What have you done to evaluate a city for a potential move?
October 6, 2015 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Within the span of a single visit, what are the best methods for figuring out if a new city would be a good fit for you?

Have you made a decision to move to a new city (in the US) based on a single visit? What part of that visit was most helpful in that decision? I've done lots of things to scout out potential matches using other questions here, local media, street view tourism, general facts, etc, but that doesn't match actually being in the place for a while. Setting aside things like job options or family/friend considerations, what are some good ways to test-drive a city with respect to living there over the span of something like a 4-day visit? Do we pretend it's a typical Saturday morning and see what it's like the walk to the grocery store and library? Do we see what a commute downtown on a weekday is like? What other things could be best scouted out in-place?
posted by yukonho to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
When I had a job offer in a particular suburban town across the country from me, I flew out and rented a car, and drove around all the towns within commuting distance. I found that some of the downtown areas just didn't resonate with me, even though you can look on a google map and see the clusters of businesses and it looks nice enough on paper. I found that a couple of driving distances that looked short didn't actually feel short in the car (but I had a particular place I was testing the commute to; without that target it would have been much harder to evaluate). I got coffee and dinner in a couple of different towns. Mostly it was just intuition; not that I fell in love with a particular sandwich shop, or had a logical criteria checklist, but just the gut feeling that after being in towns A-F, the general feel of town B was right. The look/mood of people on the street? The right businesses? Didn't happen to hit bad traffic or get horrendously lost? Hard to say. I just knew.
posted by aimedwander at 9:03 AM on October 6, 2015

I moved to New York after a single visit. A local friend wandered around with me all weekend, but you could do the same on your own. Just by walking down various streets, I got a great sense of what neighborhoods were like. I went to farmers markets, bookstores, parks, and restaurants...all things that I knew I'd be likely to do on a regular basis. Like aimedwander, I just knew based on a feeling. Like going on a date with a city. (Caveat: I tend to make quick judgments about cities, so this may not work for everyone. But what I loved on that first visit, I continued to love after I'd actually moved). I think it's most useful to put on your most comfortable shoes and cover as much ground on foot as possible...driving around isn't quite as immersive.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:07 AM on October 6, 2015

I think checking out different neighborhoods where you might look for housing is key. Most cities I've lived in can have a very different feel and commute depending on where you live.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:08 AM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, I also recommend staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel, so you're in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:08 AM on October 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Back in the day when there were hippy food co-ops in every town, I would always stop there first to check out the bulletin board to see what is happening real time.

We don't have a co-op where I live now but there is one bulletin board at a grocery store where I can gauge the feel of our town by what kind of flyers people put up.

Find out where locals post their flyers.
posted by cda at 9:08 AM on October 6, 2015

I've done this a bunch of times (though I almost always make more than one visit; moving is a big decision). I do a lot of research ahead of time to figure out the area(s) I'd most likely want to live in (based on real estate listings, etc.). I try to get a hotel near there (not always possible because lots of nice residential areas don't have hotels in them). Then I go and spend hours (literally) driving around the neighborhoods and getting a feel for them. I'll stop in at local shops and restaurants. I'll go into the grocery stores I'd probably be shopping at and see what they feel like. Depending on how serious I am, I might meet with a real estate agent to talk about possibilities (I'm always super clear with them about what stage of my decision I'm at, so I don't feel like I'm wasting their time). Basically I just spend as much time as humanly possible in the actual areas where I'd be living (not the tourist areas). There's no perfect way to do this, but that's what's worked for me.
posted by primethyme at 9:09 AM on October 6, 2015

Try and find out where you'd most likely be living first. I know numerous people who visit Portland and stay downtown, or "close in" in Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods and fall in love with how awesome and 'livable' the city is….but then when they move here, realize they have to live reaaaaaally far out to make their rent happen. That changes the quality of life in this particular city, quite a bit.

