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Snow in April, but there's space for days: One young family's move from Jersey City to Portland, Maine

Our subject's front porch in Portland has a sweet view. 

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As much as we love New York, living here often means thinking about leaving. In recent weeks we have talked to New Yorkers who picked up and moved to Alabama and eastern Long Island, and now we’re checking in with a lifelong New Yorker and New Jerseyan who, after 20 years in New York and Jersey City, relocated to Portland, Maine.

A New Jersey native, Sarah Welt moved to New York in 1998 after a post-college stretch at her parents'. Since then she has called Boerum Hill, Windsor Terrace, and Park Slope home, as well as the Upper West Side (twice, with two different boyfriends), and Sunnyside (“I was determined to live alone and couldn’t afford Brooklyn,” she says). Her final stop in the New York City area was Jersey City, where she and her husband bought a two-bedroom condo in 2010.

In December 2016, the couple packed their bags for Portland, a process helped along in large part by the proceeds from selling their condo, which enabled them to make an all-cash offer on a five-bedroom, three-bath house in Portland.

We talked to Sarah to get some more insight into why she made the big leap and what life is like on the other side. Here's what she had to say.

Why did you decide to move?

A couple reasons. The big one was, we thought [Jersey City] was a great place to live before we had a kid, and even when he was little, it was really good for us because we felt a strong sense of community. But as more and more people "discovered" Jersey City and it gentrified really quickly, we started to feel like we were getting priced out, even though we owned an apartment.

Our taxes were high and they were set to go up considerably because there was going to be a property tax reevaluation. We knew about it and we estimated our [new] taxes with the help of my friend who runs a blog called Civic Parent. She and I sat down six or eight months before we actually moved to figure out what our taxes would be under the new [legislation]... Our taxes were $8,000 and were set to go up to $14,000 or $15,000. When we really looked at it we were like, 'What are we doing?'

My husband can work from home and I was teaching yoga, and so we figured we could leave and we would be okay. We were also concerned about schools. My son’s school was public, and universal pre-K was amazing. He was able to do pre-K for free at the school across the street from our house and we really liked it, but I was less excited about kindergarten because I felt there was a lot of sitting, hands folded in the lap. It wasn’t what I wanted for him. I didn’t think a one-size-fits-all learning experience was the right program for him.

So the only option we had was to put him in a charter school, which is a lottery—and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better—or leave. Frankly, for the amount of taxes we were paying I was thinking it would have been nice to have a better school situation. I don’t want to dis Jersey City or the school, because it’s a really good school. I just didn’t think it was right for us long-term.

What we were worried about, too, is that when the reval hit downtown, which it just did this past month, there would be a lot more inventory on the market and maybe we wouldn't be able to get the same price for our place. And that may or may not have happened, but we weren’t willing to take the risk.

The price of a Jersey City condo can get you a lot of house, if you're willing to put up with Maine winters.

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Did you consider moving anyplace else?

Years ago we looked into Burlington, Vermont. This is before we had our son. We went up for a weekend and stayed at a bed and breakfast. We tried to get a feel for the area [but ultimately] we said, "No way. It would be too small." Especially because we didn’t have a kid yet.

But Portland on paper checked a lot of boxes for us. My parents live an hour away, so that was a nice bonus. We wanted a progressive city. It seemed like there was a strong cultural, foodie, art, and yoga scene. We didn’t want to feel like we moved up to the boonies and didn’t have access to a museum and culture, so we felt like Portland was, on paper anyway, a lot of things we were looking for.

Had you been there before?

We’d been to Maine a million times but did not spend a lot of time in Portland so no, not really. All we knew of Portland was the downtown old port, where it’s the most touristy. We had no sense of neighborhoods or schools. We really didn’t know what we were doing. We pretty much took a total leap of faith.

We knew we wanted to be in a city, but we didn’t want to be in a city that was congested. I think we got that because we’re in the city proper, but we're a mile and change from the old port. We own a home in a neighborhood called Oakdale. It’s a desirable neighborhood and it’s got a lot of families and it's near a huge park called Deering Oaks Park. It felt like a good place to raise a family.

There are a lot more opportunities to get out in nature when you're in a New England city of 60,000.

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What were your anxieties about moving?

I think the biggest one was, "Where are we going to live?" Once we decided to leave and we knew we were moving up here, we still didn’t know where in Portland we were going to live. Once I started researching schools, I realized there’s like eight elementary schools in Portland alone. Portland is a city of 60,000 people. That seemed like a lot of schools to choose from.

