Facing a Covid-19 lockdown in a New York apartment with two preschoolers, Kevin Ostrowski and Laura Altmayer moved last spring to Sparta, where they had recently bought a vacation house on Lake Mohawk.
“What was supposed to be a weekend house became our refuge in the spring, and our summer house in the summer,” says Ostrowski, a sales executive in the tech industry who is able to work remotely. The family loves lake living—the boys have learned to fish—and has decided to stay for at least the next year.
Sherri Callahan, a tech-industry analyst, took a similar step, trading her Upper West Side apartment for a Tewksbury townhouse after concluding that a dense, urban environment put her at risk of catching Covid-19, and she might be happier in a greener landscape.
“I just wanted to not be in a concrete jungle,” Callahan says.
Moves like these are supercharging home sales and rentals in New Jersey, as households flee urban areas in search of home offices, backyards and more space to ride out stay-at-home protocols.
“This is the hottest market that I can remember. The demand has gone through the roof,” says Ron Giordano, a Cape May County real estate agent with 40 years’ experience.
“We have an exodus that I have not seen since the 1970s,” says Jeffrey Otteau of the Otteau Group in Matawan, a real estate valuation company that tracks home sales statewide.
Most striking is the new popularity of exurban areas with a lot of breathing room, like Sussex and Hunterdon counties. That’s a reversal of long-term trends favoring more urban, walkable lifestyles in places like Hudson County and well-established suburbs on commuter rail lines. It reflects the expectation that, even after Covid-19 passes, many residents will be able to continue working from home, with less concern about commuting distances.
“Working remotely has made all the difference,” says Paula Anastasio, a Weichert agent in Hunterdon County, where some eager buyers have made offers after seeing homes only by video chat, not in person.
Sale contracts were up 37 percent statewide in July 2020 over July 2019, with gains in all counties, according to an analysis by the Otteau Group. The five counties with the largest increases in July were Hunterdon, Sussex, Morris, Monmouth and Cape May—all outside the inner-ring counties that offer the easiest commutes.
Another surprise: Sale agreements for homes priced over $2.5 million—a small market that typically moves slowly—more than doubled in July compared with a year earlier as affluent, urban buyers, accustomed to high housing costs, decided they’d rather get more space for their money outside the city.
“The luxury market is definitely stronger than we’ve seen in a long time,” says Eileen Meehan, an agent with Keller Williams Village Square Realty in Ridgewood. In Upper Saddle River, she said, two to four homes sell for over $2 million each in a typical year. This year, she expects closer to 12 sales in that price range.
Prices at all levels have been pumped up as the inventory of available homes has shrunk by 40 percent. Otteau forecasts an average 6 percent rise in home values statewide this year, and real estate agents describe bidding wars that blow right past asking prices.
A four-bedroom, bi-level home in Ringwood, in northern Passaic County, for example, drew 18 offers in five days in mid-August and sold for $491,0000—$41,000 over asking price.
“Anything under $500,000 is selling like hotcakes,” says listing agent Orly Steinberg of Coldwell Banker.
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Even in urban Paterson, a three-bedroom with a big backyard and two-car garage, listed at just under $300,000, generated 32 offers.
“Inventory has been tight for a while, and once May hit, the market exploded,” says Elisa Kolenut, the listing agent from Coldwell Banker in Butler.
Moving from Manhattan to South Orange in August, publicist Molly Barnett and lawyer Dave Larkin paid $836,000 for a five-bedroom ranch listed at $798,000. In this hot market, “making an offer at list price was not an option,” Larkin says.
As expectant parents, Barnett and Larkin had decided to move even before the pandemic hit. But months of quarantine made it easier to leave the city.
“All of a sudden, the idea of a backyard where you could be outdoors without a mask, and space for a home office, became much more important,” Barnett says.
The pandemic has also increased the appetite for weekend getaways. Pearce DeLisle and Amy Hatton, marketing professionals living in Jersey City, recently bought a second home on Lake Hopatcong in Jefferson Township.
After months of lockdown at home, they wanted a change of scenery and a place that felt like a little taste of vacation.
“Remote work allowed us to think outside of proximity to New York,” De Lisle says. “We have options outside of a 1,000-square-foot condo. We could get space to entertain and space for ourselves.”
