Brooklyn Secret Agent: Suburban Invasion

Today we bring you the sixth of an anonymous weekly column about real estate by one of the most experienced agents in Brooklyn:
People always ask me where the buyers for houses in brownstone Brooklyn hail from. They usually quickly answer their own question: “Manhattan, right?  With prices so high?”  While there are some buyers from across the river, recently many buyers are coming from a startling place — the New York City suburbs.

Two years ago, over Thanksgiving, I found myself negotiating on behalf of a buyer I’ll call Two Lawyers for a wreck of a house on 2nd Place.  They did not get it, in part because their current house, a sprawling spread  in Bedford, had not yet sold.  They had two children, and one was already accepted at a Brooklyn private school.  They did get the next one and embarked on an innovative green restoration, renting in the meantime.  And the Bedford property was SLOW to sell.

Last year, another buyer I’ll call Really Nice Couple came to an open house and started looking at properties with me.  They only wanted the P.S. 321 school district, even though their daughter was going to attend a private school. They got a second chance at a home that had a deal fall apart, and they struck very quickly.  Really Nice Husband said he knew it was the right house because the day that it came back to them, they also got an offer on their house in Greenwich.  Really Nice Wife could not wait to stow her car in a remote garage.

Early in 2012, Fashion Exec and his partner came looking for the perfect house.  Their children had ended up in private school in their rural corner of New Jersey.  Realizing that the worst of both worlds had ended up in their laps — high taxes,  schools that didn’t suit their needs, and a soul-killing commute — they jumped at the first remotely plausible house in Carroll Gardens and have never looked back.

And at a newly listed gorgeous house near Prospect Park, in waltzed Prominent Real Estate Executive, whose family is firmly ensconced in Scarsdale. Once the house was judged appealing, the talk quickly turned to which schools my children attended, why, and which would best suit their three children. Despite acknowledging that with three children, the high suburban school taxes made better economic sense than three tuitions, they are Brooklyn-bound.

Apparently the suburbs have lost their appeal.  The time wasted commuting, the isolation in one’s car and home, and the homogeneity no longer win in the trade-off for one’s own backyard. Certainly the decision is more complex than that, but the suburban invasion has to be one reason there is so much competition for Brooklyn homes.

29 Comment

  • The trend here described has to do with distance from “the city” and this trend is not effecting at all the suburbs from where is still easier/faster to commute to midtown than it is from Brooklyn.

  • I agree with landlord. Its all very fashionable to bash suburban life nowadays, but its not so simple as portrayed. Going out to Bedford, with its huge lots and physical separations isn’t going to be much fun if you’re from the city. Not all suburbs are the same, just like not all cities are the same. My advice, chose a walkable suburb, with a real downtown with a variety of mom n pop stores and ethnic restaurants, a walk to the railroad station (no driving), no more than a 35 min ride. And when it comes to taxes – my NYC income taxes I now don’t pay were basically covering the school part of the suburban taxes. The suburbs are not for everyone sure, but “the suburbs have lost their appeal” is a broad brush.
    Our suburb is based around a town founded in the 1600s, its got an ice skating rink, a cinema, a beautiful and well-used park on the harbor, a theater, turkish, morrocan, greek, italian, japanese restaurants etc etc. and great mexican and guatemelan places with the menus for the many service workers who live out here, and not for American tastes – I like that! We’ve got old school pasta markers, fishermen, a smoked-fish producer nearby. And as for isolation, the community here is stronger than I felt in the city. street parties, fireman’s parade, huge community involvement in the schools and school sports. For whatever reasons, the city was a more anonymous experience for me. As for diversity, yes its much lower. We’ve got about 25% non-white diversity in the schools. But on my street we’ve got some Romanian carpenters, a Japanese businessman who likes cod-fishing, a met conductor, a bevvy of old guys who sit around and talk italian in the park, and our saturday sports teams are very mixed, more so than the school. My son’s soccer team included kids who were born, or whose parents were born, in India, Pakistan, France, France, France (there’s a lot), Spain (Madrid, to be clear), Japan and New Zealnad . And the greatest city in the world is there for cultural events – the only thing me and my wife won’t do any more is clubbing becuase the last train is about 1.30am or so, but I’m surviving.
    Now I’m not saying the suburbs for everyone – not at all. But its not all homogenous whitebread. Choose your suburb wisely. Keep your commute reasonable and comfortable, ensure you have a seat to relax in or read from. No car commuting, no changes. I think people get wowed by fabulous houses you can get further out and don’t consider the nature of the community, the tiring commute and too-low a density aspect.

