Westchester is hot! Driven by the impact of the coronavirus, the county is seeing an incredible influx of buyers from Manhattan and Brooklyn seeking shelter in the suburbs. Here’s how it’s all playing out.
Mikol Stambaugh and his wife, Kelley Sullivan, are diehard New York City devotees. The couple have lived in Brooklyn for the past 10 years and tout the expected reasons they love it: restaurants, museums, nightlife, culture, diversity, walkability — the general cachet of big-city living. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of moving to Westchester was the furthest thing from their minds.
“We had actually been searching for a country home or an investment property outside of the city for a few years, but as second home, not a primary residence,” Stambaugh notes. “As my wife, who is from Houston, always said, ‘I didn’t move to New York to live in the suburbs!’”
But living in the suburbs is exactly what the couple is planning to do. They have been searching throughout Westchester for a home to purchase — Tarrytown, Ossining, Croton, and Pleasantville are on their shortlist — and are hoping to be settled in the county before the winter. Stambaugh and Sullivan left their Brooklyn condo shortly after the coronavirus hit, renting spots upstate in order to ride out the pandemic.
But the virus’s impact has changed their outlook. Though they returned to Brooklyn in July, they are now committed to leaving the city. “Living upstate for those five months really changed our perspective,” Stambaugh says. “Having a home as opposed to an apartment and having the space to focus on ourselves, that’s really what’s important now. That’s the main reason we are leaving Brooklyn.”
Theirs is a story playing out across Westchester today. While the migration from city to suburbs has fueled Westchester’s real estate market since, well, just about forever, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred an incredible urban exodus over the last few months. It seems a weighty percentage of Brooklyn and Manhattan folks currently have their internal compasses pointing north.
It started shortly after the lockdown began, when many city families with the means to do so hightailed it out of their urban dwellings and flooded the rental market for homes in Westchester and the Hudson Valley. Short-term rentals extended into summer stays as the lockdown continued, and by May and June, any available space with a yard (especially with a pool) was renting at astronomical rates — at least double the normal cost, notes Dawn Knief, licensed real estate salesperson with Compass in Scarsdale.
“We saw a flood of people who wanted a getaway place. We saw a lot of interest in suburban and rural spaces; anything, even up to two hours away from Manhattan, became desirable,” adds Scott Elwell, principal at the SOE Team with Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
When it became apparent that the pandemic wasn’t going to be over anytime soon, a shift began occurring, Knief says. “People were in denial at first, thinking that they would rent a summer house and then return to the city once COVID ran its course. But as time progressed, and they began to realize this virus is not going away, health and safety — especially for people with young children — became a larger factor,” she explains. “Families who were thinking about coming to Westchester and buying a house in a few years decided to speed up the process and buy now.”
Real estate agents across the county are reporting a market they haven’t seen in years: sky-high demand, tight inventory, bidding wars, cash buyers…
In addition, younger buyers who lost jobs due to the pandemic, or became more budget-conscious with the threat of potential job loss, are shifting their searches from city apartments to more affordable Westchester properties, notes Myrna Anover, licensed associate real estate broker at REMAX Prime Properties in Scarsdale. “We’ve seen a lot of 30-somethings looking here for cheaper alternatives. They are looking for condos, and they see how much more they can get for a smaller amount of money,” she explains.
Throw in historically low interest rates (at press time, the rate was 2.75% on a 30-year fixed mortgage), and you have the perfect storm for a swarm of urban buyers descending on Westchester in droves. As a result, real estate agents across the county are reporting a market they haven’t seen in years: sky-high demand, tight inventory, bidding wars, cash buyers — all commonplace.
“This is the first time that I can remember when every county that we cover is experiencing high buyer demand; every one of our offices is reporting a substantial increase in activity,” notes Debbie Doern, senior vice president of sales, Houlihan Lawrence. “Southern Westchester, for example, is always relatively busy because of its proximity to the city. But now the activity is far-reaching, across all areas. And every price point, except for $5 million-plus, is experiencing high, high demand.” (The $5 million-and-over luxury market is also going strong, Doern explains; there just isn’t as much frenzy as in the more affordable price ranges.)
On The Market
Homes with big yards, play sets, ball courts, and lounge areas are highly desirable for stay-at-home comfort.
4 Westway, Bronxville
4 BR, 5.1 BA; 4,700 sq. ft.; .92 acres; $75,403 estimated taxes
Tennis court, super-sized stone terrace, and a large, flat yard give the whole family room to breathe and play in the great outdoors. Inside, the home boasts an airy, open floor plan with tricked-out kitchen, plus a great room with vaulted beamed ceiling and stone fireplace.