Fun neighborhoods are super fun and paint a city in a great light, but actually living in them might not be within your means. If you're a homeowner, checking out housing prices can give you a better comparable idea of where you could live, instead of where you'd like to.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:13 AM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Staying with someone through AirBnB or Couchsurfing is a great way to learn about a neighborhood and the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Pay attention to housing prices and evaluate the city from the standpoint of the neighborhoods you're likely to actually live and work in. Then look at things like restaurants, groceries, commutes, public transport etc. from there.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:51 AM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding, furnace.heart

My family and I moved 1000 miles away. I only visited once. Was in the city for less than 24 hours. I flew in, arrived around 8pm. Walked around the downtown for an hour. Seemed fine. Interviewed the next day in an office tower without seeing any more of the city. Caught a flight home at 2pm.

We have 3 young children and would be living in the suburbs nowhere near the downtown area where I spend the aforementioned less than 24 hours.

Came home and did weeks of online research on suburbs, schools, commute times, etc. That was the more important part: determining if we could we afford to live in a suburb with enough sqft and good enough schools and a short enough commute. We got comfortable with that online.

That all said, we were moving from a not-that-desirable city to a somewhat-desirable city, so we were just operating under the assumption that we'd like the place just fine. It was more about could we afford it.
posted by glenngulia at 9:56 AM on October 6, 2015

Have you made a decision to move to a new city (in the US) based on a single visit?

Yes, twice.

What part of that visit was most helpful in that decision?

No idea. Both moves were spectacular failures.

Some lessons I've learned:

-The better your reason for moving, the better your move will go. Both of my moves were for pretty lousy reasons (one was the only place I was accepted to law school; the other was where my then-girlfriend was starting grad school at a time when I hated my job, which gave me a reason to quit). If you have a job, family, or something compelling waiting for you, that will be helpful. If not, I think pretty much anywhere will be difficult.

-Spend as much time in public as possible, to get a feeling for the people. I'm an introvert, so when I went to St. Louis with my then-girlfriend, I spent all of the time there with her doing things like walking around their giant park. We ate out a few times, but we didn't really interact with anyone besides each other, and so I never got to learn the people in St. Louis are rather nasty. (Forest Park, though, truly is magnificent. It's worth a visit to St. Louis just to see the park.) On the other hand, I've been to my wife's hometown (Buffalo) several times, and we've been in public enough for me to really feel comfortable being around Buffalonians. Things like walking down busy streets, sitting in coffee shops, browsing at bookstores, etc., where you're not really interacting with people, but you can watch them interact.

-Do what you'd normally do in the city you currently live in. As I mentioned about St. Louis, I spent my visit walking around the park, marvelling at all the museums and fun neighborhoods like the Loop and Central West End. Those are cool, but I went to each museum once after moving there, and I think I only went to the CWE two or three times. (I lived in the Loop, so I was there more often, although I didn't really do any of the cool stuff like the movie theatre.) On a normal day, I'd go to and from work, stop at the grocery, ride my bike around a bit, and maybe order some pizza. Had I done that instead, I'd probably have gotten a better idea of what my life in St. Louis would be like. If you're thinking about moving somewhere, ignore all the touristy places, fancy restaurants, and "cool" neighborhoods, and try to imagine what you'd normally do. Corollary: searching out your hobbies in the new town are useful, but not the most important thing you can do. I mean, how often are you going to go to meetups?

-Pay attention to what you're losing. Think about the things you really love about where you live now. Maybe it's a bookstore, or a deli, or an architectural style. One of my friends is a bar trivia MC, and before I moved to St. Louis I was playing trivia three or four nights a week. When I moved, one of the biggest things that made me homesick was trivia. It took me a long time to find a game that compared to the one at home. Try to identify those things you'll miss and search those out before you visit the new city so you can confirm they'll be there. A more facetious example: when I moved to Toledo for law school, they didn't have a Chipotle yet. I would drive back home a couple of times a month, ostensibly to hang out with my old friends, but really because I just wanted a burrito.

