Should Your Next Home Be in the Suburbs or the City?

Choosing between a house with a yard and an apartment in the thick of it.

The American Dream used to mean a house with a nice yard and a white picket fence. These days, Sabine Pleissner, a real estate agent in Santa Monica, California, is seeing new parents with a different set of priorities. “The number one thing I hear from buyers is walkability and quality of life,” she says.

Increasingly, quality of life is being defined by easy access to hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even yoga studios in the city. That change in preferences, at least in part, is helping to spur an urban boom in many parts of the country that goes back to the 1990s. For Pleissner, this has meant seeing more young families forgo the relative quiet of suburban life for a home in Los Angeles.

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Metro housing is not the solution for every family. Choosing between the city and the ‘burbs is a deeply personal decision that almost always involves certain trade-offs. Invariably, it means figuring out what matters most to you and your other half.

For a lot of couples, the addition of a child is the big motivator to finally own, rather than rent, their home. So carefully considering the pros and cons can help stave off a serious case of buyer’s remorse down the road.

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Why Millennials Are Choosing the City

For the time being, the broad shift is certainly in the direction of city dwelling. Whereas previous generations were content to move into the suburbs as they started a family, a lot of millennials are hanging around. The influx of young, college-educated adults has led to an urban renewal in some cities that has only made urban living more attractive.

When Shelly Broward moved to the Nashville area more than a decade ago, she remembers seeing rundown neighborhoods. “Now they’re gone,” says the real estate agent, based in nearby Franklin, Tenn. “It’s just totally transforming.”

Suddenly, parents feel safe raising their little ones in the city center, and the benefits of living in the thick of it all — the convenience and community — are no longer overshadowed by crime. There is one drawback given this influx of millennials, which is the largest generation in American history, however: There is an increase in congestion and housing has increasingly become more expensive in urban areas.

In Nashville, in part because of its recent reputation as the “it” city for young people, housing prices have soared 86 percent since 2012. Rent, when measured on a square-foot basis, has increased 48 percent over that stretch, according to Zillow.

While its urban revival has been particularly robust, Nashville isn’t alone in seeing prices skyrocket of late. In Los Angeles, for instance, median sale prices have spiked 91 percent over the past six years as families and young adults have flooded the city. Costs have become a big enough concern in urban centers that we may well see a reversal of the urban growth.

A Life That’s Worth the Commute  

In some cities, the availability of jobs is aiding the urban revival. Big employers, in particular, are often headquartered in city centers. For parents who work in the city, living close by can mean a lot more time with family, even in a mid-sized metro like Nashville.

“If you live south of the city and you’re heading into downtown, it’s an hour trip,” Broward says. “Commute time is pretty huge for them.”

But Broward also reminds her clients to think about where they’ll put their kids once they reach school age. Like a lot of cities, what Music City offers in terms of culture it lacks when it comes to quality public schools. “They’re not worried about the long term,” Broward says.

In Los Angeles, Pleissner says parents can usually find good public elementary schools if they look in the right neighborhoods. Often, they’re not bothered by the inferiority of the local high schools, she says, because they see themselves moving before that becomes an issue.

Aside from education, there are a number of other factors that make the suburbs a better fit for some parents, too. For example, taxes tend to be lower when you move beyond the city limits. Suburbanites also tend to get a larger piece of real estate for their money.

And of course there’s the greater availability of parking, especially when you move to the farther edges of the metro area. Pleissner sees a lot of clients in Los Angeles for whom car ownership simply isn’t an option. Many of them, she says, rely on Uber and Lyft — or even an electric scooter — to get to work. It’s not a bad mode of weekday transport if you work in the city, although it can limit your options on Saturday and Sunday.

As for the wider shift toward urban neighborhoods, it remains to be seen whether the pendulum will shift the other way. Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, believes the trend has been driven as much by practical factors as a sudden change in tastes. In a 2016 paper, he suggests that an improving job market for younger workers and an uptick in construction will induce more young couples to head toward the suburbs, just like their parents did.

Perhaps they’ll have that white picket fence, after all.

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