The One-Percenters Are Back to Building at the Shore

From Longport to Stone Harbor, beach towns are changing—and that’s a good sign.

Signs the traction of the economic recovery is taking hold: less volatile swings in the stock market, better employment figures, the daunting wait list at Vetri. But if you really want to see where the economy is roaring back, take a gander at the skyline down the Shore, where the cranes have returned—and we’re not talking birds.

Perhaps the surest proof that the one-percenters are feeling sunnier is the return of the seashore show palace, that archetypal behemoth of glass and gables that threatened to swallow the coastline just a few years back, only to bid a hasty retreat when the stock market tumbled faster than willpower at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. The haves and have-mores—particularly from the Main Line—are opening their dusty checkbooks for splashy pads from LBI to Cape May. Indeed, Margate realtor Paula Hartman says by the end of January she had “almost the same [sales] volume as in the whole first quarter of 2005, which was the really hot market.”

Up and down the shoreline, permits are flying out of town halls: Teardowns in Longport more than doubled between 2010 and 2011, and climbed 20 percent in Avalon during the same period; Margate and Ocean City also saw spikes. In Stone Harbor, demolitions jumped more than 40 percent, with 24 teardowns in 2011 compared to 17 in 2010. But while 22 new homes were built in 2010, there were only 20 in 2011. The message: Bigger is better, baby.

“Ten years ago, pools and elevators were obsolete in a Shore house,” says Rich Ranalli, a partner in Zeigler Ranalli Development, a custom-home builder in Avalon. “Today, every house I build has a pool, and I would say seven out of 10 have an elevator. People want the most bang for their buck now, and they’re maxing out their lots and their amenities.”

Which means even more sand castles towering by the surf. Hartman says a recent spec house priced at $979,000 was snapped up in weeks—based only on a sketch. And she has two bidders in the wings if the winning one bails. “The high-end buyers are back,” she says. “And they haven’t been back in a long time.”

This piece originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.