Why You Might Want to Take a Location-First Approach in Your Home Search

published Feb 14, 2022
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Relocation experts recommend shopping for a community before searching for specific homes, and the reason is simple: inertia. As Newton’s First Law of Motion states, an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. Once you settle into a place and plant some roots, it can feel increasingly difficult to pick up and move, absent a massive life change.

For one thing, moving is almost always a stressful experience. In a recent North American Van Lines survey of Americans who had moved in the past three years, 64 percent said their recent move was one of the most stressful experiences in their entire lives. Most people need a pretty compelling motivation to bother moving and otherwise will tend to stay put. The longer they do so, the more “stuff” they tend to accumulate, making it that much more daunting to pack it all up.

Even if you do summon the will to change homes, escaping the gravitational field of your chosen community can be even trickier as time goes on. The longer you live somewhere, the more relationships you start to develop in the community. Maybe you join a volunteer group or get involved in a local church or fitness club. Before you know it, you may have kids in the school system or involved in youth sports. That’s when you realize that while moving just one town away wouldn’t really change your commute or climate, it could strain or sever some of your friendships or those of your children. As one relocation expert put it, “It’s easier to update your kitchen than to change your school district.”

Of course, you can always change your mind later and move to a new community — people do it all the time. It just gets harder to do as time goes on. So “Where” is the type of decision you want to get right the first time, if at all possible. It’s the reason why you hear the common refrain “location, location, location.”

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The Importance of Place

The states and communities we live in — and even the neighborhoods we occupy within those towns and cities — have an outsized influence over our daily lives and those of our children.

Your choice of state, for example, could determine whether you have to pay sales or income taxes or how robust your healthcare options are, among other things. It could also influence how long you live: Average life expectancy can differ by a matter of years, even between nearby states. Residents of New York can expect to live 2.4 years longer than their neighbors in Pennsylvania, for example, according to data from the CDC.

The community you choose within that state, meanwhile, could very well determine how much of your life you spend commuting to work, the types of restaurants and entertainment available to you, or whether your kids will have access to free preschool or other enrichment programs.

It’s not just big-picture stuff, either. Your location can affect your day-to-day existence for years to come. In some communities, curbside trash pickup and recycling are included in your property taxes; in others, you’ll have to pay extra for that service, or potentially even spend your Saturdays hauling your own refuse to the dump. Some towns benefit from a strong commercial tax base of office and retail centers that pump money into community coffers and help to fund schools, parks, libraries, and other municipal services; others rely almost exclusively on homeowners to pay the bills.

Finally, even which neighborhood you choose within a given community can play an important role in shaping your life. While not everyone has the privilege of choosing where they live, a neighborhood — and how close it is to a highway, industrial zone, or power plant — can determine the quality of the air you breathe and thus whether you or your kids face a greater likelihood of developing asthma or other respiratory issues. Your home address can determine whether you’ll be able to walk to places like shops, restaurants, parks, and friends’ homes — as well as which schools your children (or future children) have access to.

Harvard University economist Raj Chetty, director of the nonprofit Opportunity Insights, has spent years studying the role neighborhoods play in children’s lives. That research has helped create the Opportunity Atlas, which maps census tracts with the greatest social and economic mobility — places where children from low-income households have a greater chance of rising out of poverty in adulthood.

Neighborhoods are so important that, according to Opportunity Insights, every extra year of childhood spent living in a high-mobility neighborhood directly results in better outcomes in adulthood — from higher incomes and college graduation rates to lower incarceration rates. Though systemic racism and housing injustice often thwart economic mobility across neighborhoods, it still holds true that where someone grows up has a considerable impact on the rest of their life.

Right now, you probably have at least some idea of where you’d like to buy — whether it’s near your job, family members, or your current home. But even within a metro area or a single community, it’s worth taking a deep look at which neighborhoods — and even which particular streets — feel most like home to you.

Excerpted from Home Buying 101 by Jon Gorey. Copyright © 2022 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

A note from AT: Covering real estate in this competitive market involves dispensing advice to buyers with varying resources, diverse locations, and shifting stages of life. We never want to gloss over the privilege, money, and access needed not only to buy a house, but to choose when and where to buy. You can read some of our coverage of housing injustice and discrimination here.