What are the best cities to launch a freelance career (cost of living)?
June 28, 2013 8:31 PM   Subscribe

I currently live in NYC - uber-expensive. I'm planning to quit my job very soon (maybe Monday) and go fulltime with my own consulting business. Its technology related and I've had 2 clients thus far and I have evidence I can charge a sizable hourly rate and there's a market for it, but I haven't had time to really market it and the biggest problem is I am not available to make sales calls during the day. I've had inquires from Fortune 100 companies where I come off totally unprofessional unable to even schedule a call during business hours so I think its time to free up my schedule.

My plan is to try to make it in NYC for about 3 months (probably also working part time for a bit), but if things aren't working out (dry spell), I may consider moving somewhere cheaper for a stint rather than rushing back to a corporate job. I'm 31 and I'm really determined to make this work (corporate life not for me). I know I have the skills, a good idea, and I'd like to at least have a year to try this without losing all my savings.

Question is where to go? I'm open to just about anywhere in the world that will allow me to save money (I live in NYC so even SF is saving me money), not feel isolated, and hopefully have networking opps. Move would most likely occur around November so prefer a warm climate. I do hope to eventually return to NYC if this happens.

Candidates for now:

- Austin, TX - always rated good for startups, freelancing, good climate
- San Francisco, CA - still pricey, but similar lifestyle to NYC
- Los Angeles, CA - also pricey to some extent, but I like the idea of the beach in winter
- Seattle/Portland - never been there, but lots of coffee shops to work, not too expensive

Anywhere internationally? Elsewhere stateside?
posted by daveindc to Work & Money (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If cost of living is a serious concern, SF is somewhere between just as bad and worse than NYC. But I'm not sure why it's even on the map. Just how location-centric is your business? If you're dealing with Fortune 100 companies I'm assuming you're not limited in geography much - so why limit your list to cities where tech jobs are a big sector to begin with?

If I were in your shoes, I'd look at one of the cheaper-than-NYC East Coast cities so you can tap your existing networks and keep moving costs minimal. Philly or Boston would also make that eventual return to NYC a lot easier, and if you're concerned about losing/worrying clients, moves along the NEC are usually not seen as quite as significant as those between coasts. I know plenty of freelancers who kept clients as they moved up and down the Eastern Seaboard who might have dropped them if they'd shifted time zones.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:38 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Austin is fabulous and great for exactly the sort of venture you describe. However, I'm not sure what you'd consider "good climate." It was 105 degrees today, and it will be 105 degrees again tomorrow. And this is only the beginning of the summer.

That being said, Austin can still be done on the cheap, but it's getting more and more expensive as the population continues to explode.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 8:45 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Tomorrowful - I'm not too worried about timezones as long as I can be awake and nobody thus far has been too particular about when to have a call so I am okay on that even with Europe. Rent is now $2200, my understanding is SF is cheaper. I don't think locality will make or break my business - I feel like some clients may want to meet me the first time, but then won't care if I am in Asia or North America thereafter.

sevensnowflakes - Thank you for your comments on Austin. I'm not sure I'd like it in the summer, but from November-May is when I would most likely be there if I go there. I don't know - maybe I will end up staying, but I know it gets hot this time of year.
posted by daveindc at 8:51 PM on June 28, 2013

Are you sure Austin has a great climate? I'm a former Texan. I didn't live in Austin, but I lived in Houston and Dallas, and I hated the weather. Winters weren't too cold, but man, when it rained it was just awful. And then there's the heat. Almost 1/3 of the year sees highs above 90 (wikipedia says it's an average of 116 days!) And it's not a dry heat. Dallas has more of a dry climate, but still... the heat. Oh, the heat.

I'd recommend either Portland or Seattle without hesitation. It's rarely hot, it's rarely cold enough for snow, and at least here in Portland, the rain is almost always light. The running joke in Portland is that we can always spot the tourists because they're the ones with umbrellas.
posted by 2oh1 at 8:52 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not sure how you'd feel about the south but Nashville is pretty awesome. Healthcare is the biggest industry and there are a ton of tech companies that support that. Startup costs seem to be pretty low and housing is still dirt cheap. And you don't even have to like country music to live here. I'm definitely proof of that!
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:52 PM on June 28, 2013

Response by poster: Nashville! Read a lot of good things about it - would be a change for sure, but with you chiming in I'm hearing more and more good things about it every where I research this topic.
posted by daveindc at 8:54 PM on June 28, 2013

Here's the thing, you can live NEAR any of these area's relatively cheap, it's living IN those areas which makes them expensive. For example, when we were looking to buy a house, there was no way in hell we could possibly afford one inside Seattle (at least, not in an area we'd like to live in), so we bought a place 20 minutes north which was half the cost for twice the space.

