Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

The City vs. the Suburbs

For young homebuyers from the millennial generation, choosing between an urban and a suburban lifestyle is often an excruciatingly difficult decision, says real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger.

A professor at George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, Leinberger allows that the suburban lifestyle still offers many advantages for young buyers, especially those with small children.

In the burbs, it’s typically easier to afford a large house and a substantial yard, with access to quality schools and other amenities.

In contrast, urban living -- based more on an older, European city-centered model -- appeals to many millennials as a stimulating, walkable and community-friendly lifestyle.

Leinberger says that homes in walkable town and city centers will gain and hold value more strongly than will those in outlying suburban enclaves.

“There is substantial pent-up market demand for walkable urban development. Our research shows it will take 20 to 30 years to satisfy this demand,” he says.

Although many millennials grew up in suburban settings where the car was king, an increasing number don’t prefer the lifestyle their parents pursued, says Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker based in Illinois.

“For young buyers, the struggle between city and suburb comes down to this: Which of the two options has the most pros and the fewest cons? This is a personal choice no one can make for you,” says Nash, the author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home."

Here are a few pointers for young buyers:

-- Take the decision-making process seriously.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you may be programmed to think that’s the best habitat. Likely your parents aimed for a suburban abode as soon as they could afford their initial home.

But much has changed since your parents first went house shopping. Among other factors, many downtown neighborhoods have been revitalized in recent years, making them more appealing.

“The access and amenities of city living can outweigh the smaller size of the home you can afford there. Anyway, a suburban house doesn’t have the same status it did before,” says Ray Brown, co-author of “Home Buying for Dummies.”

Keep in mind, however, that the urban life is not for everyone.

“But others would find the noise and congestion exceedingly upsetting, not to mention the trash that can accumulate on the streets. They want a suburban setting, where life is calmer yet they can blast their stereo without neighbors’ complaints,” Nash says.

-- Consider the implications of commuting from your city abode.

How will your housing choice affect your daily commute?

“Living downtown could be wonderful -- a huge time saver -- if you also work downtown. Maybe you can walk to work or take a short trip by light rail or subway. Possibly, you could save an hour or two each day, time that could go to better purposes. Then, too, there’s the saving on gas,” Nash says.

But suppose you work in the suburbs and are counting on easy sailing to work from your downtown place due to a “reverse commute.” If so, make sure you test-drive your route to ensure that congestion won’t pose a major problem. Because many employment centers are now suburban, you might be surprised how many downtown residents head out of the city each morning.

-- Factor in downtown parking in light of your social life.

Most potential buyers of downtown properties ask about the availability of parking within or around any area they’re considering. And for most people, one or two spaces for their own cars seems like enough. But will your friends and family members have easy access to on-street or off-street parking? This question could be important to your social life.

“If people have to walk more than 10 minutes from where they park, you’re dead in the water socially, unless most of your friends also live downtown and can walk over,” Nash says.

-- Try to buy with your future plans in mind.

“Once people reach a certain age, usually by their mid-30s, they start falling like flies to family life,” Nash says.

If you plan to have your first child in the next few years, he urges you to consider making your initial purchase a suburban house rather than a small city place.

“You’ll save lots of time, energy and money if you skip the downtown stage and go straight to the suburban house. It’s one move instead of two,” Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at