Where should I live?
Relocating is an overwhelming prospect, even when the move is entirely voluntary. It’s that much more intense when you’re up against a deadline, like your first day at a new job or the start of the school year. Few endeavors demand as many rapid-fire decisions — or invite as much second-guessing.
One thing you definitely don’t want to second-guess is where you choose to relocate. Whether you’re a location-independent professional picking from the best places to live and work remotely or just looking for the ideal community within commuting distance of your job, this important decision will set your life’s course for years to come.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Place to Live
Naturally, this choice involves a lot of considerations — more than a dozen in all. Some, like affordability and employment opportunities, are obvious and near-universal in their applicability. Others, like food choice and climate, might seem less important next to dollars-and-cents issues like where you’ll draw your paycheck and how far it’ll take you. But they can still dramatically impact your quality of life and overall well-being in the long run.
Pro Tip: Does your job allow you to work remotely? If so, you could work from anywhere in the world. Companies like Remote Year will help set you up with a place to live, your own workspace, and different experiences within the country you choose.
Wealth is relative. According to a 2020 study commissioned by Money Crashers, more than 25% of Americans equate wealth with financial security, regardless of income. Another 27% define wealth as a function of quality of life rather than finances.
Still, most of us would prefer to have more money to spend and save — or at the very least, some breathing room in our budget. That’s where affordability, arguably the most critical factor for people who are moving, comes in.
In this context, “affordability” encompasses the total cost of living — not just housing costs, but expenditures like utilities, groceries, transportation, durable goods, and health care. The less you need to spend to get by in good health, the more affordable your chosen home.
I’ve never lived in a truly unaffordable place, but I’ve seen firsthand that seemingly minor changes in the cost of living can add up. Moving from a smaller manufacturing town in the industrial Midwest to a major metropolitan area with a predominantly service-based economy effectively cut my pay — which didn’t change, thanks to a location-independent job — by 20%, due mainly to higher housing and transportation costs.
Curious how far your salary might go in a new place? Use BestPlaces’ cost of living calculator to get a rough estimate.
It’s impossible to escape taxes entirely, but moving to the right place can trim your overall tax burden. For example, five states don’t charge sales taxes: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon. Nine states waive income taxes on most or all sources of income: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.
But sales and income taxes aren’t the only types of taxes you should scrutinize. Multiple levies — such as property taxes, school taxes, gasoline taxes, and business taxes and fees — may affect your bottom line to a greater or lesser extent.
To quantify that impact at your next address, look to the Tax Foundation’s state-local tax burden report. It calculates what taxpayers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia pay in state and local taxes.
The latest report, using data from fiscal year 2017, identifies the District of Columbia as the highest-tax jurisdiction in the United States, followed by New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, North Dakota, and Hawaii. Alabama has the lowest state-local tax burden, followed by Tennessee, Arizona, South Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Fortunately, most states provide property tax credits or homestead exemptions to provide homeowners with some additional tax relief.
3. Employment Opportunities
Employment opportunity remains a crucial and often decisive factor in decisions around where to live. But it’s not quite as central to the question as it once was.
Increasingly, lucrative employment is entirely location-independent. Digital nomads need only a serviceable workspace, reliable laptop, and speedy Internet connection to earn good money from just about anywhere. Still, many individuals and families who choose to relocate do so for work-related reasons.
Employment opportunities vary from state to state and city to city, so spend some time researching the job markets in different areas. Start by analyzing quality employment opportunities within your industry, then determine where the highest concentration of these jobs is located.
If you’re an investment banker (or aspire to be), you probably need to live in a big city, like New York or Boston. If your skills are more portable — say, you’re a teacher or accountant — you have a much better chance of finding work wherever you decide to move.
That said, income levels for jobs can vary significantly from state to state. All other things being equal, workers tend to earn more in places where the cost of living is high or competition for their talent is fierce (or both).
For example, a marketing manager in San Diego, California, could earn 30% more than their counterpart in Salt Lake City, Utah. But the difference might be a wash thanks to Southern California’s sky-high housing and gas prices. In any event, do your research before you move — and ideally, find a job before you relocate.
4. Real Estate Value
With real estate values in constant flux, homebuyers can’t afford to lack understanding of their new city’s real estate market. At a minimum, research current home prices and short-term home price trends, the length of time for-sale homes sit on the market, whether and by how much homes sell above or below asking price, and probable long-term value trends.
Additionally, carefully review local housing price trends. Use websites like Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin to get a handle on the local real estate market. Or spring for a paid subscription to NeighborhoodScout if you’re serious about getting the most value for your money (and certainly if you plan to invest in local real estate to earn passive income).
