New Jersey explain yourself
September 3, 2014 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the world of commuters to NYC living in New Jersey. Which towns would be best for me 'N' my fam? How do people do it?

We're looking into moving to the suburbs of NJ. I commute to Penn Station and My Wife commutes to the Upper West Side. We could rent a house if that's possible, but ideally we'd find a house we could afford to buy. We're leaning toward Bergen county (Fair Lawn?) because it seems relatively close to the city, but maybe I'm missing something?

Here's what we're looking for in order of priority: a single family home, not an apartment. Lack of crime. Less than 1 hour commutes for us both. Relative affordability (less than 500k, or around 2k/month with taxes). The place that satisfies all of those may not exist.

Here's what's not that important to us: Cool quirky downtown areas with lots of restaurants or whatever. Lack of diversity (we're totally OK with seeing lots of non-white people everywhere, which I shouldn't even have to say but like 99% of the commenters on a site like CityData seem to disagree). THE BEST schools. Good or OK schools are very important (6+ on the Great Schools rating, which is apparently something) but it's not vital that there are TOTALLY THE BEST ONES. Huge backyards or massive distance from highways (as long as there are actual, like sidewalks and parks and things close by). Train access rather than express bus or some other mode (ferry? driving somehow?).

Please to recommend your favorite towns or neighborhoods you know or live in that fits these criteria!

Plus please if you would let me know what you like about suburban NJ, what you do not like maybe also, and what tricks you know about how to commute way into the city every day but not lose too much quality fam time with kids.

Thank you very much. Go Nets!
posted by Potomac Avenue to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My parents raised us in a 3-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, sent the last of us off to college, and bought a 7 bedroom house in NJ, just so you know where I'm coming from.

They originally bought in Westfield, which while it has insane property tax, is totes charming, with a cute town, excellent schools, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and a mainline rail station. It was also filled with photocopied SAHMs jamming the local Starbucks with SUV strollers, and almost 100% white in terms of visible residents. After about the 19th incident of observing an arrest for DWB, my mother literally could not take it anymore and they moved to Plainfield. They are now in a white minority, have dreadful schools, have a decrepit downtown with zero amenities that are not liquor stores, pay insane property tax, shop at the world's worst A&P, and are on a branch rail line requiring connection through Newark. They are also happier. There really are a lot of factors at play in NJ that feed into quality of life.

Anyway, Rutherford seems to be the new hotness for people in your situation, so I'd look hard at that. Personally, I'd be investigating Newark, but as the above illustrates, we are all crazy in my family.

PS: If you want to buy, do not forget the property tax. Dear God, the property tax.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:33 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That's some good intel. Just for clarification...What's up with the branch lines on the NJT are they that much worse?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:39 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: On Darlingbri's aforementioned train line (Raritan Valley) everything stops at Newark Penn because they are diesel trains and aren't allowed under the Hudson for that reason. Newark Penn's on the PATH though, so it's not a very big deal. In my opinion.

And one or two trains per day don't stop at many of the first several stations on the way out of Newark in the evening. Like, literally, one or two.
posted by genghis at 5:54 PM on September 3, 2014

Is there a reason why it has to be Jersey? Bon Jovi coverband?

My impression is that there are a lot more interesting places an hour out by train east of the hudson.
posted by JPD at 6:09 PM on September 3, 2014

Response by poster: From everything I've seen NJ is way cheaper both in terms of raw housing prices and property taxes than Westchester, and with much less of a commute than LI. Are I be wrong? Also: the Boss.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:12 PM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also - as you may or may not know, the NYC burbs are insanely segregated and school funding is mostly at a local level - so you need to be thoughtful wrt to thinking about school districts - and not the way that you think. Great Schools is basically useless for areas with any diversity whatsoever - because the perception is that "non-whites = bad" and generally things like Great Schools skews towards that crowd. So don't dismiss the more diverse towns just because the school rating is less than 5. Investigate things a bit more.

My impression is that the train commute from LI is on average better than the train commute from NJ. Also towns w/o a train basically don't exist.

Taxes - outside of the Connecticut thing I kind of find that the market is sort of efficient with respect to taxes and schools.

But really once you get past schools, commute is your biggest lever.

Also - you say you don't care about bus vs train vs driving. That's a mistake. Driving is insane unless you get to work at 6AM, and make sure you won't go crazy on the bus.
posted by JPD at 6:18 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't really speak to the train issue but I'm pretty sure you'll get copious information from actual commuters.

On reflection, if you really don't care about the downtown issue, Plainfield does have many things to recommend it. It has a K - 12 charter school that exceeds your GSR requirement, and cheap private and Catholic schools. My parents live in a neighbourhood called Sleepy Hollow; it's in the Netherwood section of Plainfield and they can walk to the Netherwood train station. The area is entirely gorgeous huge historic homes well within your budget. It has wide streets and a great mix of neighbours. It's 50 minutes by train but I think some express thing just started.

Oh umm. A lot of your personal take on areas of NJ will depend on your background. If you look up Netherwood train station, one of the first things you'll see is a review stating it's in a gang-ridden ghetto. It totally is not. What that poster actually means is that there are a lot of black people, or possibly just that it's poor (and black.) If you scroll down, you'll see refugees from Brooklyn delighted with the same neighbourhood, station and commute, and a divorcee from Westfield embarrassed that she's even considering living there. Do you get what I am saying here?

