D.C. versus Boston
May 5, 2006 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in comparing life in D.C. to Boston. I love Boston but the housing costs are outrageous and the winters are much too long. Any thoughts on how these two cities compare?
posted by mintchip to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Others might have more recent information. But, when I worked for a company that had offices in DC and Boston, they adjusted people's salaries up when moving them to DC--DC was more expensive than Boston.

YMMV of course, and the economy adjusts things a bit.
posted by wflanagan at 6:48 PM on May 5, 2006

I grew up in the Northern Virginia DC suburbs, then lived in the Boston area for 12 years, then three years ago moved back to the DC area, so I think I can offer some insight.

The Boston area is a bit more expensive than DC, but not much. DC has plenty of winter, and on occasion has actually received more snow than Boston (that is the exception, of course). There is a tradeoff for the better winters in DC, though, which is that the summers can be brutal. It doesn't get inordinately hot, but it gets so incredibly humid it can feel like you're walking into a steambath when you step outside. There are also thunderstorms practically every day from early July to mid-August.

The cost of living is probably a bit higher all-told in the DC area. Even though the housing costs are a touch lower, the groceries and gas costs are typically a bit higher. Plus, with the huge influx of people the DC area's seen, it's hard to find affordable housing without living far outside the city, which means longer commutes.

That being said, the salaries tend to be higher in DC, and the unemployment rate is much lower, mostly because of the enormous presence of government contractors. If you're in any technology-related career, odds are you can find a good-paying job here, especially if you don't mind contracting. If you by any chance have a security clearance, you can pretty much write your own ticket.

If you have kids, you should also know that the school systems in the DC suburbs are all county-based, unlike in Massachusetts. There are semi-affordable parts of Fairfax County, Virginia (where I live), which has one of the best school systems in the entire country.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:12 PM on May 5, 2006

DC was more expensive than Boston.

Actually, Boston is the second most expensive city in which to live -- behind New York City.
posted by ericb at 7:15 PM on May 5, 2006

In September 2005 Boston was rated the most expensive city.
"Report Rates Boston Most Expensive City

Propelled largely by high housing costs, Boston is now the most expensive metropolitan area in the country, outpacing Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and even New York City, according to a report..."
posted by ericb at 7:18 PM on May 5, 2006

I lived in DC for three years, and I just moved to Boston in September.

In my experience, DC is a company town, and the company is politics. DC is just crawling with smart, international, politically minded people. If you like that, hurry over. If you're not a big fan of politics...well, that's like living in Boston without liking the Red Sox. Half of the conversations going on around you will be over your head.

To me, DC feels more diverse and more integrated, in terms of age, culture, and race. Neither city is particularly well integrated, but at least DC's a little better in that regard.

Boston feels like more of a small town. It's colder. It's more academically minded. People here care more about sports. People in Boston seem more entrenched in their lifelong communities -- social groups in DC are more transient, more flexible.

If you told us more about what you like to do for fun, what food you like to eat, what kind of neighborhood you're looking for, we could give more tailored advice.
posted by equipoise at 7:18 PM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't know what that list measured to find out the priciest cities (hey, it's cinco de mayo...I don't have the attention span to really investigate right now). But while Boston and New York may be much more expensive than DC on average, I feel like both Boston and New York have a wider range of options, at least when it comes to housing. I live in New York, and the way life is set up here is so drastically different than DC that it's hard to compare. My best friend lives in DC, has a longer commute, and his rent is higher (and it's the cheapest he could find in a safe neighborhood). I live in Queens with very reasonable rent, short commute time, and cheap grocery and restaurants nearby. Sure, there are others in my same city who have paid 18 million for their apartment. But that doesn't really affect me. In Boston, there seem to be places in the burbs on the T that have pretty low rent (by city standards anyway). Then again both DC and Boston seem more likely to require a car than New York. I think if you can live without a car wherever you live, you're way ahead of the game.
posted by lampoil at 7:28 PM on May 5, 2006

I've lived in Boston for a while and visited DC many times to visit an ex while she was studying there, so I got a nice sense of the college-age culture.

In Boston, you drive to work in a foot of snow. In DC, even the subway shuts down sometimes with just a light dusting.

Restaurant-wise, my sense of DC was that the options were more centralized (even down to the empanadas in Adams Morgan) versus the hike around Boston to find different forgeign cusine.

My sense was that DC proper was more diverse, not withstanding any gentrification similiarities between the two cities.

People in DC lack the colder exterior that is somewhat stereotypical in Boston, but I don't know how different it is from other non-New England cities. I certainly saw more friendly faces -- from a dating perspective, I definitely got a "Wow, this environment makes me feel comfortable to the point where girls I'd normally consider out of my league are approachable" sense.

The music scene, at least when I was there, was very active and the audiences were more diverse with Boston due to the aforementioned DC diversity, as well as the presence of all-ages clubs and shows. The hip-hop scene is definitely much more active than Boston, if that's your thing.

I was considering moving there at one point, and looking for jobs definitely got me excited -- some very interesting, very different opporunities available from what I was used to...

