By Liana Grey
Several years ago, Alison Bernstein founded Suburban Jungle Realty, a consulting firm that matches Manhattanites with their ideal bedroom community.
Much like an online dating service, the website asks first-time suburban house hunters to share their preferences: what they loved or hated about their hometowns, the furthest they’d be willing to commute, and whether living near family is important.
“It is a big decision to leave the city, both emotionally and financially, and our priority is to support clients in every way possible,” said Bernstein, who has 15 years of real estate experience and herself decamped from New York to the suburbs.
Bernstein recently hired “correspondents” in towns across Westchester, New Jersey, and Connecticut to dispense advice, free of charge. “Our 30 new town consultants will join a team that works hard to understand buyers’ needs, shedding light on the subtle differences between life in each town,” she said.
To longtime urbanites, New York’s suburbs can seem like a giant monolith, one quaint town indistinguishable from the next.
“Even neighboring towns are very different from one another, and it is very difficult to determine the differences at first glance, looking at statistics or when solely focused on a home search,” Bernstein explained on Suburban Jungle’s website.
Of course, many suburban brokers serve as relocation consultants in their own right. Harriet Libov, an agent at the Armonk office of Houlihan Lawrence, often works with city dwellers that begin their search in and around Armonk at the prompting of friends.
“The first question I ask is, where else are they looking?” said Libov, who purchased a home in Armonk 24 years ago after renting an apartment in Manhattan. “I will give them an expert on every town, to make sure they make sure they have explored their options.”
If clients do wind up zeroing in on Armonk and Chappaqua — both affluent, semi-rural enclaves about 40 miles north of midtown — Libov walks them through the ins and outs of life in each town.
She explains, for instance, that while Armonk doesn’t have a train station like Chappaqua, a Metro North stop in nearby North White Plains offers frequent service to Grand Central.
And she makes sure to point out the differences in housing stock between the two zip codes. “In every price range, there’s a difference in inventory,” Libov explained. “Chappaqua has more 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s homes than we do. Armonk has more new construction.”
A recent client happened to be familiar with Armonk, having grown up there before moving to the Big Apple. “She got married, is pregnant, and it was time to come back to the ‘burbs,” Libov said. Not long ago, she worked with a couple that knew little about Westchester, but had limited time to hunt for a home.
“They had to make a decision before the school year, and they had friends in the area,” she said. “So although they were looking in different towns, my area of Armonk was their first choice.”
House hunters like that couple, who just signed a contract on a house in Armonk, have the option of conducting their own extensive research with the click of a mouse.
“There is so much information online,” Libov said. “The Houlihan Lawrence website has town videos, town information, and gives links to learn about schools districts.”
Some brokers launch their own informal guides to a particular swath of suburbia. Libov herself manages a blog about Armonk, where she posts upcoming events in town as well as listings like 2 Cider Mill Circle, a home listed for $1,495,000 with four bedrooms and English gardens.
In New Jersey, Keller Williams broker Lina Panza runs a website, Walkable Suburbs, which describes life in Montclair, Maplewood, and other transit-oriented towns in Essex County.
She compiles links to everything from hiking trails in South Orange to cultural offerings like the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, and chronicles some of her own experiences on the site.
Hyperlocal blogs are more prevalent in the five boroughs, of course, where trends in real estate are something of an obsession. But some neighborhood guides that began in the five boroughs have expanded to the city’s fringes.
Nabewise, a website that matches apartment hunters with a neighborhood based on criteria like nightlife, trendiness, and sense of community, now profiles towns in Westchester, Fairfield, and Long Island.
A section on Hudson County in New Jersey features towns that straddle the line between urban and suburban.
A prime example is Newport, the master-planned LeFrak community along Jersey City’s waterfront.
As of the end of February, 17 percent of Newport residents moved from Manhattan, according to data provided by the LeFrak Organization, and nearly 80 percent of them work in the city.
Many of them fit the demographic profile of a recent transplant to a more traditional suburb: married couples with babies on the way.
“A lot of young children have been born in and moved to the neighborhood,” said Mario Gaztambide, vice president of residential asset management at LeFrak.
Newport offers all the prized elements of suburbia – playgrounds, big box stores like Target, and even a shopping mall – along with a pedestrian-friendly landscape of condo and rental towers, and a quick commute to Manhattan on the PATH train.
“While you get incredible views of Manhattan, making you still feel like you’re in city, money goes farther,” Gaztambide said. “There’s ample parking; you can have your car.”
Shops like Duane Reade, a Morton Williams supermarket, and Bambi Baby Store, which sells strollers and children’s furniture, are just steps from the neighborhood’s apartment towers.
The community’s newest condo building, Aquablu, has been successful in attracting families from Manhattan, Gaztambide said.
The tower offers three-bedroom units spacious enough for young children, along with luxury amenities like stainless steel appliances and a feature not available deep into suburbia: direct views of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline.
But like a small town, Newport has a tight-knit community of parents with toddlers, and plenty of recreational activities for kids. Wild at Play, on River Drive, offers summer camp, music and art classes, and an early enrichment program to prepare toddlers for preschool. And Newport Skates, an ice skating rink, is often frequented by families in the winter.
Many recent arrivals have joined more informal groups like Newport Mommies, a mommy-and-me group with 500 members. “It’s like stroller heaven,” Gaztambide said.