How do you figure out where to live and how to make it work?
August 9, 2017 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I love the Bay Area, but I'm not totally happy living here, in no small part because of the suffocating cost of living. I'd like to get out and go someplace less overwhelming, but my partner has a great job here, and we're worried about being able to relocate and still find work/culture/people that will be fulfilling.

I'm overly wordy about everything, so I tried to get to the point with my title.

We're both in our 30s. We're only unmarried because of financial stuff. We've been in Oakland for two years.

I'll be getting my BA next year (finally!) and either applying to grad school (unlikely, at this point) or looking for jobs (I have massive student loan debt to start paying off immediately). My girlfriend loves her team, has a pension plan, benefits, and enough of a salary that she isn't living paycheck to paycheck.

We love being in a diverse, international city where we can walk places and do interesting stuff. The flipside of all this is that we pay through the nose to live in a tiny apartment, and our work/school commutes are long enough as is without moving further out into the East Bay. I feel like a gentrifier on the one hand, and on the other hand we're surrounded by exceedingly wealthy people who live lifestyles neither of us can keep up with. On top of that, I've lived in cities my whole adult life, and I'm tired of the constant noise and stimulation. I have major depression and anxiety, and it feels like an unbearable pace of life -- I feel like I have no real sense privacy or personal space. It might be better if we could afford a house, but I'm sure they'll all cost twice as much by the time we (theoretically) could.

On balance, this means that I'm honestly pretty ready to leave the Bay Area, in spite of everything I love about it. It's just overwhelming, and the downsides seem to be getting worse.

I'm feeling a pull to go back to a place where the pace of life is a little more manageable. I spent half my childhood in a rural area, and it was the only place I felt totally at home. That said, I was a kid when I was in the country, and I'm sure my impression of it has nothing to do with what it's like to live there as an adult (aside from one of my only male role models having been a family friend who lived in a 150 year old house in rural Vermont making pottery for a living -- still more or less my dream, but uh, not necessarily realistic). My girlfriend has family in rural areas, and she worries about being surrounded by nothing but white, hardcore conservatives.

I'm open to looking at towns or smaller cities, but places like Pittsburgh and Asheville are just getting more expensive with each passing year.

I'm not hard-line on leaving at any cost -- I'm willing to find ways to make it work here if that's our best option. That said, we're both at the point where we're willing to seriously explore what our other options might be, because right now we can only guess. Pulling up stakes isn't easy or simple, and neither of us wants to find out the hard way that we shouldn't have left.

So, like I said, excessively wordy, but it boils down to: I'm overwhelmed by where we live now, but we don't know what other places are like and she's got a good job here. Any part of the country is worth considering, but we know nothing about other parts of the country.

Is there a magical place where: the pace of life is slower, housing is affordable, you can do interesting things, you aren't assaulted with horrible politics, it's reasonably safe, and there are jobs and friends for two nerdy kids with glasses? It's easy to get the impression that you can choose most of these, but not all. Is that wrong?

Have other people been in a similar situation and come out of it happier and healthier?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Work & Money (34 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
College towns. They're usually small and affordable, and there's at least one in every state. As a bonus, they're usually much more liberal than towns of comparable size, and there's often more variety in terms of food and nightlife. The bigger the college, the truer this is. Remember, the town isn't just catering to undergrads; it also has to appeal to faculty, staff, and grad students. Since these people are often in their 30s and 40s, it'll be perfect for you. They're also usually fairly close to major cities, which could be important for jobs. You could easily live in Bloomington, Indiana and commute to Indianapolis, or Lawrence, Kansas to Kansas City.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:06 AM on August 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Believe it or not, Houston.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2017

Ahhh, one of the great life questions.

