There comes a time in many people’s lives—usually when the words “baby” or “school district” become a regular part of the vocabulary—when people flee the glamorous city to the charming suburbs.
Add the coronavirus pandemic to the equation, and suddenly the scales tip all the more toward suburban flight happening sooner rather than later.
Alison Bernstein once struggled with these same questions when contemplating moving her own family outside New York City.
“We made the quintessential buyer’s mistake,” says Bernstein. “We picked the perfect town, or so it seemed, based on our checklist. But the problem is, you very seldom know what you should look for, and you don’t consider vital intangibles. So we, like so many people, made a bad decision.”
They picked a suburb that, looking back, “was great, but just not a good personality fit for us,” she says. In short, it was too big. “I grew up in a small town, and I wanted to recreate that,” she explains. “I wanted people to know my name at the local coffee shop. I wanted the pizza place to know my kids, and what they liked. Things that mattered to us—like having our kids get to know others the same age—weren’t so easy, since there were so many schools in the district.”
So Bernstein and her family picked up and moved to a smaller town that feels just right, 45 minutes north of the city. She founded Suburban Jungle, a business that matches city clients with the right suburbs and partners with various local agents in every town who have been vetted, selected, and trained to work with their team. She began the advisory firm in New York City, but has since expanded to include Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington DC, placing thousands of happy families in their new communities.
“I realized the things we had been focused on when we moved weren’t the key elements,” she explains. “So my company makes certain that people ask the right questions and make the best decisions for their family.”
Everyone starts out with the same wish list—a great school district, a short commute, low taxes—but there’s a better way to approach your next-home hunt. Here, Bernstein shares some of the key mistakes parents make when moving to the ‘burbs.
1. Focusing on the house rather than the whole neighborhood
When picking a new home, most people (understandably!) focus on the property itself—how many bedrooms, bathrooms, how big is the lot? After all, who can resist poring over floor plans and listing photos of sun-flooded kitchens? But no house is an island: It’s part of a community, as you will be, too. To make sure you fit in, get a feel for the community and whether it offers the lifestyle and kinds of neighbors you are looking for.
Bernstein’s advice: “Don’t just visit the well-known towns—what we call the brand-name towns that most people aspire to. Just because a lot of people have heard of a town doesn’t mean it’s right for you.” She recommends taking as much time as you can to hang out in different ’hoods.
Try on a couple of towns—check out their cafés, their parks. Are the playgrounds full or empty on a Saturday afternoon? Are the kids there with parents or au pairs?
“Have dinner in the town. See what the people are like, what the mood is like,” Bernstein suggests. Think about whether this feels comfortable and a good fit. It’s only when you settle on a place that does that you are ready to start comparing whether you like a bungalow better than a Colonial.
2. Finding a ‘good school district’ that’s not a good fit for your kids
Let’s be real: Education is one of the top motivators for a move to the ’burbs, Bernstein says, “Everyone talks about wanting a ‘good school district,’ but the key thing here is, what does that mean for your family? A school that ranks well on standardized tests may be a pressure-cooker that your child won’t thrive in, or it may not have much of an arts program.”
Getting hung up on class size is another rookie move. While no one wants their child in a class of 50, also look at the total school enrollment. Would your child do well in a school that typically has a total of 1,000 kids per grade, even if the class size is acceptable? Do you want a district with one elementary school (small-town living) or are you looking for something with several elementary schools and possibly some specialized schools attuned to your child’s interests and talents?
Here’s another tip from Bernstein: As you narrow your choices, “go to a local school at the a.m. drop-off time and take a look. Who is dropping off the kids—nannies? Moms and dads en route to the train station? Yoga-pants-wearing at-home parents? This will also help you see if this community reflects the lifestyle you are seeking.”
3. Thinking about commute time rather than quality
Before decamping for the ’burbs, most people lock in on a commute time—say, “I won’t be on the train for more than 40 minutes each way.” But that can cause you to overlook a lot of the intangibles, says Bernstein. “Ask yourself, Would you rather be on a packed, standing-room-only local train for 40 minutes a day … or, what if you could be seated on an express train for 45 minutes a day?”
You won’t be able to really evaluate the commute unless you, well, commute. Bernstein suggest you do just that, at rush hour, and see what you are getting yourself into. Sure, it takes time, but can help you avoid locking into a “dream house” that comes with a surprise commute from hell twice daily. (Note: A little research will also yield info on a train line’s “on-time” record—another good bit of data to know.)
While you are doing a dry-run commute, scope out the parking situation, too. Many “hot” towns have packed parking lots with waiting lists and with prized parking permits costing thousands a year. Call the town office and inquire about the details, so you’re prepared.
Bernstein has another great tip for sussing out towns based on commutes.
“Pull out an area map and scan it carefully,” she suggests. “There are wonderful small towns—hidden jewels, even—that don’t have their own train station.” These villages tend to be overlooked by people moving to the suburbs, but are worth your attention. (Ask your real estate agent for help with this, too.) You might be able to move to one of these places and walk or drive three minutes to a neighboring town’s train station.
4. Assuming you’ll easily find child care nearby
Most people moving out of the city do so for the sake of children (current or future), but you can’t assume the child care options are the same in the suburbs as in an urban setting. If you are a two-career couple, see what options exist nearby.
“Few suburbs are truly walkable. If you need day care, how far a drive would that be, and how long would it take during the a.m. rush hour?” asks Bernstein. What time at the end of day do they close, and what happens if you are running late? Is the town one that has a strong au pair network, or are most moms home with their kids? This info doesn’t just let you envision your daily schedule—it will tell you a lot about the community and whether it will be a good fit for your family.