One of the most important decisions homebuyers will make is where to purchase their home. Maybe you’re looking for a place with a large yard so you can garden. Or perhaps you want a home close to a bustling downtown full of shops and restaurants.
Whatever you’re looking for, location is one of the most important parts of the homebuying process. And a key decision when it comes to narrowing down options is whether you’d prefer city living vs suburbs.
“The advantages to living in a city are better choices for eating out and live music. It’s just a more fun and active lifestyle,” says Julie Wyss, a San Jose-based real estate agent with 14 years of experience. “Whereas living in a suburb the advantage is it’s quieter, you’ll have a larger yard, and it may be a little bit more focused on family.”
Both the city and the suburbs have numerous advantages. Suburban homes can be more affordable and closer to great schools, while city homes can give buyers more opportunities to enjoy arts and culture institutions and quality restaurants. But that’s just the beginning of what they have to offer.
We talked to real estate experts about some of the top considerations buyers should take into account when weighing city living vs suburbs to help you narrow down your decision.
What defines cities and suburbs?
You may think you already have a pretty good idea of what defines a city and a suburb. Cities call to mind images of skyscrapers, taxi cabs, and a vast public transit network, while suburbs may have you imagining a large single-family home with a sprawling yard and a white picket fence.
Though many may distinguish between cities and suburbs based on the general look and feel of the area, factors like population density and geography play a role in what qualifies as a city or a suburb.
In terms of geography, cities are often considered the core metropolitan and commerce area whereas suburbs are primarily residential communities located on the periphery of a city. While sizes can range drastically, cities typically have a denser population, while suburbs are usually smaller and more spaced out.
Top considerations for buyers
The question of whether to purchase a home in the city or suburbs isn’t necessarily a simple one. Here are some factors to help determine the right choice for you.
What type of buyer are you?
One of the first things you should consider when deciding between buying in the city and the suburbs is what type of homebuyer you are. Are you a young, first-time homebuyer looking to be close to restaurants and a vibrant music and arts scene? Perhaps you’re interested in a home near public transit lines so you have an easy commute to work? Then the city might be the right place for you to call home. However, If you’re looking for a place where you have room to grow over the years or you’re a parent with young kids and school quality rules your home search, then you may want to direct your search to the suburbs.
In general, Wyss says that younger homebuyers and empty nesters tend to gravitate toward easy access to restaurants, shops, and recreational activities that the city offers, while the suburbs often appeal to homebuyers with kids.
“I think a first-time homebuyer actually is quite similar to someone in retirement,” she says. “A lot of times, first-time homebuyers are young, they want to be fun and active. Sometimes [retired] people want the same thing.”
What type of home do you want to buy?
The type of home you’re interested in is another consideration when it comes to debating city living vs suburbs.
In a city, you’re more likely to find condos, row homes, or high-rise apartments for sale, whereas if you’re looking for a single-family home, you’ll have more options in the suburbs.
“In the city, you’re going to be focused more on townhomes, row homes — homes with smaller yards, smaller lot sizes,” Wyss says.
To help decide what type of home you’re interested in, it’s helpful to make a list of must-haves. For a buyer with kids or pets, this might include a large, fenced yard for them to play in. If you don’t have a car, then proximity to public transit might top your list. As you draft your list be realistic about what’s truly important to you and be careful about getting enticed into prioritizing amenities you may not use.
What’s your budget?
Before you start looking for a new place to call home, it’s important to establish a budget. It’s essential to know how much money you can afford to spend so you can target homes in your true price range. Take into account your income, as well as current and future expenses. In addition, you’ll want to make sure to factor in things like cost of living. You’ll see substantial differences across the country, as well as between metropolitan and outlying areas. In Seattle, for example, the median price of a home is $740,000, whereas in nearby suburbs in Tacoma, Washington, the median price is $354,019.
Advantages of calling the city home
A more diverse population
While the nation is becoming more racially diverse, studies are finding that cities are generally more diverse than the suburbs. On average, 68% of residents in suburban areas identify as non-Hispanic white, while in cities that number drops to 44%, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center.
Additionally, younger people tend to flock to metropolitan areas. Pew reports that since 2000 the number of 25- to 44-year-olds living in the suburbs grew by only 800,000, compared to an increase of 2.2 million in cities during that same timeframe.
A thriving restaurant scene
One of the draws of city living is the easy access to a variety of bars and restaurants. Want to order late-night sushi? Or spend the evening hopping from bar to bar drinking craft beers and cocktails? A city home will have plenty of options, often within walking distance.
Access to cultural institutions
Museums, concert venues, art house theaters, the ballet — the list of cultural institutions commonly located in cities goes on and on. City residents have more convenient opportunities to enjoy arts and culture than suburban dwellers.
New Yorkers can spend Saturdays leisurely strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art or taking in a show on Broadway. In Denver, residents can spend their evenings attending outdoor concerts at the nearby Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. Wherever the city, residents have access to a wide variety of arts and culture institutions.
Most cities have vast public transit systems. Subways, buses, and commuter trains can help residents navigate a city without the need for a car. This holds true for cities of various sizes. New York and San Francisco top the list of cities with the best public transit, according to Walk Score. But smaller cities like Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Miami also rank in the top 10.
From New York to Miami, the top 10 most walkable areas in the U.S. are located in major cities. In the city, you can enjoy walking through skyscrapers on your way to work or strolling around the block for a slice of pizza in the evenings.
