RELOCATION: One of our earliest challenges in moving overseas was choosing where to live before we did the physical relocation. Luckily, K’s company provided us with a paid reconnaissance trip before we started choosing a new home town in NJ. Three days to see the sights and make the big decision! That seemed like plenty of time, until we got there. Despite New Jersey being one of the smallest states in the US, we were astounded at how many townships there actually were. It seemed like we would never be able to come to a firm conclusion.
I remember that trip vividly. There we were at the hotel, awake early in the morning with body-clock confusion. Sitting at computers, we were crazily Googling schools and towns and using Google Earth to view locations. We were desperately searching a variety of online sites for demographics or any other info we could find. Back in Australia, we had always lived in Sydney, NSW – the biggest city in the country. Before moving to New Jersey, we didn’t know much about the place but just assumed we would live in a suburb of a big city. As it turns out, NJ is nothing like NSW.
What is New Jersey like?
New Jersey is one of the smallest states in the US but for people, this state punches way above her weight. First thing to know: NJ is the most densely populated state in the USA. A lot of NJ is made up of extended outer suburban areas of two other cities: New York City, and Philadelphia. The suburban areas of NYC flow west across the Hudson River, to cover much of Northern NJ. Philadelphia’s suburban sprawl is far smaller compared to NYC. It lies East of the city, across the Delaware River into Southern NJ. Both areas are made up of lots and lots of towns and some small ‘cities’.
By small cities, we are only talking about four in total in NJ. These are Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth and Paterson, which all have between 100,000 – 300,000 people. Jersey City is the fastest-growing city, with strong increases year by year. The state capitol, Trenton, is a lot smaller than any of these at only ~85k population.
Another thing to know straight off is that living in a town or municipality is not like living in the country in Australia. You don’t need to go to a major city to find decent department stores, big cinema complexes, or other amenities. No matter where you are, it isn’t usually that far to go to get the same things you would expect in the suburbs of a major city. In terms of size, it can take about 3-4 hours driving time to traverse NJ state borders from north to south and at least 2-3 hours to traverse the state from east to west. If accidents occur, or you are driving in peak traffic times, then this can be way longer.
New Jersey has 21 Counties
The state looks slightly ‘S’- shaped and is made up of 21 counties of different sizes. Mostly, the locals refer to being in North Jersey (Northern NJ), Central Jersey (Central NJ) or South Jersey (Southern NJ). People commuting to NYC are often located in Northern NJ for its proximity. Philadelphia commuters often live in Southern NJ or South-West parts of the state.
How schools matter
One other very important thing to know is how the state’s school system impacts choosing a new home town in NJ. Most school catchments are fixed so you must live in a school’s district area to send your kids to that school. For most towns, the municipal borders are often the school district borders. In cities though, there are several districts that contribute to schools available. However, even in cities, the same rule applies that you must live in the district’s zoned area to attend. Selecting your location based on a school will narrow your housing options to whatever is within the local district borders. This is not the case though if you are choosing a private school, where no such restrictions exist.
Towns with good schools of course are more popular places for newcomers. This applies to families and even homeowners without children, as good schools drive up housing prices and generally maintain capital value over the long term.
How to narrow your choices down to a manageable number
One of the key methods to working out where you want to live is identifying what you would be happy with. More importantly, you should know what you wouldn’t be happy with, in moving to a new place to live. There are a number of factors that you will need to consider. This may include travel distance to work, distance from big cities such as New York or Philadelphia, in which case, location near a major train or bus route is likely key.
If you have school-aged children, perhaps your first priority will be range of schools in a particular area. Then there are the more personal preferences for town size, demographics, appearance and culture. Of course, last but not least will be your budget limits for either renting or purchasing housing. Once you have some ideas, sit down with a map, and start to visualize what your choices will look like in terms of travel on main routes, distances from key points etc.
A list of useful websites to help get the information you may need, can be found on our Relocation Resources page. It includes information on NJ real estate, schools, demographic makeup of towns and crime statistics plus others. Doing this research ahead can help you fine-tune possible options or eliminate others. If you are going on an orientation or reconnaissance trip, try to get the range of possibilities down to a sensible number to choose from beforehand. Otherwise you could spend your entire trip racing everywhere and not getting enough time to examine the final choices sufficiently.
Getting more information to help with Choosing A New Home Town in NJ
While getting research online is very helpful, it is still hard to get a real-life feel for what a place is like. To add to your knowledge on NJ locations, try to:
- Talk to anyone you can find who has already lived there. Perhaps you may have friends who have connections with others who’ve lived in NJ (a lot of corporate HQs are located in NY/NJ).
- Investigate expat blogs and forums (like ExpatForum.com, EasyExpat.com). You can ask any sort of question in these forums and nearly always get helpful info.
- Find any blogs written by expats who currently live here or who have lived here in a previous life. Ask them for help, as these people will understand what a challenge it is to move countries. They will often have very good intel for any newcomers.
- Look up local US online forums (like City-Data.com or Trulia.com). On these websites, you can ask specific questions about a particular area you are interested in, or search for information as well.
- You can also use an ‘orientation’ service like the one we provide through Expat Assist NJ.
If you need help with choosing your new home town in NJ, contact us for further information on getting an ‘orientation’ tour or just call to have a chat. I know you must have lots of questions!