STAFFORD TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — The Jersey shore's small vacation bungalows and cottages have for decades staked out little plots of paradise where families who scrimped and saved could while away summer evenings, parents having drinks on the deck and kids working the ice cream stand or stealing a first kiss under the boardwalk.
Now, nearly a year after Superstorm Sandy blasted through, countless middle-class families whose tiny vacation homes were once the place to make precious memories are finding them to be a financial albatross.
While billions of dollars in federal relief have helped primary homeowners rebuild after the storm, second homeowners find themselves stuck in limbo: not eligible for enough money to rebuild or even demolish their homes while they remain on the hook for mortgage payments and fatter flood insurance fees for houses they can't even use.
"We thought we were good for the community, and to suddenly be labeled this second homeowner like it was a derogatory statement, it was like a smack in the face," said Benita Kiernan, a retired nurse who with her retired New York City firefighter husband sank every spare cent into a small cottage on an inlet in Stafford Township.
"We became the scarlet-S second homeowners."
For decades, the Jersey shore has been a place where police officers, plumbers, teachers and other working-class families can save up and put a down payment on a small beach bungalow to spend their summers "down the shore," as it is called. In many cases the properties are passed down through families.
Even before Sandy tore the Kiernans' home down to a wooden shell, it was not the palatial estate conjured by the phrase "vacation home." But even then the modest 1,000-square-foot house had been a financial stretch — the family skipped dinners out and vacations to be able to afford it.
The sacrifice has been worth it, Kiernan said. The shore is where their grandchildren played, their four daughters packed in with their friends and the couple was considering moving full time because they viewed the community as a second hometown.
"It was low-key fun," Kiernan said.
But the little house offers mostly heartache now. The Kiernans received about $100,000 from their insurance company, but that's less than half of the amount of their policy and nowhere near enough to pay the mortgage and shoulder the cost of demolishing and rebuilding.
"This was our investment," John Kiernan said as his wife wiped away tears.
Even tearing down the house and selling the lot is no easy way out — while homes have been selling on the Jersey shore, values are not what they were before the storm.
"Do I build it, do I leave it? I can't even sell the property because properties have been downgraded that much," he said.