Evaluating a City - what to look for before moving?
June 10, 2014 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm visiting a new city for the first time with the idea that I might move there within the next year or two. What should I be sure to check out/consider to be sure I get the information I need to make a good decision? I've only moved for jobs, and have wound up in a city that stresses me out. How do I pick a better one?

Some potentially helpful details: the city I'll be visiting is Seattle. No kids and no concerns about school districts and such. No concerns about the weather (I've spent a lot of time in Portland in the winter, so get the grey and rainy picture). I'm looking for help on principles for making a decision about whether a city is livable and meets my needs, more than specific info on Seattle (though that's welcome as well).

I've made a list of neighborhoods where I think I might like to live if I were to move. I'll visit those, explore and test out their walkability, amenities, and the quality of the public transit links between the neighborhoods and downtown. I've also made a list of things to do that are things I like to do on a regular basis (more like explore nice places to walk my dog, less visit the space needle - though I will check out some touristy stuff). I'll be visiting some family who live in the area too. And then, I'm stuck - what else should I see or do to help me make a decision about whether I'd like to move?

I value walkability, a good balance of density and green space, good vegan food options, no/very few 90+ degree summer days, and access to good professional job opportunities (in finance or data science and in public policy).
posted by snaw to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I didn't consider when moving to our current city was accessibility to where our families live. There are unfortunately no direct flights to my most frequently visited cities and it is annoying that it's harder to get there than when I lived much further away.
posted by something something at 12:29 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you have a pretty good start. I'd consider what makes you think it is your current city that stresses you out, rather than your job/relationships/etc. What makes it a city-centric thing? Then try to determine whether Seattle has the same headaches/stressors.

See if your family members can put you in touch with their friends who live in the neighborhoods you're interested in, then take those friends out for breakfast/coffee/drinks and pick their brains a bit. Do you have professional contacts in the same city? Do the same thing with them.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:35 PM on June 10, 2014

Honestly, I think your list is pretty spot-on, especially for the things that matter when it comes to living in Seattle (walkability, access to public transit, your preferred lifestyle, WEATHER being the top ones).

One thing I might add is: do you think you may want to own a home at some point? It would be worthwhile for you to evaluate the average cost of purchasing a place to live in the neighborhoods you like and looking up what property taxes typically are to make sure you're okay with that kind of financial commitment. Even if you don't plan on buying anytime soon, it's good info to have if you don't plan to rent forever. It can especially be helpful in terms of picking a place to rent. Although I love my neighborhood (Capitol Hill) as a renter, in hindsight, I am realizing that it kind of sucks to never be able to afford to buy here and I am dreading thinking about getting to know a new neighborhood where I can afford to buy when I've been happy here for 6 years.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:36 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is on the smaller scale, but when I was looking for an apartment in my own city (pop ~50,000) one of the things I did was to sit down and chart out the routes to the places I knew I would go all the time. Work, university, groceries, laundromat, the gym, and the park (no particular order there). I checked walking, biking, public transit, and car methods. What I found was pretty enlightening (such as the fact that most of the apartments I was looking at were actually in a food desert). I know you said you were looking at distance to amenities and whatnot; I'm adding on that it may also make sense to think of it in terms of your daily routine as well.
posted by Urban Winter at 12:40 PM on June 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Make an appointment to spend a day with one of those apartment findjng services and have them show you the neighborhoods in which you are interested. It will give you a feel for the types of places available and their accompanying price ranges.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:43 PM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: One thing I do is try to live an average day in my life. So I go to the grocery store. Do they have products I like? How are the prices? What does the produce look like? What's the coupon policy?

Where would my breakfast joint be? Where is the best cheapie Chinese place? Is there a gulch where there's a bunch of cheap, international dining available (like Buford Highway in Atlanta.)

What are my options for Church/Temple/Coven? Is the water hard or soft? Visit the local library, is it the kind of place you'd want to hang?

For sure, you want to check out the Cost of Living Calculator.

What's the deal with Transit, Zipcar, etc.

What's different about housing and how can I be okay with it? For example, what you get in an apartment is very different between Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, New York.

I have friend contemplating a move from MN to CA, and she's in for a rude awakening, unfortunately.

For example, having a washer and dryer in your unit is de rigeur in a modern building, but rare and unusual in New York. Central A/C versus window units or NONE.

What are average electric and gas bills? Will you pay for H20? What about Cat Tax (the extra you pay per fuzzy head for Felix and Fluffy to live with you.)

