Wednesday, December 14, 2011

- NJ Commuter Relocation Guide

I'm re-posting this in light of the awesome map (posted above) that has since been created. It provides a little more data, and I've woven it into the actual texts.

Presidential rhetoric notwithstanding, most of the people on Wall Street don’t make all that much more than everyone else. And that means that they can’t afford to both live in Manhattan and have a family. My buddy Rob does pretty well, but he’s in that range (like most of us) and is considering moving his happy family to this side of the river. So in the interest of helping him out, I thought I’d write up a little guide for those Wall Streeter’s looking to crossover to the land of the ugly license plate.

The central issue of moving to any one of New Jersey’s commuting towns is, as you would imagine, the length of the commute. When I lived in Manhattan and was working at Moore Capital I lived right around the corner, so my commute was further vertically than horizontally. When my wife talked me into leaving town, I didn’t want to cope with a long lonely train ride. And spoiled as I was, I had this fantasy that I could move out of town and have a roughly 1 hour door to door commute. But in practice that doesn’t really work out very well.

A one hour commute to Penn Station New York will leave you in some of New Jersey’s most undesirable towns. No upper middle class Wall Street staffer is going to raise a family in Newark, or East Orange or Union City. There are nice towns with good schools within 1 hour of midtown, but for reasons I’ll discuss below you will probably want to stay away from them. You can get much more for your money if you are willing to travel about another half hour like the rest of us.

In terms of a door to door trip to midtown, you should really be thinking about a 1.5 hour commute. Further if you can stand it. But at a minimum, you’re really looking at roughly a 1 hour train or bus ride, and whatever driving and scurrying you need to do to get to and from mass transit. That opens up lots of possibilities, but eliminates some others. Basically you’re stuck to the north – east part of the state, and there are some other filters you can apply to winnow them down further. In the interest of brevity, I’ve broken them down by county:

Bergen County:
(This is shown on the map as Republican 'Christie country". It may seem that way to a Democrat, but as a conservative let me say that this is really the only part of the map I dispute. There is no part of NJ above the Turnpike that is conservative as it's understood in the rest of the country. And my personal experience is that Bergen county is at best a split.)

Commute: The problem with commuting to Bergen county is that the trains only go to Hoboken. From there you have to switch to the comparatively seedy looking PATH trains. Personally I find the trip depressing, but even more than that, it adds 30 minutes onto the length of your trip, so you can’t get very far out of town with your remaining time. This leaves you more subject to the snows and traffic on the bus or in your car.

Worst Part: The lack of trains to NY and abysmal public schools. Plan on sending the kids to private school, in which case you might as well move back to Manhattan.

Best Part: It’s a pretty, if somewhat crowded area that’s more like Rockland County NY.

Taxes: High. Excluding the actual state house in Trenton, this is the most pro-tax (liberal) area in the state. They are simply thrilled to have taxes go up and naturally, they always do.

Aesthetics: I like it…. If you go far enough out of town it can be quite pretty. Like I said, it’s a lot like Rockland county New York.

Value: Poor. It’s crowded, and that means that if you want to live in a nice house with a nice yard and a pool you’ll have to really pay up. In terms of what you get for the money almost anywhere else that meets your minimums will be better.

Passaic County:
(This is a mix between "friendly white families" and "rednecks and retired hippies". With that said, let me say this, all things are relative. NJ is a sort of mecca for rudeness and it absolutely permeates everything we do. Out governor is famous for it. So 'friendly' is the relative term here. the rest sounds about right to me.)

Commute: The trains still only go to Hoboken, leaving you on the depressing PATH trains or stuck in traffic.

Worst Part: Paterson. It’s been a depressed city for years and shows no signs of improving. The proximity of such a low income area to relatively high income areas also causes a higher crime rate relative to other towns. The public schools are still awful in all the areas where you can realistically commute.

Best Part: If you don’t mind commuting further and driving a lot, there are really nice towns in the north where you won’t even know you’re in New Jersey. Rent a movie called ‘the station agent’ to get a look at some.

Taxes: High. If you live in a county that contains an economic sink hole like Paterson, everyone else’s taxes have to rise to compensate for all the theft, graft, extortion and union malfeasance that go along with NJ cities.

Aesthetics: this is Tony Soprano country. If you liked the way the scenery looked on the Soprano’s TV show, then you’ll like the look of the nicer parts of Passaic county. Personally most of it looks to me like a low rent version of Bergen County. Like the difference between the upper east side, and queens.

Value: Actually pretty good. The high crime rate and difficult commute drives down home prices relative to other areas. But you probably have to be more than 1.5 hours away to make it really work.

