Selling Out To The Suburbs

I can’t believe it. We actually did it. We just bought a house in the suburbs. And, after a few more weeks of renovations, we will be moving in full time. We’ll be moving to the land of SUVs, non-walkable, car-centric, single family wastefulness that embodies urban sprawl. We even bought a new (to us) 2nd car to support our new life of excess to accompany a home with more bedrooms than we have people. This may seem normal to you, but if you’ve read my work about efficiency, lifestyle design, and riding a bike, you understand that this (on the surface) appears like a complete lifestyle paradigm shift. And in many ways it is. But, ironically, in some ways it will actually be more in line with the priorities we espouse for this stage of life.

Living the City Life Dream?
I love our old little house but I’m not sure we were really living the city life dream. At first glance our current home met the correct efficiency metrics- in-town, small, efficient, walkable (ish), paid-for. Just a few blocks from some really great trails, parks, and restaurants. Less than a mile to an incredible downtown and less than two from my office and entertainment. However, just beneath the surface were a few missing components to an ideal in-town experience. We live off a nice little street but the traffic moves quickly and almost all of our neighbors are elderly or college students. The elementary school we were zoned for is one of the weakest 5% in the state. Although we can walk around, many of our friends (and other areas we spend lots of time) are actually just out of walking/biking distance. While our home was awesome before we had kids, it has changed a bit with the two newest editions. Part of the changes are really a function of the evolution of our life over the last five years. Five years ago schools didn’t matter, going out downtown was an exciting activity, work was twice as close, and we were the college students next door. The biggest takeaway for us is that our needs in a home change as our lives evolve. (picture is the new house in the burbs’)

I have two competing images in my head. One is this idyllic one of walking or riding bikes to school with my little girl. Taking strolls to the park or the local coffee shop. Checking out the local farmer’s market, visiting the Y, and an easy ride or walk to work each day. Then there is a competing vision of the kids playing basketball in the cul-da-sac, exploring undeveloped woods, attending high-achievement schools, leaving the mountain bikes unlocked, and having room at the family home to host large gatherings, birthday parties, and have family and friends from out of town stay for days comfortably. Choosing a home and location is based on how our lives are designed to function and that changes over the years.

The Suburban Dream (In-Town)
It’s possible to live a suburban life in town. It’s possible to have a nice home in a kid friendly neighborhood with a yard, that’s walkable, close to town, with parks and bike trails nearby. In fact, our small town has some incredible areas that are just that, only a few miles away, with the best schools (often private) that money can buy. It is all possible. But for our family, the set of financial trade-offs it would take to build a suburban life in town are difficult to prioritize. The financial differential between home prices (including schools costs) mean that an in-town life would require an extreme reduction in other areas of spending if we wanted to keep our costs consistent. Staying in town would ironically dramatically increase our spending to achieve a similar style of life. And we are torn because many of our closest friends are not emotionally or financially positioned to value the trade-offs of living in town. To spend time with our family and close friends, we already need a car to make life convenient. Many of our closest friends have moved out of town. Ten years ago, while living in the same town- just a mile or two from where we live currently, 95% of my friends lived within a 2 mile radius. Now, the same group of friends (that still live in our city) has expanded the radius dramatically and many live further out in suburban or rural environments. We can make new friends, but we plan to spend time with our old ones as well.

Growing Up Out of Town
I spent my youthful years in a quiet cul-de-sac a few miles from town with a couple of neighbors and lots of woods. I lived about 8 miles from my school and spent most of my days riding a bicycle through the woods around neighborhood streets. I went to an in-town school and all of my close friends were certainly a car ride away. But I had neighbors, miles of trails in the woods, the ability to drive our 4-Wheeler around, shoot BBguns in the woods or launch fireworks without disturbing anyone. We also lived where the dogs didn’t need leashes and all of our neighbors could play in the street without worry. I didn’t really think much about not being able to walk everywhere for entertainment. Most of my entertainment was outside or in the home’s basement. It never occurred to me that I was missing out not being next to a park- I could walk for hours outside without anyone ever noticing me. To some extent, I felt like one of those latch key kids from Stranger Things. I adapted to what I had and enjoyed it. (Pictures is our new backyard)

I also lived in a blue-collarish neighborhood. My parents were definitely the most educated family around and most of the people had pretty simple jobs. While our spending patterns were in-line with most of the neighbors, our family wealth (unknown at the time) was likely multiples more than the rest. Looking back, we were the millionaire-next-door type of family without even realizing it. I suppose there is a little ironic that I’m stepping into a similar style of life to that of my parents.

