The Real Deal New York

Is Westchester’s ‘hipsturbia’ hype real?

Brokers say the increased buzz over the river towns is bringing even more Brooklyn buyers
By Melissa Dehncke McGill | October 01, 2013 07:00AM
From left:

From left: Chris Meyers, Alison Bernstein, Fatin Beiner and Patricia Neuwirth

Are hipsters still hipsters in the suburbs? That’s a riddle many are trying to solve as more and more Brooklynites relocate to the so-called river towns just north of the city in Westchester.

The towns — which include Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow and Irvington — have long been popular among city buyers looking to move to greener pastures. But a recent wave of attention — including a New York Times piece headlined “Creating hipsturbia” earlier this year — has generated even more interest in these communities.

In this month’s Q&A, the brokers who work in these towns on the Hudson River told The Real Deal that residential activity is up almost 25 percent over the same time last year. And one broker noted that “Brooklynites have been the fastest growing group” of buyers.

Attracted to the easy commute into the city (the towns are located on the Metro-North line) and the fact that they can often afford bigger homes than they can in the city, these buyers are also prompting subtle changes. Indeed, in addition to the Zagat-rated restaurants like Harvest-on-Hudson in Hastings, theater at places like Tarrytown Music Hall, and antique stores that enticed buyers in the first place, there are gluten-free bakeries, yoga studios, farm-to-table restaurants, organic markets and trendy boutiques that now also abound.

And not all of the new Manhattan and Brooklyn buyers are starting at the lowest price-rung. Many are entering the market in the $1 million-plus price range, sources say.

But there are, of course, challenges. Brokers say high property taxes and low inventory are the biggest obstacles today. And they noted that some of the urbanites who have heard the buzz about the river towns and come to look at real estate are disappointed when the towns are, well, not as urban as they expected.

For more on which towns are doing best, where developers are building more homes and which areas buyers are most attracted to, we turn to our panel of experts.

Chris Meyers, managing principal, Houlihan Lawrence

Westchester’s river towns — Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Irvington, etc. — have been gaining popularity with Brooklynites and other New Yorkers looking to relocate out of the city. Are you seeing those groups drive a lot of the activity in the market?

New York City is an important feeder market for all of Westchester County. The hipsters came to the river towns long before the New York Times referred to it as “hipsturbia” this spring. Nonetheless, that label created even more interest and curiosity. The media attention has certainly provided increased exposure to a wider swath of buyers.

Generally, what sort of residential buying and renting activity are you seeing in the river towns and how does that compare to the last few years?

The market in the river towns is red hot. Year-to-date, the number of homes sold has increased by 24 percent when compared to the same period last year. A significant portion of the increase is in the $1 to $2.99 million price range, where there has been a 75 percent increase year-to-date. Interestingly, many of the Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope buyers are not looking for starter homes. These buyers have established careers and the financial means to trade up. Oftentimes, their homes in Brooklyn have risen in value, giving them the wherewithal to enter the river towns in the $1 million-plus price range.

Which of the river towns are performing best right now and which are struggling most?

Irvington has seen a 106 percent increase in homes sold in the $1 to $2.99 million price range. Hastings, where the majority of sales are under $1 million, has also had a tremendous year.

What sort of new housing developments exist in the river towns or are coming down the pike, and are developers becoming more interested in the area?

The available parcels of land are being developed primarily as luxury homes starting at $2 million and up, and are concentrated in Irvington and Tarrytown. There could be as many as 30 to 40 new construction luxury homes in the pipeline.

Why are Brooklyn transplants more attracted to these river towns than other (perhaps wealthier) towns in Westchester?

There’s an eclecticism that’s distinguished the river towns from neighboring Westchester County communities. Though prices are increasing, the river towns still offer homes in most price ranges, and buyers are not priced out of the area.

Pamela Eskind, associate broker, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Dobbs Ferry

Westchester’s river towns have been gaining popularity with Brooklynites and other New Yorkers. Are you seeing those groups drive a lot of the activity in the market?

The river towns have always been a strong draw for Brooklynites and New Yorkers. They were somewhat of a hidden gem but now they’ve become more popular.

What are you seeing in terms of prices for both for-sale homes and rentals in Westchester’s river towns and how does that compare to the last few years?

Selling prices have been rising steadily. During the downturn, our home prices remained fairly steady and did not experience the severe drop that many other areas did. The average selling price for a single-family home is up about 10 percent compared to a year earlier and roughly 15 percent higher than 2009.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Westchester river towns in terms of getting people to buy and rent there?