So we came up in November for Thanksgiving and stayed with my mom and dad for a week. Prior to coming up I made appointments with all the different elementary schools to meet the administrators, and tour the schools to get a sense of what they were like, and if I could see my son at that school. 

So we toured six of the eight schools and that was what determined what neighborhood we would live in. After that trip I felt a lot better. I felt like, "Okay, we have a plan." And while we were on that trip I found us an apartment [to rent] also. We did a six-month lease and then we were going to go month-to-month with the intention just be sure we wanted to be in the neighborhood that we chose. 

What was your search process like?

Housing is really, at least in the neighborhood we’re in, it’s a very tight market, and that was the most surprising thing. I can’t speak to other neighborhoods but it seems like [the case] all over Portland. There’s just not a lot of inventory.

If we had wanted to to live in the West End or the East End or downtown, we were looking at prices comparable to what we had in Jersey City in terms of what you could get for your money. We knew we wanted more space and outdoor space. Maybe places there were slightly cheaper than Jersey City, but not much. A two-bedroom, two-bath condo might have been $650,000.

We wanted a better quality of life. We wanted more space. My husband works from home, so it was important for him to have an office. We wanted a real yard, stuff like that. When we bought our place, we were under contract in another place that needed a lot of work. I think there were two or three other houses on the market at that point that could have worked for us.

What is the difference culturally? 

I think that for me, what’s been the hardest is to find my tribe, so to speak, people that are going to be my friends. It was very easy to make friends in Jersey City because I had a young child. I was a stay-at-home mom full time and I brought him everywhere and I joined the moms group and it was super easy to have a social life.

Here, I think people meet friends through work, and I’m not working right now. [Or they meet each other] through common activities and I haven’t been consistent about that. I have a school-aged child so now a lot of play dates are drop-off. It’s not like you’re hanging out with the parent.

I’ve joined the parent-teacher organization at my son’s school and that’s been helpful, but it hasn’t led to hangouts. So I feel like we’ve made acquaintances but we have not made real friends.

Have you met any New Yorkers here?

I feel like everyone in Portland is a transplant. It’s very common to meet people who are from Brooklyn or Boston who moved up here for the same reasons, only 10 years ago. Either they grew up in Portland or they went to college here or they have a spouse who did.

Do you think Portland is "on the rise?"

I think the cat’s out of the bag. I think it’s a good place to be especially if you have the flexibility to work anywhere. And I’ve met a number of people who have situations like my husband: their [employer] isn’t here. I can’t say it’s on the rise because I don’t know about the housing trends, but I can say that our neighborhood continues to be very hot.

I think a place across the street never went on the market and it was bought by people from Brooklyn, and a place around the corner, it was bought by Brooklyn or Manhattan people. It’s been "discovered." It's got a lot to offer. I can see why people would want to live here other than us.

What do you miss the most?

My friends. And the ability to walk down the street in Jersey City, run into people I know, and have that feeling like I belong to something. Even for five minutes, just those conversations on the street, running into people.

I miss finding a yoga studio that I really love. I had that in Jersey City. It was a block from my house. Here I drive 20 minutes to a yoga studio that I like, but it’s not the same. I don't have that same sense of community, knowing the students, knowing the studio.

We drive a lot. Not everyone does. You can definitely get around without a car here. It’s a pain, and I know people do it. It is walkable to a certain degree, or bikeable. We won’t go into town all that much without taking an Uber, because parking is a nightmare in downtown Portland. Especially during the high season —forget it. You could drive around for an hour looking for a space.

What advice do you have for people considering moving to Portland?

I think it depends if they have school-aged kids or not. I joined groups on Facebook, a couple of mom groups. There’s a really great forest play group, which is crunchy nature moms playing in the woods.

I [recommend] what we did to find our neighborhood: Instead of finding a house you like, find the school first. That was a really good idea. Because one of the things that’s hard here is if you’re not zoned for that school—at least at my son’s school—you have to reapply every year. If there’s too many kids in a certain grade and you’re not in district, then you may not get a spot. So it was really important to us to buy in district.

What about the weather?

I thought the winter would be way worse. This winter hasn’t been that bad. I mean it’s 50 degrees right now and sunny, but there is snow on the ground. I feel like summer here is heaven on earth and I never want to leave, and the winter is long and it’s cold but I feel like I’m used to it now. We have a snowblower. It’s just long. Last year it snowed in April, you know?