Listed by Susan Kelty Law, Houlihan Lawrence
103 Eastview Drive, Valhalla
4 BR, 3.2 BA; 4,900 sq. ft.; .98 acres; $32,619 estimated taxes
An expansive patio with stone fireplace and outdoor kitchen, plus a large yard complete with turf field (pool, too!) are the exterior stars of this home. The interior provides family-friendly bonus spaces, like a two-story family room and basement with summer kitchen, a full gym, game room, and bar.
Listed by Carine Nowak, Compass
“Inventory is way down,” Doern adds. “That’s the biggest struggle: Pending deals and demand are way up, but we don’t have enough inventory to meet the need.”
“We currently have a lot of buyers, and we have fewer homes on the market than we did last year at this time, so we have a lot of people looking for the same thing — which creates multiple-offer scenarios,” adds Suzanne Welch, associate broker with the Home on the Hudson Team at Coldwell Banker Realty’s Lower Hudson Valley Regional Office in Yorktown Heights. “If a home is well-priced, there is no reason why it won’t go to contract within 20 days of hitting the market.” Welch points to two homes she listed in Ossining recently: One went into contract in 20 days, the other in 27 days.
Adding to the limited inventory is the fact that due to the pandemic, homeowners who may have planned to sell in order to downsize changed their minds when they realized they would be in lockdown mode. “When the virus hit, many grown children moved back into the homes of their parents who had been thinking of selling their homes to scale down. During the lockdown, families might have had four or five adults all working from home, so they needed that big house and decided to stay put,” explains Doern.
This urban exodus trend is still in the nascent stages, so the numbers don’t yet fully reflect what’s going on. As of July 31, year-over-year data (July 2019 to July 2020) shows that active listings in Westchester are down 28.7%; pending sales are up 36%; and sales are down 11%. “Remember,” Doern explains, “we couldn’t show properties at all for a while [due to the lockdown], and with pending sales being way up, the number of actual sales will change.”
On The Market
Full-time remote work has made a full-service home office a must-have space for homebuyers.
70 Penn Blvd, Scarsdale
4 BR, 3.1 BA; 4,488 sq. ft.; .67 acres; $49,783 estimated taxes
About as good as an executive suite, this wood-paneled library means business. The home also boasts a large family room, playroom, modern kitchen, living room with wood-burning fireplace, and exterior features, including a saline pool with waterfall and spa, plus a large stone patio.
Listed by Mindy Gerstein, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Westchester Properties
4 Goldman Court, Cortlandt Manor
2BR, 2.1 BA; 3,200 sq. ft.; $24,000 estimated taxes
This sleek home-office space is part of the appeal of the available-for-purchase model home at Toll Brothers at Valeria, a new-construction townhome community that includes an open kitchen with granite countertops, nine-foot first-floor ceilings, and a two-car garage. Community amenities include a 43-acre lake, walking trails, and a clubhouse.
Listed by Toll Brothers Real Estate
As of the end of July, the median single-family home price in Westchester is up 4.5%. And all anecdotal evidence points to a full-on suburban real estate renaissance.
“Westchester is the place to be right now,” says Anover of REMAX Prime Properties. “People who have been thinking of selling Manhattan or Brooklyn properties and going to the suburbs are pulling the trigger right now. [At press time] exact data on the percentage of exodus from New York City is not yet conclusive but will be more evident by the fall as we see if people are returning to the city or not.”
The harsh reality of everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly fueled the decision to pull the trigger. Spending months cooped up inside apartments with no outdoor spaces and trying to live, work, and play under one tiny roof — or, alternatively, packing up the family and bouncing around suburban rentals in an attempt to ride out the pandemic in safer, more suitable surroundings — has chipped away at the glamour and prestige of New York City for many families. With its abundance of large homes, lush outdoor spaces, easy access to safe nature activities, and the usual draws of commuting ease, competitive schools, and charming Main Streets, the lure of Westchester is incredibly strong right now.
It was enough to finally convince Leslie Condon to trade in her Brooklyn brownstone for an address on the Sound Shore. Condon and her husband, Joe, plus their children, Vaughn and Marlo, moved into a seven-bedroom Larchmont Manor Victorian at the end of the summer after years of suburban angst on her part.