I hope this is a little bit helpful. Good luck!
posted by kevinbelt at 10:02 AM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Rent an airbnb if you can, versus a hotel. Go to a coffee shop, have a meal sitting at a bar & talk to the bartender, drive around and see what kind of people are walking around the areas you're thinking of living in - old, young, do they have kids, etc & does that jive with what you're looking for. You should also look at a few apartments/houses that you might rent once you do move to get a feel for what is out there for your budget. And the ask the leasing agent questions about the areas.

In my experience, moving was inevitable but deciding where to live once in the new city was 100% helped by a preview trip. For me, I just knew with absolute certainty that I could never live in one neighborhood (there were actual tears when i imagined my life there). And that certainty made it so much easier to find another neighborhood i could love.

Good luck!
posted by kmr at 10:21 AM on October 6, 2015

Fun neighborhoods are super fun and paint a city in a great light, but actually living in them might not be within your means.

Or even be that fun to live in.

FWIW, I ended up where I am now on zero visits, because it was the only sizeable city that from a distance didn't look miserable or completely insular and was within a commutable radius of where a particular job was. Once you rule out those places -- ones where the locals ask 'what are you doing here?' not out of hostility but weary perplexity -- then most of what's left are ones where you can find your niche, as long as you end up in the right part of town and squirrel out the right social groups.

For an actual visit? Well, The city-data.com forums have become the central repository for granular relocation stuff about commute times and school districts and whatnot, so there's your prep. You're not going to be able to simulate a commute, but hiring a car should allow you to work out where walkable/transit-friendly suburbia gives way to gated subdivisions, no sidewalks and SUVs.
posted by holgate at 10:46 AM on October 6, 2015

The main thing I've done is to stalk the Reddit sub related to that city before I ever visited. You can learn so much that way, and discover things you want to check out. I followed the local newspaper on Facebook, and I read the comments. I also followed some carefully picked local blogs, and some small businesses and restaurants that interest me.

After that, it depends on what's important to you. I'm a foodie, so I checked out the fancy grocery stores to see if I'd be able to find my favorite ingredients. I'm an artist, so I checked out the local school that teaches one of the forms of art I work in. I talked to the owner and got a tour. I rode public transportation. I talked to locals - I spoke to a lot of people about a lot of things, generally starting out by telling them I wanted to move, and asking them where they thought would be good places to work. I talked to shop clerks, restaurant servers, and business owners. I went to Target and checked it out -they're not all the same, plus you can get a feel for the locals there. I checked out housing on Padmapper beforehand, then I drove around looking for "For Rent" signs, which also took me to some areas I might not have seen otherwise. I checked out the area around the mall, and the seedy parts of town as well.

I didn't do much touristy stuff, because I figured I could do that after I moved.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:59 AM on October 6, 2015

I've moved based on no visits or one visit three times now. It mostly worked out. For me, being able to do my hobbies easily (with a nice group of people, several times a week with no barriers), not spend a lot of time commuting, and not spend a lot of time in a car are the most important factors. So on the one visit, I pretended that I lived in a certain neighborhood, did my hobbies (met the local group), figured out my nearest grocery stores and likely commutes, checked to see if people were walking/ biking around, etc.

When I couldn't visit at all, I checked those things as best I could virtually.

I also always rented, which lessened the risk. On one of them, we ended up moving to another neighborhood within a year because we hadn't quite gotten it right. But that wasn't a big deal.

So I guess, figure out what you actually do week in and week out and see how that would work in specific neighborhoods.
posted by oryelle at 11:11 AM on October 6, 2015

I've done this a few times. My first thing was figuring out where I could afford to live that was a reasonable commute to the office. For me, a reasonable commute is 15 minutes by car and there should be an option to bike. I like living in the city itself and not in the suburbs which cuts down potential locations. Try to get very specific in your geographic constraints.