The place that popped into my mind as I was reading your post was Ann Arbor, MI. Culture-wise, it's respectable, thanks to the university and Detroit. It isn't what it isn't, but it sounds like you now feel the tradeoffs for greatness in this area aren't worth it. It's not cheap, but certainly cheaper than comparable coastal cities. Also, it's not terribly far from more semi-rural areas, where you might buy a less expensive house and commute in to work at the university. MI went for Trump in the last election, but it's actually relatively purple. I don't know that I'd recommend that a trans person settle there for life, or a Muslim outside of Dearborn, but if you're not having to worry about having to face a lifetime of microaggressions, it's probably doable. A^2 itself, as a college town, is pretty liberal. (You don't mention transit, but it's not great. You'll need a car, maybe two.)

It's not a coastal city, it'll never be a coastal city, but it's not like falling off the map. The big problem will be finding employment--you don't mention your field, but obviously it's easier if it's something that a university hires people to do.
posted by praemunire at 9:11 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

The good news is that in grad school, you make a lot of professional connections, so it's a good time to relocate. The bad news is, what kind of a pension plan is your girlfriend on? CalPERS? If so, your options may be limited to California, if she wants to keep that going. Your situation is great for moving; hers is not; but if she can find something that works for her, you guys can do this.

I don't have the perfect answer, but I do think that moving is worth giving serious consideration. Now is a really good time for you to move, if your GF is willing to find a different job. I think your options vary a lot based on her career field. You will also have to think about what you value. Albuquerque is diverse but really hot. Cleveland is affordable in some places, and diverse, but segregated. You already named Pittsburgh, and I agree that if you don't mind the gray winters, that's a decent option. (It's getting more expensive, but there are still a LOT of affordable options.)
posted by slidell at 9:15 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Is there a magical place where: the pace of life is slower, housing is affordable, you can do interesting things, you aren't assaulted with horrible politics, it's reasonably safe, and there are jobs and friends for two nerdy kids with glasses? It's easy to get the impression that you can choose most of these, but not all. Is that wrong?

Sure, Guelph, Ontario. The only way to escape horrible politics is to leave the country entirely. Honestly Oakland politics aren't that bad, nationally speaking.
posted by GuyZero at 9:27 AM on August 9, 2017

I would say there are probably a LOT of places that will feel more affordable than the Bay Area. We recently moved to Denver from San Francisco, and adore it. People here are constantly complaining about the cost of living/housing, and while I'm sure that is very true from a "how things used to be" perspective, things feel very affordable to me from a "compared to San Francisco" perspective. As in, we bought a 4-BR house in Denver that has a mortgage payment equivalent to our rent on a teeny-tiny 1-BR in SF (where we couldn't have afforded a parking space, much less a condo or house). You can do even better if you live in the suburbs versus in Denver proper. I would actually look at some rental/housing prices in the places you're may feel a lot more affordable to you given what you've been paying in the Bay Area, versus what people in those areas feel is affordable given housing prices 10 years ago.

Note: I'm not saying affordable housing isn't a very real issue in places that are not insane super-high-cost like SF/NYC/DC, just that given what you've personally been budgeting and spending, it may feel much more do-able to you personally than it might to people who have not lived in the Bay Area for years. Boulder is another Colorado location that is less fast-paced, very liberal, and while people are -- rightly -- concerned about housing prices/affordable housing, it's still going to feel cheaper than the Bay Area.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:36 AM on August 9, 2017

A college town, for sure.

I just took a look at Asheville real estate prices and uh Pittsburgh is still cheaper. The population of Pittsburgh is 50% of what it was in the 1960s. There is still housing stock out the wazoo. If you think you could swing a downpayment for a $200k-$300k house, you'd have your pick. (You can also manage to still find a $100k house too but that is indeed getting more difficult.)

College towns can be tough to rent in, though, and can be cheaper to buy. Anywhere with a large transient population is going to want a premium for rentals. (This definitely applies to Pittsburgh. Rents have increased a lot faster than property values in a lot of areas, though I'm hoping they'll stabilize somewhat as several brand new luxury apartment complexes are getting completed at a good clip and that hopefully will take some pressure off the mid-range rental market.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:40 AM on August 9, 2017

Come to Buffalo.