Hudson County:
(This is shown as a mix of "Hipsters" and "Poor minorities". Think gentrified urbana, without the wealth.)

Commute: From most of the county it’s quite good, but it has all the same problems that living in Manhattan does.

Worst Part: Jersey City. It’s a sink hole in every way.

Best Part: Hoboken… if you’re a 25 year old analyst who can’t afford to live in town.

Taxes: Ridiculous

Aesthetics: Like I said, if you’re single it works… otherwise…look elsewhere.

Value: Be serious. This isn’t a suitable location for raising a family. Move further away or tough it out in town. You’ll thank me.

Essex County:
(This is "The Melting Pot" and "Poor Minorities". My description is more helpful if you ask me.)

Commute: First rate.

Worst Part: Newark and much of the surrounding area. If you need me to explain this you have bigger problems than I can solve for you.

Best Part: There are some towns like Short Hills which exist as upper middle class islands surrounded by a sea of urban blight. But you will pay more in those towns than anywhere else in the state. The contrast in how little you get for the dollar is breathtaking.

Taxes: Preposterous...even by New Jersey standards. Newark and the surrounding area are the corruption capital of America. You’ll pay and pay and pay, and get virtually nothing for it.

Aesthetics: This is the area that NJ gets its reputation from. I’ve described it in the past as an urban madmax set. Most of it is simply horrible.

Value: Horrendous. If you buy in one of the islands like Short hills, you will get less for your money than you will anywhere else in the state. And for your trouble you’ll have a higher crime rate, and taxes that would make a socialist grumble.

Union County:
(This is "Russians, Polacks and Toxic Fumes". They forget all the Cubans in Elizabeth, and the 'islands like Westfield, but the rest isn't far off.)

Commute: Like Essex county, Much of Union County is easily accessible. But none of the areas where you want to live will be.

Worst Part: Actually I lied; the city of Elizabeth is the town that gives NJ its reputation. It has all the charm of Jersey City with the government efficiency of Newark. I get uncomfortable just driving though it.

Best Part: Westfield or Summit. Like Essex county, union has it’s ‘islands’, and they have the same problems but to a somewhat lesser degree. The western parts of the county are quite nice too, but are really stretching the limit in terms of commute time.

Taxes: Lofty, but not choking like Essex county.

Aesthetics: The western parts like Gillette and Stirling are quite nice. The islands are a little crowded for my tastes.

Value: Westfield and surrounding area are still delivering very little for your money relative to the other areas, but aren’t shocking like Short Hills. Taxes are steep and you can’t get a parking space at the train station. The wait list for it extends decades into the future.

Middlesex County:
(This is shown as a mix of "Indians, Jews, and Drunk Rutgers Students" The western most part pokes into the McMansion area.)

Commute: Well that depends. The places that are easy to commute from like Woodbridge are undesirable for other reasons and the best areas are further. On the whole I’d call it largely accessible, but mostly by bus.

Worst Part: New Brunswick, but that still isn’t so bad. Its home to Rutgers of course, and has a high crime rate and is a sink hole by and large, but very little of it overflows into the surrounding areas.

Best Part: Most of Middlesex County isn’t bad, but it isn’t all that great either. It’s largely a blue collar area that is without major vice or virtue. As usual, the western parts are the most upper of the upper middle class suburbs. If you’re an Indian immigrant (as many wall streeter’s are) then you probably know that Edison NJ has the highest concentration of Indians in all of North America.

Taxes: Passable - you know… for New Jersey.

Aesthetics: Being a blue collar area, much of it is less than gorgeous. But it’s not the thunderdome like blight of Essex or Union Counties either. For the most part it’s clean and relatively safe.

Value: Not bad, but there aren’t a ton of place to choose from. You’ll probably end up looking in North, South, or East Brunswick. But once again, these towns will put you on the bus and at the mercy of the weather and traffic.

Somerset County:
(Somerset County is half "Raritan Valley Commuters" and half "Executives in Mansions." In defense of my buddy Vishnu who left a comment on the original post, Morris county is all "Mansions" and is just to the north.)

Commute: The nice parts of Somerset county involve changing trains in Newark, and that places most of them outside the 1.5 hour limit. Even the busses are very limited.

Worst Part: In truth, apart from the commuting distance, I don’t think Somerset County really has one. If only it were a little closer.

Best Part: Again, there are so many truly beautiful areas that it’s hard to choose. For my money I think the area around the national equestrian center in Far Hills is about as pretty as any countryside in the world. Anywhere from Branchburg north qualifies as truly beautiful.

