From the NYT:
The desire to test-drive the suburbs by renting is understandable. For most families, buying a house is the largest investment they will ever make. In a time of economic uncertainty, with employment continuing to sputter and many people not convinced that the recession is over, the decision looms especially large. The temptation to go slow is powerful.
“Given the dismaying economic news over the past few years, people are afraid,” said Roberta Baldwin, a partner in Keller Williams Realty who recently had five houses for rent in Montclair, N.J., and now has one. “This is the biggest purchase they’ll ever make, and for many people it’s too daunting until they’ve immersed themselves in the fabric of a place.”
Another economic factor is at work. “Prior to 2008,” Ms. Baldwin said, “people felt they had to grab a place because the competition was so great. But now that prices are still flat or rising modestly, people feel they can take time to look around.” Because home prices are not escalating quickly, some owners choose to rent out a house they can’t easily sell. Thus houses that might not otherwise be up for rent are available. In addition, many would-be suburbanites are increasingly choosy. “There’s a new group of buyers, Gen X and Gen Y,” Ms. Baldwin said. “They’re used to living well, and they don’t want to make an architectural or a geographical mistake. They feel they’re entitled. And so they’re stepping tentatively.”
Happily for this population, suburban rents tend to be the same or lower than in the city. Even taking into account property taxes, the money and psychic energy that families save when it comes to schooling are considerable. And the stigma that once attached to suburban families who rent rather than own seems to have largely disappeared.
Families preparing to make the big leap to the suburbs want to make sure they will land in the right place, or as Ms. Frost summed it up: “We weren’t comfortable making such a large investment before we really knew a neighborhood. Before paying out a huge amount of money, we wanted to make sure a town was a good fit.”
For suburban newbies, a town’s personality is key. While vast amounts of information about everything from taxes to school test scores are available online, to get a sense of subtle but critical factors that determine a town’s true nature, some say there’s no substitute for sinking a few roots. Renting gives you time to see how people dress, observe their habits and eavesdrop on their conversations.
“The car line where parents drop their children off at school tells you a lot,” said Esther Davidowitz, editor in chief of a cluster of magazines about Westchester County. “If you’re the only Toyota in a line of Mercedes, maybe it’s not exactly your town. If the moms are wearing makeup at 8 in the morning and you’re in your pj’s and T-shirt, that’s a bit of a hint, too.”
Once in a great while, a family will test-drive the suburbs, then decide that they miss urban life more than they expected and head back to the city. “But that’s very rare,” said Ms. Baldwin, the broker from New Jersey. “I’d say 99 percent of people who start out by renting in the suburbs want to make it permanent.”