How to scout out the NYC suburbs like a pro: tips for city parents​

Dec 22, 2016

Scouting out suburbia can be both exciting and daunting, especially if you are a city parent. Here are some tips on how you can get to know your prospective ‘burbs in NYC.

So what did Alison Sherwin learn while scouting out the NYC suburbs? How to get a true sense of a community fast, including suburban search with the kids and why diners are the ultimate gauge of a town…

While in the process of looking for a house, how do you get a sense of the town—or towns—you are looking at? I wanted to know how busy each town’s Main Street was, how far the playgrounds and parks were from any potential house, where my supermarket and drugstore would be, and whether I should expect daily traffic jams at any place in town. How do you do that? Here are some of the issues:

Bringing the kids?Let’s face it, if you’re looking to move from Manhattan to Westchester or any of the NYC suburbs, there’s a good chance you have kids, likely more than one. Do you take them with you? If not, then you need to arrange for child care, potentially on short notice if a newly listed property seems likely to field multiple offers. If taking, then driving—see below!—becomes almost a necessity to accommodate their car seats, diaper bags, and other accoutrements. And if you are taking them, then be prepared to look at each house separately from your spouse as you trade child-care duties. Each visit will take twice as long as it would otherwise. The times we took our toddler, I felt as though I only saw staircases—my apartment-raised toddler enjoyed the novelty of stairs and wanted to go up and down them multiple times!

On the plus side, when we found the house we eventually bought, we took our toddler with us on our second visit and she immediately liked the large driveway and the surfeit of acorns falling from the oak trees on the property.

Consider transportation. If you don’t have your own car already, then you really have two options for exploring the NYC suburbs while living in the city: borrowing or renting a car every time you want or need to see a house, or taking the commuter rail north and riding with your real estate agent.

My husband and I started out trying to house hunt via train, but several issues quickly arose. Not many realtors have car seats, meaning we would have to bring it on the train. While it is very easy to get to any particular town on the train, if you are looking at houses in several towns on the same day, it is hard to get to them if they aren’t on the same train line. There are three Metro-North lines that run through Westchester. The River Towns are on the Hudson line, Scarsdale on the Harlem line and Larchmont and Mamaroneck are on the New Haven line—going between these NYC suburbs on separate lines via train doesn’t work.

After giving up on the train and not wishing to deprive my brother and sister-in-law of their car every weekend, we relied on rentals. Renting cars allowed us to more easily bring our toddler the times when we didn’t have a family member who was able to watch her and to give us more flexibility in driving around. It’s definitely not the cheapest option but it helped me to feel more connected to the area and allowed my daughter to nap in her car seat instead of attempting to keep her occupied on the train.

If you keep a car in the city or can rent one, use it!

Create personal landmarks for yourself. For various reasons, we were searching for houses in several different suburbs. As someone who didn’t grow up in Westchester, I didn’t feel as though I had any sense of where I was in the NYC suburbs—and it probably didn’t help that I insisted my husband drive almost all of the time. (Side note: after 13 years in the city, it took a while for me to be comfortable driving again.) I started looking for landmarks so I could start to feel as though I knew where I was. This could be anything: (1) the castle where a friend of mine was married, (2) the street where we saw a house with a crazy catwalk or (3) the diner where we ate at multiple times during this process. Driving past each of them—and noting this fact out loud—helped me feel somewhat geographically connected to the process. This also helped me to feel more comfortable in the area once we moved—using the same landmarks toslowlystop using the GPS to get everywhere.

Eat at ALL the diners. Embrace whatever your stress eating food of choice is and order it. Try out all the different diners in the suburb or suburbs you are searching in. Take some time to people watch—are there entire kids’ baseball teams coming in to eat after a game? Does the church congregation from next door walk directly over to eat? Does the couple sitting at the next table watch as you debate the pros and cons of making an offer on a particular house and tell you that their town is wonderful? Is your request for a highchair met with a smile, crayons and prompt delivery of chicken fingers?

Just as with houses, there is no perfect town in the NYC suburbs oranysuburbs. Remember that most of the towns in Westchester are relatively small. We live in Irvington, but the kids’ preschool is in Tarrytown, their pediatrician is in Hastings-on-Hudson, the dentist is in Hartsdale, our butcher is in Ardsley, my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at a lovely restaurant in Dobbs Ferry, and we do a lot of shopping at the Costco in Yonkers. The best diner or church/temple or playground doesn’t have to be in the same town as your future home. With the right landmarks and new-found confidence in driving, you can get anywhere.

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