Covid-19 had severely depressed New Jersey home sales in the spring, when unemployment soared and home showings seemed too risky. But activity rebounded strongly in June and July, wiping out the earlier deficit. In all, 4,158 more New Jersey homes went under contract this July than in July 2019, according to Otteau. Data indicates that by the end of August, year-to-date sales contracts in the state were up by 2 percent over the 2019 pace—despite an unemployment rate that might have been expected to drag down activity as much as 30 percent, Otteau says.
Before the pandemic disrupted the market, the demand for homes in New Jersey had been strong, as the large millennial generation took advantage of interest rates under 3 percent to buy first homes in the suburbs, says James Hughes, dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
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Otteau, who tracks housing sales statewide, identifies 10 spots where activity has popped in the Covid-19-fueled boom:
Cape May County
These Shore towns, which share a seven-mile barrier island, have a median home price upwards of $1.5 million. One of the largest mansions on the Jersey Shore sits atop Avalon’s dunes, a nearly 15,000-square-foot home (13 bathrooms!) built by the heir to the Pennsylvania-based Utz snack empire.
In Avalon, sale contracts rose from 22 in July 2019 to 54 in July 2020, a 145 percent increase. Stone Harbor sale contracts tripled, from 10 to 30 homes. Recent listings are mostly above seven figures, including a $10.7 million bayfront home.
Only three blocks wide, the island is primarily a summer community for residents from Philadelphia and its Main Line suburbs. The year-round population generally hovers at about 2,000, but the summer season was extended this year when many schools went remote. The combination of coronavirus fears and social unrest in Philadelphia this summer increased demand for both sales and rentals, says Giordano, with Long & Foster Real Estate in Stone Harbor. “They’re flocking to fresh air.”
Think horse farms, country roads and a short shot to the beach. This Monmouth County hamlet holds great appeal for those looking for space; 1-acre-plus properties are common, and large swaths of land have been preserved from development.
Bruce Springsteen lives on a 400-acre horse farm here, and many of the homes run in the seven-figure range. But there are also choices under that million-dollar mark. Sale contracts were up 162 percent this July over last, rising from 13 to 34 homes, as buyers sought space and privacy.
Sales were brisk in other upscale Monmouth County towns as well, with people seeking beach houses in towns like Sea Girt and Spring Lake. The pandemic spurred an uptick in the sale of second homes and a shift by some city dwellers to spend more time in those homes, real estate agents say. And just west of the beaches, but not too far from the Garden State Parkway, families from New York City’s boroughs have flocked to suburbs like Marlboro and Manalapan, with their highly regarded schools.
Home-sale contracts were 76 percent higher in July 2020 than in the previous July in this busy Central Jersey suburb.
With a population of just over 100,000, Edison is a hub for the state’s growing Asian community and home to dozens of ethnicities. Recent listings reflect housing stock that’s as varied as the township’s demographics, ranging from converted 1960s-era garden apartments for under $100,000, to million-dollar new builds in the northern part of the township.
The median home price is about $400,000; the most active price point recently is in the $500,000–$700,000 range, says Sanjeev Aneja, owner of On Track Realty.
Demand has been high in this suburb of Camden and Philadelphia, with home-sale contracts up 69 percent in July 2020 over last year, rising from 74 to 125.
Philadelphia hasn’t seen a coronavirus exodus like New York City’s, but low interest rates, combined with pent-up demand following the housing crash a decade ago, have juiced the market in the past few years, says John Moore of Re/Max One Realty in the township.
Inventory is tight, in part because people are reluctant to list and show their homes during the pandemic, Moore says.
At the intersection of the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295, Mount Laurel is home to about 42,000 residents and has a wide range of housing. Single-family development commenced in the 1960s, followed by a spate of townhouse and condominium developments. Most recently, some larger seven-figure homes have been built.
Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the township was also at the center of court battles that spawned the so-called Mount Laurel doctrine, which ensures that New Jersey towns zone for affordable housing.
This sprawling, 37.5-square-mile township, population 22,400, surrounds the historic borough of Flemington like a donut around a hole. The township is a retail hub for Hunterdon County and is convenient to services like Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington.
“You’re closer to everything,” says Anastasio, a Weichert agent based in Flemington. Still, the township retains its rural roots: A total of 15.5 percent of its acreage consists of parks, open space or preserved farmland. And Delaware River recreation isn’t far away.
In July, 64 homes went into contract, double the number in July 2019, according to Otteau.
