Irene Cramer threaded her Mercury Mountaineer around fallen branches, slowing down in front of a squat white ranch to see if, maybe, it could be the temporary home she is desperate to find.
Cramer and her husband, Tommy, left their home in Lavallette, N.J., ahead of Sandy. The town, which sits on a barrier island, is allowing residents back for the first time Saturday. The Cramers do not know how much damage their home sustained. Because the island and its infrastructure were devastated, they are looking for a long-term rental.
"We have no other choice," Irene Cramer said.
Thousands of New Jersey residents displaced by Sandy are frantically calling real estate offices, looking to rent a home or apartment while they figure out what to do about their storm-ravaged homes. Others are joining waiting lists at hotels filled with evacuees and out-of-state utility workers.
Demand, real estate agents said, is far outstripping supply. Much of the region's copious summer rental stock is not listed this time of year, and properties on the beach may be damaged or inaccessible. The winter housing stock is much smaller, and months-long rentals of vacation homes are virtually unheard of. And the prices of rentals changes with each season.
"The number of people who need homes now is much greater than what all of the companies have combined is available," said John Meechan, a broker with Diane Turton Realtors in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. The company has 16 offices in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
There are 961 rentals currently available in Monmouth and Ocean counties, said Al Veltri of Veltri Realtors and president of the Monmouth County Association of Realtors. The number is active, Veltri said, and because agents don't automatically removed a filled listing the number could be significantly less than listed.
Renters were being urged to take what they could get. Many agents were contacting owners of vacant homes for sale, asking whether they would be willing to rent them out for a few months.
"We've been going crazy," said Ken Parker, an agent with Century 21 Nifoussi Realty in Toms River, N.J. "Any time a rental comes on the market, within hours it has multiple offers on it, for the obvious reasons. We're doing everything we can to help these people. We're all in the same boat down here."
Others plunked down cash, choosing to buy a house, live in it temporarily, and rent or sell it later.
"We've had people that have said, 'for the price of renting, I'll buy it and sell it next year,'" said Perry Beneduce of Diane Turton Realtors. He said one client displaced by the storm purchased a $400,000 house last week to stay in temporarily.
Beneduce and Margot MacPherson, director of sales for Hotels Unlimited, which operates six hotels in the area, said people have streamed in all week looking for rooms or rentals, saying they have no place to sleep other than their cars.
"It's very emotional," MacPherson said. "Families pulling up in minivans, infants in their arms."
MacPherson said the first vacancy at the Holiday Inn Express in Neptune is Nov. 18. She has called business travelers, brides and organizers of traveling soccer tournaments, asking if they might postpone their stays at the hotel so displaced people and utility workers can keep the rooms. Some have obliged. MacPherson said utility workers are sharing rooms and some are sleeping on the floor.
"They look cold, they look tired and we're doing everything to accommodate them," she said. "But at a certain point there's no room at the inn."
The hotel didn't have power until Thursday because of Sandy and a subsequent snowstorm. MacPherson asked friends on Facebook to send homemade cookies and snacks.
"As the utility guys start to go home my waiting list is three pages long with Army Corps guys, FEMA guys, displaced residents, Verizon guys looking to rework poles," MacPherson said. "It's unbelievable."
The state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still determining how many residents will be displaced long-term, said Lisa Ryan, director of communications for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. The state and FEMA are working with rental property owners, hotels and housing authorities to find shelter for people, she said.