The cost of real estate is important even if you have no plans to buy a home right away. You still need to make room for rent in your monthly budget. Thoroughly researching prevailing rent prices before moving (or even choosing to move) ensures you’ll find an affordable place — or avoid moving to a new city you really can’t afford.
If you plan to stick around for a while, you might end up renting for a few years until you’ve saved up a sufficient down payment for your first home. In buyer’s markets, where the ratio of rents to home values is low, you won’t need to save as long for that down payment. You’ll begin building equity in your new home that much faster too.
5. Crime Rates & Statistics
No one wants to live in a high-crime area, but that doesn’t mean everyone can live in a utopian society where crime never happens. Use municipal or state resources to research crime statistics in any city, town, or neighborhood you’re eyeing.
For example, the New York City Police Department keeps a comprehensive database of citywide and precinct-level crime reports that — though quite data-dense — can help laypeople understand the crime rates and trends in different areas. Reputable private resources, like City-Data, can help too, but they’re not always reliable.
But just because an area is safe today doesn’t guarantee it will be safe in the future — or vice versa. The long-term stability of a neighborhood can be a determining factor in how safe your surroundings are.
Also, consider the development trajectory of a particular location as you narrow down your choices. For example, while gentrification has serious downsides, such as the displacement of low-income residents, localized prosperity also tends to correspond with lower violent crime rates, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
6. Proximity to Family & Friends
If you value time spent with family and close friends, you might want to think twice about moving too far from them. Driving across state lines to reunite for the holidays (or just because) takes time, and flying is both a source of stress and a not-insignificant strain on tight budgets.
For many of us, climate is a critical quality-of-life consideration. If you enjoy winter sports, set up in a place that has them in abundance — or at least where they’re physically possible. Think Colorado or Vermont, not Texas or Georgia.
By the same token, if you prefer the beach to the slopes and want to be able to commute by bike comfortably in January, then the Sun Belt is just right for you.
It’s worth noting that climate impacts more than just our physical comfort, mental health, hobbies, and what we wear. It very often shapes local economies and, by extension, employment and relocation decisions.
8. Education System
For parents, the value of living near high-quality schools is clear. But even single folks and couples without children need to consider the local education system when choosing where to live.
All other things being equal, home values tend to rise faster (and from a higher baseline) in good school districts than in otherwise comparable locales with challenged schools. And according to a study published in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, the trend is even more pronounced in the best school districts. Living in a lower-quality school zone a stone’s throw from a much better district where comparable homes sell for 25% to 50% more than houses on my block, I’ve seen this play out in my own life.
To be sure, some better-off families in my neighborhood pour what they save (and then some) on their mortgages into private school tuition. Others take advantage of state and municipal school choice programs to enroll their kids in higher-performing schools.
But many families can’t afford private school tuition or have other objections to private schooling, such as a lack of racial and cultural diversity. And school choice programs like vouchers and open enrollment have significant drawbacks, such as competition for slots in good out-of-district schools and limited school-provided transportation (busing) in some places. As a result, the only realistic option for many lower-income families is enrollment in underperforming local public schools.
That doesn’t mean you should automatically gravitate to better school districts. If you don’t have kids and are pretty sure you won’t before moving again, then you’ll likely find better housing bargains in lower-quality districts.
If you prefer proximity to world-class museums and theaters, music venues, professional sports teams, and a diverse array of restaurants serving cuisine from every corner of the world, you’ll naturally want to live in a big city or its suburbs. But if you enjoy outdoor activities that require ample space or proximity to nature, such as hunting and camping, or want plenty of property to raise crops and livestock, you should stick to the wide-open spaces.
Major metropolitan areas do have cultural amenities and opportunities that far outstrip smaller cities’ and rural areas’. But there’s enough gray area to satisfy folks who crave both.
The semi-rural exurban communities fringing most major U.S. metro areas feature a mix of housing styles — large-lot “estates” or ranchettes, traditional suburban developments, and higher-density housing around older downtowns that predate the arrival of sprawl. And they’re typically available at comparatively affordable price points. They’re also close enough to comfortably support weekend trips into the city without the added cost of an overnight hotel stay.
That said, exurban living isn’t for everyone. Many of us really are happier in isolated small cities and towns far from the nearest big city. Others simply can’t fathom living in neighborhoods without sidewalks or corner stores or dozens of bars and restaurants within walking distance.
Not all urban, suburban, exurban, or rural communities are interchangeable. Each is influenced by its unique demographic and cultural makeup. That’s vitally important and perhaps decisive for members of ethnic, cultural, or religious groups who prefer to live among others like them — whether in an otherwise anonymous suburb populated by recent immigrants from a particular country or a close-knit religious enclave in a largely secular big city.
