For some New Yorkers, urban life is a phase, to be experienced between college and the birth of a first or second child. The question of moving to the suburbs is not “whether,” so much as “when.”
Now with the pandemic, the timetable for departure is accelerated. “The calls started coming in: ‘We’re ready,’” said Janey Varvara, a real estate agent with William Raveis in Scarsdale, N.Y. “Everyone’s schedule changed dramatically.”
And the question has shifted to “where.”
Because suburbia is far from homogeneous (this is even acknowledged in “The Stepford Wives”), and because no single community ticks all the boxes (as much as real estate people love saying, “ticks all the boxes”), urbanites ready to cut ties should carefully weigh their priorities.
For this article, I asked more than 20 real estate agents in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to recommend places to move within two hours of New York City, based on eight different criteria. I winnowed down the suggestions with the help of data about school performance, population density and demographic diversity and present them below with the caveat that they will likely make no one happy. (Especially people from Pennsylvania, which was excluded simply to keep the project manageable.)
For a Village Experience — Katonah, N.Y.
Median home price: $849,000
Window shopping, bar hopping, spontaneous sidewalk conversations while clutching bags of groceries — the pandemic has interrupted once-carefree pastimes. But how many New Yorkers heading for the suburbs are willing to give up on walkable streets filled with life and independent businesses?
A village-like atmosphere is easy to find in Hudson River towns like Irvington and in suburbs like Bronxville or Larchmont. But Ms. Varvara, in Scarsdale, said that buyers who used to covet the southern part of Westchester County, because it was close to the city, are now more inclined to go north in the hope of finding larger properties for their home offices and Zoom-schooled children.
And if they can’t kick the dust of Brooklyn off their shoes, if they lean toward a place that is a little offbeat, Ms. Varvara said, they just might find their way to Katonah. It’s “more laid back,” she said, “in an artsy and intellectual way.”
One of three hamlets in the town of Bedford, Katonah has a quaint downtown district with a Metro-North station and eclectic shops tucked into gabled and shingled houses or flat-roofed Victorians with the saucy looks of saloons. The reopened Blue Dolphin diner on Katonah Avenue is properly chrome, with terra-cotta-colored roof scallops. The late-1920s stone Katonah Village Library has a Palladian window and a cupola. Even Van’s, the auto service center, is housed in an unreasonably charming building, with red trim and a bay window.
Contrasting serenely with antiquarian froufrou is the sleek Katonah Museum of Art, which was built in 1990 from a design by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The museum reopened on July 26 and is exhibiting quilted portraits about Black experience by Bisa Butler, an American fiber artist.
Sound irresistible? The 64 available single-family properties with a Katonah postal address start in the $400,000s and go up to $15.5 million. A three-bedroom raised ranch that dates to 1966 and is a third of a mile from the Metro-North station, is listed for $599,000, with taxes of $10,727. A renovated three-bedroom village house from 1911 asks $975,000, with taxes of $17,052.
For Waterfront Without Tears — Carmel, N.Y.
Median list price: $409,900
Risk-averse New Yorkers fleeing the city will probably think twice before heading to a coastal community. But if you hanker to live on or near the water without worrying about losing your home to flooding, consider the Putnam County town of Carmel with its many lakes, pools and streams.
As Lawrence Zacks, an associate with Re/max Classic Realty, in Somers, N.Y., pointed out, “You don’t get a huge storm surge on a lake. You get a three-foot wave.”
Carmel (the stress is on the first syllable) is about 50 miles north of the George Washington Bridge and includes the hamlets of Carmel, Mahopac and Mahopac Falls. The home of several lakes and 140 freshwater ponds, it is largely contained within the New York City watershed, which works to keep the region — and the tap water that flows from its reservoirs — pristine.
The lakes, which were conjured or enlarged from dammed rivers when the area was developed as a resort in the early 20th century, continue to be fishing and boating playgrounds. But with highway access and a shrinking world, the population has changed character. “Most of the lake communities have gone from 100 percent summer people to 50 to 80 percent year-rounders,” Mr. Zacks said.
The waterfront properties currently for sale include a one-bedroom condo on Lake Mahopac, a 583-acre lake that is not part of the watershed and allows motorboats. The asking price is $299,900 with a monthly homeowner’s fee of $430 and monthly taxes of $2,797.
A two-bedroom ranch house on the 30-acre Lake Casse in Mahopac is asking $430,000, with taxes of $9,936.
At the highest end, a 10-acre island in Lake Mahopac, with two houses commissioned from Frank Lloyd Wright can be bought for $9.95 million, with estimated taxes of — this is not a misprint — $145,268.
But walk, don’t run. The property has been on and off the market for several years and was reduced from $12.9 million in February.
For Highly Rated Schools — Great Neck, N.Y.
