When Seniors Search for Space in a Pandemic


When Jeremy and Rebecca Weintraub dreamed of moving back to New York after graduate school, neither envisioned touring listings from their Somerville, Mass., apartment.

But when Rebecca accepted a position as assistant rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun, a popular non-denominational shul on the Upper West Side, the pandemic had engulfed New York City and house hunting had gone virtual. The couple, in their early 30s, realized there were silver linings to the situation. “It meant we didn’t have to come back and forth to New York, and the online tours made it easer to weed out the ones we definitely weren’t interested in,” said Rebecca. Another bonus: A free 13th month was nearly universal.

As renters fled the city, prices softened and the pair secured a two-bedroom, two-bathroom lease on Riverside Drive — just blocks from the temple and with a separate dining area, Rebecca Weintraub said, “for hosting Shabbat dinners again someday.” The price had dropped several times to $4,500, said David Bibian of Halstead Real Estate in Manhattan, who brokered the rental. “We see a lot of inventory, and higher vacancy rates,” he said. That translates into better deals and more flexibility for city shoppers.

Around the tri-state area and beyond, realtors report a perhaps-surprising level of activity, given the economic downturn and the limitations of contactless showings. “The demand is unprecedented,” said Arlene Gonnella, a 36-year industry veteran, who currently leads the Gonnella Team with Weichert Real Estate in Short Hills, N.J. She’s juggling a wave of clients seeking suburban refuge in towns like Milburn and Short Hills, exemplifying the best-known real estate narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Everyone is getting out of elevator buildings, places where they don’t have control over their airspace” in order to avoid airborne contagion, Gonnella affirmed. With many working from home indefinitely and school largely virtual, “everyone wants a backyard,” she added. “Covid has turned the suburbs into the place to be. People are spending so much time at home now, and that’s likely to continue.”

City or suburb, the wish list is the same: Home offices, private outdoor space and plenty of room for the kids or grandkids. “Clients are preparing for a second wave, and basically upgrading their living arrangements,” said Bibian. A typical family might have spent a typical pre-pandemic day outside its two-bedroom apartment, coming home to sleep. “Now they’re all cooking more, so they need larger kitchens,” he noted. “Buyers right now are telling me, ‘I don’t want to work from a studio. I need at least a one-bedroom now — and even if it’s a small balcony, I want something outdoors that’s not a common area.”

Many of the youngest renters have given up their leases and moved back in with their parents outside the city. Urban dwellers are bidding over virtual listings in the Catskills, Connecticut, the Berkshires and other destinations with plenty of green space. (The Hamptons, a pricey and saturated market, is less popular for those not already established there, realtors say.) “And seniors want places with a backyard so their grandkids can come over and socially distance with them,” said Bibian of a widely observed trend.

In Westchester, Ellen Schwartz and Cindy Waxman of Compass Realty are brokering all manner of life-transition deals for older buyers, from downsizers taking advantage of the newly fluid condo scene to second-home shoppers eyeing a family getaway. Historically low interest rates — under 3 percent — are another incentive. “Everyone’s on a sped-up timetable,” reflected Waxman. “It’s pushed everyone one to two years earlier.” Empty nesters “are putting their homes up for sale earlier than expected to get in on this market. And families who loved the city and wanted to stay until the children were a little older are making the move now.”

The Westchester market’s sweet spot is around $1.5 million, with anything under $1 million going fast. Schwartz specializes in the tony, rural-ish towns of Northern Westchester — Katonah, Bedford, Pound Ridge — where three- and four-acre zoning is the ultimate social distancing. “People are coming up here because they like that there’s less density, more space between you and the neighbors,” Schwartz said. “They want their own pool, pond, whatever.” Demand is up, she added, now that less-convenient train commutes no longer matter.

Even in Manhattan, David Bibian said buyers are favoring smaller “boutique” buildings with fewer potential encounters. “It’s the trauma from Covid, from when the neighbors were sick and nobody could leave their apartment,” he explained. Buyers and renters alike are suddenly uninterested in the communal amenities, like gyms and lounges that developers have lately peddled. “People care more about private space now,” Bibian said.

Some care enough that they’re hedging bets both in-town and upstate. One of Bibian’s clients traded a Chelsea apartment for less-congested Brooklyn as well as a house in the Hudson area. “It’s something for the weekend — or just in case,” he said.

The city-versus-suburbs dynamic is less stark in South Florida, where oceanfront high-rises are stalling, but everything else is moving steadily. “I’m having one of the busiest summers ever,” said Karen Rothstein of Boca Expert Realty. “I would say it’s definitely leaning toward a sellers’ market, but there’s plenty of opportunity for buyers.” While Rothstein specializes in the higher end — $500,000 to $1.5 million — the fastest-selling properties in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and other popular Jewish communities go for $300,00 to $500,000. “Those price points are where the most buyers are,” Rothstein said.

Social distancing is easier in the sprawling Sun Belt, and Rothstein said overall market dynamics haven’t changed much. Retirees from the tri-state area still zero in on 55-plus complexes; young families are making the leap from condo to house; and single-family homes are hotter than ever. One trend Rothstein has noticed is an influx of young couples from the Northeast, now working remotely, seeking beach properties to wait out the pandemic.

Some sellers are taking their time, waiting for the right offer while staying in what used to be second home. “There’s no rush if you already have a place,” Waxman noted. “Your office could be anywhere now.” Conversely, some future downsizers are seizing condo deals years before they expect to retire. “They can move into it when they’re ready,” said Waxman. And, she added, in that blissful future when elevators and common hallways feel safe again.