TUCKERTON, N.J. — When Michael Savage trudged up to his beach bungalow near Tuckerton Bay days after Hurricane Sandy, the smell of rotting fish hit him immediately. Two freezers of tuna caught a few weeks before had turned over, spilling blood and fish into the floodwater and soaking furniture, rugs, and less replaceable belongings, like photos and baby books. The oak wood floors had buckled up like a mountain.
Savage turned to his wife, Carol, and said the words hundreds of people would utter in the months after Sandy hit five years ago: "We have to tear it all down."
Now, the Savages' home is about 10 feet higher — elevated to conform with new building requirements to minimize future flood damage. It's a mini-mansion in the changing blue-collar fishing town, larger and more "beachy" than some of the houses nearby.
Up and down the New Jersey coastline, houses have gotten bigger, taller, and, with few exceptions, pricier since Sandy pummeled the Shore on Oct. 29, 2012. Year-round ownership continues to decline as buyers snap up second homes, undeterred by the possibility of another devastating storm.
Median home prices have risen, with few exceptions, since before Sandy, according to Zillow. In Tuckerton, a mainland borough in Ocean County, the overall change was gradual: Houses sold for an average of $170,500 in August 2012, compared with $198,000 last August. But by the bay, where most of the newer houses have been built, they're going for $400,000 to $500,000, prices the town has never seen before.
"All the little two-bedroom bungalows are being replaced with four- or five- or six-bedroom elevated houses," said Karen O'Neill, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers New Brunswick, author of Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy.
"More and more communities are seeing residences flip from year-round to seasonal — especially in less wealthy communities — and different people are moving in," O'Neill said. "The storms wiped out the poorer homeowners who didn't have flood insurance or who couldn't afford to rebuild." Those who could, faced with new height requirements, figured if they were going taller, they might as well go bigger, as well.
Sandy damaged or destroyed at least 650,000 homes. About 346,000 of them were in New Jersey, according to insurance claims filed with the state. The storm, categorized as a hurricane while it was offshore and then a "superstorm" after it made landfall, caused $71.5 billion in economic damage, making it, at the time, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, according to the National Hurricane Center. Damage from Hurricane Harvey this year is expected to surpass that from Sandy.
It would be wrong to attribute all the fancy new houses to the storm. The Shore's housing stock was aging out long before Sandy hit. Houses passed down from one generation to the next became harder to keep up, and the culture of spending entire summers at the Shore had changed for many families.
Developers realized decades ago that they could build two houses where one aging cottage with a big backyard once stood, increasing their resale value or rental prospects.
But Sandy speeded things up.
"It wasn't random; the storm took down homes that were older and built to different codes," said Kevin Gillen, a senior economic adviser at Houwzer, a Philadelphia real estate agency. "Sandy has accelerated the Shore's gentrification by knocking down the least-valuable homes. Meanwhile, over decades, beachfront land became more valuable."
The Savages added a widow's walk and two upstairs circular balconies to the back of their home. There's an outdoor elevator to hoist up groceries, and, at times, Mike Savage's 99-year-old mother when she comes to visit. Being up high has its advantages: The green-headed flies don't swarm up there, not to mention the view.
New construction regulations following the storm required higher elevations for new or substantially rehabbed homes in flood zones. Homeowners who built higher (or raised existing homes) saw previously sky-high flood insurance rates plummet.
To get the house they wanted, the Savages had to hire an engineering firm from Avalon, where the median house price rose from $951,000 in 2012 to $1.2 million today.
"They all thought I was crazy to build this here," Mike Savage said. "The builders here weren't building the way we wanted this. Now, you go down to the bay, you see some pretty nice homes."
In towns like Avalon, the houses that inspired the Savages' design are getting bigger. Jack Vizzard, a real estate broker there, said the town continues to attract second-home owners from the Philadelphia suburbs, South Jersey, and, increasingly, North Jersey and New York.
"They come down, and they don't even blink at the number, even though Avalon's pretty pricey," Vizzard said. "What costs $7 million here costs $21 million in the Hamptons, and … it probably takes about the same time to get here."
Vizzard, who lives year-round in Avalon and is a firefighter there, has sold to families whose Shore homes were wiped out in Point Pleasant or Long Beach Island. They tried Avalon for a summer, he said, and liked it.
Anthony Marotta, a Realtor in Margate, said business is booming there. "They're taking down tiny little saltboxes and building 2,500-square-foot second homes."
He was quick to attribute much of the development to low interest rates and people having more confidence in the housing market. In Avalon, for example, only six houses out of 5,000 were reported damaged by Sandy, yet 368 have gone up since then, borough clerk Marie Hood said.
"Margate has always been affluent," Marotta said, "but you drive through today, you'll see no less than 15 Bentley convertibles running around in any given weekend. That wasn't the case three years ago."
Lower-income towns, like Brigantine, with more year-round residents, are not seeing the kind of rapid home appreciation as other towns. Median home values there decreased from $309,100 in August 2012 to $287,000 in August.
Tuckerton was an early U.S. port and historically a clamming and fishing village. Of the 618 houses in the Tuckerton Beach special flood zone area, 90 percent were damaged or destroyed. As of September, 219 new houses — defined as those that were substantially improved or raised to meet new code requirements — went up in town. If there's a silver lining, it's that Sandy wiped away many of the blighted or abandoned houses, Tuckerton municipal construction official Phil Reed said. Bigger houses replaced them, meaning more taxable property.
"At the end of it, we'll be a much better, more resilient community," Reed said. "The end could be another five years away, and God forbid we get hit with another one."
Tuckerton is still composed of a majority of year-round owners, but by the bay, more seasonal homeowners are moving in.
"We're seeing basically young, working professionals, people we used to call yuppies, dual-income, no kids, building very elaborate houses, well above the minimums, to a different standard than we're used to seeing," Reed said. "We have a lot less empty storefronts, and older storefronts in town are starting to get rehabbed."
Pinelands Brewing Co. opened up two years ago two miles from the bay, and a cross-fit gym and cafe with connected art gallery opened recently.
Reed estimates 15 percent of homeowners with damage decided they couldn't rebuild. "Older generations that had these houses paid five or 10 thousand for them. They can't fathom $300,000."
Jim Marra and his wife, Mary Ella, walked away from their home on Parker Road in Tuckerton after Sandy dealt them a double dose of grief. At the same time the storm took out their vacation home dating to 1972, an oak tree fell onto the roof of their two-story Dutch Colonial in Upper Dublin in Montgomery County. Marra, a professor at Temple for 28 years, had just retired.
Faced with having to rebuild two houses, the Marras decided to raze their flooded-out bungalow and sell. One of the deciding factors was how high they'd have to build and how the stairs might affect them as they got older.
Now, one of the highest houses on the block, a 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath structure raised 12 feet, sits where Marra's family cottage once stood.
Carmen Cutro, 50, bought the lot for $160,000 from the Marras. He estimates he spent close to $500,000 on the lot and the house. "It's amazing up and down the block, almost kind of like a new rejuvenation. Something's going up every day," he said
Marra was faced with the unpredictability of future storms, his own age, and a weakening connection to a town that had grown less familiar. Yet five years later, he still wonders whether selling was the right call.