The COVID-19 pandemic is changing many things about the way we live. Thousands of Americans have already fled to suburban and rural locations since the first lockdowns in March 2020. With the coronavirus, social distancing and remote working seemingly here to stay indefinitely, it’s only natural for people in major urban areas to ask themselves: “Should we move out of the city?”
However, depending on where you’re thinking about moving, suburbs and small towns aren’t always cheaper than cities. Hidden costs can eat away at your budget, and moving out of the city could end up being more expensive than staying put.
There is no doubt that on average, housing costs more in cities than anywhere else. According to Realtor.com, buying a house can cost twice as much in the city versus the suburbs. There is also no disputing that your dollar will usually buy more living space in suburbs and small towns. If you’re renting, Trulia noted that suburban renters received more space for their dollars than their city counterparts.
So from a housing perspective, it is often more expensive to buy or rent a home in a city. But living expenses encompass more than just your rent or mortgage. So, before calling the moving trucks, make sure you consider the following costs of living before making your decision.
2. The cost of transportation
Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, public transportation in larger cities has remained vital for transporting essential workers. In many cases, an urban core’s bus and train system can eliminate your need for a car entirely, which saves you even more money since you’re no longer paying for gas, parking, maintenance or car insurance. Also, if you travel using a ridesharing service like Uber, your annual transportation costs will still be far less in a city than owning, maintaining and driving a car around in a suburb.
3. The cost of food
It might seem counterintuitive, but buying groceries can be cheaper in the city than in the suburbs or small towns — unless you decide to raise chickens or grow your own vegetables. A 2015 study in the Review of Economic Studies found that price levels for food products fall based on the size of a city. Every time a city doubles in size, the amount of available food for sale also increases by 20%. As supply ramps up, cost decline, so you’re likely to pay less at the cash register at a city grocer than at a suburban grocery store.
4. The cost of your commute
Living in a city means you’re likely closer to your job. Even with COVID-19 and the move to remote working, many downtown employment centers are still open. This means that if you are returning to your place of work from your home in the suburbs or a small town, you could be back to spending a great deal of time, money and stress sitting in traffic, which can take a toll on your health; Scientific American recently noted that long-distance commuters could suffer from physical maladies, including headaches and backaches, along with mental issues, ranging from sleep disturbance and fatigue to concentration issues.
5. The cost of your utilities
The cost of heating and cooling a living space may not be the first consideration someone has when moving to a new living space. But when you receive those first utility bills, you may be in for a surprise. Certainly, the heat island effect can result in higher temperatures in the summertime for city households.
But Stephanie Battles, director of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Energy Consumption Division, noted that dense housing, such as that found with urban condo towers and apartment buildings, often provides better insulation, which means it ends up costing less overall to cool or heat a city residence. This is an important consideration, especially given that energy costs have been increasing during COVID-19 quarantines.
6. The cost of furnishings and appliances
Factoring in the costs of new furnishings and appliances is commonly ignored, but it stands to reason that if you live in more space, you will need more furniture and appliances to fill it. This will cost money. How much? The National Association of Home Buyers reported that during the first year after buying a new home, homeowners spent, on average, an extra $3,778 on furnishings, outspending non-moving owners by 530%.
Should you stay, or should you go?
With COVID-19, some people are naturally drawn to less dense parts of the country. Fewer people, after all, means fewer chances of being exposed to others with the virus. But according to the New York Times, the estimated 420,000 people that left the city of New York between March 1 and May 1, for example, were among the city’s wealthiest tenants — meaning they could afford to leave, despite the extra cost.
If you’re considering swapping the city life for a suburban or small-town lifestyle, make sure to analyze the costs of such a move so that you enter into the decision with your eyes wide open. While housing per square foot is undeniably cheaper outside city limits, other costs come into the equation that can, in some cases, make city living a less-expensive decision after all.