If location is really not an issue with your business, than I'd say move somewhere outside of a city, even as much as 30 minutes away, and you'll save a boat load of money on your cost of living. You'll still be able to drive in for meeting people, but unless you're planning to have them at your house, they won't ever know whether you live 5 minutes away or 30 minutes away.

Seattle is lovely if you like drizzle. Texas is fantastic if you like it to be a bazillion degrees. San Francisco is great if you like fog. LA is great if you like attitude. I think any of those locations would be fine, but if your main goal is to save money, maybe think about looking for someplace that isn't so big.

All that being said, Seattle is lovely, and I am glad we live here (used to live near San Francisco), and I would recommend it to anyone who likes living in drizzle (notice I didn't say rain, because most of the time there is so little water falling from the sky it hardly qualifies as rain, but it's falling none the less).
posted by markblasco at 8:59 PM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: markblasco - Thank you for that point. Fact is I have no car and hope not to buy one so I want to live in the center of downtown or at least as close as possible!
posted by daveindc at 9:00 PM on June 28, 2013

It's a persistent myth that L.A. is "expensive." Buying a home is expensive. You can rent a studio or maybe even a small 1BR in a nice neighborhood for around $1000.

LA is great if you like attitude
No. Try harder.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:01 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

But L.A. is a bad city to live in without a car.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:02 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Is LA bad for a freelancer if you live like right on the beach - Santa Monica or such - without a car? The more I think about this the more I think I should just do it somewhere fun and make it happen. This $2200 rent in NYC is just an obstacle I can easily disregard with a location-independent business. Almost certain I can be profitable in just about any normal city.
posted by daveindc at 9:05 PM on June 28, 2013

Pitsburgh, PA - easy resources to Carnegie Mellon. You have a decent airport, and cheap cost of living.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:05 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

LA is great if you like attitude.

Oh, please.

OP, you could definitely find a small-but-nice place to live near-ish to the beach here in the L.A. area, but I think you might feel a little constrained without a car, UNLESS you settle into a place strategically positioned to the major transit lines, and/or are an avid cyclist or walker.

We have a nice tech culture here, and a lots of entrepreneurial people of your age, so you'd probably find yourself in the company of kindred spirits.

And the beach is at its best in winter. It's lovely.
posted by nacho fries at 9:06 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nashville's kind of hard without a car too, I think. But we have zip cars or you could by a beater just to get to Target and the airport.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:07 PM on June 28, 2013

Response by poster: nacho fries - I think you are right on the car. I don't want to get one, but probably would need a beater at least in LA. Just thinking about groceries, gym, all the stuff you have to commute to.
posted by daveindc at 9:08 PM on June 28, 2013

The fact is that everywhere outside of New York City will be difficult without a car. Washington, DC is an option, but you will find that the client pool here is very suburbs-focused. Boston is a bit of an improvement over that, but many of the businesses are on the 128 beltway, out of reach of transit. The epicenter of the economy of the SF Bay Area is't SF as much as it is the peninsula, much of which you will need to drive to.

My advice, if you were looking to save money, would be to maintain a business focused on NYC clients, but live outside the city somewhere nearby on the PATH, LIRR, MetroNorth, or NJ Transit lines.
posted by deanc at 9:08 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rent in SF proper is NOT cheaper. An hour away, apartments go for $1600.
posted by wintersweet at 9:09 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is LA bad for a freelancer if you live like right on the beach - Santa Monica or such

Sorry, missed that update from you.

Santa Monica is perfect without a car. You can absolutely live well without one. Everything you mentioned is walkable. (And you can rent a car occasionally if need be...there are car rental places all over.)

SM has pretty strong rent control, too.
posted by nacho fries at 9:10 PM on June 28, 2013

It doesn't have a warm climate, but Chicago is very liveable with no car , and is very affordable for a large city.
posted by Fig at 9:11 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Austin does not have great public transportation, and it's not all that cheap if you live right downtown and only shop at Whole Foods or one of the boutique bodegas you can walk to. ("Right downtown," in Austin, is about a ten block square area at best.)

It is also hot, but it is a much drier heat than Houston (or Chicago, or probably NYC.) And it's lovely in the winter, in my opinion.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:11 PM on June 28, 2013

Response by poster: wintersweet - what would it cost to live in Hayes Valley or similar cool area? I live on the Upper East in NYC and thought this was the most extravagant in the country?
posted by daveindc at 9:14 PM on June 28, 2013

....Dude, what about Brooklyn or Queens? If you're paying Upper East Side prices, you can bring your rent down just by moving to an outer borough.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:20 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Empress - I know, I know - that is probably what I will end up doing - I just love a premium location :)
posted by daveindc at 9:23 PM on June 28, 2013

Actually, Brooklyn is becoming part of a "premium location" for tech. The NYU/Polytechnic campus is here, and the city is beginning a big push to pitch that part of Brooklyn and Roosevelt Island as parts of a sort of "tech center" for New York City.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know - I don't think I save much moving to Brooklyn. I'd really love to hear our international brethren chime in as to great destinations in Buenos Aires or other such destinations!
posted by daveindc at 9:28 PM on June 28, 2013

LA is great if you like attitude.