Taxes: the schools in Somerset county are first rate, and come with a first rate tax bill. They are lower than breathtaking Short Hills, but higher than most everywhere else in the country. But you have to live somewhere. Taxes aren’t the reason to avoid Somerset county, the distance is.

Aesthetics: Honestly beautiful, almost everywhere.

Value: You get a lot for your dollar but you pay for it in commuting time. But if you can live with 2 hours each way you get a lot for it here.

Monmouth County:
("Banker's And Businessmen" is the bulk of the country, with a fringe poked into all of the others around the periphery.)

Commute: Most of the county is unreachable in 1.5 hours. But there are several nice towns inside the 1.5 hour limit. Full disclosure, this is where my wife and I chose to live.

Worst Part: Like Somerset County, there aren’t really any big problems in Monouth county…. Maybe Asbury Park, but that’s too far to commute. The traffic on Rt 9 might be a problem for some.

Best Part: Colts Neck. It’s pricier than the other commuter towns, but that’s because the taxes are lower. It’s the most upper of the upper middle class areas. The town of Rumson is as nice as Beverly Hills, but if you can afford to live there, then you can afford to live anywhere.

Taxes: It ain’t cheap but there are worse in New Jersey. The lower income towns in Monmouth County have a high percentage of illegal immigrants, and they don’t draw a lot in social services so it’s cheaper than other areas.

Aesthetics: My town is all horse farms and apple orchards and we’re 20 minutes from the beach. I think Somerset County is prettier, but Monmouth has its advantages. One of them is that the weather pattern is solidly mid-Atlantic, making the weather more like Baltimore than Boston. The Connecticut suburbs are firmly in New England so there is quite a spread in temperature between here and there. That was what pushed my wife over the top.

Value: Actually pretty good all things considered. And there is probably more breadth and diversity in the housing market here than in any other commuter accessible area.

There are other nice parts of the state too but they aren’t generally commutable. I knew a guy once who commuted to New York from Allentown Pennsylvania, so it can be done. But it’s not going to be a good fit for most people. With that said though, Morris and Hunterdon, and Eastern Mercer counties offer all the benefits of Somerset County with lower home prices and taxes. But 2 hours or more each way seems a bit much to me. Some people can make that work and if you can, include them in your search too.

These are some very broad brush strokes, and they leave out many important details. There are 'less nice' places in Somerset county and beautiful places in Essex. It's not all homogeneous (except for Middlesex county where decent blue collar homogeneity is sort of the point.) But on the whole, New Jersey is one of America’s best kept secrets. But for the government it would be a really terrific place. I'm sure if you give it a fair chance you'll come to see that the same as I have.

%%%%%% Out Of State Addendum %%%%%%%

For you folks reading this from out of state, there is a peculiarity of NJ public finance I need to explain. The public schools here are funded ONLY though property taxes. There are some complications to that, but for the most part it means that if your taxes are higher, your schools are at least better funded. In Bergen and Essex counties the institutionalized corruption means that more money equals more money wasted and the school performance won't improve at all. There are other complications too like Abbot districts where the taxes of a rich town are given to other impoverished towns for their school boards to steal.

If you want good public schools you should realistically be looking at Somerset, Eastern Morris, and Northern Monmouth counties, or the far western portion of Middlesex county.


Bzod said...

Spot on. The move we made from from Essex County to Monmouth County 2 years ago was the best trade I will ever make in my lifetime. I'm now 1 hour 20 minutes from driveway to desk, versus 40 minutes back then. The "everything-other-than-commute" upgrade is borderline shocking. I've sent your post to my old pals, so if you get semi-hostile reactions from new Essex County readers talking their books, apologies in advance.

Anonymous said...

hey, in freehold we've mostly got the buses on Rt-9. They're usually fairly quick--it takes me 1'5" from my usual stop to the PABT (some night say a bit of a downside in itself, lol), but are of course at the mercy of any snow. What's available in terms of public transit in colts neck and marlboro?

Anonymous said...

As former residents of "Melting Pot" and "Poor Minorities", we have to agree with this map! We laughed so hard at some of the descriptions--not politically correct maybe, but the honest truth! The description of Newark and Elizabeth, for example. Anyone needing a definition of sink hole need look no further.

Tom said...

My commute to NYC (when I still did it, at the moment I no longer do) involved driving to Matawan up route 79 (12 min) and taking the train to Penn Station. I preferred it to the bus, but I can't say it was all that much more reliable.

Mark said...

classic post. totally true about "christie country." I've got some family in Bergen--taxes are truly ridiculous, and the town govts are awful with permits necessary for all kinds of evidently harmless endeavors that a free people would consider themselves, well, free, to pursue--like having a garage sale every few years in your own driveway, for example.