We're up and coming, queer friendly, blue, cultural, musical, affordable, food-central, entertaining, and 10 minutes from Canada. Both my partner and I are transplants from bigger cities (Philly & Chicago, respectively), and absolutely love it here.

And the snow isn't nearly as bad as you think.

Memail if you want more info, or a friendly stranger if you come visit.
posted by RhysPenbras at 9:41 AM on August 9, 2017

Sounds like Western MA, particularly the Pioneer Valley (Northampton, Amherst, etc)! Jobs can be hard to come by, it depends on your field, but it definitely hits everything else. We left a major city to come here and have never regretted it, it was absolutely the right decision and we are so much happier.
posted by john_snow at 9:50 AM on August 9, 2017

Is there a magical place where: the pace of life is slower, housing is affordable, you can do interesting things, you aren't assaulted with horrible politics, it's reasonably safe, and there are jobs and friends for two nerdy kids with glasses?

Madison, Wisconsin checks literally all of these. It's a liberal oasis, it's highly walkable but you can be out in rolling hills in 30 minutes, there's a major university, etc etc. If you can deal with some snow, I'd highly recommend it.
posted by AFABulous at 10:02 AM on August 9, 2017

San Luis Obispo, grad school there. Mid coast not as expensive as bay area. Delightful climate, closing the nuclear plant. Could live a little more inland to cut cost. Great place. Beautiful beaches. It has everything I like about California, but quiet.
posted by Oyéah at 10:08 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

the pace of life is slower, housing is affordable, you can do interesting things, you aren't assaulted with horrible politics, it's reasonably safe, and there are jobs and friends for two nerdy kids with glasses

My previous answer was a bit glib, with no explanation. Sorry. I should explain.

Houston ticks all your boxes. It's a big city, but the pace of life is slow. Housing is more expensive than it was a decade ago, but it's still much cheaper than the Bay Area. There are lots of things to do, including arts and music, both alternative and highbrow, and a variety of restaurants.

Although TX is a deeply red state, the urban areas of Dallas, Austin, and Houston are blue. Houston has a Democrat for mayor. It's probably not particularly safe, but no different than most cities. Jobs are fairly good, as far as I know. I don't know a lot about that aspect, but it's a huge city (US's 4th largest). And there is a significant community of artists and other interesting people to be friends with. It's diverse as well.

The disadvantages are that it's unbearably hot and humid. It's booming, and growing, which to me is a disadvantage: lots of development, and traffic has gotten worse. There is no state income tax but property taxes are high.

And you do have the TX state govt to deal with, and it is awful.

One of its main advantages is that it's an unknown gem, so it's not overrun with hipsters. :)
posted by Vispa Teresa at 10:10 AM on August 9, 2017

After living all over the US, I came to the Minneapolis / St. Paul area for the same things you are looking for. If you can handle the weather here, it's nice. Local art, music, and theater are all thriving and accessible; there are a lot of restaurants with a lot of diversity; you'll be able to walk to stuff in your neighborhood and the public transit here is decent. There are a number of colleges here in addition to the University of Minnesota, so it's a reasonably nerdy place to live.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:13 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've said this before, but Philadelphia is big-city living without the big-city price tag of most major US cities. It's one of the biggest cities in the US (6th maybe, and it would be higher except for some geographical gerrymandering about city/suburbs boundary). Super-dense walkable downtown - as dense an urban core as you can find in the US outside NY. Most cities and destinations on the East Coast are within a day's drive, and NY is 1.5 hours away. You or your girlfriend could even live here and commute by fast train to NY once or twice a week. Lots of art, culture, diversity, markets, amazing food and restaurants, huge city park system, two rivers bounding the city, reasonably excellent transportation system, etc. The city over the past decade has really been on a upward swing. I spent some time in San Francisco and Berkeley for research, and maybe the Bay Area had just been hyped really highly to me, but I was underwhelmed during my visit: it was about as nice as Philly to me, and 3x more expensive. You can still manage to find a 1200ft2 rowhouse downtown for $500-600k (apartments are cheaper), and if you're willing to go slightly further out, you can get a much larger place with yard for the same price in University City, Italian Market, Fairmount, etc. There are also plenty of far cheaper houses in other neighborhoods not too far out. I bought here a year ago and I've been recommending it to all my friends before it becomes too expensive to buy in (tons of New Yorkers are now moving here and buying up everything). It's half the price of Boston, much cheaper than NYC or SF, and the same amazing urban experience.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:24 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Perhaps someplace like Raleigh/Durham/Greensboro/Winston-Salem NC. The Research Triangle there could have good jobs. The winters aren't bad at all. It's close to Chapel Hill., and there are several other universities/colleges nearly, such as Duke. The summers will be hot/humid but the beach is only a few hours away.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:32 AM on August 9, 2017

