Town By Town: Merchantville, a place with staying power
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in this region's communities.
Weichert Realtors agents Joel and Kelly Darland agree to talk about Merchantville, the Camden County borough where they have lived for three years as well as sell houses.
"You've noticed," Kelly says very early in the conversation, "there aren't many houses for sale."
Just 24, priced from $100,000 to $300,000, when you count what's listed on real estate search engines, picking your way through properties for sale in nearby Pennsauken.
That's not unusual in today's market. Virtually every real estate agent in Philadelphia and its suburbs puts inventory issues at the top of the list of things to talk about.
What is unusual, though, is that there are houses for sale at all in this postage-stamp-size community, known for its Victorian architecture, its quaint downtown, and, most recently, for its informal discussions, now in limbo, about consolidation with Cherry Hill.
In the last three months, only seven Merchantville properties have gone to settlement. Kelly Darland counts just 12 in the last six months.
Joel Darland adds that most of those were at the lower price end, which included some short sales - in which the amount owed on the mortgage exceeds the value of the house, and the owners sell to avert eventual foreclosure.
"There are still a few of those," he adds.
Few sales, and lower-priced ones at that, skew the median price in a town where the "sweet spot" tends to fall between $250,000 and $400,000.
At the high end, the Darlands say, are the much-coveted Victorian single homes, "which tend to be fully updated," like one down the street from the couple that sold a year ago.
A rare house such as that one "is snapped up about the time it is listed," Joel Darland says.
Whether it's the housing stock or the K-8 school district, people stick to Merchantville like glue, the Darlands say.
On the street where the Darlands bought their 1907 Sears & Roebuck craftsman bungalow three years ago, there are 11 other houses. Six or seven have been occupied by the same families for 25 years.
"The previous owners of our house also were longtime residents," Joel adds. "Merchantville still has a small-town character, and its residents do stay a long time."
Property taxes are high (one reason behind the consolidation discussions), averaging $8,000 to $12,000 a year on the higher-end houses, the Darlands say. Merchantville also has its own police and fire services, they note.
Billed as "South Jersey's Victorian Secret," the borough has many homes and commercial buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, plus less ornate structures dating from the opening of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1926, which boosted Merchantville's population to what it is today.
There is an emphasis here on tradition, a hallmark of small-town life.
In 2009, Peter Burgess and Janet Stevens bought the venerable Philadelphia Fruit Co. at South Centre and West Park Streets from owner Bob Hanna, who retired after 27 years. The couple renovated the place and reopened it in 2010 as McFarlan's Market.
The name? It's what the original market at that site was called in 1880s.
Mayor Frank North can attest to this emphasis on tradition. A Burlington City native, he moved to Merchantville with his family in 1976, into a house that had been owned by a physician.
For many years, the locals would refer to the place as "Dr. Flynn's house," North says. "It was only recently that everyone started calling it 'the mayor's' house."
A lot of the older people here have a sense of the community's history, he says, and "when you've lived here for a period of time, you experience it, as well."
Asked why people buy into Merchantville and never leave, North offers a host of explanations, based on his own experiences and those of his neighbors and family.
"I think it's because everyone knows one another," he says. "I walk my dog at all hours - I really think he thinks he's walking me. Even late at night, and even on the new walking path through the town, people will be walking their dogs, and will stop and say hello. You really feel safe."
The quality of life here is best described as "easygoing," North says. Mothers walk their kids to school, or the kids walk there by themselves.
Members of Merchantville's small police force rotate shifts, so each gets to know all the people in town and the residents know all the officers.
There are perennial issues, however, North says, including the Merchantville School District's arrangement with Pennsauken to send the borough's students to Pennsauken High School.
In 2012, the school board voted to send its students to Haddon Heights High School, although that may not happen for a few more years.
"I think houses here would probably have higher values" if the arrangement with Pennsauken ended, the mayor says.
The compactness of the school district does create a sense of community for both its students and graduates, North says.
"People like my younger daughter move away," he says, "but they still keep in touch with their friends."
Merchantville by the Numbers:
Population: 3,821 (2010)
Median income: $62,358 (2010)
Area: 0.6 square miles
Homes for sale: 24
Settlements in the last three months: 7
Median days on market: 109
Median sale price (single-family homes): $125,000
Median sale price
(all homes): $125,000
Housing stock: 1,607 units, much of it Victorian-era.
School district: Merchantville
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, City-data.com; Movoto.com; Trulia.com
Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, email@example.com or @alheavens at Twitter.