How to decide where to live

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Take the question of where to live seriously. Don’t let inertia push you toward a big-name city, the place you grew up, or your old college haunts. Make a conscious decision to live somewhere that will improve your quality of life by really understanding what your core needs and interests are–and will be.

City leaders understand they are competing to attract vibrant, creative populations and are branding themselves accordingly. Young people get this, and many treat cities as a consumer product to be test-driven, like a new car. A white paper written by Next Generation Consulting stated that because of an increasing shortage in skilled workers, Generation Y is saying, “I can find a job anywhere. It’s more important to me to find a place where I fit in.”

Rebecca Ryan, CEO of Next Generation Consulting, says: “Where you live is more important than where you work because a mortgage and your kids’ school are more long-term than the job you have.”

So how do you choose where to live if everywhere is a possibility?

1. Understand what really matters.
Richard Florida, professor at George Mason University and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, summarized conclusions from a recent summit of the mavens of the economic development and psychology-of-happiness communities: “Place is as important as having a job that challenges you, but not as important as relationships with family and friends.”

Jane Ciccone, designer of jewelry line Jane Elizabeth, got it. She says she and her husband, “fell in love with San Francisco, but our families were in Massachusetts. We could have stayed in San Francisco if we could have gotten some of my family to move there. But no one would move because of the cost of living.” Now they live in Newburyport, MA, and she is expecting to give birth any day.

2. Leave room for career flexibility.
You probably won’t have the same career your whole life. If you move to a city where the culture or demographics reflect your values (think recycling rates, number of churches) and meets the needs of your non-work interests (e.g. kayaking in the Pacific Northwest) then you are more likely to move among careers without having to relocate away from your interests or relationships.

Realize that a high-cost of living directly affects what flexibility you have in your career. You severely limit your ability to drop in and out of the workforce and careers if you are raising kids and paying a mortgage in an expensive place.

3. Live where your income is at least as high as the median.
If you’re surrounded by people who have more money than you, you won’t feel like you have enough. The relative amount of money is what matters, according to Daniel Khaneman, who won a Nobel Prize for applying psychology to economics.

3. Consider that more choice is not intrinsically more desirable.
Do you really need to be able to choose from 20 takeout restaurants every night? Probably not. The same is true for private schools, and pet-friendly parks. More choices make us nervous about deciding and more likely to regret what we’ve ultimately settled on, according to Barry Schwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. You don’t want life dictated to you, but you also don’t want to spend your whole life deliberating what-if scenarios.

4. Don’t relocate away from a spouse or significant other.
The single biggest factor in our happiness, according to many studies is not money, it’s our sex life. Daniel Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, has quantified it for us: “Going from sex once a month to sex once a week creates a big jump in happiness.” Caveat for the adventurous: Sex needs to be with a single, consistent partner to confer bigtime benefits.

5. Keep your commute short.
There’s a huge psychic cost to joining the suburban crawl. “You think you are moving out to the suburbs because it’s better for your kids, but in some cities, you’re never going to see your kids because you’re always in your car,” says Wendy Waters, founder of the blog All About Cities.

6. Seek diverse populations for a richer life.
Bigger cities are often among the most homogenous. Ethnic diversity and racial differences now are not as pronounced as economic and educational differences. Diverse ideas are often based in diverse experience; however housing costs are pushing out nearly everyone but the rich from the most popular cities.

Richard Florida says, “San Francisco is becoming an entirely homogenous place. This is true of entire regions and migration trends will make this worse. The creative revolution is creating a concentration of wealth worse than in the Industrial Revolution.”

7. Make a decision to improve the world.
“The key to solving this problem,” says Florida, “is not to beat up Boston and San Francisco, but to make second-tier cities attractive.”

In a large part, this is a government problem. Pay attention to cities such as Columbus, Ohio, where mayor Michael Coleman has a vision for the city that intensely embraces diversity. Or Madison, Wisconsin, where there’s a capable network of investors working with the government to promote local technology innovations.

You can find meaning in community by helping to promote diversity and creativity in a city such as these. You can help build new models for cities that make room for communities of people with diverse ideas and diverse income levels. The decision is a little like driving a hybrid car: We can’t fix everything in the world. But we can live our life in sync with our values and with intention to make a difference.