“We were similar to a lot of other young families, where one person of the couple really wants to move out of the city and the other is a little more reluctant. I was always the reluctant one. We had been looking for a few years to find a community that felt right, that felt relatable — and when COVID was added into the mix, it just seemed like it was time. It’s just hard to hold your ground when something like this happens,” she explains.
“Westchester is the place to be right now.”
— Myrna Anover, REMAX Prime Properties
The pandemic brought a sense of clarity to their decision: Where you live now is less about the external lifestyle of the location and more about how it fills the internal needs of your family. “I think what we realized is that the family unit is the priority, and the ability for our immediate unit to exist happily in a certain space is the most important aspect,” she explains.
The Condon family selected Larchmont in particular for a few reasons — factors that are appealing either in a pandemic or in normal times: high walkability, water access, proximity to the city, and a strong school system that is both competitive and conscientious. Settling in after the move, Leslie reports no regrets. “I saw myself as someone who would stay in Brooklyn for my whole life and raise my family there. But I’m definitely coming out of the city, saying I know this move to Westchester is what’s best for right now,” she says.
New Ossining residents Mimi Salcedo and her husband, Brennan Pothetes, also decided that now was the right time to transition from Brooklyn to Westchester. The couple, originally from Portland, OR, spent two years living in Park Slope, and loving it, before realizing their budget would not enable them to purchase the kind of home they hoped for in Brooklyn. Right before the pandemic began, Salcedo and Pothetes had been searching as far out as Bay Ridge for an affordable area that would allow them to commute to the city. They had enjoyed a weekend trip to the Hudson Valley on the Metro-North Hudson Line, and the idea of being near the river lingered in their minds as the lockdown started.
Buying During the Pandemic
Amy and Elliott van Erk and their son, David, moved from Brooklyn to Mount Kisco at the end of July. Their decision to move to Westchester was accelerated by the pandemic yet fairly typical of young urban families, who know that “a 9-month-old in a one-bedroom apartment doesn’t fly for too long,” as Amy says.
“I knew that I loved Mount Kisco and all its great food places, which matter a lot to me. I worked remotely even before the pandemic, and my husband was fine with the commute to the city, so the location was ideal. We had spent six years together in the city, and I felt like I was ready to have a car and a yard and to be able to breathe a little more freely,” Amy adds.
Less typical was their experience when making the transition to Westchester in the middle of a global pandemic. The van Erks toured their current home, in Mount Kisco — an unusual property, containing a 1922 prewar Colonial three-bedroom, plus a 2,000 sq. ft. dilapidated former flower shop/greenhouse that the couple plan to turn into a home-office space — the weekend before the lockdown was issued. That same weekend, they had held an open house on their Brooklyn co-op and found a buyer, squeaking by just before such indoor activities were suspended.
Once the lockdown ensued, the real estate market shut down entirely, and the couple decided to proceed with buying the Mount Kisco home — even though it was the only Westchester property they toured.
A masked-and-gloved Elliott visited the home a second time, with an equally PPE-clad home inspector, a nerve-racking process at the height of the pandemic, when, Amy says, they were afraid to take the train or rent a car to get to Westchester. “We were wary of using anything that anyone else had touched or breathed on,” she recalls. The rest of their buying-and-selling process was done virtually, through phone, email, and video conferences. The closing took place across two different rooms, so everyone could socially distance, with “everyone wearing masks and constantly using hand sanitizer,” she says.
Despite some tense moments, the family is thrilled with their decision. “As quarantine kept going on longer and longer, I just couldn’t wait to get out of Brooklyn and get to Westchester,” Amy says. “We’re so grateful to be here.”
“As the pandemic struck, we looked at each other and just knew. We decided it was better to move completely out of the city and started thinking about living in the suburbs,” Salcedo says. “The transportation on the Hudson Line was a big calling, and we loved the idea of staying in New York and being near the river and commuting that way.”
They quickly realized how much further their budget would go in Westchester and set their sights on Tarrytown for its dynamic downtown and river proximity. After being outbid on the first home they tried to purchase and feeling like they were still stretching their budget more than they were comfortable with, they found a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Colonial with a wraparound front porch that was bigger than other homes they had toured, which, Salcedo says, “really spoke to us.
The sellers had lived in the home for more than 30 years, and it just felt like a family home with a lot of love. Also, I’m half Peruvian, and it really called to me that Ossining has a strong Hispanic and Peruvian culture. Being here just felt right to us.”
“As the pandemic struck, we looked at each other and just knew. We decided it was better to move completely out of the city and started thinking about living in the suburbs.”
