Town By Town: Cherry Hill, a South Jersey powerhouse
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
The city of Camden has 620 more people. Winslow Township is larger by 34 square miles. But Cherry Hill is the center of Camden County's universe.
South Jersey's, as well, says Bruce Paparone, whose family has been building houses here for 50 years and is finishing the last one at Country Walk on Kresson Road.
"When people out of state ask me where I'm from and I reply, 'South Jersey,' they say, 'Is that near Cherry Hill?' "
Cherry Hill Mall - said to be the first climate-controlled indoor shopping center east of the Mississippi when it opened in 1961 - has had much to do with that national reputation, of course.
Around here, old-timers still talk about the Latin Casino on Route 70, now Subaru of America's headquarters, which drew top entertainers in its 18-year run. And about Garden State Park, the old racetrack at Route 70 and Haddonfield-Pennsauken Road that's now a mixed-use retail and residential complex with the track's gatehouse intact.
But this is about today's housing market, not about nostalgia, and Cherry Hill, like most communities in the region, continues to extricate itself from the real estate downturn.
Standing in the way of sustained recovery, real estate agents and builders say, are the same things dogging the market as a whole: picky buyers; lack of for-sale inventory (3 percent lower than 2012), and little activity at the higher end (just 21 homes priced $600,000 and up have sold so far this year).
"You have no idea how difficult transactions are to complete," says Anne Koons of Prudential Fox & Roach, who has been selling real estate for 27 years and was the Cherry Hill office's top seller in 2012.
"Every deal you do is never done until you get to the settlement table - even all-cash ones," Koons says. "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong."
For Koons, who says she will not take a listing she considers overpriced for the current market, the problem is not appraisals but home inspections.
Nancy Pearl, her colleague at Prudential Fox & Roach and a Cherry Hill resident since 1988, agrees, adding, "Most of the younger buyers in today's market want houses that are finished and require no work."
"When we were looking for houses, we knew we would have to do stuff to them after we moved in," says Pearl. She acknowledges, however, that buyers then and now want the same thing from Cherry Hill: "nice neighborhood, good schools, and a sense of community."
The problem, Koons and Pearl say, is the lack of inventory, compounded by what Koons calls "sellers wanting top dollar and buyers bottom-feeding."
"What do you really know about buying a home when you are 27 or 28?" asks Pearl, citing her experience buying the house she and her family still occupy in the Eagle Oaks neighborhood.
Causing this aversion to fixer-uppers, Koons maintains, is the fact that the market is dominated by two-paycheck couples with children who have little time to accommodate the kinds of disruptions such work involves.
Harris Gross, a home inspector and longtime Cherry Hill resident, says, "The condition of the homes in Cherry Hill varies widely, just like in most decent neighborhoods.
"You find new roofs, old roofs, and everything in between. The same for heaters, air-conditioning units, water heaters, and the like," said Gross, president of Engineers for Home Inspection.
Cherry Hill's sweet spot, agents and builders agree, is $250,000 to $499,000; most of the 703 houses that closed in 2013's first nine months were in that price range or below.
The highest sale price this year was January's $830,000 for a resale in Country Walk, Koons said. The result is Cherry Hill's median price, $220,100, is just 0.5 percent above the first nine months of 2012, according to Prudential Fox & Roach's HomExpert Report.
Koons says a recent $467,000 sale in Eagle Oaks brought the buyer four bedrooms, three full baths, a big yard, and a pool. (List price was $479,000).
Taxes here, though not as high as Camden County leader Haddonfield's, are still hefty, despite the local commercial and office mix. The township says a homeowner assessed at $223,500 pays $8,367.84 a year, with 54 percent going to schools.
Location - proximity to Philadelphia via Route 70, the New Jersey Turnpike, or I-295 - has always attracted builders to Cherry Hill. The west side was developed first, for employees at Campbell Soup and RCA. On the east side of what was then called Delaware Township, Robert Scarborough ignited a building boom with Barclay Farms in 1959.
"It was pretty far out, but people wanted more land and larger homes, and the east side was farmland," says consultant Gary Schaal, who started with Scarborough in 1973 and worked on three Cherry Hill developments.
"You couldn't beat the price," Schaal says. "At Barclay, it was $19,000, and $31,000 at Wexford Leas for 3,100 square feet." Resales today go in the mid-$300,000s.
The lower-priced, smaller-house market on the west side of Route 70 is faring better in sales and prices, Koons says.
That, and the retail nearby, has boosted the fortunes of townhouses D.R. Horton built on part of the racetrack site on Haddonfield Road, unveiled just as the housing market began its collapse.
"I sold seven in the last year - one recently for $500,000," Koons says.
Median income: $101,786 (2011)
Area: 24.2 square miles
Homes for sale: 832
Settlements in the last three months: 279
Median days on market: 91
Median sale price: $220,100
Housing stock: Majority of homes are post-World War II, primarily 1960s to 1990s; plus condos and apartments.
School district: Cherry Hill
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, City-Data.com, Trulia.com, Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert Report