Home prices have surged and people have flocked to Westchester since the beginning of the pandemic. But what people are looking for in a home is also changing.
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Mehdi Jamei was living in a three-bedroom, 1000-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park South neighborhood with his wife and two-year-old daughter when the coronavirus pandemic hit New York.
The Jameis had already begun casually looking for a larger place, a little closer to nature, by the beginning of 2020. But their Brooklyn pad offered a 30-minute commute to his company’s NoHo offices, and he was not eager to add hours to his daily commute.
The COVID-19 outbreak changed everything.
“COVID was very traumatic in the city. From where we were, in the heart of Brooklyn, you could hear sirens every night,” Jamei, the lead data scientist at a New York City tech startup called System, recalls. “At the time, we were on the eighth floor of the building. And even the elevator was a major concern at the beginning of the pandemic. Even by taking a simple elevator ride, we were nervous that this was where we'd catch it.”
Jamei’s work, meanwhile, went remote, eliminating the benefit of his short commute to the office. In November 2020, Mehdi and his wife, Shokoofeh, closed on a house in Chappaqua. His family, which now includes a four-month-old girl, no longer has to worry about sharing the air with neighbors on an eight-story elevator ride. They have plenty of space and hiking trails nearby, perfect for when they are trying to avoid the crowds. And while Jamei’s commute is an hour and a half each way rather than half an hour, the added time on Metro-North is reasonable since he now only goes into the city twice a week.
Jamei’s story is a familiar one. Since the beginning of the “Tiger King” phase of the pandemic, real estate agents have seen their phones buzzing constantly with young New Yorkers looking to bolt their cramped city apartments for more space in Westchester. There were several factors. The population density of the city suddenly became synonymous with “more people breathing on you.” The dining, culture, and nightlife that drew millennials to pay $4,000 a month for a 700-square-foot studio was shut down, trapping them in their joint kitchen/bedroom/living room close to 24 hours a day. The other appeal of city living, proximity to their Midtown or FiDi offices, also was made moot by working-from-home arrangements.
“COVID came, and they came in droves,” says Usha Subramaniam, a licensed associate broker for Compass. “The big mad rush was when COVID first hit. We would get calls from people literally crying. They thought there were in danger.”
UP, UP, AND AWAY
Home sales have skyrocketed. The median residential home sale price jumped from $630,000 in 2019 to $710,000 last year, according to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. It has continued to climb this year — the median price of a house rose 6.1 percent to $780,000, per Compass’s 2021 Westchester market report (Compass uses slightly different numbers than the state). The average price was even higher, up 10 percent from 2020 and topping a million.
“We don't see any signs of hesitation,” says Maureen Connolly, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Realty. “The prices just keep going up. People just can't believe the numbers people are getting, and buyers are willing to pay.”
The number of sales increased 11.6 percent for single-family houses and significantly more — 33.6 percent and 37 percent respectively — for condos and co-ops.
But the numbers only tell part of the story, according to five real estate agents spoken to for this article. Houses are selling well over asking price, Connolly says, sometimes in all-cash deals.
“It's not only that prices are higher. It's how competitive it is,” explains Jeremy Zucker, a real estate agent with Keller Williams NY Realty. “If you were looking to buy a house now in almost any area, you'd have a selection of two to three houses in your price range, whatever your price range happens to be. And if you don't put down as much as possible, if you're not willing to waive some contingencies, if you're not really quick to act, then you're just not going to get the house.”
The county has seen multiple waves of buyers. First, there was the panic buying when the virus first hit and city residents fled for their safety and sanity.
“You have the initial people, the refugees who were like, ‘Just get me out of the city. I can't live in a one-bedroom apartment with two kids anymore,’” says Zucker. “After that first wave, we had almost Hamptons-type prices here for seasonal rentals.”
By the end of 2020, sales had cooled somewhat, with CNN positing that the real estate markets in Westchester and other New York suburbs were leveling off. But 2021 brought another wave of buyers who either passed or missed out on the initial rush, or who rented while looking for the right opportunity.