I'll add a bit more on Ann Arbor. The winters can be hard, especially if you like to see the sun once in a while. Housing is getting more expensive and harder to find, but it will be much easier than the Bay Area. It can be hard to get in to work at the university (job options for your girlfriend are, of course, dependent on her field). Home football Saturdays almost shut the city down (I put them into my calendar and plan around them). Chicago is a pleasant 5-hour train trip away. You'd be close to a major airport. But it does sound like, culturally, it would be a good fit for you.

Also, I have a friend who gets by here without a car. It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it's definitely doable.
posted by FencingGal at 10:38 AM on August 9, 2017

You say you enjoy living in a diverse international city where you can walk places and do stuff. Is a college town really going to be adequate? Keep in mind that in many college towns, the enjoyable street to walk down where there are shops and restaurants, are, like, 5 blocks long.

Do you enjoy living in a big pedestrian-friendly city? With all due respect to the denizens of dozens of cities all across the United States, there are about 5 cities that fit that bill in the entire country, and at least two of them (New York and DC) probably won't feel much cheaper to you.

Do you drive? How much? Are you prepared to drive a lot more? If someone says living without a car is "doable", run. That means the buses are infrequent and most people drive.

If you enjoy living in a big city, you're probably not going to be happy in a smaller city. I did this move (New York to Portland) and boy was I unhappy. Lateral moves are your friend (SF to Philadelphia, Chicago to DC, etc).

If I were in your shoes, I'd probably go Philadelphia or Chicago, or just stay in Oakland. All the other options are too expensive or too tiny. Then again, if you're worried about Pittsburgh being too expensive... like, your mortgage payment on a house in Pittsburgh would be about what someone pays to rent a parking space in SF.
posted by Automocar at 10:52 AM on August 9, 2017 [11 favorites]

Adding on to some others' comments:

-Buffalo is indeed delightful. It honestly feels like a small town, even though it's a fairly big city. And it's pretty unbelievably cheap. Jobs are a question, though.

-Ann Arbor, as much as I hate to admit it (I went to Ohio State) is a nice little town. If one of you works in higher ed, but you can't get a job at UofM, there's another large university (EMU) literally just across the freeway in Ypsi.

-If Boulder is too expensive and/or hipster for you, check out Fort Collins. Home to CSU, much cheaper, a lot of the same outdoor options, and the downtown is what Main Street USA in Walt Disney World is modeled after.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:59 AM on August 9, 2017

Pittsburgh is not as cheap as it was but it's still pretty damn cheap, and is a great city, although some of the best stuff is a little hidden. Might be worth at least taking a look before you rule it right out.
posted by Stacey at 11:01 AM on August 9, 2017

neither of us wants to find out the hard way that we shouldn't have left.
I don't know what that would look like, but you can always move back if you hate it. Really, it will cost you more money and maybe some seniority in your job(s), but moving away is not an irreversible decision.
posted by soelo at 11:05 AM on August 9, 2017

Houston...I have visited an awful lot of cities in the U.S. and the traffic and highway system there was shocking to me

Yes, absolutely agree.

