Urban vs Suburban: Where Should I Buy My First Home?

The bright lights of the city or the wide, open spaces of the suburbs? It’s one of the biggest dilemmas faced by first-time home buyers. This guide breaks down the main advantages and disadvantages between buying in an urban or a suburban location, and looks at the impact both options might have on your finances.

Where to move: urban or suburban?

The Great Dilemma: City or Suburb? 

There are really 2 questions you should be asking yourself when weighing up between buying in the city and buying in the suburbs. Which is more suitable for your and your family’s lifestyle? And what will it all cost?

Each person will answer the first question differently: whereas one person might prefer living in a small apartment within a few hundred feet of dozens of restaurants, bars, and shops, another might prioritize having a garden with plenty of space for the kids to play.

The cost is not just about the price of housing and mortgage rates. It also depends on things like taxes, transport, and other everyday expenses. A city-dweller might enjoy cheaper transportation costs, but can they make their mortgage payments if they’re eating out every night of the week? A family living in the suburbs might benefit from cheaper property prices, but what about the cost of spending hours in the car each week?

What is Urban Living Like?

Urban living means being at the center of all the action. It means having restaurants, shops, and supermarkets within a few minutes’ walk of your front door. Depending on which city you live in, you’ll likely have art galleries, museums, and theatres within walking distance or, at most, a subway, bus or cab ride away. Cities are for meeting and hanging out with friends from a diverse range of backgrounds. Being urban means being able to be spontaneous: it’s a lot easier to catch up with friends on a whim or to buy last-minute tickets to a concert when you don’t have to worry about transport or parking.

On the other hand, high-density living can have its drawbacks. The lights and sounds can be very appealing at certain times of day and certain phases of life, but you might be less appreciative of it if you’re raising a family or just trying to get a good night’s sleep. Traffic and parking can be challenging in the city. And in most cities, it costs more to purchase property in an urban location (on a dollar-per-square foot basis) than it does in the surrounding suburbs.

What is Suburban Living Like?

Suburban living means peace and quiet. It means having parks, schools, and sports clubs within walking distance or a few minutes’ drive from your door. It means not having to sit in traffic on the way to the local supermarket, and not spending half an hour looking for parking when visiting friends. Depending on where you live, you might find a stronger sense of community in the suburbs and make longer-lasting friendships.

On the other hand, living in the suburbs can mean a longer commute to the city. If you work in the city, it can mean spending a couple of hours each day getting to and from the office. And if you want the peace and quiet of the suburbs but still feel the urge to go to a concert, sporting event, or a favorite restaurant, it can mean sitting in the car for hours on the weekends too. While property prices are generally cheaper in the suburbs, the extra cost of maintaining a vehicle and filling up gas can eat into those savings.

Financial Considerations of Both Options

When comparing urban to suburban, some of the most obvious costs to take into account are mortgage payments, property taxes, and – for those with families to think about – childcare. Fortunately, Zillow and Care.com ran a study in 2017 that compared urban living costs to suburban living costs in all the major American metropolitan areas.

Not surprisingly, New York City led the list of top 10 cities where the cost of living in urban areas was greater than the surrounding suburbs. The cities on this list are typically hubs for finance (New York, Chicago), politics (Washington, D.C.), tech (San Francisco) or arts and academia (Austin) where people are willing to pay a premium to be close to the action.

City Per Year Difference
New York+$71,237
Chicago+18,472 
Dallas+$14,128
Washington, D.C.+$12,832
San Francisco +$12,560
Atlanta+$12,557
Austin+$11,522
Seattle+$11,376
Sacramento+$10,822
Boston +$ 8,07

Interestingly, there are a number of cities where living in urban areas is actually cheaper than the surrounding suburbs. These cities typically have urban areas which have suffered from underinvestment (Philadelphia, Baltimore), or the suburbs are considered lucrative (Las Vegas, San Diego).

City Per Year Difference
Philadelphia-$13,849
Baltimore-$10,790
Cleveland-$9,034
Milwaukee$-8,227
Las Vegas-$7,318
Providence-$6,974
Phoenix-$6,567
Cincinnati-$5,541
San Diego-$4,555
Pittsburgh-$4,25

For a complete comparison between the costs of urban living and the costs of suburban living, you’ll need to think about your own circumstances. Where do you work and how much will it cost in both time and money to get there? What are some of the other activities you and your family enjoy doing, and how much will it cost to access them in an urban or suburban location? What about groceries: can you find everything you want at your closest supermarket, and how much will a weekly shopping bill add up to? One way to compare is to draw up two ledgers: one for monthly costs in the city, and one for monthly costs in the suburbs. Compare mortgage lenders and rates for both locations so you know specifically what's available to you. 

Don’t Forget the Mortgage 

There are things that only the city can provide us and things that only the suburbs can provide us, but ultimately each person must decide for themselves which is the best fit for them.

When deciding whether to go urban or suburban, it’s important to be honest with yourself about monthly mortgage payments. If you’ve chosen the city, you might want to calculate how much you can spend on a mortgage to have money left over for all those tempting city activities. If you’ve chosen the suburbs, you might want to consider where you and/or your partner will be earning income and whether this will be sufficient to cover the mortgage and enjoy all those great suburban activities.

When you're ready, check out these top mortgage providers for the best home loans in the area you choose. 

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