Seventeen years ago, New York City resident Alison Bernstein was trying to figure out where she and her husband could move to find a little more space yet still have access to the city. But no matter where she turned, she was having trouble finding enough information to help her make an informed decision.
“We couldn’t get a clear answer on where we should live or what each of the communities was about,” says Bernstein.
So, she turned the problem into an opportunity by starting her own real estate company—The Suburban Jungle Inc.—to give home shoppers the information she had been looking for.
There are about 200 suburbs surrounding the New York City area, which can make the search for the perfect place confusing. Bernstein’s company offers free real estate advice to those seeking a suburb that best meets their needs. Her company provides details that home buyers couldn’t find anywhere else, from what type of child care is available nearby to local community events and activities. The information helps them understand the ins and outs of each area before making their decision.
“Sure, you can go to any real estate website and count bathrooms and bedrooms. But that’s not where you should be starting,” Bernstein says. “It’s all about lifestyle, not just real estate.”
Before starting The Suburban Jungle, Bernstein, who earned her real estate license during college, spent more than 15 years in senior-level sales, leasing, and investment banking roles, and did corporate strategy work. She’s been paying attention to the market since she was 6 years old.
“Back then, before the internet, I was fascinated by valuation—what made things more valuable than others, where people chose to live, and why they chose to live there,” she says.
Bernstein also read Businessweek growing up and especially loved stories featuring interesting business owners.
“In business, you can be from any background or be any age,” she says. “That’s one thing that makes this country great: Everyone can write their own playbook.”
The tangibility of real estate excited her. She started out in rentals during college before shifting into other roles.
“With real estate, you know where it is, and you know what it is,” Bernstein says.
One experience that had a significant influence on Bernstein was studying abroad in Paris as an intern at the former Bear Stearns. It taught her how to get out of her comfort zone and fully immerse herself, and it opened her eyes to how others think and work—all traits that increase empathy, she says.
The culmination of Bernstein’s business experiences has shown her that there’s opportunity in residential real estate to make things better for the buyer.
“I always loved the buyer,” she says. “I felt they weren’t getting the love they needed, and I built a business around that.”
What Her Company Offers
Bernstein launched The Suburban Jungle, without any agents, staff, or physical office space. Once she made her first couple deals, she focused on building a helpful and detailed website to target buyers interested in the suburbs.
The client begins by scheduling a time to chat with a strategist online. Alternatively, if they prefer not to chat, they can start an online session. The goal of the session is to help each client develop a home search strategy—selecting towns that make sense for them to tour and explaining the differences between them, Bernstein says.
“All of this is then on their app dashboard within minutes, with local details and town information as well as next steps to begin touring,” she adds.
Her business has grown tremendously over the years while continuing to focus on her original goal of helping buyers navigate suburbia and understand the ins and outs of towns before making their decision.
“We have stayed true to the concept but now use greater proprietary technology,” she explains.
Seeing opportunities to help buyers in other major metro areas, Bernstein has expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Austin, Texas, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., the Hamptons, South Florida, and Philadelphia. They don’t employ agents, but partner with agents in those locales.
“We have 20 strategists and hundreds of agents and firms we partner with across the country,” she says. The agents continue hanging their license at their own brokerage.
“We are not a brokerage, but an objective advisory service,” she comments. “Not every agent is great at working buyers,” says Bernstein, so they vet their newcomers carefully. “They need to have special attention and local insight.”
Agents receive training on the company’s technology, and Bernstein has created a culture that consistently reinforces following all real estate laws and regulations.
“We constantly evaluate how our agents are working, and we get feedback from our clients,” she says. “Our strategy is that they are an extension of our company. We are very selective with who we work with. We have had to get rid of some agents.”
Most of the agents who join The Suburban Jungle do so because they’ve heard of the company through word-of-mouth from other agents, she says. She doesn’t have to recruit—the agents bring their knowledge of the communities, and the company provides them with motivated buyer leads.
Adjustments Amid the Pandemic
Stay-at-home orders made a lot of people think about where they live, and Bernstein has seen many flee urban areas. This has led to an increase in business.
“We are up 500% from last year at this time,” she says. “I don’t know if it is an overreaction, but we are swamped beyond belief.”
Right now, Bernstein works 90-hour weeks. Most of her agents continue to work remotely. She’s never been a stickler about having agents or staff work in the office, even before COVID-19.
“I hire really brilliant people. I don’t care if you are productive at 3 a.m., as long as it gets done,” she says.
She believes the pandemic has changed the way everyone lives, works, and their personal prioritizes.
“It has definitely decimated a five-day workweek. People will be revolting if they have to show up to their cubicle again after a three-hour commute when they can do the work from home,” she says. “We need to make work more purposeful and more social.”
While Bernstein isn’t a fortuneteller, she does wish she “had a crystal ball to see where all this will go.” But Bernstein may be more clairvoyant than she lets on.
Back when she and her husband were searching for their suburban haven, they talked about having four kids and a big dog. Well, their wishes came true: They have a son, 16, three daughters who are 14, 13, and 12, and a huge dog.
“The best gift I’ve given them is to see how passionate and fulfilled I am with what I am doing,” Bernstein says.