I'm a terrible driver and don't do freeways at all. I got around Houston fine on surface roads so I didn't really have to deal with this. By contrast, I can't drive at all in the NYC metro area because the traffic is too hectic.

You do have to live inside or near the 610 "loop" in Houston or you're driving endlessly.

And not having a car in Houston is really not an option. But there are places where you can walk around once you've driven to them.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 11:07 AM on August 9, 2017

I came here to say Philly, too! It's SUPER affordable, but also- what someone above suggested (which is all true) is a bit of an annoyance for locals- New Yorkers comes in to buy up all the cheap Victorian-era houses and fixing them up and driving up the cost of living. There are upsides and downsides to that. Fundamentally, though, Philly has really good public transit (SEPTA which also runs to nearby towns and burbs via trains and buses, plus the el and trolleys), has a lot of great local culture and food, and yeah, NYC is a 2 hours drive, DC is a 3 hour drive, Baltimore is a two hour get the picture. There is also a lot of great nature-y stuff around (Tinicum, Bartram's Gardens, etc) and you can't beat it for US history. Property taxes are high in PA if you're looking to buy up around here, I guess keep that in mind (depending on your long term plans / county) and the fact that Philly is still attached to a huge state that is pretty much not politically awesome in the center (Pennsyltucky) and is held back locally by those state politics. A lot of great universities here too (grad school / employment opportunities).... so, yep, that's what I gotta say about Philly!
posted by erattacorrige at 12:00 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm in the SF Bay Area and had a friend looking for a job for me in Seattle. The job fell through, but I spent a week up there looking around, and it looked like a good fit. Still a big city, decent public transit (I don't drive), plenty of tech, a bit quieter, and a less expensive. Similar legal and social arrangement to CA - Texas is not an option for us, for various reasons. And my husband's hobby of throwing airplanes off cliffs ("model RC flying," he calls it) can be done in Seattle, although not as easily as in the SF area.

Job fell through; plans set aside. I'm still looking at job opportunities in Seattle, though, because I've sorted out that I'd be happy to move there.

I'd suggest sorting out what features of Bay Area life are most important to you, and look for cities with those features. Weather? Food? University life? (Even if you're not in college, there's a difference between college areas and those not near universities.) Tech industry? Waterfront? Weird little occult shops? ...And so on.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:07 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I moved to a college town. My checklist: bike friendly college town, by a river, hip without being unbearable, slower than the Bay Area, lots of nature nearby. When we moved I had major culture shock after 25 years of life in and around SF. Now, not sure I could manage it if I went back. Make your checklist first, then go shopping.
posted by diode at 12:58 PM on August 9, 2017

My family is about to move from the Bay Area to Boston (where I lived for about 10 years previously). I love the Boston area - it is cheaper than the Bay Area, though not small-town cheap (we can afford a 4 br house within a 45 min train commute to Cambridge for less than we pay for rent for our current SF 2-br overlooking the 101 and 280). Most of the jobs that exist in the SF tech industry exist in Boston, and if you're off to grad school there is no shortage of really excellent universities there. It is a nerdy town in what I've always found to be a pure-geek way, versus the competitive way I feel out here in SF -- I remember listening to two guys in front of me having a friendly debate on some neuroscience topic while we were in line to get into a club once. If you live in Boston, Cambridge, or Somerville, lots of things are walkable/public transportable. If you live outside of the city you are more car-dependent, but the little New England town centers are nice, there's a lot of history, and once you're in the city there's plenty to do. Boston is a pretty liberal city, and the further west you go the more conservative you get, but even Massachusetts conservatives aren't the same as, like, Mississippi conservatives.

Downsides: cold and snow (but I find the winters to at least be relatively sunny, compared to the Midwestern winters in Ohio/Pittsburgh I am familiar with from childhood).
posted by olinerd at 3:11 PM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the responses so far! It's encouraging to see so many suggestions. Please keep suggesting places, or weighing in however you like! I can't tell you how much I appreciate the input and advice.