So is New York.

Yes, you can technically live in Santa Monica without a car, but I think it's hard to enjoy living in LA without one. Also, moving across country is incredibly expensive. I don't know what your finances are like, but moving from New York to the West Coast will cost you a lot. Should you pay to ship a bed or buy a new bed? And so on and so forth. When you take this lump cost and divide it over twelve months, I pretty much guarantee that you will negate whatever cost of life savings you'll get in LA. If it's a long-term move, then you'll save money in the end, but it's just something to think about.

I'm sorry if this is Captain Obvious material, but it doesn't sound like you've taken the cost of moving into account, and it does cost more to move that far.

That having been said, the weather by the beach is great.

Also, re: Boston - You can absolutely get by without a car, and people actually use zipcar. The weather sucks, though.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:47 PM on June 28, 2013

Yeah, I'm probably being overly-optimistic about being car-free by the beach. I've done it, and enjoyed it, but I already had the city dialed in, and had close-by friends. Not having a car does crimp your socializing (I imagine dating would be pretty rough without wheels, that's for sure).

But I think if you buy a sensible older car, you can still make the financials come out in your favor here.
posted by nacho fries at 9:55 PM on June 28, 2013

Just stay in New York.

From someone who has freelanced all over:

It doesn't matter where you are, freelance rates reflect the cost of living there. In fact, it's worse, the smaller the market. In Huron South Dakota you would only make a very tiny fraction of what you would make in NYC. And you would have to pick from a small client list. If you move out you'll likely have to start completely from scratch, and that will only extend any dry spell. (I've seen this happen quite often to people who freelance, move home, jobs dry up, and they have to go back to a full-tim job.)

If you don't have or want a car and still want to meet clients there are probably less than 10 cities in the US, and they're all expensive. It's how it works, the density to support carless living makes it expensive.

But look, it takes 1-2 years to really establish yourself as a freelancer in a city you know, even if you have clients to start out with. Years longer in a new town. Those 1-2 years will be filled with expensive mistakes, down-time, and all the new bills you may not have budgeted for. Meanwhile moving across country is expensive. So save your money, stay where you are (or maybe move to a cheaper suburb) and cultivate the garden you've already planted. Starting a new freelance career and moving at the same time is the best way to do both badly.

While freelancing while abroad is awesome and I recommend you do it, don't do it to start with. It raises all kinds extra trouble and there are matters of visas and other things you don't want to mess with when you're just starting out. Once you've established yourself... oh yeah, travel all you can.
posted by Ookseer at 9:56 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seattle is a good place to be without a car, the bus system is pretty good here. If you make sure that you locate yourself near a more major bus line than you can get anywhere pretty easily.

I meant the LA=Attitude thing as a joke, I haven't lived there, just visited a few times, so the only thing I know of first hand is the traffic, which was pretty terrible (although not worse than Seattle).

If you are used to going without a car in New York, you are going to be in for a rude awakening if you move to most other cities, since the public transit setup is likely to not be nearly as efficient. It still might work for you, but only in the really big cities that need to move a lot of people around in a relatively small area. Definitely do a full review of public transit before you move, since that is going to have a huge impact on your quality of life if you move to a city with a poor bus system.
posted by markblasco at 11:06 PM on June 28, 2013

I'm confused as to whether you're only going to be looking for consulting work locally wherever you are, or what you're saying is that you can freelance for companies anywhere in the country/world remotely from wherever you move.

I can only speak to Portland, but you definitely, definitely do not need a car there (so long as you ride a bike [the public transport is pretty good also, but buses are much more unpleasant than the NYC Subway and it is a very easy city to bike in]). For the occasional times you do need one (you... need a bookshelf from IKEA and don't want to get it delivered for some reason), there are ample Zip and Car2Go cars.

What Ookseer says is true to a point if you plan on freelancing locally, though I would add that tech industry wages there are much higher than the average wage (which is about $50K). They're not generally quite as high as SF or NYC -- but they're not that much lower, because companies there are still competing with those cities for employees -- and they are much better relative to the cost of living in those areas. But if you plan on freelancing locally, yeah, a small city like Portland is obviously going to have fewer options and opportunities than NYC, SF, LA or even Seattle.