10. Commute Time & Public Transportation Options
These problems are especially acute in high-cost coastal metropolises like the San Francisco Bay Area and greater New York City. In these areas, high housing prices in the urban core and surrounding suburbs compel hordes of “extreme commuters” to travel more than 90 minutes, 50 miles, or both — each way — between comparatively affordable homes and downtown workplaces.
Long commutes are less stressful and potentially less costly, if no less time consuming, in major metro areas with good public transportation options for commuters. Though the United States’ regional public transportation infrastructure lags behind much of the rest of the developed world’s, commuting by bus or rail is a realistic option in most larger cities.
If you prefer not to drive to work every day and can’t work from home, make sure the neighborhoods or suburbs you’re considering have robust public transit that runs when you need it. And use Walk Score to gauge your new neighborhood’s walkability — a proxy for how easy it is to get around when you’re not stuck at the office.
11. Food Options
For those disinclined to maintain a home vegetable garden, unreliable (or nonexistent) access to fresh produce is a significant drawback of rural living. In rural areas, the nearest grocery store that stocks high-quality produce might well be in the outer suburbs of the nearest big city. Ironically, the nearest farmers market might be in the nearest big town too.
And for logistical reasons and due to low demand, grocery delivery services that bring fresh produce to urban and suburban residents’ doorsteps tend not to serve thinly populated regions.
Of course, if you have a green thumb, you’ll want to live in a place that affords plenty of room to exercise it. A small container garden is fine for hobbyists and home cooks looking to top up their fresh herb supplies, but fully replicating your grocery store’s produce aisle (during the growing season, at least) requires thousands of square feet of raised beds.
12. Town or City Size
Do you prefer the comforting cloak of anonymity to the glare of the small-town spotlight? You’re a natural fit for big-city life.
Or do you enjoy seeing folks you know around town every day and patronizing businesses whose proprietors know exactly what you want? You’re a small-town person at heart.
Can you see the appeal of both? Perhaps you’d do best in a suburban community that’s big enough to disappear into but close-knit enough for your liking.
But remember that your preferences may well change. With age, the familiarity and solidarity of a close-knit small town could come to outweigh the promise and possibility of a bigger, more sprawling community.
13. Health Care Facilities
Everyone deserves access to affordable, high-quality health care. This issue is particularly resonant for families with young children, folks nearing retirement age, and people with chronic health conditions.
Generally speaking, major metropolitan areas have more health care choice and coverage than thinly populated parts of the country, though localized disparities are quite common within metro areas.
Smaller towns and cities with major research universities or hospitals typically punch above their weight as well. According to The Street, the two best U.S. cities for health care access are Rochester, Minnesota (home of the Mayo Clinic), and Burlington, Vermont (home of the highly rated University of Vermont Health Network).
14. Proximity to an Airport
If you travel a lot for business, pleasure, or both, you need easy access to a major airport.
Many smaller cities have regional airports with regular service to big-city hubs. But flights out of these airports can be less reliable, especially in places with frequent weather-related delays or cancellations. And door-to-door travel times are invariably longer due to required plane changes. I spent several years in a small, isolated city with just a handful of scheduled commercial flights per day, and let me tell you: It gets old.
Similarly, consider the time and expense involved in getting to and from the airport. If you live in an exurban or rural area an hour or more from the nearest commercial airport, the most efficient way to get to the airport probably involves a personal vehicle. And unless you have a doting family member willing to drop you off, that means parking at the airport.
That’s a costly prospect. A week in a long-term lot can easily set you back $150, $200, or more. For example, long-term terminal parking at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport costs $24 per day, or $168 per week. It’s even more expensive at San Diego International Airport, at $32 per day, or $224 per week (though lower rates are available at certain terminals if you book ahead).
If you live closer to the airport, you have more affordable options: taxis, rideshare, public transportation, or — best of all — a free ride from a friend or family member.
I’ve moved enough to have no illusions about the magnitude of the task. Even cross-town moves are stressful and logistically complicated. Moving across state lines, let alone international borders, is a truly heroic undertaking.
There’s one silver lining amid all this stress: Though saying goodbye to the people and places you’ve come to appreciate never gets easier, the process of moving gets a little more painless each time.
And because it occurs early on and sets the tone for what’s to come, choosing the right place to move is one of the most crucial parts of that process. If you can nail down most or all the relevant considerations before packing your first box, you’ll have that much less to worry about when crunch time hits.