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Weekending in the suburbs
[NEW YORK] Jon Stein and his wife, Polina, have been known to get so antsy to be outdoors that Jon Stein and his two young daughters have camped out on the terrace of their Lower East Side apartment on Ludlow Street. "It's a really nice deck," Stein, 39, said.
Six years ago, the couple began auditioning vacation destinations for their family, knowing that someday they wanted to buy a weekend home. They tried staying in Hillsdale, in Columbia County, New York, and in various towns on Long Island; they tested nearly every beach town on the Jersey Shore.
Two summers ago, they fell hard for Cold Spring, New York, a Putnam County village on the Hudson River, a little over an hour from the city, renting a house near a nature preserve with a river view. Although they didn't find a house to buy there, the experience inspired them to search in other relatively close areas, as their daughters, Sasha, 4, and Sydney, 3, get carsick on long drives. They looked at towns like Bedford and North Salem, exploring places many have long considered — gasp — the suburbs.
When Polina Stein, 36, a graphic designer, heard a parent at her daughter's Manhattan preschool raving about the family's house on Lake Kitchawan, in sleepy Pound Ridge, a town of roughly 5,000 people that is home to the 4,315-acre Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, they found a house on the same lake soon after. The 5,000-square-foot house, which they are renovating, abuts 16 acres of conservancy land. There are views of the 100-acre lake from most rooms, and there is an indoor pool. They paid less than US$1 million.
"I'm a city person at heart," Polina Stein said. "I'm not ready to live in the suburbs, but I liked that this house wasn't too far; it was private, and you really feel like you're deep in the woods. I don't want my girls to grow up scared of bugs."
Weekending in the suburbs? Well, why not? These towns are commutable — if you don't mind a commute of more than an hour — and offer plenty of birdsong out your window. Many have charming downtowns, some with the boutique exercise classes popular in the city and farm-to-table restaurants. And depending on where you buy, you might get a house with a pool that is also a short drive or walk from a beach, great hiking trails or parks. Or a lively farmers' market.
"Suburbs is a dirty word," joked Melissa Marcogliese, an agent with Compass Real Estate, in Northern Westchester. "We prefer to think of it up here as country chic."
New Yorkers like the Steins aren't buying second homes in commuter havens like Garden City or Bronxville, half an hour on an express train from the city. Brokers in less-dense suburbs like waterfront Greenwich, Connecticut, and walkable Katonah, New York, say they are getting calls from city buyers (and renters) interested in weekend houses within 90 minutes of Manhattan. An agent in Rowayton, Connecticut, said summer rentals in the exclusive waterfront village tend to fly off the market.
"It's a larger trend than it's ever been," said Alison Bernstein, the executive director of Suburban Jungle Realty, a real estate agency that helps city dwellers find the right suburb. Some of her clients have fallen in love with an area outside the city, only to discover that they can't cut the cord and leave their city life behind. So a few have opted to buy a weekend house there instead. "For some people," Bernstein said, "it's a way to get their feet wet."
Drawn to the open land, quiet villages and deer crossing their yards, families may spend the summer in those houses, commuting back and forth for a few months, while enrolling their children at suburban camps. Others, often telecommuters, extend their weekends by working a Friday or Monday from the vacation homes, then hopping on an hourlong train the morning they are expected back at work.
Many of these towns tend to have a mix of full- and part-time residents. It's easy to see the suburban weekend house as a modern twist on the city pied-à-terre: In the last century, if a parent was working late, he or she might stay in an apartment in Manhattan rather than head home to the suburbs, and the place offered a base for family activities in the city on the weekend. Today, the suburban house offers a similar jumping-off point for weekend excursions, and the advent of telecommuting offers the possibility of working a day or two in the backyard.
While there are pretty, vacation-like suburbs across the tristate area — Little Silver in New Jersey, Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island — Bernstein said the horse farms and lakes of Northern Westchester, as well as the serene waters of the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, seem to pull people north when it comes to buying a close-in weekend house. "Compared to the Hamptons, you'll get so much more for your money up there," she said.
It was the traffic that pushed Leonard Steinberg and his partner, Thom Caughlin, to sell their weekend house on the Hudson River. On Friday nights, it could take three hours to get to their beloved Saugerties house, about 100 miles from the city. And then it was another three hours to return home Sunday.
"It was becoming a bit absurd," said Steinberg, 54, an executive at Compass Real Estate. "We came up with a mission statement: Find a house with a shorter commute, so we could enjoy our weekends more."
He and Caughlin, 52, the executive director of creative operations at Estee Lauder, considered areas like Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Tuxedo Park, New York, before buying a piece of land for US$380,000 on Whatmores Lake, in Waccabuc, New York, in Northern Westchester. They finished building their 3,000-square-foot farmhouse-loft dream home there last summer.
Now, after a weekend of hiking, dining at the Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges or catching up with locals at the Market at Union Hall in North Salem, they can be back in the West Village in less than an hour.
"Time is the luxury with the greatest value, because we all keep running out of it," Steinberg said. "Being this close allows us to go up for a night if we're busy. It's heaven."
Eric Rosenfeld, a broker with William Raveis Real Estate, in Katonah, said he often showed houses to urbanites who were surprised by the raw beauty of some suburban areas. "There is the assumption that you have to go far away for it to be wild and natural," he said. "But we have areas where, thanks to rocky outcroppings, lakes and streams, you swear you're in New Hampshire."
