VENTNOR, N.J. — Ellen Mogell owns Honey’s Sit ‘N Eat, for years a Southern-meets-Bubbie staple of Philadelphia’s quirky restaurant renaissance. But these days, she’s hanging her hat down the Shore.
Some of her fellow expat neighbors this winter in the beach town of Ventnor included a New York City financial services consultant who traded an apartment in Long Island City for a house three blocks from the ocean and affordable truffles; a former band member of the Psychedelic Furs who walks a Labradoodle in red canvas sneakers; and the Chairman family, whose dad Jimmy admits to feeling a bit self-conscious when he showed up to his kids soccer practice in Margate wearing the all-black street uniform of his former home in the big city.
They aren’t looking back. As part of a can’t-miss-them influx of “new locals,” they kept things busy over the winter for appreciative, pandemic-starved Shore businesses, discovered the calming rhythms of the offseason and even learned that heading off the island is properly known as going “offshore.”
“I like to walk the dogs to the edge of the continent,” Mogell said the other morning, speaking from her car where she was headed over the bridge into Philadelphia. Shhhhh. The line for soup dumplings on a recent rainy weekday night in March in Ventnor is already long enough.
A year ago, second-home owners were warned to stay away from offseason Shore towns during a pandemic that was threatening to strain local hospitals. They didn’t listen, preferring to hole up inside beach homes rather than apartments, ride out the coronavirus lockdown in less populated towns rather than anxious suburbs.
Others bought at the Shore for the first time, driving up real estate prices and creating a frenzy of bidding wars. In Ocean County, median sales prices in January and February jumped 38.5% to $360,000 from a year ago, with nearly 500 units sold, a jump of 17.2%, according to statistics compiled by Bright MLS. Some realized that renting year-round in a Shore town is a bargain, and houses a few blocks from the beach could be bought in some towns with mortgages requiring a fraction of what they were paying in rent in big cities.
“Once you step off the hamster wheel of New York,” says Danielle Yatco, the analyst who bought a home in Ventnor, where her mortgage is half what she paid in rent in New York City, and where her sister, Galit Schwarz, also relocated, “it’s hard to go back.”
Atlantic City, often overlooked in coastal real estate booms, has also seen an uptick in prices, according to the National Association of Realtors, which recorded a 30% increase in the last quarter of 2020, some renewed interest in its under-the-radar neighborhoods, and even a New York City civil engineer working remotely inside a newly purchased house a block from the inlet.
Emanuel Nieves, a D.C. policy analyst, and his wife, Roxana Perez Nieves, an education consultant, returned to their hometown from Washington, D.C., in 2019 and bought a 100-year-old olive-green, bungalow-style house in January 2020 in the A.C.’s Venice Park neighborhood, sandwiched between the Penrose Canal and the intracoastal waterway.
Perez Nieves had gotten a job with Stockton University’s Gear Up college bound program, working with students in Atlantic City and Pleasantville, and Nieves could continue to work from home with his job with Liberation in a Generation, a nonprofit building the power of people of color in the economy.
“We headed down to D.C., our degrees were in political science,” said Nieves. As they looked for homes to purchase in Atlantic City, he could tell others were on to the advantages of his hometown, which has also been working to help its many renters look to buy first homes. Investors have also been turning the city’s housing stock into lucrative short-term rentals.
“It was clear there was a lot of competition,” Nieves said. “It’s incredibly affordable for a place so close to the water. It signaled that a lot of people were looking at places to escape the craziness of the pandemic.”
Even as unemployed casino workers stood in food lines, the mini-exodus from big cities meant another category of Shore worker saw banner winters: mortgage brokers, real estate agents, construction workers, plumbers and handymen of all types.
“Our summer people came down here and never left,” said Ventnor Police Chief Doug Biagi, who is also the town’s school board president.
Ventnor, whose year-round population is around 10,000, has absorbed the shoobies-turned-newbies without any problem, Biagi said, beyond, maybe, their propensity to leave car doors unlocked, leading to burglaries.
“The initial shock from people was, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if we can handle this,’ ” Biagi said. “The truth is, we can, we did, and nothing changes. You look down the beach blocks, and there were cars in front of houses.”
Inside were people who suddenly realized things needed work, especially in homes not built for year-round inhabitants. “Anyone with a hammer and dry wall made money this year,” Biagi said.
Steve Marchel, owner of Ventnor’s Water Dog Smoke House, a trendy favorite of new locals missing the artisanal cafe-packed streets of their former lives, said business was up about 30% this winter, much of it from people who would typically not appear until Memorial Day.
As bidding wars broke out over Shore properties, Marchel’s relatively higher price points for his house-smoked pastrami and artisanal smoked salmon fit right in. “The disposable income in our area is very underrated,” he said.
In Ventnor, former Queens, N.Y.-based television producer Jimmy Chairman is now running a business, Fix Your Shot, that helps people with video conferencing, from his in-law’s beach house. His kids, Annabel, 8, and Chase, 5, are enrolled in Ventnor Elementary.
“For me, the small town life has been perfect,” Chairman said.
Chairman and the others have formed an expat community, with Schwarz, a hospitality sales and marketing consultant from New York City now acting as unofficial mayor from her cozy second story porch, where she tends to her Shiba Inus and waves to her retired casino pit boss neighbor. Schwarz takes credit for convincing the nearby Red Room Cafe to add hot honey pizza to their menu.
“You don’t feel like you sold out and went to the suburbs,” Schwarz said.
These new locals are happy to shed the label of shoobie, the nickname for the Shore’s summer people. “Our heart is this island,” Chairman said. “I haven’t felt the divide.”
Mogell, the Honey’s owner, is already anticipating a packed summer. “On my tiny street, I have a driveway,” she said. “But I park on the street.” Spoken like a true local.
Meanwhile, in Avalon, Realtor Jack Binder said the last year has been crazier than any he can remember, and prices soared 10 or 15%. The island was noticeably busier over the winter, he said.
“From March 11 to April 23, I twiddled my thumbs and quarantined,” Binder said, speaking of 2020. “From April 23, I have never worked so hard.”
“Who’s coming here? We see everybody. Finance people, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers. People are diversifying portfolios and dumping money down here.”
In North Wildwood, business owners who chafed under lockdown restrictions last summer welcomed the jump in offseason business, said Mayor Patrick Rosenello. He said water and sewage usage was up, and Cape May County officials noted steep increases in 2020′s online bookings.
Jeanna Kiker came from Doylestown with her son to try living in their North Wildwood house and attending Wildwood Catholic Academy, which was full time in-person. After the first day of school, and a taste of the laid-back life of an island kid, she said, her son was sold. And so, now, is the likely fate of the house in Doylestown.
“Everybody I’ve encountered, it’s like open arms,” she said. “My son feels exactly the same way. It’s amazing how kind everyone has been. I think I’m meeting the real locals. I say it’s the salt air. Even my dogs chill out.”