44 replies
  1. Sheamus
    Sheamus says:

    Gadzooks Batwoman YOU CAN WRITE!!!

    What I LOVED about this post…!

    [1] A great topic… Revelant and capable of influencing people’s lives for the better.

    [2] Each of your 9 points were on right-on relative to the factors which will make a positive life decision for improving one’s quality of life.


    My darling wife (Sabrina, nickname Sab) is step-mom to our eight (now grown) children. Thus, we have the freedom to design our lives in ways that suit us.

    Each of your points represent essential considerations, and within this context, your point 4 is an exceptioally relevant value for me because “whereever Sabrina is that’s where I want to be”.

    We live in a GREAT city, Toronto. We each have active full and satisfying professional lives, and Sab is also an MA student. Within the few years we will be moving to London (UK) for several years so that Sabrina can undertake and complete her PhD.

    God, I would LOVE to be able to write as well as you do!

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I especially like your second point 2 about living where your income is as high as the median. In fact, I think this applies more to what neighbourhood in which you choose to live than what city as most cities have a variety of income levels (other than perhaps San Francisco).

    Many people stretch their finances and by implication family sanity in order to live in a more upscale neighbourhood. But once there, the pressures to fit in with wealthier neighbours further strain the budget. We all know money troubles can contribute to marital strife and therefore detract from happiness.

    So, happiness is therefore related to living in a more modest neighbourhood and within your means — even below your means housing wise allowing you to have more money to spend on travel or dining out or nice furniture (whatever makes you happy).

  3. John J. Kettlewell
    John J. Kettlewell says:

    Great post even though I disagree with some of your conclusions. I’ve never worried that I’m usually at the lower-end of the economic ladder wherever I’ve lived–if I have enough to live the way I want to I’m happy. Choose to live in the best location you can afford, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the biggest house. For example, I currently live in a cheap apartment that happens to be in an expensive town and neighborhood. I get all the benefits my neighbors get (good schools, safe, interesting), but I pay a lot less for it. It is far, far better to have your family live in a great place than to have a short commute. This has often meant I commute an hour or two each way, but I have never regretted that my family lived a better life because of this.

  4. Tamar
    Tamar says:

    Great post, with room to spare for me to pitch my current (four years and counting) life in two places. Why choose only one when many of us do this with great rewards, albeit the results of much juggling, careful planning, plenty of compromise, and surrender to all the stuff that happens beyond our control. My blog tells some of the gifts of bi-hemispheral living.

  5. Wala Alzobier
    Wala Alzobier says:

    I defiantly agree with this blog because moving into a society that can improve your comfort and children's in the environment a person needs to be in. And I also agree with the part that no matter how bad your job is if you live in a comfortable area that is more minds relaxing. When I moved to the United States to have a better life and yes my life changed from their and my family and I became more happy living here and I do agree that if its worth the change in ones life.

    * * * * * *


    Thank you for brining an immigrant’s perspective to this post. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense.


  6. Diana
    Diana says:

    Just stumbled upon your wonderful blog! This installment is so unbelievably apropos to me right now, as everyone around me (including me) seems to be in a ‘where should I live?’ mode. You really lay out the common sense considerations of a move, and the REAL way to choose. It really strikes me as much more real than choosing a place based upon criteria that, while it looks good on paper, has no real value once you’re living in your supposed ideal spot. Thanks!!

  7. Ed
    Ed says:

    Wonderful list for making the living location decision!

    However, there is something to consider that is not mentioned in your list – the end of cheap energy, water and food.

    Most of the decisions we make are based on the assumption that we will continue to have cheap and abundant energy, water, and food available to us.

    This assumption is flawed. We are running out of cheap energy, clean water and inexpensive food.

    Today the average American meal travels 3,000 miles to our plate. What will happen to food availability and price when the cost of oil doubles, triples?

    Where will your food come from? How much will it cost? Can you grow your own food where you live? Is there a local food coop of local farmers?

    Does your area have clean water?

