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How To Pick The Right New York City Suburb

How To Pick The Right NYC Suburb


Alison and Scott Simon saw many benefits to living in Manhattan. There was the diversity they loved, the easy commute, along with great bars, restaurants and cultural sites within walking distance or a subway ride.

But their cramped one-bedroom rental on the Upper East Side sometimes made them forget just how good city life could be. Home was a constant maneuvering around their son’s baby stroller, set up next to a play mat in the middle of the living room, and a dining alcove with a crib squeezed in. And none of this came cheaply, of course.

“We had considered buying in the city, but we could only afford a large one-bedroom or a very small two-bedroom, and we knew we wanted to have more than one kid,” said Ms. Simon, 32, who works in pharmaceutical sales.

So the couple did what countless other city dwellers with growing families and a hankering for more space or different lifestyles often do: They moved to the suburbs. Some, like the Simons, may have been priced out; others looked to cash out and take advantage of the steady run-up in property prices.

The Simons’ quest for the right community took months of planning and legwork in three regions where they had considered relocating (namely: Long Island, Westchester and northern New Jersey) before settling on Upper Montclair, N.J., last summer. For them, and for most other urban defectors, the house hunting is the easier part. Finding their tribe — that is, a community where they feel most comfortable shopping, jogging or taking their children to school — is trickier.

“It’s less about the home you want to buy and more about what you’re looking for in terms of the lifestyle,” said Kathy Braddock, a managing director of William Raveis Real Estate, which recently created the Raveis Escapes website to match buyers with towns that best reflect their desired lifestyles.

To help you find your grassy niche, many brokers have expanded their services by offering seminars and guided tours of the suburbs, sometimes connecting buyers with their agent-counterparts beyond the boroughs. Sotheby’s International Realty in Park Slope, Brooklyn, hosted a “Beyond Brooklyn” series. The Douglas Elliman Real Estate brokers Stacey Oestreich and Nancy Strong held “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” events and discussion groups. They also keep a list of previous clients who left the city and who are willing to share their experiences of suburban life.

Several real estate advisory firms have sprung up, too. Suburban Jungle offers Suburb Stroller tours in addition to matching buyers with “strategists” to suggest towns to explore before putting them in touch with buyers’ brokers. The firm receives a share of the commission if a home purchase is made. PicketFencer has a similar business model with its concierge service. Its website maintains a list of more than 600 towns in the New York metropolitan area, each with a breakdown of commuting time, school ratings, walkability and price range.

NeighborhoodScout, a paid service starting at $79 a month, goes deeper. Subscribers can evaluate various locations, even so-called micro-neighborhoods — there are 13,631 of them within a 50-mile radius of Midtown, according to the company — using hundreds of search criteria, including real estate data, demographics, crime rates and schools.

For many city residents, the decision to leave is difficult, and often fraught with a whole new set of compromises. You may be happily trading an overcrowded co-op for a commodious colonial, but you may have less time to enjoy it because of the long train ride home from work. And you’re responsible for maintaining it, rather than relying on a super. Forget, too, about hailing a cab to get you around town.

“We knew we had to give up something somewhere,” said Alexandra White, 34, a grant writer, who recently moved to Bedford, N.Y., in Westchester, from the Upper West Side with her husband, Nulty White, 32, who specializes in corporate branding. While she works from home, his commute to the city now takes roughly an hour and 45 minutes each way. “He doesn’t mind,” Ms. White said. “He says it’s like coming home to vacation every day.”

Once you have made up your mind to leave the city, for whatever reason, how then should you begin the journey to suburbia?

“First, think about why are you leaving,” said Alison Bernstein, the founder of Suburban Jungle, which requires clients to fill out a questionnaire before they begin their search. “Are you looking for more space? A better school system? How do you want to raise your kids? How far are you willing to commute? You need to take inventory of your family life.”

Another important consideration: where your extended family and close friends reside. “Are they going to be part of your life? This can anchor you to an area,” Ms. Bernstein said.

Ms. Simon, who is now the mother of two, said that having her in-laws just a few miles away, in North Caldwell, N.J., where her husband grew up, helped seal the deal on the purchase of their five-bedroom three-and-a-half-bath ranch-style house. Mr. Simon, 33, who works in digital marketing, also had friends in the area.

If you have a general idea of the region (or regions) that you may want to explore and are ready to begin looking, nothing beats actually going there in person. Here are some additional criteria to consider as you stroll around town.

What You’ll Find

Let’s start with the tangibles. Some characteristics of a community will obviously remain constant, like the geographic composition. Others are slow to change, like the population and demographic makeup, along with the infrastructure and housing stock.

Something to keep in mind: Communities tend to transform every 15 years or so as residents come and go, or local ordinances change. “You have to look at the young migrants,” Ms. Bernstein said.

It’s for this reason that she and others stress the importance of connecting with people closely involved with a town like an experienced local agent, once you’ve narrowed down a selection of communities. “You’re not contacting them because they’re attached to a house,” Ms. Braddock said. “You want them to be your trusted adviser, like a Seeing Eye dog.”