City vs. Suburbs: A New Study Breaks Down Exactly How Much More It Costs For Families To Live An Urban Life

published Mar 16, 2017
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(Image credit: Elissa Crowe)

From million-dollar condos to $8 beers, the bright lights of the big city don’t come cheap. In fact, living in New York City costs a family with young children $71,237 more per year than life in the surrounding suburbs.

That’s according to a joint study by Zillow and that compared the costs of housing, property taxes, and childcare in major cities to their outlying suburbs.

Most urban cores had a higher cost of living than their suburbs, though not by nearly so wide a margin. Chicagoans pay an extra $18,472 a year compared to their suburban peers; in Dallas, the urban premium is $14,128. City living was more expensive in housing hotspots like Seattle ($11,376), San Francisco ($12,560), and Washington ($12,832), too.

(Image credit: Carmen Chavarri)

However, the opposite was true in some metro areas: Living in urban Philadelphia saves a family $13,849 compared to the suburbs, and Baltimore’s ‘burbs are $10,790 more costly than the city. Urban living is cheaper in Cleveland ($9,034), Las Vegas ($7,318), Cincinnati ($5,514), and Denver ($3,635) as well.

New York’s eye-popping discrepancy can be chalked up entirely to housing costs. In fact, the study found annual childcare costs for two young children were actually lower in New York City than the suburbs ($21,568 vs. $23,253). But annual mortgage and property taxes averaged a whopping $101,590 in the city, according to the study, compared to $28,668 in the suburbs.

If that’s truly the case, a family moving from New York’s suburbs to the city itself would need to welcome a random, well-paid adult into their family just to keep a similar lifestyle. “Honey, this is Jim, he’s a marketing specialist and he’s going to bunk with the kids so we can afford this condo.”

(Image credit: Claire Bock)

In fact, it’s such an insanely high number that you have to wonder if there was a typo in the data or something. And yet, given New York’s housing situation, it’s also distressingly believable.

Regardless, here’s where I think this study misses the mark a bit: Cost of living is more — a lot more — than just housing, property taxes, and childcare expenses. Those are big budgetary burdens, to be sure — but so are food, entertainment, and transportation.

The average American household spent almost $10,000 on transportation in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; that’s not surprising, since AAA pegged the cost of owning a car at $8,558 a year in 2016. But more than half of New York City’s residents don’t own a car — and thus don’t have to deal with the automotive expenses of their suburban peers.

(Image credit: Emily Billings)

And when you’re riding public transit, closer is better. When my wife and I were house hunting around Boston, we could have purchased a nicer home just a couple miles farther outside the city for about $50,000 less. That was a seriously tempting proposition, but it would have meant the difference between buying two subway passes a month (about $84 each) or two commuter rail passes ($217). The latter would’ve cost upwards of $250 more a month, immediately wiping out any savings on our mortgage.

Meanwhile, Americans spend nearly $3,000 a year on entertainment. Say what you want about New York, but there is absolutely no shortage of free stuff to do. All this is to say: It’s pretty tough to compare cost of living based on just three factors (one of which, childcare, isn’t universally relevant and typically drops dramatically after age 5).

So, New Yorkers, tell us: Could it really cost you $71,000 more a year to live in the city versus the suburbs?