Right now, the biggest challenge is the limited inventory of for-sale properties. Just a few weeks ago, I listed a single-family home priced over $1 million, and within a week I received four offers over the asking price. When a house comes on the market and is priced correctly, it sells quickly. We have had many multiple-offer situations this year.

Which sector of the market (one-family homes, condos, luxury apartments, etc.) are doing best right now in the river towns?

This year we have witnessed incredible strength in the high-end market as well as the condo market.

Which sector is struggling most?

The co-op market has traditionally been more challenging, but I wouldn’t label it as struggling.

Why are Brooklyn transplants more attracted to these river towns than other (perhaps wealthier) towns in Westchester?

The communities are unpretentious and offer great value. The river towns are not status or class conscious. There is a tremendous sense of community. They also have an easy commute to the city and a small-town feel.

Alison Bernstein, president, the Suburban Jungle Realty Group

Which of the river towns are performing best right now and which are struggling most?

They are all hot. The reason is that there are only so many towns that exist within commuting distance to the city. [However], if you examine all of the river towns, Irvington and Hastings are the most popular — Irvington [gets] the most activity and Dobbs Ferry tends to lag a bit behind, just a tiny bit.

How does the performance of these towns compare to the rest of southern Westchester? And how does the real estate market in Westchester in general compare to other NYC suburban markets?

They are equally as hot as Larchmont, Scarsdale, Rye and Pelham [when adjusted for size] in terms of inventory and demand. In addition, Westchester is the hottest market out of New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut. As a result, the pricing has increased, and also transformed areas that were once under the radar into hotter spots.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Westchester river towns in terms of getting people to buy and rent there?

People hear the hype, but when they get there, they realize that it is, in fact, a suburb. Our city buyers are very focused on having a great “Downtown.” So when our families go out and tour the river towns, they feel a bit disappointed with the Downtown. They always like the idea of a more robust town center — that is the biggest sticking point. We always try to get our buyers away from that. We explain that regardless of how great your Downtown is, you will be physically all over with kids’ activities, errands, etc. The [second challenge] is the home valuations. You just don’t get a lot of land or house. Finally, the topography of the land can be tricky in certain areas because you’re on the river — buyers tend to like flatter backyards, and those are more difficult to come across in certain locations.

How important is the influx of hipster transplants to the market in the river towns — if at all?

Are hipsters still hipsters in the suburbs? We believe [the influx of these new residents] is an indicator of the Manhattan and Brooklyn markets pushing out those who would have stayed because they’re too hot. The personality of the town is key and [these buyers] do impact the personality of the town. I wouldn’t say that it’s the hipsters that are necessarily transforming the towns, but it’s the personality of the family that wants a more “laid back” suburban experience — no pressure cookers, not as much competition. In fact, most of these “hipsters” grew up in highly competitive, well-to-do towns in the Tri-State Area and are doing well themselves, however do not want to raise their kids in a similar way. One of the important questions on our questionnaire is “Where did you grow up and what did you like/not like about it.”

What sort of new housing developments exist in the river towns or are coming down the pike, and are developers becoming more interested in the area?

Yes, developers are always interested. There are a handful of new developments in the works, but there is limited land. Developer Andy Todd is putting up 20 new homes ranging in price from $2 to $10 million.

Fatin Beiner, associate broker, BHG Rand Realty

Are you seeing Brooklynites and other New Yorkers drive a lot of the activity in the river towns?

I do see a lot of buyers coming from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island and Queens coming to the river towns. Groups that are active include: The first-time buyers with no children, and also those who have one child and have lived in a small apartment in the city, and can’t take the small, compact space.

Which towns are performing best and which are struggling most?

For single-family homes, Hastings takes the lead. The number of closed sales there increased 49 percent compared to last year’s closed sales. In the other three villages, increases ranged from 10 to 14 percent. In comparing average selling price, Ardsley took the lead, up 16 percent from last year, Irvington and Hastings were both up 6 percent, and Dobbs went down 4 percent.

What are the biggest challenges facing the river towns in terms of getting people to buy and rent there?

[The top challenge is] the high property taxes, for people who are interested in purchasing.

What is inventory like in the river towns, and how does that compare to the last few years?

Inventory has dropped; it’s the lowest it’s been since the crash of the real estate market. This spring, homes flew out of the market in less than 30 days. If the home was priced correctly, it went into a bidding situation — or at least sold at the asking price.

There’s been a lot written about NYC transplants opening hipster-type retail, whether it’s gluten-free restaurants or yoga studios, in the river towns. What sorts of new retail is coming in and how is that influencing the residential market?

The overflow of these sorts of hipster-type retail is popping up in all towns and not just the river towns — from yoga studios to gluten-free bakeries and organic items sold in the supermarket.