Median list price: $1,188,000
Great Neck is the name of both a peninsula jutting into Long Island Sound in Nassau County and one of the nine villages and several unincorporated areas that are part of it. The larger entity is what matters if you want to send your children to a school district that was recently ranked first in New York State and third in the United States by the educational ratings company Niche. (Or if you want them to follow in the footsteps of the director Francis Ford Coppola, comedian Andy Kaufman, hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen or Olympics skater Sarah Hughes, all of whom were educated there.)
Great Neck Union Free School District serves about 6,500 students in larger Great Neck, New Hyde Park and a section of the hamlet of Manhasset Hills. The district consists of one preschool, four elementary schools, two middle schools, two traditional high schools and the Village School, which provides alternative education for students with emotional difficulties adapting to conventional classrooms. (A 42-page document details the districtwide reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year.)
Raw numbers tell an impressive story. Expenditures per pupil last year were $30,536, versus $22,024 statewide. On 2018-19 assessments, 80 percent of the students from third to eighth grades met standards in English language arts, versus 45 percent statewide; 83 percent met standards in math, versus 49 percent statewide. The average SAT scores for the class of 2019 were 624 English and 668 math, versus 534 for both subjects statewide.
“Buyers have always come here because of the strong education that Great Neck offers, and more so now than ever,” said Angela Chaman, an agent with Laffey Real Estate. Ms. Chaman’s two younger children are students in the district, and her eldest, a 2019 graduate, is a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
“The class sizes are smaller,” she said. (The student-teacher ratio is 11 to 1.) “There is individual attention. If I had a child having a hard time during a certain period of life or with a certain subject, I always felt I could reach out to the teachers and admin for extra help.”
Asked whether competition with other highly regarded Long Island school districts — Jericho, Syosset and Roslyn, to name a few — is a force for excellence, Ms. Chaman said, “maybe.” Born in Iran, she gave more credit to Great Neck’s many immigrants and first-generation Americans, who respect the advantages of a good education and have high expectations for their children. A curriculum that offers Mandarin, Spanish, French and Hebrew reflects its international student body, as well as dishing out opportunities to hungry young learners, she said. (The district is 47 percent white, 41 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic or Latino, 2 percent multiracial and 1 percent Black or African-American.)
By the way, Great Neck also has a direct train line to Manhattan, more than 20 parks, four library branches and excellent shopping — attractions that raise the financial bar for entry. A four-bedroom “contemporary Colonial” on a third of an acre in the village of Great Neck Estates is $1.788 million, with taxes of $32,562. A two-bedroom co-op in a 1965 building near the Long Island Rail Road station, is $589,000 with a $1,081 monthly homeowner’s fee that includes property taxes.
For Diversity — Valley Stream, N.Y.
Median list price: $539,900
In 2017, Money magazine named Valley Stream, a village in Nassau County, on the South Shore of Long Island, the best place to live in New York State. Pushing it into the winners’ circle were affordability, good schools, low crime, multiple parks with manifold recreations, a neat and clean appearance and the ease of getting in and out of New York City. The 3.5-square-mile village is edged and intersected by highways, has two Long Island Rail Road stations within its borders and one just outside, and is five miles east of John F. Kennedy International Airport.
In December, Home Snacks, a company that aggregates public information about cities, named Valley Stream the most diverse city in New York. According to 2019 census data, the population is 31 percent white and non-Hispanic, 27.6 percent Black or African-American, 22.9 percent Hispanic or Latino, 15.4 percent Asian and 4.6 percent mixed-race.
Eddison Lopez, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman, was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and is of mixed Spanish, French and South Asian heritage. Having lived in Valley Stream for the last 25 years, he said he has encountered no personal animus based on race and raised his children in an environment that was overwhelmingly tolerant.
Is it all sweetness and harmony? Of course not. Recently, Jennifer McLeggan, a Black nurse who lives with her toddler daughter in Valley Stream, publicized video evidence of being continuously harassed by racist white neighbors. But Mr. Lopez said he was reassured that the community rallied to support Ms. McLeggan, staging a Black Lives Matter protest in July that more than 1,000 people took part in.
He still sees Valley Stream as a place of opportunity, particularly for those aching to break free of confined living quarters. “After months of being indoors, that’s why people come out here,” he said, “not only for diversity but for peacefulness, cleanliness and spacious surroundings.”
The homes showing up on the market are “flying off the shelves,” he said.
Among the 125 listed is a three-bedroom 1925 house clad in clapboard and shingles in the southern Gibson section, near the train station; it is asking $479,000, with taxes of $6,992. A 1937 Tudor on a tree-lined street between Edward W. Cahill Memorial Park and the Green Acres Mall is $638,000, with taxes of $14,159. A 1959 five-bedroom house in the North Woodmere section of South Valley Stream is $799,000, with taxes of $20,001.
