Town By Town: In Gloucester's Washington Twp., lures are many
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
There is no shortage of Washington Townships in the United States. Pennsylvania, for example, has 22, scattered from Berks to Allegheny Counties.
New Jersey has five, but it is Washington Township, Gloucester County - sometimes called "South Philly South," because of the origin of many of its inhabitants - that has our attention.
"People began moving from South Philadelphia long before us," says builder Bruce Paparone, whose family built houses in Washington Township from 1970 to about a year ago.
"It was not only because Washington Township was convenient to South Philadelphia because of Route 42, but because of where it was in relation to the Shore," says Paparone. The birth of the Atlantic City casino industry was another growth factor, he says.
In Washington Township, "there is something for everyone," says David Marcantuno, of Keller Williams Realty.
"You can get into a condo for under $100,000, buy in an active retirement community, pick a nation's-average type of standard Colonial style for $200,000, or go up into $500,000 or more with estate-style houses on large lots and three-car garages," Marcantuno says.
Starting with a condo is what Conrad Kuhn, an agent for Weichert Realtors, did in 1987. Although that was a few homes ago for him, he's kept it as a rental property.
Of the town, Kuhn says: "It is very self-contained, both for first-time buyers trading up and sellers trading down," as well for as retail and other services.
Growth continues here, though agents note that building is limited to infill projects and that land is scarce - and thus expensive.
Keller Williams' Michael Lentz says the largest development he recalls since the housing bubble burst in 2007 was a "cul-de-sac with a half-dozen homes about three years ago."
Construction here is not, or likely to be again, "of the scope it was 25 years ago," Lentz said.
The population has more than tripled in 40 years, as developments - including Heritage Valley and Whitman Square, with several hundred homes each - popped up all over a town that had 200 farms in 1885, according to Washington Township's website.
In the last few years, however, some older South Philly-born residents have rediscovered the westbound lanes of Route 42 and the Walt Whitman Bridge.
"A number of my sellers have been returning to South Philadelphia now that they've raised their kids," says Lentz.
The school district remains a major attraction for first-time buyers who move here from out-of-town and owners of condos and townhouses who move up to single-family detached homes, he says.
Among the other lures are recreation opportunities at Washington Lake Park, theater and other productions at the TD Bank Arts Centre, and youth sports programs rivaling those of other communities in the county. Also, there are a growing number of retail outlets on Egg Harbor Road near the high school and municipal buildings and along Route 42 in Turnersville.
Kennedy Hospital's Washington Township location was once the smallest in the health system and now is the largest, Paparone says, which not only affects the quality of health care for residents but provides a large employment base.
In fact, Washington Township offers a "live where you work" initiative, a special home-mortgage incentive program that provides low-interest loans to people who work here and who are looking to purchase a home here.
Jessica Christy's parents moved from Brooklawn Borough, Camden County, to Washington Township when she was 2.
"They bought a house on five acres surrounded by cornfields," says Christy, an agent with Keller Williams, adding that the fields she ran through growing up are gone now.
"We had horses, so I was involved in raising them and was active in 4-H," says Christy, who spent a couple of hours a day on a bus commuting back and forth to Paul VI High School in Haddonfield.
"There was one supermarket when I was growing up. Now, there are several," Christy says.
Since Christy didn't play sports, a lot of her social life involved visiting friends in the neighborhoods that the housing developments evolved into once they matured, she says.
A vibrant neighborhood life, akin to older, more established towns and Philadelphia itself, is one of the things Washington Township has going for it, Christy says - a point she brings up with those interested in buying or staying.
"I know the taxes are high" - about $7,000 for a roughly $300,000 house, according to Kuhn - "but the school district and convenience are big advantages," Christy says.
Lentz echoes Kuhn, Christy, and Marcantuno in observing that the real estate market has been "pretty steady for the last 18 to 24 months," although the winter was a real drag.
"We haven't recovered fully from 2005-2006," he says - the median price then was $245,000 compared with $193,000 now.
"But there are a lot of positive trends," Lentz says.
For example: Average time on market a year ago was six to nine months, Kuhn says.
Today, it's three to four.
Washington Twp. By the Numbers
Population: 48,559 (2010).
Median income: $79,097 (2010).
Area: 21.6 square miles.
Settlements in the last three months: 109.
Homes for sale: 293.
Median days on market: 100.
Median price (all homes): $193,000.
Housing stock: Some new construction, but much dating from the late 1980s through 2005.
School district: Washington Township.
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-Data.com; Conrad Kuhn, Weichert Realtors; Michael Lentz, Keller Williams Realty