One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in this region's communities.
Gary Stevens gets to his Weichert Realtors office on Route 541 in Burlington Township from his Westampton home by 7:30 weekday mornings, to beat traffic that gets more and more snarly.
"There is a lot of it these days, and it is going faster," Stevens says. He was doing the speed limit on Route 541 earlier that day, he says, and "someone going above 60 nearly knocked me off the road."
The traffic seems to be the only thing that has changed for Stevens since 1978, when he and his wife settled in Westampton shortly after they married. They live in the same house; two of their three children, including a daughter who is curriculum coordinator for Westampton schools, live nearby.
"You can buy a starter home - a rancher with three bedrooms about 30 years old - from about $190,000 to $210,000, with nothing for sale higher than the $400,000s," according to Stevens.
Westampton has been around a lot longer than the late '70s, of course: The Lenape lived on the north branch of Rancocas Creek, and English Quakers were living in the Village of Rancocas in the late 17th century. But neither had today's easy access to the rest of the known world via the New Jersey Turnpike or I-295.
Can't put your finger on just where Westampton might be in Burlington County? Quickly look left or right as you cross the Rancocas Creek bridges on those highways.
They are the major arteries that supply much of the lifeblood of the Westampton housing market, says Century 21 Alliance agent Donna L. Miers, drawing two-paycheck buyers whose jobs often are at the opposite ends of the Philadelphia region.
"I sold a house to first-time buyers recently who bought here because she needed to be by the turnpike," Miers says. "She had a job in Fort Washington, and he works in Pennsauken. And I'm working with two other couples who want to live here for the same reasons."
People come from even as far away as New York, says Stevens, who recently sold a house to a bus driver from the Big Apple who wanted better schools for his daughter.
"When I asked if he was going to get a job around here, he said no," Stevens says. "He was commuting on the turnpike every day to New York City."
In Westampton, the sweet spot is $250,000 to $300,000, says Miers, which reflects the lure of the township and its schools for first-time buyers.
"The lower price level is the meat and potatoes of this market," says Ron Palentchar, an agent with Century 21 Alliance.
Anything above that - especially $350,000 to $400,000 in a place where houses don't sell much above $450,000 - is in short supply, Miers says.
She recently sold a house in the higher-end Deerwood Country Club development, where "there are usually a few homes available." The buyers looked at several properties before being able finally to decide on one after "the seller of the house that was their first choice wanted too much money."
Lower taxes are a key to affordability and have been a major Westampton attraction since the Stevenses bought here. Gary Stevens credits the diversification pioneered by Henry Rowan, the millionaire industrialist whose Inductotherm Corp. in Rancocas manufactures induction systems for metal producers worldwide.
Property taxes for houses in Deerwood Country Club, which average 2,300 to 3,000 square feet, are under $8,000, Miers says.
There aren't enough houses for sale here - just 66 are listed right now, says Stevens, who also buys houses and rehabs them for resale.
Younger buyers are unwilling to look at houses in need of work, but that's not the case with older buyers, Miers says.
"It's about 50-50," says Palentchar.
Home values are increasing here, although the spread between list price and sale price depends on the market segment, Palentchar notes.
For example: A house listed at $69,900 sold for $60,000, he says. One listed at $277,000 sold for $247,000. One listed for $550,000 sold for just $437,000.
The lower the price range, the closer the sale price is to the list price, he says.
The closest Stevens has seen was a house in the 23-year-old Saddle Ridge development that went to settlement Oct. 18 - it was on the market for $450,000 and sold in just 30 days for $440,500, about 97 percent of list price.
"Nothing today is a sure thing," says Stevens, who gauges the recovery of the housing market by the homes he's rehabbed, then sold - about two a year.
"In 2005, I sold a three-bedroom that I bought for $80,000 for $243,000," he says. "Today, if they get an offer of $200,000 for it, I would tell them they would be wise to take it."
That's better than they would have done five years ago, Stevens says, "when if they had been offered $180,000, I would have told them to take it."
There hasn't been much new construction here for a few years. Westampton "is a small geographic area," so developers tend to be small custom builders, Palentchar says.
Although the market is better than it was, Palentchar says, sales have lagged during the third quarter "just like everywhere else." He blames fluctuating interest rates.
"Things have slowed down," he says, "but it makes this a 'normal' market."
Westampton by the Numbers
Population: 8,813 (2010)
Median income: $97,080 (2010)
Area: 11.2 square miles
Homes for sale: 66
Settlements in the last three months: 27
Median days on the market: 97
Median price (all homes): $229,000
Housing stock: From 19th-century farmhouses through homes built in 2010.
School district: Westampton; Rancocas Regional
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, City-Data.com; Gary Stevens, Weichert Realtors; Ron Palentchar, Century 21 Alliance, BHHS Fox & Roach HomExpert Report