Home Hunting During COVID

A deserted Eighth Avenue shows how much NYC has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our apartment hunter’s home needs have changed along with it. (James Leynse/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Writer Jordi Lippe-McGraw is chronicling her family’s virtual hunt for a new apartment in a changed New York for StreetEasy. This is part 4 in her series on home hunting during COVID-19. Look for the final installment of her story here soon.

With virus figures in New York City declining, and widespread talk of the city at least partially reopening, deciding where my family should move has become more complicated. My husband and I are on the hunt for what we hope will be an upgrade from our Chelsea 1-bedroom, which is too tight for a family with a toddler and a dog. We had been looking for a Manhattan 2-bedroom through virtual tours while staying 200 miles from the city, and we’ve changed our search requirements considerably to adjust for a post-pandemic world. But now we’re considering not returning to the city at all.

Home Hunting During COVID: Reality Sinks In

After months of sequestering with family in Pennsylvania, it’s clear that “normal” city life won’t return for at least several months, if ever. Given that uncertainty, we’re hesitant to bring our two-year-old son back to a place that might feel confining — especially since he’s been loving country life. As the possibility of leaving the city grew greater, we realized that we would have to let our Chelsea lease, which was up in May, expire. We would never spend another night together as a family in our original apartment.

home hunting during covid

The author and her family. Their Chelsea lease expired in May.

It’s that apartment where we brought our newborn son home from the hospital. It’s that apartment where we posed for our first family holiday card. It’s that apartment where my son made his first friend (the little girl next door). It’s that apartment where we played hide-and-seek with the doorman. And it’s that apartment where I spent my maternity with my best friend from childhood, who happened to live down the hall.

It was so much more than a place with our things. It’s where we created our first memories as a family. Now, no more will be made there.

I know you’re probably thinking, “Weren’t you looking to move anyway?” Yes, we were itching to have some more space. But we also thought we’d get a proper goodbye. Our next move will now happen without that, and it feels like a sudden loss. At the same time, we feel incredibly grateful to have options and a safe place to stay until then.

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Moving to the Suburbs Becomes a Real Option

While home hunting during COVID-19, we’ve been focused on finding a new apartment in the city. But the extended social-distancing guidelines got us thinking. We started asking ourselves, what happens if parks, preschools, and play spaces remain closed for months? What if another stay-at-home order is enacted and we can’t go outside? How will we both be able to work if it isn’t safe for our nanny to get to us?

All the things we loved about living in the city might not return for months. Some say it might be another year or more. So why should we return? We started to expand our search to the suburbs, where we could rent a house with a yard.

What we’ve learned from our time in Pennsylvania is that our active little toddler needs space. (And we sometimes need space from him.) He literally spends hours playing in a backyard dirt pile. He loves picking every single flower he comes across. And it’s been quite a luxury to enjoy a quiet glass of wine on the patio after he goes to sleep, when we used to be confined to having dinner in bed. Now, the idea of living in an apartment with so much less space — especially if we can’t go outside — feels extremely restrictive. Add a nanny into that mix (or not), with two parents working from home, and it all seems like a recipe for disaster.

In the ‘burbs, our son could run around in a protected yard. And we’d have enough space to work from home, plus family nearby to help out. It’s a blissful scenario that’s hard not to consider strongly. Given that, we are looking at suburbs where we could potentially be happy for a year — or more.

Our Search Criteria for the Suburbs

We modified our apartment-search criteria for a rental house in the suburbs. Since our families are based in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (and since we’d be relying on them for some childcare), it made sense to focus on towns in New Jersey. We wanted areas that had a walkable downtown nearby, so we could at least have a sense of city strolling. And we decided to focus our search on places within easy commuting distance of Manhattan, so my husband can (hopefully) eventually return to his office, and I can go in for business meetings.

tudor home in ridgewood new jersey

A home in Ridgewood, New Jersey, that the family considered. (Courtesy of Zillow)

For living space, we need 3 bedrooms to accommodate family visits. The unit should be either a house or a townhouse, to avoid the frequent interactions with strangers you get in an apartment building. A yard for our now-dirt-loving son is a must, and, of course, the rental has to be pet-friendly (a feature that is harder to find than I thought it’d be). On top of all that, we see this as an opportunity to save cash: We’d like to spend less money than we were spending in the city.

Although we’re still open to many towns, we’ve preliminarily narrowed it down to Ridgewood, Montclair, and Summit in New Jersey. I even sent my sister to do a walk-through of this storybook-like 3-bedroom Tudor that’s within walking distance of New Jersey Transit, with me on FaceTime. It’s hard not to imagine life being comfortable for a while in a place like that.

Not an Easy Decision

Honestly, it all feels like too much sometimes. For the past few weeks, my husband and I have gone on nightly walks where we try to hash out where we should live. Do we stay in Pennsylvania through the summer, and resume our search in the fall? Move back to the city this summer? Head to the ‘burbs now? Each time, we feel like we’ve made progress and a decision, only to have one of us (usually me) change our minds the next day.

I’ve scoured Facebook groups to see people’s opinions on the topic of home hunting during COVID-19. I’ve read countless articles. There are ones from moms who grew up in the city saying they’re leaving and never coming back. And then comments saying that real New Yorkers are tough and should stay. I even wrote out a list of pros and cons and went over it with several friends, my in-laws, and pretty much anyone else that would listen. The responses I got were just as divided as the articles I read.

As it stands now, our original hunt for a 2-bedroom in New York City is still in play, as is finding a house in New Jersey. A decision will have to be made by early June to get our possessions in order, figure out a plan with my in-laws, alert the nanny — and maintain our sanity. We know we are extremely fortunate to have any options at a time when so many are struggling. Now we just need to make a decision and move on.

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