BRIGANTINE, N.J. — The small yellow cottage has always been more than a house to Bob Bratek and his family. It was their tiny slice of oceanfront heaven, a repository of family memories built in the '60s with the hands of three generations of Brateks and any materials they could find.
"It was made of pieces and hearts and souls and emotions and memories," Bratek said, remembering how he would ride there as a teenager in the family station wagon, its freight of free siding and donated wood causing the back to practically scrape the highway.
Superstorm Sandy battered the Brateks' home and other seaside bungalows and cottages passed down through families that scrimped and saved to buy small getaways on the Jersey Shore. Now many families that see themselves as stewards of an heirloom are grappling with whether it is affordable, or even possible, to rebuild.
For some, Sandy may have washed away any chance of another generation going "down the shore," as trips to the ocean are known in New Jersey, to anything other than a rented condo or motel.
Many cottages passed down through generations are owned outright and did not have flood insurance, because they didn't have mortgages, or didn't have enough insurance to replace what they lost. Even before the superstorm, many middle- and working-class families struggled to maintain the properties and to pay high property taxes.
Anthony Cappuccio, owner of Boardwalk Design and Development in the coastal community of Margate, said many families have inquired about whether they can be rebuilt.
He expects to see many boarded-up homes next summer because people couldn't afford repairs. He has heard a variation on the same story at least seven times since the storm: "I got the house from my mother. We don't even pay the taxes. And we don't even know if we have insurance."
There's no good way to assess how many people are facing the dilemma of whether to rebuild, but Donovan Rankin, owner of Coastline Insurance Agency in North Wildwood, said there were many more "legacy homes" on the shore before the real estate boom a few years ago that resulted in many families selling property that had suddenly become hugely valuable.
Bratek's father and aunt, who jointly own the house in Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City, stopped paying for flood insurance years ago because it was too expensive. With no mortgage, flood insurance wasn't required.
The Brateks had even put the house on the market as a desperate measure prior to Sandy because they could no longer afford the nearly $13,000 annual tax bill. The small cottage is wedged between two very large, much newer homes, and Bratek's father and aunt are on a fixed income. The for-sale sign lies in the grass, blown down by the storm. The house was on the market for $599,900.
It was a hard decision.
"It has so many memories it's difficult to disassociate the place from the house," he said, counting them off: his grandparents dancing to polka music on Sunday mornings, his friends pitching tents outside, his two children being conceived there.
The family used to put a bucket on the counter for guests to pitch in a few dollars for electricity, food and maintenance.
Sandy flooded the house with 6 to 7 feet of water in late October. The deck and dock are destroyed. Bratek is in construction and could easily rebuild the house given his access to materials, but he can't summon the emotion to fully assess the damage and see whether rebuilding is realistic.
As is the case with many legacy homes, there are many voices, which can complicate decision-making. Bratek's father has three children and his aunt five, all who planned to use the house in the future and must now decide its fate.
About 60 miles north of Brigantine in the shore town of Brick, Geri Girard and her family are coping with a swirl of emotions and cold financial facts. Their family home in Camp Osborn burned to the ground after the storm sparked a gas fire.
Girard has said she would do anything to keep the house – it's why she has lived in New Jersey her whole life – but the family does not know whether they can afford to rebuild. She does not believe insurance will cover the entire cost.
"We're grieving," Girard said. "And I think we probably know in the back of our mind we won't be able to rebuild because we can't afford it."
Girard's grandfather, a plumber, built a home in the colony in the 1940s. When his son got married in 1967, the family sold it and bought a three-bedroom down the street. It still wasn't big enough as kids, cousins and friends came down to the shore all summer.
"It's a three-bedroom house, but there were 12 people living in it with one bathroom," said Ted Sahn, Girard's father.
Each summer Girard, a community college professor, packs her two boys up and heads to the house. Her sister does the same with her two children. Girard and her children don't go back to their home in Oakhurst, also near the coast but not on the beach, until school is ready to start.
The houses in Camp Osborn are – were – cheek-to-jowl, close enough to hear a neighbor sneeze and to turn a neighborhood into a summer family. The middle-class people who summer in their humble bungalows can see homes worth millions nearby, but rarely envy them.
"You can't measure the pleasure from it," Sahn said, his voice thick with emotion.
Carol Damiano Casale has five family members whose houses in Camp Osborn burned. Her father bought a house there for $3,000 in the 1940s. When she got married, he paid $10,000 for a slightly larger house next door where she and her daughters still go each summer.
"I was raised there, my children were raised there and now my grandchildren were being raised there," she said.
Abandoning the town, she said, would be like leaving family. Casale, whose primary home is in Belleville, in northern New Jersey, is worried about whether she can afford to rebuild because insurance won't cover it all – but she is determined.
"As my older daughter told me," Casale said, "`We'll rebuild and bring hand-me-downs like my grandmother and grandfather did.'"