TOMS RIVER, N.J. – Irene Cramer threaded her Mercury Mountaineer around fallen branches, slowing down in front of a squat white ranch to see if, maybe, it could be the temporary home she is desperate to find.
Cramer and her husband, Tommy, left their home in Lavallette, N.J., on a barrier island, ahead of Superstorm Sandy. The Cramers do not know how much damage their home sustained. Because the island and its infrastructure were devastated, they are looking for a long-term rental.
"We have no other choice," Irene Cramer said.
Thousands of New Jersey residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy are frantically calling real estate offices, looking to rent a home or apartment while they figure out what to do about their storm-ravaged homes. Others are joining waiting lists at hotels filled with evacuees and out-of-state utility workers.
Demand, real estate agents said, far outstripped supply. Much of the region's copious summer rental stock is not listed this time of year, and properties on the beach may be damaged or inaccessible. The winter housing stock is much smaller, and months-long rentals of vacation homes are virtually unheard of. And the prices of rentals changes with each season.
"The number of people who need homes now is much greater than what all of the companies have combined is available," said John Meechan, a broker with Diane Turton Realtors in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. The company has 16 offices in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
There are 961 rentals currently available in Monmouth and Ocean counties, said Al Veltri of Veltri Realtors and president of the Monmouth County Association of Realtors. The number is active, Veltri said, and because agents don't automatically removed a filled listing the number could be significantly less than listed.
Renters were being urged to take what they could get. Agents were contacting owners of vacant homes for sale, asking whether they would be willing to rent them out for a few months.
"We've been going crazy," said Ken Parker, an agent with Century 21 Nifoussi Realty in Toms River, N.J. "Any time a rental comes on the market, within hours it has multiple offers on it, for the obvious reasons. We're doing everything we can to help these people. We're all in the same boat down here."
Others plunked down cash, choosing to buy a house, live in it temporarily, and rent or sell it later.
"We've had people that have said, 'for the price of renting, I'll buy it and sell it next year,'" said Perry Beneduce of Diane Turton Realtors. He said one client displaced by the storm purchased a $400,000 house last week to stay in temporarily.
Beneduce and Margot MacPherson, director of sales for Hotels Unlimited, which operates six hotels in the area, said people have streamed in all week looking for rooms or rentals, saying they have no place to sleep other than their cars.
"It's very emotional," MacPherson said. "Families pulling up in minivans, infants in their arms."
MacPherson said the first vacancy at the Holiday Inn Express in Neptune is Nov. 18. She has called business travelers, brides and organizers of traveling soccer tournaments, asking if they might postpone their stays at the hotel so displaced people and utility workers can keep the rooms. Some have obliged. MacPherson said utility workers are sharing rooms and some are sleeping on the floor.
"They look cold, they look tired and we're doing everything to accommodate them," she said. "But at a certain point there's no room at the inn."
The hotel didn't have power until Thursday because of Sandy and a subsequent snowstorm. MacPherson asked friends on Facebook to send homemade cookies and snacks.
"As the utility guys start to go home my waiting list is three pages long with Army Corps guys, FEMA guys, displaced residents, Verizon guys looking to rework poles," MacPherson said. "It's unbelievable."
The state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still determining how many residents will be displaced long-term, said Lisa Ryan, director of communications for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. The state and FEMA are working with rental property owners, hotels and housing authorities to find shelter for people, she said.
The Cramers have been staying with Tommy's brother.
Clothes hung from a bar in the back of the Mountaineer; they're all Irene took from the house. Neither of them brought a coat, thinking they would be able to retrieve items from their home shortly after the storm.
Tommy, 63, and Irene, 57, drove around Holiday City, a planned senior community of small ranch homes with garages, looking for rent or for sale signs. Holiday City was appealing because the homes don't have stairs, important because Tommy has bad knees.
The homes, along with others in the many adult housing developments on the Jersey Shore, are also cheap. At least one house in Holiday City is on the market for $69,000, a price that led the Cramers to think about buying.
The couple's home was damaged in Hurricane Irene last year, and they stayed for nine weeks with relatives down the street. Tommy is determined to go back.
"I spent my whole life planning to be here," he said. "I don't want to leave so quick."
Tina Simon, 39, does want to leave. She, her husband and 5-year-old son lived in Seaside Heights and don't think they will be able to go back permanently for months because there is no gas service. The family is staying with friends in Jackson and trying to find a long-term rental so their son can start school again.
"It's been really difficult," she said. The family is working with two real estate agents and scouring listings online and in the newspaper. "The rents, they were high before, but it seems like they got exponentially higher."
Real estate agents said they are working to make sure landlords aren't raising prices in the wake of the storm.
Simon said she has received FEMA money and wants a place in Ocean County, close to where she and her husband work. The process, she said, has been frustrating.
"I'm not finding anything. They're like, 'You have to go through a whole process,'" Simon said. "I'm like, 'I need a home now. I have a 5-year-old I have to get into school.'"
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