— Mimi Salcedo, new Ossining resident
Affordable Rivertowns, like Ossining, Cortlandt, and Peekskill, are appealing to a lot of families these days, notes Welch of Coldwell Banker. “You can get a lot of bang for your buck in these areas. There are many buyers who want out of apartments and condos, so properties listed in Croton or Ossining for less than $700,000 fly off the market.”
Northern Westchester is also increasingly popular with buyers, as the number of people making the daily Metro-North roundtrip has dropped off dramatically, and the longer train ride doesn’t loom as large in buyers’ minds. Towns like Yorktown Heights and even Cortlandt or Garrison [in Putnam County] are becoming an option, because, Welch explains, “The commute is not as much of a concern these days; buyers aren’t as worried about it, as many will be working remotely.”
“Many buyers do still have the commute to the city in the backs of their minds.”
— Dawn Knief, Compass
Perennially popular areas, like Larchmont, Rye, Chappaqua, and Scarsdale, are also still very much in demand, adds Elwell of Douglas Elliman. “The towns that have always have had strong demand kept surging in demand,” he notes.
Elwell also believes some of the old rules still apply. “Proximity to Manhattan is still king,” he says. “The closer towns to Manhattan have traditionally been more desirable, and I don’t see that changing. What’s selling well now is what’s always sold well in Westchester.”
“Many buyers do still have the commute to the city in the backs of their minds,” adds Knief of Compass. “They feel that once the coronavirus restrictions relax and things return to normal, they will be commuting again. So, they are still driven by proximity to the city and school district.”
There is a growing consensus among agents that the types of homes and amenities that are hot right now have changed across the board. The new crop of buyers, seeking refuge from the city in light of the pandemic, have embraced a “more is more” philosophy.
“The trends have been turned on their heads for sure. Previously, everyone wanted in-town living and a smaller footprint; they didn’t want a large yard to take care of,” Houlihan Lawrence’s Doern explains. “Now, it’s no longer less is more. Buyers want the home office; they want room for in-laws or grown children to stay; they want a big property and a pool and access to outdoor activities.” Tennis courts, outdoor kitchens, paddocks, basketball courts, and gardens are other hot outdoor amenities, according to a recent web survey done by Houlihan Lawrence.
On The Market
Nothing says quarantine entertainment like a lavish pool!
1 Durham Rd, Larchmont
6 BR, 5.1 BA; 7,748 sq. ft.; 1.67 acres; $63,769 estimated taxes
Take a dip in the 50-by-20-foot gunite saltwater pool with a spa, then relax on the surrounding bluestone patio with a built-in barbecue at this Tudor stunner. The home offers meticulous grounds, plus high-end interior spaces, including grand foyer, formal living room, butler’s pantry, and luxe master suite.
Listed by Pollena Forsman, Houlihan Lawrence
21 Arrowcrest Dr, Croton-on-Hudson
6 BR, 4.1 BA; 5,522 sq. ft.;1.97 acres; $47,520 estimated tax
Located in the prestigious Arrowcrest development, this home includes a 30-foot heated-and-lighted gunite saltwater pool, plus a new hot tub. The well-appointed home also has luxury touches, like radiant heated floors, indoor/outdoor sound system, five-zone lawn sprinkler, and landscape lighting.
Listed by Lynn Harmonay, North Country Sotheby’s International Realty
Ample interior space is also on the top of everyone’s wish lists these days, adds Knief: “Buyers want room for kids to play, homework areas, workspaces, Zoom rooms, et cetera. Houses with a home office or two, already in place, are selling at a premium.”
Adds Elwell: “We are definitely seeing buyers interested in a little more space than normal. If they were thinking of buying a three-bedroom, now they want to get a four-bedroom and use the fourth bedroom as an office.”
And, Anover notes, “People are looking for spaces where everyone can congregate, like a media room to watch movies or a big kitchen where you can cook for the whole family.”
It’s clear Westchester is having a moment. The question is whether this trend will continue or if the ever-strong lure of New York City will eventually eclipse the suburbs once again. Time will tell, but perhaps we can take a clue from new Ossining resident Mimi Salcedo: “At the peak of the pandemic, when we decided to move to Westchester, a lot of our friends in the city thought we were crazy,” Salcedo says. “But now, when I tell them how we could not be happier in Ossining, how we are relaxing on our patio, and the dog is having the time of his life in the backyard, they are like, ‘Oh wow, that sounds perfect. Maybe we should start looking, too…’”