By Donald Wittkowski
For home buyers at the Jersey Shore, now is a good time to jump into the market. Prices are attractive, inventory is up and mortgage rates are down.
All of those factors mean that the primary home market in Ocean City is strong, said Steve Booth regional manager for Berkshire Hathaway Home Services and Fox & Roach Realtors.
“Ocean City’s primary market is hot compared to the secondary market,” he said.
Sales of vacation homes, though, have slowed down amid uncertainty about the financial markets, tax policy and the presidential election, Booth noted.
“It’s not a real comfortable time to be going out on a limb on secondary homes,” he said. “Uncertainty is not good.”
Home sales in Ocean City were growing briskly through the first quarter of 2016, but began to fall off once uncertainty took over in the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Booth explained. For the year, sales are down about 6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, he said.
Despite an overall decline so far this year, Booth stressed that the market remains reasonably robust, including sales and rentals.
“It’s good,” Booth said. “If you’re looking at it year to year, there are always people who want to live at the shore.”
Booth has a broad view of the marketplace from his position at Berkshire Hathaway and Fox & Roach. He oversees nine offices and 350 agents from Brigantine to Stone Harbor. Five of the offices are in Ocean City, where his company leads the market in sales. He noted Berkshire Hathaway and Fox & Roach are also No. 1 in sales in Brigantine and Margate.
The seashore housing market continues to recover from the real estate bubble from 2005 to 2007, which foreshadowed the recession of 2008 and 2009. Booth pointed out that vacation homes can be particularly susceptible to economic downturns because they are considered “a desire, not a need.”
“We got hit in the recession and got hit hard,” he said. “Historically, we’re a desire, not a need. So whenever people are starting to feel uncomfortable, we get hit first. But we come back.”
Low mortgage rates and a good selection of homes are helping to drive sales. Rental properties continue to be a strong segment of the market, reflecting Ocean City’s drawing power as a vacation retreat for families in the Philadelphia area. Rentals were up in 2015 and continue to climb in 2016, roughly in the range of 3 percent to 5 percent, Booth said.
“It’s a stable part of the lifestyle in the Philadelphia marketplace to come to the shore for a week during the year,” he said.
Whether it’s Ocean City, Sea Isle City or other beach towns, shore vacations have become “a rite” for generations of families, Booth explained.
“When you were a kid, you were coming to Ocean City. Now, your kids are grown up and they’re coming to Ocean City,” he said.
Booth’s own family has longtime ties to Ocean City. His grandmother, Jean Campbell, opened the iconic Chatterbox restaurant at Ninth Street and Central Avenue in the 1930s and continued to own it until the 1960s. His late father, George Booth, was a postal clerk in town. His mother, Elizabeth, still lives in the Warwick Avenue home where he grew up.
The 58-year-old Booth has been in the Ocean City real estate industry since 1984. He briefly worked at the Sharp Real Estate office on 55th Street , before switching to Hager Real Estate about a year later.
Hager was founded by his relatives. Booth was interviewed for a job at Hager by his cousin, Richard Booth.
“We shook hands and he told me that if it didn’t work out, it would be just like every other employer and employee,” Booth said. “That’s the way I wanted it.”