Some Thoughts on Figuring Out Where to Live

The other day, I had a long conversation with a younger relative about the decision making process that Sarah and I went through to decide where we currently live (on the edge of a town in rural Iowa). Why did we end up choosing to live here? What was the thought process in that decision?

After the conversation, it occurred to me that this might make for a really useful article for some people, so what follows is the conversation rewritten into a sensible article.

The Five Criteria

For us, there were five criteria that helped us decide where we wanted to live.

The first criteria was proximity to work. Sarah and I wanted to minimize our total commute, if possible. Not only does this save time, it also saves us money on reduced fuel costs.

In a practical sense, that either means living midway between our workplaces or living in a place where at least one of us has access to mass transit. Given where our respective jobs were at the time, this meant finding a place that was roughly midway between our two workplaces. It didn’t have to be exact, but close.

What we actually did is draw a circle around each of our workplaces that represented a 30 minute one-way commute, and then we searched for houses in that overlap.

The second criteria was proximity to food sources. In other words, where do we go to get our groceries? It turns out that both of our commutes takes us right by grocery stores without needing to take extra turns or exit, so this wasn’t a big deal. It just requires some careful planning.

Since then, a discount grocer opened up within biking distance of our home, which has been incredibly convenient. It’s worth noting that if you have both your workplace and a grocery store (or a mass transit stop that takes you to either) available within walking distance, it likely means you can go without a car, which is an enormous savings.

The third criteria was cost. How much do houses cost in that area? What’s the cost of living in that area? We noted the cost of a bunch of properties up for sale that met our criteria within the overlapping circles on our map (as noted above).

Rural Iowa, as long as you’re within reasonable driving distance of food, is a pretty inexpensive place to live. Property values are low compared to most other areas of the country and the cost of living is low due to access to a lot of food producers. Day to day life is pretty inexpensive here, which is a big mark in its favor.

The fourth criteria was quality of local services. Namely, we wanted to live in an area that had decent schools and ideally had a low crime rate. We noted the crime rate in communities within the overlap of our circles (as noted earlier, we used overlapping circles to figure out where to live), as well as the borders of the school districts.

The final criteria was proximity to family and our core circle of people. This was the weakest aspect of where we chose to live. We chose to live about three hours from our family and most of our friends had moved out of the area at the time.

I will say that I feel we missed out in some ways by not living closer to family, but I don’t consider this a make-or-break deal. To us, this is the least of the criteria, but still one worth considering. Having family nearby when you have young children is extremely helpful.

Using Those Five Criteria

I gave some hints as to how we used those five criteria in the description of each above, but let’s spell it out.

The first thing we did is literally take a map that included our two workplaces and drew circles around them that indicated what would roughly be a 30-minute commute for each of us. The part of the circles that overlapped indicated the area in which we would look for housing, which, for us, meant a nice slice of rural Iowa with several towns within it.

The mass transit options in the towns we were each working in were either nonexistent or extremely limited, so we didn’t consider that option. If we had, it would have made the other partner have almost an hour-long commute each way.

So, we had this little oval shaped area where we were considering housing.

As I noted above, we had decided that we were just going to buy groceries near our workplaces, as we both worked very close to grocery stores. When needed, one of us would just shop for groceries after work. Thus, we didn’t worry about being close to food.

That being said, if we were in a situation where we were both living in a city with access to mass transit, we would definitely consider proximity to groceries. Being able to stroll down the block to buy groceries is an enormous financial benefit.

Our next step was to figure out property values in that oval. We looked at the cost of buying several houses that met what we were looking for within that oval and discovered that there was actually a surprising amount of variation within that circle.

What we found, though we didn’t quite expect it, is that most of the best property values in that area for the types of houses we were looking for were found in homes that had only a single owner beforehand and were spread throughout those towns, though they definitely clustered on certain streets. Most of these were starter homes bought by people who knew they might have to pick up and move or were intending to eventually buy a McMansion. These homes were notably less expensive than similar new homes or even older homes, though these homes often needed lots of small-scale fixes once you moved in.

At that point, we had identified a few specific areas that were really of interest to us – they had similar commutes for the two of us and the price was right. How did we choose amongst those homes?

Our next step was to evaluate the area in terms of other factors we cared about, namely schools, crime, and internet access.

First, we considered the school districts that were present within that oval and decided that we were happy with two of them and less happy with the third, which immediately eliminated some of the houses.

Next, we looked at crime rates in the various towns, which eliminated two of the towns. The other ones seemed to have much lower crime and better police coverage.

Finally, we looked at internet options in those towns and discovered that two of the remaining towns offered high speed internet. At the time, I was building The Simple Dollar (it mostly focused on frugality at the time) and also did some work at my main job remotely, so internet access was important.

This process narrowed us down to about 12 houses to consider. We watched for houses to go on the market in those areas and toured a few of them that were on the market and, within a month, we found the right one for the right price. We’ve been living here happily for many years.

For that final search, we just looked at a number of houses that were in our tight search criteria (roughly equal commutes, relatively low prices for what we wanted, low crime, good schools, good internet) and trusted our guts at that point. We just kept looking until we found a house that we really liked.

Our biggest mistake during our housing search was looking at houses outside of that tight criteria. Early on in our search, we looked at some houses that didn’t match our criteria – they were either too expensive or not in an area we wanted – and those visits not only skewed our expectations, they were basically a waste of our time.

My advice to anyone considering where to live is to use those five criteria to tighten where you want to live first, then look only at properties that match that criteria. You’ll have a much smaller group of places to evaluate and it will be much easier to come to a decision that you’ll be happy with. Once you’re down to that final evaluation, trust your gut and go for the property within that criteria that excites you.

This is the exact process we would consider if we were going to move again. It served us very well the first time and matches the more successful experiences of our friends and family.

Good luck!

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