I don't know which city has more shopping/shops by number, but I definitely enjoy the retail experience in DC more than the CambridgeSide/Prudential/Chestnut Hill mall experience... and there's far more than just a Newbury Street worth of storefront shopping.

The Metro is an absolute dream when compared with the T. It has its share of service issues, but is clean, quiet, visually pleasing and lacks the "I'm riding an ailing train from 1910 feeling."

DC's warmer seasons are beautiful and green, though sometimes brutal as mentioned above -- I was struck by how lush Alabama was when I first visited, and my memories of DC are similar -- certainly distinct from a New England summer.
posted by VulcanMike at 10:04 PM on May 5, 2006

I feel like both Boston and New York have a wider range of options, at least when it comes to housing.

And Boston has a wider range of options than New York. If you want your own driveway, a back porch, or a washer/dryer in your apartment in NYC, you're looking at an hour plus commute from Queens or Long Island. In and around Boston there are wonderful residential neighborhoods within a half-hour's commute from downtown. Some are even quite affordable.

I second the comments above: Boston has more expensive housing; DC has more expensive incidentals. Much of this is due to the fact that DC metro residents are tied to their cars. For all its loveable faults, the MBTA gets you lots of places relatively cheaply. You can't say the same thing about the Metro.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 10:06 PM on May 5, 2006

The Metro is an absolute dream when compared with the T. It has its share of service issues, but is clean, quiet, visually pleasing and lacks the "I'm riding an ailing train from 1910 feeling."

It may be newer, it may be cleaner, it may seem nicer, but it's also smaller than Boston's by a large margin. Smaller stil if you include the purple (commuter) line in Boston, which will take you all the way up to New Hampshire or all the way down to Rhode Island.

I can't comment on the real estate market in the D.C. area, though I have heard it's been going through a definite boom in recent years (further and further from the loop). But I am intimately familiar with Boston's rental market. It is, in a word, crazy. There's really no housing in downtown Boston (save for a few rennovated lofts in the Leather District). The closest thing is the North End, which was actually a good deal when I was living there. Sadly, most of the older folks that owned those brownstones are going the way of the dodo, and the people replacing them are as soulless as a realtor.

Back Bay and Beacon Hill are both notoriously expensive, South Boston's been rennovated and gay'ed up, so it costs a fortune, too. You can keep heading west, but then you'll hit the B.U. megalopolis (Commonwealth Ave. all the way down to Brighton). The green line from Kenmore Sq. all the way down to Boston College is students. Students, students, students. The apartments are usually over-sliced-'n-diced houses that cater to college kids in that they charge an arm and a leg for a room that's not much bigger than a dorm room, but turn a blind eye to the drunken revelry. Brookline is close by and very nice, but also very expensive. Newton even more so.

So, north or south, then? To the north you have Cambridge (just as, if not more expensive than Boston proper), further still are small T-inaccessible pockets like Inman Sq., which have all but been discovered and jacked up. Somerville brings you to Tufts, and more students. The prices start to slightly taper off at this point, but not enough to justify living so far out in the middle of nowhere (cue a bunch of Sommervillians telling you how totally rad downtown s-ville is, really). Northeast across the water is "East" Boston, a place that used to be really scary because of all the dark people. Now every other townhouse is under blue tarps being rennovated by wealthy yups, who will invariably send their kids off to private school instead of patroning the local High School.

South you've got Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. JP has been consumed by the frenzied flailing of middle-to-upper-middle's looking for a taste of the Beantown action that still wanted a real house without paying Brookline prices. Sadly, there aren't many scraps left for those who didn't catch the feeding frenzy before 1995. Roxbury has some good parts, some bad parts. If you don't mind the bad parts, you might be able to find something here for cheap.

The problem is the T. The T goes everywhere, so realtors (or asshole property managers) have decided that anything and everything that is in any remote way, shape or form accessible to the T should be at least $1200/mo. to rent, or $400k to buy. You simply cannot get within a stone's throw of Boston without shelling out large bills if you're planning on buying.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:54 AM on May 6, 2006

civil, just a minor quibble - you can't get to NH on the T. Lowell is as close as it gets.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:14 AM on May 6, 2006

Hm...this is kind of a tough one. I lived in Boston for 5 years after growing up in NOVA and am just about to move back to DC (actually, move to DC proper for the first time) after stops in San Francisco, Richmond VA and NYC. My roots notwithstanding, I'll restrict my comments to DC proper because, other than those great Fairfax schools, I'm biased against the DC suburbs.

One significant difference between Boston and DC that comes to mind and hasn't been mentioned has to do with the students. My experience in Boston was that the incredible number of students had plusses and minuses. Plusses insofar as the city is in some ways kid-proof (can't have young coeds getting offed in back alleys every day or the kids and their parents' money will stop coming). The minuses were largely driven by the fact that, not being a student, I found packs of roving, wealthy kids with no real-world experience and an overblown sense of entitlement kind of aggravating. I don't get the impression that students overwhelm DC in the same way. On the other hand, it may be that Capitol Hill interns do. So, pick your poison, I guess.

