Property Overseas: New York's neighbours

Across the river from Manhattan, property is cheaper and the towns are family-friendly, says Robert Liebman
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Chicago was immortalised as "a wonderful town" by Frank Sinatra, whose paean to New York, New York has become the Big Apple's unofficial signature tune. But the legendary crooner never waxed lyrical or nostalgic about his hometown, Hoboken. You may be more familiar with this rough town than you realise: the classic movie On The Waterfront was both set and filmed there.

But Hoboken proved to be a contender. Sinatra wouldn't recognise it today, its brownstones restored, its warehouses converted, and new condominiums - apartment blocks, invariably high-rise - seemingly sprouting everywhere. In fact, a building frenzy has hit the entire length of the New Jersey side of the Hudson River opposite Manhattan.

The main driver behind this building boom is the glistening island across the river. Once a major barrier, the river has numerous crossings below, on and above it. Two road tunnels (the Lincoln Tunnel is across from lower Manhattan, and the Holland is opposite midtown), the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) subway, the George Washington Bridge farther uptown, and numerous ferry lines cover all the bases. Further links are currently being planned.

Many riverside Jersey towns have always been Manhattan dormitories but the area now asserts its own identity. The job base is growing, and the burgeoning population is being matched by new shops and restaurants, as well as leisure and entertainment facilities.

For homeowners, the property stock is varied, and at least 10 per cent cheaper than similar properties across the water. Brownstone townhouses and an urban ambience are available in Hoboken (convenient for Newark Airport), whereas towns farther north offer large suburban family homes. Condos are interspersed everywhere.

In his eight years in Hoboken, John Faucher has seen radical change, mostly for the better. "The two main changes have been the pace of development and an influx of families. When we first arrived, there were no high-rises, and now there are a significant number." When he and his wife, Amy, first arrived, they also had no children. Now they have three.

Manhattanisation - the proliferation of skyscrapers - is not universally regarded as a good thing, but Faucher experiences it as family-friendly: "Everyone around here is pushing a stroller. The new buildings have led to more families who have stayed in town. It means more, and better, schools. And the fast commute means I see my kids more." Faucher works in the financial industry in midtown Manhattan. "It takes me about 30 minutes. And when I worked downtown, the trip was even shorter. Many people who live and work in New York have longer commutes."

Hoboken offers standard urban advantages and amenities: "I can go entire weeks without getting into a car. Hoboken has restaurants, parks, good shopping and a New York lifestyle - but at less cost. There are tons of bars and restaurants. We have been incredibly happy here."

The Fauchers are enticed by the wide open spaces of suburbia, where high schools have their own swimming pools, playing fields and stadiums, and the family homes are similarly oversized.

But the future keeps receding. "First we bought a condo and, after our second child was born, a 100-year-old four-storey brick townhouse, about 2,400 square feet," Faucher explains. "Two kids share a bedroom, but there is plenty of room. Every year we say we will stay for two or three years, and every year we say three more years. We are not Jewish, but I keep remembering the phrase 'Next year in Jerusalem'."

Farther north, the town of Guttenberg is home to the king of condos, the Galaxy, nearly 1,100 flats in three octagonal interconnected 50-storey skyscrapers, overlooking the river. Within the complex are an 11-storey garage, a spa, shops, restaurants, a cinema and numerous recreational activities. Inhabitants need hardly ever leave the place. Nor need they worry about the 18-acre plot bordering the Galaxy to the east, which initially raised the nightmarish prospect of new condos obstructing the views of the Manhattan skyline. Galaxy's management convinced the plot owner to this reassuring agreement:

n The maximum height of any building or structure is limited to 35 feet.

n Development is restricted to townhouses and marina slips.

n There can never be any high-rise construction on that parcel that would block our Manhattan skyline views.

n The agreement is binding on all future owners and cannot be varied by local governmental authorities.

This British-sounding "permanent restrictive covenant" is as good as it gets.

North of Guttenberg are older, quieter, car-centred communities similar to the outer suburbs of British cities. Some of these villages are distinctly ethnic. Straddling the George Washington Bridge, Fort Lee is largely Korean, and Englewood is largely Jewish. Deficient in Friday night pub brawls, these towns get by with good schools and restaurants. No one complains about the views.

"The last 18 months have been incredible in Hoboken, where I am based," says broker Mark Singleton of Singleton-Galmann Realty. "Four-bed, two- bath brownstones that were selling for $750,000 (pounds 400,000) in 2002 now sell for $1m to $1.2m (pounds 530,000 to pounds 640,000). A "fixer-upper" in Hoboken is now $800,000.

In the Galaxy, two-bed, two-bath units trade for between $500,000 and $600,000, and three-bedroom apartments with "two-and-a-half bathrooms" are $650,000. New-build condominium flats sell for between $500 and $550 per square foot. In Englewood, large family homes selling for between $900,000 and $1.2m." Fixer-uppers are cheaper.