Tom Partyka, 55, of New Egypt, N.J., doing renovation work in one of his homes Feb. 18 in Seaside Heights, N.J., shows the height of the water during Hurricane Sandy. / Mary Frank, Asbury Park, N.J., Press
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - Tom Partyka bought three homes here, turned them into rentals, and braced himself for the run-of-the-mill headaches that come with being a landlord: a party that gets a little out of hand, a wall that needs patching, a window that must be fixed.
But 3½ feet of water, upended refrigerators, wiring that's been eaten away and homes rendered unlivable?
"It's like, come on, how much more can you take?" said Partyka, 55.
The stock of Jersey Shore summer homes, once simply spruced up with a fresh coat of paint, now need mold removal experts and electrical contractors, delaying what traditionally has been the first indicator of the upcoming tourism season: summer rentals.
Visitors who have made Jersey Shore vacations a long-standing tradition are watching the progress closely, hoping still to return so they can pitch in on the region's recovery while enjoying their time along the beachfront.
But observers say they appear to be waiting to make their decisions until they can see if the beaches are replenished, the boardwalks are rebuilt or they can find an inhabitable rental.
"Some (landlords) are telling us they'll be ready by Memorial Day, others by the end of June," said Jeffrey Hallamore, manager of Diane Turton Realtors' office in Lavallette, N.J. "It's really, truly a moving target."
Laurie Sabella rents out two bungalows that she purchased in 2008 in Manasquan, N.J. She remembers having a long debate with her real-estate agent shortly after buying them about whether to allow tenants to have dogs, an issue that in retrospect seems trivial.
When Sabella and her husband, a contractor, got their first glimpse of the homes nine days after Hurricane Sandy, they could see the flood had reached eye-level. Water was in the top drawers of dressers and the microwave, too.
The Sabellas had flood insurance, but they weren't eligible for federal aid: The properties were secondary residences.
The homes had to be gutted with Sabella's husband doing most of the work. She thinks they will be ready in time for the summer.
"We have everything picked out," she said. "We know the colors. Everything is in order. Once he starts going (with the renovation), it's going to have to go quick."
Tourism generated $5.9 billion in Monmouth and Ocean counties in 2011, the latest figures available, according to a report by Tourism Economics research group. And many businesses at the end of this past summer reported that 2012 was stronger.
Yet since Sandy, visitors from northern New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have been besieged with stories of flooded homes barely standing, of iconic beachfront businesses forced to close, of politicians fighting with Congress to get financial aid.
What effect has it had? A survey of New Jersey residents from Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics released Feb. 18 found that 20% planned shorter visits this season.
Of those, two-thirds cited Sandy as the primary reason.
Even diehards, though, can't be sure. Phyllis Paolino, 60, of Hillsborough, N.J., said she has been visiting the Jersey Shore since her childhood. Now, she carves out a week each August when her friends and family gather here to go to the beach during the day and stroll up and down the boardwalk at night.
Images she has seen on television have left her teary eyed.
She sounded as if she would sign up today to visit the Jersey Shore this summer, even without the boardwalk intact, if only to show her support. But the home she has rented - that Partyka owns - is a work in progress.
"I think we'll wait it out a little bit," Paolino said. "I think that's what most people will do. It's a shame because (owners of summer rentals and businesses) need to know people are coming."
Observers said the Jersey Shore is making uneven progress.
Some New Jersey towns such as Lavallette appear to be on track to make it by Memorial Day. Others, such as Mantoloking and Ortley Beach, remain in rough shape.
Summer rental experts said they are faced with a season that likely will be touch and go, even well into the season.
Chris Fotache, owner of the Middletown, N.J.-based ShoreVacations.com, said visits to the summer rental website are down by about 20% compared with last year.
Meantime, Jeffrey Childers, a broker at Childers Sotheby's International Realty based in Normandy Beach, N.J., said rentals, typically about 75% full by this time, are only 15% to 20% booked this year, he said.
"People are kind of in a wait-and-see mentality," Childers said. "Will the area be open? Will the beaches be cleaned up? In the past several weeks we've seen a sharp increase in inquiries. I think there will be a late surge this year."
Tom Partyka is assuming as much. He and friend Bob Patten, a contractor, drive the 30 miles each morning from Partyka's Plumsted, N.J., home to Seaside Heights, where they have been renovating Partyka's three homes with the help of insurance proceeds and Partyka's savings.
To an outsider, the project appears massive, particularly without a huge team of contractors to lend a hand. And the summer, which once seemed such a long time away, is creeping closer.
But Partyka hasn't had much time to dwell. He said he is confident the homes will be ready for guests April 1.
"I'm going to be fully booked, absolutely," he said. "Anything less than that, I'd be disappointed."
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