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These Boutique Businesses Help City Families Flee to the Suburbs

By Amy Zimmer | July 28, 2015 6:29pm
 More city residents move to the suburbs than vice versa.
Moving to the Suburbs?
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MANHATTAN — Judith and Jonathan Heimowitz left their rental on the Upper East Side last year for a 1960s colonial with a backyard and pool in Edgemont, a small, leafy community near Scarsdale, whose school district was recently heralded as No. 1 in the country.

When "toddlers started to happen," they realized it was time to leave Manhattan, said Judith, 32, a digital marketer who now stays home with her 3-year-old and 1-year-old, with another on the way.

Before they moved, schools had already become a stressor. On the Upper East Side, where many nurseries require parents write application essays, "preschool put people over the edge financially and emotionally," she said.

"A lot of people we know with kids — about two thirds — have left the city in last couple of years," Judith estimated.

It's a myth that the suburbs are over.

Between 2008 and 2012, for every three people moving to the suburbs from New York City only two did the reverse and moved into the boroughs, according to an analysis by DNAinfo New York of U.S. Census data collected during that period. Nearly 80,000 residents moved to the suburbs from the city while roughly 50,000 people moved to the city from the suburbs.

Today's 30- to 44-year-olds, in fact, are now heading to the suburbs at a significantly faster rate than in the 1990s, according to an analysis of national Census data by FiveThirtyEight.

Fueling this is a new cottage industry: real estate experts who help educate buyers not only on housing stock but also on the lifestyles of different suburbs. They provide families with hyper-personalized tours of suburban enclaves with the lowdown on everything from baby classes and preschools to how long it will take to commute to the city or nearest gourmet grocer.

The Heimowitzs, for instance, visited seven Westchester towns with Heather Harrison, of Platinum Drive Realty, whose experience 10 years ago was similar to many of the clients she now works with.

She and her husband, Zachary Harrison, both originally from Scarsdale, were living on the East Side with their 18-month-old daughter, carving a closet into a nursery in their "Junior 4," when they decided to decamp for the suburbs.

Heather, a former television anchor and Zachary, a lawyer, started the company about a decade ago, learning the market from Heather's grandmother, who owned a Westchester real estate firm, but turning the model on its head a bit.

"The idea was that we're not my grandmother's company," said Heather, explaining how they help city transplants understand how they'd "acclimate" to communities by providing information on kids classes alongside data on what their money can buy 50 minutes out of the city versus 30 minutes away.

"It used to be that people moved when their kids were in kindergarten," Heather said. "Now it's when their babies are being born. People wanted to stay [in the city longer] because you make all these mommy friends, but they're now realizing you might as well start sooner. It used to be everyone we worked with was heading toward their late 30s; now, it's 30, 31."

Alison Bernstein, of Suburban Jungle, which employs "strategists" instead of brokers, who start out by giving a questionnaire to clients, finding out things like how they grew up, whether their kids go to camp or Nantucket for summers, whether they barbeque at home or go to country clubs, whether you're a working mom or stay-at-home. They then organize tours — sometimes sending an SUV to chauffer folks around, or arrange a Zipcar for clients or meet them at the train station — and connect them to residents so they can understand a town's dynamics.

"We connect them with local moms, who can show, 'Here's what goes down at preschool drop off,'" Bernstein said.

(Suburban Jungle doesn't charge clients for the service, but the firm, which is a licensed real estate brokerage, makes commission off of sales like buyers' agents do.)

Bernstein recently hosted the first of a series of events on the Upper East Side with top city broker and star of Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing," Ryan Serhant, entitled "Should I stay or should I go," where they talked about what you can get for $2 million in Tribeca, or Upper West Side versus what they can get for that in Port Washington or Montclair.

She plans to do a follow up event about the preschool years with top admissions counselors from the city and suburbs.

"Sometimes we tell people they should stay in the city, if they say, they don't want to drive. Your kid is going to have a play date, and you're going to walk 17 miles? It's a big lifestyle change and not the right move for everyone."

And while you may get more space for your money, Bernstein noted that, it's still expensive to live close to New York City. "The pricing in the real commutable suburbs is high with bidding wars of 11 bids and all cash offers."

In Westchester, for instance, the average selling price fell slightly from $847,385 last year to $839,963 in June, Platinum Drive Realty found. But certain towns — including Scarsdale, Purchase, Rye, Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Bedford — saw average sales prices jump significantly.

Inventory remains tight in many of these suburban areas, just as it is in the city.

Westchester and Putnam counties saw listing inventory drop nearly 6 percent from the year before, according to a Douglas Elliman second quarter report compiled by real estate expert Jonathan Miller.

In Fairfield County, Conn., listing inventory slipped 2 percent, making it the second lowest second quarter in a decade, and inventory remained tight in Long Island, where it fell by nearly 1 percent, Elliman reports found.

"The markets in the suburbs are relatively tight," Miller said. "The regional economy is very strong, pushing New York City and Metropolitan region prices up. As the city gets more expensive, the suburbs get more expensive."

Of course, it's not a "one-for-one" comparison of housing prices, Miller added, since in cities some families might have private school costs, while in the suburbs they have to factor in things like expenses for commuting and cars.

"Everything is a trade off," said Bernstein.