I'd also argue (contrary to earlier comments) that the winters in DC are absolutely nothing compared to those in Boston. It doesn't get nearly as cold and (more important from my perspective) it doesn't last nearly as long. I never knew what seasonal affective disorder was before I moved to Boston. The summers in DC are, of course, a nightmare, but they're sure as hell not great in Boston either. And I'd echo VulcanMike's Alabama analogy as to the up side of the DC summer.

Each town is conservative in its own way. Boston may be a bit younger and wilder but I always felt like old money and Puritanism still had a grip on Boston that made it more conservative than it seems on the surface. In DC, of course, everybody wants to work for the government so nobody does anything too crazy to ruin their chances. That said, my (now admittedly old) recollection of the DC music scene was that it was more political and cerebral than the Boston music scene.

Oh, one other thing: there are some ways in which DC isn't quite a full-service city. I mean by this that while the sort of boutique-y shopping may be pretty good, it's still kind of hard to get the little necessities like groceries or whatever people go to Target for. This seems to be getting better though, as people move back into town.
posted by leecifer at 6:30 AM on May 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

DC has commuter rail lines, too; MARC in Maryland, and VRE in Virginia.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:01 AM on May 6, 2006

Lowell is as close as it gets.

Not if you include the commuter rail (which I was), although technically you'll only get to Newburyport, which is just on the other side of NH.

Looking at the schedule maps that kirkaracha linked to, it looks like the DC metro area is covered quite nicely by rail.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:58 AM on May 6, 2006

I've lived in both. I currently live in Boston and travel monthly to DC to visit family. I like Boston better.

Weather-wise, don't you think Boston winter has shown a general warming trend the past few years? Summer in DC is scorching hot and humid. It often registers over 90's, and sometimes into 100 degrees F, with extreme humidity. The DC weather pattern has been changing too--with more frequent rain and thunder stroms. There have been many patches of nonstop rain, especially in the last 3 or so years.

Based on my relatives' home values, I'd say DC housing sales prices are comparable to Boston, but cost of living is higher in Boston. For instance, I paid $900 to insure 2 cars in DC. When we moved to Boston, the same coverage cost $2,200 due to restrictive flat pricing. There is no "shopping" for insurance rates in MA. State fees are higher in MA too. For instance, vehicle registration costs $100 per car, and driver's license transfer costs $90 per person in MA. It adds up.
Boston sales tax rate is slightly lower than DC however, DC charges 5.75% on most goods, 10% on meals, etc.

Other than that...DC population is more diverse but still segregated, and more brazenly racially discriminating. The entire city is over-run with government workers and affiliates, with inescapable political influences, with frequent ‘celebrity sightings’ of politicians, cultural events on the lawn, and at embassies, etc, etc.

Of all other cities I've lived in, DC is my least favorite, and SF is my all time favorite.
posted by MD06 at 2:00 PM on May 6, 2006

You can "shop" for lower insurance rates in MA, by joining a group that offers lower-cost insurance to its members. AAA is one such group; several large employers arrange for discounted insurance for their employees. Discounts are typically 5 to 10%.

A car does not cost $100 to register in MA. It's $36 for two years, which is $18/year.

MA sales tax is 5%, including meals. However: "Exemptions include food, clothing up to a value of $175, fuel for heating, newspapers, and prescription drugs."

With reference to housing costs:
IN 2005, the least-affordable place in the country to live, measured by the percentage of income devoted to mortgage payments, was Salinas, Calif.

The second was the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area of California.

The third? Santa Rosa-Petaluma, Calif.

In fact, California has the distinction of having the 11 least-affordable metropolitan areas in the country. One would need to go all the way down to 12th place — and across the country to the New York region's northern suburbs — to find a non-California metropolitan area on the least-affordable list of 2005.
Unfortunately, the linked story doesn't include the whole list, so it's not immediately relevant to Boston vs. D.C.

Civil, Newburyport may be north of some parts of NH, but it's still a shorter walk to NH from the Lowell commuter rail station than from the Newburyport one.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:21 AM on May 7, 2006

Newburyport may be north of some parts of NH, but it's still a shorter walk to NH from the Lowell commuter rail station than from the Newburyport one.

You are correct, sir! But then, you'd be Pelham, and who really wants to be in Pelham, NH? :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:16 AM on May 7, 2006

In DC, even the subway shuts down sometimes with just a light dusting.

This is an untrue exageration (although the residents of DC do tend to go bonkers even in a light dusting, since accurate snowfall prediction can be so imprecise). And Civil_, of course it's smaller; the first Metro station opened in 1976, vs. 1898 for the T. Lucky anything like it gets built at all, due to the tri-state nature of the DC area, which is ruled ipso-facto by Feds who aren't beholden to local constituents.
posted by Rash at 1:02 PM on May 7, 2006

But then, you'd be Pelham, and who really wants to be in Pelham, NH? :)

Good point.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:11 PM on May 7, 2006

« Older How to handle losing?   |   Oops. I spilled some beer. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.