitting here going, what the hell happened here?” a longtime Montauk resident named Marshall, who declined to give his last name, told The Post.
“It was always a pioneer place. When I grew up here there were 500 people. We knew everyone intimately; now, it’s more like corporate America. More rules, but not better rules. Our house may be worth more money, but if you sell it, where do you go? You sell, you got to leave and you can’t come back in,” he said.
“Montauk is now a brand. It’s the new-money surfers riding around on their electric bikes.”
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.