Can’t Buy the House You Want? Consider Moving Out of the City

Suburban and small-town living has its perks, including more spacious and affordable choices for first-time home buyers.
Dec 14, 2021

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If you're a city dweller and have found yourself frustrated with the local real estate market, relocating to a smaller town might seem like an attractive possibility in the near future.

Maybe you're reaching a different stage of your life — such as growing your family or approaching retirement — and you're dreaming of a backyard garden or a more laid-back pace. Maybe, as for many others, a permanent transition to remote work has allowed for more flexibility and opened up new ZIP code options for you. Or maybe you simply want more square footage for your homebuying dollar.

Whatever your motivation, suburbs and small towns can offer a more affordable, and surprisingly appealing, alternative to the city.

Changes in life lead to changes in residence

"Being an elected official in town, you meet a lot of new residents," says Rob Lewandowski, commissioner for the borough of Collingswood, New Jersey, a suburb 5 miles outside of Philadelphia. "Invariably, I would say 60% of the people I meet are coming from Philadelphia. They're coming from Fishtown, Center City and South Philly, oftentimes because they've had a child or they have one on the way. And they're trying to find that sweet spot of urbanity while also getting those quality-of-life advantages."

An analysis by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that about 13% of Americans moved each year and that about 40% of moves were motivated by housing reasons. Those reasons included wanting to transition from renting to homeownership, wanting a better property and pursuing more affordable housing, according to 2019 Current Population Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly a third of movers did so for family-related reasons, including marriage and a desire to establish an independent household.

Movers are "looking for housing options they want at prices that they can afford," Lewandowski says, "but they also want a connection to people, local businesses and a lifestyle."

If you're one of the many people considering a move out of the city to get more space for your budget, you can narrow your search and start getting a realistic picture of what you can afford by comparing the median price per square foot of homes in your desired area. For example, data from Realtor.com shows that the median home listing price per square foot was $370 in Center City Philadelphia, while it was $213 just a few miles away in Collingswood. For some families, that kind of move could add another bedroom within their budget, or space for a dedicated home office.

Leaving a city doesn't have to mean leaving amenities

If you're hesitant to move out of the city because of lifestyle trade-offs, you may be surprised by the availability of appealing options in the suburbs.

"People still want the experience of commerce, of dining, of entertainment," says Lewandowski. "So to have a place where people don’t need to get in a car and go into a sea of parking lots, where they can bring their stroller or their cart and walk to the local farmer's market, that's really important. It brings it to a scale that you would find in a city."

Many towns have developed more walkable downtowns in recent years, mixing homes with commercial spaces like restaurants and shops. If it's important to you to continue to be able to get around easily without a car, consider making a list of towns that you’re targeting and look up their Walk Score. Collingswood, for instance, has a walk score of 74. This is considered "very walkable," as residents can walk or bike to local resources like dining, schools and parks.

If you prioritize a great restaurant scene or school district, local "best-of" lists can give you greater insight into your potential options. If you're concerned with the diversity or commitment to equity in a community, then you'll want to look at local news sources and try to meet some people in organizations that connect to your interests.

For city expats, priorities are changing

"People in general are reevaluating what home means to them," explains Jessica Hoff, broker-owner of Century 21 JRS Realty in Clark, New Jersey, a suburb about an hour outside of New York City. Remote work has made it so that clients that come to her have much more freedom, no longer having to choose a home based on proximity to an office. Meanwhile, other factors like room for a home workspace have become more important.

Priorities outside of the home itself are evolving, as well, as Hoff says that clients have expressed more interest in the local offerings of the communities where they’re looking at properties. This phenomenon has even changed the way that she and other local agents are promoting homes.

"Close proximity to the Garden State Parkway and bus lines" may no longer be the hot selling feature it once was, Hoff explains, to people who are less concerned with the hassle of a daily commute. Instead, more property listings use "vital advertising space" to spotlight attractions like "minutes away from amazing hiking trails" or "plenty of recreation opportunities and county parks," she says.

How to move out of the city

Moving out of the city may feel daunting, but having a plan in place can help ensure that you find a better value for your money without fully compromising your lifestyle or sense of identity.

  • Know the areas you’d like to research. Most moves are local, with many home buyers choosing to stay relatively close to family and jobs; 82% of moves were within the same county or state in 2019, according to the Current Population Survey. If you don't want to go very far, you can determine a radius that you’re comfortable with. If you’re looking to move farther away, consider your priorities. Would you prefer warmer weather? More accessibility to nature? Thinking through your must-haves can help narrow your options.

  • Determine what you want to keep about city living. If there are elements of city life that you don't want to lose, narrow your search to an area that provides the features you want, such as nightlife, walkability and diversity.

  • Decide what you can afford. Suburban homeownership can come with its own unique range of new costs, such as buying and maintaining a car, property taxes and HOA fees, to name a few. When calculating your budget for your new home, make sure that you account for your new monthly expenses outside of the mortgage itself.

  • Consider how much space you'll need. If you plan on growing your family, this is an important factor in deciding how many bedrooms you should look for. If your job has transitioned permanently to remote work, think about your needs long-term. Will you need your own private office space? Do you have kids that will need dedicated play space away from other areas of the home?

  • Find a real estate agent in your desired area. Once you've narrowed down your options, real estate agents can be great resources for learning more about a place. Come with a list of questions, and be clear about your needs and what you want out of your new residence.

You can also learn more about your target towns by visiting and seeing for yourself what they have to offer. Local calendars of events will let you know about upcoming occasions like restaurant weeks, farmers markets, carnivals and other happenings that can give you a better sense of what it feels like to be part of the community.

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