    Will you be able to afford gasoline to get you to and from your job if live in the suburbs and work in the city?

    Will you be able to afford your home energy bill in retirement? Where should you live to keep energy costs down?

    These natural reasource issues are becoming significant factors in the – where to live- decision making process.


    * * * * * *
    Hi, Ed. Thanks for bringing up a perspective I didn’t think of. These considerations certaintly would change everything – -most of the decisions we make, I think, not just about where to live…


  8. Diana
    Diana says:

    Ed brings up a fabulous point. An issue I’ve grappled with up here in my new area is food costs, and lack of fresh produce. Food costs vary much from region to region, and is something to consider. Sometimes the costs are offset by other savings, but food and energy costs are so basic.

    I think the secret is that when you find a place that really speaks to who you are, then you’re willing to accept the drawbacks. Every place has drawbacks, and like a relationship, you hopefully find a place where the drawbacks do not outweigh the feeling that you belong.

    Now about that fresh produce thing… I had no idea, until I moved away from an area with abundant farmer’s markets, local produce almost year ’round, and focus on fresh foods, that this is almost a dealbreaker for me to be without it. Perhaps I sound like a drama queen, but rifling through the stacks of Chilean asparagus at the supermarket and produce stands here, chips away at something inside me each time. For other people that sinking feeling might be rude drivers, bad library system, lack of an ocean, lack of a deli open at 3am. If that conviction that you belong in a place does not exist, then those seemingly small things become dealbreakers.

  9. Ken Forester
    Ken Forester says:

    –A very pertinent question.

    I would live where there are plenty of jobs so that I can have a job that has high job security score ( In last 5 years I was laid of twice in jobs that I thought were safe from unemployment risk. But the economy has been rough and companies laid off a bunch of people as the first thing to cut costs. In my opinion, job security is more important than pay, as long the pay is not outrageously low and quality of life is above average.

  10. Manager Mom
    Manager Mom says:

    great post, very good way to think about these. I am hoping that I’ll be able to segue into one of those locationless jobs someday. Or, barring that, hit the lottery so that the pesky job detail doesn’t matter anymore.

  11. bryan
    bryan says:

    if you are a female, and there was an attraction- i would definitely french kiss you for writing this article.

    or at least heres a mental french kiss

    this is just what i needed

  12. David Jobe
    David Jobe says:

    Do you know of anyone who just does residential-living place coachiing. I am not looking for a generalist in coaching, but someone or organization that only focuses on living places from the type of housing to choice of locations.

  13. Paul
    Paul says:

    There is too much talk about how wonderful “diversity” is. If one does not buy into political correctness to the hilt, one is considered homophobic, racist or some other lessor person by the majority of society. My question is this: Are most people really happier now than in the past? I ask this not of most people under 50 because they have been sold a bill of goods from the public schools and colleges that God is dead and that the “right morals” are those which are protected in the courts and popular opinion. Avoiding people because they do not speak english seems the wrong answer in my book. It was once the norm for people to learn english and thus fit into America. Another aspect of society that galls me is the lack of common respect people have for other people. Someone please tell me how America is becoming a safer and more desirable place to live where God is less and less welcome into the hearts of most Americans? This most recent parade of sorrow for Ted Kennedy and how wonderful he was apparently did not draw minorities to his funeral. Too many questions the mainstream media never asks when the question is screaming for an answer. Wake up sleeping America! America is sinking and too few of us are saying or doing anything about it. This new activist who would be king in Washington wants to sell us a national health plan that he has not even read through. It’s yet another way in which the government can have a money grab on it’s citizens and lower the quality of medical service as well. No one is demanding a steep tax on junk food and other items in processed food which should be highly taxed. Gee gads, look at all the fat under exercised slobs there are in our country. Is it really the responsibilities of those who take care of themselves to keep these souls alive due to obesity, smoking, excess drinking, etc? Something in the average mindset needs a big change!

  14. Barbara Taylor
    Barbara Taylor says:

    I moved from Seattle to Bentonville, Arkansas six years ago for many of the reasons you enumerate in this wonderful post. Before I left, I remember saying to a lifelong friend that I knew I was going to be sacrificing a lot by leaving Seattle.