“You have all these people who have taken a break from all the craziness hoping things would calm down,” says Subramaniam. “And I would say they are more educated. They have had time to look at the market for the last two years.”
This year has also seen more people buying property to keep as a second home, either to use part-time or to have in case another wave of COVID pushes them to get out of the city.
“They are sort of hedging their bets so they will have a place to move to full time if they need to,” says Sally Slater, a licensed associate real estate broker with Douglas Elliman. “I had one person saying that this was something of a hedge.”
CHANGING WANTS, CHANGING NEEDS
What Westchester-bound homebuyers are looking for in a home has also changed. Young families have been having children and moving from the boroughs for more space for generations, but often one or both parents still worked five days a week in Manhattan. Easy access to the city was paramount; buyers wanted to be close to a train station and expected not to spend much more time on Metro-North than they had previously on the subway. After the 2008 financial crisis, Subramaniam says, places like Scarsdale, Bronxville, and the Rivertowns recovered while those north of White Plains remained below their 2008 peak.
“That extra 10 to 15 minutes on the train from Scarsdale to Chappaqua seemed to be a dealbreaker for a lot of people,” she explains.
That has flipped since the start of the pandemic.
“I see very, very few people who talk about a commute anymore,” says Connolly. “I don't even put that in my listings anymore, whereas in the past I always put, ‘Near Metro-North.’ I leave that out and talk more about the backyard and the firepit, and bike trails.”
Prices have been going up across the county, those spoken to for this article say. But the jump has been more pronounced north of I-287, where buyers can get more space for their money.
“People want to have their homes as their own private retreats now because they are spending so much time at home,” says Christine Rowley, an associate broker with Remax Classic Realty. “I haven't heard anyone tell me that they need to be within walking distance to the train station. This year, that hasn't come up with any of my buyers.”
The pandemic has changed life in Westchester, never more so than during weekday working hours.
“There is traffic at all hours now,” says Zucker, adding that a midday trip that took 15 minutes before the pandemic is now taking close to half an hour. “More people are out, which is frustrating.”
Those spoken to for this article also noted that grocery stores were always empty during the week before COVID-19 but are now packed at noon on your average Tuesday.
This is likely less a product of the influx of new neighbors than changing commutation trends among county residents. Historically, many of the million or so Westchester residents were leaving the county for work each day. In 2017, close to 217,000 county residents worked outside Westchester, some 60 percent of them going into New York City, according to a December 2019 report published by Marist College. While there is no post-pandemic data available, a survey published in November 2021 found that just 8 percent of Manhattan office workers were back in the office five days a week while 54 percent were still fully remote — and this was before the Omicron variant was found in South Africa. With an additional 115,000 to 200,000 people staying in the county, it’s no wonder traffic has gotten worse.
Growing population density could make the jump to the suburbs a little less painful for New York City immigrants used to having a plethora of shopping and dining options within walking distance.
“People still want the town feel. Moving from the city is a drastic change for these people,” says Rowley. “They want to feel like they still can get to a store fairly easily, get to a grocery store or restaurants and still have those things at their fingertips.”
For longtime Westchester residents, though, the changes to the county can be jarring. This has led some boomers to leave the county, generally, for warmer climates such as Florida, Virginia, or the Carolinas, Rowley says.
Brokers expect the market to stay hot in 2022, though prices could begin to stabilize if the pandemic seems to move into the rear-view mirror. And if life truly goes back to normal, some who came because of COVID might be pulled back.
“I do think that eventually, two or three years from now, you are going to see people who escaped the city who might miss that lifestyle,” says Rowley. “You get some of that here, but it is never going to be New York City.”
Andrew Vitelli is the former editor of The Putnam Examiner and The White Plains Examiner. A Hastings-on-Hudson native, he now lives in White Plains with his wife, Zeynep, two-year-old daughter, Zoe, and their dog Beasley.