    Over and out

    • Well said Dittoburg. Despite my exuberant suburb-bashing, if I ever had to move out of NYC I’d want a community like yours. Most of my experience with suburbs has involved those horrible places on Long Island filled with strip malls (and people who actually like them).

      • Bob I’d be a hypocrite to fault you for that. Before we really investigated moving out of the city, I had exactly the same notions. The breakthrough came when I started to realize from visiting different places the “not all suburbs are the same”, which sorta seemed oxymoronic to me previously, because tats exactly what suburbs were – sameness!

        My wife and I still shudder about an offer we made on one place in Jersey, early in the process when we were just resigned to our suburban life sentence. Fortunately, it was rejected.

  • “the suburbs have lost their appeal”

    At last more people are catching on to what my wife and I knew all along.

  • Most people in the suburbs as well as other places, view Brooklyn as a notch or two above Mogadishu, Somalia. It is therefore nice to see some reverse bashing. It is looooooong overdue.

  • Most people in the suburbs as well as other places, view Brooklyn as a notch or two above Mogadishu, Somalia. It is therefore nice to see some reverse bashing. It is looooooong overdue.

  • Yes, the real estate media always wants to make a trend of everything, but there were always people who moved to far out suburbs, or even close in ones, who realized that they preferred the city, and moved back, even with school aged kids. I’ve known a bunch over the decades. A old trend, a common trend, the only difference was that Brooklyn brownstones didn’t sell for millions then. Only difference I see is very wealthy people who wouldn’t consider it before are now also doing it, because, hey, brownstones cost millions, so the city lifestyle must be worth something. Many knew it all along.

  • “They only wanted the P.S. 321 school district, even though their daughter was going to attend a private school.”

    Wow, some people just make no sense.

  • “They only wanted the P.S. 321 school district, even though their daughter was going to attend a private school.”

    Wow, some people just make no sense.

  • I will never forget learning about the low property taxes in the 5 boroughs as compared to the suburbs. We moved to Brooklyn within a year of that revelation. So amazing that we originally bought in the suburbs thinking we couldn’t afford anything in the City… lower taxes, one less car, and no more commuter train tickets, we are enjoying a better quality of life for less money.

    • Yes, one should certainly chose location well so that only one car is on the accounts. Who wants their house to look like a parking lot. As for city taxes being lower – I suppose it depends on how much you earn. The 4% NYC income tax was a nasty bite for me.

      • City income tax vs. suburban property tax is about equal when we are both earning at our peak. But we like to take small breaks from work and the freedom to take lower-paying jobs–in either case, our tax liability immediately falls, as well. Unlike property taxes, which just go up and up, and don’t care at all if you lose your job, retire, or take a pay cut.

        Overall, though, you make good points, and I agree that neither the City nor the suburbs, in all their many flavors, will suit everyone.

      • City income tax vs. suburban property tax is about equal when we are both earning at our peak. But we like to take small breaks from work and the freedom to take lower-paying jobs–in either case, our tax liability immediately falls, as well. Unlike property taxes, which just go up and up, and don’t care at all if you lose your job, retire, or take a pay cut.

        Overall, though, you make good points, and I agree that neither the City nor the suburbs, in all their many flavors, will suit everyone.

  • suburbs aren’t losing their appeal – brooklyn is just becoming suburban

  • Ditto: Where do you live? Sounds idyllic.

    • Ha! Its not Bora Bora. But its an extremely livable place. Its a Westchester community on the Long Island Sound. I’m actually near the adminstrative border of two different towns, Mamaroneck and Rye. Larchmont has a lot to offer too, some beautful victorians if you’ve got the money, but its a bit snooty. Probably all the French expats. Rye and Mamaroneck both have nice main sts. but Mamaroneck is more walkable and much more diverse in the town and the schools (In both of the school districts – Rye Neck School District and Mamaroneck School District). Rye is very homogenous. The John Jay mansion and nature reserve are nice (on the old boston post road (America’s first road) going into Rye. I’ve watched ospreys catch fish there from the inlet there.

      Anyway, moving to the burbs doesn’t have to be the end of the world. The phase of life you are in would be an important determinant though as to whether its a fit.
      You can always buy a strong drink from the concession stands on the platforms for the Metro North ride home if the burbs are really getting to you! You’ll have a seat to drink it in.

      Its not the city of course, but I use the city (eg for modern dance (the wife’s interest), friend’s parties, shows, galleries, museums and certain restaurants with about the same frequency I used to – once a week).

      On another note, Penn Station is awful. Don’t commute into there. Grand Central all the way.

  • I thought it was Manhattan that was becoming more suburban – with nothing but fastfood and chain stores.

  • My best friend moved to Mamoroneck too. Must be something in the water.