Don Garboski loves his big open kitchen, and the pool out back where his grandkids play in the summer.
He’s lived in this house nearly 50 years, but in a few months, Garboski will pack up his belongings and hand the keys to the state of New Jersey so they can demolish it. He’s already stopped fixing problems as they arise in the house.
“This door knob that's broken,” says Garboski, “I refuse to have it replaced because we’re leaving. Why fix it?”
Instead, a piece of duct tape covers the latch. Garboski tells guests not to bother taking their shoes off, despite having replaced all the floors and carpet after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I don't care if someone comes in with ice skates,” he shrugs.
Garboski lives in Sayreville, N.J., east of New Brunswick along the Raritan and South Rivers. His neighborhood has severely flooded three times in the last three years. Following Sandy, the state wants to buy his house and some 1,300 other homes for their pre-storm value and demolish them. It's part of a $300 million “Blue Acres” program, funded with federal Sandy aid. The state of New York has launched a similar program.
Sixteen months after Sandy, more than 400 deals are in the works in New Jersey, but only 50 have closed so far. The first home was demolished just last week.
One cause of the delay is that Garboski and many of his neighbors feel they've been low-balled by the state.
“The assessment process is a very sore subject with me," says Garboski, noting that he believes his offer was at least $20,000 short. “Some people made out better than others. Some people, pardon the expression, got screwed.”
Rich Boornazian runs the Blue Acres program. He agrees some of the appraisals were too low, and encouraged those homeowners to appeal. But that adds time to the process.
Other delays have arisen from the surprising number of homeowners owing more on their mortgage than the house was worth before the storm.
"What we didn't expect was the thirty percent rate of people that were 'underwater' on their mortgages," says Boornazian. "So that's a tough one. The state doesn't have extra money to pay more than the appraised value."
The state is now negotiating with banks to see if they will accept less than full repayment of a mortgage.
Now, the state has to wait for a second round of federal funds to be released before it can make more offers.
But perhaps the largest factor in these buyouts and a common cause for delays are all the emotions that come with leaving a long-time home.
Some families have requested to stay until the end of the school year, says Boornazian.
"There's some people that come to us and say, 'I want to die in this house,'" he adds. "It's not all logical. It's very gut-wrenching emotional decisions that people have to make."
After all the work Zigmunt and Mary Dombrowski put into their house and the 49 years of memories they have there, the couple says they simply can't move – they can't imagine where they'd go.
“I did everything myself except this boiler,” says Zigmunt, proud of his post-Sandy repairs and the bargain furniture finds from Goodwill that he and Mary used to restock the house after the storm.
The Dombrowskis have lived next door to the Garboskis for nearly five decades. But unlike their neighbor, Zigmunt and Mary have decided to turn down the state’s offer. They don’t have to sell if they don’t want to.
"Why would I want to leave now?" Zigmunt asks. "When we came here there were only two or three houses. If they all leave, that's fine with me. I'm used to that. That's the way it was before."
The Dombrowskis say even if the state offered him more money, they still wouldn't sell.