They Brought Their Brooklyn Budget to the Jersey Suburbs. Which House Would Be Theirs?

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Looking to upsize from their one-bedroom rental in Downtown Brooklyn, a young couple scoured Essex County, N.J., for a single-family house they could make their own.

Shannon Nitroy-Saia and Joe Saia in Essex County, N.J., near their new home. The couple wanted a four-bedroom house and had up to about $900,000 to spend.
 Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

Shannon Nitroy-Saia describes herself in her LinkedIn profile as “a naturally curious data person with a love for solving puzzles.” Ms. Nitroy-Saia, 31, and her husband, Joe Saia, 32, like to tackle complicated board games — the kind that require two hours to read the instructions and an hour to explain them to the other players before the game even begins, she joked.

Earlier this year, the couple found themselves trying to solve a tantalizing puzzle when they began searching for homes in West Orange and South Orange, N.J., trying to find something they could afford.

The couple, who work as data analytics managers (she for Spotify, he for the startup Perry Health), met a decade ago when they were research assistants at the Federal Reserve in Washington. Both played (badly, she says) on the Fed’s softball team. Mr. Saia was immediately smitten, “even when we were sweaty and dirty in gym clothes after softball,” he said.

To impress her, he invited her for dinner and baked her a chocolate fudge cake, using a recipe he had seen on the BBC. That’s when he learned that she was an accomplished baker — good enough that she sold decorative cakes to earn pocket money in high school. It took several more months for her to notice him, and nearly a year of long-distance dating after Mr. Saia moved to New York to pursue a doctorate in economics at Columbia University.

Ms. Nitroy-Saia joined him in the city in 2021, and they married in 2022.

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At 800 square feet, their Downtown Brooklyn rental was spacious by New York standards, but it was also a one-bedroom. Working from home meant sharing space at the kitchen counter or being crammed into a corner of the “dining-room-slash-living-room-slash-kitchen,” Ms. Nitroy-Saia said.

The first piece in the new puzzle came in January, when they helped close friends paint their home in West Orange, a bedroom community 20 miles west of Manhattan that is urban enough to have a top-rated zoo and rural enough to include an expansive forest crisscrossed by trails. On the drive back to Brooklyn, they passed houses whose exteriors suggested an abundance of space.

Mr. Saia worried about losing access to New York’s world-class restaurant scene, but was intrigued by the possibilities. “I was excited to have a place that we could afford to make our own,” he said.

They set a budget of $600,000 to $800,000 in a town where the median single-family home was going for somewhere in the high $500,000s — and where 86 percent of the homes were selling for over their list prices, according to the Zillow Home Value Index. The goal was to find a house with at least four bedrooms that was close to New York City transit options. (Her office is in the World Trade Center; his is in Chelsea.)

They spent the next several weekends driving around the area, scoping out as many houses as they could find. Their real estate agent, Larry Weiss, with Weiss Luxury Group of eXp Realty, said they had one big thing going for them: They were willing to buy a house that needed work.

“Most young people these days, they don’t want to do anything,” Mr. Weiss said. “They want to just move in.”

Among their options:

No. 1

Six-Bedroom With Spiral Staircase

Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

This six-bedroom, four-bathroom 1905 colonial in West Orange offered abundant space and needed just enough work that the couple felt they could put their personal touch on it. It had a wood-paneled office with a fireplace, a vaulted ceiling with a skylight in the primary bedroom, and a big rear deck that stepped down to the backyard. There was also a spiral staircase, matching one of the coolest features of their Brooklyn apartment. The asking price was $775,000, with annual taxes of about $21,000.

No. 2

Ranch With Raw Second Story

Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

On paper, this three-bedroom, three-bathroom 1967 ranch, on a cul-de-sac in West Orange, looked as if it might be too small. But hidden behind the brick facade was a spacious home with several nooks that could be converted into offices. The interior was dated; the kitchen and bathrooms needed full renovations. The basement was unfinished, and there was a sweeping second story attic, also unfinished, with light pouring in through dormer windows. The asking price was $625,000, with annual taxes of about $20,000.

No. 3

Renovated Five-Bedroom Near Train

Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

At $949,500, this five-bedroom, three-bathroom house in South Orange stretched the couple’s budget, but they hoped they could catch up with their year-end salary bonuses. It had been fully renovated and was move-in ready, with a big kitchen that had quartz counters, a new roof, sliders to the back deck and patio, and a finished basement with a bar. And it was within walking distance of the train station. The annual taxes were about $16,000. Because it was move-in ready, Mr. Weiss worried the couple might get outbid.

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