The Brutal Commute
The biggest inefficiency for living in the burbs often centers around the expense (both time and money) of a life spent wasting away in a metal box on four wheels. Right now (pre-move) it takes me about twelve minutes to get to work on my bike. I live about two miles from my office and a little less than that from the downtown area. It takes about seven or eight minutes to drive to my office. My new commute will end up taking somewhere around twenty minutes door to door. Some days a little less or more but even that is about the limit of my driving distance. The irony is, our total family driving time will decrease by moving 6 miles further away from the city center. My wife spends more time than I shuttling the kids around and the new location will actually bring her closer to the suburban car-centric outlets where she does her quick shopping. We’ll be less than two miles from the grocery store, tasty restaurants, and some low key entertainment choices.

I can say “I get it”. I get why people do it. I get why people leave a town. I get why people move away from precious life in-town see they’ve constructed. I get why they make life complicated. I get why people drive hours on end each week outside the city. Currently, I’m willing to make the trade for an additional 15 minutes a day but I’ll be curiosity see if it lasts. I’m certain I’ll be reevaluating life if it took me to a big city where the commute/tradeoff numbers where even longer and large. As I think through it, I’ll work to post about making suburban life as efficient as possible. While significantly more resource intensive and wasteful, I’ll work through some of the unique ways we’ve chosen our specific location to maximize the efficiency of our specific location. What about you? Do you live in the city? Country? City-burbs? How to you keep things simple when you see the push for complexity?

5 thoughts on “Selling Out To The Suburbs

  1. Interesting post, particularly the commute bit which I can empathise with – until about 2 years ago I lived a 15 minute walk from the main road where I got a lift from a random co-worker every morning (no arranged lifts but I work in a big enough office that there was always someone I knew driving past who would stop). From the main road it was about 5 minutes drive.

    I then moved to a new house about 30 minutes drive from my office with no option for a lift share. For the first 18 months I really disliked the drive – I’m not a fan of driving anyway and walk or bike anywhere I can but the just under 20 miles to walk is too far to do either. Disliked until I found what to me saved the drive – podcasts! I listen to a pretty random list of podcasts but they are all fairly educational and either make me think or feel I have learned something (usually both) – the freakonomics podcast is a good example, Tim Ferris is another. Now I actually look forward to the drive as I think “what am I going to learn today!”.

    This might not work for everyone but if it helps someone else then all good 🙂

    • That is a great point. I’m not a huge fan of commuting or really being trapped in a car in general. However, I too have recently been listening to a ton of podcasts. I’ve even been using our local libraries audiobook app to listen to book as well. I’ve listened to all of Tim Ferris’ casts and I like the Mad Fientist and the Minimalist as well. It certainly makes the commutes much better.

  2. It seems like town size is a key factor here for comparability, like you’ve said. I live in a relatively small city on the CA coast. Our family of five is packed into small city house and we can’t afford to size up; 1-mile bike commute to work, 1-mile walk to lovely downtown eateries and stores. It was perfect before we had kids; we actually walked downtown to eat out on a regular basis. Now we could but we don’t. We can’t afford to eat out and we don’t go to bars or need to shop at boutiques when we use amazon for most things now. What does our weekend look like? Drives to the beaches and to the countryside around us. More car miles on weekends for sure. Friends are scattered about, mostly driving distance from us rather than walking. Young families here cannot afford in-town anymore anyway so they are on the fringes. We didn’t have such a big radius before kids. Where we go is largely dependent on where the extracurricular activities are located and where the friends are. We are not all walking and biking, even though in theory you would think we would. Yes there are neighborhood parks, but we’d way rather be at the pristine beaches full of tidepools to explore up the coast. The city has things to offer but just a bit farther afield the activities are even more attractive so we go for it. Boy would this be a different comparison if we were actually in a metropolitan area and dealing with real traffic. It occurred to me as well that the stage of life you are in really does change your housing needs. If we stay in this tiny house into retirement, it will probably end up being perfect for us again, but will we raise the kids here in this small space? Time will tell.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you are right, life does change quite a bit and the radius of our lives often expand after we have children. I thought it was especially interesting how you mentioned that your house would be great again after your kids are grown. I think we are in a similar situation and, ironically, there are a lot of empty nesters/young retirees that are moving back to our city (in-town) that are driving up the price of the nice walkable areas.

      • Oh yeah that’s interesting too. In our town, big money from LA comes in and buys the little old houses like ours with cash, tears them down and builds bigger ones for retirement. It’s nuts and it’s also destroying the feel of the older neighborhoods.

        Had a great insight recently from multiple coworkers who stayed in their neighborhoods but took second mortgages to add on for their growing kids. Now that the kids are out of the house they are wondering why they spent the money. Sure they wanted their kids to have their own rooms for high school, but it went by in such a blip of time, now the kids are gone and they are still paying off that second mortgage and wondering what to do with this larger empty house.