Last December, between Christmas and New Year, I was dining with some friends at Alias, one of those hip restaurants that have sprouted on the Lower East Side like dandelions after a spring rain. At 50, I felt practically ancient, wedged in between hordes of the trendy, beautiful and oh-so-thin.
Next to us was a very attractive gay couple in their early 30’s. Their conversation turned to the still-distant following summer. My ears perked up when one said, "Look, I don’t think we should waste any more money on a rental in the Hamptons. So many of our friends have bought places upstate. I think we should really look at buying a place up in the Catskills, maybe Sullivan County."
Music to my real estate ears! But it also got me thinking about changes I’ve been noticing in my clientele over the past year. They’ve been getting noticeably younger, and hail from ‘hipper’ neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn — the Alphabets, the lower east side, DUMBO. Its like there’s a direct line running from Rivington to Roscoe.
A few years ago, my ‘typical’ second home client was in their early to mid 40’s, owned their primary home or apartment, and encompassed a Country Living aesthetic. The house was the destination, a ‘kinder simpler’ place to gather with family and friends.
While I still work with a number of baby boomer clients, I’m finding that more and more of my clients are younger 30-somethings — with a very different profile. The 30-somethings looking for a second home here typically rent their primary residence rather than own. Most would like to own something in the city, but find themselves priced out of the market there. Its just cheaper to rent, but they still want to own something, and a country place is the answer.
Among this group, there’s a buzz about Sullivan County — its cool, hip and still affordable. But its also attractive because of what it isn’t. Sullivan County isn’t totally sanitized and gentrified like the hordes of cutesy country towns in the Hudson Valley and Berkshires. There’s still a grittiness and "authenticity" here that is sort of a rural counterpart to the lower east side. This is a group that rebels against overdesigned uniformity, like streets lined with discrete gilded signs for the "Ye Olde Candle Shoppe".
The 30-somethings I see are more likely to read Dwell than Country Living. Their idea of a really cool house is the Dwell House modern prefab, not a big renovated farmhouse with a wrap around porch – although anything with character is appealing. Anything that feels suburban isn’t.
The way they think about a house here is different, too. While baby boomers view a house as a pastoral destination in and of itself, 30-somethings see it more as a ‘base camp’ for a range of outdoor activities. Biking, hiking, cross country skiing, kayaking, you name it. Fly fishing is also big. I commented to one client I worked with about how many people in their 30’s seemed to be into fly fishing, and she replied simply, "Its the new golf."
Of course, I’m making a very broad generalization here. I first wrote about this buyer shift in my February "Current Market Conditions" update. A friend passed it on to a friend of his in the city, a young, very hot architect. He said, "Its like you read my mind. Its tough, though, to know that I’m part of a group that’s well, so, predictible."
The point here, though, isn’t to say that urban 30-somethings are just one big undifferentiated and predictable mass. Far from it, in the same way that baby boomers aren’t a singular market. But the increasing presence of 30-somethings in the Sullivan County second home market has a definite impact — and implications. These buyers are often first time home buyers, at an earlier stage in their earnings potential. They’re typically shopping for more affordable properties than their older and wealthier baby boom predecessors. They don’t have children yet, or their children are young rather than teenagers. They don’t necesarily want big houses, but they want whatever they buy to be cool, or at least interesting.
I often talk with developers and investors, who call me to get my thoughts about a project or a spec house. In the past year, most of what’s been built has either been big and expensive (e.g. a 3,000 sq. ft. house for $600,000) or suburban and less expensive with vinyl siding. Neither hits this market segment. What we need for these buyers are cool, well designed, modestly-sized houses that can be sold for under $300,000 to $350,000.