Hamptons vs Malibu: From a guy who's lived in both

When you're debating which is better—the Hamptons or Malibu—it's like choosing between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini. Or between two children you love equally, though differently.

Just ask Robert Cohen, president of the Southern California division of RKF, a commercial real estate firm. "I've been living bi-coastal for years," he said.

Cohen grew up in Woodmere, Long Island, and summered in the Hamptons regularly. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was waiting to board a flight from LaGuardia when the FAA halted all air traffic after terrorists began flying airplanes into buildings.

"I walked home to the city that day from the airport," he said. "That was all my California wife needed to know for us to move."

From left: Malibu coast and a house in the Hamptons, New York.
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From left: Malibu coast and a house in the Hamptons, New York.

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They moved to Malibu, and he's spent much of the last 13 years living in both places.

Here is Cohen's take on these two different playgrounds for the rich and famous:

The Hamptons

What he likes:

"The beaches are incredible," Cohen said of East Hampton and Southampton. "They are some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the country, if not the world."

Cohen also likes the local charm in the Hamptons. "You still have roads that aren't even paved, they're just sand...some of the buildings are almost 200 years old."

He also enjoys the summer scene of going from house to house for entertainment. "There's a really lively party circuit." Cohen said, noting that he also believes the Hamptons have a greater variety of excellent restaurants and high-end retail.

What he hates:

"The traffic." Cohen said driving the seven miles between Southampton and East Hampton "can easily take an hour and a half" during the season. "Kinda makes LA look quite good."

The drive from Manhattan is even worse, "up to three hours," which is why people pay thousands of dollars to fly instead by helicopter.



What he likes:

"We don't get the crowds, we don't have the home rental market that the Hamptons does," Cohen said. "We don't have the party houses...it's a sleepy little town. Even at Nobu, after 10:30 p.m. or 11, it's done."

Speaking of Nobu, while Cohen believes there are more great restaurants in the Hamptons, "Malibu has the best in America with Nobu." (There was a small Nobu for a time at Southampton's Capri Hotel.)

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One big difference between the two coasts is local opinion about retail stores. Cohen said retail has driven a lot of the demand in the Hamptons, while in Malibu, "the trend is anti-retail." Actor Rob Reiner is leading the charge to put a ballot measure before voters in November to limit the number of chain retailers coming into Malibu.

"That could be a game changer," said Cohen, who has a vested interest. His company leased out retail space at the new Malibu Lumber Yard. "In the Hamptons, luxury does better."

What he hates:

"I miss the parties," he said.

The Subtypes

Typical Hamptonite:

"They come in one of two types," said Cohen. The first is "very old money, very conservative, keeps to themselves, has beautiful mansions, manicured lawns and a very tight social circle." The second is "a young and trendy part-time resident, who likes to go shopping, clubbing, eating, someone who loves to have fun."

Typical Malibuian:

"There really is no old money in Malibu, that's just not Malibu," said Cohen, himself one of the newly rich who lives there. "This is not estate wealth, these are kingpins of business."

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Yet people dress down, intentionally. "The guys are much more low key, with a T-shirt and jeans, maybe a nice sports shirt, no jackets," Cohen said. "In the Hamptons definitely they wear jackets."

But the women...

"In both places, women need two to three outfits a day, at least," he said. One for the morning workout ("Lululemon, whatever"), a second for the lunch with friends and afternoon shopping, and a third for a night out.

By CNBC's jane Wells