    “Barb,” she said. “I don’t think any of us realize how much we sacrifice by staying.”

    Ironically, now that I live in a small town I’ve landed a big-city gig blogging at the New York Times. If I’d stayed in Seattle and fought my 3-hour daily commute, stayed in my corporate job and struggled to pay an inflated mortgage, I’m quite sure I never would have had the chance to grow and develop as I have both personally and professionally.

    Thanks for a spot-on post!!

  15. luke
    luke says:

    Diversity is the destruction of culture, into one big melting pot. I know this because I grew up in Hawaii where there is now a unique culture. So imagine a world where the unique japanese, english, chinese, indian cultures no longer exist – but only tiny remnants of them. What is so great about destroying cultures? Your idea is that melting cultures is better than cultures that have had thousands of years to evolve… Ever watch dog the bounty hunter? it works real nice. NOT.

  16. Christopher
    Christopher says:

    I was born and bred in the little pond of specialness called Madison, Wisconsin. I recall childhood trips to the university where my eyes stung from teargas flung onto anti-war protesters. I went to university with the creators of The Onion, and was exposed to brilliant and original minds from across the planet. I walked across Lake Mendota late at night to hear the ice creak and groan, and reveled in the biggest, wildest Halloween parties on the planet. It was a magical place to be a child, in many ways. But it was also damaging. I was possessed with the midwestern liberal’s idea of what should be right and just, and thought the whole world should dance to my good intentions. Having lived since college in Arizona, I am now a more centered soul who understands the grit and pain of human existence. Madison is great, but it is not reality. (And it’s too freaking cold !) The next third of life will be spent in tropical Asia; in some ways, I guess I am still running from the cold icy grip of Wisconsin.

  17. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    I moved to US from Jakarta, Indonesia and I lived in Madison for 4 years and then in SF Bay Area for 5 years. Although SF did have lots of choices to offer (countless restaurants and shops,etc), the place that I really like to call home is Madison, Wisconsin. It is really one of the best place to live in the US. :-)

  18. Luke
    Luke says:

    I’m only a freshman in highschool but I’m already freaking out about where I want to live…

    New York City, London, Toronto, San Fransisco… There are too many places and no way of deciding without visiting each one. I’m trying to get involved in a foreign exchange plan to England just to get out of the hellhole ghetto I live in known as St. Pete Florida. This place has completely drained me of all charisma and optimism. I never feel happy and can’t stand the thought of going through college here. I can think nothing more of leaving and living a successful happy life.

    • Alicia
      Alicia says:

      Hi Luke,
      I went through a dilemma similar to you when I was about your age. I left my home in Sacramento, CA where I grew up and have since lived in Silver Springs, MD, Spokane, WA and am currently in England. When I was younger, all I wanted to do was get away and explore something new! I thought I would move to England and never look back!! I got caught up in the romanticism of living in a foreign country, in a big city. Now, all I want to do is get back and live near my family and in the warm, wonderful California sunshine, but I worry about finding a job, the cost of living and finding new friends again. I really do miss my family though. Take the time to see what is out there. An exchange program to England is a great idea; it will give you a taste of this interesting country. But, be open to different places and don’t feel embarrassed if you find out a place wasn’t all that you thought it would be! Oh, and you are only a freshman, so take a deep breath and just enjoy where you are right now!!

      • Luke
        Luke says:

        I don’t want it to seem like I’m being impulsive about moving but the place I live in is full of crime and drug dealing. My house has been broken into three times and twice we’ve had drug dealers living in the house across the street from us… That’s only one house in our neighborhood. Besides me feeling bad for my mom being stuck here I see absolutely no reason to stay here. I’ve been to several other states and even to China and can easily say there are many other places that have just generally been better places to live. I hope to leave as soon as possible move to a city and get a job in traveling…

    • AreaVibes
      AreaVibes says:

      Hey Luke,

      I hear ya, I went through the exact same dilemma about 15 years ago. I settled on Toronto, but every time I visit New York I feel as though its my home away from home. That exact reason was why I created It’s a good start when searching for a new place to live.

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