Opportunity and Risk in the New York Suburbs

posted on April 9th, 2012 filed under: Properties in Focus, Real Estate Market Data, Real Estate News

It’s too soon for prices to start rising in the New York suburbs, and significant risk remains for further declines.  Beware salesmen (and saleswomen) bearing happy-talk.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the New York metro remains the least affordable in the nation, with a median home price of $409,000 and a median income of $67,400, a ratio of 6 to 1.  That’s down from 8 to 1 at the peak of the real estate mania, but still far above the 3 to 1 that prevailed in New York before the boom began.  Sure, record-low interest rates ease the pain, but if rates rise faster than incomes, the downward pressure on prices will intensify.  That’s what pricked the bubble a few short years ago.  Have we already forgotten?

A similar observation works at the micro-market level.  Consider the exemplary New York City suburban yuppie enclave of Cedar Knolls, a neighborhood in the city of Yonkers that shares a zip code and much of its daily life with the adjacent village of Bronxville.

Bronxville is no median suburb.  Wikipedia puts the median family income at $200,000.  The average kid taking the SAT at Bronxville High School scores at about the 90th percentile nationwide.

Being in Yonkers, Cedar Knolls doesn’t get Bronxville schools.  But most of the houses are classics from the 1920s, and carry much lower price tags and property taxes than their Bronxville counterparts.  The combination of beauty and relative affordability makes Cedar Knolls a popular choice among young professionals who work in New York City, but haven’t gained master-of-universe status.

You won’t find income data for Cedar Knolls, but a proxy will do.  Let’s compare Cedar Knolls home prices to a widely published compensation benchmark for young professionals in New York: the salary of first-year associates at big New York City law firms.

  • In 1998, before the real estate boom, first-year lawyers made about $90,000, and a typical Cedar Knolls home could be had for about $450,000 — a ratio of about 5 to 1.
  • When Cedar Knolls home prices topped out in 2004, first-year lawyers made about $190,000 (salaries spiked when dot-coms were luring lawyers away from firms), and a typical Cedar Knolls home cost about $1.25 million, a ratio of about 6.5 to 1.
  • In 2011, first-year lawyers were back to about $170,000 (bonuses were crimped by the financial crisis).

If you don’t want to pay a bubbly price for a house in Cedar Knolls, you might want to stay close to the pre-boom ratio of 5 to 1, which works out to $850,000.  But sales prices during the past year suggest that you’d have a hard time paying so “little”:

  • 132 Pondfield Road West sold for $1,083,500 (6.4 times the salary of a first-year lawyer)
132 Pondfield Road West

132 Pondfield Road West

  • 11 Beechmont Avenue sold for $1.2 million (over 7 times the salary of a first-year lawyer)
11 Beechmont Avenue

11 Beechmont Avenue

But there are some decent opportunities out there:

  • 170 Pondfield Road West is now listed for $945,000 (about 5.5 times the salary of a first-year lawyer, and considerably less than the current owner paid about eight years ago).
170 Pondfield Road West

170 Pondfield Road West

  • 13 Cedar Lane is now listed for $1.195 million (about 7 times the salary of a first-year lawyer, but for one of the larger homes in Cedar Knolls, a 6 BR, 4-1/2 BA, 3,860 sf house — almost twice the size of 11 Beechmont).
13 Cedar Lane

13 Cedar Lane

All four of the above properties are basically within a one-block radius.

After a real estate boom, overvaluation is worked off by a combination of falling prices and rising incomes.  While that plays out, the market will present attractive opportunities to savvy buyers.  REF Real Estate likes savvy buyers.

REF Real Estate is a licensed real estate broker in Florida and New York.

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