Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

The City vs. Suburb Decision

Millennials -- young adults born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s -- are famously urban. Give them a city apartment near trendy restaurants, pubs and a Pilates studio and they’ll be content for years, or so goes conventional wisdom.

But real estate analysts say something surprising happens to these young urbanites after they’ve had a child or two: They leave their city apartments and retreat to a suburban enclave in search of the same sort of classic detached house in which they were raised.

Skylar Olsen, a senior economist for Zillow, which tracks housing trends across the country, says recent data show that many millennials surrender their city lifestyles once they reproduce. As homebuyers, this generation is more like their parents than previously believed.

“Young buyers with kids want a detached home. They want a large living space and a three-car garage. But because of cost, townhouses are where many end up,” Olsen says.

Though many millennials eventually make the predictable transition from city to suburbs once they become parents, real estate specialists stress that suburban living is not for everyone, regardless of their life stage. They advise homebuyers to carefully ponder their housing moves before investing in any property.

Here are a few pointers for home-buying couples with kids:

-- Start by envisioning your ideal neighborhood.

Doro Kiley, a certified life coach who helps clients navigate major transitions, says that before starting a home search, families should first imagine their ideal neighborhood. That should help them get as close as possible to the optimal setting.

“Always begin by thinking about the end product -- what you’d really like as opposed to what you would settle for. In many ways, we create our own realities,” Kiley says.

Once you have a clear picture of your ideal neighborhood, begin factoring in such practical realities as your financial limits.

-- Next, imagine the ideal property.

Kiley says both partners should write down their respective visions of a dream house -- including home features. They should then share their visions, combining the key elements of both into a single statement.

Written statements help people clarify their thinking and refine their plans as they move through successive drafts. This is also a way to help reconcile conflicting views.

Merrill Ottwein, a real estate broker and former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (, suggests prospective homebuyers try to reconcile their differences by distinguishing between “wants” and “needs.”

For instance, a couple with two young school-age children and one parent who needs a home office for telecommuting might decide that acquiring a place with at least four bedrooms is a genuine “need.” But a formal dining room could easily fall into their “want” category.

-- Factor commuting distances into your calculations.

As Ottwein says, one of the most wrenching trade-offs many families face is between a larger, newer house with a longer commute, and a smaller, older place that’s closer to the city center and the workplace of the primary breadwinner.

Buyers who consider an outer-tier suburb are often driven by the desire for a larger property or what they perceive to be better schools.

“Sadly, good schools often correlate with newer suburbs rather than older areas that are close in,” Ottwein says.

But before you opt for a distant suburb, he strongly recommends you do morning and afternoon rush hour test drives from your target area. This way, you’ll know more precisely what sort of traffic to expect should you live there.

As Ottwein says, buyers should disabuse themselves of the notion that the current level of traffic congestion on their path will remain static. The odds are traffic will worsen as the years go on.

-- Don’t assume you’ll need a huge yard to accommodate your children.

Many parents with young children hang on tightly to the hope that their kids will have as large a backyard as they had growing up. This aspiration can influence them to pick an outlying suburb at the expense of their convenience and commuting time.

But are the trade-offs necessary to acquire a large piece of land always worth it? Not in many cases, says Ottwein, noting that today's children often spend much more time in organized athletic and recreational activities than did their parents.

“Today’s kids are programmed to the hilt with team sports, music lessons and school events. They have little time for the sort of free backyard frolicking their folks remember so nostalgically,” he says.

There are only a few homebuyers whom Ottwein believes make as much use of their large lots as they intended when they bought their place.

“Mostly it’s just those few people who want horses -- or who are true isolationists -- who are justified in accepting all the sacrifices that come with a long commute,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at