As for climate, the summers and winters are both much milder than NYC. I think Portland summers are some of the loveliest I've ever experienced -- the days are very long, but it's rarely too hot to go do things outside (I'm typing this from my sauna of a NYC apartment). The downside is that neither spring nor fall is particularly nice, and most of non-summer tends to be very grey. The rain is not so bad as people would have you believe -- it's not heavy like NYC most of the time and you can walk or ride without a problem so long as you wear a waterproof jacket -- it's just that it can be relentless at times. The days get very short in winter, and the months without seeing the sun really do wear on you. It helps a lot if you have the cash and freedom to take regular trips somewhere sunnier, which it sounds like you might. But the weather really is a killer for a lot of people.

You are correct that working from cafes in Portland is not a problem. Many are happy to have you stay for hours/all day and wifi and electric outlets are almost always available. This is something I struggle to find as a freelancer in NYC.

tl;dr: You should save money in Portland if you can freelance remotely or local companies fit well with what you do; you will not need a car there; you might find the weather unpleasant if eight months of grey drizzle bothers you; you will not find a city with so many good coffee shops to work from.
posted by retrograde at 11:39 PM on June 28, 2013

I'm loving Portland without a car, but a) the airport is more minor than I thought, especially to get to New York - the options are a red eye and a 7 am flight b) the tech scene is ... exuberant, but I'm not seeing a lot of higher end tech freelancing. I'm seeing a lot of web devs help out other kinds of businesses though.

For needing to make it to client meetings, sometimes on short notice, I think you'll want a larger airport and/or a more central location. I moved here from Denver, and if you like snow and the outdoors, that would be an interesting option - the public transit isn't nearly as good though.
posted by ansate at 12:18 AM on June 29, 2013

SM has pretty strong rent control, too.

rent control ended in santa monica years ago for new leases. if you live in an apartment with existing rent control, which wouldn't be your situation unless you sublet, you will be paying normal rent prices. i moved into SM the year before rent control ended, it ended in 1998, and as long as i didn't move i still had rent control, but once i moved out the rent skyrocketed in that apartment.

even in SM i'd think you still want a car so you aren't trapped there. at the least you'd need a bike. there are tons of young people on the westside so you probably would enjoy it, but your social life will be rather curtailed without a car. a good way to find a place is through westside rentals. you have to move quickly though as the good places go in a snap. you can search there as a guest to get an idea of current rents.
posted by wildflower at 2:04 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

ah, if you are an upper east sider and want something along those lines in SM then definitely look north of wilshire blvd., preferably north of montana ave. of course it will cost you.
posted by wildflower at 2:33 AM on June 29, 2013

I'm late to this party, but Ann Arbor, Michigan is a fast growing tech hub (even though the rest of Michigan's industries are struggling).
posted by HuronBob at 3:22 AM on June 29, 2013

I reread your question. Are you thinking of moving someplace for six months (November to May)? Moving for that short a period of time sounds like a pain for me, especially to the west coast.

If paying rent while starting something new is your concern, I'd say Philly - you can go to NY whenever and save on rent in the mean time. Transit might not be ideal but if you cab or zipcar to the grocery store once a week, it's still a good deal. D.C. has a growing tech scene and the winter would be less brutal plus you definitely don't need a car. Lots of networking opportunities, office-sharing, etc.

Honestly though, just move some place cheaper near NY. I think it would suck to be trying to save money, navigate a new city, and start a consulting gig all at the same time. You probably already know how to live cheaply in NY and don't want to do it. I don't blame you. I wouldn't want to, either. But short-term pain for long-term gain. A friend wants to start a company but he doesn't want to sweat for it. I don't think it's going to work for that reason alone. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 5:38 AM on June 29, 2013

rent control ended in santa monica years ago for new leases

Yes, landlords are now able to charge market rates on new leases, but other rent control protections in Santa Monica are still good -- e.g. annual rent increases are capped by the City of Santa Monica. This year, it's a whopping 1%. And tenant protections against landlord harassment and eviction are quite strong, relative to many other areas. It's a good city to be a renter.
posted by nacho fries at 6:19 AM on June 29, 2013

If your your current customer targets are in New York, try to stay in or near New York to get established. Have a New York phone number, and base yourself in Newark or another suburb for a while, if needed. If there is so much business that you'll grow fast, you may end up hiring people to start a remote office elsewhere, but I'd try really hard to have a base as close to NYC as possible.
posted by theora55 at 7:17 AM on June 29, 2013

Denver or Boulder, CO.
posted by mynameisluka at 11:30 AM on June 29, 2013

Additional data point I have not seen mentioned but want to throw out: if the majority of your clients are based on the east coast and/or Europe, and you move to the west coast, be sure to take the time zones into account. I had to become a very early morning person against my very considerable will when I moved to Seattle entirely because the time zones meant my work day had to start earlier to accommodate London and NYC.

Same for anywhere else internationally that might be cheap. I have fantasies about moving to SE Asia or NZ, but the time zones there would preclude me from working with NYC and London...unless I became a middle of the night person again.
posted by super extra at 7:29 AM on July 1, 2013

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