(My mother had this issue with Realtors; the most common thing out of their mouths was "Oh, you don't want to live there..." where 'there' was any number of places that were not while upperclass enclaves.)

Anyway, do your own research and don't be swayed by individual opinion; do be swayed by schools, crime statistics, and actual commute times from your door to your final destinations.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:21 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: BTW - have you seen this map?
posted by JPD at 6:25 PM on September 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I live in West Orange. There is nearby train access, an easy commute to NYC and we are also 7th on the list of top 30 NJ towns with the heaviest tax burdens. Many nearby towns are also on this list. This is something you'll have to watch out for in northeast NJ if you intend to buy.
posted by crankylex at 6:57 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: You could look at towns along New Jersey Transit's Midtown Direct (PDF) Route, which goes to New York Penn Station.
posted by alphanerd at 7:02 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: Also I wasn't kidding about Newark itself -- Forest Hills gets no love (because: Newark) but is super-swank and the schools meet your criteria, ish. You can tram to Newark Penn from the right location and the commute is like 25 minutes total. I'd buy either of these houses in a red-hot minute. The tax rate is $2.98 per $100 and is actually decreasing.

(Going to shut up and back out of this thread now, but as you can tell, NJ fascinates me.)
posted by DarlingBri at 7:03 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grew up in Hackensack, NJ. I went to a county magnet high school, and I have friends raising their kids in Fairlawn right now. It's a nice town with good schools, and totally a fine choice. I have family in Montclair, which is more of the cute/quirky downtown but it's also right on the train.

I'd say look at everything north of route 4: Fairlawn, Ridgewood, Englewood, Woodcliff lake, etc. Memail me if you have questions about a specific town.
posted by Oktober at 7:18 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: The way the math works on schools those homes in Newark aren't as attractive as the appear - unless you think the public schools get better . You are better off paying 500k for something with 5k higher in taxes in a town where you can go public. Especially if you don't hit the AMT after deducting the property taxes. And if you have two kids who you need to pay tution for, its not even close. Never mind if you don't want a catholic school.

Also especially when at current rates it costs 500 a month pre-tax per 100k financed.
posted by JPD at 7:23 PM on September 3, 2014

NJ Transit has had a pretty bad year reliability wise. I've been riding the private commuter buses lately. Being near both is a plus in any location.

The whole commute across the Hudson is hair trigger -- some days it's fine but the infrastructure into Penn and the Lincoln Tunnel are both prone to failure. It's not uncommon for both to be messed up at once.

Fortunately my work permits flexible hours and some work-from-home. I hear a lot of engineers live in NJ.
posted by zvs at 7:35 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: +1 to Rutherford, while I'm here. I also like Maywood, when I pass through that area, although I don't know much about the schools up Bergen way. And Nutley, if you don't mind riding a bus.
posted by zvs at 7:38 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: We just did what you're considering! It's only been a few months but overall, I recommend it. Our priorities sound very similar, too (I LIKE that I hear all sorts of languages at the grocery store and the local pool). We're renting in Northern Bergen County, right along route 4 (Memail me if you want more details or to pick my brain, I could go on endlessly!). I think your overall expectations are reasonable. We've been keeping our eye on real estate in our neighborhood, and there seem to be some decent older single-family options around $500k. I liked the agent who helped us find our rental, I can give you her name if you'd like.

I'm currently commuting into Manhattan daily using the Route 4 jitneys; some of them are a little busted/rickety but they get you into town (GWB bus terminal, in this case, where many people get on the A train) and run constantly; I've never waited more than 5 minutes for one. Even if there's traffic, it's not taking me more than an hour door-to-door. Occasionally I drive my car and park in a spacious Fort Lee municipal lot and take a quick jitney or carpool over the bridge; I might start doing this more regularly in a few months. There are also some express buses that go down to Port Authority.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:46 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Do everything you can to avoid a commute that requires a car. The roads are a confusing, nightmarish hellscape, and it takes forever to get anywhere.

I don't know crap about schools, so that may or may not be an issue, but the rest of your criteria brings Jersey City Heights to mind. If you're at all handy and up for a rehab project, there's some very cool older homes there that are just begging to be fixed up.
posted by spilon at 8:50 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: Factoid: I've heard that Leonia may have somewhat lower taxes.
posted by JimN2TAW at 2:41 AM on September 4, 2014

Best answer: This is not something you've specifically mentioned so forgive me if it isn't an issue, but you asked about schools, so....

My husband commutes into the city via NJTransit - we live in Woodbridge. There's an express train during rush hour (which isn't on this map) and I think between the walk from our house to the station and the train he gets to Penn in under an hour. However, the train is not reliable enough where we could both work in the city and be sure to be home for childcare. If one of you needs to be home at a certain time, both of you should not take the NJ Transit. In my opinion, of course.

Other than that, I think Woodbridge meets your criteria - our schools are fine, real estate can be found for that price, the neighborhood is safe.

We used to live in the Heights. Man, I do miss it.
posted by lyssabee at 7:06 AM on September 4, 2014

P. S. The Nets moved to Brooklyn. I think you mean Go Devils!
posted by lyssabee at 7:08 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

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