COVID-19 was devastating for many businesses. Restaurants, health clubs, movie theaters and other enterprises suffered substantial losses due to pandemic shutdowns. However, one industry thrived during the worst of COVID-19: real estate.
Fueled by an out-migration from urban areas and supported by record-low interest rates, the suburban New Jersey real estate market remained blazing hot through the dead of winter and well into the summer. Brokers reported unprecedented traffic and bidding wars once open house presentations resumed, and neighborhoods that were previously out of commuting range for buyers working from New York City became destination communities for employees who now worked remotely.
According to Robert Norman, president at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, New York City Metropolitan Area, the strong market transitioned almost seamlessly from the shutdown to the reopening of the economy.
“The market started to get back to normal by late spring-early summer,” Norman said. “While inventories remained low, buyers began to feel more comfortable visiting homes for sale, and sellers were more willing to allow people to tour their homes. The low inventories created a seller’s market. Our research showed that early in 2021, one in five people wanted to sell their homes. Unfortunately, many did not list their homes because they were afraid, they wouldn’t be able to find a home to buy.”
Norman noted that Coldwell Banker agents adapted quickly to the COVID restrictions. He believes that their more effective use of video, social media and teleconferencing platforms are a few of the positive byproducts of the shutdown that are here to stay.
Robert White, president-elect of New Jersey Realtors®, also cited low inventories and a desire to flee urban environments as driving forces in the marketplace. In June, there was a 1.9-month supply of single-family homes in New Jersey. The normal supply is about four months.
“Small communities are thriving,” White said. “New Jersey Realtors are working with people from some of the Garden State’s urban areas as well as buyers from New York and Pennsylvania. Families like the feel of small communities with walkable downtowns and transportation hubs. While many buyers have moved farther from the cities because they can work remotely, they still appreciate the convenience of commuter rail and bus service.”
White noted that the Jersey Shore has been an especially popular destination for buyers coming into the state. Communities from the Highlands to Cape May are much in demand. Shore communities tend to be more intimate, and they offer the outdoor space that former city dwellers crave. In addition to downtown shopping and dining districts, many coastal communities are characterized by strollable beaches and colorful boardwalks.
“Another factor driving the strong real estate market is a surge of younger people who are choosing to buy rather than rent,” White added. “Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages have been hovering around 3% in recent years. Smart young buyers are choosing to lock in these low rates while they can.”
White expects that the market will stay strong well into 2022. He believes markets will begin to normalize and absorb pent-up demand once building material prices stabilize and new-home builders contribute more housing units to the inventory.
One homebuilder that is bullish on New Jersey real estate is Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers.
“We continue to operate at a very high level with strong demand across the Garden State,” said Craig Cherry, Toll Brothers division president for New Jersey. “We are encouraged by the strength of the housing market, and the limited resale supply continues to drive buyers to our new construction communities.”
Much like homebuyers around the state, visitors to Toll Brothers are choosing where they want to live and not where their job previously required them to live. Toll Brothers has a variety of options, including single-family homes, active adult communities and carriage-style townhome enclaves.
“We’re finding our homebuyers are looking for more square footage, personalization options and more open space within their neighborhoods,” he added. “Since many people are working remotely, home offices and niches for work or school are popular features in most of our floorplans. Our build-to-order business model is also well-suited for this trend.”
Although many people have left cities, like Manhattan, for suburban locations, Jacqueline Urgo, president of The Marketing Directors, sees former city dwellers returning to urban markets. The Marketing Directors is a development advisory and master property marketing and sales force that works exclusively on behalf of property owners and new-home builders.
“We actually started to see a positive shift in the market as early as January with an uptick in rental and sales activity in urban areas, like Jersey City, Hoboken and Harrison,” Urgo said. “These historically popular urban locations were significantly impacted by the shutdown, with widespread closures of restaurants, retail and nightlife, and residents that no longer needed to be near mass transit to get to work in New York City. But with more and more people getting vaccinated and restrictions being lifted, coupled with companies having sent out notices of return to in-person work schedules, we’ve seen a huge influx of residents coming back to these neighborhoods.”
Urgo believes we are likely to see some hybrid version of remote working and a return to the office as the year progresses.
“Quite honestly, I think a lot of workers are just tired of Zoom calls and juggling kids and pets and other interruptions while trying to get their work done,” she said. “People also miss the interaction you get from really being face to face as opposed to being just faces on a screen.”
As the entire country readjusts from unprecedented disruptions in everyday life, it is clear that people are reconsidering where and how they live. No one yet knows which changes brought about by the pandemic will endure and which will fall by the wayside. However, one thing is sure. Our perception of the road ahead has been forever altered by the COVID-19 experience.
Stan Lemond is an award-winning marketing consultant and writer who has more than 40 years of experience. His work has appeared in The Star-Ledger, Staten Island Advance, Trenton Times and South Jersey Times as well as Jersey’s Best.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.