Also consider: Englewood, N.J.; New Rochelle, N.Y.
For Rural Character — North Salem, N.Y.
Median list price: $735,000
Concerns about dense living environments coupled with newly flexible work arrangements are sending New Yorkers beyond the edges of their known worlds. While some relocate to remote counties where there just may be dragons (or at least terrible cellphone service), others are finding their bliss in upper Westchester. The town of North Salem, 50 miles from New York City, and just west of Connecticut has about 243 people for every square mile. That figure for Manhattan is 66,940.
“North Salem to me is awesome because it’s an equestrian town,” said Anthony DeBellis, a broker for Douglas Elliman in Westchester County. This is a land of horse farms, bridle paths and even fox hunting, a piece of the English shire preserved nine miles southwest of Danbury Mall in Connecticut.
Most properties are a minimum of four acres and most development is shunned. With an assist from the North Salem Open Land Foundation, the town has more than 1,200 protected acres. Commercial establishments not dedicated to horse lovers include the Market at Union Hall, which sells local farm products; Hayfields Cafe and Florist, a multitasking restaurant and caterer; the Blazer Pub, which dates to 1971 and is famed for its chili; and One Twenty-One, led by a chef from Jean-Georges.
Because North Salem hides its light under a bushel, it has a revelatory effect on city people who see it for the first time. Mr. DeBellis said he leaves his business cards at Harvest Moon Farm and Orchard for day-tripping pumpkin and apple pickers to find. “I get a lot of phone calls from people who say, ‘I didn’t know this town existed.’” (This fall, fruit picking will continue by appointment.)
North Salem contains four hamlets: Purdys and Croton Falls to the west (both have Metro-North train stations; travel time to Grand Central Terminal is about 80 minutes), and Salem Center and North Salem to the east. The Titicus Reservoir, an eight-mile-wide body that is stocked every spring with 7,000 brown trout, is at the center. Taking advantage of a pandemic-induced closing, the Hammond Museum in North Salem, a showcase of East Asian culture, is revitalizing its seven-acre Japanese Stroll Garden. In the Sal J. Prezioso Mountain Lakes Park, a 1,082-acre preserve with five lakes in the southeastern part of the town, hiking trails snake through a native hardwood forest.
Fifty-two homes were listed for sale as of Aug. 3. The least expensive is a two-bedroom 1986 townhouse in the Cotswolds, one of North Salem’s few developments. Located about a mile southeast of the Purdys train station and Interstate 684 it costs $425,000, with a monthly homeowner’s fee of $650 and annual property taxes of $11,257. (Rural doesn’t come cheap in these parts.)
A 1999 three-bedroom colonial on 4.4 acres, next to 58 acres of protected open space east of Peach Lake, is listed for $705,000, with taxes of $19,392.
At the very top of the heap is a 1930s brick manor house south of Titicus Reservoir, with seven bedrooms, indoor and outdoor pools and a tennis court, on more than 26 acres. The asking price is $9.8 million, with taxes of — yes, a scary six figures again— $181,077.
Also consider: Roxbury, Conn. (86 people per square mile); Tuxedo Park, N.Y, (226 people per square mile)
For Easy Aging — Hartsdale, N.Y.
Median list price: $342,500
Hartsdale, in Westchester County, does not wear its retirement virtues on its sleeve. A hamlet in the Town of Greenburgh, 18 miles north of the George Washington Bridge, it boasts young people and old people, gyms and parks, suburban tracts and a downtown core.
Yet census reports estimate that Hartsdale’s residents have a median age of 49, approximately 25 percent higher than the average in the New York metropolitan area. Twenty-six percent are 65 or older.
“Seniors do like Hartsdale, especially the village,” said Gino Bello, a real estate broker in Houlihan Lawrence’s office in White Plains, just east of the community. Residential buildings on East Hartsdale Avenue — most of which are cooperatives — offer thousands of opportunities for one-level living, he said. Central Park Avenue, a major thoroughfare that cuts across at a diagonal, is lined with “every store imaginable,” and the proximity of a Metro-North station offering half-hour trips to Grand Central Terminal, further reduces the need for a car.
A two-bedroom co-op in a 1955 mid-rise building at 120 East Hartsdale Avenue across from the Scarsdale Country Club and a block from the train station, is listed for $329,000 with a monthly homeowner’s fee of $982, which includes property taxes.
Those seeking environments that are less dense but still have a minimum of stairs can shop for ranch houses in neighborhoods like Poet’s Corner. The 26 streets in this midcentury enclave are named after literary figures from Chaucer to Frost. (Don’t look for the names of female writers like Sappho or Dickinson, alas.)
A 1955 three-bedroom ranch on Whittier Street in Poet’s Corner is currently listed for $525,000, with taxes of $12,216.
