Poconos home prices plunge but mortgages hard to find
by Kathleen Lynn/For The Star-Ledger
Tuesday August 25, 2009, 8:30 AM
For buyers turned off by North Jersey's high home prices and property taxes, the answer has long been: Go west, to the Poconos.
Expatriate transplants from North Jersey and the New York metropolitan area have swollen the population of what was once a rural vacation area.
In Monroe County, Pa., just across the Delaware Water Gap on Route 80, the population has soared 72 percent since 1990, to an estimated 165,000.
But the housing bust has slammed the Poconos, with prices down 20 percent over the past year, to a median $140,000. At the same time, foreclosures have risen. And buyers who'd like to take advantage of the lower prices often can't get mortgages.
All in all, veteran Poconos real estate professionals say, it's the worst market they've seen in decades.
"We have more houses than there are buyers in the market who can qualify to get a loan," said Kathy Louis of Kathy Louis Real Estate in Mount Pocono. "They (lenders) shut the valve completely off."
Now, the question is whether demand for housing in the Poconos will return as the real estate and mortgage markets recover. Buyers will always be drawn to affordable homes surrounded by mountains, forests and streams, some observers said.
"When the money loosens up, I'm sure they'll come flooding back," said Ginger Battisto of Ginger B Realty in Mount Pocono. "Who wouldn't want to live up here?"
But others say the rate of migration from New York and New Jersey is not likely to return to the levels of the first half of this decade. For one thing, said John Woodling, director of planning for Monroe County, environmental regulations and other restrictions will make home construction more difficult in the Poconos.
"The parcels of land that can be developed relatively easily -- there aren't that many left," Woodling said.
Moreover, more people from New York and New Jersey may decide they're not willing to make the required tradeoffs -- especially the long commute, which could become even more burdensome if gas prices soar again.
"People say, 'It's only 80 miles to Manhattan.' But it's 2Â½ hours in the morning and 2Â½ hours at night," said Christine Harvell, a Stroudsburg real estate agent who grew up in Lyndhurst.
Of course, commuters spend money as well as time: The bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal costs more than $460 a month.
Much as they might like to, many of those commuters can't find similar well-paying jobs in Monroe County.
While there are a few large employers -- the Tobyhanna Army Depot and Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of Sanofi-Aventis Group -- many of the county's jobs are in the construction industry, which is slumping badly in the housing bust, and the tourism industry, which generally does not offer paychecks large enough to support a family.
Sylvia and Ken Marohn, who have one child, moved to Stroudsburg about nine years ago to escape the traffic and high taxes of Long Island. Sylvia, a nurse, works at a hospital close to home, but her husband commutes at least 90 minutes each way -- longer if traffic's bad -- to a finance job in Lyndhurst. He leaves about 5:30 each morning.
While the commute is tough, living in the Poconos meant the Marohns could build a large, four-bedroom house for less than what a Cape Cod would cost in North Jersey. When they step out onto their deck, they're not looking into the neighbor's yard, because the nearest house is "two football fields away," Sylvia said.
Not everyone can adjust to a long commute. Eileen Chaladoff of Prudential Associates in East Stroudsburg, president of the Pocono Mountain Association of Realtors, said she sold a house two years ago to a couple who commuted to North Jersey. After only six months, they called her to say they were putting the property back on the market because they couldn't stand spending so much time on the road.
Tom Wilkins of Better Homes & Gardens/Wilkins and Associates said Poconos property taxes have risen to levels that might seem painfully familiar to North Jerseyans. Wilkins said he has a house listed for $141,000 that carries $8,000 in annual taxes.
Harvell, the Stroudsburg agent, says many people moving from North Jersey and the New York metropolitan area are often surprised by some aspects of life in the Poconos.
Depending on the location, she said, homeowners may encounter long school bus rides for their children; septic systems and wells instead of sewers and municipal water supply; and state police instead of municipal protection. Teens often complain there's not enough to do.
And a rise in crime -- even gang activity -- has been reported in some areas, including the large Pocono County Place gated community in Coolbaugh Township, about 15 miles north of Stroudsburg.
"Buyers need to do their homework" on school systems and crime rates before choosing a town, Harvell said.
"If you can only afford $150,000, there's plenty to choose from for $150,000," Harvell said. "But it's not just the price. There are things you don't think of."
Kathleen Lynn is a reporter for the Record.