The Psychological Reason Why You Think “I Could Live Here” While Traveling

published Oct 16, 2023
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Credit: Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

Around day two or three of vacation, I usually start imagining my new life in the city I’m visiting. 

I’m a fantasy resident in downtown Healdsburg, a chic wine country destination in Sonoma County. But I’ve also briefly researched moving to San Diego, which feels like the beachy sister city of Denver, where I actually live. And while on a mother-daughter getaway (after being enchanted by the WaterFire festival that makes the rivers downtown twinkle with bonfires) my mom started asking Uber drivers about Rhode Island real estate.

I’ve never gotten much further than casually perusing real estate listings or briefly wondering about how my dog would do on a transatlantic flight. Would he settle comfortably into our new life on Menorca, one of Spain’s stunning Balearic Islands?

As it turns out, it’s a fairly universal occurrence to think “I could live here” while traveling. But why do we romanticize the tourist-to-resident conversion in the first place? Ahead, a psychologist, real estate experts, and one traveler who spent a couple of years in Charleston after visiting, weigh in.

Credit: Martina Birnbaum for Shutterstock

The Psychological Reasons You Think “I Could Live Here”

“One of the reasons we travel is to experience novelty,” explains Dr. Ryan Sultan, a board-certified adult psychiatrist, therapist, and professor at Columbia University. “New environments stimulate our brains, giving us a fresh perspective on life.” 

The novelty can create an exaggerated sense of happiness, which leads us to believe that living in the new place would perpetuate these feelings, Sultan explains.

On top of that, vacations are often filled with positive emotional experiences — relaxation, adventure, bonding with loved ones — which we then associate with the place, he says. 

“This emotional attachment can fuel the desire to stay and build a life in that location,” Sultan says.

The “I think I could live here” thought pattern is certainly testament to the transformative power of travel, he says. However, the number of people acting on this impulse is much lower, given the complexities of relocating.

It’s easy to gloss over some realities of relocating — things like daily routines that may start to overshadow the initial charm of a new city, Sultan points out. How often will you really get to enjoy beach days? Will you have time to make it to the mountains to ski on the weekends when there’s tons of traffic? Cultural differences, financial implications, and making friends in a new city can also pose challenges.

“While it’s exciting to think about starting fresh, building new social connections and missing established ones can be emotionally challenging,” Sultan says.

How Real Estate Agents Play on the Psychology of “I Could Live Here”

Those real estate offices you see everywhere in popular vacation spots? That’s no accident, says Bailey Moran, chief operating officer of Austin TX Realty, a boutique real estate brokerage in the Austin metro area.

“When you’re on vacation, you’re typically in a good mood, thinking how nice it would be to live there,” Moran says. “And there’s a property listing that might convince you.”

As such, real estate agents in these areas have their own game. They emphasize the best features of the location, such as beaches, mountains, cultural spots, or famous landmarks, Moran says.

Of course, while the idea of living where you vacation sounds dreamy, it’s easy to miss everyday things like local taxes, schools, public transport, and even the weather you’ll face year-round. 

“A tropical island getaway sounds great, but are you up for handling hurricane seasons?” Moran asks.

Some real estate agents, she says, even host open houses that double as events. This could mean bringing in local musicians to perform, offering local dishes, or hosting art shows, giving travelers a pulse on the destination. Plus, now that virtual tours of properties are popular, it’s easy for travelers to revisit a potential home long after their vacation is over, Moran says.

Real estate investor and licensed broker Chris McGuire, founder of Real Estate Exam Ninja, says real estate agents in vacation destinations often employ targeted marketing strategies that help plant the “I could live here” thought seed. They advertise in local tourism office’s brochures and collaborate with vacation rental agencies, he says.

Credit: Erin Little

What It’s Like to Move Where You Vacation

Many people only daydream of moving to a favorite vacation city, but Katy Nastro actually made the leap.

“While there is no specific word for the exact feeling, the word querencia comes to mind,” says Nastro, a travel expert with Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights. “The Spanish word is used to describe an area in a bullring where the animal feels safe and can gather its strength.”

Even if you travel to a place for a short period of time for work or leisure, you tend to start imagining the alternate universe in which your life existed within that place instead, Nastro says. She’s encountered the feeling several times, but only acted on it once.

In 2018 she was in the process of moving to Australia when a sudden family emergency forced her to stay put. “Still, to this day, Australia is my querencia,” she says.

Fast forward to January 2021, and she packed some belongings in a car and drove to Charleston, South Carolina, for what she thought would be three months to escape the pandemic winter in New York City. She ended up staying for more than two years, settling into a beautiful apartment a block from the battery waterfront. 

Everyone’s experience will differ, Nastro says, but her feelings on the place after living there changed. 

“While the weather is great and cost of living slightly easier on the wallet, it had downsides I never considered when I visited last — I was just struck by the ‘Southern charm’ of it all,” Nastro says.

Charleston was a lot smaller than she expected, and harder to connect with people (even if they did say “hi” more than New Yorkers).

“I missed the dozens of cultures and bustling nature of a major city — and don’t even get me started on the dating scene,” says Nastro, who moved back to New York. “But, it was a life adventure and now I’m just excited to visit as a traveler, not as a resident.”