In a 2018 report, the financial technology company Smart Asset declared Hartsdale one of the 10 best places to retire in New York State, partly because of the number of accessible medical facilities — 7.2 per 1,000 people. In addition to White Plains Hospital, less than 10 minutes northeast of downtown, and Scarsdale Medical Group, three miles southeast, the area has multiple urgent care centers.
Also consider: Ridgefield, Conn.; Surf City, N.J.
So Close and Yet So Far — Glen Ridge, N.J.
Median list price: $680,000
Some suburbs create the dreamlike sensation of dropping you into a completely new territory when in fact you may have crossed only a couple of dozen miles. Such is Glen Ridge, N.J.
“You know you’re in Glen Ridge when you see the gas lamps,” said Lauren Orsini, who sells real estate for Berkshire Hathaway in Verona, N.J.
Ms. Orsini was referring to the 667 old-fashioned gas lamps that illuminate the tree-lined streets and represent the lion’s share of the 3,000 such lamps operating in the entire United States.
A slender borough in Essex County less than 20 miles west of Manhattan, Glen Ridge borders the beefier and better-known townships of Montclair and Bloomfield and depends a great deal on their shops and entertainments.
But not on their schools or transportation. Glen Ridge has a highly regarded school district that serves 1,900 students, and a train station with direct weekday service to Penn Station. (The ride is about 35 minutes; on weekends you change at Newark.)
The borough’s streetlamps complement a fine collection of vintage architecture, much of it preserved from the second half of the 19th century. The many whims of style-crazed Victorians are represented — Greek Revival, Carpenter Gothic, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Shingle Style. More than 80 percent of Glen Ridge lies within a historic district, and almost 75 percent of the housing stock dates to before World War II.
Stanford White left his Beaux-Arts mark in Glen Ridge, as did Frank Lloyd Wright. The hexagon-shaped Stuart Richardson house, built in 1951 on Chestnut Hill Place, and one of only three designed by Wright remaining in New Jersey, sold last year for $1.3 million.
The borough is lavished with nine parks in its 1.3 square miles. Toney’s Brook rambles through the “glen” of Glen Ridge’s midsection and is marked by a gazebo.
And last month, the nonprofit Open Space Institute announced efforts to acquire a nine-mile-long former rail line and turn it into a pedestrian and bicycle trail that would extend from Montclair, through Glen Ridge, and southeast to Jersey City.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’m getting from New York City and the Gold Coast of New Jersey,” Ms. Orsini said referring to buyers attracted to the community. She said the “outward push” was creating an “upward push in sales prices,” though Glen Ridge was never known for its bargains. From March 15 through July 31, average sales have been 10 percent over ask.
Among the 19 homes advertised on New Jersey Multiple Listing Service’s website, as of Aug. 3, is a five-bedroom brick Tudor dating from the early 20th century, listed for $899,000, with taxes of $27,018. A three-bedroom prewar Colonial is on the market for $525,000, with taxes of $12,860. And a two-bedroom co-op a block from the train station is priced at $289,000 with a monthly homeowner’s fee, which includes taxes, of $1,598.
For the Most Bang for Your Buck — West Hartford, Conn.
Median home price: $309,900
Hear me out.
The pandemic, and its disruption of work habits, has led New Yorkers not just to untether from the city but to propel themselves to places where they never dreamed of living. So why not consider a community less than two hours from the George Washington Bridge with historic roots, a walkable center, high-ranking schools, three public libraries, six public parks, two active senior centers, a 10-year-old mixed-used development that went out of its way not to look like a typical shopping mall and a raft of “Best Places” awards, including from Money magazine, Niche, Family Circle, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine and a travel website called The Crazy Tourist?
“In West Hartford you have everything,” said Scott Glenney, an agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, who works in the greater Hartford area. “Nature, culture, restaurants with award-winning chefs.” New developments are helping to shift the center of gravity from adjacent Hartford, though there is easy access to the economically troubled capital’s jobs and cultural offerings. And proximity to the nearby Farmington Valley means being minutes away from apple orchards, golf courses, hiking and river sports.
For Mr. Glenney, fresh from showing a Manhattan couple a house in nearby Avon, the biggest argument for West Hartford is the relatively low cost of real estate, even with Connecticut’s high property taxes.
Among the 98 active listings for single-family houses on Realtor’s website as of Aug. 3, the most expensive was a Bauhaus-inspired 1936 modern house with five bedrooms, on 1.5 acres. The asking price was $899,900, with taxes of $23,370.
A 1930 Tudor Revival house with four bedrooms on a quarter-acre lot, two blocks from the 18th-century home of the lexicographer Noah Webster (it is now the historical society) was listed for $549,900 with taxes of $11,622.
And a 1951 three-bedroom Cape Cod house on a deep, 0.37-acre lot, across the street from an elementary school and near a country club was priced at $339,000 with taxes of $6,870.