“Everything is selling within a week, and we’re getting multiple offers; I’m talking six or eight offers,” says Carol Ann Suddeath, a Re/Max broker in Bedminster and a resident of Raritan Township. Homes recently on the market ranged from a one-bedroom condo in a garden complex listed at $142,000 to a five-bedroom colonial to be built on 45 acres, listed at $1.6 million.
This woodsy town of 12,000 is home to three lake communities, a state park and the New Jersey Botanical Garden at Skylands.
Ringwood’s hilly terrain—the winding Skyline Drive is a major route in and out—poses commuting challenges in the winter. But with the explosion in telecommuting, pandemic-weary city residents have turned to northern Passaic County. Home contracts in Ringwood were up 76 percent this July over last, rising from 21 to 37, according to Otteau.
“We’re seeing a migration out of the city—from Brooklyn and Manhattan—to areas that are close to nature,” says Steinberg, of Coldwell Banker in Ringwood, noting that the borough has more than 100 miles of hiking trails.
Homes with pools are in particular demand, and Steinberg has seen an uptick in people purchasing second homes, particularly in the lake communities—Erskine, Cupsaw and Skyline—which started as summer communities early in the last century before evolving into year-round neighborhoods.
With a population of 22,500 spread over 21 square miles, and located 46 miles from Times Square, Roxbury is “semi-rural without being too far out from the city,” says Bernard Goodman, a Re/Max broker in the Succasunna section of the township.
About 25 percent of current buyers are people moving from urban areas because of Covid-19, he says. Sale contracts more than doubled in July compared to a year earlier, with 58 contracts signed. Homes recently on the market included many in the $400,000–$700,000 range—affordable by Morris County standards.
Roxbury borders Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest lake. The township doesn’t have a traditional downtown shopping district; instead, there are shopping centers along routes 10 and 46. The enclosed Ledgewood Mall in the township, built in the early 1970s, is being renovated into an open-air center called Ledgewood Commons.
A diverse population, a lively downtown, an NJ Transit train connection to New York, and access to nature at adjacent South Mountain Reservation make South Orange popular with first-time buyers from New York City, says Victoria Carter, a Weichert agent in Short Hills.
“It’s a very good transition town when you’re used to living in the city,” she says. She estimates that prices have risen 10 percent since Covid-19 hit, and that demand has halved the supply of homes on the market. According to Otteau, 39 homes went into contract in July, up from 17 in July 2019.
“People are looking for outdoor space and interior space as well, for working and teaching at home,” Carter says. Recent properties on the market ranged from a two-bedroom condo listed at $249,000 to a six-bedroom colonial with a pool, listed at $1.35 million.
South Orange, which has a population of 16,700, shares its public schools with Maplewood and is home to Seton Hall University.
Since Covid-19 hit, demand for homes in Sparta has been “through-the-roof crazy,” with buyers from New York City, Jersey City and Hoboken, says Christine Tremain, a Weichert agent in the township. There were 68 home contracts in July, up from 36 in July 2019.
Vintage 1930s homes in the popular Lake Mohawk community, with rustic details like fieldstone fireplaces, sell in the $300,000–$500,000 range.
Four-bedroom colonials in other parts of the township, built in the last 25 years or so, sell in the $400,000-$600,000 range, and larger houses go for as much as $900,000, Tremain says.
Schools are highly rated, and the township, which has a population of 18,575, offers a traditional Main Street shopping district and the quaint, Tudor-style White Deer Plaza, with a boardwalk overlooking the lake and establishments like Alpine Creamery, an ice cream shop, and St. Moritz Grill and Bar.
Upper Saddle River
This leafy borough, population 8,200, has spacious properties—much of the town has 1-acre zoning—and lofty home values, with recent listings in a broad $500,000–$4.9 million range. The borough doesn’t have a downtown, but proximity to routes 17 and 287 adds convenience.
There were 42 home-sale contracts in July, compared with 12 in July 2019. Some of the additional activity is the result of a new townhouse development on the site of the former Pearson Education publishing company, which moved to Hoboken several years ago as part of a trend away from suburban office locations.
Meehan reports a spike in interest from young families who, in earlier years, might have raised their children in Hoboken or New York City, but now seek highly rated schools and more space.
“Backyard pools have become almost a must-have,” Meehan says. “Summer camps were canceled, and what are you doing with kids who can’t go to school or camp? How do you entertain them?”
Meehan says property taxes are relatively low because the borough sends high school students to Northern Valley Regional High School, and because the borough is served by wells and septic systems, rather than municipal water and sewers.