Connor Hughes and his wife Brieanne both grew up outside Philadelphia. They met working at an ice cream shop in high school and stayed together during college despite going to different schools. Hughes says they’ve both been fortunate enough to find decent-paying jobs, and they’ve been smart with their money, knowing in the back of their minds that they wanted to buy a house one day, with more than $100,000 saved. They’ve even got a baby on the way. There’s just one problem: They’re losing hope of finding anything affordable in south Jersey and ever moving out of their two-bedroom rental in the suburbs of Princeton, New Jersey.
Both in their early 30s and expecting a baby girl next month, Hughes, who’s a NFL reporter, told Fortune they’ve been looking for a house for two years, and it’s been a disaster. He and his wife, who works in health care, have been living in an apartment less than 1,000 square feet in size for around five years. Their plan was to live there for two years, get married, buy a house, and start a family, but “everything went to shit” about two years into that plan, when 2020 happened.
“The baby’s one week closer and I still don’t have a house for my kid,” Hughes told Fortune.
They went to eight open houses on a single Sunday in May, he said, and those summed up the state of the New Jersey housing market where, as Fortune previously reported, “everyone’s fighting over crumbs” in a market that “sucks” for buyers right now. For instance, Hughes said they pulled up to Church Rd. in Mount Laurel to see a four-bedroom, three-bath home and it was filled with parked cars and a line out the door, like someone was having a party.
“We didn’t even bother walking into it,” he said.
In the two years that they’ve been house hunting, they’ve put down countless offers, raised their budget substantially, and compromised on location, from central to north to south Jersey. When they first started looking, their budget was $500,000. That quickly changed after seeing “total disasters” listed in that range. Hughes recalled a Hopewell house listed at $510,000 that looked like someone just “hit command minimize and just shrunk it.” (His real-estate agent at the time told them they should offer $560,000 if they liked it because four offers were already on the table.) After a few more dispiriting open houses, they decided to push their budget to $550,000 and look at other towns. After years of searching and pushing their budget close to $600,000, they still haven’t closed on a home.
“We’re pregnant. We have our baby coming. We can’t wait to be parents,” Hughes said, but this endless search isn’t really allowing him to get excited.
New Jersey’s housing markets have a lot of demand coupled with very tight supply right now, and it’s sending home values up even now that the pandemic is officially over, fueling pandemic-like bidding wars as far as the eye can see.
Hughes recalled one humbling bid they made, in Mount Laurel, on a house smaller than they would have liked that was listed at $450,000. They had already given up on finding their “forever home” and thought this one would be good for the next three to five years, with a backyard for their kid. Hughes said his realtor, who they’re still working with, told him they’d have a good chance of getting it if they offered $465,000 or more, so they started there and eventually escalated to $500,000.
They even wrote a letter to the owners, attaching a photo of themselves holding an ultrasound image of their baby. “We were going after the heartstrings, like we were doing everything, like it was us arms around each other, picture with the ultrasound, talking about our dog, our baby, everything—like let’s go get this house,” Hughes said. The next morning their realtor called with the news that the sellers took a higher bid, all cash.
Before they started looking, Hughes said half-a-million dollars was a lot of money in his mind. On paper it can seem that way, considering New Jersey’s average home value is $457,045, but potential sellers are holding on to their low mortgage rates, making inventory even tighter, and driving up home prices. Hughes had a sort-of epiphany about this lock-in effect after speaking with one of his father-in-law’s friends, an empty-nester—the perfect example of a homeowner that’s choosing not to sell despite wanting to downsize, because he admitted he didn’t want to lose his 2% rate.
After two years of looking, Hughes said they’ve seen about everything imaginable. Floors that creaked with every step, a listing that hit the market with no photos, another that sold for $60,000 over asking in all cash ( Hughes said they had bid $50,000 over ask). There was even a home that his realtor said he couldn’t let them buy in good faith because it looked like it was built without permits. It’s just been brutal, Hughes said, adding that talking to a Fortune housing reporter felt like a therapy session.
Hughes, who started the call with upbeat energy, adopted a progressively bleaker tone as he recounted his long and torturous search for a starter home, like the townhome listed for $540,000 that smelled like smoke for some unclear reason (that one sold for $30,000 over ask).
This is “supposed to be this time of your life where you’re so happy and instead it’s just a constant reminder of, ‘I don’t even have a house.’ And it’s just defeating, day after day, week after week, you put a bid in, you lose…It is just so demoralizing, depressing, and defeating.”
Their initial strategy was to wait for prices to drop, then enter the housing market and start their life as a family, Hughes said. “They’re not dropping and now we’re shit out of luck … I got a baby coming in a month, like we’re out of luck.”