Those are the things I can think of off the top of my head.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:44 PM on June 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Since you have a dog, visit one of the dog parks, and see if you can chat up people there about their likes and dislikes (of course, if they don't want to chat, that's information too).
When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, someone noted that it's a great place if you're really into outdoor recreation, and that can really weight the pros-and-cons scale. I am not at all an outdoor recreationist, but lived there 15 years and loved it. The biggest "con" was job insecurity, though, which sent me reeling back home.
posted by mmiddle at 12:51 PM on June 10, 2014

Do you have a car? Check to see what the parking situation is in the neighborhoods that you are interested in. Do buildings in those neighborhoods have off-street parking? If not, drive around the neighborhood in the early evening (or whenever you typically expect to be arriving home from work) to see how difficult it is to find a place to park.
posted by plastic_animals at 1:00 PM on June 10, 2014

Oh, I also found this helpful for getting a rough sense for how walkable a certain neighborhood was.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:27 PM on June 10, 2014

Not to be contrary, but walkscore can be very inaccurate. It gives my own city a walk score of 75 and a transit score of 68, which are frankly laughable. The walkability in a few neighborhoods is decent (I can think of three that I would actually rate as walkable, and in none of them can you easily walk to/from something as basic as a grocery store). The transit score is perhaps more accurate depending on your standards, but I would personally give my own city a lower rating, and thus I am rather skeptical of the results here too. It rates another nearby city, which is much more walkable than mine, as a 40 and labels it "completely car dependent."

That said, the factors they use to determine the score may be more relevant on the scale of larger cities where you could maybe search particular neighborhoods. Zip code searching may also help, as long as you know the boundaries of the postal code zones.
posted by Urban Winter at 1:36 PM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: What is it that stresses you out about your current city?

Ruthless Bunny has a good point about what is "standard" in terms of rentals. Also are most rentals small buildings and duplexes, or mostly large high-rises? What are standard leases/amenities like? For example, I used to live in New Orleans, and it was pretty easy to find a place that allowed pets, had a washer and dryer, and no pet rent. On the downside, every landlord I had was either a crook or a deadbeat or screwed me over. Now I live in SF which is much more tenant-friendly and I've had better landlord experiences, but it's not without a cost. I expect to pay pet rent if I can find a place that takes my dog at all. I insist on having w/d in my building but not all places do, and only the luxury places have in-unit w/d.

If you have a car, definitely look into the parking situation. In Nola I had off-street parking several times, and the other times it was no problem parking on the street. San Francisco OTOH has a major parking problem. Any place that has parking will charge $300+/month for a spot. I live in a neighborhood now that's not tough to park in, but previously I dealt with street parking hell in a more dense neighborhood.

Also if you're planning on taking transit, find out how frequently and how late it runs. For example there may be a great bus route from your neighborhood to your office, but it only runs during "peak commute," so you're stuck if you stay late at work.
posted by radioamy at 1:39 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you're thinking about Seattle, and are interested in the public transportation, you should know that there are service cuts coming to our county-wide bus system, which is run by King County Metro. They start late this year.

So, take that into account as well. I'd go ahead and assume that they will take place as scheduled, even though both the city and the county are scrambling like mad to prevent them from taking place.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:46 PM on June 10, 2014

Can you find a place on airbnb and actually live in the area for a couple of days?
posted by kjs4 at 3:58 PM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: It's personal, but the things that make my current home perfect for me:

- Walkable neighborhoods with the full range of things: groceries, restaurants. I drive less than 25 miles a week - some weeks less than 10.
- Mixed neighborhoods - ethnic, racial and family structure (some of my neighbors are retired, some have newborns, etc)
- Can walk to participate in "lifetime" sports: swim in the ocean, play tennis, hike, play golf.
- Low crime.
- Bike paths and share lanes.
- Active community groups.
- Decent public schools. Even if you're childfree there's a whole host of reasons why good schools create dynamic communities. Crap schools are the bellwether to a host of problems.
- A mild climate that allows plenty of time outdoors.

All this stuff costs money. I'm willing to pay higher taxes for these things.
posted by 26.2 at 4:03 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My one caveat is to be realistic. I often find myself visiting a new city and thinking how much I would love to move there. But I fail to take into consideration things like:

Would I actually be able to afford to live in this cute neighborhood?

How would I get to work?

How likely am I to find a job here, and what would the reality of that job be like? Think about commute times, differences in payscale, how visible your field is in the local culture, etc. Being a software developer in Seattle is pretty different from doing the same job in Houston.

What's the local culture like? I grew up just outside of New Orleans, and I do dearly love it as a city, but for a lot of reasons I'm just not culturally a good fit for it. I'm not laid back. I don't party. I'm a big city coastal liberal, politically, not the sort of tepid libertarian tinged centrism that passes for the "left wing" in Louisiana*. When I moved to NYC it was like a fish figuring out it was supposed to be in water.

Does it have the stuff you like to do? Sometimes this can seem perfect, and then months pass and you realize there's nowhere to get a good microbrew, no queer bookstore, no annual rodeo, no Korean food, etc. You didn't realize this particular thing was important to you until it was gone. The presence of some very specific things you like is not equivalent to All The Things. And obviously nothing is going to be a perfect fit. I miss the ubiquitous cheap live music in New Orleans. I miss the Indian sweet shops in Queens, NYC. But don't zero in on One Cool Thing to the exclusion of the general subset of Things You Like.

*Yes I'm sure there are lots of liberals there and I'm not trying to insult any individual it's just... I really dislike the political climate in Louisiana, period.
posted by Sara C. at 4:21 PM on June 10, 2014

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