Baby boomers returning to New Jersey beaches this summer in search of childhood memories are discovering something else: surging real estate prices.
Home prices along the shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May have more than doubled since 2000, said Bonnie Fitzgerald, president-elect of the New Jersey Association of Realtors. That compares with a 62 percent increase in the rest of the state, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.
"I've been waiting for a few years for prices to stabilize and it hasn't happened yet," said Fitzgerald, who has spent 22 years as a real estate agent in Ocean County, which includes the towns of Point Pleasant, Bayhead and Barnegat Light.
The rise in prices along the 127-mile stretch of Atlantic Ocean coast is three times as fast as in the rest of the nation, according to data from the association.
John J. Swanick, a partner at a Philadelphia area accounting firm, is one of those who returned to his old summer haunts. He bought a place in 1992 in Sea Isle City, where he vacationed as a child. Swanick, 44, currently owns three properties in town and said he may buy one more in the next few weeks. He estimates the four-bedroom townhouse he bought in January 2001 for $485,000 is now worth $1.3 million.
"People value real estate because it's bricks and mortar," said Swanick, a partner at Smart & Associates in Devon, Pa. "They value a vacation home because they've achieved the American dream."
Prior to 2000, New Jersey beachfront home prices rose about 5 percent a year, Fitzgerald said. The last time they fell was in 1990, when prices dropped as much as 40 percent, she said.
"People are realizing that real estate is a smart investment to make, a safe investment," said Fitzgerald. "It's one of the only investments where you're pretty much guaranteed to get a return on your money."
Most buyers in northern beach towns are from New York or northern New Jersey, while Philadelphia area residents tend to flock to destinations on Long Beach Island and south, Fitzgerald said.
The median sales price of an existing single-family home in the Atlantic City region rose 23 percent, to $217,400, in the first quarter of 2005 from a year earlier, and 20 percent, to $358,500, in Monmouth and Ocean counties, according to data compiled by the National Association of Realtors.
Buyers are benefiting as mortgage rates have fallen for four straight quarters. The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage dropped to 5.71 percent in the second quarter, from 6.13 percent a year earlier, according to Fannie Mae.
There are costs and risks unique to owning beachfront property, real estate agents said. Flood insurance, property taxes and beach erosion all are concerns of homeowners in vacation destinations along the ocean. "Flood insurance has always been an issue," Fitzgerald said. "We've been fighting for years to keep it affordable."
Asbury Park, a city of 17,000 located about 30 miles south of New York, has become a haven for New Yorkers, said Jay Bernstein, a real estate agent with John C. Conover Agency. The city, made famous by Bruce Springsteen's 1973 album "Greetings From Asbury Park," has struggled to rejuvenate itself after years of neglect compounded damage done by race riots in July 1970.
New Yorkers began to rediscover Asbury Park about five years ago, drawn by affordable housing prices, Bernstein said. "Welcome to Asbury Park, a Work in Progress" was the headline on a June 26 New York Times article. A $1.5 billion, 65-acre waterfront redevelopment project, which includes 3,000 condos and 400,000 square feet of commercial space, is underway, he said.
Bernstein, who has been selling real estate in Asbury Park for five years, said a seven-bedroom Victorian that sold for $90,000 in 2000 is under contract for $750,000, while studio condominiums that were $45,000 five years ago now fetch $160,000.
Mike McTernan, a managing director at Lehman Brothers Inc., said he spent his summer vacations on Long Beach Island, where his parents had a house. He bought a home in Beach Haven Gardens in 1997, where his children -- ages 6, 5 and 3 -- now pass much of June and August. "It's fun, it's different, kids get to ride bikes everywhere," said McTernan, 40. "Ice cream, miniature golf courses -- it's just great memories for them."