“If what’s important to you is to be able to walk to restaurants, parks, you should go toward the city,” Wyss says.
Not only are they more walkable, but cities are also more bike-friendly than the suburbs. All of the 10 most bikeable places to live in the U.S. are located in cities.
Disadvantages of city living
High cost of living
Another important factor when weighing city living vs suburbs is the cost of everyday items like food, gas, and clothing. The price tag on these things is often higher in the city, so buyers should be prepared for that when making their monthly budgets. These additional costs can add up quickly over time, and they can take a toll on your bank account. Suburbanites have four times as much money in savings as those living in a city.
Higher price per square foot
Cities also can come with hefty price tags when it comes to price per square foot for homes. While the national average cost per square foot is $144, in Manhattan that number is roughly $1,400 per square foot.
You might not find too much of a break in other big cities. For example, in San Francisco the average price per square foot is $1,100, in Boston it is $760, and in Seattle it’s $520. Comparatively, buyers who purchase in suburbs near these cities can expect to save 20% to 30% per square foot.
City homes are often smaller and closer together than those in suburban neighborhoods. If you’re thinking about purchasing a condo or an apartment rather than a single-family home, you may find yourself sharing walls with your neighbors.
Advantages of calling the suburbs your home
In addition to costing less per square foot, suburban homes are often bigger than city homes. Buyers who may only be able to afford a small condo in the city can often find a more spacious, single-family home for a comparable price in the suburbs. This extra space can give you opportunities to grow your family, which may be limited in the city.
Lower cost of living
From mortgage payments to the cost of commuting, the cost of living is lower in the suburbs than in the cities. Suburban homeowners are likely to save money on groceries, gas, and other essentials than urban dwellers. A Forbes analysis found that monthly living costs for car owners were $1,334 in the suburbs compared to $1,912 in the city.
If education plays into your city living vs suburbs debate, it’s important to note that nationwide, city schools face funding disparities. Public school students in urban areas receive $2,100 less per student than those in the suburbs, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article. In addition, suburban schools often have a better student-teacher ratio, meaning students are likely to receive more individualized attention.
Living in a suburb provides plenty of opportunities for buyers to get to know their neighbors and build community.
Many suburban communities hold events like Fourth of July picnics, neighborhood barbecues, and other events for neighbors to get to know each other. For buyers with kids, youth soccer and T-ball leagues are prevalent in the suburbs. “If you have kids, you’ve got more organized sports in the suburbs,” Wyss says.
While community connection may be strong in the suburbs, privacy still prevails. Large yards and more single-family homes mean you’ll be farther away from your neighbors and less likely to hear them.
Disadvantages of suburban living
A bigger home generally means higher maintenance costs. While having more square footage may seem like an advantage, it also means buyers will have more to maintain.
Though maintenance costs vary by the age and size of the home, buyers in the suburbs can expect to spend time and money on yard maintenance, mending fences, and other types of repairs that city dwellers may not have to deal with because they don’t have yards. Landscaping itself can be pricey. Nationally, the average cost for landscaping a quarter-acre yard is $10,000, Forbes reports.
Suburbanites are also more likely to own a single-family home, so they’re more likely to take on these costs themselves. City dwellers who purchase condos can rely on their condo or homeowners associations (if they have one) to maintain the grounds and any building issues that may arise, though they’ll be responsible for the care of their unit.
Pricier home insurance policies
Single-family homeowners often pay more in home insurance than those with smaller places, like townhomes or condos. The average cost for homeowners insurance in the U.S. is $1,585 per year, while the average cost for condo insurance is about $488 per year.
Get ready to drive everywhere
Due to a lack of public transportation options and lower walkability scores, suburbanites may find themselves driving to get everywhere from the grocery store to the office.
“If you’re moving from the city to the suburbs, be prepared to drive everywhere,” Wyss says.
Driving everywhere comes with its own costs. Car owners foot the bill for everything from gas to car insurance and maintenance. A 2020 study found the average amount spent on vehicle transportation totals $10,000 per year, while the average cost of public transportation is only about $1,200.
Driving all the time doesn’t have to be negative, though. Homeowners with cars may enjoy the convenience of being able to leave whenever they want without being beholden to a subway or bus schedule. And spending time in the car gives people plenty of time to listen to podcasts, jam to music, or enjoy an audiobook.
Fewer restaurants and recreational activities nearby
Another thing to think about when weighing city living vs suburbs is that many suburbs don’t have the range of museums, concert venues, and restaurants that are commonly found in big cities. That’s not to say you can’t find excellent dining options and theaters, but they might not be close by. You also might not have convenient access to vast outdoor recreational spaces like New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Making a competitive offer, no matter where your dream home is
No matter which sides prevails when you decide on city living vs suburbs, it’s important to do whatever you can to make your offer stand out. In August 2021, a combination of low rates and low inventory is fueling an ultra-competitive real estate landscape. In fact, HomeLight’s Top Agents Insights Q3 2020 Report finds that 92% of agents surveyed say that it’s a seller’s market, making things tough for many buyers.
You might find some extra competition in the suburbs. During the past 10 years, the suburbs have grown and this growth only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic when urbanites fled small city condos and apartments for spacious, single-family suburban homes with large yards.
Securing a home in this competitive market can be tough, but buyers should remember that it’s still possible to get a great deal. To secure your dream home, work alongside a top buyer’s agent. They have the knowledge to help you navigate the market and submit a winning offer.
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