"It was the stone walls that got me," said Allison Rudary, 39, who works in private banking. She and her husband, Matt Rudary, 39, a software engineer at a hedge fund, bought a weekend house in Redding, Connecticut, a year ago. "You pass over the Saugatuck River, and there's this little house in Wilton where the road turns from two lanes to one, and when I see it, all of the tension from my neck and back falls away," she said.
They considered buying a weekend house in Beacon, New York, or Candlewood Lake, Connecticut, before deciding on Redding, where they fell in love with the forested and hilly terrain of the rural town. Redding doesn't have a commercial downtown, or even a stoplight, but it is less than 60 miles from their Upper West Side apartment. They adore the bucolic country roads winding to the four-bedroom colonial they bought for US$705,000, which sits on 6 acres and backs Devil's Den Preserve, a nature lover's paradise. "We see woodpeckers; we see hawks nesting; we see deer. But we don't see people, and we don't hear them. It's a true escape," Allison Rudary said.
They leave every Friday night year-round, returning to the city on Monday morning. Allison Rudary loves to cook and bake. Matt Rudary tends the fire. They catch up on television and take their dogs for long walks in the woods. And if they wanted to have a barbecue with friends, they could entertain like-minded neighbors; three of the four houses on their cul-de-sac are occupied by weekenders from Brooklyn and Manhattan.
"For us, it's a refuge," Matt Rudary said.
While most people have heard of the Hamptons and the Catskills, there are many towns that may be overlooked in a house hunt simply because they are lesser known.
Tom Postilio and Mickey Conlon, real estate brokers with Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, grew tired of commuting to the Hamptons, so last year they built an 11,000-square-foot house on the Long Island Sound, in the estate section of Nissequogue village, 54 miles from the city.
"Long Island is not a flyover state," said Conlon, 42, who grew up in Nissequogue. But he and Postilio, 49, said that drivers heading east along the Long Island Expressway don't have any idea how beautiful many of the areas in Suffolk County are, simply because they don't have a reason to get off the highway.
The couple browse in the antiques shops in quaint St. James village, spot deer in their yard and enjoy their private beach about 40 steps down a high bluff. "This is perfect for people who aren't looking for a scene," said Postilio, adding that while he loved the Hamptons, he didn't want to buy a house there. Too much traffic, and too much of New York at the beach.
An additional perk of buying a weekend house an hour from the city is that it makes for a popular rental listing on Airbnb. Daniel Fries, 49, a filmmaker, and his wife, Hana Shimizu, 37, a producer, live in Chinatown with their two young children, but they longed for "a place to escape the crowds and the smell of trash in summertime," Fries said. For years, they rented weekend houses on Airbnb in Ulster and Dutchess Counties but found many of them disappointing.
The couple wanted a weekend house of their own — one they could enjoy or rent on Airbnb when they weren't there, to help pay the mortgage. Fries became enamored of three acres of lakefront land in Pound Ridge; on the property was a dilapidated house that needed a major face-lift, but the couple was undaunted. They bought it in 2016, for US$650,000.
The first year, while the house was being renovated, they visited every weekend in the summer. Fries and Shimizu set up a platform near the house, outfitting it with a big safari tent, so they could camp there.
"Even with the renovation, we wanted to get a summer out of it," Fries said. "My 3-year-old doesn't remember the ‘tent summer,' but she talks about the lake all of the time."
When the renovation was finished, he and Shimizu decorated the midcentury-style home with Scandinavian-style furnishings and Thermador appliances, hoping to attract deep-pocketed city types. They have had no trouble renting it, for as much as US$700 to US$1,300 a night, depending on the season, billing it as a "Modern Lakehouse just 55 miles from NYC."
"With young kids, it can get harder to travel. So we created our own Shangri-La up here," Fries said. "The benefit of the location is unbeatable."
Sometimes a weekend house is so alluring that it begins to feel like home, ultimately becoming home. Pandora Lycouri, a brand and marketing consultant, and Nicholas Karytinos, an architect, were pleasantly surprised when they visited Tod's Point, a sprawling stretch of sand in Greenwich, Connecticut, where residents can swim, stroll on meandering paths and order a grilled shrimp salad at the concession stand. "I was stunned," said Lycouri, 47.
They had been to the area before — Karytinos, 45, had designed houses in Connecticut, and the couple had gone to barbecues at the homes of friends in Greenwich — but Lycouri had always written off the area as too suburban. Now the beach gave her a newfound appreciation for bustling downtown Greenwich and its sophisticated residents.
"We're both half Greek, and the beach here reminded us of the golden sand back home," Lycouri said. "The water is calm, which is what I'm accustomed to, and there was so much natural beauty. A light bulb just went off."
They liked the first house they saw, a 1920s farmhouse with a front porch and a lovely garden, listed for US$875,000, within walking distance of downtown Greenwich. They kept their apartment in a high-rise doorman building in NoMad the first year they owned the house, but every Sunday they would get cranky about returning to the city. They longed to wake up in nature, by the water, for longer than a weekend.
"After living in Manhattan for so long, I think I was desperate to feel the earth under my feet," Lycouri said. "Being there felt like paradise."
Eight months ago, the couple decided to make their weekend house their permanent home. They agreed, however, that if one of them missed the city, they would return, restoring the house to weekend status. For now, though, their decision still feels right.
"I feel much healthier out here," said Lycouri, who works remotely two days a week. "It feels good just to breathe fresh air."