Sometimes decisions are made for you, even big decisions like choosing a place to live.
You move to the city where you can find work or spend time with family. In fact, more than 47 percent of Americans who moved between 2015 and 2016 did so for those reasons, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But what if it worked the other way? What if the world — or at least the U.S. — was truly your oyster?
Picking one of America’s approximately 20,000 cities to live in might seem like an intimidating task. It might also seem like an expensive one. But it’s more manageable and completely free if you break it into these three steps.
Step 1: Figure out your priorities
Before you start brainstorming places to live, think about how you can zoom in on particular kinds of places. Going through a process of elimination can help you weed out whole regions.
If you want to live in the West, for example, you could immediately limit your search to a handful of states. If you already know the state you want to live in, your job becomes even easier. You can start to focus on cities before studying up on towns and neighborhoods.
If, after that exercise, you’re still left with all 50 states plus Washington D.C. as potential options, start to ask yourself questions about your priorities.
For instance, you could ask yourself how much house you can afford, crossing off cities with extremely high home prices. On the other hand, you could look deeper into attractive cities that you might have previously thought of as beyond your means.
You might also ask yourself:
- Do I need to be somewhere where I can land a certain kind of job?
- Do I need to be near high-quality schools?
- Do I want to live close to people that share my political leanings or religious beliefs?
- Do I want to be a specific distance from family and friends?
- Do I want something my current city doesn’t offer?
No matter what you ask yourself, the point is to come up with answers that can help you eliminate possibilities. If you’re moving away from home for the first time but want to be a short flight from nephews and nieces, for example, you can focus your search on a smaller radius.
Of course, you’ll need to weigh what you want with what’s objectively better for you. Consider these factors when choosing where to live:
- Job fields
- School quality
- Cost of living
- Commute time
- Crime statistics
- Cultural events
- Income, property taxes
- Racial diversity
- Proximity to state, national parks
- Access to an international airport
Step 2: Do your research
When considering a big move, you won’t have to go far on the internet to be bombarded with “best cities” lists. They aim to take factors we all care about — from safety to climate — and pump out rankings. You might even stumble upon the most affordable cities to live or the best states to pay off your student loans.
Although they might serve as a jumping off point for your research, don’t treat these sorts of lists as a be-all, end-all. Even when they use good data, they’re built for a mass audience. And this process should be about your individual priorities.
Instead, take on the role of researcher. Use your previously built list of priorities and find a good source of data or information for each state or city you’re considering.
Instead of relying on a widely circulated best-cities list that quotes a broad cost of living index, narrow your focus to the prices of products you use most. Numbeo, for example, allows you to compare the prices of milk, a loaf of bread, and eggs in American cities.
Like going from cost of living to grocery costs, you can specify other big-picture priorities into something more real. Here are three examples:
- Weather: Zero in on cities that never get colder than 30 degrees or warmer than 100.
- Commute: Find out how long it takes an average commuter to get from home to work.
- Income: Focus on the average salary by city.
If you have specific information you’re seeking, become an expert Google searcher. That will help you land on websites like Walk Score (if a city’s walkability is important to you) or PaycheckCity (if you want to see how far your salary would go in another state).
Try to be organized, collecting your research in a way that fits your style. A spreadsheet, for example, will allow you to compare states and cities side by side. But using a Trello board, for example, might be better if you’re a visual person collaborating with your significant other.
Step 3: Make virtual and in-person visits
You can wade through all the data in the world, but it will only get you so far. You’ll need to balance out what you think you know about a place with how you feel about it.
Reading through guidebooks and asking friends can help. But nothing beats seeing the place for yourself, even if you make a virtual visit.
Ideally, you’ll take weekend trips to the cities, towns, and neighborhoods you’re most excited about. But that can get pricey fast. Before you fill up the gas tank or reserve a flight, consider free ways to cut down your list of contending cities.
Don’t discount the idea of typing in addresses on Google Earth, for example. You can see a lot from your computer or smartphone.
You might also browse StreetAdvisor, which logs user reviews of specific places, and NeighborhoodScout, which gives a holistic view of a specific street address. Reading up on a small town might rule it out and save you the expense of visiting it in person.
If you’re not sure about the value of these virtual strategies, type in and research your current address. See if what you find online matches up with reality.
Your online research could also send you packing for the car or the airport. When you actually visit your top choices, make sure you acquaint yourself before going on a costly tour or talking to a sales-driven real estate agent.
You might be tempted to sign on with a company that facilitates your move for you, but ask what they can do for you that you can’t do on your own without opening your wallet.
During your eventual visits, treat the town as if you’re a local, observing your potential neighbors along the way. Go to the coffee shop on Sunday morning. Walk through the closest downtown area on Friday night. Shop the grocery store like you’re preparing a homecooked meal.
At the end of the trip, look at how much money you spent to see if the cost of living really is within your range.
Work toward your decision
Hopefully, these three steps will lead you to where you want to go. At any point, though, it’s healthy to question your decision, or even go back to the beginning. Ask yourself if your priorities have changed. Find and fill holes in your research. Heck, make a list of pros and cons after each city visit.
The knowledge and experience you gather during the process should lead you to a decision. If it doesn’t, remember that making a big move also requires a leap of faith. Trusting in a process like this one only gets you so far. You’ll also need to trust yourself.
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