When I moved to San Diego I had three potential neighborhoods. The first day of the visit I drove all three neighborhoods and I went for coffee in each. I was able to rank my preference within that first day. It's hard to explain the things that tipped me from one neighborhood to the other. I bought a house in North Park (before the boom). I liked how wide the streets were, how easy it was to walk, that the mix of families was pretty varied. It was a cheapest of the three neighborhoods but it just fit me perfectly.

Spend your visit interacting as much as you can with locals in the neighborhood. You'll know if a place is a fit pretty quickly.
posted by 26.2 at 11:17 AM on October 6, 2015

I have done this. Here's what helped me:

1) Ahead of time research the neighborhoods you can afford and could feasibly live in. Research if your hobbies are there too. And research commute times etc.

2) When you visit, rent a homeaway or air bnb within one of the neighborhoods you deemed affordable. Don't stay at a hotel if you can help it.

3) Walk the neighborhoods, or drive if too big to walk. But walking really helped me get a feel for the area. Stop in the local grocery store. Get some coffee at the local shop if you're into that sort of thing. Eat at a local cafe. In short, do things normal people do when living there.

4) Avoid the touristy stuff for the most part. No one does that stuff on a daily basis when they live in a city. Certainly make sure there's stuff in the city that interests you but your goal during the visit is to get the feel of the neighborhoods you'd be renting in.

I'm really happy in my new city. It's hard to say exactly which thing helped the most but in short, the place we rented felt right. The neighborhood felt right. The people were nice and we loved the location. If possible during your trip it may also help to look at rentals. We knew pretty fast once we started looking at rentals which areas we loved and which we hated. Good luck!!
posted by FireFountain at 11:49 AM on October 6, 2015

I've been doing a similar search. I think the truth is that it's always a crap shoot. Deciding if a city is "for you" is just such a nebulous analysis. There are so many variables and too many options. Prioritize by naming your deal breakers. For me, it's weather (no harsh winters, everything else I can handle), commuting (I don't want to have to drive to work, so I scrutinize the public transit system), access to the outdoors (are there city parks and nearby national parks?), job market health (a little harder to suss out; I ended up looking up some government statistics on metro-area GDP and using word-of-mouth anecdata), and reasonable cost of living (i.e., not more than a few % points higher in the CoL index than what I'm used to). You never know if things will work out, but that's why you focus on the big deal breakers. If I end up in a place with all of my top 5 requirements, I'll be reasonably happy, even if the other details haven't fallen into place yet.
posted by deathpanels at 12:39 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

A lot of people have mentioned driving around the neighborhoods you may live in, but I am telling you: if the option is there, rent a bike for the day and ride around. When you're in a car, you're sealed off from the world. On bike, you'll have more time to look around to (a) let your spidey-senses tingle if there's anything about the area you don't like,* (b) notice interesting attributes about the built environment, and (c) get a feel for the topography. (That grocery store that's "in walking distance" isn't going to be as attractive if it's up a slow, grinding hill.)

*When I moved to DC a little over 10 years ago, there were neighborhoods that looked fine on paper (or worse, on Craigslist) but that I instantly ruled out as Not For Me as soon as I breezed through them.

Pay attention to what you're losing.

Oh gods, yes. Moving (back) from DC to SF has been a net positive for me, but in saying goodbye to my book club and trivia team and sports team and the walkability of my neighborhood close to downtown(!) has been deeply socially jarring.
posted by psoas at 1:34 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Agreed on renting a bike. In addition to all of psoas's reasons, cycling is probably the easiest way to judge the niceness of a certain neighborhood. If people are trying to run you off the road, it's a good sign that the neighborhood is full of, um, not-nice people. You can compare different neighborhoods' niceness this way.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:44 PM on October 6, 2015

Do we pretend it's a typical Saturday morning and see what it's like the walk to the grocery store and library?

