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Why city dwellers are seeking out second homes in the suburbsView Photos
Kylie Pak, the 42-year-old owner of real estate investing company RedBrick Properties, loves living in Richmond. She and her husband eat out at restaurants most nights, and thrive on the youthful energy around Virginia Commonwealth University.
Every other week, they escape to their second home — not at the beach or deep in the countryside, but 30 minutes away, in the bedroom community of Midlothian.
It’s an arrangement that’s allowed the blended family to have the best of both types of living, Pak says. She and her husband reside in the suburbs on the weeks they have their kids.
“Our children attend wonderful schools in the suburbs and play basketball in the cul-de-sac,” she says, “without us having to completely give up the convenience and culture of the city.”
It used to seem like an either or choice: Live in the city or decamp to the suburbs. If you chose the urban experience, you might eventually — if you could afford it — escape from the noise and crowds by buying a house at the beach or in the countryside.
But a number of city dwellers are instead seeking out second homes in the suburbs. Though nobody appears to be keeping statistics of how many people are doing it, some industry insiders say it’s increasingly common — and not just in megacities such as New York and Los Angeles, but also Chicago, Seattle and even smaller centers.
“There’s a lot of people that really like to be close to work but then come out to the burbs just to get a little bit of relaxation,” says Dawn McKenna, founder of the Dawn McKenna Group, a Chicago-area real estate agency. “Where you can inhale and exhale — but you don’t want to spend too much time because you want to get back with the action.”
Families who are straddling city and suburbs say they reap plenty of benefits. Some want an easier way to escape; others like the dual lifestyles. In suburbia, they get many of the pleasures of being in rural or resort areas — including space and fresh air — along with the resources that come with being among full-time residents. Restaurants and stores are within easy reach; kids can join weekend sports teams.
But most important of all is the precious time they save. Americans feel busier than ever. According to the U.S. Travel Association, more than half of workers don’t use all their vacation days each year. At the same time, traffic has largely gotten worse: More than half of the 62 U.S. cities that mobility-data company INRIX tracked in its 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard had more traffic last year than the year before. In some cases, congestion increased by 20 percent.
“People want to take off Friday through Sunday and they don’t want to use up half of it traveling,” says Matt van Winkle, owner of RE/MAX Northwest, a real estate agency that focuses on the greater Seattle area.
Many want a vacation home they can use on short notice and without much hassle, he adds.
Van Winkle says increased congestion in the Seattle area has changed real estate buying patterns.
Homeowners “are not willing to live in the places they were 10 years ago because the traffic is so bad,” he says.
Traditionally, he says, the most popular second-home locations were along the coast, four to five hours from the city, and around Lake Chelan, whose location on the far side of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest makes it a four-hour drive from Seattle. Over the past few years, van Winkle has seen buyers opt instead for Cle Elum, a small city on the same route as Lake Chelan, but just about 90 minutes inland from downtown.
“It’s more of a suburban area, where people live and commute to Seattle,” van Winkle says.
Buying in the suburbs not only means less time in the car, it can mean no time in the car, as some towns are accessible by public transportation.
It takes around 20 minutes by express train to arrive in central Chicago from Hinsdale, a quaint, well-heeled village west of the city. Bruce Lee, 56-year-old wealth manager, doesn’t see his family’s home in Hinsdale as a second property, but part of a well-rounded life.
Lee used to live downtown with his wife and kids until 20 years ago when they moved to the suburbs. But then they decided they wanted to have a foot in both worlds.
“I kind of liken it to, ‘Who do you love more, your mother or your father?’ ” he says. “Both those environments, the city and the suburb, are two separate and distinct experiences. I love them both.”
In the city, they own a condo in a new development along the Chicago River, a 10-minute walk from Lee’s office.
“It’s got all the modern amenities that one would want,” he says.
Being in Hinsdale is an escape, he says.
“I’ll put it up against any other suburb in the United States,” he says. “It’s like something out of a movie. You walk through the streets and the bricks haven’t been touched in 100 years.”
When in Hinsdale, he starts thinking about going to bed at around 8:30 at night.
“But then you think in terms of, ‘Boy, I’m not dead yet,’ ” he says. “I’m still young enough to enjoy the bright lights — and I’m old enough to appreciate the city for what it is.”
He and his wife especially enjoy summers in the suburbs and fall in the city, but don’t schedule their time in either place.
“We like the sense of randomness,” Lee says. “Today, I just did yoga and I said let’s have dinner downtown and my wife was like, fine.”
He thinks technology — including ride hailing, food delivery and even dog-walking services on demand — has made it much easier to live in two places at once.
“If you had to do everything yourself, it would be too much to handle,” he says.
And he says having both worlds has been great for his kids, who are now in college.
“On one hand, I gave them the bubble, and on the other, I gave them outside the bubble,” he says. “It’s given them great perspective.”
Up the coast
“Traffic is absolutely a big factor in California,” says Steve Goddard, a real estate agent at RE/MAX Estate Properties in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
L.A.’s notorious congestion drives residents to plan their days around traffic patterns. It’s also prompting some buyers to eschew traditional resort towns for nearby suburbs.
When 47-year-old financier Anne Enna and her television-writer boyfriend decided a few years ago that they wanted to buy an escape from their home in the Hollywood Hills, they considered Venice Beach but were put off by the high prices.
After checking out several spots north of Los Angeles, Enna settled on Ventura, a coastal town that is more working class than other upscale second-home areas such as Malibu, Santa Barbara and Montecito. She appreciated Ventura’s affordability and proximity; she can get to their beach house in just over an hour — though the trip can take longer on Monday mornings because of all the commuters heading into L.A.
Real estate prices have been going up, Enna says: One beachfront lot near her house is priced at $2 million. But Ventura hasn’t been fully discovered as a weekend destination.
“There’s not a lot of Airbnbing going on,” Enna says. “Even when we go in January, all the houses are lit up. Everybody’s there.”
There have been downsides to being in Ventura, however.
Unlike many homeowners, they’re not full-time residents, and so don’t know many people in town.
“We know our neighbors enough to nod our heads,” she says. “There’s also some tension with people who have lived there for generations, who don’t like that people are buying houses for weekends.”
But they live close enough to the city that friends visit almost every weekend in the summer, and they’re starting to meet more friends of friends in the area.
“We need to be better about telling people they need to introduce us,” she says.
The flip side
Even more than urbanites buying in the suburbs, broker Dawn McKenna is seeing clients go in the other direction, seeking out second homes in the city.
“Whether you’re 23 or you’re 75, the idea of flex workspaces, working from home — it’s really changed people’s mindsets,” she says. “They don’t want to commute all the time, they don’t want to be thinking, I have to be on the train at 9.”
There are other motivators, too. Some clients want to be close to kids who are going to college in Chicago; others are pursuing second degrees in the city, as part of a career change. There are homeowners who, like Lee, want easy access to the city’s energy without having to give up Sunday dinners in the suburbs.
“We all want to feel young,” she says. “No one says to me, please put me with all the old people.”
McKenna, who lives in Burr Ridge, about 15 miles from downtown Chicago, has two grown children who live in the city. She recently sold her apartment in Chicago’s West Loop, but doesn’t plan to stay cloistered in the suburbs for long.
“We’re looking for another place,” she says.