When Daniel and Dana Smith bought their Ventnor Heights home in 2009, it was “a little rough around the edges.”
There was an oil tank in the backyard that needed to be removed. It needed new floors and carpeting. After Hurricane Sandy, they had to raise the 1950s cottage. But the property cost $165,000 and was within a few blocks of the beach, which was where the couple wanted to raise their three kids, Daniel, 7, Nora, 4, and Carter, 1, after they both grew up on Absecon Island.
Dana can run the Ventnor Boardwalk every morning before she heads to work as a claims examiner for the state. After school, they take the kids to the park at Somerset Avenue, right next to the beach. When the weather is nice, they’ll walk a few blocks down Dorset Avenue for an ice cream from Custard’s Last Stand or a latte from Ventnor Coffee. They just bought Daniel Jr. his first surfboard.
“The best part about living here is when the kids will get out of school in September, we’ll go down and have dinner on the beach,” Daniel Smith said. “The water is still warm, the crowds are gone. That’s when I really enjoy it.”
Since moving in, Smith said he has seen several other young families buy homes in the Heights and live in the community year-round, particularly because of its affordability and proximity to the beach. Many of the families were either lifelong friends of the Smiths or have become regulars at impromptu Friday night barbecues.
OCEAN CITY — The words may be empty, but the lots are not.
But the Heights, which has maintained its affordability, is likely the exception in New Jersey’s shore communities, not the rule. Nowadays, if there are young families in beach towns throughout New Jersey, they are likely just visiting. As real estate in shore towns grows ever more expensive, it is becoming increasingly difficult for young families like the Smiths to call New Jersey’s shore communities home.
“If you drive around, look at new construction. No one is building working-class or middle-class construction anymore,” said Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Gillen studies the housing market at the Jersey Shore and found that in 2014, sales of shore houses and condos priced at $1 million or more reached all-time highs — even higher than during the peak years of the housing boom. Between the 2000 and 2010 Census, Brigantine lost 519 households with children under the age of 18. Ventnor lost about 300, and Ocean City lost nearly 400. During that time, Ocean City lost a total of 3,677 year-round residents, about 24 percent of its 2000 population.
“More and more, we are becoming a second-home market,” said Margaret Guber-Nulty, vice president of Berkshire Hathaway’s Margate office, who estimated that about 80 percent of her sales are for second homes. “We lost a lot of our primary market over the last 10 to 15 years to the offshore market.”
In some communities, this trend has alarmed local officials, who are trying — with mixed results — to make their towns more welcoming to young residents.
Ocean City changed zoning regulations to encourage single-family housing and protect areas of town where there is apartment housing, in an effort to keep families.
One of those housing developments is Costeria Cottages, a neighborhood of 18 homes that was zoned for two houses to be built on one single-family lot in an effort to keep the asking price affordable. But after the developer broke ground on the project, prices for the homes started at $499,900.
Marge Gurbuz, 45, has lived on the island year-round since 1987 and is currently renting while her daughter, Gianna, attends fifth grade. Gurbuz works as a database specialist for the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, and said that $500,000 for a home in Ocean City is out of her price range. To her, owning a home in the resort town would mean stability for her and her family. She worries that her rent will increase as home values continue to rise and more landlords opt out of renting their units out year-round, offering them as summer vacation rentals instead.
“You are only as good as your current lease,” she said. “It’s the community that I know and love. It’s where our lives are based.”
She said Gianna has spent her entire childhood in the Ocean City school system, and moving her out of it is out of the question.
Brian Musto, who lives in Brigantine and has worked in real estate for 30 years, said the city’s north side, near the golf course, is one place that remains affordable. For $300,000 in Brigantine and Ventnor Heights, a family can find a home that’s comparable to one in Atlantic County’s mainland communities. In Ocean City, that home may be a condo or a smaller bungalow, he said. As the housing market stabilizes, he said, now may be the time for young families to begin moving back into these communities.
But Gillen’s research shows that Sandy took the largest toll on older homes near the bayside in shore communities, which is typically where young families can afford to live. In their place, larger, luxury homes are being constructed.
To Paul Amalfitano, who has lived in Brigantine for 15 years with his wife, Kira, being in a small community close to the beach is worth the price tag. The Amalfitanos purchased Kira’s grandfather’s 1960s home on Washington Avenue.
The couple, parents of three children aged 9, 8, and 6, said many families they know in Brigantine bought their homes under similar circumstances — either through a family member or a personal friend. The small-town feel of Brigantine, where Paul said people frequently wave to one another or stop to chat on the street, makes it the type of community they always wanted for their children.
“I think there is still a place here for young families,” Paul said. “When you think of economics and taxes, it’s a strain, but I’ve always been taught that if it’s something you believe in, you find a way.”
Contact Christie Rotondo: