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Hot housing market: Big demand for Pa. suburban homes

Angelys Ocana-McFarland was a bit overwhelmed, like a frazzled mom in a holiday movie.

Besides the fact the COVID-19 pandemic has been escalating and Christmas is right around the corner, the young photographer and her husband, Christopher McFarland, have been attempting to purchase their home in the Poconos.

“If I would have known how difficult this would be, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said, jokingly.

The truth, though, is she most certainly would have made the move from Brooklyn to Effort, Pennsylvania — a small but cozy enclave about 100 miles from Manhattan that commuters and former New Yorkers call home.

Because in her mind, the very life of her family depended on it.

As the coronavirus took hold in cities across the country this spring, families like the McFarlands asked themselves: Is it time to flee to the suburbs or somewhere even more remote?

In the age of social distancing, more space both indoors and outdoors has become a hot commodity when it comes to lifestyles and home sales, and no where has been more pronounced than in the Northeast.

“It’s made the suburbs very sought after,” said Allen “AJ” Ten Hoeve, Realtor at Keller Williams in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.

Apartment and condo dwellers in areas along the Hudson River from Fort Lee to Jersey City are seeking suburban towns as the pandemic changed the nature of the way people work, Hoeve said.

Christopher Raad, incoming president for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, said that individuals and families migrating from the metropolitan areas to the suburbs has been a hot trend throughout the pandemic.

And city dwellers are moving not just to the immediate suburbs, but further out as they can now largely avoid the commute to the city because their jobs are increasingly remote.

And now these new homeowners are settling in for the holidays in their new environs, marking their first time in many cases of adult life outside of the city.

“You’re just seeing folks being able to get a little distance between themselves, and some of their neighbors,” Raad said.

“Some of the areas, like the Poconos, the Lehigh Valley — Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton — you are seeing a migration here with folks from New York and New Jersey.”

Hot off the market

Migrating from the city to the suburbs is not a new phenomenon.

And while the COVID-induced migration has slowed — and in some cases, reversed, as prices fall in the city due to the sinking demand — suburban real estate remains hot even in the cold winter months.

Since the reopening of the market, homes in North Jersey have been selling as soon as they hit the market, often with multiple offers, agents said.

According to the New Jersey Association of Realtors, October single-family homes sales were up 34% compared to the same month a year ago, and the median sale price rose 22% to $410,000.

North Jersey counties reported double-digit increases in home sales, ranging from 18% in Passaic County to 51% in Bergen.

From New York City and along the Hudson River in New Jersey, more apartment dwellers are rethinking the way they live, said Jon Corbiscillo, Realtor at Keller Williams Fort Lee.

“They’re moving west into New Jersey,” Corbiscillo said. “They’re looking at what they can buy now that they don’t have to commute.”

And the demand goes much farther up the Hudson.

A recent study from real estate firm Clever Real Estate named Albany as the metropolitan area with the largest increase in demand nationwide in September.

“When people are leaving the city, unless they have a lot of money, they are leaping over Westchester and Dutchess counties and coming to Columbia County and the Capital region,” said Laura Burns, president of the Greater Capital Association of Realtors.

The change in buyers is reflected in the increase in median sale price of a home in the Capital Region — Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer and Washington counties — which has grown from about $205,000 in January, to $240,000 at the end of November.

The median sale price of a single-family home in the region was $200,000 in January 2019, she said.

Expanded demand across the Northeast

The same demand is being reported in Poconos and other regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, long considered a holiday destination for New Yorkers.

Nicole Murray, association executive for the Pocono Mountains Association of Realtors, noted that home sales in her region — Monroe County and a portion of Pike County – have changed drastically this year, even with many businesses having to shutter their doors for at least a few months.

“Pending sales are up 44.9% this October as compared to 2019,” Murray said. “Closed sales are up almost 65%, this year over last October, and the average sales price is up 24.2%.”

And houses are selling quickly.

“A house comes on, it sells. We don’t have a buildup of inventory,” said Joan Docktor, president of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach in Berwyn, a Chester County town located in the Upper Main Line outside Philadelphia.

“There’s a 1.4-month supply of inventory, because every time something comes on a listing, it sells.”

In the Poconos, houses sold within 90 days in October 2019. These days, the average is about 71 days.

Beth Buxbaum, spokeswoman at Berkshire Hathaway, said sellers are routinely receiving offers over $10,000 to $40,000 above asking price.

“I think that the pandemic is definitely playing a role in the migration out of cities or out of areas where the homes are smaller and they don’t have any yards. They want to have more space for themselves and their children,” Buxbaum said.

And while not everyone is seeking protection from the virus as a motivating factor to buy a new home, many are exploring the possibilities of bigger and better properties due to the amount of time they spend in their residences thanks to COVID-19.

“Having that dedicated office space that’s not the living room or the dining room. That’s one of things that many, many people are looking for right now,” Raad said.

‘It’s been life-changing’

When Vivian Pardo decided to start house hunting in suburban Bergen County this summer, she had no idea what to expect.

She just knew that she and her boyfriend wanted more space than the two-bedroom apartment in crowded West New York with a view of the New York City skyline for $3,400 a month.

“We needed to stop throwing our money away,” said Pardo, 53, noting that they wanted to build equity through home ownership.

After getting outbid on several properties in the $600,000 range, the couple found a three-bedroom single-family home in Saddle Brook, closing on the deal on Nov. 3 for $619,000.

The home is close to both their offices in Paramus, with Pardo working from home comfortably during the pandemic for her finance sector job.

In the higher price range, the competition is less stiff.

Erica Derector, 38, and her husband Andre Mestre, 33, purchased their dream home in Gillette, in Morris County, moving from Jersey City. The 5,000-square-foot home features a pool and a basement with space to stretch out.

The couple closed on the deal in September. Derector is able to work from home most of the time in her recruiting for tech companies, with views of nature and a home office.

“It’s been life changing,” she said.

Returning to the city

Inherent limitations of suburban towns and cities makes the future of each market unknown.

And the possibility of permanent remote work, while enticing people to buy in rural areas, is just another caveat for the longevity of the mass migration.

Claudia Berger of New York City said purchasing a home near the Catskill Mountains at the height of the coronavirus pandemic was the right call, but was a long, meandering journey.

Like many other New York City residents, Berger, a professor at Columbia University, and her husband Gregg Labita closed on a single-family home in New Paltz in June.

And while the process of moving, furnishing and working remote has been enjoyable, the couple is confronted with the realities of countryside living at least once a month.

“There is a reason to go back [to New York City] every few weeks, basically … I need a book or 10 books from the library, or to go to my office simply, and then we had to go vote, of course,” Berger said.

Berger says strains to store supply chains due to the pandemic made it tough to furnish her home in New Paltz for the first four months of her move.

The professor says she wishes New York City could go back to how it was before the pandemic, but noted social issues and the increase in crime rates need to be addressed before people feel like returning to the city.

“When we can go back to the theater and things like that I will enjoy spending some time [in NYC] too — It’s good to have some culture too —but ultimately I’m probably more on the side of valuing the outdoors as much as I can,” she said.

‘Lemonades out of lemons’

It’s not just new homeowners that have changed the completion of the suburbs and rural areas. Some simply moved to their second homes permanently.

As a former New York City dweller, Rosey Ott said she felt it was an easy transition as her family moved to upstate during the COVID-19 pandemic and started a business in the area.

Ott and her husband Anthony lanci have owned a country house in Pine Bush, Ulster County, since 2016 and had planned to open a farm-to-table market at some point in the future.

When the pandemic hit, they decided to turn the country house into a permanent residence and opened a farmhouse market in Cornwall recently.

“It wasn’t that much of a crazy change because we were familiar with the area. It was our weekend house. We really enjoy coming up here, hiking, going to the wineries and breweries,” said Ott.

In March, the couple moved with their toddler and two dogs and started adapting to a new life in the suburb where they can safely run around and go for a hike every single day.

They devote most time to their new business, The Farmhouse Market, that features a variety of fresh foods sourced from local farms and establishments.

“It’s a different energy. It’s a nice way regarding how we would like to spend our day,” Ott said.

While the move has changed their life in terms of living far away from their family members and friends, Ott said overall they feel it is a positive change.

One of the gains of living in the suburb is that their living expenses are down. She is glad to see the neighbors watch for each other and her kid has several playdates.

“We made lemonade out of lemons. We took a crazy, unexpected, scary situation and turned it into what works for our family. We feel safe and in control of our situation in terms of opening our new business,” Ott said. “It’s nice to take it easy and enjoy your time here. We feel optimistic about moving forward.”

A big decision

Ocana-McFarland, her husband and their young daughter Freyja landed in the Poconos this spring, when COVID cases in New York City began to spike. They settled in Ocana-McFarland’s mother’s house.

“We had no idea how long we would be here for,” she said. “I think we were under the impression that we were going to be here for a couple weeks, or maybe about a month or so, and then we were going to head back home.”

But as reports came in from New York, the couple heard about infection spikes throughout the metro area. Fearing the dense population in their Prospect Park neighborhood and the potential for community spread, the decision to hunker down and stay out in the country seemed more and more appealing.

“We were just like, OK, we’re not going to go back, we’re not going to put ourselves in this situation until things calm down,” Ocana-McFarland said. “As far as when that would be, we had no idea, we didn’t have a timeline. Everything was starting to close down.”

Outside of a few trips to pick up some possessions and conduct some business, the young family has remained in the Poconos since March.

Over those months, they eventually decided that the benefits of a less densely-populated area – including, most importantly, a safe environment to raise their young daughter – superseded disadvantages such as limited work opportunities in their respective fields.

Ocana-McFarland is a photographer, and McFarland is a musician and a handyman.

While living in Effort may be safer for Ocana-McFarland and her family as far as coronavirus exposure is concerned, it still comes with its share of burdens, particularly around the holidays.

“For Thanksgiving, it was just me and Christopher – we didn’t get a chance to see any of our families, and it was very hard for us, and for Freyja. I’m sure Freyja would have loved to see her grandparents come over. And we didn’t have that this year, because we wanted to be safe,” Ocana-McFarland said.

On top of that, Ocana-McFarland noted that many of the conveniences of the city, such as shops and boutiques in close proximity to home, are dearly missed, as they made Christmas shopping so much easier.

Due to post office slowdowns, she knows that tackling yuletide gift lists this year will be a challenge.

“That’s a whole other stress level right there, going Christmas shopping and getting the gifts in,” Ocana-McFarland said. “Let’s say you want to send gifts out to people and you’re using the post office. That’s going to take another few weeks, if they even get it in time.”

Add to that the exhausting commute that McFarland takes every day to the city, and the stress is palpable for the young family, especially around the holidays.

But in the end, the struggles and sacrifices are well worth it for Ocana-McFarland and McFarland. “We are doing everything we can to make ends meet, and it’s definitely challenging. But it’s one of those things for the benefit of Freyja, and we’re not giving up,” Ocana-McFarland said.

“We’re doing everything we need to do to make sure she has a home.”

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