Quick clarification, since a couple people have mentioned it: neither of us works in tech, or plans on it. She works for one of the universities here, and I'm doing historical archival research while I finish up with school.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:52 PM on August 9, 2017

I am completely enamoured with the idea of Ithaca, NY; there have been a couple moving threads the past few months and the other that stuck out was maybe Duluth?

I went to college in SF; maybe I'm easy to please but I've quite liked a lot of NY state, W. Mass, and N IL/WI. I love Chicago.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:09 PM on August 9, 2017

I was going to suggest Minneapolis. It is definitely not as diverse or walkable as Oakland, but it is surprisingly international, very neighborhood-y, progressive, and full of interesting, creative people doing interesting, creative things. The winters are terrible though.
posted by lunasol at 9:05 PM on August 9, 2017

Pittsburgh is not rural, but a lot of college towns are. Since you are in the Bay Area, have you looked into Davis? Your partner could still commute to the Bay by train a few days a week, it is rural out there and the college does bring in culture. There is as much diversity as any land-grant agricultural state school would have. People complain about it being expensive, but those people have never lived in Oakland.
posted by Toddles at 9:22 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also North Hampton/Amherst may fit the bill - same reasons as above.
posted by Toddles at 9:23 PM on August 9, 2017

Is there a magical place where: the pace of life is slower, housing is affordable, you can do interesting things, you aren't assaulted with horrible politics, it's reasonably safe, and there are jobs and friends for two nerdy kids with glasses?

Having spent a little time in a lot of cities, that describes pretty much any US city that isn't NYC, Chicago, or SF. (I'd even maybe argue that for "pace of life" the Bay Area is better than LA.) Progressive people have clustered in the cities, even in deep red states; all cities have plenty of safe neighborhoods and pockets of cool nerdy arty interesting stuff.

but places like Pittsburgh and Asheville are just getting more expensive with each passing year.

Yes, but the rate at which costs rise and the dollar amount of those rising costs is going to be significantly different than SF. (And subject to forces totally out of your control - so don't let a worry about rising costs paralyze you.)

From various accounts (including here on MF), SF, Seattle, and NYC (maybe Boston, Portland, LA, and Chicago) are the cities currently seeing insane cost-of-housing increases, but most everywhere else the rising COL is within normal parameters.

IOW, between the Bay Area doing a number on you and your own psychological tendencies, I think you've kinda worked yourself into believing that you're gonna be stuck in a similar situation no matter where you go - whereas I think it's more likely that barring a few exceptions you can find the life you're looking for almost anywhere in the US. So maybe you & your SO should actually start by considering things like climate and job opportunities rather than costs, especially housing costs.

I've lived in cities my whole adult life, and I'm tired of the constant noise and stimulation.

One thing you might consider is looking into "inner-ring" suburbs - the towns closest to the actual city boundaries. Not only have many of them diversified and developed their own pockets of cool interesting stuff to do, but there's often less noise and stimulation, and you're a short jaunt away from the "big" city when you want what it has to offer.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:50 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You didn't mention weather in your post. If that is important, it will dramatically change where you want to live. Houston, Seattle and Ann Arbor would all be off the table for someone that doesn't like humidity, rain, and snow respectively.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:15 AM on August 10, 2017

When you look at the rising cost of living in other cities, don't discount how nice the relative change will be even for a place that's still expensive by any measure. I moved from NYC to DC and, given the increased quality of housing stock and the greater availability of "normal" grocery stores, life here feels downright affordable even though I know it's an objectively expensive city and only getting worse.
posted by R a c h e l at 2:01 PM on August 10, 2017

Something to ponder: while not the case for all industries, job hunters in pricey cities can often demand higher salaries. This is especially true in SF and DC. I've personally known city-slicker-inclined friends who decided to move back to an expensive city from a comparatively affordable one, because their salary-to-living-costs ratio worked out to be nearly identical.
posted by lecorbeau at 6:39 AM on August 15, 2017

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