These are all great ideas, but this really sealed the deal for us. We'd been to the city in question before, but a festival once a year isn't the same as the neighborhood you'd live in. We found an AirBNB in the neighborhood where we'd found houses selling in our price range, and went and stayed for a long weekend. It was wonderful, and exactly the kind of this-is-what-it's-like-to-live-here sensations we were looking for to help us make decisions. As a bonus, the couple we stayed with were really cool and had a lot of weird quirks in common with us, so they had really relevant pointers and bits of advice that we still feel grateful for.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:23 PM on October 6, 2015

One thing that helped me considerably in planning my sole visit to a prospective city: asking metafilter for input on what to see given my preferences. Consider asking another question before your trip about what mefites would advise you to check out in your city of interest.

Non-car transportation was important to me so I made a point to try to get around with a bike and on public transportation. I checked out the highlights of the city and explored neighborhoods we might have lived in. That gave me a pretty good picture of what the city might be like as a resident.
posted by reren at 6:27 PM on October 6, 2015

I want to second the "check out areas where you could reasonably afford to live" advice above. I think when people visit Chicago they only see the Loop and the area immediately north of it, plus maybe Lincoln Park or some other popular neighborhood. But those areas are unaffordable for 95% of the population. Most of us live at least 30 mins from the Loop, some even further. Unless you are a big spender, assume that you'll live at best slightly outside of the really nice areas.
posted by deathpanels at 8:36 PM on October 6, 2015

Another factor are the seasons. I moved from NYC to Boston a long time ago because I visited in the fall. New England in the fall is lovely and brisk and beautiful, Boston had a lot of what I wanted to try in a city, and I moved there.

Then I had my first Boston Winter. I was used to a certain small smattering of snow. The kind of snow where I could wear my awesome cowboy boots and a blazer and sweater and run from the bus to my apartment in NYC and I could still go running most days because the sidewalks were clear enough.

I wasn't prepared for capital W Winter and although I held out for months (months!!)!), I had to ultimately accept the brutality and ice patches and bone-chilling fricking COLD that is New England and buy a decidedly non-fashionable parka and LL Bean boots. And warm socks. And stupid mittens and ear muffs.*

So make sure you have an idea of the weather in your prospective new cities.

*Then it became Wicked Awesome Spring and I remembered why I moved to Boston. Then it turned into Are You KIDDING ME Boston Heat Deathtrap Why Do These Puritans Not Believe in Air Conditioning in the Summer.

Seasons. Learn what they are and decide if you can cope with them.
posted by kinetic at 2:56 AM on October 7, 2015

I recently made the decision to move to a new city. This was me and my initial set of questions. I ended up deciding yes before I'd ever even visited, but just last weekend I visited to reassure myself I hadn't made a terrible mistake.

My strategy: I made it a point to pick out several places I wanted to visit in different neighborhoods (coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, retail stores) and then going to a couple each day to both see how easy it was to get there and spend some time wandering around that particular neighborhood. It was a great way to get to know the city a little better. I went fake-grocery shopping to sorta compare prices and availability. I rode with some friends to a place 45 minutes outside the city to see what that was like. I also made sure to go out with two completely different sets of friends to see different sides of the nightlife. And I left one day completely unplanned so I could feel what it was like to just, y'know, exist there on a Sunday afternoon.

Things I noticed that I hadn't thought to consider beforehand: the number of cigarette smokers, the strong presence of sports, the amount of construction that was happening near the place I'd chosen to live, how goshdang friendly everyone was, how drastically different some of the neighborhoods are from each other.
posted by rhiannonstone at 6:37 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I picked up a few local publications (the indie/alt weekly, the main local newspaper, the local glossy) and also spent a lot of time looking at bulletin boards in bookstores, coffee shops, and other similar places. Being able to see what interesting-to-me events were coming up was enlightening and reassuring.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:07 PM on October 7, 2015

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