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.
Taylor Getler
By Taylor Getler 
Published
Edited by Mary Makarushka

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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.

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