What sort of new housing developments exist in the river towns or are coming down the pike?

Due to the popularity of the river towns and the close proximity to the city, developers will always be interested in the area. … A small project popping up now is the conversion of a rental building on Broadway in Hastings into condos, which will do well.

Marcene Hedayati, broker owner/manager, William Raveis Legends Realty Group

Are you seeing Brooklynites and other New Yorkers drive a lot of the activity in the river towns?

The influx of the Brooklynites has played a considerable role in our increase in sales. Brooklynites have been the fastest growing group. In addition [to being attracted to this area], they are being priced out of their current locations, and they find that the river towns offer a lifestyle similar to Brooklyn. They can get the home with the backyard in a small-town community setting.

Generally, what sort of rental activity are you seeing in the river towns and how does that compare to the last few years?

The rental market, although still strong, has stayed somewhat steady. This might be due to the fact that the sellers of single-family homes who rented out their residences, while they waited for the market to pick up­, finally felt the market had made enough of a change for them to opt out of the rental market and put their homes on the market for sale. [Also], the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge will have a major effect on housing in the river towns, I suspect, particularly with rentals.

Which of the river towns are performing best and which are struggling most?

Hastings [saw] the greatest increase in activity from January through August this year — with 90 units sold versus 54 last year. Hastings is more of an eclectic town that attracts a creative crowd … more hipster if you will. Tarrytown has also seen a considerable increase with 85 units sold this year versus 61 in 2012. Tarrytown has increasingly become a destination village. It’s larger than the rest of the towns, with more restaurants, retail and historical sites. It’s become a central hub and has seen more new developments than any of the others.

How does the performance of these towns compare to the rest of southern Westchester?

There has been an increase in activity across the board in southern Westchester. However, the prices have not yet caught up. I suspect that we will see that increase in the third-quarter stats.

What are the biggest challenges facing the river towns?

In terms of buying, it would have to be the property taxes. In regard to renting, since the landlord needs to cover his or her costs, those high taxes are reflected in the rent and so our monthly rents are higher than other areas as well.

What sorts of new retail is coming in and how is that influencing the residential market?

I believe that the residential and retail markets are feeding off one another. As our buyers become trendier … so do the stores that serve them. We are seeing many more hipster-type retail operations. The river towns have become more of a destination with these new boutiques, antique stores and restaurants, and that’s attracting more buyers.

What sort of new housing developments exist in the river towns or are coming down the pike?

Hudson Harbor and Westchester Estates in Tarrytown have played a significant role in the increase in sales for that village. Gracemere at Emerald Woods and some new housing developments about to hit the market in Irvington will certainly boost the sales there.

Patricia Neuwirth, owner/broker, Hudson Homes Sotheby’s International

There’s been a lot written about NYC transplants opening hipster-type retail in the river towns. What sorts of new retail is coming in?

The shops that are opening are catering to the needs of the people moving into these markets. I think the other side of the county is probably seeing more of that than we are. People are looking for a healthier lifestyle, but it’s not dramatic.

Which sector of the market is doing best right now in the area?

In some villages it’s the middle market, which is $500,000 to $700,000, that’s doing very well. That is probably the strongest market. Irvington has more high-end houses in the million-dollar range. Generally, the top of the market in these towns is up to $3 million, except for a few isolated properties. We are representing a property in Briarcliff that is $10.9 million, but it’s an estate. Between $500,000 and $1 million is the very active market.

What sort of new housing developments exist in the river towns or are coming down the pike?

We are a little landlocked. We have the Hudson River on one side and a major network of highways on the other. There are not lots of big tracts of land left, but there are two that are being developed right now. One is on the border of Tarrytown and Irvington. Those are going to be very expensive homes in the neighborhood of $4 to $5 million. In Tarrytown, there is a development of 14 homes priced in the $1.5 to $2.5 million range. Townhouses in Tarrytown with river views can be $2 million easily or a little more. The General Motors plant, which used to be in Sleepy Hollow, has been gone for many years. The tract of almost 100 acres will get developed with mixed use. There will be townhouses and mid-rises, but I can’t tell you when that will start.

Why are Brooklyn transplants more attracted to these towns than other towns in Westchester?

They are as different as Brooklyn is. Brooklyn is kind of funky. You don’t know what you are going to find when you come around a corner. That’s what these villages are like. There is nothing cookie-cutter about them.

  • Choiceaschoicecanbe

    So basically they are going back to where they came from.

  • justin

    I know a few who have moved to the towns on the other side, like Pelham and Mamaroneck too.