Most storm-damaged properties are second homes, creating a dilemma for owners and governments
Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the New Jersey shoreline was felt far from the coast in a number of ways, but mainly because most people who own property by the ocean live somewhere else.
An analysis of tax records by The Press of Atlantic City shows the majority of residential properties in almost every oceanfront community from Long Beach Island to Cape May Point is secondary homes.
In places such as Avalon, Sea Isle City and Stone Harbor, more than 85 percent of homes are owned by out-of-towners. Atlantic City is the only barrier island in South Jersey where more than half of the homes are owned by the people who live in them most of the year.
Most property owners in these areas live primarily in Philadelphia or its suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Others get their tax bills mailed to homes as far away as Colorado, Kansas and California.
This means that while full-time coastal residents were the hardest hit — some remain homeless — Sandy primarily affected seasonal residents and rental-property owners.
That has important implications for the ongoing restoration effort for both property owners and governments.
For one, the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not provide grant assistance for damage to secondary homes.
“The mandate that FEMA works under is that they help the survivors of a storm with their primary residence,” FEMA spokesman Michael McCormack said. “People who have vacation homes or have second homes can’t take part in those programs.”
However, the federal Small Business Administration does provide loans to cover uninsured losses for property owners who were renting out their buildings at the time of the disaster, considering it a business if it was generating income.
Those loans can be used for both physical damage and economic hardship, with application deadlines for each at the end of 2012 and the end of July 2013, respectively. These loans can be up to $2 million but should not exceed the verified uninsured loss in each case, with interest rates starting at 4 percent.
Michael Flores, a spokesman for the SBA, said it is too soon to tell how many people with property in New Jersey will apply for these loans, but he said he would expect a diverse range of applicants.
“What I’ve experienced is that this has been a life-changing event for a lot of people,” he said. “It really cuts across all spectrums.”
The majority of barrier-island second homeowners have flood insurance, which is required for any mortgage.
Wendy Smith, a school principal in Philadelphia who owns a second home on Clipper Drive in Ocean City, said she pays $1,000 a year for her flood policy and estimates the repair work needed at her home will exceed $10,000.
“I don’t begrudge someone who can’t afford insurance, but if it’s a second home, you should have flood insurance,” she said.
Nevertheless, there are more than a few families who owned their homes outright, some for generations, and because they were not required to have flood insurance, they chose not to get it.
Those people are left with a few choices.
“Do they want to rebuild, do they want to fix it or do they want to get rid of it?” Frank Shoemaker, broker of record at Berger Realty in Ocean City, said people will ask themselves.
Shoemaker said he knows of at least one family on the island with an older home and without flood insurance, because it wasn’t required when they bought it decades ago.
Without any financial assistance, they are faced with gutting their property and selling it if they cannot find a way to afford repairing it. Shoemaker said they were too distraught to talk to The Press of Atlantic City about their problems.
The fact that so many island homes are owned by people who primarily live elsewhere creates cleanup issues for governments. Some people have not returned to their damaged homes more than a month since the storm passed.
“I have some clients who live adjacent to homes where no one has even been there yet,” said Pete Patrizzi, general manager of Resort Residential Services, who has been cleaning out homes in Ocean City for the past month. “They think their homes haven’t been affected. There might be some real surprises for these people.”
Any interior flood damage, even from low levels of water, could affect the entire building if mold is spreading throughout the structure. That is causing concern among neighbors who are worried about what affect those homes might have on them, if the homes are ultimately condemned.
FEMA has deadlines for reimbursing governments for debris removal, so officials want to make sure property owners get their damaged materials out on their curbs as soon as possible. They fear some owners may return months from now and start filling the sidewalks or front lawns with debris.
Some owners who have not returned have hired cleanup crews to do the work for them, Patrizzi said. Some live far away or may have several homes.
“Most of my customers, to be honest with you, they’re writing checks,” he said.
But, he said, there are more than a few families who barely manage to afford property on an island, maybe as an investment or rental when the market was better, and are struggling to hold on, let alone restore what they have lost.
“There are a lot of people, obviously, who have been living paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t have a shot,” Patrizzi said. “They’re working hard to get these properties, and they have a couple incomes, and that rental money is important to them.”
Edith Parker, a longtime resident of the Beach Haven Gardens section of Long Beach Township, said she has elderly neighbors who have been unable to check on their second home because one of them is in the hospital.
They recently sent down a niece to check on their property, thinking she would only have to take the rugs out. Instead, she found that most of the first floor is ruined.
Due to their situation, they have been unable to plan for what to do next.
“More and more people are coming down that had no idea how much damage they had,” Parker said.
Realtors are concerned about renting many of these damaged homes next summer. Before doing so, they are trying to get in touch with out-of-town owners to make sure they are taking the right steps to make their buildings clean and safe.
John Franzoni, a broker and owner of Oceanside Realty on Long Beach Island, said he and other realtors met this past week to discuss making sure the homes they rent next summer are ready to go. He was optimistic.
“They all feel they’ll be ready,” he said.
Still, he said, there are not enough certified contractors to do all of the work that needs to be done, so some contractors are telling homeowners they will not be able to get to their homes for weeks.
Pat Levis has experienced the storm cleanup from the perspective of both a primary resident and second homeowner. She lives in a condo on 55th Street in Ocean City, and she has a rental property on 56th Street.
“I registered (with FEMA) for my primary house, was originally told I could register for my secondary home, and then was told not to bother, because they won’t deal with secondary homes,” she said. “Then I was told they might.”
Like many property owners, her flood insurance does not cover debris outside her property or damage to her garage. Hauling away the sand that surrounded her rental property and repairing the breakaway walls will probably cost about $10,000.
“None of us had time to say we need three estimates,” she said about hiring someone to clean up in the days after the storm. “We just said, ‘OK, just do it.’”
About 77 percent of residential properties in Ocean City are owned by people who live off the island, about the same as communities such as Cape May Point, Longport and Wildwood Crest.
FEMA’s McCormack said he is unaware of any widespread efforts by people to claim their secondary property is their primary property to qualify for federal assistance. There are a number of documents required to submit a claim with the agency to demonstrate proof of residence, tax documents being one of them.
“They’re not going to get a check before FEMA checks,” he said.
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